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City Beat

Tagansky Secured Command Post
Text and photos Ross Hunter

Living in Taganka as I do is very pleasant. On one of Moscow’s seven hills, there is an agreeably old town feel to the area, with pre-revolutionary buildings, churches, and monasteries aplenty and a street pattern that survived Soviet “modernization.” Bounded on two sides by rivers, the slopes make for healthy exercise and afford great views, not least of the Kremlin and city center. The many Stalin-era buildings are some of the best specimens around and invoke a sense of solidity and endurance. The metro station not only serves three lines but has imposing and tasteful architecture above and below ground, particularly on the Ring Line (Brown).

Perhaps this explains why the area was chosen as the site for one of the 1950s’ most epochal constructions: the nuclear war command post and shelter. Fittingly, there remains plenty of mystery about the complex, and every question answered raises several more. It is open to the public, by appointment, and a visit is well worth the 1000 rubles, as it guarantees not only a couple of hours’ instructive tour but weeks of thought afterward.

The essentials are simple. With World War II over and the erstwhile allies immediately set upon mutual Cold War scaremongering, the USSR had no choice but to sink huge sums into deep defenses, just as NATO countries were doing. Some 80 meters below Taganskaya Ploshchad, a set of four tunnels was built between 1952 and 1956, each 150 meters in length, tall enough to be split into upper and lower decks, and interconnected by small passageways (pictured below).

Th is would have been the center, or one of the centers, of a post-nuclear blast administration, home to 2,500 leaders, communications specialists, and military planners. A fully self-sustained survivors’ city worked here, with its own air supply, electricity, and food for everyone for 90 days. The whole unit functioned for 30 years.

In case of nuclear attack, a city for survivors, equipped with its own air supply, electricity, and food for 90 days. Would it have worked if tested in anger?

The compound fell into disuse during the relatively lower stress 1980s, and into disrepair following the Soviet Union’s demise in the 1990s. Fixtures and fittings went, water and rubbish invaded. Sold to private enterprise a couple of years ago, the press briefl y fl ared with excited (if mostly recycled) stories of optimistic development plans — hotels, shopping arcades, restaurants, Jacuzzis, and all the trivia of new- Russian consumerism.

Mercifully, the reality is a limited budget restoration that is intelligent, respectful, highly evocative, and not without a healthy dose of dark humor. Work continues, so an early visit is recommended to help fund the ongoing restoration — or before the place succumbs to commercialism. The restoration so far has had to settle for the essentials: drainage, electricity, clearing up and making the corridors, doors, and stairwells fit for inexpert visitors.

The operation is small in scale but personal and individual. Our guide (pictured below) looked the part in his original historical uniform, and was both enthusiastic and knowledgeable. His commentary was in Russian and somewhat limited English, so try to arrange a bilingual colleague to be with you, as the depth and detail of replies was much better in Russian.

The most impressive part of the bunker is its system of tunnels. With a diameter of over 6 meters, they would not fit into a metro train. Even the smaller walkways are lined and bolted into the surrounding limestone that lies beneath the soft and unstable sand and wet clay on which Moscow is built. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons the metro is so deep — to get beyond the soft ground into the more solid rock beneath.) The first metro tunnels, built in the 1930s, were deliberately functional as defense against the Luft waffe; later ones were dug even deeper to afford protection against nuclear blast, and it is at this “nuclear-blast proof” depth that the Taganka bunker sits.

It is estimated that each meter of the Taganka bunker’s tunnel blasting, lining, and sealing cost as much as an entire apartment building. With post-war rebuilding a pressing necessity, 600 meters of deep tunneling was a huge cost in lost civilian housing and a measure of Soviet fears of nuclear assault.

Despite the great majority of fittings and equipment having been lost during the stagnant years, as much as possible has been salvaged and put on display. If you get disoriented underground, there is a helpful 3-D cut-away model, which serves to emphasize the enormity of the operation, all constructed in secret. Elsewhere, there are evocative period telephones (pictured at right), surprisingly ordinary civil service desks, eclectic electronic equipment, and a small arsenal. Even if obviously beyond use, a Kalashnikov being waved around in a confi ned space caused a degree of anxiety among the untrained, although not as much as created by the tour’s unexpected surprise ... which can stay that way until it is your turn.

And then the questions. Is there a secret metro link under Moscow? If the bunker was built in secret, how was 600 meters of rock extracted from 80 meters down without disturbing the neighbors — and where was the rock removed to? Why under central Moscow, the most obvious target, and not out in Russia’s plentiful wilds? Can anyone who worked there remember what went on, and can they tell us? How long did workers stay down there? How many other remarkable edifi ces await discovery? And, of course, the one nobody wants an answer to: Would it have worked if tested in anger?

In addition to the impressive tour, guests are also shown a film about the escalation of the Cold War, both politically and militarily. Part obvious documentary, part propaganda, the film mixes familiar images with totally new footage. The off-screen voice, in stereotypically clipped, Russian-accented English, combines new perspectives with curious hypotheses. In any setting, these would be thought provoking, but on site and in the period, such challenges leave one deep in thought. Hardly a jolly day out, but an unmissable experience.

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