Poland’s Borne Sulinowo: The key city the place Soviets hid nukes
(CNN) – Some call it the ghost town because it didn’t appear on any map for decades – a secret location that at the height of the Cold War probably concealed a deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons that could wipe out great western cities.
Others call it the Polish Chernobyl because the cloak of secrecy thrown around its radioactive secrets drew fearful comparisons with the exclusion zone around the disaster-hit Ukrainian power plant.
Today, Borne Sulinowo in the West Pomeranian region of northern Poland is an exciting travel destination for adventure seekers looking to explore a beautiful natural area and a relatively unknown Soviet hotspot with a very dark past.
To get to this city from Szczecin, the region’s capital, you’ll have to take a long drive through Poland’s mostly rural lowlands, which still bear Cold War legacy.
Nowhere more than in the city of Drawsko Pomorskie, the location of the largest military training area for NATO troops in Europe.
Last year tens of thousands of military personnel flocked to the area, taking advantage of the cover that the landscape of lakes and dense forests provides for Defender-Europe 20. This is considered to be the largest military exercise on the continent in a quarter of a century.
Drive an hour further east of Drawsko, where the forest becomes deeper and calmer, and you will reach the former forbidden zone of Borne Sulinowo.
The ruins of a former Soviet military hospital.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this place was only accessible to people with a special passport, or “пропуск” in Russian. Everyone else stayed away and pretended not to know about it. It was closed, hidden, and best avoided.
Almost 12,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the Borne Sulinowo military complex at the height of the Cold War. They were part of the Northern Poland group that was present in Poland under the Warsaw Pact Agreement between the Soviet Union and the socialist republics of the Eastern Bloc.
“The place was a huge building site for troops and military facilities,” Wiesław Bartoszek, owner of the local museum in Borne Sulinowo, told CNN Travel.
“After 1945, when the Soviets took over the site, the complex had become part of the Warsaw Pact’s military plans, which included massive exercises to prepare the ground and air forces for an invasion of the West.
” There was only one road leading there, a railway line that ended in the mysterious city behind electrified fences. “
The people near Borne Sulinowo were apparently too scared to even mention it.
Even before the arrival of the Soviets, the city was largely closed.
Before World War II, when the region was part of Germany, the town was known as Gross Born and served as a military base and training ground. Adolf Hitler was photographed on a visit in 1938.
In 1939, armored troops stationed here under the command of General Heinz Guderian launched the invasion of Poland, which would trigger a global conflict. Later prisoners of war were housed here.
Adolf Hitler visited the German military base in Gross Born in 1938.
Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The Germans built most of the infrastructure later used by the Soviets. There were barracks for troops, a railroad and a huge military hospital complex that is abandoned today. Its remains are a mystery waiting to be explored by visitors.
Security fences and barbed wire have long since disappeared and leave the deserted area open to curious visitors. Visitors wander among the trees and bushes that have grown around the skeletons of the remaining buildings.
Bartoszek says the area is especially popular with tourists during the summer season. He likes to tell you the story of a mysterious tunnel that runs under the hospital and connects a room where human bodies are dissected to the railroad. Researchers still aren’t sure what it was used for.
Birch crosses mark the graves of soldiers who died after their imprisonment in Gross Born.
Vadim Pacajev / Sipa USA / AP
Today Borne Sulinowo is a residential area. After the Soviets left, the barracks were converted into apartments. The railroad was removed and turned into the main street.
“People came to Borne from other parts of Poland because the apartments were very cheap,” says Bartoszek. Around 5,000 people now live here.
Some of the functional buildings have been restored and renovated over the years. A Soviet-era hospital is intact and has been renovated. Another H-shaped building in the city center is now a nursing home and rehabilitation unit for patients with multiple sclerosis.
However, the city still shows signs of its past. Some buildings, like the grand structure that housed the old officers’ mess, are now falling into disrepair and need to be renovated. Marbled walls speak of their former glory.
While it looks like it has seen better days, the city is hoping to attract investors by marketing itself as a destination for tourists looking to explore the surrounding wilderness – and perhaps discover a piece of Soviet history.
The pine and oak forests are full of lakes, streams, rivers and ponds and are ideal for cycling and walking during the summer season. It is also rich in wildlife such as wild boar, deer, and pheasants.
This fascination is fueled by stories of nuclear warheads that were once hidden in massive silos in the area, one of three nuclear weapons facilities built in western Poland.
Archaeologists say that Soviet nuclear warheads were stored here, ready for attack on Western Europe.
Courtesy Malgosia Krakowska
The Soviet Union specifically denied stockpiling nuclear missiles in Poland, but archaeologists who researched the site by searching archives of released satellite images and analyzing building scans believe it is.
“Some of the massive silos for these warheads are located near Borne Sulinowo in the village of Brzezńica-Kolonia,” says Bartoszek. “During the communist era, the zone was one of the best-kept secret places in Europe.”
These storage chambers are now being neglected and destroyed. Her graffiti-covered concrete walls are surprisingly in great shape, but other installations or furniture are missing. The storage chambers – about 70 meters long and 10 meters high – are buried under a thick layer of earth and covered with grass.
Another nuclear site, Podborsko, north of Borne Sulinowo, has been converted into a museum devoted to the Cold War military presence.
Bartoszek explains that the missiles should be used as a tactical weapon for cities like Amsterdam and Paris. The power of the warheads varied from about 0.5 to 500 kilotons.
This bunker in Podborsko is now a museum and contains equipment apparently used to store nuclear warheads.
Courtesy of Grzegorz Kiarszys. www.trzeciazona.pl
The construction of the massive missile silos was completed in 1969 and fully financed by the communist government of the Polish People’s Republic according to plans drawn up by the Soviets.
“Only Russian troops could access the area,” says Bartoszek. “The entire area has been excluded from Polish jurisdiction.” This was de facto Russian territory. “
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact, all maps documenting the place were destroyed.
Archaeologists such as Grzegorz Kiarszys, associate professor at the Institute of History and International Relations in Poland, who wrote the first in-depth study of the complex, have determined the location of the silos.
Kiarszys relied on released CIA satellite photos, ground penetrating radar, and checking for signs of radiation. No contamination was found after his research.
Today there is a void over these abandoned and destroyed buildings.
While the forests and lakes that surround them will hopefully provide relaxation to vacationers soon after the pandemic is over, these relics of totalitarianism and its nuclear ambitions will also serve as reminders of a darker chapter in our history.
Malgosia Krakowska is a Polish-born journalist who reports on Poland for international news agencies.