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Stalin's Cold War Military Machine: A New Evaluation

Colloquium on Contemporary History December 18, 1991 No. 6

Opening Remarks
Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Head, Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center

Disintegrating before the astonished eyes of the world are the armed forces of the recently interred Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Last year the nightly news was filled with images of Soviet generals delivering brief, insincere parting remarks as their forces headed home, ending the 45-year occupation of Eastern Europe, of junior officers and their families huddling in cramped, unheated Moscow flats, of soldiers living in tents on the wind-swept Ukrainian steppe. This year we were again incredulous bystanders as insurgents in Armenia, Georgia, and even tiny Chengchen-Ingush seized military arsenals, as armed and bewildered troops faced off in front of the Russian parliament, and as a Marshal of the Soviet Union committed suicide over the recent course of events. Even now the newly independent states of the old union are staking claims to Soviet fleets, air forces, and land armies. Its anyone's guess who controls the Strategic Rocket Forces.

For those of us who have grown to maturity in the second half of the 20th century, this phenomenon truly represents a "world turned upside down." We would have been much less surprised if CNN had reported in the last two years that flotillas of Typhoon submarines were surging into the North Atlantic, that hordes of T-72 tanks were racing across the North German Plain, or that Soviet troops were gunning down protesters in the streets of Warsaw.

This latter perception of probable Soviet actions and military strengths was born in the period from 1945 to 1953, when Joseph Stalin was the undisputed ruler of the world's first Communist superpower. The dictator created and sustained a peacetime defense establishment with over 4 million men under arms and turned the Soviet state into a military-industrial juggernaut that produced an array of lethal weapons of war, from hydrogen bombs and long-range bombers to advanced design submarines and modern armored fighting vehicles. Throughout this period, the Soviet armed forces served as the guarantor not only of the Bolshevik Revolution but of the Communist movements that seized power in Eastern Europe, China, and North Korea.

As many here will remember, during this same period the United States and her Western allies mobilized large standing armies and devoted considerable national treasure to the global struggle with the Soviet Bloc. This international militarization significantly influenced the nature of the Berlin and Czechoslovakian crises of 1948, the civil war in China, the Korean War, and the Cold War in general.

Since 1945, scholars have hotly debated Stalin's intentions for the massive Soviet military machine and its ability to accomplish his objectives, whatever they were. Arguments have run the gamut, from those who have said he planned to use his military arm to conquer world, to those who believe he kept the goliath in place because he feared encirclement and attack by a hostile Western world. Because many have felt the very survival of the global community at stake in this struggle, the debate has been charged with passion, as we know, the enemy of reason and logic. However, the Cold War is now over and a monolithic Soviet armed force is being tossed onto the "ash heap" of history even as we speak. With the fear of invasion by Russian hordes, the subversion of Western civilization, and the nuclear annihilation of the world diminishing daily, it should now be possible to study the post-World War II Soviet military establishment from a new, more objective perspective.

David C. Isby

"Roll on Uncle Joe's Army" was chalked by wartime British soldiers on their trucks and Bren carriers, expressing the hope that the Red Army's victories would shorten the war.

But, when these soldiers and their U.S. comrades finally put their uniforms away, the image of the genial pipe-smoking Uncle Joe was replaced, at least among governments, by a more realistic--and darker--view.1 A realistic view of Stalin's last army--one obviously very different from those of the 1920s and 1930s (pre and post Great Purge) and that of the Great Patriotic War--has taken much longer to emerge.

That this has been the case is not surprising. The art of watching Soviet military developments was in its infancy in the west in 1945-1953. The Soviet view of Stalin's post-war army was affected by changing views of both Stalin and the army. Only in the late 1980s did the Soviets themselves start to look at elements of the history of the army of this period in open sources in any sort of specificity. Even today, the Soviets have been willing to reveal relatively few details about their post-war army's force structure and mobilization. The changes in Soviet writing on national security policy means that what information has appeared must be sifted from what is a flood of sources by the standard of the "era of stagnation" while other, previously valuable sources have dried up. The Soviets are preoccupied with filling in the more pressing black spots in their history. Thus, there is still a need to look to western sources to fill in much of the detail.

The immediate post-war period presents lessons with direct applicability and relevance to the problems the Soviet military had to face in the late 1980s and 1990s, as Soviet military writers have explicitly stated.2 While there are certainly major differences, the post-war and the post-Cold War Soviet Army shared many of the same military problems.

Until the current crisis of governance renders all such considerations pointless, the post-Cold War Soviet army moved to adapt in many of the same ways its predecessor did. But even as central power became less relevant to the Soviet Union, the larger of the successor states, including Russia, Byelorussia, and Ukraine, will find that while they have tried to make a clear break with the past in ideological or economic terms, they will find strong elements of continuity in the nature of the armed forces they must organize. Ironically, it is likely that elements of the make-up of Stalin's army will live on long after the centralized communist power it was intended to protect is dead.

Post-War and Post-Cold War

The parallel between the two post-war eras is most apparent in the way the Soviets built down, which differed greatly from the post-war western Allies. While maintaining enough forces to effectively hold Europe hostage, Stalin did not present an immediate threat of war to the post-war world. He saw the need for a foundation to build military power to match his antagonists in the West in the middle-term future, telling Yugoslav Communists, in April 1945, "The war will soon be over. We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we'll have another go at it."3

As the Army demobilized in 1945-1948, the Soviets were also laying the foundations for subsequent build-ups, as early as soon as the 1948 Berlin crisis. The importance of this historical model became apparent to the Soviets when their first unilateral force structure reductions were first announced in 1988. Demobilization had come again. The Soviet Army had to learn how to become smaller.

Demobilization was driven in both cases by the necessity of giving up force structure to help restore a crippled--by war in one case, by the "era of stagnation" in the other--Soviet economy.4 In both cases, this had to be done without sacrificing research and development, because a revolution in military affairs was in progress.5 In the post-war years, it was the second revolution, that of nuclear weapons, that the Soviets had to meet. While Stalin's post-war down-playing of the U.S. nuclear capability and his insistence on the continued applicability of wartime military doctrine is well-known, so is his emphasis on creating Soviet nuclear weapons and delivery systems as well as strategic defenses.6 The post-Cold War Soviet Army must participate in the third revolution in military affairs, that of high-lethality conventional weapons, but cannot do this without access to technology and the ability to produce it, both of which require an effective defense industrial base. This, in turn, needs investment, even if this must come at the expense of force structure, as happened to the post-war army.

