An RS-20A/SS-18 Satan missile is on display at a former Soviet base - now a museum - in Pervomaysk, Ukraine. Cheryl L. Reed
An RS-20A/SS-18 Satan missile is on display at a former Soviet base - now a museum - in Pervomaysk, Ukraine. Cheryl L. Reed
From this seat at the former Pervomaysk Missile Base, an officer with the correct codes could launch up to 10 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.
From this seat at the former Pervomaysk Missile Base, an officer with the correct codes could launch up to 10 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The button that could have started a nuclear holocaust is gray -- not red.

I learned this after climbing into a nuclear rocket command silo, 12 floors below ground, and sitting in the same green chair at the same yellow metal console at which former Soviet officers once presided. Here, they practiced entering secret codes into their gray keyboards, pushing the launch button and turning a key -- all within seven seconds -- to fire up to 10 ballistic missiles. The officers never knew what day their practice codes might become real, nor did they know their targets.

This base in Pervomaysk, Ukraine -about a four-hour drive from Kiev -once had 86 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of destroying cities in Europe and the United States. Though the nuclear warheads have been removed, the command silo with much of its equipment, giant trucks that carried the rockets to the base and an empty silo were preserved so that people could see what had been secretly going on at nuclear missile bases in the former Soviet Union. The museum's collection includes the R-12/SS-4 Sandal missile similar to those involved in the Cuban missile crisis and the RS-20A/SS-18 Satan, the versions of which had several hundred times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

"This is what the tourists come to see," said Igor Bodnarchuk, a tour guide for Solo East Travel, a Kiev company that specializes in tours of Soviet ruins. "What else do we have to offer?"

Tourists go to Paris to marvel at the majesty of the Eiffel Tower, to Rome to stroll the cobbled streets of the Vatican, to Moscow to behold the magnificent domes of Red Square. And while Ukraine has its own plethora of domed cathedrals, including monasteries with underground caves, thousands of tourists are trekking to this country for a uniquely Soviet experience. Here, they stand outside an exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl and rifle through the remains of a nearby abandoned city -- Geiger counter in hand. In Chernobyl's shadow, they marvel at the giant "Moscow Eye," an anti-ballistic-missile detector that rises 50 stories high and looks like a giant roller coaster.

Every day, a handful of travel companies ferry mostly foreigners to Chernobyl's 19-mile "exclusion zone." In 2016, Solo East Travel hauled 7,500 people there, up from only one trip in 2000.

"It used to be sort of extreme travel," said Sergei Ivanchuk of Solo East Travel. "You were very brave to go to Chernobyl in 2000. Now, not so much."

Ivanchuk insists that people who go to Chernobyl are not morbid. "They are intelligent people who want to learn something new, and are often interested in nuclear power," he said.

Likewise, people who venture to the missile base at Pervomaysk are interested in the Cold War. "It's a place to remember -- like the Holocaust -- about a dangerous time in history and what it means to have nuclear weapons," he said.

Earlier this year Russia deployed a new cruise missile, apparently violating its 1987 arms-control treaty with the United States, making the Soviet ruins in Ukraine seem all the more relevant. 

Source: The Washington Post.