Did you know that I really, really like visiting abandoned things? That I dig post-industrial derelection, and the way it is imbued with the pathos of neglect, while at the same time providing a cheerful reminder of humanity's lust for The New? Well it's a lonely business traversing the world trying to find sad-looking clumps of rusted steel to stare at. That's why, when I decided to take a trip to the crumbling remains of Paldiski—an off-limits, ex-nuclear submarine city in the former USSR—I figured I should invite someone along for the ride. Someone who might help me prove I'm not the sexless loner you imagine me to be, and provide an exciting, all-new 'Did he pull?' narrative for my photographs of depressing rubble to cling to.
So this is Agni, an exceedingly tall Estonian girl I met about two hours before this picture was taken. I think you'll agree that her adorable smile and willingness to explore the nuclear bunkers of the Baltic peninsula with total strangers combine to make a winning package.
During its heyday, Paldiski was the largest secret facility of its kind in the whole of the USSR. Over 16,000 henchmen and women were employed to build nuclear submarines and train the Soviet navy there, and they were all sworn to secrecy. The barbed wire fences that surrounded the town—patrolled by border police with big guns—only came down once the last Russian warship had sailed off in 1994. If that isn't a landscape that screams "frothing aphrodisiac," then maybe I'm not the UrbEx Casanova after all, and just some guy who needs to rent What Women Want and learn how to finger.
Today about 4,000 people are still trudging through their lives in the township of Paldiski, about an hour's walk from the remains of the original coastal complex. The people there live in nice buildings like this:
Have a strong sense of community…
…and are not at all afraid that the leftover nuclear junk Fido keeps digging up in the garden will one day result in their kids growing extra fingers that shoot radioactive laser beams.
So much of the world's tyranny and subterfuge is facilitated by the humble train track (it's great for shipping slaves, uranium, weapons, etc.). So I knew following this path out of town would lead us to some secluded wilderness where only the brave might tread. And I've heard that girls love bravery, so with any luck Agni would be mine, mine, mine.
The first sorry-looking pile of bricks and smashed glass that we happened upon was this former soldiers' barracks. The Man had decided to protect the building from courageous trespassers by wrapping a piece of thin plastic around it. I smashed the cordon out of the way in a near-explicit display of manliness.
Inside it was boring.
"Though clearly a previous visitor found the experience jaw-dropping," I said to Agni. She didn't laugh.
While we were in the old canteen, Agni pretended to serve me lunch. The experience took me right back to the innocence of my school days. Suddenly I was my ten-year-old self again, rubbing up against a cushion in a funny way as that interesting cartoon woman waltzed around in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? We'd only just met, but it seemed that me and Agni were bonding fast.
Unfortunately this seemed to be the only free bed left in the building.
Maybe we'd have better luck in the old naval academy, which has now been picketed by a very noisy wind farm.
I felt a bit rapey at this point.
But there's something about piles of corrugated iron roofing that just gets my blood up.
Agni seemed pretty excited, too, as she lead me coquettishly through the rubble, like the Black Rabbit of Inlé in Watership Down.
Eventually, we arrived at this weird mosaic. I struggled with its message. At the end of every rainbow, there's a Soviet nuclear warship waiting to blast you out of existence?
Then we found this look-out post. As far as look-out posts go, it wasn't one of the finest I've seen, but Agni seemed impressed so I feigned enthusiasm while secretly pining for the smiling futurist space-base of Kochi.
It was pitch black in there, so we used the flash from the camera to light the path. I was starting to feel sure that there was going to be some bump-in-the-dark sexy horseplay between me and Agni. If there was a nuclear war on the surface of the Earth right now, we'd be the only ones to survive. It'd be down to us to single-handedly repopulate the Earth.
In the leisurely surroundings of the commanding officers' lodge, we set about doing the things that lovers do. In the log cabin, we talked about our childhoods….
…giggled about past relationships in the jacuzzi…
…and made knowing eyes at one another in the sauna.
Then Agni made me stand in this room for a moment while she changed. The room seemed to be willing something to happen. And then…
Wow, Agni, nice dress! Where'd that come from?!
Weirdly, she wanted to stop picking through the ruins of the Soviet Union and spend the next couple of hours doing a photo shoot. I agreed, because I am spineless.
And that is basically it. Still, she looks great, right? Aren't you totally jealous that I got to hang out with her all day?
I'll always have my rubble.