Pushing the button – nuclear missile base in Ukraine
Did you know there was a nuclear missile base in Ukraine? One you can actually visit? People generally come to Ukraine to visit Chernobyl but before the infamous nuclear disaster, there were many nuclear weapons kept all over Ukraine, aimed at various western countries (but mainly America…). Now, Ukraine is home to the only one in the world that has been turned into a museum you can visit, at the Strategic Missile Forces Museum (which isn’t a catchy a name really).
Once we found this out, we wanted to visit. I mean, how many people can say they’ve been to a real nuclear missile base? We went to a nuclear bunker back in Odessa on a tour of the Odessa catacombs, but this was even cooler.
There are many tours that can take you to visit the Strategic Missile Forces Museum, which is south of Uman and about 3 1/2 hours from Kyiv. The tours that go to Chernobyl also do trips there, but it’s far for a day trip when you live in a place, so we wanted to do it independently.
A bit of research found a local guide near the base that could help us visit, so when a couple of friends came to visit, off we set.
Here’s Kris’ story of our trip. If you want to know how we visited the nuclear missile base in Ukraine independently, without a tour, it’s at the end.
Back to the 1980s
In 1983, Matthew Broderick – later of Ferris Bueller’s Day off fame – starred in Wargames, a film about a teenager who hacked into computer networks.
No mean feat in 1983. Easier to steal mail really.
I’m pretty sure in 1983 my family didn’t have a phone. But Matthew did. And a massive computer with flashing lights and a monitor that only showed green text. He was cool.
Anyway, after a brief go at changing his school reports using a modem (he actually had to put the handset of his phone ON the modem…….what’s a modem? Google it) somehow, he hacked into the Department of Defense’s nuclear missile system. It’s a logical progression, right?
I guess there weren’t many computerised systems in 1983. I mean, I was born 4 years earlier and my birth certificate is definitely from a badly set up typewriter.
So, after he’d hacked his school…he looked for something else to hack and ended up almost unleashing thermonuclear war on planet Earth.
Memories of the Cold War
These days we complacently see this as some retro sci-fi make-believe, but back in the 1980s, it was a real threat. There was the west and there was the east and both sides had (well….have) nuclear rockets pointed at each other with nervous fingers on buttons.
The whole concept of nuclear weapons and ‘mutually assured destruction’ is mind-bending when you start to think about it.
‘We’ve invested billions in intercontinental rockets to destroy you…if you try to destroy us. But we promise only to do it in retaliation. In which case we’ll all be dead anyway.’
Billions of dollars and roubles on killing each other…when we’re all already dead. Ever get the feeling of futility?
I looked into this, as a Brit, from a tiny country that fiercely defends its right to wield a nuclear threat. Apparently, Britain has it’s nuclear weapons all patrolling the oceans aboard the Trident nuclear submarines….because if Russia wanted to, it could completely ‘neutralise’ the entire United Kingdom in a few minutes. So…no point having land-based rockets.
Russia’s too close for Britain to react to a deployment and Britain’s so small, it would literally be wiped off the planet. Thus, the strategy – well, if you do that, we have submarines that will blow you up in revenge (well, at least a little bit of you anyway).
This is a deeply disturbing thought to me. Imagine being one of the crew on a Trident sub, waiting for the call to launch missiles at Moscow that will herald the end of the world. But mostly just waiting. In a metal box. Under the sea. Does it feel futile? Do you long for the day you get to press the ‘launch’ button to finally get job satisfaction? If a Trident nuclear sub crew member is reading this – please leave a comment (but, please, no military secrets. This isn’t Wikileaks).
Even more disturbingly I also read that there’s a locked safe on each sub with a letter in it, only to be read when the call comes that Britain has been destroyed. The letter is from the current (or, perhaps most recently deceased) prime minister. Who knows what he/she writes in there? This means Boris Johnson recently wrote one.
Allegedly it gives instructions on the circumstances under which the crew should shoot to kill….or contact allies for instructions. So that’s Boris advising them to do what Trump says. Hmm. Frying pan into nuclear fire? Try not to think about it…
Why is there a nuclear missile base in Ukraine?
So 8 years after Matthew Broderick’s adventures in Wargames at the height of the Cold War, everyone made friends (right?). Kinda. Well not exactly, but certainly things changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At which point, in 1991, a third of the USSR’s nuclear warheads were stationed in Ukraine. This presented a problem for everyone. Ukraine became an independent state with lots of bombs. Russia didn’t like this. The west didn’t like this. Ukraine didn’t really like this either. Nuclear missiles literally cost, well, a bomb (sorry..) to maintain and Ukraine had more pressing concerns like a faltering economy and, poignantly, the literal fallout of Chernobyl.
