Two months after the Soviet-made "Lun" ekranoplan was hauled onto a remote beach in Daghestan to star in a military-themed Patriotic Park, the legendary craft remains wallowing in the breakers, sporting what appears to be significant damage.
The Lun-class ekranoplan is a unique naval craft built during the Cold War that was designed to skim just above the water. Its high-speed, low-altitude flight enabled it to pass over anti-ship mines and duck under many radar systems, enabling it to launch stealthy nuclear-missile strikes. Its disadvantages include a vulnerability to bird strikes as well as a dangerously wide turning radius.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vessel spent several decades on a tightly guarded dock near Daghestan’s capital, Makhachkala, before being towed to its current location on an empty stretch of coastline 110 kilometers to the south.
On September 28, Egor Berkut made a trip to see the legendary ekranoplan, which he read was in the process of being converted into a museum exhibit, on a beach near the Daghestan town of Derbent. What he saw came as a shock. The professional illustrator told RFE/RL that the vessel was showing obvious signs of damage as it lay in the thumping waves of the Caspian Sea.
“It’s a very sad sight.... There’s a hole in the belly, inside pumps are constantly running and pumping out water.”
Other visitors to the site, which has become a pop-up tourist destination, reported similar frustration with what many believe is a momentous contracting blunder.
Well-known Russian photographer and adventurer Vitaly Raskalov wrote in an Instagram post that the ekranoplan’s arrival was “loudly announced by the local media.” But since then “it turns out that no Patriotic Park was built, so the ekranoplan lies on its belly near a wild beach, and is filled with water, since it was damaged during transportation. The absurdity is compounded by the fact that workers are trying to pull the 250-ton vessel out using a winch and bulldozers.”
However, a spokeswoman for the city of Derbent claimed the operation to move and restore the ekranoplan is going to plan. Kamila Gamzatova, from the city’s press service, told RFE/RL that the ekranoplan’s final resting place will be on a pedestal around 100 meters inland from the shoreline and said the vessel is “already in the territory of the Patriotic Park,” though the park doesn’t yet exist. Gamzatova said the park, which will also feature helicopters and armored vehicles, won’t open until 2021.
Gamzatova claimed the contractors tasked with hauling the vessel have had their work slowed due to the “rocking of the waves” making the unusual job more difficult than anticipated. She said the ekranoplan is “being pulled ashore maybe by 10 or 20 centimeters each day, but work hasn’t ceased even once.”
A photo taken on September 28 shows the vessel does appear to have been hauled several meters toward land, but most of the hull remains in the water. Gamzatova vowed that the damaged ekranoplan will be repaired and repainted and it “will look beautiful” once mounted as the centerpiece of the military park.
While many people are likely to distrust the official statements from Derbent authorities, thanks to some of Russia’s Instagram stars who have made the site -- and the ekranoplan -- famous, whatever occurs on the remote Daghestani beach will take place under the scrutiny of a global audience.
Vitaly Raskalov, who took most of the photos in this story, notes, “I really hope that the Lun ekranoplan, a one-of-a-kind specimen, will survive and not be picked apart by looters.”