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Monday, August 25, 2014

Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor

At the bunker we are met by our guide – let’s call her Natasha. Natasha is wearing an approximation of a Soviet military uniform, her shoulder-length hair cut with one of the weirdly asymmetrical fringes that seem to be de rigeur in Russia right now. Assisting Natasha is a ‘safety officer’. I missed his name, so let’s call him Boris. Boris conforms so closely to a type I have seen everywhere in the last couple of days that at first I do a double take. He has sandy hair, cut in a slightly trendy but overwhelmingly military style and tight suit. He never smiles, is constantly chewing something, and his job seems to be to follow along behind us to ensure that none of the boys decide to duck off down a corridor or steal some 1960s radio equipment. There are many Borises in Moscow, guarding Matryoshka dolls in tourist shops with grim determination or operating metal detectors at museums. All of them chew constantly, and all of them look like they would rather be beating us to a pulp.

Natasha on the other hand is a bit gorgeous. She leads us down an endless flight of stairs into the bowels of a Cold War missile control bunker. The structure is fascinating – a steel lined set of tunnels designed to withstand nuclear attack and coordinate a missile or bomber strike against the USA. Natasha takes us through the various rooms, including one built as Stalin’s office, although he never used it and died before the bunker was finished. Natasha tells us in her irresistibly throaty accent that even after Stalin’s death nobody was brave enough to use Stalin’s rooms, just in case Stalin had faked his own death as a loyalty test and turned up one day demanding access to his chess set. To complete the atmosphere, the room has been fitted out with 1950s furniture, and a mannequin of Stalin sits behind the desk. The boys take photos. I admire the engineering of the walls. Boris chews and eyes us impassively.

I’m starting to notice that Natasha does love to use the phrase ‘Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor’ a lot, and that I find her enormously attractive every time she does so. This is very apparent in the conference room – sort of the equivalent of the war room in Dr Strangelove. Natasha talks us through how the officers would meet here in the eventuality of Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor breaking out to plan their response, before taking us down to the actual missile control room. In another design feature reminiscent of Dr Strangelove, one wall is covered by an enormous map of the northern hemisphere, while by the opposite wall on a platform stand a couple of control consoles with flashing lights. This is what Natasha has been looking forward to, guiding us through a simulation of the Soviet response to the US launching Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor against the Russian people.

Natasha asks for volunteers, and suddenly two of the boys are sitting at consoles waiting for their orders. A video loop plays, showing Soviet citizens reacting to the news of a US attack. Natasha’s voice becomes loder and more impassioned as she describes the US bombers approaching Moscow and the bunker personnel scrambling to their stations.

As her presentation reaches its climax, it is obvious that whatever pleasure I get from hearing Natasha refer to Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor is as nothing compared to the pleasure she gets from simulating the launch of waves of nuclear bombers against the USA. The boys turn their keys in unison, missiles are launched against the US, and Natasha congratulates them on successfully defending the Soviet people. It is all very well done, Natasha is great, the boys love it, but I am left feeling uneasy. I ask one of the boys later whether he felt conflicted about pretending to launch missiles that would have resulted in millions of deaths. He thinks I’m just engaging in banter. I don’t push it. I wonder whether Natasha really feels some level of nostalgia for the days of Soviet strength, which she is too young to remember, and how she feels about exhorting boys from the other side of the world to launch a nuhcleor apocalypse.

On the way out I visit the gift shop and excitedly buy a genuine Soviet infantry helmet, pausing only briefly to wonder how I will fit it into my backpack. I can always throw away some clothes. Boris watches me while I try it on, exuding menace and disdain. I emerge into the light, wearing my new helmet to admiring comments from the boys and derision from my colleagues. Natasha turns on her heel (I notice now that she is wearing heels) and walks out of my life forever.

We get back on the bus.

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