While in Prague, I decided to go a little off-the-beaten-path. And I can’t think of many more unusual ways to spend an afternoon than crawling underground to discover a Soviet-Era nuclear war bunker.
As a history student, I have read a lot about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union after World War II. The Cold War was the “almost war” between the USA and the USSR. Most everyone has heard of the Berlin Wall, which separated friends and families for decades. The USA-Soviet Space Race is also well documented with satellite launchings and lunar landings. The threat of impending war was so strong that both sides started building war bunkers: places where citizens could hide and escape a nuclear attack should one ever take place.
One of the many countries that the Soviet Union invaded after World War II was the then-Czechoslovakia, today two separate countries as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Soviets had no idea what to do with this region. Czechoslovakia was fairly industrialized before World War II, but the Soviet industry models only applied to lesser developed regions. Also, cultural tension was rife across the country and the citizens themselves did not even speak the same languages. During the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, very little money was invested in maintaining and improving upon the region. After the Velvet Revolution in late 1989, the Soviets left the Czech Republic and Slovakia looking much the same, but in a far worse state, than they had arrived in. One thing that the Soviets did leave behind however, was a scattering of nuclear war bunkers.
In Prague, most of these bunkers were set underground in the outlying suburbs. They were small, ill-supplied, and most were not able to host more than 60-100 people for only a few hours to a day. There was, of course, an extravagant network of luxurious bunkers underneath Prague Castle and all of the government buildings, but these were kept only for Soviet leaders and high ranking officials. The citizens were left more-or-less to fend for themselves in what would have proved to have been inadequate protection. Thankfully, these bunkers were never actually put to the ultimate test.
There is one citizens’ bunker in Prague however that is much larger and much more intricate than the others. This one, designed officially to sustain 6,000 people for up to three weeks, was considered to be state of the art design and technology for the era. In reality, the maximum occupancy was based on each person only occupying 1 m², including the areas that housed generators, supplies, offices and the washrooms. In reality, the bunker would have really been suited for a much smaller number and only then for up to a week, maximum.
The guide who took our group down into the nuclear bunker had a traditional Russian name, which none of us could pronounce, so he said to just call him Brett. Brett “looked” like a stereotypical Russian. He was in his late 20’s and quite tall, with blue eyes, fair hair, a straight nose and a square jaw. He also spoke English with an unmistakably heavy Russian accent. He told us stories of what he and his family remembers about the Soviet era in Prague:
“My muhzzer and fahzzer are Russian. Ven my muhzzer vas little girl, she lived in zis zity. She zaw ze day ze tanks arrived. My muhzzer vas very curious about zem, but she know not zat zey vere going to change life.”
(In case your Russian accents aren’t up to snuff, he said: “My mother and father are Russian. When my mother was a little girl, she lived in this city. She saw the day the tanks arrived. My mother was very curious about them, but she did not know that they were going to change her life.)
When we arrived at the bunker, it looked like we had just walked into a sketchy part of town. There were the ugliest Soviet-era apartment surrounding us. They were built in blocks, made of dull gray concrete. Brett told us that the locals hate them too, almost as much as they hate the huge TV tower that we could see in the distance. Apparently that was the TV tower that censored Prague from the rest of the world for centuries.
We approached a sort of shed built into a bit of a hill. It had a wooden door with no markings on it that gave away what it was. If I had been a passerby, I would have thought that it was just a storage shed. Brett pulled out a simple brass key, one that could have opened any ordinary padlock on the block. He unlocked the door, opened it, and stepped inside a small 12’x6′ gray concrete room. On the right side wall was the entry into the bunker.
Our entry into the bunker was blocked off by a huge, curved, steel door. It was opened by cranking what looked like a ship’s wheel. Brett turned the wheel and from the other side of the door, a faint grinding noise was heard. He then grasped the wheel with both hands, took a step back, and pulled with all his might. After a bit of metal groaning on concrete, the door ever so slowly opened under Brett’s efforts. I gasped when I saw how thick the door was. You can see a bit of Brett’s hand to the left of the photo below, for a size reference.
