New home, new directions
First, let’s get the big news out of the way: Wanderella Story has said goodbye to Finland and is now based in Vilnius, Lithuania! In July, I packed up my belongings and my little family to embrace an exciting job opportunity in this lovely little city I’d only passed through once before. The blog naturally followed.
Now, discovering my new environment with a new job and a new tiny baby in the picture (because why settle for one life-changing event per year when you can have them all?) hasn’t been the smoothest process. Some progress has still been made. Among the most interesting and surprising discoveries I’ve made are abandoned bunkers hidden in Vilnius suburbs, a giant derelict Soviet-era sanatorium, a Baroque manor undergoing renovation and a left-behind construction site reminiscent of a Hunger Games battle arena.
Perhaps most importantly, I have finally, finally visited Skrunda-1: the abandoned Soviet radar station in Latvia that every ruin explorer has dreamed of seeing at one point or another. The plot twist? I did it with a four-month-old baby.
The road to Skrunda-1
Skrunda-1 had been on my must-see list since I first read about it, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to live the dream out quite as quickly after arriving to Lithuania as I did. During one of our earliest conversations, my new coworker Christian revealed himself as an aspiring ruin explorer and actualized car owner – that is, the exact person I needed to team up with to get to Skrunda-1.
We talked about scheduling a trip across the Latvian border for a little later in the year, only to be informed by another knowledgeable coworker that in a matter of weeks the ghost town would be taken over by the Latvian army. It’s not that it was ever officially open to the public to begin with, but now it was definitely becoming closed-closed.
As this was inevitably going to be a family outing, and the idea of pushing a stroller around a crumbling concrete maze while being shot at by Latvian soldiers wasn’t very appealing to any of us, we knew we had to go immediately. So one Friday afternoon in August the four of us – Christian, Paul, Baby K and me – stuffed ourselves into Christian’s car and started the six-hour drive towards Skrunda-1.
The town behind the woods
Despite its near-legendary status, Skrunda-1 isn’t exactly easy to get to. Hidden among dense birch forests in the Southwestern Latvian countryside, it attracts curious visitors from the capital of Riga and beyond.
Once you reach the general area, though, you can’t miss the town. Visitors typically drive to Skrunda-1 through its neighboring town called… Skrunda. This Skrunda-without-the-1 is a perfectly ordinary and still-active small town that has nothing special going on for it, except for the eerie twin town that it shares its name with.
How did the two towns, one active and the other abandoned, come to carry the same name? The answer, as you might imagine, is found in Soviet military strategy.
Like Vogelsang, the Brandenburg ghost town I visited last year, Skrunda-1 belongs to a group of some 40 secret cities whose existence was a top-level national secret. These “closed administrative territorial entities”, or ZATOs, provided the technical and strategic foundations of the Soviet military by hiding manpower and weapons at strategic locations throughout the USSR. Some of them are still going strong, though their existence is no longer a secret.
In an attempt to conceal their existence, the closed cities were often named after their closest officially recognized settlement. In the case of Skrunda-1, the number 1 was added to the name Skrunda to give it the appearance of a suburb or border village rather than its own town.
And yet, a town it was. Skrunda-1 was built during the early 1960s as a radar station to scan the sky for incoming missiles from Western Europe. In the subsequent years, it came to host 5000 army employees and their families. The inhabitants enjoyed all the modern amenities from entertainment to education, from health care to sports. The standard of living is said to have been higher than the national average – a good incentive for the people to stay committed to common project.
Arriving at Skrunda-1
The day of our adventure got off to a good start when the sun pierced through the dull gray veil we had become so accustomed to seeing over the past several weeks, revealing a brilliant blue Baltic sky. Normally I like to keep my ruin tourism low-key – leaving the vanities of civilization behind is kind of the whole point – but this time we had chosen to stay at a wonderfully cozy country manor close to Skrunda-without-the-1. After a good night’s sleep and a second serving of the breakfast buffet, we were ready to cross the final few kilometers to Skrunda-1.
