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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Bomb Shelters Find Modern Use

APA man entering a bomb shelter on Export Street north of downtown Riga.��
LIGATNE, Latvia -- One of the old bomb shelters is now a fish cannery. Another has just been turned into a high-tech data storage center. Yet another is a museum.

Deep below the ground in Latvia runs a vast labyrinth of 311 bomb shelters, dating back to an era when Communist Party bosses built thousands across the Soviet Union in case of nuclear attack. But now, Latvia can no longer afford to maintain the shelters at a time when the government can barely pay public servants and is begging for help from the International Monetary Fund.

The government has drafted legislation to cancel the shelters' special status, allowing owners -- the government, cities and companies -- to do whatever they want with the property. Owners will no longer be responsible for simple maintenance, such as keeping the hydraulic doors in working order, for a savings of 1.7 million lats ($3.4 million) annually.

"In times of peace, these shelters don't serve any purpose, and in a war they could only accommodate 5 percent of Latvia's population," said Captain Maigurs Ludbarzs, head of civilian defense operations at the State Fire and Rescue Service.

It would take at least 7 million lats ($13.8 million) to make the shelters functional again. Last year, the Fire and Rescue Service proposed an investment program to resuscitate them, but ministers rejected it.

The shelters are a bone-chilling reminder of an age when two superpowers flirted with mutual annihilation.

In one expansive, well-scrubbed shelter beneath a former convalescent center used as a Communist Party weekend resort, bright yellow maps detail contingency plans in case of a nuclear war. Although the maps are old and their doomsday scenario is more than two decades in the past, the tour guide asks a group of journalists not to photograph them.

"That's the order from above," said Margarita Pluksna. "They still contain information that is considered secret."

Since Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, no significant investments have been made in the shelters. Most are neglected, and the Fire and Rescue Service estimates that one-third are flooded.

The bomb shelter on Export Street, just north of downtown Riga, is typical. This small facility, built a half-century ago to accommodate managers from the nearby port, is usually ankle deep in water. It is so damp that the guide refuses to switch on the light for fear that it will spark an electrical shortage.

"This kind of shelter was only meant to be used for two or three days -- just long enough to survive the initial blast," said Rihards Augucevics, a port employee in charge of the facility.

Generally, Latvia's bomb shelters are located next to factories, government offices and schools. The largest can accommodate up to 1,000 people. A few, such as the shelter beneath the Riga East University Hospital, Latvia's largest, have an entrance wide enough to drive a car through.

The private sector has come up with some creative solutions for the bunkers. A Latvian technology firm, DEAC, recently spent millions of euros transforming a command center in Riga -- capable of withstanding a 15,000-ton atom bomb -- into a data storage center. And in the 1990s, a Riga factory that produced telephone equipment leased its bomb shelter for paint-ball battles.

Latvians in general support the government's decision to part with the shelters.

"We're not target No. 1 anymore," said Uldis Petersons, 31, who recalls exploring several bomb shelters in the 1990s. "Commercial firms can probably put them to better use."