Q&A with “Ensign Expendable” of Archive Awareness

header4For those who regularly visit forums such as World of Tanks, War Thunder or Tank Net, the name Ensign Expendable is a familiar one.  The man behind the Ensign Expendable avatar is Peter Samsonov, creator of the website/blog  Archive Awareness.  Digging through online archives only made available since the end of the Cold War, Samsonov diligently posts on a daily basis, translating Soviet archive material into English for a North American audience.  Armed with his blog, Ensign Expendable is a man on a mission, battling what he sees as a cold war legacy of negative perceptions in the West of Soviet tanks and armored vehicles.

For those interested in Soviet tanks of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), Archive Awareness has much to offer.  The site is updated daily and posts are well organized under different menus for easy reference.  There are some notable sections worth pointing out.  In the “versus” section, the effectiveness of various allied guns against particular axis vehicles is examined using war time Soviet ballistics tests.  The “western allies” section of the site includes various documents on US and British tanks, including Soviet analysis and opinions on the tanks they received through Lend Lease.  The World of Tanks History Section provides English translations of Russian language articles written by the World of Tanks Researchers.

Tank and AFV News recently posed a list of questions to Archive Awareness creator Peter Samsonov.  He graciously provided us with the following responses.

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T&AFV News – What started your interest in tanks?

Peter Samsonov – I’ve been interested in tanks since my childhood, really. I had many war related toys, as I’m sure many boys in the USSR did. While my favorite was a rather large cannon that could fire pencils, I had a number of toy tanks as well. Combined with a healthy dose of stories about war heroes, I would be surprised if most people did not grow up with at least a passing interest in warfare. Mine turned out to be tanks.

T&AFV News – What prompted you to start Archive Awareness?

Peter Samsonov – World of Tanks, interestingly enough. Following their LiveJournal for development news, I discovered the documents Yuri Pasholok posted there. Eventually, I realized what a rich array of information was available online, and yet completely inaccessible to Western audiences. I began translating them in the early days of the WoT forums when the posters were a little bit more volatile and the administration a little more ban-happy. One thread in three was lucky to avoid deletion, and retyping the same thing over and over again became tedious. I needed somewhere to host my endless walls of text for convenient access, and so Archive Awareness was born.

T&AFV News – What sources do you use?  Do you really solely on archives available online or do you have people with access to Russian archives helping you?

Sherman vs TigerPeter Samsonov – The vast majority of sources I use are available online. Russian archive
websites are a bit primitive, with most showing little more than the address and schedule, but there are many that display entire collections online for free. Sadly, those are somewhat rare, and I have to settle for secondary sources here and there. When someone makes a trek out to Podolsk, I can throw in a request or two, but turnaround time is not quick.

There are also Western sites like DTIC and NARA, but the majority of information is just indexed, not actually scanned. Occasionally I have to part with some hard earned cash when I come across something that could be interesting.

T&AFV News – If you had to pick out “greatest hits” list of posts on Archive Awareness, what would it be?

Peter Samsonov – Articles on big guns making big holes in things (D-25, ML-20, BL-9/10) are very popular. Smaller guns making holes in things nobody expected them to (Sherman and T-34-85 vs. Tigers) are also surprisingly popular. Other articles get very seasonal interest. Otto Carius’ death caused a ton of views for the translation of Artem Drabkin’s interview with him, for instance.

T&AFV News – What are some of the things you have found that surprised you the most as you started going through these archival sources?

Peter Samsonov – Their completeness, probably. I knew that things like blueprints and service records were kept around, but you can find anything at CAMD, down to notes scribbled at a meeting and bureaucratic memos. Depending on what you are studying, this can be a blessing and a curse. Each file folder is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.

T&AFV News – How different is the understanding of WW2 tank warfare and the Eastern front by history buffs in North America compared to those in Russia?

Peter Samsonov – Depends on what you mean by history buff. I would say that people like you and me are one in maybe a hundred thousand in either society, most have a very passing knowledge of tank warfare and are content with oversimplifications. You can see this on both sides of the Atlantic, whether you have unbridled patriotism or self-deprecation. Depending on the time, one sells or the other. There was a very curious flip in the 1990s in the former USSR when everyone suddenly flipped from the former to the latter in the blink of an eye, for instance.

