Home > Reviews > Russia > T-34: Mythical Weapon by Robert Michulec and Miroslaw Zientarzewski (Air Connection)

T-34: Mythical Weapon


Reviewed by Cookie Sewell


Title and Publisher: T-34: Mythical Weapon by Robert Michulec and Miroslaw Zientarzewski; English Language Version published by Air Connection, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada 2006 in conjunction with Armageddon Books
ISBN: 0-9781091-0-4
Media and Contents: 520 pp. with both color and B&W illustrations, drawings and 1/35 scale plans
Price: USD$95.00 available online from http://www.airconnection.on.ca
Review Type: FirstRead
Advantages: Very comprehensive coverage of nearly all of the wartime models of the T-34 tank and its tank variants; excellent set of plans and photos covering the details of the different versions of the tank by model and by factory; indispensable modeler's aid to the T-34
Disadvantages: Historical section suffers badly from the author's biases, subjective analyses and lack of overall knowledge of the Soviet tank industry in the 1930s and 1940s
Recommendation: Highly Recommended (less the historical section)


Nobody thought back in 1971 that when R. P. Hunnicutt published his book "Pershing" at the then unheard-of price of $20 a copy that both he and his writing format would eventually stretch to ten books and a complete history of American armored vehicles. These ten volumes have since been recognized as the "gold standard" for objective analysis of specific subjects, and are considered to be the best "one-stop" histories of their subjects. True, they are not perfect and modelers will always find some complaint about missing items or a lack of coverage of others, but overall they are the reference standard for historical analysis of armored vehicles.

The same can be said to a great degree about the series of "Panzer Tracts" books from researchers Tom Jentz and Hilary Doyle, which cover German vehicles to the same relatively objective level of detail.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and relative freedom of the Russian Press, for years many modelers and historians have been hoping to see the same level of coverage and presentation for many of the Soviet tanks. Thus far some excellent histories have begun to appear from the factories that built these tanks, such as the "Malyshev" factory in Kharkov, birthplace of the T-34, and the Ural Railway Wagon Factory in Nizhniy Tagil that built that tank, the T-54/T-55, and T-72 tanks. But these are factory histories and present the factories's viewpoints, which are somewhat colored by the pride taken in their products.

When this book was announced some time ago, the hopes of many historians and modelers is that this book would be the "Hunnicutt" version of the T-34's history and as such very useful to all concerned. Now that it has been printed and is available, upon reading it the sad fact is that such is not the case; while the modelers win big on the book, the historians will have to wait for another attempt from another author.

What the book does provide is the following material. The first 260 pages cover the history of the tank and its development; the next 86 pages cover the T-34 in Polish service; then come 96 pages on detail photographs of the various T-34s from any of the six factories which built the tank; then 58 pages of 1/35 scale plans and drawings of the tank in detail, including "stripped down" hulls, turrets and entire vehicles; and lastly 20 pages of color photographs of museum tanks and color broadsides of WWII Soviet vehicles.

As a professional Russian linguist for 33 years I am a bit put off by the fact that the transliterations from Russian are all done using Polish transliteration and not standard English ones, as accepted by most universities and the US Government, which can make tracing some items back very difficult. Some are easy, e.g. the Polish "cz" for the Cyrillic character for "ch" or Polish "c" for Cyrillic "ts", but most are not. But this is understandable considering that the book was written in Polish, so it just has to be accepted from the first. (I do wish that they would be careful on some things though; the UZTM factory [Uralskiy Zavod dlya Tyazhyelogo Mashinostroyeniya or Ural Factory for Heavy Machinery Construction) keeps getting transposed as UTZM. Oh well.)

The book is presented in European A4 size format, and literally stuffed to the gills with around 1,000 photographs of the tank in action. While many of the photos are ex-German showing destroyed T-34s rather than factory shots of the tanks, from a modeler's standpoint they show details of service vehicles and not "parade ground" ones as well as markings. As many are destroyed, it also shows some sections of the tank not usually visible.

The detail shots are very useful as they sort out which tanks were built by what factories and when. It does fall into the same trap of the popular "Modeler's Guide to the Sherman Tank" by Pete Harlem in which arbitrary terms are used to describe the different parts of the tanks. while each component of the T-34 had a factory drawing (indicated by a 34.xx.xxx or 135.xx.xxx identification number) most of these are not yet available to researchers so the author has come up with his own generic terms. (As a case in point, recent information from Russian researchers on the KV-1 tank shows the turret was considered "parts group 57" and all turrets for that tank had a number ending in 57, e.g. 57, 157, 257, or 957.)

The plans by Witold Hazuka are incredibly detailed, and should solve many problems faced by modelers who are trying to replicate a specific factory's tank in a specific time frame. They by themselves are worth the "entry price" for this book.

For anyone specifically interested in Polish T-34s and their operational history, the book covers it in amazing detail, down to serial numbers and which units received which tanks.

But the book falls down badly when it comes to the history of the T-34 and the amazing path it had to follow to even get into production, let alone "roll with the punches" to adapt to wartime needs.