The room on the other side of the door was black. Brett stepped in and fumbled around for a light. Bare bulbs hanging on short wires gave off a horribly industrial glare, but they suited the environment that greeted us. Chicken wire fencing was put up against the walls, covered in now-threadbare and faded camouflage fabric. What were these dusty sheets hiding? Maybe I did not want to know.
The place was humid, and faintly musty, like walking into an old basement. A double helix of spiral concrete stairs was the only way forward. They spun dizzily around a huge pillar, maybe fifteen feet wide. They seemed to continue forever.
Brett turned on another light switch at the base of the stairs and we all looked around confused when we were greeted Halo and Xbox logos. Brett explained that they were from a release party not too long ago. Apparently the bunker was used to create a level in one of the Halo games, so the creators decided to have their launch party inside the bunker. Seemed fitting.
We were about 52 feet underground now, with walls of concrete surrounding us that were 6 feet thick. Yellow and black tape lined nearly every edge and corner. Brett told us that the double helix stairs was supposed to get people down into the bunker faster. The time from a nuclear launch in the USA to a strike in Prague was only about 10-15 minutes, so there wasn’t much time to get to safety. I’d say the chances were worse than slim but everyone needed their hope.
After a long skinny hallway and a few turns, we soon arrived at what turned out to be a galley-style washroom. There were six toilets in the bunker complemented by just one sink. Can you imagine a morning routine with 6,000 people all vying for one of six toilets and about 2,000 men trying to all shave at just one sink? Brett also informed us that only one toilet was ever fully functional. You had better hope that you went before you left your house!
Along the sides of the hallways were some wooden crates holding wood shavings and what appeared to be various missiles. I didn’t ask Brett if they were real or not. They looked pretty authentic and part of me didn’t want to know the answer.
The room after it was filled with memorabilia from the Soviet occupation. Soviet passports, medals, nurses equipment and propaganda crowded many shelves of the sleeping quarters.
Some rooms were also set up using the now-antique furniture and technology. They showed the communications rooms, the officers’ quarters and what the sleeping quarters would have looked like if they were ever used.
Brett also talked of the intense technology that went into building this bunker. The ventilation was such that should one area become contaminated with radiation, that portion of the bunker could be closed off and the rest function as usual. It hosted its own power generators and a water purification system. There were also decontamination showers for infected citizens and a nurses’ wing for sick ones. This bunker was almost like a temporary village. The only caveat was food – you had to bring your own, and who knows how long you were to be down here for.
For some reason the set ups with the children always seemed the creepiest. Maybe it was their innocence that hit me hardest. How much they would have understood about what was going on is really anyone’s guess.
(Even a Santa hat and a smiling mannequin can’t make these models appear more light-hearted.)
At the very end of one of the tunnels was a line up of various gas masks and rubber suits. Around the corner was also a rack of real, authentic Soviet uniforms. Brett passed us each a mask or a uniform, essentially assigning us to a mini role play. He talked about how fortunate or unfortunate the gas mask recipients would have been based on the effectively of their masks. After a few minutes with their masks on, they were gasping for fresh air. Apparently head to toe rubber isn’t exactly cooling. All the gas mask wearers looked like some form of zombie mosquito. They creeped me right out.
I tried on a mask for myself, one of the later models, and they were the most uncomfortable things to have on your face. I can’t imagine what the ones with the trunks must have been like. The plastic eye socket parts fogged up with your breath almost immediately and the ventilation part on the chin makes it hard to look down. I wanted out of that mask almost as soon as I had put it on.
I was instead assigned to be a Soviet officer, although women would not have been allowed to have been officers during the Soviet occupation. Brett handed me a Soviet uniform and a huge gun. The weight of the weapon surprised me, and I realized I had been handed a real gun. Brett laughed at my shocked face and told me “Don’t vorry, it ‘as no ammunition”. Don’t worry, he says. Prague was intense.
I also got a bit of a run down on what all the different badges on the uniforms meant. We then learned about what our lives would have been like, both underground and above it. The Soviet officers sure lived a better life during the occupation than the other citizens, but was it worth the moral weight on your conscience? I’m glad I will never have to make that decision.
As we were leaving the bunker, someone else, a man in blue overalls, was passing us going the other way. Brett told us that he was a maintenance worker. Prague sends workers down into the bunker every two weeks to run tests and make sure everything is in working order.
“Just in case.”