Monday, February 15, 2010

How Many Bomb Shelters Were There in the USSR?

I've been collecting data on the number of bomb shelters in various Russian cities. This was a topic of major debate decades ago, when some analysts argued that the Soviet Union pursued a "war survival" capability in order to undermine America's nuclear deterrent. I'm getting some really interesting stuff out of the archives here, which I'm going to use to craft an article about the USSR's shelter system. Here are some figures that have come out in recent years:

Moscow: 7,000+
St. Petersburg: 4003, 2873 in housing sector
Tula: ~300, approximately 100,000 spaces
Tver: ~200

The CIA estimated in 1986 that the USSR had shelter space for 11.2% of its urban population. Between these figures and what I've seen in the archives, I believe that this estimate was approximately correct.


Visionary said...

We had a bomb shelter in our school! During war between Iran and Iraq we used it.
Now schools utilize them as a basement. Just it!

DV8 2XL said...

While I do not doubt that the Soviets built these shelters, I have to question the economic wisdom of attempting to save any part of a country's urban population after the sort of full nuclear exchange that was assumed would occur is war broke out.

Any country can be divided into two parts. The first is the big cities, the industrial and population centers and the resource concentration they represent. Big cities got to be that way because they are in desirable locations, near good ports, river crossings or mountain passes. When the city goes, so does the locations.

And then there is everywhere else. In effect the cities represent a big vulnerable collection of assets gathered into single spots. The other zones represent dispersed ranges of resources spread over large areas. This is a very important distinction. The relative value of the urban areas and the rest of the country depends on the nation and society involved. However one thing is constant, the support and supplies that the cities need to survive comes from the outside. Given time, the non-urban zones will rebuild the cities. Their survival is, therefore, critical while the survival of the cities might not be.

As grim and as cold-blooded as it sounds, not producing a lot of hungry refuges from broken, radioactive cities, by building shelters for them to survive the attacks, will increase the chances that the zones outside these devastated charnel houses, can recover in a reasonable time, and keep the country as a viable state in the immediate aftermath.

I have no doubt that Western strategists did this sort of grim calculus early on, and civil defense preparations were made accordingly. These would not have included a program of bomb-shelters in big cities.

Sovietologist said...

My dissertation will examine these questions in excruciating detail. Long story short, though, never expect decisions made by the Soviet (or any) government to necessarily make sense. The program appears to have been shaped by institutional interests and bureaucratic inertia than by any sort of engagement with an overall strategy.

As for the survival of non-urban areas, in the 1970s there was apparently a very substantial program of fallout shelter construction in the countryside. An article I found recently in the Lenin Library that they were building 4-5 million fallout spaces a year in this era. The idea was that all but ~15% of the urban population would be evacuated to these shelters in the days leading up to war. Needless to say, this was making some far-from-certain assumptions about the foreseeability and predictability of a nuclear crisis...

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Sublime Oblivion said...

Very interesting, Sovietologist. As a fan of Herman Kahn with an interest in nuclear war (hmm, that sounds a bit psychotic), I'm looking forwards to your more detailed article.

One question - what do you know of the status of these bomb shelters today. Am I right in thinking that they been largely mothballed into storage spaces and the like, as in Switzerland or the US?

@DV8 2XL,
I don't really agree with that. Cities tend to contain a disproportionate amount of human capital relative to their share of the population. If adequate preparations are made (machine tool stocks, etc) in dispersed areas throughout the countryside, then the zombie problem can be handled and even turned to an advantage.

Sovietologist said...

The status of the bomb shelters is... complicated. The MChS likes to talk about them as if they're still extant, but the government lost control of a lot of them during privatization, while others were associated with facilities that have been simply abandoned (factories, etc.) Some of them are DEFINITELY still maintained, though--in fact, one of the archives I work in has one that's kept up, and I contacted a company that sells shelter equipment to maintain the things. But a few years ago the MChS magazine, Grazhdanskaia Zashchita, had an article decrying the poor state of many of the shelters. There are all kinds of stories about what's happened to them. They are parking garages, marijuana plantations, retail space, dance clubs, and more, when they are used. But they are also used for storage, too.

DV8 2XL said...

@ Sublime Oblivion - then you must have another explanation as to why there were no large shelter programs in the West during the Cold War.

Any rate what I wrote before is basically the stand that was taken by the RAND corp., the place that your hero Kahn worked.

Sublime Oblivion said...


Sorry - I don't know about RAND's official stand, but Kahn said otherwise. The relevant chapter is linked here.

PS. An interesting update on the Soviet bomb shelter front: Moscow to build 5000 new bomb shelters by 2012.

Russian Sphinx said...

I believe that there was some tendency to building bomb shelters also because WWII. Memories of the war were very fresh.

Visionary, my school also had a bomb shelter but we didn't need to use it. Strange was that the school was built in 80s.

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