Any relevant sign of progress in the former Soviet republic of Latvia is revealed through the weather. When the sun pokes through, the country has the imminent sparkle of economic success. Things work. As soon as it rains and the clouds settle in, the country returns to a bleak industrial playground that was left behind by its indifferent users. This is made even more apparent four hours outside the capital of Riga in the coastal port town of Liepaja.
There are many colors in the city, but they all end up being one of two things: rust or mud. The salt air from the Baltic Sea only facilitates this process. The market is half empty and filled with men with beards, a flea market of what's inside your grandfather's garage: loose string, old hand tools, rubber bands, a single yellow boot, a broken gas mask, shiny medals, a used toothbrush. Liepaja is the third largest city in the country, but that is not really saying much. Its size is related to its past- it was a sealed city during the Cold War, akin to those high-gated communities in Los Angeles, but run with a vigor and capacity for spite that only the Soviets had.
With a port that does not freeze over in the winter, the city made a perfect home for a nuclear submarine fleet.
The taxis that go near the abandoned naval base, the kara osta (literally, "war port"), are supposed to have a certain number on them. None of the abused Volkswagen vans that serve as the hybrid bus/taxi system have the right number, but there are only two directions to go, so the odds are really not that bad. The driver of the van we flag is playing the Scorpions "Winds of Change," and somehow that sort of kitsch is entirely appropriate, and even necessary.
The van stops by a lonely drawbridge over a canal. It is not quite clear just how bad it is to creep around the base. It mutually agreed and made clear by my guide, a recently demobbed Peace Corp teacher, that it is a good idea to stay out of sight. Not so much for an encounter with authority figures, but more so for the types that currently loiter around the base, scavengers of scrap metal and any other sort valuable left behind. They are probably not fundamentally interested in straight bribes.
We follow the canal for about ten minutes. The Russians, naturally, have a wonderful track record with nuclear submarine safety. The canal and port, even after being dredged, remain utterly and hopelessly contaminated. In the hasty retreat of 1994, they scuttled their ships and left them in the water. It is not really dark enough, though, to tell if the water glows at night. Crawling through a hole in a black brick wall, we realize we have just entered a military complex that is nothing less than a rotting, static anchor in time.
Grass and other small shrubbery grow through the pavement and the low, squat concrete buildings have lost any sense of purpose. A few of the buildings still have a half-complete exterior signs in large Cyrillic letters. Other than the infrequent tattoo of hammers hitting metal, the place is utterly desolated. It starts raining again. After about fifty yards of scattered buildings, there is a large plaza the size of a football pitch. At one end is large and overgrown monument to some forgotten Communist leader, and at the other end is a large, peeling mural of a cartoonish sailor holding an AK-47.
All the floors of the buildings have been torn up for pipes and wires. Most of the interior ceilings are on floor and the rain seeps through the walls anyway. The refuse of troop life is scattered about: stacks of peaked caps, Lenin posters, atomic safety guides, innumerable liquor bottles, record books, odd broken circuitry, and a driving instruction manual that eerily looks exactly like those airlines safety guides in the back of a airplane's seat.
The indoor pool nearby was apparently used as a firing range by bored soldiers. There are targets and bottles set up on wood bleachers, which seems to have been a target in of itself. The tiles are covered in empty shell casings and the pool is a black shade of lumpy green. Some objects float in the water, but it is not really clear what exactly they are.
On the way out of the plaza, we walk past some mustached men in a hole bent over some pipes. We exchange looks, and collectively ignore each other.
There is an implication of organized layout for all the structures, tree-lined roads, and fences, but it is lost on me. The abandoned base alternately feels like a grand playpen waiting for my seven-year-old self to scamper through and a depressing, fear-inducing black and white memory that needs to be quickly forgotten. The palpable texture of seeing what this was and what it is now is unsettling, as if some stranger caught you looking at a car wreck or porn and you are at a loss to explain why.
A few minute stroll along a tree shaded gravel path suddenly reveals the port between a break in the derelict buildings. The area has signs of recent industrial life and a dog barks somewhere nearby. Men shout something in some language and do whatever sort of work people do in corrugated metal shacks next to two Russian submarines. Long, hulking carcasses, left behind like indecipherable totems of a long gone tribal people. Just sitting there, 30 yards away. Life-size Tonka trucks. Certainly no doubts now: this and being a kid in Disneyland, its the same thing. We've arrived at Magic Mountain and this time there is no line.
But there is a large dog, sure enough. Angry and Russian. It looks like a German Shepard, but it's definitely Russian. Lord knows what the dog eats here- Bullet casings? Scrap metal? American tourists? The dog, maybe out of love but more likely for hate, releases a bark, gives chase and the submarines are forgotten as quickly as our feet move. The nearest fence, tarred and barbed wire for our convenience, is scaled as a man sticks his head out of the nearby shed. From the safety of the other side of the fence, we promptly see the wide-open gate five feet to our left. Yet again, more running ensues, away from the base, away from the subs, and through the rundown tenement housing projects.
The beer here, though, is only 50 cents for about two litres. Two litres, just enough to placate a thirst. And there is a kiosk close by, near the beach where bunkers from the Great Patriotic War have fallen into the sea and the water is dark emerald green and the concrete is real gray. No dogs there, either.