Is Russia’s legendary T-34 tank rolling off the production line again?
Will Russia’s enemies again be crushed, as Nazi Germany was, under the treads of Russian armor?
Alas for tank buffs and Russian nationalists, reports of the T-34’s resurrection are premature. In fact, it was an April Fool’s Joke on a Russian defense Web site.
But like any good April Fool’s prank, the joke works because it strikes a real-life chord. In this case, the Putin government’s attempt to use World War II symbols to spur patriotic feelings in a population demoralized by economic woes. And one of the most enduring symbols of Russia’s participation in World War II, or “The Great Patriotic War,” was the T-34, which formed the armored backbone of the Soviet armies that defeated the Third Reich. Some 84,000 T-34s, and its more heavily armed successor the T-34/85, were built between 1940 and 1958.
Some are still in use with armies around the world. Last year, Russia took back 30 T-34/85s that had been operated by the Laotian Army. The vehicles went on to star in World War II victory parades held in several Russian cities.
The Russian BMPD defense journal took the idea one step further by pretending that Russia was resuming T-34/85 production. Tank manufacturing corporation Uralvagonzavod “received a contract from the Ministry of Defense for the resumption of production of T-34-85 tanks for the main and representative tasks designed to activate the military-patriotic education of the younger generation, primarily for the Unarmia [the paramilitary youth movement] fighters.”
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense of Russia, and the Main Political Department for the patriotic education of soldiers, were said to be planning to add T-34/85 tanks to every Soviet military unit, from an entire regiment of T-34s for the Moscow military region, to a tank platoon for every brigade. “These tanks will form the basis of the parade calculations of these units and formations during the annual Victory Parades on May 9 and various military-patriotic events. Thus, the entire military department expects to receive more than 400 T-34-85 tanks in a few years.”
Better yet, resuming production of the T-34 will teach Russian manufacturers how to build cutting-edge tanks like the T-14 Armata. “The production of the updated T-34-85 will play an important role in maintaining the competence of the tank production of NPK Uralvagonzavod corporation in anticipation of the start of mass production of new tanks on the Armata platform after 2021,” BMPD reported.
And why stop with the T-34? “In response to the wishes of the Ministry of Defense, Uralvagonzavod Research and Production Corporation is working on the possibility of restoring production and other types of historical combat vehicles - SU-100, SU-76M, T-34/76, IS-2M, IS-3M and even T-35.”
In a sly dig at Ukraine’s independence, BMPD noted that since some of these tanks had been manufactured in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, which meant that “a number of issues in the area of import substitution will need to be resolved.”
The T-34 was (very) arguably the best all-around tank of World War II. The original version, armed with a 76-millimeter gun, shocked Nazi soldiers in 1941 who were convinced that “primitive” Russians couldn’t build decent weapons. The T-34/85, armed with an 85-millimeter cannon, was even more potent. But the only modern battlefield the T-34 belongs on is a make-believe one fought by reenactors.
Nonetheless, this April’s Fools joke illuminates a much grimmer issue. Many nations commemorate patriotic events with holidays and parades. Even President Trump has called for a military parade on Veteran’s Day, though the idea was slammed as an expensive and silly display of bravado. But the Putin government is aggressively embracing World War II nostalgia, from old tanks in patriotic parades to melting down captured Nazi weapons to build churches.
When a nation becomes obsessed with past glories, it is usually because the present and future look too bleak. T-34 tanks clanking past cheering Russian citizens will not disguise the fact that those citizens face a stagnating economy, cuts in pensions and growing income inequality. The T-34 helped Russia win the war, but it won’t help it win the peace.
Image: Creative Commons.