The Soviet Union July 1976
On our way out of the Soviet Union from Moscow to Poland via Minsk, we came across a detour on the main highway. This was nothing new. There had been many on our trip. They were characterised by one DETOUR sign in the middle of the highway that pointed you off the road. Having obeyed the sign, it was then up to you to work out how far to travel along the new road (or more usually, a dirt track) and where to make your way back to the highway. We could never work out what we were actually detouring either, presumably a treacherously deep hole or a totally impassable section of the highway. On this particular occasion, we dutifully headed onto a dusty, unmade road that took us down a hill and into a village where everything, including villagers, was coated with the local road dust. We drove through the village and out the other side, but as usual, could see no sign sending us back on to the highway. We continued for some time and then approached another village. Here some people came out of their houses and waved at us, but not in friendly greeting. They appeared worried.
“I think they are warning us about something, “ I said.
We decided to go back, but the road was narrow and dipped down at the edges into deep, rough gutters. Far too risky for a U turn! Ahead of us, we saw what looked like a driveway flanked by brick walls. It was the entrance to something and seemed a suitable place to maneuver a turn. So turn we did. Into the driveway and towards the gates we went.
And there in front of us, a few metres away, stood two fully armed Russian soldiers guarding the gated entrance. They stared at us – stunned and stupefied. We stared back, equally stunned. Behind them through the gates we caught a glimpse of buildings, more soldiers and movement.
“Holy shit, “ I said.
Norm whistled softly, and then hissed:
It was on the dashboard. I leant forward, lifted the camera slowly and carefully, and placed it on the floor my eyes never leaving the face of the soldier in front of me. Taking photos in the Soviet Union was risky at any time, but taking photos of anything military was a punishable offence. And this was military with a capital M.
What I had seen behind the soldiers truly terrified me. I shifted my view ever so slightly to the left to check that what I had seen was correct. It was. There, stretching away into the distance, were rows and rows and rows of army tanks, hundreds of them, some of them moving in formation. There were more soldiers up near the buildings conversing in small groups and others walking around briskly. The two at the gate continued staring at us, obviously in shock, but they weren’t going to stay like that for much longer.
“We have to get out of here”, I said softly. “Reverse slowly. Quickly! No. Slowly! Just quietly.”
“Quietly? This thing?” Norm put the Kombi into reverse and for once it did not screech.
“Start praying, “ he said as we slowly rolled back out of the driveway.
I did not take my eyes off the soldiers who just stood there watching us still with a look of wonder on their faces. They had not moved. Having backed a few metres, Norm engaged the gears, and I held my breath as they made their usual scraping sound. He turned the Kombi to the right to head back down the road from which we had come. As we started to drive forward, I raised my left hand, fingers slightly open, eyes still on the soldiers’ faces hoping this gesture communicated goodwill. The two soldiers leaned forward slightly to watch us drive off and I think I detected the flicker of a smile on the face of one of them. We drove away.
We remained silent for some time. My mouth was dry and I licked my lips.
“Do you think we just saw the full armoured might of the Soviet army? They couldn’t have more tanks than that could they?” I asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Just let’s get the hell out of here”, was Norm’s reply.
He was quite pale and his hands clutched the steering wheel. His eyes were fixed ahead.
On returning to the village we were greeted like long lost friends by a group of villagers. They cheered, clapped and patted the van and chatted away in Russian indicating to us to follow them. We trundled behind a few of them to a road off to our right. Here they pointed down the road, shooing us away. We smiled and nodded our thanks and headed off eventually arriving at the highway where there was a sign pointing us in the direction of Smolensk. Never have I been so pleased to be on that bumpy old highway. For a while we kept checking behind us to see were not being chased down by Russian authorities, but after a few kilometres we appeared to be safe.
All these years later, I wonder where on earth we had been. Back then it would have been impossible to find out not only because of Soviet secrecy but also because of the difficulty finding any suitable reference library. Today, of course, Russia is a more open country and there is Google. So my research began.
The first difficulty was trying to work out what road we took from Moscow to the Polish border via Smolensk and Minsk. Roads have improved and new highways and motorways have been constructed since 1976. These days you would take the E30 to Smolensk that is not far from the Belarus border and then on to the capital city of Minsk.
The E30 is part of the international E road network that extends 6,500km from the Russian city of Omsk in southwestern Siberia to Cork, in southern Ireland. It connects with the Trans-Siberian Highway and then the AH6 that takes you all the way to Busan in South Korea. I assume that before the E30 there was a highway of sorts between Moscow and Smolensk and that this is the road we took.
After looking through lists of Russian tank divisions and their locations I decided there were two possibilities.
The first is that we went off the main highway and headed southwest towards Naro Fominsk where we dropped in on the 4thGuard Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, an elite armoured division of the Soviet ground forces. It was originally the Red Army’s 17thTank Corps formed in Stalingrad in 1942 and later renumbered and renamed after the village of Kantemirovka which it had liberated from German troops. It’s motto: Honour & Glory. Today the division has 320 main battle tanks, 300 infantry fighting vehicles, 130 self-propelled artillery and 12 multiple rocket launchers. I can find no information on what the capacity was in the 1970s, but I suspect Soviet-era statistics would have been similar.
Picture of the Kubinka Tank Museum today
The second possibility is that we visited what is now the Kubinka Tank Museum, which these days is just south of the E30 about an hour’s drive from Naro Fominsk. The museum is located on a military testing site that is still operational. During various wars, the Russians acquired enemy tanks that were inspected for their strengths and weaknesses. The results of these inspections informed the manufacture of the Red Army tanks that were then further tested at the Kubinka Force Technology Centre. The museum now houses what is reputably the world’s best collection of tanks and armoured vehicles. I do not know when the museum was established, but my guess is that in 1976, it was simply a tank testing facility, and a top-secret one at that.
Today one can visit the Kubinka Tank Museum by catching a train from Moscow or joining an organised tour. And today, cameras are permitted. Foreigners are still treated suspiciously. To gain entry, they must have their original and a copy of their passport. Unsurprisingly, weapons are not permitted. Perhaps the only way I will find out whether we did visit Kubinka is to take a trip there and see if the entrance to the museum brings back any memories.
And I wonder about those two soldiers on guard at the entrance. Would they have talked about us? They surely wouldn’t have told anyone that a noisy battered red combi van driven by foreigners had done a U-turn in the driveway and they were so surprised they failed to arrest us for trespassing, if not spying. Perhaps we just became their secret.