Latvia isn’t the first place you associate with the Cold War, but a secret Bunker deep in its countryside holds surprising Soviet secrets.
Once upon a time, Latvia was on the frontline of the Cold War. This Baltic country has always stood on the fault lines of history, from the Russia Empire to the Second World War. During the Cold War it found itself on the dividing line between Communism and the ‘free world’.
Today you can see remarkable remnants of this lost age at the Līgatne Cold War Bunker about half an hour’s drive from Riga. Expect a fantastic dark tourism experience…
The Cold War’s Front Line
A health centre in the heart of the Latvian countryside is where you’ll find a few Cold War surprises… and a glimpse back in time to a hidden world.
It’s easy to think you’re in the wrong place as you arrive at the Padomju Slepenais Bunker in Ligatne’s sleepy village centre. A row of elderly grannies in wheelchairs and old men with zimmer frames are sitting outside in the sunshine.
It’s quiet and peaceful with no crowds and very little traffic. A few younger guys on crutches hobble past as we enter through the front doors. An older man staggers by in his pyjamas balancing a bowl of chicken soup and a bread roll on a tray.
But behind this facade lies a well-equipped nuclear bunker with a maze of corridors, control rooms and sophisticated telecommunications. It’s hard to believe that there are 2,000 square metres of top secret facilities nine metres beneath your feet.
Reception is much like any health centre with a front desk and large Soviet-era waiting room with potted plants, seating areas and the all trappings of a clinic.
Visitors suspected nothing when it was built back in the early 1980s. It was even given a secret codename “Vacation Hotel” to suggest that this was where sick people came for rehabilitation and respite following an injury.
Our guide arrives to take us down below ground to discover this hidden relic of the Cold War. She points to a concealed door which looks like it’s from Fort Knox or a high security prison. She struggles to open its weighty frame, and it slams back with a massive echoing bang after we move through to the other side.
Inside The Bunker
A stairway takes us down, deeper and deeper until we arrive nine metres underground, where yet another door opens to allow us inside the world of the Bunker.
The Bunker was built for the Soviet political and state elite in the 1980s. This was where they could plan their defence strategy and shelter, if the threat of a nuclear attack escalated. Its secrecy grading was removed only in 2003.
It’s claustrophobic and forbidding as you step inside. It’s hard to imagine how Soviet army men would have felt about working underground here for weeks on end. This is lockdown living 1980s style.
Planning for the ‘top secret’ Bunker started in the late 1960s, but it was not completed until 1982. Only a handful of people knew that the building hid an underground nuclear bunker.
The village of Ligatne was one of the most strategically important locations in Soviet Latvia. The KGB and state leaders would have been brought down here for their protection in the likelihood of a nuclear attack.
Secretaries General of the Soviet Communist Party, comrades Voss and Pugo, would have been concealed in a block of its heavily protected rooms.
A sign welcomes visitors in Russian together with a ground plan of the bunker’s maze of rooms. It’s a chilling experience to see this Bunker almost exactly as it was when it was built.
The Bunker complex is vast, and it’s amazing to discover how this autonomous structure functioned successfully. There is everything you need for locked down living.
I couldn’t stop thinking that the whole experience must have felt incredibly isolating, even for Soviet soldiers schooled in warfare and defence manoeuvres.
The soldiers living down in the Bunker had one big advantage – they were used to working for an authoritarian Soviet system. Discipline was tough. This was not a place for rule breakers!
Life was carefully regulated down to the last detail, from working and washing to eating and everyday living… it was hardly a ‘vacation hotel’.
But long shifts spent without seeing daylight must have been psychologically demanding. The Bunker was cut off totally from the outside world. No outdoor sounds, no normal smells, no ordinary people…
The Bunker is a mind-boggling place – surreal, strange and claustrophobic. It’s like entering a time capsule from another age.
Green is the uniform colour here. Everything is painted in lime green with a lighter stripe running along the wall. I’m told that the paint was a cheap ‘job lot’!
The corridors have a certain regularity and repetitive quality that feels like you’re stuck inside the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” or the 1970s TV series, “The Prisoner”.
These long, straight corridors have pipes and wires running along their walls and ceilings so you can never forget that this is an industrial ‘complex’. It’s a bit like being inside a warehouse, but you’re actually walking through a military installation 30 feet below ground.
The corridors are organised on a grid system leading to a maze of rooms which include control centres, map rooms, living quarters and computer rooms crammed with old-fashioned communication kit. The labyrinth of rooms are numbered which gives it an Orwellian vibe. It certainly feels like Big Brother is watching you.
