Underground reminders of the Cold War struggle to find a purpose
During the Cold War, hundreds of underground military bunkers and shelters were built by the communist regime throughout Slovakia. Today, most of them are in a poor state of repair and serve little useful purpose. But though their maintenance costs are high, government authorities say the facilities should be preserved as an important part of the nation’s safety infrastructure. In a time of peace, experts say, the challenge is to find some effective use for the bunkers.
There are numerous examples of “making the best of a bad job”, with shelters being turned into galleries or cafes.
The Nitra Gallery, for instance, has recently opened a new exhibition hall in an airtight bunker in the city, called, unsurprisingly, the Bunker. It plans to display modern art work by young artists but also to host different alternative exhibitions as well as music, theatre or video performances.
“This idea had occurred to my fellow curators a long time ago, but there was nobody to make it real,” said Omar Mirza, curator of the Bunker. “I took the opportunity and launched the project.”
Mirza, along with his colleagues, managed to obtain financial support to renovate the premises, while the young artists adjusted their artwork to the character of the building.
“They carved various sculptures in the walls,” the curator told The Slovak Spectator. “People are not accustomed to seeing art in such space. So far, we have had only positive reactions.”
Mirza said that all bunkers should be used similarly if possible.
“There are lots of empty shelters throughout Slovakia, which ought to be revived,” Mirza said. “Remaining idle they only decay, and using them for art is the best way to exploit their potential.”
Like other bunkers, this one is listed as a functioning bunker, and in case of emergency it must be vacated.
“We are obliged to abandon the premises if necessary, but I actually cannot imagine anybody using the bunker in wartime,” Mirza said. “The air conditioning is out of order and neither of the lavatories is serviceable.”
The owners of SubClub, an underground disco club in the old town of Bratislava, were also informed of their obligations, given that their bar is located in a bunker.
Erik Babušiak, manager of SubClub, said that he does not consider this commitment a particular burden.
“Of course, we have to vacate the premises if necessary, but this does not limit our activities at all,” he told The Slovak Spectator. “Once every few months, an inspector comes to check some equipment, but we do not even have keys to the doors behind which all these devices are kept.”
In contrast to the gallery in Nitra, owners of SubClub did not try to adjust the fittings to the ‘military’ character of the place.
“I would say that the pipes and water tanks serve rather as relics that remind our guests of the former purpose of the bunker,” said Babušiak.
The majority of bunkers in Slovakia are empty. The city of Košice, for example, owns 51 and only two of them have been rented out; one to the National Library and the other to a private firm. Both tenants use them as storage places.
The city would certainly be glad to rent out more of its shelters because maintenance costs are relatively high, said Jana Geročová, spokeswoman for the City of Košice.
Rental yields at present cover only about one quarter of the total expenses, she added.
Even the Interior Ministry itself supports peacetime use of bunkers for entertainment or other useful purposes.
“It is in our interest to preserve and maintain protective shelters in the best condition possible,” Ľudmila Staňová, spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior, told The Slovak Spectator. “Renting them to entrepreneurs is a good way to do so. Stores and underground garages, but also discotheques and bars, help to prevent these buildings from becoming dilapidated.”
Simply by running these businesses, their owners more or less automatically fulfil regular requirements for checks, which would otherwise have to be carried out by civil servants.
“According to the law, maintenance of bunkers and shelters involves, for example, regular temperature, humidity and ventilation checks,” said Staňová.
Although maintaining bunkers is obviously a demanding job, the ministry considers them to be an important part of the country’s safety system.
“A place to shelter in case of emergency is one of the key aspects of preventing our citizens from finding themselves in danger,” Staňová said, adding that the right to protection is in fact enshrined in the constitution: “Preserving existing bunkers and building new ones is a very effective form of protection.”
Stanislav Križovský, director of the Institute of Citizens’ Security at the University of Security Management in Košice, agrees that the role of bunkers should not be undervalued.
“Admittedly, the probability of some military conflict or terrorist attack in our country is doubtful, but if such a situation arose these facilities would undoubtedly be appreciated by all citizens,” he said.
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