Robert Conquest writes, "Expansionism was built into the Soviet system, and the war against Hitler had at the start been defensive out of necessity rather than principle."7 Despite Stalin's obvious commitment to aggrandizement, his army did much withdrawing, leaving Germany outside the Soviet zone, Norway, Denmark, Czechoslovakia (not to return until 1968), Bulgaria, Korea, Iran, and Yugoslavia, among others. Even as late as 1950, there were suggestions that the Soviets might seriously consider abandoning East Germany in return for its neutralization.8 More important, Stalin's army had to rethink its strategic worldview quickly and effectively and implement changes in both force structure and operational planning based on both a changed world situation and changing internal priorities.

Gorbachev's first withdrawal, from Afghanistan, was the hardest. For Soviets used to images of the red flag being raised over the Reichstag, the sight of Afghan guerrillas standing by the roadside and laughing at the retreating columns showed that this war was ending very differently from the one in 1945. The revolutions of 1989 then confronted the Soviets with having to begin to withdraw all their forward-deployed Groups of Forces. The Baltic states reclaimed their independence in 1991; once again the Soviet Army had to withdraw. Ukraine and Byelorussia were not far behind.

Both the post-war and post-Cold War Soviet army had to turn away from the previous form of their offensive orientation, either actual (that which carried them to Berlin) or potential (the theater offensive to the Channel that dominated a generation of thinking on both sides). In both periods, the Soviets had to adapt to a new, more mobilization-dependent concept of how they would function in the initial period of conflict.

The post-war Soviet Army remained an offensive force. That had been what it had aimed for since the late 1930s. The offensive had brought victory on the long road from Stalingrad to Berlin. The Soviet Army did not abandon these lessons, especially given Stalin's enshrining of wartime experience and his own leadership.

The center-periphery conflicts that both the post-war and the post-Cold War Soviet army faced a key difference. Those under Stalin never came close to threatening the existence of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army participated in the long anti-guerrilla conflicts in Ukraine and Lithuania in 1944-1954 but left the specialized internal security forces to carry the burden of pacification.9 Similarly, the Communists were able to prevail in the Polish Civil War of 1944-1949 without large-scale involvement of Soviet combat units.10 The post-cold war conflicts in the Transcaucasus and the Baltic republics--the manifestation of much deeper political struggles against rule from Moscow--involving the Soviet Army were, while more decisive, not as bloody as these desperate anti-Stalinist struggles. The ballot box brought the independence in 1991 that brave guerrillas had never touched in 1944-1954.

Finally, there was the political tension between the military--victorious post-war, discredited post-Cold war--and Moscow. Post-war, there was little effective challenge to Stalin from those in uniform, although the post-war troubles of Marshal Zhukov, even if mild from the author of the Great Purge, and those of many other Soviet military leaders who were not as fortunate, shows that the potential for such a challenge was not discounted.11 The post-Cold War army proved ineffective in its challenge to Moscow in the August 1991 abortive coup. But, as coup threats remain through the winter of 1991-1992, it is a dimension that, obviously, cannot be ignored. The successor governments must also each deal with their own armed forces.

Demobilization and Mobilization

Stalin's post-war army had to demobilize to permit both the allocation of resources to reconstruction at home and political consolidation in nations where it would remain. Stalin looked to mobilization and deployment potential--rather than standing force structure--as the prime indicator of the Soviet Army's effectiveness. Stalin insisted on the applicability of wartime lessons, and it was Soviet mobilization of manpower and industry that provided him the tools with which to fight even as the Germans destroyed his first strategic echelon in the summer of 1941.12

Even if the Soviet's 1945-1948 demobilization was neither as fast nor as dramatic as that of the western allies, it was still substantial, going from 60 armies, 198 corps, and 590 divisions to 30 armies, 64 corps, and 158 divisions.13 Over eight and a half million personnel were demobilized, leaving 2,874,000 in service.14 The number of military districts in the Soviet Union was also reduced.

This dramatic demobilization does not mean that the Soviets abandoned offensive action as the primary mode of operations. The Soviets invested in mobilization potential as they demobilized. They positioned a number of cadre formations forward, in their zone of occupation in Germany. They reduced the number of units but allowed for rapid expansion; many divisions became the component regiments of other divisions in 1945-1948, but had the potential to be reconstituted as a division on mobilization.15

The U.S. was aware that even in the throes of demobilization the Soviets were able to mobilize forces rapidly. A 1946 U.S. Army study projected a 1948 Soviet mobilization yielding ten armies and 84 divisions opposing Europe after five days of mobilization and 30 armies and 270 divisions after 30 days.16

The key interface between mobilization and war fighting for both the post-war and the post-cold war Soviet Army was the military district. Both periods have seen contraction in the number of military districts. From a total of 31 in 1945 down to 15 by the 1950s. In 1989, there were 16 when the post-Cold War reductions began, reduced to 13 by late 1991.

A mobilization-dependent military is by no means an inherently defensive one, as exemplified by the Israeli Army. Even a Soviet force configured for defensive combat was expected to be able to shift over to offensive quickly and effectively. In the opening hours of the Russo-German War, orders were being given to Soviet formations to attack into Poland even as they were overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg.17 In the Second World War, the Soviet army had shown itself adept at moving from defensive to offensive posture. This was seen from 1941, but especially in the 1945 campaign against Japan. In that campaign, the first operational echelon that was pre-deployed in the east had been configured and deployed for defensive combat. This reflected Soviet policy since 1941. However, in the three months starting in May 1941, through mobilization and reinforcement, the forces in the Far East were transformed into the most effective offensive weapon Stalin was ever to use. The skill with which the army was able to go from the defensive to the offensive was as important to Gorbachev-era Soviets looking at their future as it had been to those restructuring the post-war Soviet military.

