Inside Ukraine’s Cold War Nuclear Submarine Base

October, 1962. The entire planet watches with bated breath as U.S. president John F. Kennedy orders Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove his country’s nuclear missiles from Cuba. Yet inside Object 825 GTS, the military employees go about their work as always. After all, any potential nuclear strike from America will have little impact on their submarine base – safely hidden as it is beneath the 413-foot-thick limestone of a mountain named Tavros in Balaklava, Crimea. In fact, the U.S. leadership may not even know it exists.

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So for now, it’s business as usual here: workers enter the base’s cavernous, arched chambers – footsteps echoing off the walls – set to tend to the arsenal of Soviet submarines ensconced within. Fifty top-secret nuclear warheads are also secreted inside the site, ready to use should the Cold War ultimately start to heat up.

Today, along with the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the submarines and nuclear devices are gone – but the base itself remains. And even though Object 825 GTS’ tunnels, rooms and other spaces are now empty, it’s nevertheless not too difficult to picture them brimming with powerful weaponry from an era that very nearly led to the planet’s annihilation.

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The shockingly destructive capabilities of nuclear warfare had first been seen at the close of World War II. And the notorious atomic bombs inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. in turn prompted the Soviet Union to put a program of its own into full effect. As part of this, it created its own clandestine submarine and weapon storage facility – one that would eventually bear the innocuous moniker of Object 825 GTS.

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The initial plans for the subterranean base were sanctioned by the Soviet regime in 1953. Work began on the complex in the mid ’50s, and it was eventually completed in 1961 at a cost of around $2.5 million. In addition to its submarine dry dock and missile storage areas, the facility contained a repair station and quarters for living and working.

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The resulting facility was rather imposing in size, too, measuring an incredible 153,000 square feet. The massive canal that still runs through the middle of the underground development, meanwhile, is over a mile long.

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Balaklava Nuclear Base
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What’s more, the canal is 55 feet deep in places, which meant that Soviet submarines arriving and departing could do so under cover of water – an ideal situation for keeping the secret watercraft hidden.

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The lengthy construction of the base was also an understandably intense affair – and one that saw workers at the site for 24 hours a day. Underground mining was required to create the subterranean chambers and tunnels of Object 825 GTS. As a result, with the help of explosives, 120,000 tons of rock was extracted from the Tavros mountain, with the dug-up limestone tipped into the ocean. A railroad, utility lines and an air supply were also built into the facility.

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When the initial submarines berthed here in 1961, they did so protected by the 413-foot-thick shield of limestone. Indeed, the covering was so resilient that it could conceivably withstand a dead-center nuclear strike of 100 kilotons – quite an impact considering the fact that the bomb that exploded over Hiroshima had a destructive output of 13 kilotons, while the Nagasaki nuclear device’s energy yield equated to 20 kilotons.

And if any nuclear bomb had dropped on the base at the time, those inside Object 825 GTS would have needed only to close the facility’s substantial doors to likely survive. In fact, in such an event, up to 3,000 personnel could have inhabited the base, living on provisions sufficient to last for 30 days.

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However, the enemy would still first have needed to find Object 825 GTS – not an easy task in itself. The location of the base helped a great deal in this regard, as Balaklava Bay’s slim channel gives the harbor area protection from any potential snooping surveillance. Plus, Balaklava itself was wiped from all atlases at around the time of the facility’s construction.

Object 825 GTS’ location wasn’t only difficult for Cold War foes to access, however. Indeed, if the base’s staff planned something as simple as a visit from nearby loved ones, their guests could expect to be put through an extensive inspection process before even being granted entry into Balaklava itself.

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An indication of the lengths the Soviets went to in order to keep Object 825 GTS’ true nature concealed is the fact that not all of the base’s employees even knew of its deadly potential. Certainly, one former worker at Object 825 GTS has since admitted that she was entirely in the dark about its nuclear capabilities at the time that she was there.

The facility operated for more than three decades, functioning successfully throughout the Cold War period and indeed the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. In fact, it continued to run until 1993, when it was finally closed down.

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Over the next decade, though, Object 825 GTS’ echoing empty chambers and mazes of underground tunnels proved too much of a temptation for some. In fact, the cavernous base was plundered and vandalized after being left unprotected.

However, a lifeline for the facility came in 2000 when it was handed over to the Ukrainian military. Two years later, the idea of turning the base into a museum dedicated to the Cold War was approved, and in June 2003 the Balaklava Naval Museum Complex was officially unveiled at the site.

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A number of sections of the former base are now available to investigate, including places where employees lived and worked, a weapons room and a marine pier. Perhaps the standout areas, though, are the opened parts of the submarine canal and the – thankfully vacant – nuclear storage space.

Exploring that nuclear weapons chamber is a particularly solemn experience. The vacant space is harmless in and of itself, but the idea that it was once full with up to 50 deadly atomic warheads is really quite chilling.

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And the underground canal is itself no less thought-provoking. The enormous space is today fitted out with strip lighting, the illuminations playing on the water’s surface – and it’s all too easy to picture the hulking mass of a lethal submarine emerging from the depths. Indeed, the area was conceived to contain seven such vessels.

Further along, a pair of eerie dummies have been decked out in gas masks and protective clothing. Their unsettling presence only enhances the grim atmosphere of the base and inevitably raises questions about mortality and the futility of nuclear warfare.

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In fact, the surprisingly well-maintained nature of the Balaklava Naval Museum Complex also poses one last troubling question: with so much of the base left unopened, could the space formerly known as Object 825 GTS one day be used again for its original destructive purpose?

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