It’s 1978 and American analysts are scanning reconnaissance images of territory in the north of the Soviet-controlled Republic of Lithuania. Suddenly something out of the ordinary is spotted in a woodland clearing. It doesn’t take long to figure out that what’s been uncovered is nothing less than a top-secret nuclear missile base.
As we’ve said, the base was in the Republic of Lithuania, an independent country today that most certainly does not harbor nuclear weapons. So why was there a Russian missile base on Lithuanian soil back in 1978? The answer to that lies in the history of Lithuania and its relationship with the U.S.S.R. during the 20th century.
The Republic of Lithuania gained its independence in 1918, having previously been under the control of imperial Russia. But in 1939, an expansionist Hitler had cast his beady eye on the nation. The Nazis annexed some Lithuanian territory in March of that year. Lithuania now found itself sandwiched between two hostile powers, with the Soviets to the east and the Nazis to the west.
Then in October 1939, the country was left little choice but to agree to the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty. The Russians now moved 20,000 of their soldiers into Lithuania and established five army outposts. Naturally, this proved just the start of Russian interference.
As June 1940 rolled around, the U.S.S.R. demanded the dissolution of the Lithuanian government and unfettered access to the country for Soviet troops. With Lithuania already occupied by those soldiers who had arrived earlier in the year, the Lithuanian government’s hand was forced. The country’s leader President Smetona went into exile and 200,000 more Soviet soldiers flooded into the country.
However, this first Soviet occupation of Lithuania was to prove short-lived. In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and now Lithuania fell under the Nazi jackboot. After four years of suffering – including the murder of more than 120,000 Jews – Lithuania was finally liberated from the Nazis in 1945.
Yet hopes of independence in the wake of the Nazi defeat were quickly dashed. The Soviets quickly re-occupied the country, with symbols of Lithuanian independence banned and many natives deported to Siberia. Some locals fought a guerilla war against the communists, with as many as 20,000 resistance fighters killed in the years that followed. But to begin with, this resistance was in vain.
So as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned, Lithuania with its puppet government was their fiefdom to do with as they pleased. And they did have a particular purpose for one piece of Lithuanian real estate in what is now the Žemaitija National Park. A piece of secluded woodland was to play its part in the Cold War between the Russians and the Americans.
The Cold War started almost as soon as the Second World War had ended. During the global conflict, the communist Russians and capitalist Americans had been able to find common cause. They had united in the fight to crush Hitler’s Germany and the other Axis powers.
But once the war was over, the two nations soon remembered the ideological and geopolitical questions that had previously divided them. What’s more, the Cold War took on a distinctly hotter feel after August 1949. In that month, the Russians successfully tested their first nuclear bomb. The Americans, of course, already had such weapons and had used them against Japan at the end of the Second World War.
As nuclear arsenals on both sides grew, the world soon enough found itself in a position of what came to be known as “Mutual Assured Destruction” also known by its apt acronym, MAD. This deterrence strategy relied on the concept that if a nuclear war started between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., both nations would be utterly destroyed. Not to mention most of the rest of the world.
The MAD doctrine posited that because each side knew a nuclear war would lead to complete annihilation, neither would use the weapons. And to date at least that theory has proved to be robust. But possessing the weapons alone was not enough – each of the Cold War combatants needed effective means of delivery of the warheads, too.
Crucially, both the Russians and the Americans needed to have bases located in places that would allow each to attack the other effectively. And that’s where the clearing in the forest of Lithuania’s Žemaitija National Park came in. For the Eastern bloc, Plokstine represented an ideal place to locate a missile launch site.
As we’ve seen, as far as the Soviets were concerned they could do whatever they liked in the region thanks to its puppet government. And so in 1960 construction of the new underground nuclear missile base started. The selected location was among the wooded terrain of northern Lithuania.
The site for the new base was very much fit for purpose. Sparsely populated, the area in the Plokstine Forest was the ideal place for a highly secret project. The nearest town of any size, Plungė, was at least a 30-minute drive away. The Soviets gave cash payments to local farmers whose land was needed for the silos.
The other attraction of this particular Lithuanian location was that a selection of strategically important targets would be within range of its missiles. Warheads could be targeted on all of the European members of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Still in place today, NATO is the alliance of countries opposed to Russia and the Eastern communist bloc.
A workforce of 10,000 soldiers, many from the neighboring Soviet state of Estonia, was drafted in for the construction project. Incredibly, the men worked with hand tools to excavate the enormous pits needed to house the underground base. This monumental task took between six and eight months to accomplish.
The workers dug four deep holes to house the missiles while a fifth excavation housed the services needed to operate the base. These included electric generators, communications equipment and even recreational amenities for the soldiers who would be manning the underground site. A range of buildings and leisure facilities were also built above ground.
Two timber structures housed the Plokstine soldiers and there was also a canteen. Nine officers and 22 soldiers were on duty at any one time and this complement was rotated every 72 hours from another 320 officers and soldiers based at a garrison town near the missile silos. Among the variety of equipment stored at the base were two 80-foot cranes used to load the missiles into their silos.
In 1963, some three years after the start of construction, the base with its web of connecting tunnels became operational. The soldiers who manned the base are believed to have been from the Soviet’s 79th Guards Missile Regiment. The majority of the men were actually there to guard the base.