So, fast-forward to 1994 and Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal in something called the Budapest Memorandum where Russia, the USA and the UK signed to agree to assure Ukraine’s national security. France and China signed later, apparently.
Yes….that is political issue now. I’m not getting into it here.
So then, Russia took away the rockets. ‘Thanks, Ukraine. You won’t be needing these anymore. We’ve got your back….’
All the bases were closed. All the missile silos were filled. All the ‘button-men’ made redundant, presumably with glowing (ahem) references to work on nuclear submarines.
Another interesting connection of Ukraine to rockets is the space race. Did you know that the man who helped put sputnick in space came from Ukraine? You can visit his hometown of Zhytomyr and the excellent space museum there.
The Strategic Missile Forces Museum in Ukraine
But one base remained. In a big field near a small town called Uman and a smaller town called Pobuzke, south of Kyiv. The missiles are gone (allegedly), but other than that it’s maintained as it was and is now a museum – the not-so-excitingly named Strategic Missile Forces Museum. And this is where we chose to go one bright January day with our visiting friends, Dan and Heather.
Turns out nuclear missile bases aren’t that easy to get to. Ironic in a way, given that from the press of a button their missiles could be raining hell down on New York within 20 minutes. But we didn’t go by rocket, we went by mashrutka – which is basically a minibus. The rocket tickets were sold out and the landing bit’s a bit bumpy.
But luckily, Kate found an English speaking guide who arranged everything. She told us where to catch the early morning mashrutka and even told the driver we were coming so we had 4 seats reserved. So off we tootled. And tootled. And tootled.
Eventually, we passed through Uman and thought ‘Oo! Nearly there!’. An hour later we were still on the bus and then finally drew to a stop in the middle of a vast, flat field. Our stop. There, towering above a dirt track to the side of the highway was a sign for the museum. We were picked up in a car and taken to the entrance and our waiting guide! She cheerfully welcomed us, surrounded by tanks and missiles on display.
Another unusual day trip from Kyiv is to the ex-President of Ukraine’s opulent home
First stop – the nuclear silo, obviously. That’s underground, by the way…
After descending some steps and walking along narrow corridors lined with pipes we reached a high security door with a tiny lift behind it. The lift went to the control room. Yeah, the ‘button’ room. It was so small we had to do it in turns. Dan, Heather and our guide went first, then me n Kate and the guide. I’m not sure what Dan n Heather got up to, but this is what we found…
At the bottom of a very deep shaft there are 2 rooms on top of each other. The lower one is basically accommodation and the top one the control room. We went to the ‘accommodation’ first – a tiny room with a few bunks and a toilet, a fridge and a microwave. This was apparently for one half of a ‘shift’ to relax in before it was their turn to take the control chairs.
So time for our shift. We climbed a ladder into the ‘cosy’ control room. 2 chairs, 2 control panels and a big board of flashing lights representing the missiles. Kate and I settled in. The big chair was surprisingly comfortable and equipped with a substantial seat belt. Apparently, things can get bumpy during the apocalypse.
The bunker itself is suspended on massive shock absorbers to ‘cushion’ the blow of a nuclear strike, but I imagine the seatbelt helps too. I like to think some reckless nuclear rocket officers declined to wear their seatbelt and their partners tutted and told them they were dicing with danger…as they sat there next to the death button. Speaking of which, the control chairs, as our guide pointed out, were also equipped with ashtrays. Yup, no health n safety in the 1980s…
Pushing the button
So then we got to do a launch. We both had to press buttons together and as we did, the board in front of us lit up – representing the volley of missiles we’d just sent intercontinental to the USA. We paused a few seconds afterwards to listen for reports of a retaliatory strike, but none came. Phew! That’s lucky, because I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt, for one. Perhaps we caught them napping. Sorry USA. I guess we won’t be doing that west coast road trip then…
Stepping outside after the apocalypse
So then we rode the lift back up and were reunited with Dan and Heather….walked the long, echoey corridors and emerged out into the post apocalyptic wasteland above ground. We actually let Heather go out first and, when we were confident there were no mutated super-sized cockroaches, we stepped out into the sunlight too.