Stalin's post-war army could afford to be mobilization dependent because, unlike the post-1967 army, it did not have to run the risk of mobilization being pre-empted by a massive strike of tactical and theater nuclear weapons. Stalin basically gave orders that the U.S. nuclear threat was not to be seen as countering any Soviet military capability.18 While the Soviet revelations on their intelligence successes have not made it evident, it is also possible that Stalin was personally aware of how limited U.S. strategic bombing capability was in the immediate post-war years.19 It may be that in the future, as Soviet or successor military forces re-orient themselves against primarily non-nuclear threats on their periphery, rather than a potentially nuclear conflict with NATO and the U.S., there will be more credibility to looking to mobilization-dependent solutions.

Doctrine and War Fighting

Post-war Stalinist military doctrine sought to answer the same fundamental questions as its successors. What will be the nature of any potential future conflict? How can all the capabilities (and by no means just the armed forces) of the Soviet state be best employed to win any such conflict?

Studies of Soviet doctrine in 1945-1953 have stressed the Stalinist emphasis on continuity and tendency to enshrine elements of wartime experience that reinforced the worst elements of the political system.20The Soviet military--especially the General Staff--were able to reconcile this Stalinist burden with a coherent framework taken from wartime experience to fit their new strategic needs with existing doctrine.21

Post-war, the totality of Soviet force was seen as comprising two strategic echelons. This concept had been employed from before 1941 and continued to the present. It reflects the need for both a sufficient number of high-readiness (but high-cost) forces to wage the initial period of the war while retaining sufficient mobilization-based (low-cost) capability to sustain a protracted conflict without unacceptable economic costs in peacetime.22

Stalin placed great emphasis on the second strategic echelon, the "strategic rear." It comprised the industrial and personnel base for force generation, which included both mobilization and reconstitution. The strategic rear represented the combined effort of all of the Soviet state, not just the military. The importance of the strategic rear in post-war doctrine also served to justify Stalin's pre-war policies, building up industry through the five year plans and building national unity through terror and the slaughter or removal of potentially disruptive elements.23

The first strategic echelon, post-war, consisted of the forces that would be involved in the initial period of the war and provide the conditions for the strategic rear to mobilize. The first strategic echelon was further divided into three operational echelons.24

The rearmost third operational echelon was intended to mobilize and deploy low-readiness or nearly formed formations to reinforce forward-deployed forces.25 Its missions were carried out by the military districts that would command these forces in peacetime and generate and project them on mobilization.

The second operational echelon was the strategic reserve and consisted of higher-readiness formations, withdrawn from central Europe in 1945-1948, able to redeploy to forward areas. These forces could also be used for the large-scale field training exercises that massed troops along borders where this would provide leverage, including areas bordering Turkey (March 1946), Iran (August 1947, November 1948 and June 1951), Czechoslovakia (February 1948), Yugoslavia (August 1948 and September 1951) and Germany ("air exercises" during the Berlin airlift and August 1951).

These relatively high-readiness formations would have other roles as well, including an important role in force generation. According to General Georgy Lobov, an air division commander in the post-war years and in the Korean conflict: "When a crisis erupted in the Azerbaijani region close to Iran, Stalin ordered all jet fighter divisions to be deployed in the surrounding area of Moscow. Each division began to organize a new division out of itself, leaving behind a regiment each."26 This approach was not limited to the Air Force: it is what the Soviet ground forces in Germany had done during their demobilization.27

The forward of the three operational echelons consisted of the high-readiness formations, 29 divisions strong, organized in four groups of forces, including those in the Soviet zones in Germany and Austria. Designated armiia otpora ("blocking army"), the forces in Germany were to be ready within five days to meet immediate threats and repulse them while forces were mobilized and projected into the forward areas.28

The post-war Soviet Army saw its mission in the initial period of a war not as securing ultimate victory--it was only when doctrine finally came to grips with nuclear war fighting that this became important--but as making its possible for the full mobilization of all Soviet society to provide the means of ultimate victory, as in 1941-1945. The army was to play a role in this victory that was far broader than its initial defensive orientation would suggest.

Published by the Soviets in 1989, the 1946-era war plans of Group of Soviet Occupation Forces Germany showed that they were intended to repulse an Allied offensive into the Soviet zone while forces from the second operational echelon came forward. This would bring up to full strength, cadre-strength formations in Germany as well as redeploying new formations.29

While there have been no other comparable detailed published primary sources on Soviet operational thinking in the post-war era, these plans certainly appear consistent with other elements of deployment and mobilization in 1945-1948. Exercises following a similar pattern were seen throughout the Stalinist era and after.30

This plan's appearance in print was significant for both its internal and external audiences. It was linked with the emergence of what the Soviets term their "defensive doctrine" under Gorbachev, and the invocation of a wider variety of historical models for Soviet military thinking on the nature of a potential future conflict. The 1987 shift in how the Soviets envisioned the initial period of a future war in Europe paralleled that seen in 1946 when translated into operational planning.

While the Soviets have not yet published their 1987-vintage war plans, an example of the move to a 1946-style approach can be seen in the operational mission of the 22nd Panzer Regiment of the crack East German 9th Panzer Division. Prior to 1987, its mission on mobilization was to join in the theater offensive, driving into West Germany, north of Hamburg.31 In 1987, the regiment's initial mission on mobilization shifted to defending a sector along the River Elbe. In both 1946 and 1987, however, the offensive would have taken place after mobilization. This reorientation in Soviet operational thinking was also seen in some open source writings.32

However, using the 1946 operational plans to characterize the post-war Soviet Army as "defensive" rather than offensive, one of the apparent objectives of the Soviet 1989 publication, is as misleading as using force levels to the same ends. The 1946 plans indeed did look at the initial period of the war being involved with parrying a potential enemy blow and providing time and space for mobilization. This initial period was determined from the start of mobilization rather than hostilities.

The 1946 plans certainly contrast with the threat that was the focus of almost all western thinking in the 1970s and 1980s: the "standing start" theater offensive to the Rhine, stressing the element of surprise and rapid maneuver to counter the nuclear threat. Rather, the mission of the "blocking army" of 1946 was to enable troops from throughout the first strategic echelon to mobilize and redeploy and the second strategic echelon to move onto a war footing. The "blocking army" could do this by fighting a defensive battle (as envisioned in the 1946 plans) or acting as a pre-hostilities covering force for redeployment, as the troops in the Far East did before the opening of the Soviet attack on Japan in 1945. The planning for mobilization and redeployment would be much the same in either circumstance once the correlation of forces had been changed by redeployment. The advance could be as powerful as that on Orel and Bryansk immediately after the defensive victory at Kursk in 1943. It is significant that Kursk was the battle offered by the Soviets in 1987 as a paradigm for the operational application of their new defensive doctrine on the battlefield.

