By Cheryl L. Reed
The button that could have started a nuclear holocaust is gray — not red.
I learned this after climbing into a nuclear rocket command silo, 12 floors below ground, and sitting in the same green chair at the same yellow, metal console at which former Soviet officers once presided. Here, they practiced entering secret codes into their gray keyboards, pushing the launch button and turning a key — all within seven seconds — to fire up to 10 ballistic missiles. The officers never knew what day their practice codes might become real, nor did they know their targets.
This base in Pervomaysk, Ukraine — about a four-hour drive from Kiev — once had 86 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of destroying cities in Europe and the United States. Though the nuclear warheads have been removed, the command silo with much of its equipment, giant trucks that carried the rockets to the base and an empty silo were preserved so that people could see what had been secretly going on at nuclear missile bases in the former Soviet Union. The museum’s collection includes the R-12/SS-4 Sandal missile similar to those involved in the Cuban missile crisis and the RS-20A/SS-18 Satan, the versions of which had several hundred times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“This is what the tourists come to see,” said Igor Bodnarchuk, a tour guide for Solo East Travel, a Kiev company that specializes in tours of Soviet ruins. “What else do we have to offer?”