11 Photos of Ukraine's Soviet-Era Nuclear Missile Silo

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© Robin Esrock

It’s 1978. A small, white button protrudes from a control panel. Twenty-four hours a day, an officer monitors it, awaiting a single phone call. When the hotline rings, he places a key into a slot, and turns it clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the button. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads hits a target in the United States. Each warhead vaporizes an area of 120 square miles, along with every living thing inside it. Thousands of similar missiles crisscross the skies above a forest of mushroom clouds. All it takes is one push of a button, located in a command center 100 feet below the Ukrainian countryside.

In the early '90s, a treaty with the United States ensured Ukraine became a nuke-free nation, and 176 former top-secret nuclear missile silos were demolished—save one. Welcome to the Toolbox of Armageddon.

© Robin Esrock

Located a three-hour drive from Kiev, the Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base operated by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who worked at the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale Soviet nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, tested, guarded, and later dismantled.

© Robin Esrock

There are not many places where you can touch the end of the world. This is the SS-18, with a payload of ten 750-kiloton warheads. Each warhead has the potential for 50 times the destructive impact of Hiroshima. Once launched, the 106-foot missile – nicknamed Satan – could fly through a mushroom cloud and travel over 9000 miles seeking its target. There are still hundreds of SS-18s lurking beneath the Russian countryside, although Russia recently announced plans for their replacement. Some scientists believe that a re-equipped Satan is the ideal missile to destroy an incoming asteroid.

© Robin Esrock

It might look green, but it’s just as evil. The R-12 missile was the first Soviet missile with a nuclear warhead, the world’s first mass-produced ballistic missile, and the thorn that pricked the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba was just one of several nuclear near misses. Inside the museum, we learn of several others that took civilization to the very edge. These include a 1983 NATO exercise called Able Archer, which almost triggered a full-blown nuclear war.

© Robin Esrock

Other than several missiles on open display, the countryside location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister.

© Robin Esrock

Command centers were located in blast-resistant silos, buried 12 stories below the ground and protected by a 120-ton concrete cap. Perched on hydraulics, the test-tube shaped silos were designed to be fully operational while the rest of the world exploded above.

© Robin Esrock

A scale model shows how the silo operates. Surrounded by impact-absorbing gravel, the command floor is located on the deepest level. A two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing.

© Robin Esrock

During the Cold War, any unauthorized visitors to this facility would be shot on sight. A former colonel, now a tour guide, leads us to the thick iron door of the command silo. A serious man who once had his finger on the button, the colonel is relieved that the silo’s modern utilization is one of education, not destruction.

© Robin Esrock

The air is chilled as we walk along a narrow tunnel, alongside heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters. A small, gated elevator transports us to the command floor on the 12th level, accompanied by the loud ringing of a rotary phone, just in case we get stuck.

© Robin Esrock

The command center is as musty and bleak as a tomb. An iron ladder leads below to the claustrophobic living quarters, with two bunks and a toilet. No photos or images of outside life were allowed. Officers had to strap themselves into the chairs at all times, and were monitored by closed-circuit cameras. Any officer showing the slightest mental or moral issue was immediately transferred. Not everyone can follow orders knowing they’d literally end the world.

© Robin Esrock

In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if,” but a “when”. The command silo is crammed, narrow, tight, frigid, sterile, and soul crushing. Officers had to remain on constant alert. Life is so far removed down here you’d want to destroy the planet just to relieve the boredom

© Robin Esrock

Pushing this button in 1978 would have triggered a global nuclear war. After seeing the impact of nuclear bombs in a harrowing Hiroshima and Nagasaki exhibit aboveground, and learning about modern nuclear weapons, I just couldn’t bring myself to push it. Even if the button is unarmed, it felt like holding an empty gun to a baby’s head. Could you pull that trigger?

The most distressing part of visiting this fascinating museum is the knowledge that hundreds of similar silos still exist around the world, with officers on duty, awaiting that phone call, ready to follow orders. Even as Russia and the United States work to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.

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