Testament to the scale and might of the now defunct Soviet war machine, hundreds of retired tanks occupy the overgrown spaces of an abandoned facility in a remote Russian city. Decades have passed since their last active service. And now, forgotten to history and surrendered to the elements, they decay in bleak solitude, dying memories at the end of the world.
But thanks to the Russian website KFSS, which publishes news and photos about abandoned sites in far-flung eastern Russia, the outside world can now get a close-up look at this eerie tank graveyard. In 2012 the website posted dozens of pictures of the dilapidated facility, along with a thorough Russian-language description of its history.
The tanks are a kind of visceral historical record of two global phenomena. First, they are tangible products of the Cold War, a decades-long conflict, which spurred an unsustainable arms race between East and West. Second, they tell the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which caused the most remote outposts of the former Communist bloc to be abandoned to economic decline and decay.
In fact, the origins of the Soviet war machine can be traced to the 1917 October Revolution. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the revolution overthrew the Russian Tsar and implemented a new Bolshevik order grounded in the communist doctrine of Karl Marx. And the Bolshevik army, originally known as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, was created to put down threats from competing factions within revolutionary Russia.
From the 1920s, Josef Stalin, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and de facto ruler of Russia, mechanized the Red Army as part of a wider program of national industrialization. In 1930 the army formed its first tank regiment, part of the 1st Mechanized Brigade. And in 1932 it carried out the world’s first armored formations.
Then, during World War II, the Red Army expanded to become the most sizeable land force in the alliance of Allied nations. Indeed, the troop numbers alone reflect a behemoth sense of scale. As well as the 4,826,907 active Soviet soldiers at the onset of German-Soviet hostilities, some extra 29,574,000 troops were drafted into the Red Army over the course of the conflict. Some 6,329,600 were killed in action.
Thanks to generous state expenditure, the Red Army sported some formidable mechanized weapons, particularly towards the war’s conclusion. Indeed, German armored divisions were no match for Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks. In 1946 the Red Army was renamed the “Soviet Army.” And although the war was over, the Politburo continued to allocate generous funds to the development and production of mechanized weapons.
Indeed, the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union demanded that the two nations continuously augment their defense expenditure. In effect, both sides developed ever more lethal and effective means of destroying each other. But, according to Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker, an American journalist who visited the Soviet Union in 1941, there was a deep-seated ideological dimension to the Soviet fixation with killing machines.
“The Bolsheviks identified their dreams of socialist happiness with machines which would multiply production and reduce hours of labour until everyone would have everything he needed and would work only as much as he wished,” he wrote in his book Is Tomorrow Hitler’s? “Somehow this has not come about, but the Russians still worship machines, and this helped make the Red Army the most highly mechanized in the world.”
Today, one field of broken socialist dreams can be found in Ussuriysk, where KFSS documented the city’s tank graveyard. Located in the Razdolnaya River valley in Primorsky Krai – a remote Far East region of Russia close to the border with China – the diminutive city is home to some 158,000 people.
Founded as Nikolskoye (after Saint Nicholas) in 1866, the city began life as a thriving trade hub thanks to its nexus of transport connections, including newly forged rail lines between the regional administrative cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. In 1898 the burgeoning town was renamed Nikolsk-Ussuriysky and it soon became one of the region’s most important settlements.
In fact, in the early 20th century, Nikolsk-Ussuriysky developed into a booming agricultural and industrial processing center. The city manufactured soap, leather, beer, sausages, dairy products, bricks and more. It boasted three cinemas, a theater and a circus. In 1935 its name was changed to Voroshilov. Then, after the death of Stalin, it was renamed Ussuriysk in 1957.
Meanwhile, in 1936 the Military Council of the Red Army’s Automotive-Armored Directorate decided to construct a tank factory in the city. The Leningrad Design Institute was responsible for developing its blueprints, which the Military Construction Department subsequently approved. The plant was given the functional if uninspired title of “Repair Base No. 77.”
