Photos by Léo Malek
There’s a little bit of the Soviet empire left in the middle of the Czech Republic, but it’s abandoned, decaying and almost completely forgotten.
USSR military bases might not be known for their community outreach, but is it really possible that two towns, one Czech and one Russian, could exist just over one mile apart for two decades without the residents knowing anything about each other? If you’ve got enough barbed-wire fences and Kalashnikovs, I suppose anything is possible.
After occupying what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet army chose an airfield 28 miles from Prague as the base for its Central Group of Forces. It had been used before by the Austro-Hungarian military and then the Luftwaffe, but when the Soviets moved in, they came for the long haul.
They built an entire town next to the airfield and called it Boží Dar, which means “God’s gift”, and then fenced it off from the outside world. Oh, that dark Soviet humour! Or maybe they really did think it was nice, since it did have a pool, a movie theatre and wasn’t Nizhny Novgorod.
Just down the (heavily guarded) road was the nondescript Czech town of Milovice and its 8,000 or so inhabitants, none of whom knew about the hundreds of families living under armed guard in cramped concrete tower blocks just up the road.
Boží Dar existed in complete isolation. This closed town within a closed state was about as inaccessible as it gets, and it’s entirely possible that most of the residents never left the town. No one but the highest-ranking officials would have had that kind of freedom. Operations at the base were kept top secret, and such was the extent of Soviet paranoia that they even closed down Milovice’s sewage treatment plant at one point, fearing that the additional waste would give away too much information about the size of Boží Dar’s population.
There was just as much secrecy surrounding what was going into the base as what was coming out of it, so most supplies were probably brought in from Russia by air or rail. It looks like the base was partly self-sufficient, with its own coal power plant, underground reservoir and farmland.
Most of the locals we asked thought the whole barbed-wire-and-armed-patrol thing was less about stopping the Soviet residents from getting jealous of living standards in communist Czechoslovakia, and more to do with stopping the Czechs from finding out about the possible secret stockpile of nuclear warheads being kept at Boží Dar.
It's widely believed that the Soviet army kept at least some nuclear weapons in Czechoslovakia, most likely at the base of the Central Group of Forces, but no one has ever been able to prove it. The Russian embassy in Prague still refuses to confirm or deny anything, although the former Central Group of Forces commander, General Vorobyov, was pretty open about the whole thing in a 2008 interview with Radio Prague. On the phone from Moscow, he said “We did indeed have nuclear weapons in the rocket brigades as part of the Central Group of Soviet Forces that I commanded.”
Any nukes must have been transported back to Russia soon after 1989, when the Soviet Army started packing its bags following the Velvet Revolution. In their haste, soldiers dumped out entire tanks of diesel and buried their leftover ammunition in the ground.
After the last Mig-29 took off back to Russia in 1991, the military base was left open and unguarded and was quickly looted of anything even remotely valuable. Thieves ripped out everything from copper wiring to door handles and plastic movie-theatre seats, tearing up floorboards and pulling down walls in the process.
In 1992, Russia generously gave the already crumbling buildings and polluted, explosive-riddled land to the Czech government, claiming that the value of this piece of real estate would make up for the cost of cleaning it. It seems the Czechs had little choice but to accept.
Despite it's being state property, no one has ever bothered to guard it or fence it off, so we went to have a look around.
Since this was February in the Czech Republic, it was snowing. A lot. First, we found some aircraft hangars.
There wasn’t much inside.
We had to walk about another mile before we got into town. The snow was a few inches deep, so we had no idea what we were walking on. Once we got close to the buildings, there were a lot of big holes in the ground, which we discovered by nearly falling into them, covered as they were with trash and snow.
The holes were probably made when the Environment Ministry swept the ground for all that buried live ammunition. Most of it was dug up and disposed of back in the early 90s, but the occasional mine or grenade still turns up. In January this year, someone walking their dog in the area stumbled across a live artillery shell and three landmines.
These old barracks seem like a great spot to get drunk by the campfire before scrawling the contents of your fevered mind across the walls, which it appeared someone had done.
There were a few lines from a traditional Czech poem that, according to the locals, says something about men who look like frogs and “rabbit people” being flattened by metal clouds. After that, it just got weirder.
We have no idea what this sad old building was, but now it’s a kind of art space for squatters. This cheery wall mural was made of scrunched-up Czech newspapers from the 90s.
Here’s an old movie theatre, where residents might have enjoyed Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears and other pieces of party-approved cinematic gold. All the seats had been ripped out. We found the old projector room out back, but it was empty and overgrown with trees.
The spa didn’t look great, but at least it wasn’t snowing in there.
We’d heard that the pool was next to the spa, but that building had collapsed. At least we could still get into what Czechs would call the “wellness centre”. We found this jacuzzi in there and a dark space nearby full of ripped aluminum foil that must have been the sauna.
We came back a few days later after the blizzard had stopped. We could see where we were going this time, and we could find stuff like this window frame that had been lying on the ground for so long a tree had grown up in the middle of it.
We also found the old cultural centre, which had been recently painted to look like a burnt-out club called Rock Club Black Hole for the Czech television series Emergency. Czech television also filmed last year at Boží Dar and Milovice for a program called Go Home, Ivan.
Next was this creepy school. Presumably, first names were too individualistic for the Soviets, so the kids were numbered instead. Every piece of furniture had been taken or smashed.
It was about to collapse.
Upstairs we found a corridor leading to this space, which must have been the school gym.
Nothing much to see here.
This building looked like it was something important, but there was nothing left inside. The only interesting things, like the map of Soviet air bases below, had been pretty much destroyed.
We counted about 500 apartments in ten blocks, tightly packed together despite the vast stretches of open land all around. They are supposedly awaiting renovation or demolition, though no one seems to be in a hurry to do either.
Someone had made a half-arsed attempt at stopping people from getting inside by cutting down some trees and leaving them lying on the ground.
Even without real furniture, the rooms were small and claustrophobic.
There were old Russian newspapers everywhere: under the wallpaper, used as isolation material, or just sitting around like this one.
Everything else just pretty much looked like this.
Did any of Boží Dar’s former residents stay in the Czech Republic? Not likely. Some locals we asked told us the only Soviets who stayed in Milovice are the soldiers buried in the local cemetery.
This air base and a similar one 30 miles away at Ralsko were the biggest and most important Soviet army bases in the country. There are also known to be several smaller bases in the Czech Republic and yet more in other states of the former Eastern bloc, built in preparation for a war that never happened.
What will become of Boží Dar? Few people outside of Milovice even know about it, and even fewer know anything about its history. The old airfield still attracts the odd light aircraft enthusiast, but will the town itself soon be forgotten completely? The supposed plans for redevelopment have been on hold for over 20 years, there’s nothing left to loot, and as nature creeps in to claim the buildings, it seems like this sad, mysterious place will be mostly left to decay in peace.
Nostalgic for the Soviet Republic?