Riga’s best kept secret: the Soviet Bunker
This weekend, I paid a visit to one of the most unique attractions in Latvia: the Secret Soviet Bunker. Situated in the Skalupes forest area, not far from the village of Līgatne and just over an hour outside of Riga, this is the perfect day-trip for students looking for a unique experience. Abandoned at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, the bunker provides a rare insight into Soviet history in Latvia, as well as the experience of the Cold War throughout the Soviet Union.
At a first glance, the Līgatne Rehabilitation Centre seems just like any other spa or elderly care home. Located in a densely forested area, the centre was once a modern facility designed for the nomenklatura, or Soviet political elite, to retreat from daily life and spend time with their families. However, lurking nine metres below the complex lies the unnerving true purpose of the facility: a bunker designed for Riga’s Communist Party Elite in the event of a nuclear attack or event. As we descended into the complex labyrinth of concrete tunnels, one thing that stuck me most was its silence. It’s is a haunting depiction of the Soviet Union’s rapid abandonment of government buildings following its collapse, with desks still cluttered with journals and magazines, now faded with time, and the dark green paint slowly peeling off the walls.
A self-sustaining structure with an oxygen system based upon that of Soviet submarines and still in usage today, the bunker was designed to house up to 250 people for three months in the event of a nuclear attack. Throughout the tour, our guide stressed the importance of secrecy, as officials went out of their way to protect the structure from prying eyes. The oxygen tanks, for example, were delivered painted black, rather than the usual Soviet-mandated sky blue, to keep deliverers in the dark about the true purpose of the structure, and workers were only permitted to work at night. This significantly slowed down construction, which lasted from the the late 1960s and continued until 1982, as similar bunkers appeared throughout the Baltic states.
The bunker itself only lost its secret status in 2003 after it came under the jurisdiction of the Latvian Ministry of Defence and was converted into a museum, with its original technology and records still in place. As a warning, there are still some rooms in which photography is not permitted, due to the continued sensitivity of information left behind.
When looking to visit the bunker, I strongly recommend booking a tour in advance, in either Russian or English. Our tour guide spoke in a mixture of both Russian and English, but tours are available in multiple languages. To get to the village of Līgatne, it is possible to book a private bus tour, but I would recommend a Flixbus, which will take you from the Central Station to the bunker with just one change for around €8. Tours of the bunker itself start from around €17 and there is an incredible gift shop where you can buy authentic gas masks from the Cold War!
Darcie Peters, a student at Liden and Denz Riga.