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Only officials left alive. Bomb shelters are being prepped for war in Russia but citizens are not supposed to know where they are

Amidst all the recent reports on the readying of civil defense facilities in various Russian cities for war, there is no official data either on how many there are, or, more importantly, where to find them. Moreover, the authorities have purposefully classified this information and have been discouraging those who want to get it through official channels. In reality, as The Insider has found out, most cities are not prepared for a potential bombing.

  • Finding shelter

  • 16,000 unknowns

  • The way it should be: the Israeli experience

  • Readjust and mobilize

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Benches, lanterns and first-aid kits are being hurriedly brought into bomb shelters in Moscow. According to Baza, some 900 shelters have already been set up in one of Moscow’s districts. Over the past few months, such news has been popping up from time to time in district and house chats not only in Moscow, but all over European Russia. Residents are of course interested where to hide in case of shelling, but the authorities do not disclose the addresses. This is the official position. Here is a typical answer of a deputy who is a member of a house chat in central Moscow:

“In case of danger, everyone will be warned. Bomb shelters are strategic facilities, so there will be no advance notice of their location.”

It sounds absurd, but once the law “on state secrets” was passed in 1990, data on “civil defense forces and means” has indeed been classified. Officials would be in violation of the law if they disclosed this secret to the public, says criminal defense lawyer Sergei Tokarev:

“In theory, any disclosure of the location of bomb shelters falls under this law. And if any governor or mayor decides to tell the population where they should hide in case of a bombing, they may in principle be held criminally liable for doing so.”

That’s why officials keep this information secret. And not only from ordinary citizens. For example, last June, when the prospects of nuclear war were being actively discussed in the state media, Moscow City Duma deputy Evgeny Stupin asked the Mayor's Office to provide the addresses of shelters in his constituency and tell him what condition they were in. The Mayor's Office replied that both answers were classified.

According to Stupin (he is a lawyer), the law on state secrets can be interpreted in several ways and it doesn’t provide for any special secrecy:

“It probably makes sense to raise this issue at the Moscow City Council meeting. On the other hand, since the authorities decided to keep mum, citing state secrecy, they probably won't say anything. But in the Soviet Union everyone knew how to find a shelter - there were signs on the walls”.

Finding shelter

Belgorod human rights defender Evgeny Sokolov tried so hard to find out anything about local civil defense facilities that he was sued.

“I have 17 months of combat experience in Afghanistan, and I have a good understanding of artillery and mortar fire. I myself hid from shelling more than once. So, when they started dropping bombs on us last spring in the Belgorod region, I decided to find out where citizens could hide.”

Sokolov sent applications to the Security Council under the Belgorod mayor's office, to one under the governor of the Belgorod region, and to the regional department of the EMERCOM. In response, the agency's representatives decided to sue. They claimed that Sokolov “abused his rights to appeal to state bodies as evidenced by his intention to cause harm to the reputation of the Russian EMERCOM in the Belgorod region through the unfair use of his right to appeal, as well as by his lack of intent to actually protect his life, health, violated rights and interests, and his lack of intent to perform his civic duty”.

“Abused his rights to appeal to government authorities”

Whatever it means, this is the language used in the court documents (a copy is at the disposal of the editorial office). The Ministry of Emergencies intended to collect 50,000 rubles from the human rights activist. However, according to Evgeny Sokolov, unforeseen circumstances affected the outcome of the case.

“In early July, right before the day the judgment was supposed to be handed down, a Tochka-U missile strike landed three hundred meters from the court. It destroyed several private homes and killed several people. Eventually, the judge understood everything and ruled in my favor. But the Ministry of Emergencies still didn’t come to their senses. In court, my representative and I asked them again where we should hide in case of missile strikes or artillery shelling. They replied: “We have bomb shelters, but we won't tell you about them because it's a big, big secret.”

Interestingly, the state secrecy regime itself will not go anywhere even in the case of an official outbreak of hostilities, says Sergei Tokarev:

“Even the imposition of martial law does not make this classified information unclassified and does not allow the public to be informed of the addresses of civil defense facilities. There must be a separate directive for this. Now there is a martial law regime in the regions that, according to Russian law, were annexed to Russia this fall. But at the same time, I am not aware of any directives that would allow the addresses of bomb shelters in these territories to be made public.”