Looking at the time, I was a little worried. If there was anything I knew about ghost towns, it was that they can be, well, big. We only had around 6 hours at our disposal. That had been enough to get a decent feel of Vogelsang and Krampnitz Kaserne last year, but back then I wasn’t accompanied by anybody who needed frequent milk and snuggle breaks. To make the most of the little time we had, I’d printed out some maps of Skrunda-1 created by other explorers and marked down locations that seemed particularly interesting. We were going to focus on those and not worry about the rest.
As Christian pulled to the old check point marking the entrance to Skrunda-1, something I had read online was confirmed. In front of the dilapidating guard booth, a man wearing a safety vest was selling tickets to the ghost town lurking behind the huge metal gates. The formerly free-for-all site was now an official tourist site.
I made the deliberate choice to not be too disappointed. Although the newly established entrance fee of 4 euro made Skrunda-1’s status as an “abandoned place” highly debatable, it made complete sense for the otherwise non-remarkable Town of Skrunda-without-the-1 to milk the one spectacular thing they had going on for them. And I say that completely unironically.
Besides, we were the only ones there. Just because Skrunda-1 was now officially open to the public did not mean that people were lining up to see it – not this early in the morning, anyway, as we would later find out. We paid the guard and went in.
Into the urban wild
My first reaction to Skrunda-1, seeing it from the other side of the metal gates, was excitement. If the entrance procedures had felt too much like the civilization I’d wanted to leave behind, here we were left on our own devices. No attempts at manicuring the wild-grown environment or implementing safety measures had taken place: every ramshackle building was accessible at your own risk.
We walked down a dirt road leading directly into the heart of Skrunda-1. To our right, huge abandoned apartment buildings rose to the skies. Not too far behind them stood the water tower, marking the other end of the town.
Seeing how close we were to the water tower was a relief. It meant that he town was a lot more compact than it had appeared on the map. We could allow ourselves to relax and forget about the time after all. Our strategy was to enter buildings in pairs, with one of the group always staying outside and looking after Baby K – you didn’t really think we would bring him inside those death traps, did you?
Christian and I took the first infiltration turn and entered a low building next to what might have once been the town square. To my delight, it turned out to hold some colorful wall art, including a fantastic Lenin mosaic, that I knew from other explorers’ images. The old clubhouse was one of the nicest locations we would explore that day.
Discovery of Skrunda-1
If it seems improbable that a town the size and complexity of Skrunda-1 could stay hidden forever, that’s just because it is. In fact, the reason of its existence also became the reason for its discovery by the greater Latvian population. Organized around the two early-warning radar systems, it’s strategic role was always to defend rather than to attack. It was the sound waves originating from these very radar systems, picked up by local radio and TV stations, that gave the town’s existence away.
Not that this had much of an effect for the lives of the people of Skrunda-1. Life went on as usual until the 1980s, when mother ship Soviet Union began to sink.
By the early 1990s, funding for Soviet military projects had been discontinued and the inhabitants of Skrunda-1 were leaving in numbers. The future lay uncertain. The town officially remained under Russian control until 1998; however, the radar systems had been ceremoniously demolished by the Latvian government already in 1995 (see left). A musical score had been composed to mark the hugely symbolic event.
The last resident moved out of Skrunda-1 in 1999. After that the town became free to choose its own path, and it chose the path of wilderness.
Life finds a way in Skrunda-1
Considering that Skrunda-1 had been abandoned for nearly 20 years, I was surprised to discover quite a bit of furniture, kitchenware, posters, vintage machinery and other memorabilia inside the buildings. Compared to Vogelsang and Krampnitz Kaserne, which had been thoroughly looted, Skrunda-1 retained plenty of traces of human life.
Something about the way we found many of these items bothered me, though. They were positioned against walls and each other just a little too aesthetically, a little too conveniently to look natural. It was obvious that they had been arranged by previous visitors wanting to create the “perfect abandoned scene” for their photos.
While there are certainly bigger crimes in the world than meddling with abandoned scenes, the urban exploration community has something of an unwritten rule against it. Photographing abandoned sites is likened to photographing the natural world: it’s the photographer’s job to capture phenomena already occurring in nature, not to manufacture them.
We might have been alone in Skrunda-1, but the marks of active and on-going human activity were everywhere. And soon we weren’t even alone anymore.