A high-powered electric fence surrounding Plokstine enhanced its security. This fence operated at a voltage of 220 in normal circumstances. But the power could be increased to a devastatingly lethal 1,700 volts if required. Supplies at the underground section of the base meant it could operate independently with no external help for up to 15 days.
The tunnels and command center underground could be hermetically sealed in the event of an emergency and the operating staff could survive for three hours in those circumstances. That would give plenty of time to blast off a retaliatory launch of missiles if NATO ever attacked, or to launch a first strike.
Plokstine’s weaponry consisted of eight R-12 Dvina missiles, each equipped with a nuclear warhead. At any one time, four of the missiles would have been deployed in the four chimney-like silos which had a depth of up to 110 feet. The tops of the silos were capped with concrete domes which could be moved on rails.
The R-12 Dvina, known to NATO as the SS-4 Sandal, was a ground-to-ground missile powered by a single-stage rocket with four engines. Potential targets for the 75-foot missiles, which had an operational range of around 1,600 miles, included London, Paris and Istanbul. Scandinavian cities were also within range as were those in West Germany and Spain.
And Plokstine played its part in one of the major flashpoints of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Personnel from Plokstine and another nearby nuclear missile base, Sateikiai, were involved in the deployment of some of the missiles in Lithuania to Cuba in September 1962.
In conditions of great secrecy, the missiles were loaded on to transporters at night. A passenger railway ran near the bases and when trains approached, the soldiers would stop work and douse all lights. The nuclear weapons were taken to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol and shipped to Cuba from there.
When the missiles were deployed in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, it precipitated a dangerous crisis in the relations between America and the Soviets. Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro, had asked for the missiles as a deterrent to any further invasion attempt by the Americans after the abortive Bay of Pigs operation the previous year.
A tense stand-off between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. lasted for 13 days in October 1962. Many historians believe that this was the closest the Cold War came to turning into a nuclear armageddon. Were it not for an 11th-hour agreement between the two superpowers, missiles from sites like Plokstine could have rained down on western Europe, causing unimaginable destruction and death.
Eventually, the Soviets led by Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba. In return, America’s President John F. Kennedy gave an undertaking that there would be no further attempts to invade Cuba. U.S. missiles that had been deployed in Turkey and aimed at Russia would also be removed. The crisis was over and the world breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Fortunately, as we know, no missiles were ever launched from the Plokstine site or indeed from any other nuclear base during the years of the Cold War. And in fact, the nuclear weapons were removed from Plokstine in 1978, the very year when the U.S. had first pinpointed the location of the secret base there.
Today the Žemaitija National park where the old Plokstine base is located is a tranquil place graced by some outstanding scenery. It’s home to a wide variety of wildlife including elk, lynx and otters not to mention 185 species of bird, many of them rare. Visitors can enjoy hiking and cycling there, as well as boating on Lake Plateliai.
And the park also houses an extraordinary museum. Although the Plokstine base was abandoned in 1978, a new purpose for it was found in 2012. The old nuclear facility is now the Cold War Museum. Before we find out what’s on offer at the museum, it’s worth a quick detour to catch up with what happened to Lithuania after the Soviet base shut back in the late 1970s.
When we last looked at Lithuania’s situation, it was suffering under the Soviet yoke with a communist puppet government. But things began to change towards the end of the 1980s as the iron grip of the Soviets over its satellite states began to loosen.
Lithuania’s independence movement gathered momentum and in 1988, Sajudis, Lithuania’s reform movement, was established. Then in December 1989, Lithuania’s communist party separated itself from the Soviet Union’s communists. The party’s next move was to voluntarily give up its completely dominant position in Lithuanian politics.
And then on March 11, 1990, Lithuania became the first of the former Soviet countries to proclaim its independence, in a move unsurprisingly opposed by the U.S.S.R.. The Soviets countered by putting an economic squeeze on the country and backing a coup attempt in January 1991. This was roundly defeated by a popular uprising, and Lithuania’s freedom was secured.
So it makes perfect sense that a museum commemorating the Cold War should be located in Lithuania, since it was one of the many eastern European countries that suffered grievously under the Soviet dictatorship. It’s a reminder to Lithuanians and tourists alike of the deprivation of liberty that the Lithuanians were forced to endure.
In a 2015 article for National Geographic Traveller magazine, writer Andy Jarosz described the experience of visiting the museum. “But it’s under the ground where the park’s darkest secrets lie,” he wrote. “Equipped with an audio guide, I’m taken through a series of five heavy, airtight metal doors, built to withstand a nuclear blast.”
“Soon I’m left alone in the command center of the former Soviet base, where men would work around the clock doing little other than waiting for the command from Moscow to launch their missiles,” Jarosz continued. He goes on to outline exhibits describing the Cuban Missile Crisis and the huge tanks that would have provided the fuel for the missiles if they’d been launched.
But for Jarosz, the final thing he saw at the museum, the preserved silo mentioned earlier, was by far the most harrowing. It’s the only one of the four launch silos that was not damaged or flooded after the base was abandoned and looters came to strip it of scrap metal.
“I lean over and stare deep into the hole,” Jarosz wrote, “pondering the fact that given a different chain of events in the 1970s, a missile might well have been fired from here that would have brought my life, and that of millions of others, to a premature end.” A sobering thought indeed.