Russia celebrates 60 years since Gagarin's spaceflight - This was his air base near Norway

Russians on Monday celebrate that it is sixty years since astronaut Yuri Gagarin became first human in space. From 1957 to 1959, Gagarin served as a pilot at the air force base in Korzunova on the Kola Peninsula.
April 12, 2021
Yuri Gagarin saying “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”) as spacecraft Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961 kicked off is still a legendary and frequently used statement among Russians. The Soviet cosmonaut’s heroic flight made him one the country’s most admired historic figures.

Up north, in the Murmansk region, the 60th anniversary is marked with special proud. For nearly three years, from 1957 to 1959, Lieutenant Gagarin served as a pilot with the Northern Fleet’s 169th fighter regiment deployed at Loustari air base in the town of Korzunovo.

Located in the Pechenga valley, this was the Soviet Union’s nearest military airport to NATO territory. From here, Norway is 16 kilometers away, or less than a two minute flight after take-off.

In addition to eastern Turkey, this was the only place the USSR had a direct land-border to a NATO member. Some few tens of kilometers east of Luostari are the bases for the Northern Fleet’s strategic nuclear powered submarines. Keeping them safe from possible enemy attacks has always been of highest priority.

A few thousand people lived in the town of Korzunovo. Mainly pilots and officers serving the aircraft and airport. 

Today, the town is nearly empty. Silent and strange. Bushes and trees start to grow in between the pavers and concrete pads that once formed the runway and placements for warplanes. The amount of plastic garbage may surprise you, where does it all come from? There are very few people here nowadays. The several square kilometers large closed-down airfield isn’t exactly the main picnic destination for people in the Pechenga region.

 

Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

When the air force wing was redeployed to Severomorsk-1 air base twenty years ago, the apartments blocks and town infrastructure was left almost uninhabited. Empty deserted houses in a row along the main street create an image of a ghost town. Not totally so, the yellow school bus still drives the street and a small shop still keep its doors open. A post office is inside one of the apartments blocks, though hard to find. There are some 250 people living in Korzunovo.

Looking away from the abounded airfield and the ghost town apartment blocks, the location of Korzunova is a beauty spot in the Arctic taiga forest.

The shallow Pechenga river flows free and is famous for its salmon catches. Just down the hill is the newly reconstructed Pechenga monastery with all its picturesque orthodox log buildings looking similar to how the monastery was before the Swedes burned it down 450 years ago.

Gagarin still shines glory to what’s left of the town. Driving along the main street, his golden bust stands across the road from the town administration, just under the wings of an old greenish propeller plane on display. A small, but highly informative museum honoring Gagarin is open for visitors. Although you have to make an appointment for the museum to open. Korzunovo doesn’t get that many visitors from outside, yet. At the museum, you learn that Yuri Gagarin and his wife Valentina’s elder daughter, Elena, was born in Korzunovo in April 1959. Elena Gagarina is today Director of the Kremlin museums in Moscow.

 

The yellow school bus in front of one of the two apartment blocks where people still are living. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

The local school in town serves the surrounding military garrisons like Lower Luostari, Upper Luostari and 19 km where Russia’s 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade is located. Happy pupils disembark the yellow school bus; not all children in the world have a huge closed down airfield as the nearest playground. The abandoned terminal building is just a few hundred meters from the school yard. For one or another reason, the flight control tower is still manned. A woman, most likely not educated as flight control officer, is sitting behind large windows at the top of the tower. Watching nothing else than the empty airstrip and ruins of other buildings along the apron and taxiways.

Visited by the Barents Observer a few years back, the woman in the tower was not very communicative when understanding a foreign reporter was walking the airfield. There is a kind of audible silence as you walk across the more than two kilometers long runway. Half fallen brick walls at the different buildings, the half demolished hangars, ammunition bunkers, scrap metal everywhere, the walk is really a tour through Cold War history. A kind of outdoor museum. You can perfectly well imagine the final call over the speaker system: «Hi guys, the Cold War is over! Take your aircraft and other valuable equipment with you and let’s take-off and move away from here. Away from the Norwegian border. Final bording call. Bye, bye Luostari.»

 

Once upon a time, a busy runway for warplanes. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

All planes from the base were moved to Severomorsk-1 near Safonovo north of Murmansk around the year 2000. With the departure, all landing lights, radio-communication gear and radars were demolished and moved away. The shadows of the past, however, are still visible. «Peace on earth. We protected our freedom in fight,» reads a slogan on a wall of one of the abounded houses. Another reads «The victory of communism is inevitable.»

Although the military presence is history inside the town, the outskirts is still important for Russia’s Arctic brigde under command of the Northern Fleet. A road-sign in the end of the main street of Korzunova points you in the direction of the «Tankodrom», a training area for tanks. Also other heavy military vehicles uses the area for exercises.

You can see more photos from Korzunovo and the surrounding area in the image gallery in top of this article. All photos in this article are taken some few years ago.

 

A golden bust of Yuri Gagarin shines the glory of the town. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

 

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