Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

Busting out Stalin in Bedford, Virginia

06/14/2010

Commemorating WWII can be tricky, as the administrators of the National D-Day Monument in Bedford, Virginia recently found out. They recently revealed a bust of Stalin as part of the large narrative monument, and this has some people up in arms for what they believe is the glorification of a tyrant.

It is undeniable that Stalin’s involvement in WWII turned the tides for the Allies and it’s doubtful if the Nazi Axis would have been defeated without the Red Army. But including a bust, and quite a Soviet-styled one at that, of a mass murderer who purged the Red Army during WWII and sent soldiers who had been captured as POWs by the Nazis to the Gulag at a national monument to D-Day? Questionable.

This May marked 65 years since Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII for all you Westerners out there), fanning the flames of the controversy surrounding the Man of Steel. From the Stalinobus cruising the streets of St. Petersburg, to debate over Stalin billboards going up in Moscow, to a movement in Ukraine to erect a statue honouring Stalin as the unifier of the country, there are many different opinions on how to deal with Stalin in a post-Soviet world. Re-writing history is something of a Soviet past time, one that has carried on to the post-Soviet era. As they say: Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.

In an age where attempts to erect monuments to Stalin in the former Soviet Union are met with rabid protest, it seems unreasonable and illogical to erect such a monument in North America. But I’m all for accurate representation of history, and perhaps the bust is contextualized in such a way that Stalin’s role can be properly understood. Until I see it for myself, I’m going to reserve judgement. In the meantime, here is a short piece on the sculptor who created the controversial monument, published on the D-Day Memorial’s website.

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Cold War technology so retro it’s modern.

03/24/2010

Four years ago the U-2 bomber was slated to be retired. Originally designed to find Soviet missiles (it was photographs of taken by U-2’s that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis), this piece of Cold War technology has found new life as a reconnaissance aircraft that can outperform drones used by the US missions in Afghanistan. According to this article in the New York Times the updated sensors in the U-2 bomber can detect slight disturbances in soil, indicating the possible presence of mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), take panoramic photos that often reveal footpaths used by insurgents and can even intercept cell phone signals that would ordinarily be blocked by the mountainous terrain.

Pretty remarkable for a piece of Cold War technology. One major downside, though, is that the pilots have to wear space suits and eat their meals through tubes because of the crazy altitudes they fly at.

I wonder when they’ll find a re-use for the poison-tip umbrella.

Soviet Town for Sale: the life and times of Skrunda-1

02/25/2010

Inspired by this article: For sale: one communist-era ghost town

Occasionally after a research trip I spend a month or two in Latvia at a translators’ and writers’ house in the small city of Ventspils, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. One afternoon last winter Ieva, one of the administrators at the house, and I climbed into her green Lada Zhiguli and drove out into the Latvian countryside. I’d been talking to Ieva about my fascination with abandoned Soviet-era military sites — the shores of the Baltic made up one of the borders of the USSR and were heavily fortified — and she thought I should see the abandoned city of Skrunda-1.

The drive took about an hour. We travelled along a narrow highway through thick pine forests then made a right hand turn on a marginally paved road that led towards the radiological observatory, visible from the highway. Part of the site was dismantled in 1994 (the radar) and what remains looks like a giant satellite dish and is currently used by Latvian scientists at the International Radio Astronomy Centre. During Soviet times it was part of the early warning defence system and is rumoured to have been used to intercept communications of all sorts.

It is possible to tour the Radio Astronomy Centre but no one was around so we couldn’t go inside and climb to the top of the dish. Instead we got back into the Zhiguli and drove about two kms back towards the highway to the site of the town. About 5,000 people lived and worked in this secret city during Soviet times. There was a chain over the entrance but we just stepped over it. A couple of young Latvian guys were tearing down a building nearby. Ieva asked them what they were doing. They pointed at the bricks piled neatly at the edgs of the access road — “Selling bricks.” During the late 1990s, this site was being considered for an amusement park but now, according to the workers, the crumbling ruins were going to be torn down and allowed to be rehabilitated slowly by nature. According to them the site is quite polluted with heavy metals and leaked oil and petroleum.

We asked if we could explore the buildings. They just shrugged.

All the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. Any metal objects of any value had long been stripped. This is the case in most of these military installations; scrap metal equals money. There were many broken windows and a lot of evidence of squatters and parties. Racist graffiti, of course. And a lot of faded murals. It was eerie and beautiful and sad. Most of the people who lived here were kicked out very suddenly in 1994 when the Russian military was ordered out of Latvia. A few hundred stayed for four more years to manage the site, but it was fully abandoned in 1998. According to Ieva, many of the apartment blocks, buildings of reasonable quality, were abandoned with furniture and appliances intact. Something could have been done with the infrastructure, but there was no organization, no money, no foresight.

Skrunda-1 was sold to a Russian company last month. There have been rumours that it will be turned into a huge pig farm or a large factory of some kind.

Whatever ends up on that location, it’s going to cost a lot of time, energy and money to remove this relic. Multiply this story by hundreds of kilometres of border land to be protected, throw in the Stalin Line and the Molotov Line and you’ll get a sense of just how militarized the former Soviet region was, and how much clean up there remains to be done.