Thankfully, the base’s underground rooms and tunnels were never used for their intended purpose. Instead, as a museum, they serve as a chilling reminder of the dangerous brinkmanship of the Cold War era.
Žemaitija National Park holds its fair share of natural attractions and is a great place for hiking and cycling. It’s on the main route for migrating birds, which squawk loudly as they fly in formation high above Lake Plateliai. Elk and occasionally lynx are spotted in the surrounding forest and a 50ft-high metal observation platform affords great views of the park.
But it’s under the ground where the park’s darkest secrets lie. Equipped with an audio guide, I’m taken through a series of five heavy, air-tight metal doors, built to withstand a nuclear blast. Soon I’m left alone in the command centre 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.
In place of telephone lines from the Kremlin there’s now a Cold War exhibition, with noisy video clips and maps telling the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis and telling in graphic detail just how close we came to a global catastrophe in 1962. There’s a copy of a list showing US targets within the USSR, with the missile base at Plokstine highlighted as one of the places on the must-nuke list. The stories within the exhibition are gripping, despite having the voice of Nikita Khrushchev inexplicably dubbed in a thick Yorkshire accent.
In the nearby communications room there’s a model of an operator who’s connected to a 50ft-long cable. His job was to do nothing all day except listen to the scrambled signals from Moscow. There was no time for a break while on duty. The lengthy extension lead allowed him to go to the toilet without missing an all-important order to roll back the silo covers and prepare for launch.
Deeper still in the bowels of the base are giant tanks in which oxidising liquid and fuel were stored, ready to be fed into the missiles at a moment’s notice. There are gyroscopic systems that look every bit like the 1960s technology they were, yet combined with a precise launch angle (a tolerance of no more than two seconds of arc was permitted) they’d be able deliver a missile with deadly precision. Highly impressive technology, if you put the resulting horrors aside.
The most chilling part of the visit is saved until the end, when we enter a small door into the silo. I lean over and stare deep into the hole, 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.
It’s a relief to emerge back into the bright sunshine. On a small platform, I look around at the dense woodland and hear another noisy flock of birds pass high overhead. It’s just your typical remote forest, save for the four circular domes poking out of the grass.