Skrunda-1 can sometimes puzzle its visitors. One reason would be the Russian symbols that can still be found in couple of places in the town like the famous inscription “Glory to the Motherland” alongside Russian flag and the double-headed eagle serving as a wall decoration. Symbols connected to former Russian Empire were banned during the Soviet times. Karl Marx himself argued that workers do not have a fatherland. The same internationalism was later “marketed” by Bolsheviks in pre-Soviet Russian Empire. So, why so distinct nationalistic symbols in a truly Soviet environment? Well, it has to be noted that Skrunda-1 was socialistic only until the fall of the Soviet Union. The military settlement continued its existence after the workers’ empire had already been buried. It was no longer the Soviet Union but the newly founded Russian Federation that called the shots in the town for the next 8 years. Symbols changed. Of course some things remained like the eternal Lenin’s statue in the centre of the town.
Another symbol that persistently continued to adorn the town was a lavishly decorated large metal Soviet star with a picture of the Kremlin in the centre. This, of course, did not have to change as the capital of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation happened to be the same, and the seat of the government stayed where it was. However, what was not removed by the officials, found itself in the hands of Soviet heritage hunters. Nowadays we are left only with photos.
Visiting the town after Latvia regained the independence, did offer a surreal feeling. As a visitor of the town in the 90s mentioned in his memories of the place, crossing the checkpoint was like crossing a border – you left Latvia and entered a completely different world that apart from flags had missed the end of the Soviet times. This feeling was reinforced by the constant supervision the visitors experienced. Latvian government officials were especially closely monitored being escorted by even four Russian officers at once. This was their territory and their rules until the dying days of October 1999.
People enjoyed to live in Skrunda-1. They still miss those good times.
After the remaining radars of Skrunda-1 were shut down in the autumn of 1998, it took about a year for the military to dismantle them and take back to Russia. Majority of the residents of Skrunda-1 followed suit. These people can be divided in two groups. Part of the officers were lucky enough to get jobs in similar military towns all over Russia where they kept working on and around early warning radar installations. The most popular destinations were Solnechnogorsk just 60 km outside Moscow and Serpukhov-15 – about twice as far to the south-west from the Russian capital. The former is the control centre for the Russian anti-missile radar network. In other words this is the place where all the data from the radars is accumulated and assessment is made whether the threats are real enough to call up Putin and let him decide for or against a nuclear counterattack.
Speaking about threats, the other one, Serpukhov-15 is, by the way, the place where the famous 1983 incident took place. During the grimmest time in the US-Soviet relations after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the satellite early warning network detected at first one and then four American missiles heading for the Soviet Union. Only the clear mind of the officer on duty that night saved the world from all-out nuclear war as he correctly dismissed the warning of the system as false.
However the rest of the officers were not that lucky and had to start a new life. At the same time, they could consider themselves somewhat luckier than the lower-ranking military personnel as the Russian government would cover 80 % of the cost of a new apartment in whichever city they would choose to live. Bulk of them of course chose Saint Petersburg. Moscow was not that popular. The ones that did not settle in either of the two Russian megacities or any of the military towns, went for a myriad of locations, some of them moving from one place to another even several times before finding their new home. There were also those who started a new life in other former Soviet countries, for the greatest part in the neighbouring Ukraine and Belorussia.
Once there stood a Lenin. Once there stood hordes of Lenins all over the Soviet Union. Latvia was no exception to the rule for every city and town was supposed to have one. And they did. The design did not wary much though. Lenin was always neatly dressed rocking a waistcoat, a tie and a jacket; some statues had a light coat too. The only Lenin with a winter coat and a fur hat was to be found in Daugavpils. Coincidence or not, but the second largest city of Latvia really does hold several records of the lowest temperature in winter. Interesting that even the Lenin’s bust in Antarctica (yes, true revolutionaries do not fear the distance) does not wear any winter clothing…
Most of the statues had a full body, but some had nothing else but the head like the one in Zeltiņi (formerly Alūksne), Valka, Jēkabpils and Limbaži (by the way, in Las Vegas you can find a Lenin’s statue that is complete opposite to this trend – the statue has everything else but the head). Most often Lenin was depicted standing because, well, you cannot lead the human race to the bright future while sitting. “Just keep going in that direction, I will follow in a minute” approach would not work. However there were couple of sitting Lenins here too – one in Bauska and the other in Ludza.
And then the wind of change came. While the rest of the country went its own way and slowly got rid of all the monuments, Skrunda-1 had a different story. The town remained an isolated island due to the presence of the still functioning radars and the ever-present Russian military making their statue the last standing Lenin in Latvia. However also the story of this lone wolf came to an end. Shortly before leaving the town, the military administration of Skrunda-1 gave the monument away as a gift to a local collection where it stands defiant still today.
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It might seem surprising that there is only one street in Skrunda-1. What is more surprising is the name of this street. For some reason and against all odds it was not named after Lenin although the streets bearing the name of the great revolutionary ranks third with 5,167 cases throughout Russia alone. It was not much different in the rest of countries of the former Soviet Union. He is number one in Ukraine and highly prominent in other countries too. The street names like Soviet, October’s, Gagarin’s, First of May and other Soviet era names were to be found even in the smallest villages. However it was not the case with Skrunda-1. You would expect that a military town would choose a common name from the list above or at least pay tribute to a Red Army general like Marshal Zhukov (a lot of streets named after him too) who became legendary for his success during World War Two and especially the Battle of Berlin. Or at least to commemorate the victory in that war. Not this time. The only street here was given a rather simple and, considering its strategic importance, even humble name – The New Street. Why? No certain answer is available and now we can only guess as the archives of the military sites are always kept well “under the radar”.
As many other stores in the Soviet Union, also the store in Skrunda offered people good money for their empty glass bottles. All you had to do was to fish out of your rubbish bin at least one bottle. Preferably a beer bottle as their exchange rate was higher (20 kopecks) than the one for milk bottles (15 kopecks).
OK, so you have managed to get it and you have those 20 kopecks in your palm. What can you buy for that money? Well, back then you could get a kilo of bread or a litre of milk. Not hungry? How about 4 bus tickets for rides within city limits. Not in for sightseeing? Maybe a haircut is the way to spend that money?
If any of these options just seemed not enough, trying to find another beer bottle would increase your chances as a pair would allow you to buy a litre of petrol or see a movie at the cinema. And if you were so lucky to find 10 of them, you could afford to take out your girlfriend or boyfriend for a dinner.
If you drank a whole case of them (for Latvians its 20 bottles), you could go to a store (most likely not since you just drank 20 beers) and get a box of high-quality chocolates. However I am not sure chocolate would kill the hangover. A proper meal is always a nice option – a kilo of ham maybe? Or a tin of red caviar which unfortunately you could get only if you had the right connections.
You can’t get good deals anymore at the store in Skrunda, but you can visit it and imagine the life back then and the people who visited the place to sell and buy bottles.
Those who have already been to trip to abandoned military Ghost town Skrunda-1 can compare how it looked years ago and how it is now. In the picture the Skrunda radar building is still not destroyed.
Let us pass this wonderful sunny weather in an interesting way in Zeltini – Soviet nuclear missile base. Please see the event description both in English and Latvian. Choose your best date and apply.
Fill the application from in English: application form (EN) for Latvian: application form (LV) and let us explore the history.
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