VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Bunkered in a hillside above the port city where Russia’s Pacific Fleet anchors, Slavyansky Khleb may be one of the most secure bakeries on the planet.
The steel doors — big enough to drive a van through — are nearly 13-cm thick. The walls are reinforced concrete. There are water reservoirs, a filter to scrub radioactive contamination from the air and enough space to sleep director Sergei Prishchepin, his eight employees and 1,991 of their closest friends in case of nuclear war.
“This has everything: It has sewage treatment facilities, it has an electrical generator, it has air conditioning,” Prishchepin said.
The bakery, which shares its underground space with a furniture store, is one of the hundreds of businesses that have opened over the past decade in some of Russia’s unlikeliest places: the bomb shelters built to protect Soviet citizens in the event of war.
In Vladivostok alone, 60 small businesses, ranging from bars to sports clubs, have opened in the city’s 266 bomb shelters, said Lt. Col. Mikhail Shestakov, director of the engineering department of the Vladivostok division of the federal Emergency Situations Ministry. The city was once a closed military port where even Soviet citizens had to get special approval to visit. A likely target for U.S. warheads during the Cold War, civil defense long had a high priority here.
Elsewhere in Russia, officials are reluctant to disclose the number of bomb shelters or to say how many are in use as businesses, as information about the facilities is often considered sensitive. But in many cities, stores, restaurants, casinos and warehouses opened in places where Soviet officials once planned to house their populations in the event of a war, officials say.
The practice of renting out bomb shelters benefits both businesses and the government, said Shestakov. The underfunded ministry gets a financial shot in the arm by collecting rent (the money goes to Moscow, not local coffers, he said). Businesses are required to maintain the shelters they occupy. And in a city where there is insufficient commercial space, small business owners are delighted to find a place, however dungeon-like, to set up shop.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the practice. Viktor Lebedev, head of the Moscow Department of Real Estate, said the city rents out bomb shelters as parking lots and warehouses, but it has been burned by carelessness in the past. One casino filled a bomb shelter with slot machines but managed to destroy the emergency equipment before pulling out.
For decades of Cold War, the Soviet Union excelled in the construction of bomb shelters. They were placed under buildings and dug into hillsides in cities from Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Anadyr on the Bering Sea. The Soviet Union embraced civil defense preparations even after Westerners adopted a more fatalistic attitude, talking about nuclear winter and the end of the human race were nuclear war to break out.
The Primorye region, in which Vladivostok is located, has a wide range of businesses underground. Until recently, a paint-ball company allowed warriors to duel it out in a former bomb shelter. The local branch of a German company sells cleaning equipment out of a 1956 bomb shelter not far from the regional administration building. In Ussurisk, 100 km to the north, a restaurant occupies a former bomb shelter.
One of the strangest bomb shelters is Grotto, a restaurant in Arseniev, about 200 km north of Vladivostok as the crow flies. Grotto — built in 1967 to hold several hundred people in the event of a war — was designed to double in peacetime as a restaurant and was cozily decorated with looming wooden dinosaurs. A Tyrannosaurus Rex lunges at a duckbill platypus over diners cutting their beef patties and slurping their borscht.
Next door to Prishchepin’s bakery, a furniture store displays couches, beds, chairs, wardrobes and China cabinets. There is a warehouse feel to the store: Its large inventory does not even fill the empty hall. Off the showroom is a smaller room filled with air conditioners and a generator the size of a tractor engine.
Prishchepin, the bakery owner, said he and his employees repainted and remodeled the building before moving in. “It would be a waste of resources to use these premises as just a warehouse,” he said. As it happens, Prishchepin and his partner, Vladimir Datsko, were part of a construction crew that helped build the shelter 20 years ago.
“War never seemed a reality, but we did think about other disasters,” he said.
And did he ever imagine that he would one day be baking sweet rolls in the bomb shelter he built?
“If we had imagined that,” Prishchepin said, “we would have built it better.”
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