Inside The Haunting Ruins Of A Secret Soviet Submarine Base
By Chris Shackleton
On a map, Bechevinskaya Bay looks like the end of the world. Cut off from civilization by miles of mountains and ice, this area sits on the eastern side of Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula, far from any of the country's great cities: indeed, the nation's capital, Moscow, lies nearly 7,000km to the west. But look closely enough and you’ll find remnants of secret Soviet settlers. And their ghosts still haunt the shores of this barren region.
All over Russia’s great expanse you will find once-thriving settlements now lost in the mists of time. Many of these towns – established as industrial satellite hubs in remote regions – were once home to busy communities of workers and their families. Now, they have been forgotten – left to rot and rust in the open air.
Some of these towns were abandoned because what made them useful suddenly disappeared. The Siberian citizens of Mirny, for example, fled when the town’s colossal Mir diamond mine dried up. Others had a more sinister explanation for being forgotten. Most infamously, Pripyat in modern-day Ukraine – then a Soviet satellite state – was left to be reclaimed by nature after the catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown made the area dangerously uninhabitable.
But for most of these settlements there is a common reason why these towns no longer exist – they no longer serve a purpose. After the fall of the USSR in 1991 both Russia and its associated states entered into a period of economic decline. In the new economic reality the authorities could no longer afford to keep open manufacturing spots that had been deemed vital during the Cold War.
One of these settlements was called Bechevinka, home of the military facility Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky-54. Located on the eastern coast of Russia, the community was originally built to house workers of an adjoining submarine base. And as with many of the Soviet Union’s military facilities, its existence was kept top secret.
Keeping the facility hidden, though, was less difficult than you might imagine. Stationed 75 miles away from the nearest city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Bechevinka was isolated from the region’s main population. What’s more, reaching the Kamchatka Peninsula itself requires an eight-hour flight from Moscow. In terms of accessibility, Bechevinka may as well have been built on the moon.
If remoteness alone wasn’t enough of a deterrent, then the region’s terrain would amply dissuade all but the most committed of explorers. Dubbed the Land of Fire and Ice, the Kamchatkan terrain is dotted with volcanoes, glaciers and hot springs which make conventional travel all but impossible. So unforgiving is the landscape that at certain times of year, access to the town was only possible via sea or air.
Even though the area was almost unreachable, its location had certain practicalities that made it perfect for a military base. Throughout the Cold War, submarines would regularly be stationed off the west coast of America in case an actual conflict suddenly erupted. With Bechevinskaya Bay roughly 3,000 miles from the U.S. shoreline, this made it relatively accessible for recurring patrols.
When the facility was founded in the 1960s, the Cold War was dangerously close to turning into a full-scale conflict. In 1962 tensions between East and West almost reached breaking point when U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba. And the nervous nations’ mutual fears could have come to fruition if a subsequent American naval blockade had turned deadly.
Because of this ominous atmosphere, the base at Bechevinka would grow beyond what it was originally set out to achieve. Initially commissioned as a pitstop for vessels moving along the Northern Sea Route, the facility soon caught the attention of a commanding officer in the Soviet Navy. And he became convinced of the site’s potential for a full-scale naval outpost.
As great as this idea seemed on paper, the Commander-in-Chief’s vision had its flaws. And while Bechevinka’s location excelled in range and secrecy, it lagged behind in certain other respects. For one, the bay that acted as the base’s mouth into the sea wasn’t exactly perfectly suited to keeping war-ready submarines on standby.
Lying under the waters of the bay was a sandbank that prohibited the movement of vessels into the sea. To counter the constant beaching of their submarines, officials created a canal for their boats to follow. But this channel would regularly fall prey to the bay’s tide and collapse. Often subs would become grounded anyway despite following the stipulated course.
Still, these issues did little to deter the plans of the Soviet top brass. And by the following decade, the facility would become a larger port with the capacity to shelter more subs. In 1971 the site welcomed the Navy’s 182nd Submarine Brigade and a dozen of their vessels would go on to call Bechevinka their home.
Of course, with this influx of traffic came a greater demand for workers to visit the town. But with the nearest settlements accessible only by sea and air, it was virtually impossible – as well as undesirable for reasons of confidentiality – for anyone to commute to the area. And so it became necessary to create dwellings for the town’s employees as well as their families.
At first, temporary accommodation was built on the shore as well as floating lodgings to house the submarine crews. In time, though, more permanent residences were built in the surrounding area. By the time construction had finished on the community’s residential hub, Bechevinka had eight housing blocks in which its workers could live.
That’s not to say that these dwellings were a veritable Eden, though. Like much of the architecture of the Soviet Union, the apartment blocks in Bechevinka were built with function and uniformity in mind. As such, these cold and brutalist buildings – identifiable only by an impersonal numbering scheme – have the appearance today of imposing concrete monoliths rising out of the ground.
As esthetically uninviting as these dwellings were, the planners of Bechevinka went to lengths to make the settlement as habitable as possible. To that end, the town made room for families who would be spending countless years in isolation. So as to educate a new generation of workers, for example, a school and kindergarten was established within Bechevinka’s limits.
On top of this, amenities like a market and a post office were erected to ensure day-to-day life could carry on as normal. There was even a hostel for visiting friends and family to stay in. But with only one supply run a week to ferry goods from the nearest port, everyday life in Bechevinka was still far from ordinary.
Keeping the residents entertained was also an aspect of daily life considered by the planners of Bechevinka. So citizens could stave off boredom, a club was constructed which could be used for social gatherings and orchestra recitals. Alas, this entertainment hall wouldn’t remain a permanent fixture: in 1987 the building which housed it suffered irreparable fire damage.
