Russians Big Boys Toys

The Russian Federation has a great many military vehicle and equipment museums, more than most people resident in the country can easily visit on the , occasional weekend off, never mind tourists on a restricted timetable. One of the “must sees” in Russia for the military vehicle enthusiast is however the Artillery, Engineer and Communications Forces Museum in St. Petersburg, which rather handily is located in perhaps the most tourist-friendly city in the Russian Federation, with its canals, palaces, museums and art galleries; and small and relatively economical tourist hotels.

Better still, the city is small enough that one can comfortably walk around the tourist central areas. Even better, the principal military museum is right across the river from the Winter Palace, or Hermitage, containing one of the world’s foremost art collections, and is directly behind the famous and tourist-packed Peter and Paul Fortress, which in short means that the chances of slipping off for a few hours reviewing one’s “green-hobby” might not even be missed by other members of “la famille”…

The Artillery, Engineer and Communications Forces Museum, henceforth referred to as “the museum” to save a few pages of text (!) is the oldest collection of military equipment in the country. The museum was established as an artillery museum in 1730 by order of Tsar Peter 1st, and understandably the great majority of the collection is biased towards artillery — a broad term now covering everything from towed systems to field rockets and intercontinental missiles.

Over the years the artillery collection has been complemented by engineer and communications forces equipment. Most of the heavy equipment or “tekhnika” is located outside the huge horseshoe shaped red brick museum building; however a significant amount of relatively heavy equipment including a few tracked vehicles are located within the museum building. The building has a history all of its own, including use as a tank repair workshop during the Siege of Leningrad, with several photographs surviving today showing T-26 light tanks being repaired within the vaulted halls of the museum.

The museum collection is today in some ways much as it was well over 30 years ago, particularly within the building itself, but the outside “tekhnika” collection has been expanded in the last few years, with many older vehicles replaced by more modem types, particularly the softskin based vehicles, many of which had over the years suffered the ravages of being located outside through successive Russian winters.

The old ZiS-151 and KrAZ-214 based bridging vehicles are long gone, for the most part replaced by wheeled rocket launchers and additional armoured vehicles.

Cold War Thaw

One fundamental change in very recent times is that photography within the museum is no longer “nelzya” (forbidden) as it was in the past. Though until the recent advent of digital cameras the internal lighting within the museum made photography pretty much impossible anyway, unless one had special, and grainy, high-speed film — the things we take for granted today with digital photography! While in the museum I spoke to one of the wardens within the halls whose job in the past was to reinforce that visitors did not touch anything or take photographs within the museum. As I was merrily taking the umpteenth picture of a single exhibit he became curious at my un-tourist-like attention to detail and I told him of my first visits the museum many years ago. He laughed, applauded my knowledge of the exhibits that I was photographing, and told me that his own mother had worked in the museum at the time I had first visited; and it would have been her that would have cuffed my ear back in the “Cold War” days for attempting photography within the museum building. Times change, and the museum staff are today friendly, helpful and were even tolerant of me going through the halls against the flow of the one way system on the basis that there were certain things which needed “capturing” in the time available before meeting my daughters at the St. Peter & Paul Fortress after their own day in the Hermitage!

The museum collection relates the history of the artillery forces of the Imperial, Soviet and modem Russian armies in meticulous detail, and includes a significant amount of foreign artillery, which was used as the basis for early Russian artillery designs. The influence of Krupp, Skoda and other European artillery manufacturers is given full credit and the history of the evolution of Russian artillery presented in a balanced manner (which was not historically the case in the Soviet Union). The collection includes early bronze artillery pieces, imported artillery, and Russian and Soviet designs, with a marked emphasis on World War Two.

As was recently pointed out to me, Russia has always been highly bureaucratic, but from a research point of view this can be useful as it is thereby often possible to trace where and when exactly any given piece of equipment served the Red Army. The individual histories of many exhibits are known and described, such as one of the 122mm M-1931/37 guns, serial number 551, which on 20th April 1945 participated in the opening artillery barrage, which preceded the final assault on Berlin.

The museum has an impressive collection of wheeled and tracked rocket launchers, from the wartime BM-8 and BM-13 “Katyusha” systems to post-war field multiple rocket launchers and nuclear and chemical delivery field rockets. A recent addition to the collection is a group of three vehicles used with the “Topol” (NATO: SS-25) intercontinental ballistic launcher, all on MAZ chassis, a massive 14×14 MAZ-7917 based TEL vehicle, and technical support and communications vehicles mounted on 8×8 MAZ-543 chassis. The museum has a significant collection of self propelled artillery from the wartime SU-76 and SU-100 to the most recent 2S19, complemented by a similar array of self propelled anti-aircraft gun and missile systems some of which remain in service to the present day. The museum also has a single T-80 main battle tank, as built locally at the LKZ Kirov plant.

A minor quirk of the museum is that it opens only at 11.00 even in the peak summer period, so there is no reason to turn up at dawn, though the museum is rarely crowded. Photography is unrestricted on payment of a nominal additional entrance fee. The museum descriptive texts are in Russian only; though they are in any event short and the subject information clear to anyone with prior knowledge of the equipment types on display. With regard to the application of Murphy’s Law, I managed to pick the only “iffy” weather day in weeks for my recent visit to the museum; whereby the skies opened and the rain poured, with outside photography being in between downpours — though the upside was contrast free photography. The day ended with me dropping my camera, though luckily the memory card survived!

Across the road from the Artillery Museum, within the grounds of the St. Peter & Paul Fortress, is a small but interesting museum, the GRAU laboratory, within which early Soviet rockets including the wartime 82mm M-8 and 132mm M-13 were developed into the BM-8 and BM-13 “Katyusha” rocket launchers. The quirky museum also illustrates the development of Soviet rocket technology from early military applications to later space flights. And there’s a lot for the family to see in the surrounding fortress, and even a cafe right next to the GRAU museum, so the family can be parked for half an hour without fear of revolution.

With St. Petersburg reasonably accessible, and relatively inexpensive by Russian tourism standards, and with some interesting military museums located within walking distance of the main tourist exhibits that the family would doubtless rather visit, there is a good family explanation for a visit to the Venice of the “Wild East”, St. Petersburg.

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