Tourism comes to Skrunda-1
We’d been exploring Skrunda-1 for about an hour before we saw the first other group of visitors. Two families with children – and we thought we’d been radical by bringing our kid! – were walking down a footpath shadowed by giant apartment buildings.
From there on the flow of people became seemingly endless. These were not your typical ruin explorers either. Dozens, if not hundreds, of flip flops, strappy sandals and lily-white converse walked on broken glass and mud. Children skipped about without much in the way of adult supervision.
And of course, with the crowds came the troublemakers. As I was exploring the top floor of the town’s old kindergarten building, home to some of the nicest and best-preserved murals in Skrunda-1, I suddenly heard the sound of glass breaking. Then another sound. And another. It sounded like heavy glass items being thrown against a hard surface and being shattered into thousands of little pieces.
I quietly snuck downstairs and exited the building. I didn’t feel in danger myself as I knew that I wasn’t alone in the area. Still, I had no interest in meeting the culprits face to face. On my way out I caught a glimpse: two teenage boys holding glass bricks picked up from the ground, their right arms flung back and ready to throw. Two girls with their cellphones out, filming the boys’ hilarious antics.
It was only a few moments later that I, reunited with my own team of two men and one baby, saw the same teens running out of the kindergarten and into one of the derelict apartment buildings. The next thing we saw was various pieces of furniture flying out of the windows on the top floor.
First a cupboard. Then a bathroom sink.
The furniture crashed to the ground like tiny matchboxes, breaking in different ways. Us people below watched in confusion, trying to figure out if we had a moral obligation to intervene in the mindless destruction of an already-doomed place. One young mother with two children at her side screamed at the teens to stop, which they did – at least for long enough for us to roll our eyes and move on with our exploration.
The final hour
As more and more people poured into Skrunda-1, we proceeded to explore the South end of the town where most of its technical and administrative operations used to be concentrated. First up was the canteen.
Up next was the prison of Skrunda-1. I hadn’t actually realized that there was one in the first place before Christian pointed at it on the map. The idea a prison inside a closed city felt strange and unsettling. What did it feel like to be a prisoner in a place that officially didn’t exist? What kind of crimes could lead a person to be doubly condemned like that?
The town’s administrative headquarters had a somewhat more cheerful atmosphere to them. It’s there that I came across the most wonderfully peculiar sight: a former lookout room that looked like a flying saucer that had crashed through the outer wall and decided to stay.
After we had left the building and had our picnic lunch among the ruins, my grown-up companions were starting to lose energy. I had hoped to still check out one of Skrunda-1’s two underground air raid shelters, but I realized that getting there and back would take at least another hour – an hour that was better spent getting ourselves back to Vilnius before dark. It was time to start the long way back home.
Urban exploration goes mainstream
Are we really justified to call Skrunda-1 “abandoned”? While nobody lives or works there anymore, the town is very conspicuously not without life. The marks of active and ongoing human activity are everywhere. I’m willing to believe that not every day at Skrunda-1 is like the circus we experienced during our outing – the town’s impending closing was probably to blame for the crowds – but to me it’s clear that it has crossed the line between an urban exploration site and tourist attraction.
In many ways, Skrunda-1 is Latvia’s version of Chernobyl, Bodie and Hashima Island, all world-famous abandoned places turned into tourist sites. Through social media and our own expeditions, we latch on to these places that seem so different from the ones we know, we consume them and make them our own. In doing so we give them new life. This makes me wonder whether we should, after all, not be talking about urban exploration and tourism as worlds apart, but consider how they intersect in the increasingly popular pursuit of dark tourism: travel to “places which are associated with tragedy, suffering or death”.
Perhaps all of this was always meant to be one chapter in the life of Skrunda-1. Only time can tell what the next one, written by the Latvian military, will look like.
Many thanks to Paul for contributing a few images to this monster of a post.
Inside the Soviet ghost town: Old uniforms and tiny prison-like apartments are rediscovered 18 years after Cold War settlement was abandoned, Daily Mail (08/03/2016)
Skrunda-1: Exploring a Soviet Ghost Town in the Forests of Latvia, The Bohemian Blog (2016)
Skrunda-1: Latvia’s Last Ghost City, The Baltic Times (10/04/2015)
Skrunda Soviet Radar Station, Latvian History (02/03/2013)