All the furnishings are original and have never been moved which is what makes this Bunker unique. It’s an eerie relic of a lost period of history.
When Latvia regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bunker was decommissioned. Everything was left as it was, and the Russians abandoned all their equipment as they left in a hurry.
Many of the rooms in the Bunker are still packed with the same old technology from the 1970s and 1980s. Giant computer systems, strange bits of telephony, and old-fashioned reel to reel tape machines are amongst the dusty relics.
Many of the young children visiting were baffled by the sheer size of the computers – and couldn’t believe that people didn’t have iPads back then.
Visitors are encouraged to touch these archaic bits of technology which is fantastic for those who love to play with computer kit.
My partner Tony discovered this old tape machine which looked a lot like the one he worked on when he was a radio journalist.
Naturally, he had to play with the kit and within seconds, he’d spooled it up and had it working again, much to the surprise of the tour guide!
Another fascinating throwback was a Russian typewriter used for messaging, complete with the full Cyrillic alphabet with a few extra intelligence features.
The Bunker’s special telecommunications unit could secure direct communication with Moscow’s Kremlin and key authorities in the USSR.
There was even a hotline to the KGB heads in case of an imminent nuclear attack… and you can still see that exact telephone today.
Imagine sitting waiting for it to ring. It must’ve been the worst job in the Bunker, waiting patiently and fiddling with boring paperwork just in case that alarming emergency call came.
Mapping Nuclear Fall-Out
The Map Room is one of the highlights of the Bunker tour. Its large tables are covered with massive maps of Europe, Russia and the world beyond.
Each map has key cities marked up with large red circles indicating the likely impact if they were to be hit by a nuclear bomb. It’s a chilling moment when you see what might have happened if someone had pushed the nuclear button.
Latvia was well within range of nuclear war heads during this period… so it’s no surprise that the fall-out from a strike on Riga would’ve been devastating, extending far beyond the city’s boundary.
The numbers don’t bear thinking about nor the collateral damage…
From the maps we can see projections of how dams, power stations and the water supply would have been affected by a nuclear attack. You can also see which territories would have been plunged under water.
This is where the Bunker trip becomes serious. Most chilling of all are the projections of the numbers of people likely to perish. It’s terrifying when you see the figures written next to individual major cities.
Across the corridor is another important military planning room where the top brass would have deliberated about the possible fate of millions of people.
There’s even a golden bust of Lenin overseeing proceedings, perched on a pedestal, an echo of the Soviet Union’s past.
Our excellent tour guide explains why she volunteers to show tour groups around. It turns out that her family lived in the area and would have been seriously affected by any nuclear fall-out. They grew up living on the edge of the Cold War’s ticking time-bomb.
She had lived in occupied Latvia when it was in the hands of the Russians. It wasn’t an easy life with the Soviets imposing many restrictions and rules on the local population.
Freedom and Latvian independence were eventually won, but at a great cost, which is something we should never forget.
Soviet Era Bunkdown
On the other side of the Bunker there are dozens of rooms for special operations, computers and messaging equipment.
Such is the speed of technological change, everything looks like it should be in a museum. But it’s fun seeing what the Soviets thought was cutting edge tech back in the 1980s.
When they abandoned the Bunker, it wasn’t even worth saving this prehistoric equipment!
There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lighter side of life in the Bunker. The tour narrative has a good balance between education, serious stuff and fun stories.
Visitors are encouraged to pretend that they are working on the control desk, dialling the telephones and sending secret messages to Soviet HQ.
One of the scariest rooms on the tour is the Decontamination Suite which recalls the Hollywood film “Silkwood” with its story about a nuclear accident.
There’s a bleak shower room and decontamination chamber where anyone who had been unlucky enough to be affected by radiation would have been ‘cleaned up’.
In reality, I think this would have been as ineffective as wearing a home made Covid-19 face protection mask. But it’s a stark reminder of the realities of a nuclear attack.
Walking around the Bunker for more than an hour makes you realise how stuffy it is down below ground. The air feels musty, like it has been recycled.
But the Soviet high command had thought of everything. There’s an ‘air conditioning’ or ‘purification’ system designed to keep enough breathable air down in the Bunker in case of a complete lockdown and nuclear attack.
The Bunker also has its own autonomous electrical station with diesel generators and fuel reservoirs which could power it for a considerable period of time. It’s deafening when switched on… if you’re standing in the control room.
