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Latvia's Secret Soviet City Turned Ghost Town

The abandoned Soviet-era city comprises 100 acres of abandoned buildings and underground bunkers

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This article originally appeared in The Guardian

The Baltic Times visits the secret defence settlement reclaimed by the government after 20 years of neglect and decay

A complete Lenin mural in the rear foyer of a school in Skrunda-1. Photograph: Duncan Brown

At first glance, the town of Skrunda appears unremarkable. Fields, farms and forests fuse seamlessly with hundreds of small settlements scattered throughout central Latvia.

But just five miles west, the brutalist apartment blocks of Skrunda-1 dominate the horizon. 

It is the most complete example of an abandoned communist-era secret city in Latvia today. Now, after 20 years of decay, Skrunda-1 is entering a new phase of its history. This year the government paid €12,000 to a private company to buy back the town,and announced plans to return half to military use and lease the rest.

During the cold war the Soviet Union created more than 40 secret settlements, usually for military purposes. They were given code-names – a number and the name of a local town – and formed the technical foundations of the Soviet armed forces.

Images of Soviet ghost towns are largely associated with the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, built to house the workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. 

After experiencing one of the most deadly nuclear meltdowns in history, Pripyat was rapidly evacuated and now stands frozen in time. However, the fate of Skrunda-1 – and many other military-industrial towns following the Soviet fall – was much less dramatic.

Skrunda-1 covers 100 acres and is home to underground bunker networks, schools, factories and cold war radars. Photograph: All images by Duncan Brown

An abandoned factory and boiler house - much of the brickwork and piping was stripped from here and other technical facilities before the road entrances were blocked.

Their story is one of frustration and broken promises. The paradox of most post-Soviet ghost towns is that they are too costly to rebuild yet too expensive to demolish. As a result, the once thriving military, scientific and civilian community of Skrunda-1 has drifted from neglect to complete isolation.

One of the school gyms featuring Soviet murals on its walls.

After years of failed auctions, harsh winters, illegal salvage and dilapidation, the Latvian government decided to take back control of the site. Tentative plans included tourism and manufacturing, but the base has so far only seen a return to military use. 

In July the government announced half of the territory would be awarded to the Latvian Army, and Nato troops are reported to have recently used the base for training.

The other half will be leased “for a low price, though with the stipulation that the investor has to develop it – to create jobs and infrastructure in the abandoned city,” a report in LSM.LV said.

Another gymnasium featuring combat training posters.

Cold war heyday

In its prime, when it housed more than 5,000 people, Skrunda-1 played a crucial part in the Soviet Union’s defence strategy. Built around two “hen-house” early-warning radar systems, the town scanned the skies for incoming nuclear warheads throughout the cold war. 

Now the streets, bunkers and barracks are gripped by an eerie sense of desperation. 

Hidden by the dense birch forests, the 100-acre site’s labyrinth of buildings, factories and underground bunker networks include 10 apartment blocks, a supermarket, gymnasium, nursery school and even a nightclub. 

The last resident moved away in 1999 but the artefacts of its previous life are still there – discarded photographs, furniture, newspapers, medicine bottles, toys, soviet-era workbooks and clothing amongst others. 


The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent splintering of the republics, mirrored the disintegration of towns such as Skrunda-1. Major military installations were slowly drained of funding and then abandoned by their inhabitants.

In Skrunda-1’s case, Russia stipulated that it would continue to run the installation for four more years after Russian troops had pulled out of Latvia. The decision infuriated the Latvian Popular Front, who argued that Russia’s presence would undermine the state’s sovereignty. 

The base continued under Russian supervision until 1998, but during this period, the Latvian government decided to address any further concerns by organising the symbolic demolition of Skrunda-1’s iconic radar building. A musical score was even composed to mark the occasion.

In the following years the site was left unguarded for extensive periods of time and Skrunda-1 was stripped of everything of value. Only a shell remained of the city which once played host to a prestigious scientific community. 

‘Victory Begins Here’

Uncertain future

The re-purposing of similar sites across Latvia and the other Baltic states suggests that Skrunda’s potential has been severely underestimated.

The Radio Astronomy Centre in Irbene – north of Ventspils in north-west Latvia – has become an important scientific and cultural location in the country, while the Plokstine Missile Complex at Lake Plateliai in neighbouring Lithuania has been transformed into a cold war museum and eco-education base.


The other major military ghost territory in Latvia, the Aluksne Nuclear Missile Base, has been developed into a tourism site, with paintball among the activities on offer.

It remains to be seen if the Skrunda administration will also seek to harness the history of their enigmatic Soviet legacy in moving forward with the regeneration of the territory.

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