The post-war Soviet Army was not intended--and not capable--of carrying out offensive operations in the initial period of war on the model of the army that emerged from the 1967-1982 Brezhnev-era build-up. It had a different, more mobilization-dependent, but still vital, model of offensive operations, which was seen as viable in the absence of a nuclear threat to the troops. Stalin was apparently able to devote a smaller percent of GNP to his force structure than was the case in the "era of stagnation."33 Smaller calls for conscript service made manpower available for reconstruction and reduced unrest in the republics; the latter goal also served by Stalin's retention of wartime "national" divisions serving in their home areas.

The post-war Soviet military appeared to have looked at offensive war fighting more seriously after 1948-1948 and with it the questions of moving from a peacetime to a wartime footing, including redeploying forces.34 This also reflected Stalin's personal perception of an increased threat from a less-acquiesent West.35 The Berlin crisis and the break with Yugoslavia made the need to assume an offensive after the initial period of a war and mobilization more important in operational thinking. This was reflected by a strengthening of the first operational echelon, and included bringing back up to strength in Germany two armies--3rd Guards and 4th Guards--that had been drawn down in the demobilization of 1945-1948.36

The Soviets also were able, as their political consolidation increased in Central Europe, to look to drawing on non-Soviet forces in a potential conflict. By 1948 the Hungarian army had been effectively integrated into the Soviet Army.37 Stalin-era plans for an invasion of Yugoslavia envisioned the Hungarian People's Army as having a major role.38 The Polish People's Army--in the last stages of the civil war carried out by internal security forces--was also in the throes of Sovietization.

The Political Impact of the Post-War Military

The political strength of the Soviet military had always been seen by Stalin as a potential counter to his own drive towards total and absolute power and authority. Post-war, as the Stalinist cult of personality bloomed, the need for increased political control had to be reconciled with the increased stature and power of the army and its commanders.

Much of this revolved around Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov. The most distinguished Soviet soldier of the war, he had received great favorable publicity, and recent Soviet history shows that he could even stand up to Stalin and get him to change his mind.39 While Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces and viceroy of the Soviet zone in Germany in the immediate postwar era, he, along with a number of other senior combat commanders, were soon demoted and brought home to lesser posts.40 Some, with less popularity than Zhukov, suffered the full force of Stalinist repression.

Post-war high command went first and foremost to generals who were no threat to Stalin.41 Stalin moved to use the Party to consolidate his control over the military, while contributing to the final form of his power.42 The Party--in policies strongly identified with Andrei Zhdanov--glorified Stalin's role and down-played that of the military, and moved to re-instate rigid political and police controls over the military throughout the rest of his life.43 However, the military remained in control of its own sphere of expertise. Stalin wanted its ways, based on wartime victories, preserved, not smashed as in 1937.

In the post-war era, none of the potential successors to Stalin looked to establish a power base including the army because of the fear of bonapartism that this would invoke.44 This was well known, but it was only with recent Soviet writings that Zhukov's and other military leaders--those important because of their popular recognition and support and the cachet of battlefield victory--ongoing political involvement was seen, most dramatically in the role he played, along with Marshals Timoshenko and Moskalenko, in the downfall of Beria at the close of the Stalin era.45

In the downfall of Beria--the subject of recent revelations by Soviet writers--the military would have its political say in the end, affecting the transition of the regime, much as some of its leaders would try and do, with less violence and still less success, in August 1991.46

There are many differences between the military's political role in the post-war and Post-Cold War Soviet Union. The actual threat to Stalin's solidifying power was negligible. In times of instability, the military's role increased, as at the death of Stalin and the abortive August 1991 coup. There was little Stalinist about either the 1991 coup or its results. The violence once inherent in the system has diminished. But there were elements of the post-war experience to be seen anew.

The importance of well-known and combat-proven leaders was seen. Indeed, commanders of the airborne troops would not follow the orders of the plotters. General Boris "the Butcher" Gromov, then commander of the MVD Internal Security Troops and the most publicized Soviet general since Zhukov, was politically aligned with many of the plotters, but has since claimed that his orders were key in preventing bloodshed; he lost his command but avoided prosecution and re-surfaced as the deputy commander of the army in December 1991. Like Zhukov, he may have been too strong to bring to trial.

The army's political dimension is unlikely to be eclipsed, especially with the disappearance of Party control, in particular and of central power in general. But if the other institutions of Soviet central power disappear or weaken, the army is likely to remain stronger for a longer period of time. This reflects its cohesion, discipline, a greater economic autonomy. But by the end of 1991, it is increasingly uncertain whether there is any central state power that can be taken over by the army.

Old Lessons for New Armies

Comparisons between the post-war and Post-Cold War Soviet army are interesting but can be misleading. Even Gorbachev's critics, both internally and internationally, would not make too much, either personally or in terms of policies, of the comparisons between him and Stalin, whose mantle of centralized power by party and state he is likely to be the last inheritor.

The Soviet Army, with its emphasis on the use of history to provide viable models for decision-making, is certainly an institution that values continuity. The modern Soviet Army has many elements of continuity with its predecessors back to Tsarist times. It is not surprising that there should also be elements of Stalin's army in that of Gorbachev.

The same continuity is likely to be seen in the armies of successor nations to the Soviet Union. The armed forces of Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia will defend emerging democracies rather than totalitarian power. Yet they will have to do this with institutions inherited from the Soviets. Every soldier will carry a Kalashnikov, every general will be a graduate of the professional military education system for years to come. Many of the factors that the post-war Soviet army had to address--such as demobilization, doctrinal formulation, internal conflict and re-establishing political control - will have also to be addressed by post-Soviet armies.


