KGB spy base, mafia nightclub, secret tunnels… what is really going on in this quiet Warsaw suburb?
It is one of the most secretive and mysterious buildings in Warsaw.
Urban legend says that it was a spy base and safe house for the KGB, that it was home to a huge radio communication station, that it was occupied by the Russian mafia and even that there were mysterious underground tunnels and its cellars were used as a makeshift prison.
Until recently it was home to a nightclub with a unique selection policy: only those with a Russian passport could get in.
It sits in plain sight in a prime location on Warsaw’s Royal Route, which connects the residences of Poland’s kings in Old Town and Wilanów. Halfway along is another residence of the country’s former rulers – the Soviet Union.
The building at Sobieskiego 100 was built in the 1970s as a home for diplomatic staff. Its eye-catching design consists of three blocks, two of which rise in steps up to 11 storeys to make a pinnacle at the top. Some architecture fans fawn over it as a daring example of avant-garde modernism.
The entire complex is surrounded by a solid steel and marble fence with barbed wire and still bristles with security cameras.
The architects bolstered the sense of security by separating the living blocks from the street with a wall of utility buildings, and adding a moat-like pond at the rear where its neighbours a park.
When embassy staff lived there, it offered the best that the Soviet Union could provide in the 1980s.
A gate opened by remote control, there was 24-hour security with CCTV cameras, and the apartments were spacious, a far cry from Moscow’s cramped ant hill housing estates. It may have been the first ‘gated community’ housing estate in Warsaw.
The building had its own telephone exchange, a sauna, a hairdresser's in the basement, a cinema, an indoor basketball court, a social club and a kid's zone.
It was home for employees of the Soviet embassy and their families lived there permanently. It was also a hotel for Russians on business trips. Limousines were saluted by guards in uniforms.
Rumours in the city were rife that it was actually a KBG spy base. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the diplomats moved out and the building was abandoned.
However, the Russian Federation has never given up its claim to the building, it is surrounded by barbed wire and security guards keep a watchful eye over it.
When TFN’S photographer circled the perimeter, he was followed by several pairs of hawkish eyes.
Few Poles have ever seen the inside of the building, adding to its mystique. One group of urban explorers, though, has penetrated its interior around eight times.
Marek Słodkowski from Urbex Polska told TFN: “When we decided to try to get inside, we had no idea about the mystery surrounding the building. We just thought it was a cool-looking abandoned residential building.
“It was only later that we learned about its past and that it was owned by Russia,” he added.
For Marek, who has a long history of exploring abandoned buildings in Warsaw, the strangest thing about Sobieskiego 100 is that the electricity is still connected.
“Electricity is not free, so someone is paying to keep it connected,” he said.
The building was abandoned in the mid-1990s. The Russians quickly fenced off the area and hired security guards. Despite this, homeless people often found shelter there.
The building has fuelled fevered speculation among conspiracy theorists, who believe that Russian agents were hiding there. Urban legends also speak of bricked-up rooms and mysterious underground tunnels.
These theories were propelled by the fact that General Staff of the Polish Army is nearby, possibly making it an ideal spot for spying.
When the Urbex Poland explorers went in, they didn’t find any evidence of espionage activity, but what they did find chilled them to the bone.
A man in Russia who had seen one of the group’s earlier videos on YouTube claimed he had lived in the building as a child and knew how to access the warren of tunnels underneath the building.
He sent a crudely drawn map, which turned out to be accurate. One of the explorers, Michał, found the secret access point. In the torch-lit basement, he found a child’s doll with its eyes gouged out, as well as baby chairs, a potty seat and other toys.
Michał said in press reports: “Immediately in my mind a scenario arose that children were kept there, because who would take so much trouble to carry children's chairs to such places? However, even more puzzling were the discoveries in the further part of the tunnels, when I went through very narrow and low corridors, where no one had been for years, in the very middle there was a doll.
“A light went on in my head that something was really wrong here... I started to put the facts together and wondered if all this stuff I came across wasn't proof that something bad really could have happened there and that this could be one of the reasons why they were guarding the place.”
Days later the mysterious Russian who had sent the map claimed he and a friend had taken the children’s items to the basement when they themselves were kids.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the building was leased to a company called Fart. It aroused considerable controversy and was said to be involved in negotiating gas contracts between Poland and Russia.
Its shady nature was evidenced by the fact that it was investigated by the Internal Security Agency in 2005.
Over time, rumours of espionage and dodgy dealings gave way to more concrete stories of wild partying when in the mid-2000s a nightclub opened inside the building.
Club 100 was hugely popular with Russians in Warsaw. Stories about expensive cars entering the building at night provoked speculation about links to the mafia.
A sign at the entrance stated that the club was open from 18:00 to 24:00. However, entry was only possible for those with a Russian passport. The club closed in 2017.
The team from Urbex Polska managed to locate the club inside the building and get inside after many attempts. Among the debris, they found a menu from when the club was functioning.
Cocktails on offer included Manhattans, Cosmopolitans, Foxy Ladies and Toasted Almonds. A mixed drink cost 13 PLN, a shot about 8 PLN and a coke 3.5 PLN.
While some of the legends surrounding the building may just be urban myths, the legal dispute over its ownership and possession between Poland and Russia is real enough.
Sobieskiego 100 is just one of several buildings occupied by Russia in Warsaw that date back to agreements signed between the People's Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Under these agreements, real estate located in Warsaw and Moscow was to be exchanged. The USSR received a dozen or so plots of land in Warsaw, while Poland still has only one plot in Moscow where its embassy stands.
Despite the passage of almost three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian authorities have not handed over the buildings despite Polish demands.
In October 2016, the District Court in Warsaw ordered the Russian authorities to hand over the building at Sobieskiego 100.
Six months later in April 2017, the same court ordered the Russian Federation to pay the Polish State Treasury more than PLN 7.6 million for non-contractual use of the property, pointing out that the Russians have no legal title to its possession. The Russian Federation did not represent itself at either hearing.
Although the legal battles are likely to go on for sometime, Urbex Polska claimed the building for Poland back in 2017 when it raised the national flag from the roof.
"The best thing about the building are the views of Warsaw from the top; they're awesome," Marek said.