For all the facilities meant to give the townsfolk a sense of normality, Bechevinka was still primarily a military base. And in close proximity to the residential blocks sat a barracks and commandant’s office. Elsewhere, one could find the generator house supplying the town with electricity and the warehouses supplying that with combustible diesel.
Beyond the city itself there were additional military traces that demonstrate how seriously the Soviets took the base’s secrecy. Dotted around the hills of Bechevinka, armored lookout posts were constructed to detect and deter any potential attackers. As if the area’s remoteness wasn’t enough, these defenses turned the already inaccessible city into a veritable fortress.
But such measures were ultimately redundant in a region as untraversable as Kamchatka. So impassable were the surrounding mountains that any potential saboteurs would have to wait for a strong snow in order to reach the base by Ski- Doo. As for the residents of Bechevinka, a helicopter was their only means of escape should things go terribly wrong.
In spite of the town’s inaccessibility during the Soviet era, Bechevinka has seen a surprising wealth of visitors in the modern age. Many – such as fishermen – are more attracted to the fish-fertile waters of Bechevinskaya Bay rather than the settlement itself. Meanwhile, the surrounding hills transform into excellent skiing slopes during the colder months – much to the joy of winter sports enthusiasts.
But aside from these determined travelers, Bechevinka has attracted another set of tourists inspired by the town’s ghostly ruins. Since the settlement’s slide into disrepair, the outpost has become a haven for urban explorers searching for the weirdest corners of the Earth. And with its fixtures slowly rusting in the Siberian sun, Bechevinka clearly fits that bill.
Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2017 travel expert Alexey Pugovkin summarized the town’s weird charms. “Tourists are interested in the city and old military installations, for example, fortified emplacements hidden among the hills,” he explained. “Missiles and other weapons used on submarines were stored there. Of course, it all looks rather creepy now.”
Considering the unsettling state that Bechevinka is currently in, “creepy” is indeed an apt description. And inside the empty buildings one can find hastily discarded personal items whose placement seemingly defies all explanation. Looking at the way these relics were abandoned, it’s almost as if their owners were suddenly swallowed up by the ground.
But Bechevinka’s fate was not the result of some strange occurrence or Soviet experiment gone wrong. As detailed previously, the settlement was one of the many hubs across Russia to take a hit following the Iron Curtain’s fall. With Russia’s economy flatlining in the 1990s, towns like Bechevinka would be the ones to suffer the most.
In the immediate years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Bechevinka still received a fair amount of sea traffic. Yet the slew of submarines that had clogged up the Bechevinskaya Bay would eventually slow down. And by 1996 the number of vessels stationed there had dropped to zero, leaving the residents of the town with no work and no reason to stay.
With the town deserted, the government no longer had any need to maintain it. Two years after its last occupants departed, the base at Bechevinka was struck from the Russian Ministry of Defense’s ledgers. Rather than being demolished, though, the buildings remain, sitting eerily semi-preserved in the Siberian permafrost.
Of course, “trapped in ice” feels like a perfect way to describe Bechevinka as it stands now. All over the town lie items hinting at what life used to be like. In one building can be found an issue of the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda with its date reading July 24, 1996. Could this be the day the town’s residents fled?
Elsewhere one can find various other personal effects, such as baby carriages and books. When Bechevinka was evacuated, the town’s citizen’s weren’t permitted to take every single one of their belongings. Because of this, certain possessions considered unnecessary for the trip were left in the city as other-worldly mementos of days gone by.
While an abandoned pram is spooky enough, other artifacts are positively spine-chilling. For instance, a lone gas mask lies outside what used to be a military block, its empty eyes staring at anyone who dares pass by. Once a vital piece of equipment for a war that never came, this mask now waits to be broken down by the elements.
Just outside the main settlement you will find a statue to the former glory of the Soviet Union. Standing atop a concrete column – its rebar now exposed after years of neglect – rests a metal globe. Perhaps an optimistic totem of the USSR’s desire to convert humanity to communism, the coating of rust that covers the monument is an ironic reflection of a world that failed to turn red.
On the shores of the town, too, one can find vestiges of Bechevinka’s former purpose. Most notably there rests a ship that seems to have run aground with the changing of the bay’s tide. Likely a cargo hauler that used to help replenish the town’s much-needed supplies, today this vessel would only be of use to scrappers.
But while this ship managed to keep itself above the water, other craft suffered worse fates. In the middle of the bay, for example, protrudes the mangled bridge of a submarine, the rest of the craft submerged beneath the surface. Maybe this boat was unfortunate enough to get trapped on the deadly sandbank.
As bleak as this town may be with its crumbling buildings and rusting vehicles, there still remain traces of beauty within the area. For one, the natural landscape that surrounds Bechevinka is truly breathtaking. Behind the town, for instance, stands a towering mountain that looks over the community like some sleeping giant.
There’s no disputing that Bechevinka has the feel of a manmade settlement that’s being reclaimed by nature. All around the town, foliage and greenery has grown out of spots that were once regularly trampled underfoot. What’s more, visitors exploring the town will often find traces of bears who have wandered into the town in search of food or shelter.
If this sounds like the sort of place that you’d want to visit, then you’re in luck. Of course, a place as cut-off as Bechevinka requires a considerable amount of effort to reach. But once you get to Russia’s eastern edge it’s still possible to find a boat or helicopter that can take you to the town.
For all its intrigue as a ghost town, though, it seems Bechevinka may soon find a renewed sense of purpose after all. Currently, there are plans to replace the crumbling former settlement with a gas terminal that will serve tankers sailing through the Northeast Passage. If these designs come to fruition then it could see this outpost revived with a new generation of workers.
In the meantime, Bechevinka remains an empty ruin, a relic of a political era that for now at least remains little more than a historical curiosity. For almost 20 years, the world has turned and this hub has remained still. And like a fly trapped in amber, this town is a haunting reminder of times gone by.