Specifically, the blueprints called for the construction of five different workshops. One of them was intended for taking apart and putting together machines. Another was proposed for mechanics, another for motors and another for electrics. Finally, there was to be a workshop dedicated to mechanical repairs. And in 1937 builders poured the concrete foundations.
The construction of the plant’s first building – known as building A – reached completion in March 1940. It was designed to be used for the assembly and disassembly of tractors, tanks and their engines. An initial consignment soon arrived while building work on other structures continued.
Two tractors and five tanks had been repaired by the time the plant opened on May 12, 1940. The day was celebrated with a spirited civic ceremony, which included an orchestral performance and an exhibition of vehicles that had been fixed. Commander Markian Popov of the 1st Special Red Banner Army Corps had the unique honor of cutting the ribbon to the plant.
However, because the plant was located at the very fringe of the Soviet empire, comrades at the Automative-Armored Directorate in Moscow, including various head engineers and department chiefs, thought relatively little of it. Indeed, the journey from the capital to Ussuriysk took 11 days by train, leaving it largely ignored by Soviet officials.
However, everything changed in 1948 when a new air route connected Moscow with Vladivostok, cutting the journey time to three days. In 1949 two department chiefs, engineer-colonel Sivkov and engineer-colonel Balashov visited the city and a spent a month assessing the plant’s capabilities. Of course, the Ussuriysk facility turned out to be far larger and more sophisticated than they or the Politburo had realized.
Their assessment transformed the role of the plant from one of marginal significance to one of critical importance. In fact, the Ussuriysk plant became one of just three facilities in the entire Soviet Union that was assigned to the modernization of IS series heavy tanks. Indeed, all armored units east of the Ural Mountains received their upgraded IS tanks from there.
However, the upgrade of the plant did not go completely smoothly. With each IS tank weighing 30-40 tons, the floor boards of assembly shop no. 1 quickly gave way. And since they had been constructed from costly hardwoods, it was expensive to replace them. So instead, to create the new shop floor, builders used metal components salvaged from old T-34 tanks.
In 1953 the plant was given a new, if equally functional and uninspired name: the 206th Armored Repair Plant. And in the next few decades, planners expanded the facilities to allow for the repair of a wider range of tanks and amphibious vehicles. They added a compressor station, a treatment plant, a production building and a car garage with capacity for 40 vehicles, as well as a kindergarten.
Then, under the management of Colonel Alexander Bubis, the plant entered a kind of golden age. From 1976 to 1981, it expanded yet further, incorporating new methods and technologies. Workers received medical care and other social benefits. And on November 15, 1979, the plant earned significant prestige with the title of “Enterprise of high production culture.”
The 1980s saw the construction of additional access roads and buildings, including new State housing for plant workers. The plant also began working with new machines, including battle tanks such as the T-80B and armored vehicles such as the BTS-2 and BTS-4. But then the unexpected happened. The Soviet Union collapsed, changing Ussuriysk forever.
In hindsight, the collapse was inevitable. But at the time, the Politburo appeared – to outside observers, at least – to be invigorated. Ultimately, multiple factors contributed to the fall of the Eastern bloc, including systemic corruption, overcentralization of power and, importantly, Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin policies of perestroika, which emphasized economic reform, and glasnost, which encouraged political openness.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union did not spell the immediate end of the plant, however. Initially, it continued working, although its significance gradually ebbed away. Then in 2009 it was privatized as an open joint-stock company with publicly traded shares, but it did not survive. After it filed for bankruptcy, its facilities fell into disrepair.
Today, the plant is a crumbling wasteland littered with hundreds of disused tanks and armored vehicles. Some of their components have been scavenged for scrap, but many lie untouched in a state of dilapidation, heavily ravaged by oxidation and consumed by encroaching vegetation.
