Latvia and the Nuclear Scare

Nuclear mushroom as shown in the Soviet Latvian Air Defense instructions book

Nuclear mushroom as shown in the Soviet Latvian Air Defense instructions book

On August 6 1945 United States of America dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The world entered a new age – the atomic age. Suddenly the popular slogan of the WWI “the war to end all wars” got a new meaning. The next world war with the use of nuclear war would definitely end all the wars. Or at least as Albert Einstein said: I  do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks! After US lost its nuclear monopoly in 1949 the world society was put in endless nuclear scare. Both superpowers not only spent large resources on nuclear weapons, but also took great time to invest in civil defense. United States civil defense was known for its emergency drills, the Conelrad radio broadcasts and fallout shelter building. While from today’s perspective, all these actions seemed pointless, the USSR was doing just the same. In fact USSR was just as scared from American nukes, as Americans from Soviet. The USSR had its own civil defense units, drills and radio broadcasts. Latvia at this time was under the Soviet occupation and was filled with Soviet troops and rockets. The start of the nuclear war would mean that Riga, Ventspils and Liepaja would be targeted for nuclear bombing. Luckily such event never took place, but people were taught to be prepared just as American citizens.

Before we go into the details about the civil defense in the Soviet Latvia, let’s take a brief look into NATO-USSR nuclear race. US was the first country that managed to build and detonate the nuclear bomb. There were a limited German nuclear attempts on getting the bomb for themselves, but it was halted by lack of resources and Hitler’s disbelief in such weapons. Also many former German scientists, some of them Jewish escaped to US and took part in the  Manhattan Project. USSR knew about the American nuclear program and started their own in 1942. However, their progress was slower and uranium deposits were lacking. When on 1945 in the Potsdam the US President Harry Truman wanted to surprise Joseph Stalin about the US nuclear weapon, Stalin did not show any emotion at all. Truman even thought that Stalin had no idea what he is talking about. But, Stalin was well informed about the Manhattan Project from the very start. There was a ring of spies within the project. While US may brag about their nuclear bomb, they were unaware about the strongest Soviet super weapon – the foreign intelligence.

And it was the Soviet Foreign intelligence that helped Stalin to acquire his own nuclear bomb that was based on American blueprints. While the Soviet scientists insisted to make their own design the chief of the secret service Lavrenty Beria rushed them to build and test the bomb with the stolen US design. On August 29 1949, RDS-1 the 22 kiloton bomb was tested in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. After Americans discovered this on September 23 the nuclear race begun. In 1952 US tested the first hydrogen bomb. Year later Soviets tested their own. During the war in Korea US and USSR was at the closest point to start the nuclear war. While US de iure fought both communist Korea and China, Soviet Union secretly sent pilots against the US counterparts. US general Douglas Maccartur was ready enough to drop the nuclear bomb on China, but he was stopped by president Truman. Some authors suggest that end of his life Stalin himself secretly planned to trigger world war three.

The Nuclear blast wave

The Nuclear blast wave

The situation got even hastier when the Soviets got new leader Nikita Khrushchev, who believed that modern technology can help to defeat the capitalist block. He managed to achieve first hand in the space race: on 1957 Soviets launched first satellite Sputnik -1 in space on 1961 first man in space was Russian Yuri Gagarin. On 1962 Soviets detonated the strongest nuclear weapon the 57 megaton Tzar Bomb. The Western world was scared of the Soviet space advancements and the ballistic rockets. Nikita Khrushchev added tone to the fear with the phrase: “We will bury you!”.

However, the Soviet threat was overestimated: despite the general belief the USSR never had majority of nuclear rockets. US had Atlas D rockets with 14 500 km radius, next E and F rockets were placed in underground silos, that were capable of surviving a preventive strike. Soviet 8K74 rockets had no silos and in the event of nuclear attack they were vulnerable to preventive strike. US managed to make Titan -2 and Minuteman rockets. Americans were also not too concerned about the continental ballistic missiles, because they could attack USSR from East Germany and Turkey and other sites. Soviets could not and that’s why they needed such missile that also could send man in space. While the Soviets bragged about their nuclear submarines of which K-19 was nicknamed “Hiroshima” because its many accidents, Americans could produce two times more more qualitative nuclear weapons. And also the Soviet TU-95 bombers and MIG fighters looked scary. The US could produce dozen times more such weapons. The answer why was simple: US weapons were produced by private companies, while the USSR produced the weapons with 100% state resources.  And because of this USSR was unable to diverse their civilian production and ultimately ruined their economy. The Cold war a losing game for the Soviets from the very start.