1. Hugh Thomas, Armed Truce. New York: Atheneum, 1987, 545.

2. For example, MG L.G. Ivashov, "History of the Organizational Development of the Soviet Armed Forces After the Great Patriotic War," Voenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal, n.7, 1988, 94-96. Translated at JPRS-UMJ-89-001, Military Historical Journal , 12 Jan 1989, 53-55.

3. Robert Conquest, Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking, 1991, 278.

4.Dimitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York, Grove Weidenfield, 1991, 504.

5. Scott and Scott, 22.

6. William T. Lee and Richard F. Staar, Soviet Military Policy Since World War II, Stanford: Hoover Press, 1986, 10-11.

7. Conquest, 278.

8. C.G. Jacobsen, Soviet Strategy Soviet Foreign Policy, Glasgow: The University Press, 128-29.

9. Frederic Smith, "The War in Lithuania and the Ukraine Against Soviet Power," in Charles Moser, ed., Combat on Communist Territory, Chicago: Regenery, 1985.

10. Lucja Swiatokowski, The Imported Communist Revolution and the Civil War in Poland, 1944-1949. (Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1982), 469, University Microfilms DE0082-11136.

11. Conquest, 272.

12. Thomas, 79-81.

13. Albert Z. Conner and Robert G. Poirer, "Soviet Ground Force Mobilization Potential: Lessons of the Past and Implications for the Future." Journal of Soviet Military Studies, v. 1, n. 2, Jun 1988, 211-30, 221-23.

14. A. A. Babakov, Vooruzhenniye Sily SSSR Posle Voyny (1945-1986) [The Armed Forces of the USSR After the War (1945-1986)], Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1987, 30.

15. Graham Turbiville, "Emerging Soviet Approaches to Mobilization," in Jeffrey Simon, ed., European Security Policy After the Revolutions of 1989. Washington: National Defense University Press, 1991, 77-120, 90.

16. Quoted in Connor and Poirer, 227.

17. David M. Glantz, "A Collection of Combat Documents Covering the First Three Days of the Great Patriotic War," Journal of Soviet Military Studies, v. 4, n. 1, Mar 1991, 150-90.

18. Volkogonov, 531-32.

19. On the actual situation, see Harry R. Borowski, "Air Force Atomic Capability from V-J Day to the Berlin Blockade—Potential or Real? " Military Affairs, Oct 1980, 180-85.

20. Harriet Fast Scott and William F. Scott, Soviet Military Doctrine, Boulder: Westview press, 19.

21. See generally Babkov, Chapter 1.

22. Turbiville, 78.

23. Thomas, 79-81.

24. Turbiville, 80.

25. M.A. Garelov, "Otkuda Ugrozy" ("Whence the Threat") Voenno-Istorichedia Zhurnal, Feb 1989, 20-28, 24-25.

26. Memoirs of Georgiy Lobov, Radio Moscow Korean language broadcast, 2 Sep 1991. Translated at FBIS-SOV-91-197, Soviet Union Daily Report, 10 Oct 1991, 12-13.

27. Turbiville, 81.

28. Garleov, 24.

29. Garelov, 20-22.

30. Zoltan D. Barany, "Soviet Control of the Hungarian Military Under Stalin," Journal of Strategic Studies, v. 14, n. 2, Jun 1991, 148-64.

31. Colonel Dale Stewart, "A Close Look at a T-72 Regiment," Armor, Jul-Aug 1991, 19-20.

32. For example, Colonel A.D. Rubler, "Establishment of Force Groups for Conducting a First Counteroffensive Operation," Voyennaya Mysl, n. 2, 1991, 20-25.

33. Joseph A. Martellaro, "The Post-WWII Soviet Economy: A Case of Butter and Guns," Journal of Political and Military Sociology, v. 15, n. 1, Spring 1987, 73-88, 74-75.

34. Babakov, 63-70, presents an early Gorbachev-era view of this.

35. Michael MccGwire, Perestroika and Soviet National Security, Washington: Brookings Institution, 18-19.

36. Turbiville, 110.

37. Barany, 157.

38. Bela Kiraly, "The Aborted Soviet Military Plans Against Tito’s Yugoslavia," in Wayne S. Vucinich, ed., At the Brink of War and Peace: The Tito-Stalin Split in a Historic Perspective, New York: Brooklyn College Press, 273-88.

39. R.W. Davies, Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution, Bloomington and Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1989, 67-69, 103-109.

40. Thomas, 78-79.

41. Roman Kolkowicz, The Soviet Military and the Communist Party, Boulder: Westview Press, 1985, 71.

42. Kolkowicz, 73.

43. Kolkowicz, 70.

44. Vernon V. Aspaturian, "The Stalinist Legacy in Soviet National Security Decisionmaking," in Jiri Valenta and William Potter, eds., Soviet Decisionmaking for National Security, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984, 23-73, 61.

45. Scott and Scott, 188.

46. James Hansen, "The Kremlin Follies of '53 . . . the Demise of Lavrenti Beria," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, v. 4, n. 1, spring 1990, 101-114; Klimchuk, "How Beriya was Tried and Executed," Soviet Soldier, n. 5, 1990, 58-59.

Von Hardesty
National Air and Space Museum

When the Red Army launched its final assault on Berlin in May 1945, the Soviet Air Force deployed 7,500 aircraft in support of the advancing troops. At this culminating moment in the war, the Soviet Air Force boasted 18 air armies with an inventory of over 15,000 operational aircraft. World War II concluded with the Soviet Union possessing the largest tactical air force in the world.

Few Westerners--even those with some familiarity with the history of World War II--typically think of the Soviet Union as a major air force in 1945. Our most enduring image of the Soviet Air Force is one of ineffectiveness, the victim of Operation Barbarossa. The preemptive German air strikes began on June 22, 1941. By the fall, Soviet air losses may have exceeded 7,000 aircraft.

