Skrunda-2 is a Full region design that has – and quite rightly -been receiving a lot of attention since it opened. Held and designed by Titus Palmira with the assistance of Sofie Janic and Megan Prumier, the build is a representation of what was once a top secret Soviet facility that throughout the cold War era was never acknowledged to exist, but which today is now a most unusual tourist attraction.
The original Skrunda is a small and fairly unremarkable town in western Latvia, with a population of some 3,000 people, and granted “city” status in 1996. However, five kilometres to the north lies Skrunda-1, and it is this enigmatic place that is the focus of the design by Titus, Sofie and Megan.
In brief, Skrunda-1 was established in 1963 as a radar surveillance and early warning centre intended to track incoming ICBMs using two Soviet Dnepr (NATO code-name “Hen House” on account of the two enclosed arms of the array resembling two lines of chicken coops). As a military garrison, the base was essentially a self-sustaining town, a home to an estimated 5,000 personnel and their families when at its peak, and with all the facilities and amenities one might expect of such a town: its own power and water supplies, 10 large apartment blocks to house families, a school, gymnasium, theatre, swimming pool, and of course all the facilities required to support the base itself – workshops, administration offices, an officer’s club and so on.
During the late 1980 / early 1990s, attempts were made to update the base with three installations of Russia’s latest phased array radar early warning systems. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union means this work was never finished, although the Russian Federation continued to use the base and the Dnepr radar until 1998, when they withdrew after negotiations to continue to lease the base to the start of the 2000s, fell through.
In leaving, the Russians took with them all sensitive material and equipment, but left the 60 buildings of the town as something for the Latvian government to deal with – and they pretty much left the sturcutres to rot where they stood. It is in this decaying, deserted stated that Skrunda-2 in Second Life presents the town – and does so very impressively.
Titus notes that the build was “inspired” by Skrunda-1, suggesting that it uses the original as a foundation before striking off on its own. however, while there is some artistic licence (Skrunda-2 appears somewhat coastal, whilst the original is more inland), the overall attention to detail and care taken in design means the Skrunda-2 is actually very reflective of the overall look and feel of its namesake.
Take, for example, the landing point at the town’s main gates. It is marked by two aged block houses and iron gates with a road barrier beyond. They perfectly echo the original entrance to the Skrunda-1 base as can be seen in numerous Internet photos of the ageing town.
And while the hulking, featureless forms of the apartment blocks here may only number four rather than 10, they more than reflect the great white blocks of Skrunda-1 as they sit in lines facing one another across overgrown lawns and broken roads. Meanwhile, beyond the apartments sits a low-slung bunker that, while it lacks the out-flung “chicken coops” of the radar arrays, is an easy stand-in for their central block house command centre.
After twelve years of neglect, the Latvian authorities decided to auction Skrunda-1 as a development site in 2010. It did not go well: bids started at just US $290,000 for the entire site, rising to U$ 3.1 million – only for the winning bidder and the runner-up to then pull out of any deal. A second auction was hastily arranged, with the town selling for just US $333,000 – but it remained abandoned for a further five more years.
In 2015, the Skrunda municipality purchased the site for just over US 14,500, ceding half of it to the Latvian army for training purposes and with the idea of redeveloping the other half. However, during this time the town started to attract tourists, drawn by its Soviet-era mystique (perhaps the rumours that it once being a centre for mind control experiments gave its allure an extra edge. While plans are apparently in-hand for the demolition and replacement of some of the buildings, the local government has acknowledged this interest – by charging admission to the town at US $5.00 per head.
Skrunda-2 perhaps represents the original not too long after its abandonment: old vehicles are still to be found in parking bays close to the apartment blocks, rubbish bags are still piled in some places, and so on, all of which adds to the location’s atmosphere. indeed, there is something to capture the eye literally at every turn, making the setting a photographic delight. And there are also little gems and secrets awaiting discovery – such as the inner workings of a bunker to one side of the town, or the Soviet-era posters and paintings, and the post-Soviet era graffiti and wall paintings that give Skrunda-2 its own unique sense of place.
But for me, the most fascinating little gem awaiting discovery is the one that might be so easily missed. It sits within one of the apartment blocks: a set of rooms still occupied – perhaps the home of the last inhabitant of the town, who departed towards the end of 1999. It’s a quite wonderful setting, that conjures mental images of someone perhaps elderly and clinging to a way of life that has now passed.
Feeling a lot larger than a single region, Skrunda-2 is a tour-de-force in design and presentation; a place that really does carry within it a sense of history, offering insight into a past era that encourages one to go diving into the Internet to seek out more information on this strange town. At the same time, it offers the visitor and the photographer alike a grand amount to take in and appreciate.
Kudos again to Titus, Sofie and Megan for a superb design.