And indeed, according to Yevgeny Sokolov, a search on the recently created “dot ru” website of the Russian Kherson administration did not supply any information about bomb shelters.

“Keen on finding out where we could hide, I went to the basements of our management company, and it turned out that none of them were ready. The keys to the basements were not immediately available, they were kept by an old lady who looked for the elevators. And, of course, no one knew where to find shelter.”

Vladimir Ryazansky, co-chairman of the Russian Housing Federation explains that in Moscow ordinary management companies (district state-controlled Zhilishchniks and, moreover, commercial ones) do not manage shelters:

“They are within the purview of civil defense and emergencies departments under the city manager, and they are serviced by the miliary. In other regions, it is different: shelters can be serviced by regular management companies at the discretion of the governor's office and subject to a government directive. Keys to shelters, on the other hand, are usually kept by 24-hour emergency services within walking distance of the houses they serve. That's where one should get them in case of emergency.”

There are also some Civil Defense and Emergency consulting offices in various districts of Moscow. Moscow deputy Evgeny Stupin visited the one located in his district:

“They told me there are simply no civil defense facilities in this district, Nekrasovka. If we are talking about my constituency, only those neighborhoods that were built during the Soviet era have some bomb shelters. Those underground facilities are currently used as parking lots and auto repair shops. So, residents will be able to hide there during an air raid, if, of course, they are allowed in.

16,000 unknowns

“Built-in non-residential premises #1001 (shelter)... The initial annual rent is 372,610.0 rubles,” – that’s how a typical auction notice looks like on the website of one of the Russian cities. Yes, bomb shelters in Russia are freely rented out. In this case the administration is offering to adapt the civil defense facility for an atelier, a workshop, a reception area, or for use as a place for cultural, educational, or sports activities. It is also allowed to convert shelters into shops, cafes, production facilities (with some limitations), warehouses and parking lots. If necessary, it is even possible to build temporary partitions inside. So, the auction is quite legal.

No one really knows how many bomb shelters there are in Russia. The latest figures were published in 2016 by the Accounts Chamber. The inspectors then counted 16,448 of them across the country, and their number was constantly decreasing. Since 2013, the number of shelters dropped by 9%. Although, in theory, developers are still required to build them along with new apartment blocks.

As Igor Petrov, head of the Genpro general design bureau, points out, there have always been requirements for the construction of civil defense and emergencies facilities:

“Such facilities should be constructed as part of development projects, and the relevant department issues technical conditions necessary for their implementation. In addition, if a building is to be demolished in which a civil defense and emergencies facility is located, the developer is required to erect a similar facility as part of the new building which is to be constructed in this area.”

Another noteworthy point from the Accounts Chamber report: according to the auditors, 95% of pre-1993 civil defense facilities were in an unsatisfactory condition.

95% of pre-1993 civil defense facilities were in an unsatisfactory condition

One can get a rough idea of what it means by reading numerous reports written by diggers: dirt, everything is broken and torn apart, doors broken down. Sometimes certain parts of the facility are being lazily repaired. Journalists routinely write similar reports, since a trip to a bomb shelter is a frequent topic of urban reporting. No addresses are specified as diggers prefer to keep their sites secret and journalists are afraid of breaking the law. So, there is no easy way to double check such reports.

Since citizens are not allowed into secret bomb shelters, and the Ministry of Emergencies does not get feedback from them, the agency has come up with an original way to somehow monitor the condition of those facilities. Since 1996, all regions of Russia have been holding beauty contests among civil defense facilities on a regular basis.

Since 1996, all regions of Russia have been holding beauty contests among civil defense facilities on a regular basis

According to the terms of the contest, a bomb shelter can score 3,000 points, but points are taken off for each malfunction. For example, a broken airtight door costs 10 points, while a missing life-support unit costs 60 points. An inoperative diesel power plant costs another 200 points, a broken toilet costs 20 points. Apparently, not a single facility has managed to score 3,000 points. The one that gets the highest score wins. For example, in 2019, in the Eastern district of Moscow, the shelter at the site of Thermal Power Plant 11 turned out to be the best.