T&AFV News – What would you say to people that accuse you of having “Russian bias” or claim you write propaganda?

ferdi-penetration-1Peter Samsonov – The people that accuse me of bias don’t actually read my blog. There are some very negative opinions of Soviet designs and very positive opinions of foreign designs. Most people are very lazy about their arguments, so dismissing them with “Russian bias!” is very easy for them.  As for propaganda, people claiming that haven’t actually read any propaganda. Propaganda is supposed to be simple. “Our armour, while hardened to ~400 Brinell is composed of superior alloys than that of our enemy, while our tanks, despite their thinner armour and lower weight exhibit superior strategic mobility” is a long winded and tedious statement, very ineffective for motivating people and making them feel safe. “Our armour is tough and our tanks are fast” is simpler and much more effective. Think about having to market Intel processors against AMD processors. Intel isn’t going to put “we do our circuit layouts manually, while AMD does them with a tool, therefore we can adjust latency between our components in a more optimal fashion”. The majority of their customers, much like the majority of citizens in a nation at war, don’t know what those technical details are and they don’t really care.

T&AFV News – In your opinion, what are the most persistent myths concerning WW2 Soviet Armor?

Peter Samsonov – The standard Soviet myths all apply, “human waves”, “quantity vs. quality”, etc. As for armour specific ones, I’d have to say the idea that there was some kind of unified Soviet Tank Group ™ where the army, GABTU, Commissariat of Defense, factories, subcontractors, design bureaus, etc. all work together in perfect harmony to churn out T-34 based on Stalin’s vision. That’s as far from the truth as it can be.

As with any manufacturing, the workers want to be paid, resources need to be mined, technologists want their product to be as simple as possible, designers want their wonderful inventions to make it to production and “not invented here” syndrome runs rampant. Heads have to be knocked about every so often to keep order, but even angry letters directly from Beria’s desk can be met with a passionless shrug. Orders are orders, but the fabric of reality does not bend to ink on paper.

T&AFV News – Steven Zaloga has recently said that he is shying away from writing on Soviet/Russian armor because there are very good Russian writers addressing the topic now with better access to the archives than he has.  In your opinion, who are the better Russian writers on the topic? Have any of them been translated into English?

Peter Samsonov – Unfortunately, precious few good Russian historians have been translated to English. If you can get your hands on a book by Maksim Kolomiyets or Mikhail Svirin, I highly recommend it. Baryatinskiy is hit and miss. Wargaming’s publisher Tactical Press started publishing many new authors recently, which I hope will make it into English someday. I cannot recommend the works of Yuri Pasholok and Dmitriy Shein enough. Artem Drabkin also has a lot of high quality materials available at iremember.ru, as well as in his books. If you’re interested in WWII, there is no excuse to not have read that website.

T&AFV News – You are listed as “Russian Tank Expert” on the For the Record website.  What is your role there?

Peter Samsonov – I write articles for For the Record, but on a rather inconsistent basis. SilentStalker (FTR blog owner) occasionally makes requests, but most of the time I write about whatever I want.

T&AFV News – What forums are you active in?

Peter Samsonov – Mostly Something Awful and World of Tanks, although I participate on other forums such as Tank-Net, War Thunder, and WoT/WT related communities on LiveJournal.

T&AFV News – Do you have any plans for tank related projects beyond the blog?

Peter Samsonov – There is one that’s currently covered by an NDA, so I can’t say much about it. It’s a little bit outside of my regular area of interest, so expect to see a wider array of articles arising from this new research.

*****

Comments

  1. I read Archive Awareness when ever I have the time for it. It has saved many dull work days for me. 🙂 Thankyou for this interview!

    Like

  2. “The people that accuse me of bias don’t actually read my blog.” One does not have to read your blog to recognize how unprofessional you can act. Even Walter or The_Chieftain getting annoyed in the past over your inflated personal preferences and bias. I know that those are harsh words, but you really seems to like to polarise and alienating others with your glorifying perceptions.

    Prime example: http://forum.worldoftanks.com/index.php?/topic/281666-historical-sch-lol-arship-t-34/page__st__60#topmost

    Oh well, its not everything all that bad thought. If you could write more objectively and inclusively, rather with a preset opinion, you would have had an excellent academic voice. That’s how you receive more respect and trust from any heated discussion and getting less offended. I don’t meant to denounce or harm you by now, I just hope you review your attitude in the future. I would love to see your star rising!

    Thanks for that great Interwiev Walter.

    Like

  3. This guy might have access to data, but he has laughable comments that he adds to it.

    Like

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