The bogus entrance at street level offers no clue as to what lies inside. To find it, people dutifully file down 288 steps, ending up inside what – on the surface – is just a regular Cold War museum complete with historical Soviet artifacts and vintage spy movie-like details. Visitors are now 213 feet below the center of Moscow, covered by an arched steel-and-concrete labyrinth that may well belie what they encounter next.
At the end of the maze, the 1950s and ’60s decor is banished, and what greets the eye on the other side of the space-age entryway is a glitzy modern room decked out with red sofas and sparkling chandeliers. The reason? This forsaken military bunker now hosts a considerably more contemporary secret – namely, a glittering entertainment complex.
The result is an extraordinary juxtaposition of old and new, facts and fun, that’s more than worth the significant trek 18 stories beneath the ground. That said, for those with tired legs or young children, the complex’s restaurant, museum, banquet halls and conference rooms can always be reached by taking the elevator.
And as some of its contents suggest, the more than 75,000-square-foot facility has quite the intriguing history. Plans for the bunker’s design were actually initiated in the 1940s under the direction of Joseph Stalin. However, as the threat of nuclear war increased, the blueprint was altered so that the bunker would offer greater defense – should any bombs start flying. What was to become known as the Tagansky Protected Command Point was eventually constructed between 1952 and 1956, not far from the current Taganskaya subway station in Moscow.
Before being put into place in Moscow, though, a preliminary version of the site was built near the Soviet Union’s nuclear test location known as The Polygon. Household pets were reportedly placed inside this prototype during one particular nuclear explosion, and when they came away unscathed, the Tagansky Protected Command Point was given the go-ahead.
After ground had been broken in Moscow, moreover, the site was cleverly concealed as a subway station while in its building phase. Later, further camouflage was added above the complex in the shape of an artificial 1800s-style apartment building two levels high and yellow in color.
When complete, the Tagansky Protected Command Point was a top-secret facility for air force communications and government broadcasts. The center employed over 2,500 employees in total, with as many as 600 individuals operating telephones and telegraphs on a daily basis. The staff made their way to the bunker at nighttime on exclusive subway trains that stopped at Taganskaya. And the tunnels of the bunker, meanwhile, were protected by around three feet of concrete.
Stalin himself never got to see the finished bunker, though; he died on March 5, 1953, in arguably enigmatic circumstances, years prior to its completion. The site did, however, contain an office that was intended for his use.
However, it was in the years following Stalin’s death that nuclear war seemed most likely, particularly at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During that same decade, the bunker was completely fitted out with the necessary items for individuals to survive a nuclear bombing incident. The measures included food supplies and fuel as well as a functioning clean-air system and safe drinking water.
And as it turned out, the bunker was indeed on one occasion utilized for nuclear strike protection purposes. During the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2,500 military officials and civilian communications personnel lived underground there for a week and a half, anticipating the onset of a Third World War. The bunker could reportedly have sheltered up to 3,000 people for as long as 12 weeks if such an attack had taken place.
By 1986, though, the Cold War was coming to a close, and the facility was no longer of tactical significance. Hence, the complex was left to deteriorate and then in 1998 was officially declassified. And with a lack of funding to ever fully restore it, the bunker was ultimately sold to a private firm eight years later.
No one working at the facility nowadays is prepared to divulge quite who presently owns the former Tagansky Protected Command Point. Still, the shadowy company has seen fit to give the site a spectacular redevelopment, turning it, as a result, into the current Bunker 42 on show today. The vast tunnel rooms now play host to amenities that include the Museum of the Cold War, two banquet rooms, conference rooms and a restaurant.
Rather incredibly, Bunker 42 can now even be hired out as a unique wedding venue. And yet visitors not wishing to get hitched inside a Cold War relic could perhaps instead immerse themselves in end-of-the-world imaginings with the themed laser games on offer: think Bunker-Quest and Zombie Apocalypse.
A tour of the museum, meanwhile, will afford a unique perspective on Soviet Cold War history. Visitors can glimpse old government spaces that may once have been party to hushed historical conversations and get up close and personal with military uniforms and equipment. One tour even invites guests to be serenaded with Soviet-era songs and to indulge in a shot of Russian vodka.
In fact, there are a number of excursions available to prospective visitors. The “Declassified” trip, for instance, allows its participants to partake in a mock nuclear weapon launch, even going so far as to enable them to turn control keys and enter command codes.
Other fascinating exhibits within the museum include a radiation measuring tool, typewriters, old maps and miniature airplanes. Plus, in the office built for Stalin a wax figure of the former leader is present – ideal for visitors craving an entirely bizarre photo opportunity. Several original features of the bunker have also been kept, including sets of bunk beds.
Other guests, meanwhile, may wish to book themselves and their friends into one of the private banquet halls. Indeed, an underground erstwhile military bunker is just the thing for that unusual celebratory occasion; it has even played host to a birthday gathering for a young boy.
And in 2012 the bunker hosted an all-day blowout for those anxious to seek refuge from the predicted Mayan Armageddon. The patrons – each paying $1,000 for admission – entered the underground maze as amplifiers blared out the terrifying message, “Attention! Attention! The enemy has carried out a nuclear attack!”
However, Moscow’s Bunker 42 is certainly not the only facility of its kind to have been given a new lease of life. Other onetime shelters, for instance, have variously been re-imagined as a bar, a hotel and even an apartment building. Even as they are given new purposes, though, these constructions highlight the terrors of past wars and remain extraordinary examples of the way in which former regimes sought protection from real and perceived threats.
The Shelter in Shanghai, for instance, is a former air-raid refuge that has been converted into a nightclub and since gone on to become a popular hotspot. In Germany, meanwhile, a pair of architects have transformed an erstwhile Second World War bunker into contemporary apartments.
And even though Bunker 42 has been revamped to reflect a more modern Russia, the reminder of a bygone era is there within the walls of this place, too – through its exhibits and artifacts, its web of long arched tunnels, and the walls, shapes and ceilings of those rooms now dedicated to fun and entertainment.