However, both sides did not understand this. US had very scarce intelligence information about the USSR military potential, their greatest achievement was the Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky who gave a precise account about the Soviet forces and the approaching Carribean Crisis. However, the eccentric threats by Khrushchev the shoe beating noise was a good point for the American weapons companies to make more rockets. And the Soviet Union drastically followed them all the way until Gorbachev even after the Cuba fiasco in 1962. And Civil defense had to be always ready in case of the zero hour.

Diagram showing how home fallout shelter should look

Diagram showing how home fallout shelter should look

Civil Defense had headquarters  in every major city. A special civil defense committee was in order. It had many departments, communication, medicine, supplies, engineer, transportation ect. The CD also worked in regional level. In case of nuclear attack, people were instructed to have well stocked supplies. A blackout was required. To protect homes from radioactive fallout all cracks had to be sealed. In case of evacuation, the people would be informed by local authorities. Only most vital belongings had to be taken to fallout shelters. The Air attack alarm was to be issued by radio and sirens. All electricity and heating had to be shut down. Only the battery powered radios could be used.

Instruction how to get out of the damaged shelter

Instruction how to get out of the damaged shelter

After the strike wave of the nuclear weapon had gone away, people were instructed to wear the protective suits. If they weren’t any of them, noses and mouths had to be covered with everything by hand. Special instructions were given incase if the fallout shelter had craved in and people are unable to get out.

Most scariest part was the radioactive fallout. All factories, schools, hospitals and other facilities were supplied with gas masks. Also special medical kits were produced in the thousands. Medics had dosimeters. Radio stations and sirens would warn about the nuclear fallout danger. People were also instructed about the chemical attacks. Civil Defense instructions were present in every school, university or college. Preschool children were scared about the possibility of the nuclear strike. Later Civil Defense was a compulsory subject in most educational facilities. Special books were issued and spread among the civilians.

Instruction of how to use the dosimeter

Instruction of how to use the dosimeter

However, on 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded all these well thought out instructions went into chaos. The sheer truth is that when the real disaster strikes only a few knows what to do. People were thought of how to protect themselves from NATO nuclear strikes, but nobody expected the breakdown of their own nuclear technology.

On 1991 when USSR collapsed there was 980 Civil Defense structures. Most of them fell into private hands and used as basements. Many of them became abandoned and used by homeless people. Now there are 311 Civil Defense structures remaining, 177 belongs to private owners, 46 municipal authorities and 88 state authority. All of the remaining fallout and bomb shelters need serious renovation. They are flooded with water, has no electricity and filtration system is outdated. Large sums of money are needed to renovate these buildings. Only 5% of the Latvian population could take shelter in them.

Even if the nuclear scare is long over (or is it?) today the Latvian government has done little to improve civil defense. Most shelters are abandoned. The large underground bunker in a Grīziņkalns park in Riga is used by the DEAC data center. The top secret Soviet government Bunker in Līgatne is used as a museum. A nuclear attack is not the only real threat to Latvian population. The changing weather and storms are the lightest part. A recently built fertilizer plant in Riga that uses the same design as recently exploded plant in Texas, in theory could destroy large area of the city. Nuclear plants are projected in Kaliningrad, Russia and Belarus. And the possibility of war cannot be ruled out completely in these turbulent times. Today the Civil Defense is seldom taught in schools, although I had a special Civil Defense subject at the University.

Gas masks in case of fallout

Gas masks in case of fallout

Under the Soviet occupation Latvia had nuclear rockets within its territory. Rockets were placed in Zeltiņi, in Alūksne district, there were many nuclear arms in the Soviet airfields. The Early warning radar at Skrunda tried to locate the enemy rockets before approaching the USSR. Despite the US declared support for Latvian independence its unlikely that Latvia would be spared in the nuclear war. According to  http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap3d/ if Riga would be hit by US Titan II warhead of 9 Megatons 703,580 people would perish, 132,560 would be injured.  Radioactive fallout could even reach Leningrad, (St. Petersburg). That would be ultimate destruction of this country. Nuclear power is the Pandora box that man has opened and he must do something to prevent it from destroying its creator.

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