Then our guide took us to see the ‘lids’ of the missile silos. Hatches? Lids? Tops? I dunno. The thing that lifts up when the warhead comes out. Interesting fact – the lids originally opened too slowly so they had to be primed with an explosive charge to flick them open. The explosive charge was gunpowder. This struck me as a little comical. A multibillion dollar project to build the most advanced destructive explosive on Earth….and its lid gets opened with a firework. Anyway…
Kris and Dan’s TV Special
After the lids, we toured a post-soviet military graveyard of MiGs and tanks and missile trucks. Which we could climb on. Yes. We could climb on them. Tellingly, when the guide said – ‘You can climb on them if you want’ – Dan and I ran giggling directly to a MiG like small children and leaped on a wing, while Kate and Heather maintained a mature dignity at a distance.
As we posed together on a MiG wing, Dan turned to me and said something along the lines of ‘We look proper Top Gear!’ …. He then quickly corrected himself ‘Err…I meant Top Gun.’ But the damage was done. We are officially more Clarkson and May than Maverick and Iceman…
Then we wandered around a selection of rockets of various destructive capabilities, including ones that could wipe out whole countries. Our guide remained upbeat though and skipped into the indoor museum. There she showed us models of the bunker we’d just been in to give us the bigger perspective. We also saw maps of Ukraine’s previous missile bases and info on their dismantling and removal of the rockets.
All too soon it was time to get on another mashrutka to Uman and our beds for the night – so we were ferried back to the highway where we had time to stand on the windswept plain and contemplate what we’d just seen.
Coming to Ukraine? Read our Ukraine Travel Tips
Reflection on our nuclear experience
The very idea that we were there at a Soviet nuclear missile base, that we’d been in the control room – 3 Brits and a Canadian – would have been utterly unthinkable back in 1983 when that Wargames film came out.
But there we were, behind the Iron Curtain on a grand day out and now about to have a few pints in the hostelries of Uman. We all know that nuclear missiles exist, but it’s just not at the forefront of your mind usually. But a visit to one is fascinating, but also a bit chilling. As retro as it felt, we know that out there in secret locations across the world there are missile bases that are very much active, and nuclear missile subs patrolling the oceans. Literally with our lives under a button.. and we pay taxes to finance them.
We’ve come a long way since the first prehistoric human threw a rock at someone in anger. One of his hairy fellow tribe members should have said ‘Don’t throw rocks at people. These things tend to escalate…..One day that rock will be a thermonuclear warhead that can destroy countries and I’ll have to help fund it whether I want to or not.’ – but I guess no one would have listened.
We waited for 10 minutes, refused a random lift from a man in a knackered looking Lada and then wondered if the bus was coming. I suggested calling our guide to check on their regularity. But then we realised we couldn’t because she’d have no signal because she was at the bottom of a nuclear bunker. ‘Ah yeah.’ We all conceded, with a disturbing level of matter-of-fact. It’s not every day people have that excuse for not answering their phone
How to visit the nuclear Missile Base in Ukraine independently
We took an 8am mrushrutka (minibus) from Kyiv, heading in the direction of Pervomaisk. Leaving from Demiivkyi bus station, it cost 320 UAH each. Our guide, Elena, had phoned the driver and he dropped us off by the big sign for the Strategic Missile Forces Museum just outside Pobuzke.
You can get buses to Uman too, which are more frequent, and then another bus or a taxi to Pobuzke.
From the road, it’s a 1 km walk to the Strategic Missile Museum entrance. Elena sent a driver to pick us up, who we think was a driver from another tour just doing a favour.
Another minibus picked us up from the sign by the road, and dropped us in Uman. This cost 185 UAH. We decided to explore Uman as well as visiting the nuclear missile base in Ukraine so we stayed in Uman overnight. Our return bus was the Autolux VIP bus with big seats and a selection of films to watch, which cost 245 UAH.
Uman can also be visited on the way from Kyiv to Odessa. We lived in Odessa for two years, and have lots of advice on it including what to do in Odessa.
We paid for the entrance to the nuclear missile base, and for Elena to give us a guided tour. This was 120 UAH each for entrance onto the complex, 250 UAH each to go into the control room (and don’t miss that!) and 350/hr for all of us for Elena’s tour.
All in all, visiting the nuclear missile base in Ukraine independently is about half the price of doing a day trip from Kyiv. However, it is more difficult if you can’t speak any Ukrainian or Russian.
If you want to do it with a tour company, there are companies that run the tour from Kyiv, including SoloEast, who Dan and Heather used to visit Chernobyl.
Have you visited the Strategic Missile Forces Base in Ukraine on a tour? Let us know how it was in the comments.
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