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Latvian Ghost Town Auctioned Off for $3.1 Million

Latvia sold a deserted town built around a Soviet-era radar station to a Russian investor who bid $3.1 million at an unusual auction Friday, officials said.

The town formerly known as Skrunda-1 housed about 5,000 people during the Cold War but was abandoned over a decade ago after the Russian military withdrew from Latvia following the Soviet collapse.

A representative of a Russian investor won the bidding contest in Latvia's capital, Riga, with an offer of $3.1 million, said Anete Fridensteina-Bridina, a spokeswoman for the Baltic country's privatization agency. She said the buyer was Aleksejevskoje-Serviss, a Russia-based firm, though she could not provide details.

It wasn't immediately clear what plans the buyer had for the property, which is located in western Latvia about 95 miles from Riga. The town contains about 70 dilapidated buildings, including apartment blocks, a school, barracks and an officers' club.

Built in the 1980s, Skrunda-1 was a secret settlement not marked on Soviet maps because of the two enormous radar installations that listened to objects in space and monitored the skies for a U.S. nuclear missile attack. Like all clandestine towns in the Soviet Union, it was kept off maps and given a code-name — which usually consisted of a number and the name of a nearby city.

After the Soviet Union fractured in 1991, a newly independent Latvia was eager to scuttle all Soviet military bases and expel Russian troops. Russia's Defense Ministry, however, continued to rely on Skrunda's early warning system, and as a result the radar base was for years used as a negotiation tool between Washington and Moscow.

One of the radar buildings — dubbed Pechora — was enormous, soaring 180 feet. In May 1995, it was ceremoniously blown up by a U.S. demolition firm using over a ton of dynamite.

Finally, in 1998 the last residents of Skrunda-1 departed, leaving behind hundreds of vacant apartments and dozens of buildings. Talk about transforming the town into a recreational area went nowhere, and finally two years ago Latvia's government decided to put the entire settlement on the auction block.

Sarmite Stradniece, a resident of Skrunda, which is 3 miles south of Skrunda-1, praised the idea to sell the former military base. "They need to restore that place and let some people live there," she said.

The fact that the town was sold to a Russian investor is bound to bother nationalists in Latvia, who are leery of Russian capital buying real estate in the tiny Baltic state, but privatizations officials insisted the sale was a success.

"It fetched 10 times the starting price," Fridensteina-Bridina said, "and finally something can be done with the town."