In a land as vast as Russia, one wonders what abandoned places are lying out there waiting to be discovered. There are stories of entire mining towns in Siberia that have been left completely deserted, or fields filled with Soviet-era aircraft and tanks, simply left to rust. In little visited oblasts lie derelict factories, forgotten cathedrals, abandoned military bases, and the ruins of heavy industry.
But perhaps the place which most captures the imagination is a decaying hangar on the remote desert steppes of Kazakhstan. Venture inside this giant, rusting building, and you’ll discover futuristic looking gantry ways, cranes the size of skyscrapers and most incredibly of all, two pale white aircraft that look a lot like the Space Shuttle.
Very few people have stepped foot inside this eerie, forgotten place since 1988. That was the year the Soviet Union scrapped its fledgling space shuttle programme, the doomed Buran, leaving the remnants to decay inside the hangar. In this edition of the Fellow Explorer’s Club, we caught up with someone who’s actually dared to go inside.
Based in Moscow, Anastasia Ria is an explorer and photographer dedicated to tracking down and capturing the abandoned places and machines of the former USSR. Her photographs beautifully capture these ghosts of the Soviet Union.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is the world’s largest, operational space launch facility. Some of mankind’s greatest achievements happened here: the launch of the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1, and the first manned space flight, Vostok 1 amongst them. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to venture into space, launching from Baikonur.
Still today astronauts walk past Yuri Gagarin’s simple cottage on their way to be taken to the International Space Station. But not far from the modern day launch pad, lie the forgotten ruins of the Buran space shuttle programme.
Just getting to Baikonur itself is a hazardous journey. Located 1,500 miles south east from Moscow, and 40 km from the nearest town, the only way to get there is a gruelling trek across the Steppe. Getting inside the abandoned space facility is even harder: as one of the few, active space ports on the planet, it is heavily guarded.
“It’s a military object and it is under constant surveillance,” explains Anastasia Ria. “In order to get there, we had to walk 40 km through a desert. I could feel that it was one of the most important challenges in my life.” Exploring such a guarded secret is so dangerous that Anastasia Ria is an alias, the photographer’s real name remaining a secret.
“The thing is, some of the photos I’ve taken were not allowed to be published,” she explains. “Once authorities even deleted them from my memory card but I managed to restore them. I am really happy to share my work with public but I wouldn’t like to get in more trouble than I already have.”
But the expedition across the hostile terrain of Kazakhstan, and evading security produced awe inspiring photographs. “Seeing abandoned spaceships with my own eyes has always been my dream,” explains Anastasia Ria. “I spent almost two years talking my friends into this dangerous trip.”
The Buran was designed to compete with NASA’s space shuttle, taking the Cold War into space. In Russian, its name means ‘snowstorm’ or ‘blizzard,’ and was the most expensive project undertaken by the Soviet space programme. On November 15th, 1988, the Buran made its first and only test mission, traveling twice around the Earth in an astonishing 3 hours and 25 minutes.
The Buran space shuttle landed successfully back at Baikonur Cosmodrome, but would never fly again. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the vast expense, estimated at 20 billion rubles, saw the ill-fated programme shelved.
If Baikonur is difficult to explore, countless other abandoned relics of the Soviet Union are far easier to find. “Urban Exploration is highly popular in Russia,” explains Anastasia Ria. The “Soviet era left us generous heritage – abandoned factories, colleges, youth summer camps and much more. I have a special place in my heart for ships, planes and lighthouses which all can be easily found in Far East and Russian North. We normally don’t have problems with getting around unless our target is a military object like Baikonur.”
Abandoned churches and cathedrals are particularly common place. “When I was a child I used to spend a lot of time at my grandma’s house in the country. It’s located very close to an abandoned church which of course was my favourite place for playing,” says Anastasia Ria. “I guess that’s when I became fond of abandoned buildings, especially churches. There are so many of them in Russia – in Soviet Union religion was almost illegal and so many churches were plundered and left to rot. With my photography I try to show their unique, fascinating emptiness and beauty.”
Urban exploration in Russia is a close knit community, much as it is in the US. “Usually we look up places we want to visit beforehand,” explains Anastasia Ria. “There is a great Russian ‘urban’ website where explorers upload info on objects they visited, describe conditions and if there is any surveillance. Although access to this website is highly restricted.”
One recent technological advance which has widened the scope for looking for relics, is using drone footage. Anastasia Ria is part of the Kosmaj project, which uses drones to capture breathtaking photographs of abandoned buildings, monuments and towns, mostly in the former Eastern Bloc. Named for the extraordinary, brutalist monument in Serbia, Kosmaj is like a National Geographic for abandoned places, and one of our new favourite Instagram accounts.
But having managed to infiltrate Baikonur Cosmodrome, where next for Anastasia Ria?
“For a long time it was abandoned lighthouse on Sakhalin Island but last summer we managed to get to that remote part of Russia.”
Now I’m dreaming to visit a town in Yakutia called Mirniy. There I would like to take drone photos of a shut diamond mine Mir for our Kosmaj Project. But that’s another story.”