Always full of drama

Thursday, 1 September 2011

How the mighty have fallen

When I was a kid, I went on a CND march in my town. Not as a protester you understand, but as a young teenager trying to piss the protesters off. “Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out” they would chant. “Maggie, Maggie Maggie, In, In, In” was our repost. That was until a barrage of extremely well aimed eggs burst all over our stay-press trousers.
The reason I mention this is because it reminds me of an era, the Cold War, the palatable fear of an unknown foe with unlimited power to destroy civilization, books with names like “The Third World War, A Future History” and films like “War Games”. Even Midge Ure and Ultravox invaded our psyche with Vienna, a song devoted to nuclear holocaust. Looking back the fears were no different than todays, when the cold war ended AID’s conveniently arrived on the scene, as AIDS faded from our conscience, a group of Islamic terrorists slammed aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In our Cold War minds, the closed and highly secretive city of Sevastopol in the southern Soviet Union was the epicenter of fear. Home to the mighty Black Sea Fleet and a few miles to the south at Balaclava, in vast man made caverns carved into a mountain, the hidden menace of the Soviet Ballistic Submarine Missile Fleet lay protected from Western eyes.
A couple of years ago Tania and I disembarked a cruise ship in this once ultra secretive city. We walked past an unoccupied customs booth with nine months worth of luggage, through the main port security gate, manned by one very bored looking soldier, and into a square littered with monuments of Soviet Glory. By the side of the headquarters (still) of the Russian Black Sea Fleet we took a taxi to the central railway station and 30 minutes later boarded a utilitarian ex-Soviet train. No softly padded seats for the comrades, highly polished wooden benches were the order of the day, uncomfortable in the extreme. Doors that you opened yourself, and a train so high above the platform that I though I would require a Sherpa to get into the carriage. As the rusting locomotive slowly pulled us along the banks of the port of Sevastopol, we could see the remaining ships of the Black Sea fleet. It was May Day, one of the most important days in the Eastern European calendar, one that is still celebrated as workers day Because of this, most of the Black Sea fleet ships were in port, their bright colorful flags breaking the monotony of drab dark grey hulls.
The most striking aspect, was that there were not many ships at all, and those that were there were not in a great state of repair. Rust, and neglect had worn down these symbols of Soviet Power into nothing more than untended museum piece. Their shapes were the same from the Janes warfare books I had read as a young teenager in my local library, but that was the point. The current ships of the western navies looked nothing like my memories, technology had marched on, old tonnage replaced and updated. The once mighty Black Sea fleet, pride of the Soviet navy and harbinger of our teenage fears was still the same, only older, unkempt and well worn. It reminded me of myself!
An old rust bucket along side a Russian warship

As a footnote, the submarine base at Balaclava, the epicenter of nuclear paranoia, is now a major Ukrainian tourist destination. You can find it on any map. Just look for top-secret base. If you had predicted that 25 years ago they would have locked you up and thrown away the key, or at the very least thrown a barrage of eggs at you.

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