As an impressionable 15-year-old growing up to a background of perestroika, glasnost and the Cold War, I convinced myself after a series of history lessons on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that I was a Marxist. I bought the Lenin t-shirt, dipped into The Communist Manifesto and proclaimed my opposition to all things Reagan and Thatcher. It was an act of teenage rebellion.
A year later the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union began to unravel. By this stage I had already decided to become a politician — I wanted to change the world — but with the speed of the collapse I downsized a bit and instead set my sights on being a journalist.
Despite years of living in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, that fascination with the Cold War has never quite left my blood. So when I had the opportunity to visit a nuclear missile base in southern Ukraine — definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips — I decided it was something I had to do.
Whatever one’s views on nuclear deterrence, disarmament and proliferation, we know what a nuclear war could do to this planet. Would a trip to the Pervomaisk Nuclear Missile Base be supporting nuclear war? After reading up on the place, I decided not.
It also required embarking on a 600km round trip south of Kiev, all in a day. Would it be worth it? As I discovered, yes.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Like so many war museums I’ve been to in the East, when you enter the base it starts with tanks, artillery, weaponry and other toys of war. These are all accompanied by a selection of decommissioned nuclear warheads and a museum providing background not only to the base itself, but to the horrors of nuclear war. So far pretty interesting, but not interesting enough to travel all that way for.
It was when we went underground to the command post that the trip changed. We walked through dimly lit corridors, climbed through hatches, entered living quarters and descended 33 metres by lift to the bottom of a 12-storey metal capsule. It was from here that the base’s missiles were controlled, here that men lived out their lives weeks at a time in the shadow of the Cold War, here that men could play God and press the red button. Except that unlike in the movies, the button was grey.
This was the place where faceless men had the future of the world at their fingertips. This was also the place where these same men could find shelter in the event of a nuclear war wiping out the world above.
For a moment I stood alone taking photos in the control room. Pressing the button myself was amusing, funny, exciting, as was taking photos of the Soviet-style command centre. Then I stopped. There was nothing funny about this.
Except for Nagasaki and Hiroshima, so far we’ve avoided a nuclear catastrophe. Pervomaisk is an important living reminder of our ability to destroy not just ourselves and each other, but the planet upon which we live.
A number of tours run to Pervomaisk Nuclear Missile Base (not to be confused with Pervomaysk in Luhansk). However, the place is not frequented by Western tourists — most of the visitors are Russian. A group tour costs around EUR100 (VND2.5 million) per person or EUR200 if you go by yourself and includes a guide to take you around the base. I went with Chernobyl Welcome (chernobylwel.com). The day trip including the journey and a tour of the base takes about 10 hours. For more information, do a search for Pervomaisk on Google.
Photos by Duy Khanh / January 2016