It’s one of the most disturbing tours in the world.
Deep in the Ukrainian countryside near Pervomaysk lies a perfectly preserved nuclear launch site – and visitors can clamber inside and be shown around the workplace of Soviet soldiers tasked with destroying America, should the order have come through from the Kremlin. And yes – via a red telephone.
Radio Free Europe photographer Amos Chapple, from New Zealand, recently had a look around the site, which lies some 185 miles south of Kiev, and captured the facility in a set of fascinating, if unnerving, photographs.
Radio Free Europe photographer Amos Chapple, from New Zealand, recently had a look around this former nuclear missile site in Ukraine. A nuclear missile aimed at America once lurked underneath the 121-ton steel door pictured
Here Mr Chapple is pictured clambering inside one of the missile silos, with the guide’s permission
Mr Chapple said: ‘Learning the details of how a nuclear missile actually operates was incredibly unsettling’
Pictured is a vehicle entrance on the base’s perimeter fence. It’s not the current entrance
A 155-metre (508ft) corridor lies at the heart of the base (left). The image on the right shows a soldier opening a 750kg steel blast door
Mr Chapple peers down into the depths of the base, which is cylindrical and comprises 10 storeys
The subterranean base, operational from 1978 until 1991, is cylindrical and comprises 10 storeys. It was designed to be self-sufficient for 45 days in the event of a nuclear war and so it contains generators to keep the power running and (very cramped) living quarters with the odd mod con or two.
Mr Chapple snapped bunk beds, the silo’s microwave oven, a kettle, the launch buttons, the ladders that connect the facility’s floors, a 750kg blast door, commanders’ chairs that have seat belts to keep the occupants steady in the event of a nuclear strike and an SS-18 Satan missile on display outside.
He described the experience as ‘incredibly unsettling’.
Inside this command center, a tour guide explained to Mr Chapple, Soviet officers spent years waiting for the command to effectively destroy an entire country
One of the many control panels in the command centre, which is still wired up
The command centre was designed to be self-sufficient for 45 days in the event of a nuclear war and so it contains generators to keep the power running. Pictured is a command centre control panel
This is a model of the underground command centre showing the various living and working compartments
On-duty commanders would sit in front of this keyboard for six hours at a time – and were banned from eating or drinking. Note the seat belt, there to keep the operator in position in the event of an enemy missile strike
This is a picture of Mr Chapple’s tour guide, Olena Smerychevska, who works professionally as Elena Smerichevskaya, at one of the two desks with access to the launch buttons
Inevitably, there’s a red telephone. The order to launch would have come from a call from Moscow via this device
He told MailOnline Travel: ‘Learning the details of how a nuclear missile actually operates was incredibly unsettling. A missile launched from Ukraine could have hit New York within 20 to 25 minutes.
‘As if that detail isn’t frightening enough, we then learned that the missiles could – and still can – open up over their target to release ten individual warheads that rain down across a huge area.
‘I remember driving away from the base thinking that, with all these unstoppable nuclear missiles, pre-aimed and ready to go right now, our civilization is like a handful of people all going about their lives with guns pointed at each other’s heads.’
Ms Smerychevska is demonstrating here how the missiles were launched. She explained, according to Mr Chapple, that a code would be entered and two officers would simultaneously need to turn a key (right), then press the launch button (left). This was known as the ‘four hands’ system, which made it impossible for anyone to launch a missile alone
This control panel shows the status of the array of 10 missile silos that the base harboured. Mr Chapple said: ‘The guide went through the steps needed to launch the missile, the alarms sounded and lights flashed. Everything is operational’
The base, explained Mr Chapple, was suspended on shock absorbers to insulate the men and equipment inside ‘from the earth-twisting power of a nuclear strike’
Ms Smerychevska leads Mr Chapple through the belly of the base, which contains a plethora of steel doors
This image shows a model of a SS-24 Scalpel missile that would have blasted out of the silo to the U.S
Unnerving: This image shows an SS-18 Satan missile on display at the base. It was capable of hitting New York in 20 minutes
This living space for off-duty officers is located underneath the main control room
Missiles from the West would have targeted sites like this and Mr Chapple said that it was ‘very easy to conjure up the kind of horror that would have flashed through the men’s minds who worked there’.
He continued: ‘The base was actually designed to withstand a nuclear strike, right down to the use of Bakelite, a material more heat resistant than plastic, inside the command centre.
‘So I’m sure that, living and sleeping 36 metres (118 feet) underground inside a huge steel case, the thought of what that enemy missile could do to you would have been hard not to dwell on in darker moments.’
What makes the tour all the more disquieting is the fact that everything is still wired up.
Mr Chapple added: ‘The whole system is still functional. The guide went through the steps needed to launch the missile, the alarms sounded and lights flashed. Everything is operational, but the missile was removed to Russia.’
To arrange a tour contact local guide Elena Smerichevskaya at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a safe for service weapons. Mr Chapple said: ‘I’m sure that, living and sleeping 36 metres (118 feet) underground inside a huge steel case, the thought of what that enemy missile could do to you would have been hard not to dwell on in darker moments’
The site, some 185 miles south of Kiev, would certainly not have been comfortable for anyone who is claustrophobic
‘The subterranean living space held a mixture of cutting-edge and ancient appliances,’ said Mr Chapple in his blog on the visit. ‘This microwave was installed in the base, reportedly before any Soviet homeowners had access to the technology’
This samovar – a metal urn used to heat water – was fixed in place, explains Mr Chapple, to reduce the risk of water spillages ‘wreaking havoc on delicate electronics’
The electric fences that surrounded the base were reportedly powerful enough to kill someone
‘These armored turrets, with machine guns mounted inside, were a last line of defense,’ explains Mr Chapple. According to his guide, the bases in the area ‘were so secret that even today some locals are reluctant to talk about them’
A reminder to base personnel to wear gas masks in the event of an attack
Above ground partially dismantled Soviet fighter jets can be found. Mr Chapple said he was inside the base for around three hours and underground in the command centre for around 40 minutes
As well as fighter jets, the base near Pervomaysk is also used to store military trucks, pictured
Mr Chapple said: ‘I remember driving away from the base thinking that, with all these unstoppable nuclear missiles, pre-aimed and ready to go right now, our civilization is like a handful of people all going about their lives with guns pointed at each other’s heads’