Back in the USSR? For decades the small town of Borne Sulinowo was the most secret place in Poland
Living in Poland it’s not the beautiful you learn to love, but the bizarre. The way I see it, you can find beauty anywhere in the world, but it takes a special kind of country to do ‘crazy’ as well as Polska.
With that in mind, I can’t help but think to a road trip I undertook a few years back that exposed the country’s nutty underbelly in a manner like no other.
Along the way, the four-day odyssey presented a loony universe of magical weirdness: a museum dedicated to the history of soap and dirt (Bydgoszcz), a giant Nazi munitions complex buried in a forest like some forgotten Mayan ruin, a Wild West theme park by the name of Silverado and a castle hotel decorated with posters of topless 80s pop hunks (Szczecinek).
As compelling as all these were, it turns out that the best was saved to last: Borne Sulinowo.
Now there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Borne Sulinowo, but there’s a great reason for that. Omitted from the maps for the full duration of the Cold War, this tiny town (current population: 4,500), was at the very heart of the Soviet Union’s military presence in Poland.
For decades, no-one knew it existed and that sense of secrecy lingers to this day. But then, that’s always been the case.
Established in the 15th century, for yonks it was little more than a set of little villages occupied by a few dozen carrot-crunching peasants. This changed towards the end of the 19th century when the Prussian government purchased the land wholesale and converted it to serve military purposes.
In essence, however, it remained a backwater irrelevance until Hitler swept to power.
With one eye already casting eastwards, it was on his behest that a military training town was built so as to school soldiers in the art of artillery fire, tank battle and desert combat.
Such was his interest in its development, Germany’s Fuhrer reputedly attended the ribbon-cutting on August 18th, 1938.
Though this remains unconfirmed by mainstream historical sources, what is known is that Hitler did most certainly visit the garrison town on his train, the Amerika, on September 3rd, 1939.
By this stage, it had already assumed a key role as an essential part of the Nazi war machine: storing vast amounts of ammunition, it was here that Rommel’s Afrika Korps had trained and it was here, too, that General Guderian resided along with his notorious Panzer units that were to prove so devastatingly effective in Blitzkrieg warfare – where the latter is concerned, this was their springboard into Poland in the September campaign.
Even after the fall of Poland, its importance did not diminish and in later years Luftwaffe units were based in the immediate region, and so to a POW camp whose population was at first dominated by the French.
But whilst the geographical area was fiercely contested towards the end of the war, Borne Sulinowo passed into Soviet hands with little blood spilled.
For Stalin, the seizure of a readymade military town must have seemed like a gift from the Gods, so whilst the Red Army made a big show of levelling every inch of German soil, Borne Sulinowo remained unmolested.
And so, fast forward to the Cold War. With the borders rejigged, and Borne Sulinowo’s facilities largely intact, the town maintained its strategic importance as a potential launchpad for military aggression – only this time to the West.
As such, numbers swelled thanks to the transfer of the 6th Vitebsk-Nowogrodek Guards Mechanized Division, not to mention other units manning ballistic missiles and other destructive nasties.
With the population peaking at around 15,000, it was not until October 2nd, 1992, that the final Soviet troops withdrew from the town on cattle wagons destined East.
Finally handed over to Polish civil authority, a symbolic ceremony was held on June 5th, 1993, in which the town was formally reopened to the public. At last, Poland could say it was free from the Soviet yoke.
But would it be entirely correct to say that this marked a new chapter for the town? Possibly not. Though Poles from around the country initially flocked to snap up cut-price properties, the shackles of Soviet memory have proved harder to remove.
Visiting today isn’t too different from stepping back in time. Evidence of Borne Sulinowo’s history abound, from the rocket silos and bunkers that emerge from the undergrowth like twisted concrete toadstools, to stray bits of army hardware left abandoned by the Russians.
Almost Orwellian in atmosphere, it’s with wide eyes that tourists tread past former guardhouses or half-wrecked pavilions still bearing Cyrillic signage. History follows you whichever way you turn with ruined barracks, bus stops adorned with Soviet stars, and windswept parade squares making it a joy for urban explorers.
Ravaged by fire in 1990, Guderian’s former villa is one such property open to exploration, though fun, too, can be had simply poking your beak inside random addresses: Russian-themed restaurants selling booze in Kalashnikov-shaped glasses; a museum stacked with rusting wreckage; or little family-run stores vending baffling Russian snacks.
Altogether more somber is the silent, moss-clad cemetery on the fringe of the town. Notable for a tomb depicting a giant submachine gun pointing accusingly to the heavens, the graves include those of soldiers killed in training exercises, unnamed deserters, epidemic victims, as well as the family members of those that were based here.
Adorned with weather-eaten toy animals, I have not seen a sight more heartrending – or creepy – than the children’s section of this graveyard. It’s impossible to remain unmoved by these half-rotted tributes to these short infant lives.
Defined by its removed sense of reality, it’s a town in which mysteries lurk unhindered by logic. Rumours of secret tunnels, military experiments and, even, undiscovered submarine depots by the lake are spoken of on message boards, and it’s no surprise to find that the town has begun to embrace its history to offer a panoply of festivals and activities related to its past.
Being here, you are left staggered and that sensation follows you as you make the bumpy, pot-holed ride to Kłomino down the road. Past acres of rolling scrubland, your journey culminates at what’s often cited as Poland’s only ghost town.
Built by the Germans in the 30s to serve as barracks for the Wehrmacht (a few structures were allegedly torn down to supply building materials for Warsaw’s Palace of Culture & Science), the Russians later added a series of monstrous panel blocks to the town.
Uninhabited since 1992, and now largely reduced to rubble, they’re a remarkable ruined homage to this most craziest of places.
Borne Sulinowo lies in the North-East of the country in between Szczecin and Bydgoszcz. For more information see: www.bornesulinowo.pl