Morale: 21st Century T-34s


February 26, 2021: In 2020 the Russian annual Victory (over Germany) parade held in Moscow every May 9th was delayed and somewhat reduced in size because of covid19. While there were fewer troops and spectators than originally (before 2020) planned, one feature of the original parade that remained intact was the prominent display of new and improved Russian weapons as well as the display of World War II vehicles. The World War II T-34 tanks used were museum pieces restored to running condition. Using these ancient armored vehicles caused some unique problems. For one thing there is, not surprisingly, a shortage of trained T-34 drivers in the Russian Army. Until 2019, when a T-34 battalion was formed for parades and other propaganda purposes, army personnel assigned had to undergo training. This turned out to be a problem because there were no experienced T-34 drivers in the military and this led to problems every year because there were few museum personnel who knew how to operate a T-34. The army coped as best it could but the T-34 drivers provided for major events, like the Victory Day parade had only basic skills that did not include things driving a T-34 onto a tank transporter. After one parade an inexperienced driver caused a T-34 to roll over while being maneuvered onto the tank transporter. Another problem is a shortage of concrete roads for the T-34s to rehearse on in Moscow and other cities where they are featured in the major parade events.

When rehearsals are held on asphalt roads the threads of the T-34 tear up the asphalt and local governments have to pay for road repairs. Until 2020 the T-34 drivers used were a few experienced tank drivers from current tank battalions who were selected to drive the historical vehicles after brief training and familiarization. This proved to be insufficient because modern tanks, like modern automobiles, are easier to drive than those used in the 1940s and 50s.

After 2018  a lot more T-34 drivers were needed because the government bought thirty T-34/85 tanks from Southeast Asian nation Laos, which had obtained them from Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. These T-34s have been built by Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and were transferred to Laos in good working order. The Laotian Army took good care of their T-34s, as did many other poor countries that bought them cheap or received them as gifts. The relatively primitive but robust design of the T-34 made it possible for local mechanics to keep them running. What parts that were not available locally, like tracks or some mechanical items, are still available from firms that specialize in stocking and providing such parts for older military vehicles.

Russia already had dozens of restored (to running condition) T-34s in several museums. However, the museums did not want to keep shipping their pristine T-34s around the country each year to appear in parades. This justified the formation of a T-34 tank battalion in early 2019. The soldiers in the battalion devote most of their time to learning how to maintain and operate their T-34s, and then show off their skills during military parades, especially the Victory Day parade. The crews wear World War II uniforms for these occasions. The problem was that for 2020 the troops in the T-34 battalion were still new to dealing with a tank designed nearly a century ago.

The T-34 holds the record for tank production and longevity. Since 1940 when the first model, armed with a 76mm gun appeared, 84,000 were built. Most (58 percent) of the T-34s were the 1944 T-34/85 version with slightly better armor, a more powerful 85mm gun and numerous improvements. Since 1940 that army had collected user suggestions and data on T-34 combat experience. The original T-34/76 weighed 26 tons and had a four-man crew while the 27-ton T-34/85 had five men. Russia halted production in 1945 but it resumed in Poland and Czechoslovakia during 1951, and continued until 1955 in Poland and 1958 in Czechoslovakia. About a hundred T-34s are still active in a few countries, not counting the parade battalion and museum T-34s in Russia.

The T-34/76 came as a shock to the Germans in 1941, who had nothing like it and did not expect such an innovative and effective Russia tank because in the 1930s Russia had become very good at keeping secrets. The T-34 not only had a more powerful gun than any other tank, if was nimbler and more maneuverable, especially in mud, marsh and snow. The Germans adapted and introduced more powerful tanks but they could not match the sheer quantity of T-34s showing up to replace losses and keep the fight going.

With the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were fewer events like the Victory Day Parades. The big Moscow parade was not held from 1991 to 1994 because there was no money for it. The parades were resumed in 1995, in part because it had become customary to hold a larger parade, involving up to 15,000 troops and hundreds of vehicles, every five years. The 2020 parade was to be special because it was the 75th anniversary of the victory.

Back in 2010, Russia resumed the Cold War custom of holding large military parades to commemorate the Russian World War II victory. Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia dropped the military displays for these parades, which became much smaller in size overall. Another reason for no longer featuring a lot of military vehicles was that a late 1990s reconstruction boom in Moscow made it difficult or impossible for tanks and other large military vehicles to reach Red Square, where most of the spectators assembled. By 2010 further changes had been made along the parade route making it possible to resume staging large military parades. Revival of the military parades proved very popular and by 2013 there were similar parades in 24 cities, involving 38,000 troops and hundreds of military vehicles plus dozens of aircraft overhead. Nearly ten million people came out to witness the parades and even more caught it on TV or the Internet. There was no problem with the crowds, in part because about 200,000 security personnel were on hand, including 4,700 uniformed Cossacks, to maintain order.

The first of these big parades in 2010 saw 11,000 troops and hundreds of military vehicles assembled for the Victory Day parade in Moscow. Commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II has always been a big deal, if only because 18 percent of the population died during that conflict. The Russians refer to World War II as The Great Patriotic War and the extent of the casualties (nearly 30 million dead) was kept secret until the 1990s, partly out of embarrassment, partly to not demoralize the population, and partly not to let the outside world know just how badly the Russia had been hurt.

The 2010 parade also included, for the first time since 1945, small contingents from wartime allies Britain, the U.S., and France. The British contingent was particularly striking, as it was 76 members of the Welsh Guards, wearing their dress uniforms; red jackets, black trousers, and tall bearskin hats. Some of the best viewing locations were given to 3,000 grey haired veterans of the war, who tended to show up wearing their medals on their civilian clothes, a common Russian custom for such occasions.

The large military contingent also included many current Russian soldiers wearing World War II uniforms and carrying period weapons. This included World War II era armored vehicles, particularly dozens of the famous T-34 tank. The assembled veterans were visibly moved by this visible demonstration of the now departed Red (communist) Army of the Soviet Union. Overhead, 127 modern aircraft put on an eight-minute flyover and display of their maneuverability. The parade took about 70 minutes to complete but was weeks in preparation, with many people coming down in the evening to watch various contingents practice.

Many Russian weapons systems that are rarely, if ever, shown in public, were displayed in the 2010 parade and subsequent ones. In 2010 there were smaller but similar parades in 71 other Russian cities, with 102,000 Russian troops taking part. All this was part of a morale building exercise, to reassure the Russian people that the armed forces were being rebuilt, after nearly two decades of decline. The end of the Soviet Union saw the armed forces lose 80 percent of its manpower within a decade, most equipment rotted away from lack of use, or maintenance, and there was little money to buy new stuff. That has changed in the past few years, and starting in 2010 the Victory Parade has become an effort to showcase the new military, while honoring past accomplishments.

The Great Patriotic War defined Russian attitudes during the Cold War because of the enormous casualties and devastation it inflicted. But now the memories, along with the few remaining veterans, are fading fast. The end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and communism in the early 1990s was another shock that is still sinking in. Revival of the military participation in the victory parade was a novelty the first year, but enthusiasm faded along with the memories of new generations for whom World War II and the Soviet Union are ancient history.




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