I went to Russia for 8 days in July 2013, me and Ian boarded a plan at Gatwick and headed to Moscow, where we meet with Konstantine, who had drove all the way from St Petersburg to meet us to be part of our adventure. It was a trip for my book Soviet Ghosts and the most important one at that, it took many many months of planning and researching to find the locations and to find Russians who could help us with tips of getting into places. We also meet up with amazing Igor and his wife on many days, without his help we may never have seen many of the fantastic places we saw along the way and we are very grateful for his help. Not many explorers travel to Russia to visit abandoned buildings, the fact is, this is probably the main reason why my publisher agreed to go ahead with my book Soviet Ghosts, because it is different from what a lot of urban explores are doing and not many have the guts to go there and visit the abandoned buildings left behind after the crash of the Soviet Union.
The rules are very different in Russia, heavily guarded locations and a strong military presence everywhere and serious consequences for getting caught. Unlike the majority of Europe when as long as you are not breaking and stealing things the worst that can happen is being arrested and searched but then let go. In Russia you can be retained, questioned, held, arrested and charged. We managed to sneak and stay hidden for all of the trip and with only one capture we maximised being stealthy to the max, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security.
But on one day we kinda saw the line, saw the epic location in front of us and we crossed it, unfortunately with bad consequences. On day three we visited a top secret radar and basically saw the line and crossed it. After walking through the forest Mosquito’s attacking us from all directions we saw the radar and made our way towards it. Just metres away suddenly we were joined by military and they weren’t happy. Me and Ian couldn’t say a word in English so we just stood in silence. A long conversation between Konstantine and Igor in Russian to the soldiers lead to them walking us it to a secured court yard, it was filled with weapons, many soldiers were inside. They just stared at us while we shifted around uncomfortably. We had no idea what was being said and what we were waiting for, we just glanced at each other nervously occasionally There were moments of pure terror after hearing horror stories about Russia and the military and now we were slap bang in the middle of our own Russian horror story. would we end up in prison for many years, would they rake all our equipment or would they shoot us and bury our bodies under the secret radar. After about 20 minutes there was a strong knock on the metal door, the soldiers all stood to attention.
An important man in full military uniform appeared and vet soon after around 30-40 are mend soldiers piled our of an army truck to surround him, stood in lines and stared straight ahead. Konstantine and Igor spoke to him, he shook his head a lot, did he think we were spies. He ushers us into the truck just past the soldiers. Was this a firing line were we about to be shot in the head. I held my breathe and walked. Once in the truck me and Ian shared a look of relief. The Colonel sat in the front I held my breathe as we drove, where was he driving us to I hoped it was to the gate to drop us at the car. we hadn’t gone in the front gate as we saw one guard but actually it was heavily guarded by army i think they were very shocked we had got so far without being seen. i think they were shocked and angry that we had managed to get so close to the radar. So after 5 minutes the truck pulled into the military base, one which we didn’t even know existed as it had been blurred on google map. This was when we meet our lovely guards who guarded us with guns for many many hours. We were lead to the room by the Colonel and his commander to the room which we could have imagined the amount of time we would stay. It was like a small lecture theatre we sat at desks and he sat in the middle of the table at the front.
He began to speak and again for a long 10 minutes we didn’t know what was being said, in this time we were stripped of all of our possessions and then left. We were told we would be interrogated and that a translator needed to be located. That we were being held in case we were spies. We waited 2 hours while Konstantine and Igor were questioned and then it was my turn. I was lead by 6 armed soldiers to a room with two padded door and there sat a secret service agent in a suit with the translator sat next to him. I’ll never forget that corridor, the light back lighting the soldiers protecting our door, their helmets, guns and the shadows cast on the floor.
The questions were easy at first, my name, my intentions for being in Russia. And then it started to get weird. He asked me why I was at the radar and asked me if I knew I could go to prison for over 15 years for being a spy. I was asked questions about the queen and who were here enemies, what I thought about America, if I knew someone called Anna Chapman, I was asked about football teams, it was starting to get very weird and I realised I was in a bad situation. I tried to explain I was just a photographer, but the translator slipped I needed to prove to him that I wasn’t a spy. I had no idea how I could do this. He found it very suspicious I had a UK passport and has stamps from Ukraine, USA and now Russia. I could tell he was trying to brain wash me, reading my body language and looking deep into my eyes as I spoke. I was offered water but passed. I wasn’t up for being truth drugged. I has to tell him which electronic pieces of equipment were mine and he put them in a shelf to be investigated, my camera, my phone, passport. Over an hour later I was allowed back to the room with the others and then began the boring wait. It has already been 5 hours, but many more were to follow. To use the toilet an armed guard escorted us there and back. After 6 hours they gave in to our pleas for food and the translator brought us some army food, bread, cheese and meat sliced with an army knife. Even the guards were getting bored one by one they came in to grab chairs so they could sit down. We were insanely bored, the ticking of the clock driving us mad. After about 9 hours they gave us our possessions back , the light at the end if the tunnel. They had taken our camera cards. Apart from one off mine they failed to find. Alone in the room again we took a series of photos and of Konstantine asleep on the desk. Using their whiteboard sticks as lightsabers.
Finally 10 hours later the Colonel returned, I don’t know what was said but finally we were free, taken out of the base, 10 hours of our time wasted but a story to tell to the children. Exploring around Moscow is also very hard as the traffic is the worst I have ever experienced, no matter what time of day the 8 lanes were choker with crazy cars all over taking and swapping lanes, undertaking, driving down lay-by and generally no rules at all, the amount of accidents we saw was terrible, including two cars front end in a massive ditch. i am very thankful we had Konstantine driving as he used to be a taxi driver and driver of trucks in the army. Without him I’m pretty sure after our accident in germany where we wrote off our car, we wouldn’t have survived long. Of course the traffic meant I started playing spot the classic Russian car game which was entertaining. We often sat for over 2 hours between locations in traffic, making it hard to fit a lot into one day, but we still managed to see over 15 locations on the trip and some were very special indeed making it all worthwhile and very exciting that we had explored Russia when English explorers dare not go there.
I really enjoyed exploring this abandoned sanatorium in Russia, lots of interesting room with things still remaining. To get into the main section of the hospital we had to crawl along a small corridor with mattresses filling it, with just enough room to slowly edge forward. I guess I couldn’t get over the amount of mattresses stored away, stacked up like something from the fairy story The Princess and the Pea’. It took all of me to not climb to the top and start bouncing up and down like a kid on a trampoline. It was a very solemn place, but nice signs of the residents enjoying games of chess, looking at nice Soviet artworks, a music room, lots of books and evidence of sports like bowling shoes, skies. I get the impression the hospital must have got very cold in the winter, radiators stacked up. I was very relaxed exploring the rooms with Ian, Konstantine and Igor, time flew by as there were so many differing room to photograph, but it wasn’t long before we were driving on the crazy Moscow roads to get to the next location.