Skrunda-1, a Soviet-era ‘over-the-horizon’ radar defence settlement, has finally found a purpose after twenty years of neglect and decay.
Following the A9 highway west of the dynamic Latvian capital, Riga, to the historic Baltic port of Liepaja, the views rarely divert from fields, farms, and forests.
Indeed, the town of Skrunda in the Kuldiga district of Courland looks unremarkable, fusing seamlessly with the hundreds of other small settlements scattered throughout central Latvia; five miles west of Skrunda however, something remarkable takes shape on the periphery. Towering ominously are the vast, brutalist apartment blocks and monolithic water tower of the Soviet secret city, “Skrunda-1.”
No sooner than they appear, the city is again hidden by the dense birch forests native to the region and so typically associated with the landscape and punishing climate of the three Baltic States, Russia, and Belarus.
Many would ponder if this was purely a mirage, their only indicator of reality being the small, unassuming bus stop with a timetable listing “Complex.” Further ahead, a concrete slab road heightens the intrigue, beckoning the entrance to the most complete example of an abandoned Soviet secret city in Latvia today.
The Soviet Union, during the time of the Cold War, created more than 40 secret towns which provided the technical foundations of the Soviet military.
In Skrunda-1, the 100-acre site features a staggering array of buildings, factories and underground bunker networks: ten apartment blocks, three administration offices, a supermarket, nightclub, gymnasium, nursery, school, two bathhouses, two canteens, a water tower, three warehouses, hotel, a security booth, three barracks, three transformer substations, two boiler houses, a mechanics centre, over thirty garages, a water pumping station and many other technical and civilian premises.
The city housed over 5000 people at it’s peak.
The city was formed around two strategically important “hen-house” early-warning radar systems which scanned the skies for incoming nuclear warheads throughout the Cold War.
The site also boasted a receiving station, Daugava, which was tasked with ensuring that information received under conditions of heavy noise distortion - such as that produced by the northern lights in the polar ionosphere – is reliable.
The secrecy of the site was short-lived, with local Latvian radio and TV stations reportedly jammed by the radars screeching soundwaves.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent splintering of the republics into independent states, was mirrored by the disintegration of communities built around strategic centres such as Skrunda-1.
As in Siberia, Kazakhstan and many other countries behind the former Iron Curtain, major military installations were slowly drained of funding and then abandoned by their inhabitants.
On 7 February 1994, the heads of the Latvian and Russian delegations, Martins Virsis and Sergei Zotov met in Moscow to discuss issues related to the pull-out of Russian troops from Latvia.
The Russian delegation had agreed to full withdrawal under the condition that Russia would continue to use the Skrunda-1 site for four years, with an additional 18 months required for the dismantling process.
The decision sparked a major backlash on 12 March 1994, with a rally organised by the nationalist Latvian Popular Front, arguing that Russia would use the installation as a military base undermining the state’s sovereignty.
The base continued its operations until 31 August 1998, with the transition to a new station in Belarus’ Baranovichi region covered by the use of the Balkhash radar in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan’s Gabala station.
During this period, the Latvian government under Virsis decided to address any further concerns regarding Russian military involvement in the new Latvian state by organising a highly symbolic and expensive demolition show of the iconic “Darjal-UM” type radar in May 1995.
Construction of this newer facility began in 1985 but was never completed, although the height at the time of demolition equalled that of a twenty-floor apartment block and was therefore a highly visible aspect of the site.
The government selected the American company “Controlled Demolitions Inc” on a contract of $8 million to conduct the event, which even had its own musical score composed to mark the occasion.
The last dweller of Skrunda-1 moved away in 1999 following an OSCE inspection marking the completion of Russian withdrawal, heralding the end of an era for the complex, and marking the beginning of the site’s stagnation and subsequent dismantling by foreign companies and opportunists alike.
Images of former Soviet ghost towns are largely associated with those of Chernobyl - primarily the town of Pripyat north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and on the border with Belarus.
After experiencing one of the most deadly nuclear meltdowns in history, the city was rapidly evacuated and now stands frozen in time. However, the fate of Skrunda-1, and many other military-industrial towns following the Soviet fall, was much less dramatic.
The artefacts of its previous life are still there to see - discarded photographs, furniture, newspapers, medicine bottles, toys and clothing among others - although it is the desperation of what the city has become that is most striking as you wander the streets and squares, over fifteen years since the last permanent inhabitant packed their bags and left.
The story that follows is one of frustration and broken promises. The paradox of post-Soviet ghost towns, military bases, and industrial mono-cities is that they are frequently too expensive to rebuild and simultaneously too expensive to demolish.
As a result, the former thriving military, scientific and civilian community of Skrunda-1 has drifted from despair and neglect to complete isolation.
The first official auction of note was conducted in early February 2010, to provide the Latvian government some much needed revenue after its 7.5 billion euro bailout from the EU and IMF in 2008.
The bidding was won by a Russian investment company named Alekseyevskoye Servis for a fee of 1.5 million Lats ($3.1 million), successfully defeating other interested parties from Russia, Latvia and Azerbaijan.
This sum was rumoured to total around ten times the original asking price and suggested big plans for the site, despite the mysterious nature of the winning bidder - later named as a pig farming and agriculture firm from Samara - over 2000 miles from Skrunda.
By mid-2010, with Alekseyevskoye Servis failing to make a single payment, the site was offered to the second and third bidders. All of these rejected the proposal, and in June the site was sold for only 170,000 Lats ($270,000), a fraction of the previous bid.
A combination of local knowledge, Russian influence, and the fact the site was left unguarded for extensive periods of time, ensured that Skrunda-1 was stripped of everything of value. Now, only a fractured shell remains of the city which once played host to a prestigious scientific community.
After fifteen years of harsh winters, illegal salvage, and dilapidation, the Latvian government decided to take control of the site in January 2015.
They paid €12,000 for the town, a modest estimate considering the final figures of the three aborted auction purchases between 2010 and 2014, with local government voting unanimously in favour of the move.
Tentative plans included tourism and manufacturing, although a more likely route appeared to be an initial appeal for European Union funding for the restructuring of military facilities.
However, in July it became apparent that the government had other ideas for the strategic site, with half of the territory awarded to the Latvian Army for training purposes, continuing Skrunda-1’s military association.
The other half will be leased, “for a low price, though with the stipulation that the investor has to develop it - that is, to create jobs and infrastructure in the abandoned city.”
Exactly how this will be achieved considering the current state of ruin will be interesting for locals and many of those who have visited the site in the last decade.
The symbolic nature of the radar demolition was harshly criticised by the Latvian public during the late 1990’s, and the re-purposing of similar sites across Latvia and the other Baltic states suggests the potential was severely underestimated in Skrunda.
The Radio Astronomy Centre in Irbene - north of Ventspils in north-west Latvia - has become an important scientific and cultural location in the country, while the Plokstine Missile Complex at Lake Plateliai in neighbouring Lithuania has been transformed into a Cold War museum and eco-education base.
The other major military ghost territory in Latvia, the Aluksne Nuclear Missile Base, has been developed into a tourism site with paintball among the activities on offer.
It remains to be seen if the Skrunda administration will also seek to harness the deep history of their enigmatic Soviet legacy in moving forward with the regeneration of the territory.
All images: Duncan Brown/Bradley Jardine