Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Germany. In which is explored an abandoned military complex and presented a hardly known Cold War episode.
Germany, spring of 2011
today I’m writing to tell you of a most surreal excursion! Almost some kind of a trip ‘through time’, but I’m actually not quite sure whether to ideologized past or a post-apocalyptic future …
Somewhere at a forest edge about 100 kilometres north of Berlin there is a dirt track leading deeper into the woods. The nearby small village’s name Vogelsang translates as “birdsong” but it is dead silent as we set off to follow that path, taking a 3-kilometre march through the woods. Soon tree-shadows were swallowing us completely; the sunny spring midmorning fades as we entered a place seemingly detached from the rest of the world. The only other living creatures we encounter on our way are hordes of mosquitoes swarming out from a breathing morass – conceivably trying to rout out any possible intruder. Squat pines lurking in the shadows, apparently guarding a skew iron gate they’re only barely hiding.
As we carefully pushed through the wide open gate, no sentinel emerges from the nearby guard-house, stopping us inquiring to know where we’re headed. This post was long abandoned, the building fallen into disrepair. As was the rest of the site now opening ahead of us. Concrete roads, cracked and beaten, are alluring us to come closer, to risk a look at these derelict houses peeping out of the scrub. And there are more buildings among the trees in a distance, open plazas underneath the undergrowth, yet more roads and tracks. There is a whole town in these woods. An abandoned town. This is the other Vogelsang. The one with a sinister story to tell. And we were about to keep track of it.
Let me tell you about this ‘town in the woods’ which once started out as rather small barracks in the course of stationing allied troops in defeated Germany after World War II, but it soon became one of the largest Red Army garrisons outside of the Soviet Union. Up to 15,000 people once lived here in Soviet Фогелзанг hidden in the woods – a completely autarkic Russian small town; can you imagine? Among the eerily silent ruins soon we were stumbling upon the remains of everyday-life long gone.
There was the mandatory culture centre and theatre. Shrubby pines clinging to crumbling stairs, trying in vain to bar access. Fruitless, of course, as we found our way into the gloomy lobby with its magnificent curved stairs; the stage, however, dusty and dull looking down into a taciturn auditorium.
Garbage and shattered coffeehouse mementos were gathered behind blind and smashed windows of a former café around the next corner which was – of all things! – flanked by a concrete mural depicting Lenin and Red Army tanks (setting the scene right there). A nearby cinema was barely a shadow of its former glory: Half of the roof collapsed into the hall, the screen long vanished and what’s remaining fluttering in tatters, seating rows buried underneath rubble and debris.
We were passing a Magasin, the Russian equivalent of your neighbourhood supermarket – cleared long ago, of course. A gymnasium’s parquet flooring was cracking, its wall paint and paintings fading; a basketball hoop broken and left behind useless.
There was a colourful kindergarten and in the nearby school (our steps echoing in empty dark hallways; doors slamming on the upper floor – quite an eery atmosphere, I can tell you), wall charts in a classroom still teach the Cyrillic alphabet – if one would care to take the time.
But most of the buildings and building complexes we came upon during this excursion through a ghost town clearly seem to have been billets once – soldiers’ quarters of all kind: timber houses with tiled stoves for higher officers; large dormitories, shared lavatories, and potbelly stoves for rankers (metal-grilled windows delivering a certainly clear message). Administration offices in brick buildings. Empty garages and plant floors. The civilian part of town with facilities suited for families could hardly hide the fact that this was indeed a military complex.
I looked up some of it’s history and guess, you’ll find it as interesting as I did, my friend. Military staff of Red Army’s 25th tank division and several armed service branches were stationed there at Vogelsang; among them motorized infantry and – of peculiar interest to this whole story – tactical missile troops. You probably already get the picture … Bunkers covered in sand and concrete platforms in the woods surrounding the whole complex are adding to a peculiar chapter in Cold War’s history. One even East German officials were not informed about back then. Between 1959 and 1960 (and thus years prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis!), Soviet Union for the first time ever deployed nuclear warheads including launch vehicles outside its own state frontiers. Nuclear warheads! There, in Vogelsang. These missiles with a range of 1,200 kilometres could easily reach western urban centres (the distance to London, for instance, would have been just about 1,000 kilometres; I’m having a look at the map right now) as well as NATO facilities. However, according to military records, these weapons were withdrawn only a few months later in a hurry – for political reasons, as is said. Yet rumour has it that in 1961 newer nuclear missiles, now capable of covering the distance of 2,000 kilometres (!) were stationed there again.
I’m pretty sure, the both of us are not the only ones rather glad that the chapter on Cold War is closed in history books these days. In 1994 – after almost 40 years of Russian presence in (East) Germany – troops were pulled out from Vogelsang just as the other bases there. Garrisons were left, military complexes abandoned, and buildings decaying. Cold War military history is more and more fading into the background. Nature is slowly retrieving substance and territory. Where soldiers once marched, now deer, boars, and raccoons are roaming. But at least in Vogelsang, well – the other Фогелзанг, you know what I mean – this eerie silence and deep slumber is interrupted by the noise of heavy demolition machinery and workers nowadays. That ‘town in the woods’ is being torn down slowly. But Vogelsang was was quite huge, so it might take some time to make it vanish and all forgotten completely …