Underjordiske gange sikrede, at de sovjetiske soldater kunne bevæge sig rundt under et angreb fra USA. Foto: Stefan Weichert

South of Kyiv, halfway to Odessa, the Strategic Missile Forces Museum lets you revisit the horrors of the nuclear potential of the Cold War. You can even press a bottom, that in the 80’ies would have sent 10 nuclear bombs towards the US, sparking a nuclear war and killing thousands.

Speaking about the Cold War, one thing that often comes to mind is the nuclear threat. Both the US and the Soviet Union went ballistic, no pun intended, and amassed enormous amounts of nuclear weapons. In the USSR at it’s peak, over 40,000 warheads were stockpiled giving both the US and the USSR the ability to completely obliterate human life on the planet.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, where the USSR placed missiles in Cuba after the US put up missiles in Italy and Turkey really showed the potential dangers of two aggressive super powers pointing their warheads at each other. The face off between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev led to a whole month and four days of fear, that has since been seen as the closest we ever came to a nuclear war.

In the Strategic Missile Forces Museum, some remnants of the Missile Crisis can be seen. In the outside exhibition, a lot of different ballistic missiles are displayed. Among them are models of the R-12/SS-4 missile, which played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is also the SS-18 Satan rocket, a 8.8 tonne intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is twice the size of the larges US ICBM at the time.

Some of the trucks used in hauling the nuclear equipment can be seen in the background. Photo: Stefan Weichert

The outdoor exhibition showcases far more than these two rockets, including several heavy duty vehicles that were used to haul nuclear weapons and even headquarters around the Soviet Union.

We have to go deeper

While the outdoor exhibit is interesting for the people interested in military history, the main attraction for everyone is found underground. Deep underground. At the bottom of a 33 meter metal tube buried underground, there is a red phone, a control panel and a small sleeping compartment for soldiers.

It is not as boring as it sounds, though. From the seats in what looks to be the lair of a James Bond Villain, the USSR could send 10 nuclear missiles towards the US with the push of a bottom. When visiting the museum, you get to sit in the chair, hear the alarm go off and press the button that would previously have sent the world into nuclear war.

When this phone rings, the nuclear war is on. Photo: Stefan Weichert.
From this control room, Soviet soldiers could send nuclear rockets to Europe or the US in a matter of seconds. Photo: Stefan Weichert

The experience of pressing the button with the alarm sounding is truly one of the most unique experiences that Ukraine has to offer. There are surely not many places like this in the world. Except for being historically relevant, it also offers a deep insight into the fear of the Cold War Nuclear Arms Race and the reality: That someone had – and still has – the power to destroy everything.

Getting there

The Strategic Missile Forces Museum is not one of the top attractions in the country and the infrastructure around the museum is quite limited. You can reach the museum, sometimes called The Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces, rather easily by car. (Google maps have it at this coordinate: 5MP8+J2 Pobuzke, Kirovohrad Oblast)

If you go there yourself, a good idea would be booking a guide in advance. Elena Smerichevskaya speaks English and is the go-to guide for many visitors, including Lonely Planet – one of the leading travel guides in the world. She has confirmed that she is still working as a guide there.

A more expensive way for the people who would like to get a guided tour with departure from Kyiv and everything sorted beforehand, Chernobyl Tours also organizes trips to the museum. Ukraine Nu visited Chernobyl with Elena, but we have previously recommended Chernobyl Tours for a visit to the Chernobyl zone.

More resources

There is no cold war movie or book that has ever made as big an impression on popular culture as the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The movie is a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece that stars Peter Sellers in three different roles. The story in short, as written on IDMB: An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a War Room full of politicians and generals frantically tries to stop.”

Naturally, it is a satirical take on the prospects of nuclear war, but with 4 Oscar nominations and 14 different award wins, it would be weird to leave it out. For more great fiction about the cold war, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy from 2011 is a production of the classic John le Carré novel with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch worth giving a watch.

Rated 8.6 on IMDB, but also a bit lengthy, the documentary Cold War from 1998 gives a great overview of the cold war through 24 episodes. The 2018 Meeting Gorbachev by Werner Herzog is an interesting look into the mind of Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, thought it has received some criticism for being too positive about Gorbachev.

“One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War,” (2009) is an excellent book about the Cuban Missile Crisis. “The Cold War: A World History,” (2019) is another excellent historical account of the cold war that leaves the Transatlantic narrative and gives valuable insight into the consequences the Cold War had in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.