But today, Borne Sulinowo, in the Western Pomerania region of northern Poland, is emerging as an exciting travel destination for adventure seekers looking to explore a beautiful natural area and relatively unknown Soviet hotspot with a very dark past. .
Getting to this city from Szczecin, the capital of the region, involves a long journey through the mostly rural lowlands of Poland, terrain that also carries the legacy of the Cold War.
Nowhere more than in the town of Drawsko Pomorskie, the location of the largest military training ground for NATO troops in Europe.
Last year, tens of thousands of military personnel entered the area, taking advantage of the coverage offered by the landscape of lakes and dense forests for Defender-Europe 20, said to be the largest military exercise on the continent for a quarter of a century.
Head one more hour east from Drawsko, where the forest grows deeper and quieter, and you’ll reach the former forbidden zone of Borne Sulinowo.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this place was accessible only to those with a special pass, or “пропуск” in Russian. Everyone else stayed away and pretended not to know anything about it. It was closed, hidden, and best avoided.
About 12,000 Soviet soldiers were stationed at the Borne Sulinowo military complex at the height of the Cold War. They were part of the Group of Northern Forces present in Poland as part of the Warsaw Pact agreement between the Soviet Union and the socialist republics of the Eastern Bloc.
“The place was a massive construction site for troops and military installations,” Wiesław Bartoszek, owner of the local museum in Borne Sulinowo, told CNN Travel.
“After 1945, when the Soviets took over, the complex had become part of the Warsaw Pact military plans, which included massive drills preparing ground and air forces for an invasion from the West.
“There was only one road leading there, a railroad track that ended in the mysterious city behind electrified fences.”
The people who lived near Borne Sulinowo were apparently too scared to even mention it.
Even before the arrival of the Soviets, the city had been largely off limits.
Before World War II, when the region was part of Germany, the city was known as Gross Born and functioned as a military base and training ground. Adolf Hitler was photographed visiting in 1938.
In 1939, the panzer troops stationed here under the command of General Heinz Guderian launched an invasion of Poland that would trigger a global conflict. It was later used to house prisoners of war.
The Germans built most of the infrastructure that was later used by the Soviets. There was a barracks for troops, a railway, and a huge military hospital complex that is now abandoned, its remains an enigma waiting to be explored by visitors.
The security fences and barbed wire are long gone, leaving the abandoned grounds open to curious visitors. Visitors wander among trees and shrubs that have sprung up around the skeletons of the remaining buildings.
Bartoszek says the area is especially popular with tourists during the summer season. He likes to tell them the story of a mysterious tunnel that passes under the hospital, connecting a room used to dissect human bodies with the railway. Researchers are still not sure what it was used for.
Today Borne Sulinowo is a residential district. After the Soviets left, the barracks were converted into apartments. The railway was withdrawn and turned into the main road.
“People came to Borne from other parts of Poland because the apartments were so cheap,” says Bartoszek. About 5,000 people now live here.
Some of the functional buildings have been restored and refurbished over the years. A Soviet-era hospital is intact and has been renovated. Another H-shaped building in the city center is now a nursing home and rehabilitation unit for patients with multiple sclerosis.
However, the city still shows signs of its past. Some buildings, such as the large structure that housed the former officers’ mess, are now deteriorating and in need of renovation. The marble walls speak of its former glory.
While it may seem like it’s had better days, the city hopes to attract investors by promoting itself as a destination for tourists looking to explore the surrounding nature, and perhaps see a piece of Soviet history.
The pine and oak forests are full of lakes, streams, rivers and ponds and are ideal for cycling and hiking during the summer season. It is also rich in wildlife, including wild boar, deer, and pheasant.
What drives this fascination are the stories about nuclear warheads that were once hidden in massive silos in the area, one of three nuclear weapons facilities built in western Poland.
The Soviet Union explicitly denied having stored nuclear missiles in Poland, but archaeologists who investigated the site by delving into archives of declassified satellite images and analyzing scans of buildings are convinced otherwise.
“Some of the massive silos for these warheads are located near Borne Sulinowo in the town of Brzezńica-Kolonia,” says Bartoszek. “During the communist era, the area was one of the best-kept secret places in Europe.”
These storage chambers are now neglected and vandalized. Its concrete walls, covered in graffiti, are surprisingly in good condition, but other facilities or furniture are missing. The storage chambers, approximately 70 meters long and 10 meters high, are buried under a thick layer of earth and covered with grass.
Another nuclear site, Podborsko, north of Borne Sulinowo, has been turned into a museum dedicated to the Cold War military presence.
Bartoszek explains that the missiles were planned to be used as a tactical weapon, targeting cities like Amsterdam and Paris. The power of the warheads varied between 0.5 and 500 kilotons.
The construction of the huge rocket silos was completed in 1969, financed entirely by the communist government of the People’s Republic of Poland in accordance with plans prepared by the Soviets.
“Only Russian troops could access the site,” says Bartoszek. “The whole area was excluded from Polish jurisdiction. This was de facto Russian territory.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact, all maps documenting the place were destroyed.
Archaeologists such as Grzegorz Kiarszys, an associate professor at the Polish Institute of History and International Relations and author of the first in-depth study of the complex, have determined the location of the silos.
Kiarszys relied on declassified CIA satellite photos, ground-penetrating radars, and radiation signal checks. According to their investigation, no contamination was detected.
Today, a void hangs over these abandoned and devastated buildings.
The nuclear disaster zone is now a selfie hot spot after a hit TV show
While it is to be hoped that the forests and lakes that surround them will soon, when the pandemic ends, offer relaxation to vacationers, these relics of totalitarianism and its nuclear ambitions will also serve as a reminder of a darker chapter in our history.