The Soviet air arm, however, survived these difficult days. By the summer of 1942, the Soviet Air Force had been reorganized under its talented wartime commander, A. A. Novikov. Organized into mobile air armies, Soviet air power challenged the Luftwaffe for air supremacy at Stalingrad, the Kuban, and Kursk in 1942-1943. The year 1944 saw the Soviets in firm command of the air. The air war in the east culminated in 1945 in the skies over Berlin. The air armies functioned as an integral part of Soviet combined arms warfare, providing air support for the massive ground offensives that expelled the German army and captured Berlin.1

There was an unforseen irony to this Soviet air triumph. At the very moment of victory in 1945, many perceptive Soviet air commanders realized that the wartime design and production priorities left the Soviet Union ill-equipped for the post-war world. Fighter and ground attack aircraft had been produced in large numbers, giving the Soviets a wartime edge over the Luftwaffe. This impressive victory over the Luftwaffe did not transform the Soviet Union into a major air power. The nuclear age (with the accompanying Cold War) called for a new kind of air force, a strategic air arm with long- range bombers and the full utilization of jet engine technology to enhance aircraft speed, range, and load capacity.

During the long and arduous war with Germany, the Soviet Air Force had evolved as a kind of flying artillery, linked organically to the army, and deployed for cooperative interaction with the ground forces. To perfect this role, the Soviet aircraft industry had been mobilized to manufacture vast numbers of tactical aircraft. Because of this wartime emergency, four-engine, long-range bombers were not produced, except for a small number of Pe 8s (only 79 built). By contrast, Soviet aviation plants manufactured over 36,000 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmoviks.2

The Anglo-American strategic bombing operations required modern, long- range bombers, a priority that fully anticipated the needs of the post-war nuclear age. The American B-29 Superfortress represented the state-of-the-art long-range bomber in 1945. In addition, the Germans had been the first to introduce an operational jet fighter. The British and Americans had made important strides in this important technology during the war and they would quickly exploit their advantage.

By contrast, Soviet wartime research and development had given little place or emphasis to these technical innovations, although foreign aircraft designs had been monitored and studied throughout the war. The Soviets in 1945 grappled with a sort of technological riptide, an altered reality for which they were ill prepared.

Consequently, the Soviet Union's pursuit of victory, if impressive in its epic proportions, had bought military vulnerability in its wake. The rapid tempo of weapons development often made whole categories of weapons obsolescent, even at peak moments of effectiveness. The technological gap with the Americans quickly became apparent as the Cold War took shape in the last decade of Stalin's rule. For the Soviets, the Cold War reinforced the perception of military vulnerability and the urgent need to modernize the Soviet Air Force.

The Bomber in the History of the Soviet Air Force

The bomber, or more specifically the long-range bomber, occupies a peculiar (often a central) place in the history of the Russian/Soviet aeronautical establishment. The old Imperial Russian Air Force had deployed the world's first long-range bomber squadron at Yablonna, near Warsaw, in September 1914. Russian airmen flew the four- engine Il'ya Muromets throughout the period of Russia's involvement in World War I.3 Designed by Igor Sikorsky, the bomber performed varied missions, attacking German troop concentrations, supply lines, and communications centers. This unique airplane could stay aloft for missions of six hours or more. The Il'lya Muromets proved to be an effective platform for bombing, aerial observation, and photography. Always heavily armed, the Il'lya Muromets became a formidable flying fortress. Only one of these bombers was downed by enemy fighters during the entire war.

The Bolsheviks, triumphant in the Russian Revolution, displayed a real enthusiasm for air power. They organized the Red Air Fleet, which played a dramatic, if marginal, role during the Russian Civil War that followed in the wake of the Bolshevik coup. During the 1920s, the new Soviet military establishment began a debate on the nature of air power. The quest to adapt military doctrine to Marxism-Leninism dominated and distorted Soviet military thinking and planning.4 The Soviets studied air theorists in the West. For example, Douhet became a familiar figure to Soviet military theorists, in particular to Jan Alksnis, the Soviet Air Commander in the 1930s. Douhet's writings were first translated into Russian in 1935.

The Soviet pre-war fascination with large aircraft expressed an older tradition going back to Igor Sikorsky's designs. The Il'lya Muromets had demonstrated its effectiveness as a bomber in World War I. The need to design aircraft with long-range flying capabilities reflected Russia's enormous geography, a nation with eleven time zones.

For a brief period, Douhet attracted many disciples within the Soviet air establishment. By the early 1930s, the Soviets began the manufacture of large bombers, first the twin-engine TB-1 and then the four-engine TB-3. Flotillas of these lumbering giants appeared at air shows and military maneuvers. They gave full expression to the evolving interest of the Soviets in strategic bombing. Jan Alksnis, the Soviet Air Commander, appeared to be an ardent enthusiast of Douhet. A. N. Lapchinskiy, one of the Soviet Union's most prolific air theorists of the interwar period, also indicated a keen interest in the potential striking power of the bomber in any future war. Emblematic of this trend was the eight-engine, 70-ton Maxim Gorky, which flew over Red Square on May Day and participated in several highly orchestrated air shows. The Maxim Gorky suggested that the Soviets were a major air power and possessed the means for long-range bombing. Two transpolar flights to the United States in 1937 also impressed the West with Soviet advances in long-range aviation.5

The Soviet emphasis on large aircraft and, in particular, the design of long-range bombers, proved to be shortlived. Stalin's purge of the military of the late 1930s signaled vast changes. The purges brought repression and the arrest of many aircraft designers. For reasons that remain obscure, the purge process in its final stages targeted many aviation leaders, civil and military.6 Among these victims was the Soviet Union's small coterie of Douhetists. The arrest and execution of Jan Alksnis eliminated the long-range bomber's most visible defender. Andrei Tupolev and many of his associates escaped death, but their arrest and humiliation confirmed the fact that the Soviet Union's brief flirtation with the bomber was over.

The dramatic shift away from long-range bombers, however, cannot be explained only by the purges. The involvement of the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, profoundly influenced Soviet aviation priorities on the eve of World War II. The Spanish war demonstrated that fighters and ground attack aircraft were more effective than the slow, lumbering bombers of the period. The introduction of late-model German fighters such as the Messerschmitt BF-109E altered the course of the conflict, exposing the inferior character of Soviet aircraft technology and air combat tactics. Spain proved to be a crucible for learning, a grim episode that helped to shape Soviet war planning in positive ways.