Looking at how these systems work is fascinating and it makes you wonder how long anyone could survive down here, if the worst came to the worst.
Then again, would you want to survive if everything outside had been obliterated in a nuclear firestorm?
Just don’t press any of the many buttons… apparently a young visitor once tried this and shut down the Bunker’s lighting system, plunging the whole complex into darkness. The tour group was trapped for a couple of hours!
In a worst case scenario, when the air purification system fails at the Bunker, there is the old-fashioned gas mask designed to protect you.
The Bunker has many example of these masks, mostly left behind in large piles by the departing Soviets when the facility was closed down by the KGB.
There are full instructions on how to use the protective equipment in this wonderful Russian information poster from the Bunker’s early years. Don’t forget the special clothing, boots and gloves.
You’re invited to try one of the original gas masks which is a strange experience. They make you feel incredibly trapped, and the air feels stale.
The Bunker shop sells authentic masks and I couldn’t help myself. I had to have one – they’re only 8 Euros and you get a great kit bag to go with them. A total bargain.
You can also try on the authentic military hats which the soldiers left behind when they headed back to Russia. It adds a light touch to what could be a gloomy experience.
Life on the Inside
The Bunker was once capable of supporting 250 people for up to three months, if there was a nuclear attack. But they did forget to plan what would happen to dead bodies if anyone died during total lockdown. A minor omission!
Life inside the Bunker was mostly extremely boring and repetitive – like in any lockdown situation. Finding ways to kill time during downtime must have been limited.
Card games and drinking were commonplace so it’s no surprise that there are old posters on the walls discouraging over-indulgence in alcohol. Drinking and nuclear attacks clearly don’t mix.
Taking the tour of the Bunker’s 90 rooms, it’s hard to imagine that this size of nuclear installation could be kept secret, and that so few people knew it was there. It was a great cover to hide the Bunker below something as innocuous as a clinic.
Even the workers at the health centre hadn’t a clue that it lay deep below their feet. The ‘comings and goings’ of its military staff were carefully orchestrated.
But secrecy was one of the KGB’s specialities and the Bunker was never exposed to the outside world during its operational life.
Would the Bunker have survived a nuclear strike? Probably. It was also protected by a thick layer of concrete and lead plates which meant that it was soundproof and bomb proof (or so they hoped).
The heavy steel doors and the curved approach corridor were designed to deflect any blast wave.
I was also amazed to discover that there were other secret KGB sites in the village. The basketball court was actually a hidden helipad!
Top Travel Tips – The Bunker
The Padomju Slepenais Secret Bunker is located in the lovely village of Ligatne (Ligatnes), 35 minutes drive from Riga in Latvia. I’d advise going by self-drive hire car. There are a few bookable coach trips from specialist private operators. Ligatne also has a very helpful tourist information centre if you get stuck – they speak excellent English.
Don’t forget to pre-book your trip as admission to the Bunker is by tour guide only. Ring reception but don’t be put off by their slightly authoritarian tone – +371 64161915 – email: firstname.lastname@example.org Friday is a good day to visit when you’re guaranteed a tour in English. Ticket prices apply. The tour takes over an hour so leave plenty of time for your visit.
Ligatne and the Gauja National Park are also well worth a look, if you’re looking at combining The Bunker with another attraction.
Looking for something different? Why not try a bunker party or escape room experience?
Exotic feast in the bunker
Fancy a meal in the style of political elite of 1980’s? You can book an exotic Russian feast and drink from granyonkas and eat from tables with authentic wax tablecloths.
A Typical Soviet menu is available (minimum 10 persons):
- “Barricade snacks” (sprat bread, pickled cucumber)
- “Underground organization” (salmon bread, pickled cucumber, surprise for adults)
- “Workers” (sprat bread, pickles, surprises)
- “Kolkhoz” (soup, bread)
- “Pasta po flotski” (pasta with meat, pickles, stewed)
- “Ravioli” (ravioli, sour cream, drink)
- LKP CK first secretariat lunch (chocolate truffle, soup, shnitzel with bone and additives, desert, hot drink)
There’s a room where dance music can be played on an authentic 1980s record player with ‘officially approved’ vinyl records.
If you prefer a darker, escape room type of experience… Object X is a reality game for adrenaline junkies who aren’t afraid to go on a secret mission in the dark, under the cover of smoke in a dark labryrinth.
Why not treat yourself to an authentic souvenir? Here I am in my Soviet-era gas mask, bought for a mere 8.00 €uros – a bargain!