The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a sprawling socialist state that encompassed swathes of eastern Europe and Asia during the 20th century.
Though the USSR was dissolved in 1991, you can still explore the relics and history of the era at museums, monuments and memorials across the former Soviet Union.
In Moscow, for example, visitors can discover the history of the space race at the Museum of Cosmonauts. Alternatively, you can take a stroll around Lithuania’s Grutas Park, better known as Stalin World, where eerie old communist sculptures have been archived in a public sculpture garden.
From family-friendly museums to moving war memorials, towering statues to nuclear bunkers, here are 10 Soviet sites to visit in the former USSR.
1. Museum of Cosmonauts, Russia
Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonauts details the history of Soviet space exploration. During the mid-20th century, the USSR and the USA became embroiled in the space race, a battle for supremity in the study and exploration of the cosmos. The history of that era is covered in detail by the Museum of Cosmonauts.
Visitors to the museum can expect to witness former Soviet space shuttles and equipment, memorials to Soviet cosmonauts and even the stuffed remains of dogs Belka and Strelka, the first canines to survive a mission to space. After touring the museum, take a stroll around nearby VDNKh park, which is home to an aerospace exhibition, an oceanographic centre and replicas of Soviet aircraft and space rockets.
2. Stalin World, Lithuania
Stalin World, officially known as Grutas Park, is a socialist sculpture park near Druskininkai, Lithuania. During the time of the Soviet Union, communist sculptures, statues and idols adorned streets and squares across the country. After the fall of the USSR, these idols were moved to Grutas Park, where they still stand today. The park was controversial at the time, and some of its proposed features – Gulag style trains, tours of the site on cattle trucks once used for deportation – never became a reality.
Somewhere between a museum and a sculpture garden, Grutas Park is home to dozens of Soviet statues and artefacts. Visitors can expect to witness towering effigies of communist leaders, from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Lenin, as well as recreated artefacts from Gulag prisons, such as guard towers and fences. There is also a cafe and a mini zoo.
3. Bunker 42, Russia
Bunker 42, or Tagansky Protected Command Point, is a former Soviet nuclear command centre. The bunker was opened in 1951, when Cold War tensions around nuclear war were rising, and was intended to be a subterranean base for the USSR’s long-distance air strike force. It remained top secret until the details of the facility were declassified in 1995.
Today, Bunker 42 has been preserved and restored into a museum. Visitors can embark on guided tours of the facility, which sits more than 60 metres below the streets of Moscow. It’s a sprawling underground site that could have once housed thousands of isolated workers. Artefacts at the museum include Soviet hazchem suits and nuclear apparatus, while its exhibits detail the wider history of the Cold War and Soviet Russia.
4. Alley of Leaders, Ukraine
After the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, many former Soviet states banished the era’s statues and idols from their streets. Ukraine was no exception, but not all of the country’s old communist sculptures were destroyed or disposed of: some were collected by diver Vladimir Broumenskyy, who arranged them into an underwater museum, known as the Alley of Leaders, off the coast of Crimea.
Submerged near Cape Tarhankut, the Alley of Leaders is now a popular diving destination for those keen to explore the Soviet relics. Amongst the site’s 50 or so busts, which are now eerily coated in algae and seaweed, are depictions of various communist figures, including Stalin, Marx and Lenin. For those that don’t want to dive, the statues can sometimes be seen from the surface of the water due to the clarity of the sea in the region.
Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the communist Bolshevik party and became the first head of state of Soviet Russia after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He died of a stroke in 1924 and, despite requesting to be buried beside his mother in St Petersburg, his body was embalmed and put on public display. Originally displayed in a temporary wooden mausoleum, his remains were eventually housed in a grand, permanent museum on the border of Moscow’s Red Square.
Lenin’s embalmed body remains on display in Moscow to this day. It’s a popular tourist attraction, so expect to queue. Despite being open to the public, the mausoleum remains a place of reverence and historical significance: visitors are expected to be silent and respectful and are asked not to take photographs.
Situated in Budapest, the House of Terror (Terror Haza) is a museum dedicated to documenting the two brutal regimes that ruled Hungary in the 20th century: the Nazis and the Soviet Union. The building itself was once used as a Nazi-affiliated prison in the 1940s and later became the headquarters of the Soviet Political Police (AVH). It was home to untold horrors and crimes during these periods, the details of which have been recorded in the museum since it opened in 2002.
Today, the museum is both a vital document of life in Hungary under the Nazis and Soviets and a memorial to those who suffered under their rule. It documents the wider history of occupied Hungary as well as the horrors inflicted in the House of Terror itself. Unavoidably, some of the museum’s exhibits – including the cellars once used for torture and murder – tackle dark subject matter and horrific moments in history.
7. The Motherland Calls, Russia
This statue on Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd, Russia, was once the largest statue in the world, and remains the largest statue of a woman on the planet. The centre of a wider monument known as the ‘Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad’, the sculpture was designed by Yevgeny Vuchetich and is dedicated to the Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Stalingrad (1942–1943).
Visitors to the iconic statue will be greeted by a towering depiction of a woman wielding a sword, symbolic of determination and strength. Unveiled in 1967, it’s thought that the statue has shifted substantially with the movement of the earth over the years and the presence of groundwater, causing problems. The vast sculpture is very much still standing today, however.
8. Paldiski, Estonia
Paldiski in Estonia was once a top-secret Soviet military base, described by some as the ‘Soviet Pentagon’. Primarily a training centre for nuclear submarine crews, the site was utilised by the Soviet authorities from the 1960s until 1989.
Today, the Paldiski submarine base is open to the public. The site features an entrance exhibition, which details the site’s former life as a Soviet military hub, and an array of long-since abandoned buildings and structures. Since its time as a nuclear base, its reactors have been encased in concrete and the entire area cleared of pollution and nuclear waste.
Perm-36, northeast of the Russian city of Perm, was a Soviet forced labour camp or Gulag, now preserved as a museum. The facility was established in 1946 and was essentially a concentration camp that housed political prisoners, POWs and criminals. It closed in 1988 and is now the best preserved former Soviet Gulag in Russia.
Visitors to Perm-36 can explore the former camp, including the sleeping quarters and workshops, in which prisoners toiled under gruelling conditions. The site shifted from private to state ownership in 2015, and it has since been rumoured that its exhibits now demonstrate fewer references to political suppression under Stalin and Brezhnev. Nonetheless, the camp itself is a vital piece of Russian history.
10. Mound of Glory, Belarus
The Mound of Glory – or Smaliavicki Rajon – is a memorial complex roughly 20km outside of the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Dedicated to the Soviet soldiers who died during World War Two, it features a towering mound of earth topped with bayonet-like obelisks. Specifically, it’s an ode to Operation Bagration of 1944, in which the region was liberated from Nazi control.
The complex first opened in 1969, and remains an important site today, hosting tourists, mourners and military parades. The mound is some 230 feet high and was created using scorched soil from former battlegrounds. Visitors can walk to the top to get a closer look at the imposing sculptures.