In 1940, Stalin ordered the reorganization of the Soviet Air Force. Soviet aviation production goals now called for a whole new generation of aircraft. Long-range bomber aviation persisted, but on a reduced scale. This shift, in part, was explained later as a reaffirmation of combined arms warfare. As this idea was understood in 1940, the Soviets stressed the centrality of the ground forces. This meant that air power was subordinate to all defensive and offensive ground operations. The air force became explicitly a tactical air arm. Bombers persisted, but only to enhance tactical air operations. Even so-called Long-Range Bomber units, reorganized as the 18th Air army, preformed essentially tactical support missions during the course of the war.

The Post-War Context

Several overarching trends in Soviet aeronautical development shaped the post-war years. They are worth noting, if briefly:

  1. Soviet air doctrine, even with its outward pretensions of clarity, consistency, and scientific grounding (as opposed to Western "military art"), was not coherent, except in a formal, often propagandistic, sense.
  2. The traditional emphasis on combined arms warfare continued, now reinforced by the epic victory over Nazi Germany. The post-war context, however, would require adjustments to new realities, both technological and geo-political.
  3. The Soviets entered into a desperate struggle to gain parity with the West. Highly centralized research institutes such as TsAGI and an abundance of talented designers allowed for steady progress. But the sense of backwardness, real and imagined, haunted the aeronautical establishment. The aeropropulsion section is just one example of chronic obsolescence and failure. For the Soviets, the systematic copying of foreign technology and the creative new designs by indigenous designers blended to shape the Soviet Air Force. The Soviet instinct to copy was fully incorporated into research and development. While derivative in many respects, Soviet aircraft also embodied genuine innovations. Part of the problem of interpreting Soviet aviation is to understand this duality.
  4. No one can understand these years without reference to Stalin, who took a keen interest in the aviation question. His influence was pervasive and often negative.

The Tu 4 Program

The quest to build a new long-range bomber became a high priority in the post-war years. Parallel work in jets and rockets proceeded as well. Building offensive weapons anticipated the acquisition of nuclear weapons that became a reality for the Soviets in 1949.

The Tupolev Tu-4 become the first genuine Soviet long-range bomber. The Tu-4 was a copy of the American B-29. The story of the Tu-4 has fascinated students of Soviet aviation for decades.

The story began in late 1944 when three B-29s landed near Vladivostok while participating in air strikes over Japan. The crews and aircraft were interned. Subsequently, the crews were returned, but not the advanced bombers. The acquisition of the B-29s, at the time the most technically advanced bomber in the world, provided the Soviets with a rare opportunity to study and to replicate a proven long-range bomber.

L.L. Kerber, author of Tupolevskaya sharaga (unpublished) and an associate of Tupolev, told me this past September that one B-29 was disassembled for detailed analysis, another was test flown, and the third aircraft was used as a trainer. One can see a Soviet-built Tu-4 at Monino, the Soviet Air Force museum near Moscow. The fate of the interned American B-29s remains a mystery.

Stalin ordered a Soviet version to be produced within a year, and gave Tupolev complete access to the Soviet Union's engineering and material resources for this high priority project. Thousands of draftsmen, engineers, and technical specialists were mobilized to work on the high-priority project. It became one of the most extraordinary examples of reverse engineering in aeronautical history.

The technical problems were complex and immense. Each component had be replicated within the Soviet system, using metric measurements. There were problems with exotic metals, the American preference for tight tolerances, and the replication of sophisticated hydraulic systems. The construction of turrets and plexiglass were also difficult. Rather than manufacture new tires for the Tu-4, Soviet agents endeavored to buy them in the West.

The most formidable task, of course, was building the Soviet equivalent of the Wright R 3350 engine, which powered the B-29. Here the longstanding Soviet backwardness in aero engines dogged the project. Early reviews of the Tu-4 proved it to be under-powered. By the time of the Korean War, however, this problem had been solved.

The Tu-4 had a range of only 1,500 miles. It proved to be slow, vulnerable to attack by the new jet fighters, and, in terms of global strategy, not an optimal delivery system for the Soviet Union's growing stockpile of atomic weapons.

The Late Stalinist Bomber Program

During the last years of Stalin's rule, the quest for a strategic bomber continued, even as new missile technologies emerged to challenge the need for a long-range strategic bomber.

The Tu-4 had been an interim solution. The Tu-16, a twin-jet bomber with a maximum range of 4,000 miles, rivaled the American B-47. The Tu-16 did not become operational until after Stalin's death. Other Soviet bombers, in particular the M-4 Bison and the turbo-prop Tu-95 Bear, also became operational in the 1950s. None of these jet bombers performed satisfactorily, although they gave the Soviet Air Force a credible strategic bomber force.

By the mid-1950s, the political situation within the Soviet Union had changed in a dramatic way. Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader, displayed little enthusiasm for long- range bombers. Khrushchev saw the missile as the weapon of the future. Missile development and the organization of the Strategic Rocket Forces in 1960 heralded a new age in strategic weapons.

The Changing Character of Russian Archives

An important arena for the study of this historical theme is the Russian archive. In recent years there has been an extraordinary outpouring of information on the Soviet Air Force. In the course of five years, the situation has changed dramatically. Memoirs and archival holdings, many hitherto unavailable, are now accessible to Russian and Western historians. In addition, historical journals, newspapers, and film documentaries have generated new studies to fill in what Gorbachev called the "blank pages" of history.

As Chekhov once said, "to live in the present, the past must be redeemed and for that, it must be known."

The archival scene in Russia, one should note, is changing almost daily. The Hoover Institution recently signed a major agreement with a Russian counterpart. Crown Publishers in turn has reached an agreement with Russian archival authorities to publish a sequence of books on the Cold War. Various projects, too numerous to mention, have involved microfilming and more open access to Russian archives for Western scholars.7 This pattern will no doubt continue and, barring a major political turnabout, create an altered context for research on Russian history.

For individual scholars and researchers, there are unique stories to relate, many representing breakthroughs in our knowledge of Russian history. This past September I had a long conversation with L.L. Kerber who told me about his years with Tupolev in prison. I am working with him to publish an unabridged version of his memoirs, which first appeared in the underground press in the 1970s.

Kerber tells an extraordinary story. The Tupolev Design Bureau consisted of a group of highly skilled designers and engineers. They were joined in prison by many engineers who had only recently been held in labor camps. Tupolev, Petlyakov, Myasishchev, Korolyov, and over 150 other men, were imprisoned. Tupolev, by the way, had been accused of selling blueprints to Messerschmitt.