First off, it needs to be stated that the T-34 was a product of the Soviet military-industrial complex during the height of the Soviet Union's rise to power. The author is a Pole. Ignoring the history of just the 20th Century, the Poles and the Russians fought with each other on and off for over 400 years. Each one would take turns dominating the other, and the Ukrainians likewise were involved (recall that the euphemistic term for the invasion of Poland by the USSR in 1939 was the "liberation of the western Ukraine" and you see the point.) The bottom line is that even today there is little love lost between Poles and Russians, even with a shared Slavic heritage.

Mr Michulec has unfortunately allowed these old biases to color his views of the T-34 and to take cheap shots at both the tank and its designers at every opportunity. These show up both consciously in his writing and in the selection of as many photos of destroyed T-34s with Germans gleefully posing with the tanks as he can seem to locate.

Among many of the problems he has with his history is presenting as evenhanded a picture as possible. One thing is a lack of knowledge of the fact that both the Germans and Soviets considered tank losses as combat losses and "non-returning losses" (Soviet term.) What this means is that if a unit sends 50 tanks into combat, 30 are lost but 25 are later repaired and returned to service, the losses reported out are only 5 tanks. The other side, who knocked them out on the battlefield, will claim 30 tanks destroyed. (Tom Jentz has noted this with the Tiger I, as one of the true mysteries about that tank is how many troops and other weapons systems were lost recovering them under fire to be repaired.)

Not understanding this fact causes Mr Michulec to call actual Soviet heroes like Mikhail Katukov of the 1st Guards Tank Corps a liar and somebody guilty of lying to his superiors. In point of fact, Katukov was considered one of the best Soviet tank corps commanders and later on one of the prime reasons that the T-34 became the main Soviet combat tank and the KV-1 was not. Katukov was the only Soviet commander of the early part of the war who could stand up to Zhosif Kotin, the KV-1's designer and a "connected" chap who had married Kliment Voroshilov's goddaughter, hence ensuring the KV (which Kotin named for Voroshilov) would be produced and honored as a "war winning weapon", that it was a piece of junk and got more Soviet soldiers killed than it saved. Some basic research would have shown this, but Mr Michulec chose to "cherry pick" facts to suit his view of things and not look at either the political or physical conditions of the time.

Recent information out of Russia confirms the suspicion of some western analysts that all things in the Soviet Union were really more dependent upon cliques and groups of "connected" people referred to by Russian writers as "clans" and that had a greater impact on the progress of their industry and army than anything else. The T-34 came out of a fight between the "Leningrad" clan, headed by Kotin, and the arising of the "Kharkov" clan under Mikhail Koshkin, who had been sent to Kharkov after the purges in 1937 to bend that factory to follow guidance from Leningrad.

There is not sufficient room in a simple book review to recount the entire history of the T-34, but Mr Michulec missed most of the pertinent facts that the "Leningrad" clan made four distinct attempts to bury the T-34 or fling it on the dustheap of history, all of which failed. Part of the reason was the intercession of V. A. Malyshev, who became the Peoples Commissar for Medium Industrial Production (a euphemism for tank production) and became a champion of the T-34 as a forward looking vehicle unlike the clumsy and overwrought KV-1.

While Mr Michulec raves about the T-34M tank design, which became stillborn on 22 June 1941 when the Germans invaded, he seems to have failed to grasp the fact this design was being forced on the "Kharkov" clan by Kotin's cronies; scale up the drawings of the Leningrad-designed T-50 light tank by about 30% and overlay them on the T-34M and the origins of the vehicle's design are very apparent.

The T-34 did have a great number of failings, many due to its production and design flaws and others due to the failure of the Soviet high command to recognize the need for two simple but critical items, namely a radio set in every tank and a dedicated commander to both observe the battlefield and direct the tank's operations. The T-34 did not get the former until much later in the war, and did not get the latter until the advent of the main production models of the T-34-85 in early 1944. It suffered from being cramped inside, dark, possessed of poor visibility of the battlefield, having production of variable quality, and poorly trained crews and command staff. The gunsights were boresighted for only 750 meters so any gunnery over that distance was pure luck. It took quite a bit of work to fix most of these problems or at least get to the point where they were acceptable problems.

While any of these subjects deserve fair treatment, that is not what they received from Mr Michulec, which is unfortunate. He did seem to have access to a great deal of good material, some new, and also cites many of the same books I possess and have read in Russian on the history of Soviet armored vehicles. He could have produced a good book about the somewhat convoluted history of the tank and its method of staggering to greatness (so to speak) but instead he has launched a petty diatribe against it, with many items of innuendo and personal beliefs subjectively overlaid on its history.

Overall, while I seriously think few modelers will read the historical section other than to check out the wealth of photographs, it is a shame that the book will not be the "Hunnicutt's history of the T-34." For that we must still wait.


Thanks to Steve Zaloga for the review copy.

Text and Images by Cookie Sewell
Page Created 11 February, 2007
Page Last Updated 10 February, 2007