I exit my taxi and walk up a short gravel driveway in the middle of a forest outside of Vilnius, facing nothing but a two-story concrete building and a lot of trees. I cautiously enter the building, where I see several dozen people milling around, all in bulky blue jackets. Soon, a man tells me to deposit my belongings in a small closet and hands me a matching padded jacket. It weighs heavily on my shoulders and the sleeves hang far past my hands. A smell of mustiness overcomes me and as I try to push up the sleeves, they feel grimy and damp.
Thus begins my three hour excursion into a Soviet bunker, circa 1984.
A clean shaven man in an olive uniform stomps into the room, yelling commands in Russian as my companions and I hurry to line up in front of him. We form two lines, perfectly straight, hands by our sides. Even though I know this isn’t real, a feeling of nervousness flushes over me. I try not to turn my head to look directly at our commander lest he notice and single me out.
We soon march outside. Left, right. Left, right. We line up again, single file, behind a white line. As a slight drizzle falls, the red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is raised on a nearby flagpole as the anthem plays loudly behind us. We then count off and are divided into two groups, first and second, before finally marching to our destination.
The bunker was built in 1980 as a backup television station in case of nuclear war with the United States.
We descend a flight of concrete stairs but the officer stops us before we reach the bottom. Instead, we line up on the narrow stairs, one person per step, squished tightly together. I struggle to keep my balance. Our leader shouts more instructions in Russian before asking if anyone doesn’t speak Russian. About 3 or 4 of us tentatively raise our hands, to which the officer simply says “eta vasha problema.” That’s your problem.
Over the next few hours, the officer leads us through a maze of rooms and dark corridors spread out over two levels and 3,000 square meters. Metal planks line the floors, which in turn are covered in peeling turquoise paper. I squint in the dark to see where I am going so I don’t trip. We go up and down the stairs so many times I lose track of what level of the bunker we may be on. Loudly barking dogs seem to be around every turn.
One room has red walls with the words “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live” written in large Cyrillic letters on the wall.
A video plays on a small black and white television set and we dutifully clap when instructed. The officer barks questions at people and chiding them for incorrect responses. Then he starts yelling out sentences for us to clumsily repeat. I have no idea what it means.
Another room has two long tables lined with about 25 small canvas bags. We open the bags to find gas masks and, after soaking cotton balls in alcohol to clean the masks, we are instructed on how to put them on. After donning the mask, it isn’t long before my breathing feels a little strained. The man next to me removes his mask, eliciting an angry response from our leader.
By the time we reach a room with a nurse and basic medical equipment, we are used to the routine of lining up against the wall, hands at our sides. The nurse calls us up one at a time to show her our bellies as she quickly slides what feels like a dull pin across them. She starts singling people out and I am one of the first. She sits me down on a metal stool and holds a device next to one side of my forehead as I feel a vibration. Then she moves it to the other side. She asks what I feel, I answer and she dismisses me.
Minutes later, I am standing in the middle of the room, facing the wall, arms out in front of me, eyes closed
The nurse instructs me to touch the finger on my right hand to my nose, then my left. I succeed, and again get to return to my place by the wall. I look on as she invites three men to do the same, but this time standing on one leg. Then she sits another man down in a dentist chair, shoves cotton in his mouth and revs up a loud drilling machine as she makes like she is going in to drill. A look of panic washes over his face while the rest of us laugh, confident she won’t actually do it.
Each time we enter the corridors, it seems we are urged to move faster and faster. I get nervous that I won’t keep up and will get lost.
We find ourselves in a dark room with a large desk in the middle.
A solitary light shines brightly and I immediately infer that this is an interrogation room. Sure enough, an older man starts barking orders, this time instructing us to keep our hands behind our backs, not just at our sides. He circles around the room, alternating between shouting orders and asking questions. When he comes to me, I don’t understand a word he says but he gently slaps me on the cheek and moves on, not waiting for a response.
Slowly, our numbers start to dwindle as members of the group are singled out for questioning, forced to write “confessions” and then led out of the room by a guard with a large dog.
Eventually, we reunite in the dining hall. Two long tables stand on either side of the room, each set with a newspaper place mat, a small tin cup of tea and a small tin fork. We line up to receive our meals on a narrow tin plate: a piece of bread and one or two large hot dogs with a small dollop of very spicy mustard.
After dinner, we are released from the bunker, ending our brief glimpse into the lives of former Soviet citizens.