The way it should be: the Israeli experience

According to Israeli military expert Sergei Migdal, classified information on bomb shelters is a Soviet atavism:

“For the people who are now in power in Russia, the USSR, with its state secrets and secrecy, is a favorite period. Here in Israel, it never occurs to anyone to hide bomb shelters from people. Their addresses are on special websites. And in case of any escalation that could lead to rocket attacks, people are told on TV where to find the information. All residents have special apps on their phones that warn them of missile launches and give them the addresses of the nearest shelters.

Migdal says that all of the city's large underground parking lots are dual-use spaces:

“There are water and food supplies and toilets on every floor. Staff of the companies which own parking lots belong and the IDF Home Front Command are responsible for their condition. There are periodic inspections, in which I myself participated when I worked for the police. They detect problems, not in the sense that everything has been broken and stolen, but in the sense that the food supplies have not been restocked for a long time or that some of the doors are not opening properly. Bomb shelters under apartment buildings are run by the tenants' councils, and they also keep the keys.”

Not only that, every modern apartment has a special safety room – a room made of solid concrete with a tightly closing door and thick steel shutters. Practice shows that even if a house suffers a direct hit by a rocket, the occupants taking shelter in the safety rooms can suffer nothing worse that a contusion.

One can sometimes see special factory-made concrete shelters by the roadside where bus and car passengers can quickly hide. Such constructions have recently appeared in Ukraine as well.

According to Sergei Migdal, a light metro is now being built in Tel Aviv, and its underground stations will also become part of the civil defense system. “By the way, the Ukrainian experience has shown us that the deep Soviet metro does a great job,” says Migdal.

The deep Soviet metro does an excellent job at civil defense

But, as it turned out recently, even the subway is not a panacea. After it was explained to deputy Evgeny Stupin that there were no bomb shelters around Nekrasovka, his district’s municipal deputy Dmitry Shuvalov decided to find out if it was possible to hide in the metro. He received the official answer: “Nekrasovka metro station is not suitable for sheltering people during a special period.”

Yevgeny Stupin says there are “no three-day water supplies, no filtration systems, no toilets for those using the shelter.”

Readjust and mobilize

Roman Lisitsyn, a former special forces officer who teaches a survival course in Belgorod, told The Insider in an interview:

“Next to the spot the Tochka-U missile hit in July, there is a nine-story building where one of my former students lives. He was the only one who reacted immediately and took his family to a safe place, a stair landing. And when many of his neighbors were hurt by shards of glass, he gave them first aid.”

According to Lisitsyn, interest in survival skills and tactical medicine has grown drastically among his fellow countrymen over the past six months. This fall, 2-3 times as many people want to enroll in relevant courses compared to last spring, when people were following war from the sidelines and were sure that they would not be affected by it.

“The turning point was that shelling in July. After that the authorities started preparing: they brought benches and water tanks to the basements and shelters. Active residents were able to make copies of the keys. But it's better to take care of everything yourself. Our five-story building also has a basement, and I brought canned goods, tools, water, warm clothes there.”

Another matter is when to use this shelter. The problem is that although the air defense system is triggered from time to time in Belgorod, no one has yet sounded the alarm, the expert says.

“The siren is working, I heard it during the drill. Apparently, the authorities are just trying to avoid panic. But it's strange, because everyone can hear the explosions anyway. It's a small town, it's as loud as a fireworks display. So, I have been writing in all the chats and groups: sound the air-raid alarm already. I want to know for myself that there’s a danger, and then I will decide myself how to behave.”

To confirm his words, Roman shows several videos. In Belgorod at night, explosions are rumbling, but the sirens are silent:

“It's actually only 30 kilometers out in the direction of the border, and you have to be on constant alert. You can no longer wander around the city and look around. One has to look for cover everywhere: a ditch, a curb, the entrance to the basement where you can hide. We all need to readjust and be ready.”

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