Indeed, with a scattering of snow on the ground, there is a particularly stark quality to the site. The barren textures of the surrounding landscape appear to blend seamlessly with the rusted shells of half-sunken war machines. The winter trees are stripped of leaves, and there is a pervasive sense of abandonment and loss.
The tanks appear to have parked in a haphazard fashion, suggesting that there was neither the space nor the will to dispose of them in an orderly way. Indeed, in some images, numerous tanks appear to be tightly crammed between buildings. In others, lone machines seem to have been casually abandoned on waste ground.
But equally stark are the dilapidated workshops and buildings that loom over the site like giant tombstones. Once upon a time, they thronged with industry, supplying the local population with steady work and a reliable income. Those days are gone now, and what remains is a deep uncertainty about the future.
In fact, Ussuriysk appears to have paid particularly high price for the collapse of Communism and its state-supported industries. In 2018 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) – a site dedicated to reporting in countries where journalism is banned or censored – visited the city as part of an investigation into pension reform. And their findings were grim.
Facing a relatively low life expectancy for men of just 64 years, many of the city’s inhabitants had succumbed to a fatalistic outlook. In fact, many foresaw their own deaths before retirement. “I’m 48 and almost none of my peers are left. They’re all dead,” said one factory worker called Andrei Artemenko. “We drink vodka. What else is there to do?”
Indeed, cancer rates throughout the region are presently soaring, and locals blame Russia’s Pacific Fleet of nuclear submarines. The subs are stationed on the nearby coast and assembled in a factory close to Vladivostok. Meanwhile, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan and nuclear bomb test in North Korea have added to the regional health crisis.
Critically, the people interviewed by RFE/RL felt unable to sway elite decision-makers in Moscow, thousands of miles away. “United Russia wins everywhere anyway,” said Artemenko. In that respect, the city’s tank graveyard is not only a potent symbol of a fallen and fractured empire, but the abandonment of an entire people by their political representatives.
But Ussuriysk is not the only city in the former Soviet Union to contain a tank graveyard. In eastern Ukraine, the city of Kharkiv, some 20 miles from the Russian border, is also home to a secluded repair plant with hundreds of decaying war machines, products of the nearby Malyshev Tank Factory.
In 2018 Paul Itkin, a 23-year old photographer and Kharkiv native who has seen his work published in Forbes, Esquire, Focus and other publications, snuck into the plant. Despite the presence of security guards, he was able to explore the site and document its decaying vehicles. British newspaper the Daily Mail subsequently published the photos.
“It took me many months to track down this place,” said Itkin to the Daily Mail. “I had heard about it from a friend and decided it would be a great place to take pictures… The area is guarded but I there didn’t seem to be anyone around when I got there, I guess I was just lucky.”
“Once I got inside I was walking around the grounds for about two hours,” Itkin continued. “The plant is stunning, I was amazed by the scale… Just imagine over 400 tanks in one place, row after row of them.” Indeed, it is hard not to be awed by the enormity and ambition of the former Soviet war machine, even after its death.
In fact, the plant was used mainly for the repair of T-64, T-72 and T-80 battle tanks. They were all assembled at the Malyshev Factory, which once led the world in tank production. Today, the T-80 continues to be used in Ukraine, although Russia, Cyprus, Belarus, South Korea, Kazakhstan and Pakistan have variations of it.
Today, the Soviet Union is no more, but the legacy of its mechanical obsession lingers on. “Like Americans, the Russians admire size, bigness, large numbers,” wrote Knickerbocker in 1941. “They took pride in building a vast army of tanks, some of them the largest in the world, armored cars, airplanes, motorized guns, and every variety of mechanical weapons.”
Of course, the sprawling, centralized apparatus that commissioned the Soviet war machine was bound to collapse. And today, the legacy of its political and economic failure is tons and tons of rusting hardware. In cities such as Ussuriysk, daily life remains stark and riddled with decay, both inside and outside its tank graveyard.