Relics of the Cold War

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Image courtesy of Berlin Wall Memorial & Museum

Relics of the Cold War
| published December 10, 2014 |

By Thursday Review editors


The Ukrainian Crisis—brought on by a violent confrontation between the part of Ukraine with paternal loyalties to its old masters in Moscow and the west-leaning people of the Ukraine on the European side of the Dnieper River—reminded us that there are unhealed stress points and fractures across the globe. Russian President Vladimir Putin was displeased when the Ukrainians seemed on the verge of a major tilt toward the European Union, significant economics bonds with the U.S. and its partners, and even a possible realignment into NATO. Putin found these potential outcomes intolerable, and the result was a military crisis as dangerous as anything between the superpowers since the end of the Cold War. For Putin, the old KGB station chief, zero-sum stubbornness and cold calculations of the limits of confrontation tell us volumes about his political DNA.

These days, relics of the Berlin Wall which once so powerfully separated Berliners from each other—one side integrated into a sphere tilting toward the United States and the United Kingdom, the other locked into a political knot with the Soviet Union—remain a visual oddity and a tourist attraction, scar tissue which still winds its way strangely though the modern, reunited Berlin. Some sections, where the wall has been demolished, remain as eerie, open corridors; others have become parks; still other sections are museum pieces.

Scar tissue from the Cold War remains in hundreds of places around the world. During the long, often chilly relationship between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the two Marxist-Leninist powers faced their own disagreements, and several disputes over borders brought the two titans perilously close to open warfare. Obscure to many in the west, the worst of these potential flashpoints was near the triple border of Mongolia, Russia and China, where for decades, heavily militarized fortifications and military garrisons remained thriving, with only a hundred yards separating armed Chinese and Soviet soldiers.
satellite photos of RussiaJust a few miles south of the Russian town of Dauriya sits that once-disputed intersection. The Google satellite images clearly show how militarized that 100 mile stretch of border had become by the middle of the 1970s. So tense was the standoff over that disputed area that some analysts in Washington in those days believed that if war were to erupt between the Soviets and the Chinese, the flashpoint would likely be there, deep inside Asia, where two antagonists faced each other across rolling tundra and steppe.

satellite photos of Russia
On the Russian side of that demarcation, deep trenches were dug for almost the entire length of the disputed area. Near those sometimes parallel and zigzagging fortifications were heavy gun emplacements, artillery positions, and concrete pillboxes, and just a few hundred yards north, over the shoulders of the Soviet infantry and gunners, were missile launchers and silos—clearly visible today as peaked concentric circles in the images (most of the missiles and rockets, presumably, are gone now). Gravel and concrete access roads form a web of mobility for the Soviet commanders and troops. bunkerThe irregular patterns of the trenches and the gun placements represent the Soviet belief—both reasonable and well-calculated—that any attack by China would include waves of infantry, swarming on foot across the disputed border, and backed by tanks and light armor. Russian planners surely imagined Chinese infantry numbering easily into the tens of thousands. The zigzags would provide concentrated fields-of-fire for Soviet infantry and gunners taking aim at the Chinese. Those short-range missiles, many of them likely tipped with nuclear warheads, were meant as the fallback plan if Chinese troops overran the Soviet trenches and gun emplacements.

On the Chinese side just to the south, more than fifty miles of earth berms are visible even to this day from space. Elaborately terraced areas webbed with gravel roads can be clearly seen in Google imagery, a network of roads built to support a massive military garrison, and separating small fields which would have been used to grow food for what was a semi-permanent encampment. Fortifications, trenches, and large foxholes remain intact by the thousands, and shadows of watchtowers are clearly visible. Satellite images of the roads and elaborate access patterns suggest that the Chinese, in those days, may have positioned as many as 250,000 troops along this narrow band of Inner Mongolia, meaning the Soviet analysis of the strength of Chinese infantry was well-grounded.

The Korean War, and the resulting isolation of the Chosan North, has also left permanent alterations to the landscape and a thousand years of human design.

satellite image Korea
view of North Korean village

Along the Tumen River which separates China from North Korea, many bridges remain as partial engineering relics—in some cases just a stump with a few dozen yards of bridge intact like a pier, in other cases with nothing left but the pilings. This Google image near Hunyung-ni, North Korea, illustrates both variables, and a reminder that the isolated North Korea prefers to keep itself cut off from much of the world—even its larger neighbor China—as much as it insists that its people remain within its borders. The next image is a photo taken from the Chinese side of the Tumen River, using a telephoto lens to peer into North Korea at Sambong. Notice the conditions of the buildings and rooftops, and the almost complete absence of vehicles (one car can be seen the foreground, and an aging cart and tractor can also be spotted). This photo was taken by a Panoramio user who posted it publicly on Google.

Finally, for those who live in the United States, and have the joy of visiting the warmth of Key West, Florida, there is the strong possibility that a visit to the “Southernmost Point in the U.S.” marker is in order. A wide, round concrete obelisk, located at the south foot of Whitehead and South Streets (each street terminates at this corner), indicates the “tourist” location with a painted marker. Tens of thousands of visitors take photos of themselves standing at that spot.

Key West In fact, this famous marker is not the southernmost point. The real southernmost point sits two hundred yards to the west, at the south edge of Key West Naval Air Station, on a slice of property overseen by the United States Government and a host of agencies (NSA, CIA, FEMA, Homeland Security, FBI). Marginally visible from the “official” marker, this jut of land bristles with high tech hardware—antennae, listening devices, satellite dishes, radar equipment, military gadgetry, and forward-looking image swag of nearly every kind. Built at the height of the Cold War, and upgraded and supplemented regularly ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis, this tip of Key West became—electronically speaking—the first line of defense against anything incoming from Cuba, points south across the Caribbean, or from South America (Cuban pilots, Russian MiGs, Soviet-era ballistic missiles, Columbian drug-runners in high-speed boats). It was also a convenient spot on which to place surveillance gear for the purposes of eavesdropping on Fidel Castro, only 90 miles away in Cuba, and an American nemesis for decades.

And because Key West loves fun and relaxation even more than tracking Russian jets or wafts of Cuban cigar smoke, only a two-minute walk from the high tech fence surrounding all that military technology: a pristine white beach with cabanas, palm trees, plenty of parking, and room for the kids to pay in the sand.

Do you have some great photos of historical interest among your world travels? Send them to us here—along with some information about the image—and we’ll publish it crediting you at Thursday Review. Any art used on our Front Page or Features Page will also be eligible for payment or a gift card. Just email us at

Photo credits: Berlin Wall photo courtesy of Berlin Wall Memorial & Museum; Satellite images of border near Russia, China and Mongolia courtesy of Google; Photo of Soviet gun bunker courtesy of Panoramio/Google; Aerial image of North Korean bridge courtesy Google; Photo of Sambong taken by Panoramio user in China and posted on Google; Key West image courtesy of Google and U.S. Geological Survey.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Getting Lost in Spain; Krista Tani; Thursday Review; May 21, 2014.

Will Hong Kong’s Protest Movement Falter? Thursday Review staff; November 26, 2014.