Murphy's Law: The Perfect Holiday Gift In Russia


December 31, 2013: In December 2013 Russian media reported a story about a man in the Ural Mountains (Orenburg, 1,300 kilometers east of Moscow) who had recently found 1,200 hand grenades in a forest and brought them to the police. For this he received a $36,500 reward. In Russia local governments offer these rewards to encourage people to turn in finds like this. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a lot of Soviet era weapons simply disappeared and in many parts of Russia the local government established programs for getting this stuff out of circulation by offering cash rewards, and no questions asked (officially anyway) for those who turn in significant quantities of military weapons.

Finding large quantities of grenades in the woods is not all that unusual because in the 1990s lots of military weapons and ammo went missing. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused sharp cuts in the number of military personnel and there were many remote weapons storage sites that found themselves without sufficient personnel to guard the place 24/7. Local entrepreneurs noticed and some began making clandestine withdrawals from these unguarded military warehouses. Most of this stuff was sold to gun runners who exported the majority of it. But because of the vast quantities involved (millions of rifles, pistols, machine-guns, mortars, RPGs and grenades plus equally large tonnage of ammo) some of it got lost, left behind or is still seeking a buyer. This is the stuff that is often found, unguarded, in odd places. Rather than have more of it in the hands of gangsters, terrorists or old veterans seeking cheap grenades for fishing (an old custom in some parts of Russia), local governments in areas where a lot of the plundering originally took place find it more effective to offer rewards for those who will simply turn the stuff in for destruction. Sometimes this stuff is recycled as the police and military are now often short of weapons and ammo because of all the plundering in the 1990s and budget cut that accompanied that.

Not all the “lost weapons” ended up in the hands of gunrunners, gangsters or civilians seeking dangerous toys. For example consider the Cold War era Soviet tank force. Back in 2010 Russia finally cut its tank force down to a manageable size (from 22,000 to about 6,000). Even with that some sixty percent of the 6,000 tanks are in storage. The 16,000 surplus tanks were scrapped or are still waiting for that to happen.

Back in the early 1990s the situation was quite different. At the end of the Cold War in 1991 Russia had about 53,000 tanks in service (about 40 percent of them relics from the 1950s, or earlier). Over the last two decades, some 30,000 tanks were scrapped or abandoned in unguarded rural military camps that are no longer guarded or even occupied. These tanks have been picked over by locals who strip them of gear they can carry out of the woods. Back in 1991, about half of this mighty tank force was of questionable serviceability and usefulness but that still left the Russians with 25,000 modern tanks, ready to roll west. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 80 percent of the five million troops were sent home, and, in the next decade, only a few hundred new tanks were purchased.

Similar patterns of decline were suffered by the air force and navy. Over 10,000 aircraft have been scrapped since the Cold War ended, and only a few hundred new (or refurbished) ones put into service. Over a hundred nuclear submarines have been scrapped, and less than ten put into service since the 1990s. Some of the abandoned warplanes were plundered and some of the non-nuclear ships. The Russians did apparently manage to keep guarding the hundred or so Cold War era nuclear subs they had to decommission (because of little money and not enough qualified people to run them). These were eventually scrapped in the 1990s, with cash and technical help from the West. No such help was forthcoming for all those smaller weapons, so these will continue to be stumbled upon for some time to come.






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