The building which housed the group appeared quite normal from the outside. The inside, however, was a real prison with bars sealing each window. The internee workers followed a precise regimen; up at 7 a.m., work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; a break for dinner; then work to 7 p.m. As the war drew near, then work to 10 p.m. Throughout the prison years they wore blue coveralls. They were well fed with yogurt for breakfast and a two-course dinner each day, with dessert. Dormitories were located on the top three floors. A commissary of sorts provided soap, razor blades, and cigarettes. Neither radios nor newspapers were allowed. There was a huge cage on the roof that was used for exercise. Punishments could be severe. Life approximated that in Solzhenitsyn's novel, First Circle.

While in Moscow, I also met B.E. Chertok, a retired Soviet Army colonel who led the Soviet troops into Peenemunde, Germany, at the close of the war. He told me that his team, supplied with photographs and sketchy intelligence, targeted Wernher von Braun for capture. One of his great regrets, he confessed, was not capturing von Braun. Chertok is now preparing his memoir that will be an important document on the Soviet rocket program.

Kerber and Chertok are interesting individuals, but what about the larger archival scene? For Russian and Western historians, the current situation is unique. There has not been a time in the last seventy years when official records have been more accessible. This situation is not merely a byproduct of Glasnost. Behind the opening of the archives is the manifest need to rewrite most Soviet history. D.A. Volkogonov's pioneering biography of Stalin represents the first major endeavor to rewrite Soviet history with references to primary sources and outside the constraints of the old official ideology. Volkogonov currently plays a major leadership role in the administration of the Communist Party and KGB archives.

Archival holdings on the pre-revolutionary military organizations are now being opened. This is essentially true of the Russian Civil War and interwar years. There is an extraordinary interest within the Russian historical community to research and to write about Tsarist and White Russian activities.

World War II archives are more spotty. Part of the problem is the sensitivity of certain materials, but the scattered nature of military archives presents real problems.

There has been some access to General Staff materials, but certain key records such as war plans, mobilization schedules, and operational documents, remain secured. The administration of these archives is open to debate and further planning. Should there be a 30, 50 or 75-year rule applied?

For Soviet Air Force history, many wartime records and post-war analyses are available. Certain air staff and operational records, however, remain closed. After action reports, keyed to major operations, are of interest. If available in a comprehensive fashion, we will be able to write more authoritative histories of the Soviet Air Force in World War II.

Also, the records of the various design bureaus need to be analyzed, to see how the Soviet aeronautical establishment worked, in peacetime and in war. Once these critical records are examined in depth, we will be able to say something definitive about military history and the development of the Soviet Union's strategic bomber program. The next decade may be one of great promise in Russian/Soviet military history.


1. See Von Hardesty, Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, Second edition, 1991. For coverage of specific aspects of Soviet air tactics, see by same author "Roles and Missions: Soviet Tactical Air Power in the Second Period of the Great Patriotic War," in Transformation in Russian and Soviet Military History, Proceedings of the Twelfth Military History Symposium, USAF Academy, 1986, Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1990, and "The Soviet Air Force: Doctrine, Organization, and Technology," in Horst Boog, Ed., The Conduct of the Air War in the Second World War, An International Comparison, Studies in Military History, Milatargeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Freiburg, Oxford and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

2. For technical and production data on Soviet military aircraft, see V.B. Shavrov, Istoriya konstruktsii samoletov v SSSR, 1938-1950 gg., Moscow, 1988 and A.S. Yakovlev, Sovetskiyye samolety, 3rd edition, Moscow, 1979.

3. K.N. Finne, Igor Sikorsky, The Russian Years, Ed. By Carl Bobrow and Von Hardesty, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, provides a unique history and perspective on this pioneering long-range bomber unit.

4. A.N. Lapchinskiy, an early Soviet air theorist, wrote extensively on air power. His Vozdushnyy boy [air combat], Moscow, 1934, and Bombardirovochanaya aviatsiya [bomber aviation] are two representative examples of Soviet contributions to the interwar literature on air theory.

5. See G. Baidukov, Russian Lindbergh, The Life of Valery Chkalov, Ed. With introduction by Von Hardesty, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Baidukov was Chkalov's co-pilot on the epic 1937 flight and his account of Chkalov's life, if celebratory, provides many insights into the interwar Soviet campaign to establish air records.

6. The purge campaign reached the aviation community in the late 1930s. Among its victims were Jan Alksnis, the one-time air commander, who had championed Douhet's theories.

7. For a recent and informative review of the changing Russian archival scene, see James G. Hershberg, "Soviet Archives: The Opening Door," Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project,Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington: Issue 1 (Spring 1992) and Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, "Beyond Perestroika: Soviet Area Archives After the August Coup," International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), Princeton, NJ, Jan 1992, first published by American Archivist, 55 (Winter 1992) and then published separately by IREX.

Speakers' Biographies

David Isby received a B.A. in History from Columbia University in 1975 and three years later took the J.D. from New York University. He is widely recognized as an authority on U.S. national security and foreign affairs relating to the last half of the 20th century. He has testified before Congress, lectured at military staff colleges, and appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. He has also served as a legislative assistant to Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler. Mr. Isby is currently an arms control expert at BDM International Corporporation. He has to his credit numerous publications, including over 200 book chapters and articles and 9 books. Of relevance to this paper, he has written Armies of NATO's Central Front, War in a Distant Country: Afghanistan, and two works on weapons and tactics of the Soviet Army.

Dr. Von Hardesty has graduate degrees in History from Case Western Reserve and Ohio State Universities, earning the Ph.D. at the latter institution in 1974. He has served as Chairman of the History Department of Bluffton College in Ohio and has been active in various capacities at the National Air and Space Museum, including Chair of the Research Department. He has been a lecturer, consultant, and educator, having logged over 12 years of teaching experience at universities in Ohio and Washington. His written works include biographies of Igor Sikorsky, Lev Tikhomirov, and other noted Russian and American aviation leaders. He has written or edited several works on U.S. and Soviet aviation history, including Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.


Note: The views or opinions expressed or implied are those of the speakers alone and not those of the Department of the Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


Published: Thu Nov 02 16:33:01 EDT 2017