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Russia’s Giant Nuclear Spy Ship Was a Floating Disaster

In June 1981, the Soviet Union began building a huge, nuclear-powered reconnaissance ship specifically designed to sail thousands of miles to the U.S. missile test site at the remote Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There, the vessel would sit for months, hoovering up electronic data in order to determine what America’s most secretive weapons could do.

But the spy ship Ural, completed in May 1983, sailed only once—from the Baltic shipyard where she was built to her home port of Vladivostok—and never went anywhere near Kwajalein. Hobbled by faulty hardware, cursed with bad luck and starved of funds for repairs, Ural was slowly dismantled.

The giant spy ship’s sad history is a window into the vast, sophisticated and highly secret machinations of Cold War espionage—machinations that sometimes didn’t quite work out as planned. And sometimes resulted in weaponry that was more dangerous to its operators than to the enemy.

Giant spy

Nearly 900 feet long, 100 feet across at her widest point and displacing 34,640 tons of water, Ural was huge. Her hull and machinery were based on the blueprints of the Kirov-class nuclear battlecruiser, one of the biggest and most powerful surface warships ever built.

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