The city of Balaclava doesn’t exist. At least it didn’t for a few decades during the Cold War. That likely came as quite a surprise to the thousands of people living there, as well as anyone with a grasp of the rich history the town had leading up to the 1950s when it disappeared. but that didn’t stop the Soviets from essentially wiping it off the map when they realized that the Balaclava harbor was ideally situated to become the new home of their Black Sea ballistic submarine base. Today that base is no longer in service and the town is open once again, offering visitors the opportunity to see a very real piece of Cold War history in a relatively unaltered state.
We approached, whistling the soundtrack and quoting lines from The Hunt for Red October. What else were we supposed to do as two American tourists heading into the heart of what was once a critical component of the Soviet Fleet’s program to annihilate us? Besides, it is a great movie.
The base was carved into the steep cliff which surrounds the Balaclava harbor. More than 100 meters of rock sits atop 5 meters of reinforced concrete, creating a bomb shelter that could hold more than 3,000 souls for 30 days. Subs could enter and leave through the two ends of the tunnel, dug deep enough that they need not surface during their maintenance visits, preventing the Western spy satellites from capturing their movements in and out of the base.
Stepping through the gates of the site brings you quickly in touch with what life was like 50 years ago when the base was in service. A sprawling network of long, cool, sterile halls lined with rails to facilitate moving materiel to and from ships create the city built into the cliff. Even if the base were on lock-down the residents were able to continue working on their submarines, prepping them to venture out and retaliate as needed. The facility included a dry dock for major repairs and a full arsenal of weapons with which the subs were fitted.
And the doors. Oh, the beautiful doors. When building a site designed to withstand a direct hit from nuclear weapons apparently the doors are key. And the Soviets didn’t shy away from making sure their doors would be up to the task. The doors were, quite simply, huge. Huge in that they were tall and wide enough to allow forklifts to drive through. And huge in that they were ridiculously thick. Opening and closing the doors involved large motors, not just a pull handle. They were incredible.
There were a number of exhibits spaced throughout the base. They included model subs, propaganda and even a chunk of a retired submarine, sectioned so you could see just how thick the walls were and how the control systems integrated. It was quite impressive.
There was also an exhibit on the biologic research they performed at the base, training dolphins. The Soviets apparently had assembled a corps of attack dolphins, trained to attach bombs or tracking devices to enemy ships. Crazy stuff.
After walking through the base – the main version of the tour – we opted to take a ride through the tunnel on one of the small pontoon boats which plies the route. This ride replicates the route the subs followed along the long, curved tunnel. And, once again, the doors involved were massive. At either end of the lane were blast doors measuring 18m x 6.5m x 14m and weighing 150 tons. Just ridiculously huge.
The boat tour was guided, a step up from the walking tour. Alas, the guided version was in Russian so we didn’t understand any of it. Fortunately they offered us a translation of the spiel so we could sortof follow along. The opening of the explanation presents one version of history (excuse the grammar; it is theirs, not mine):
The all period after the Second World War is usually characterized as a history of East and West confrontation. The world, divided into two feuding camps, was waiting for the end of ungovernable armament race. All civilized humanity was [s]hocked by an unjustified destruction of two Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th of August, 1945.
The rest of the guide is pretty interesting, going into the detailed spec’s of the facility and the history of its construction, operation and eventual decommissioning.
The base was in operation for only about 30 years. Eventually the subs simply outgrew the space in the channel and it was no longer viable to use the dock for maintenance or arming of the ships. The construction and shutdown added on nearly 20 more to its lifespan.
And now, once again, Balaclava is on the map. Today it is open for the world to see. Once so secret that no one could know the town existed, today the southern end of the channel lies under a bridge that kids jump off of into the water below.
Touring the site is relatively easy to do, even if English is the only language you bring to the visit. There is a guide book sold for a couple dollars at the main ticket booth which explains some of the history and if you opt for the boat tour they have that rather entertaining script translation printed that they’ll give you to follow along with. Total cost for both tours was somewhere around $10/person which is slightly high by Ukrainian standards but still well worth the price. Access to Balaclava from Sevastopol (the closest real city) is quite easy via the Marshrutka buses, taking just over an hour and costing about $0.50.
Read more from this Trip Report under the Ukraine2012 tag here.
- Rolling through the Ukrainian countryside
- Exploring Soviet naval history in Ukraine
- Taking a ride on the Kiev Metro
- Beaching it up in Odessa, Ukraine