Soviet Motor Rifles – North West Europe 1985

This month’s Cold War Warrior has perhaps one of the world’s most iconic looks – that of the Soviet infantryman in his cold weather combat gear.

While many perceive Russia to be a land of snow and ice, it’s far from the truth; the former Soviet Union covered a vast proportion of the world’s landmass and controlled countries with extremely warm climes as well as those that were nearly always at sub-zero temperature levels. But for most Soviet troopers their equipment reflected the need for clothing and battle accoutrements able to cope with both a southern European summer and northern European winter.

The Soviet Union issued its uniforms within a variety (and sometimes confusing) set of uniform scales of issue. On paper a rifleman could expect to have several uniforms of different types for every duty expected of him and in any weather; the Soviet Army however was notoriously lax at enforcing many of its uniform regulations.
The Soviet Army recognised four types of “dress state”: Parade/Walking Out, Everyday Duty, Field Dress and Working Dress. These four dress states each had a summer and winter category but a third, less common “lightweight” category was authorised for wear in the warmer southern states of the USSR. While parade and working uniforms are out of the scope of this article, we will look in more detail at the differences between “everyday” and “field” uniforms (although it is fair to say that for many enlisted men “parade” uniforms were smartened “everyday” uniforms and “work wear” was often older, damaged or unserviceable “field” clothing).

Arms of Service
Everyday uniforms are easily distinguishable by their much brighter trimmings and accessories. For example a ‘parade’ M69 blouse would have coloured arms of service collar patches (red for infantry, black for tanks and sky blue for airborne etc), shoulder boards denoting rank and an equally brightly coloured arm shield denoting the branch of service. Confusingly these are not always the same colour and tank driver in a motor rifles division may well have black “tankers” collar patches and shoulder boards but a red motor rifles arm shield!

In contrast the ‘field’ uniforms were less ostentatious. Conspicuous coloured hat trim, arm shields and collar patches are replaced with subdued khaki versions (referred to by the Soviet Army as ‘olive’ in shade) or removed entirely for a more tactical appearance in the field. This, at least, was the theory. In practice many soldiers would not actually be issued enough clothing to comply with the directives to remove insignia or to avoid brightly coloured shoulder boards and so would leave them on. This departure from army regulations is especially evident with items like greatcoats – where a soldier would be highly unlikely to actually receive the official issue of two coats.

In some units and in some areas of the Soviet Union considered ‘arctic’ the soldier could expect his ‘winter issue’ to consist of thicker, padded uniforms with a heavy synthetic ‘fish fur’ collar but outside of the worst areas these were the reserve of senior NCOs and officers. For most motor rifles conscripts the main addition to their winter kit had changed very little since Tsarist days.
In one our very first issues we looked at the Soviet Rifleman in his winter field gear, this month we’ll take a look at the ‘winter -field’ scale of issue for the Russian infantryman and while his external appearance is very different from that of his ‘summer issue’ comrade, it’s probably worth noting that underneath these clothes his basic issue would be very likely to be the same M69 ‘hebe’ utility combat uniform.

Unmistakeably Russian
i19-01The notable difference in his kit however, are unmistakeably ‘Russian’. Replacing the summer pilotka side cap is a synthetic fur cap known as a ‘ushanka’, popular in Russia for centuries. The ushanka, bearing a red soviet army enamel and metal star, can be folded down over the ears and back of the neck in extremely cold weather but is normally worn as out rifleman here wears it – and a similarly jaunty angle. While the ushanka is often seen in winter dress worn on its own, in the field it was not uncommon to see it worn underneath the issue Ssh 40 or 60 model steel helmet on manoeuvres. Covering most of his uniform is a grey thick woollen greatcoat conspicuously marked with his branch of service insignia. Soviet greatcoats often had no visible buttons, instead having internal ties to allow them to expand when worn with heavier winter clothing and as can be seen here the ‘everyday’ (or possibly even ‘parade’) insignia is worn on the greatcoat rather than being removed for the field as per regulations. Once again the vagaries of the Soviet procurement and supply system often meant that while the greatcoat was ‘officially ‘ grey it was not unknown for examples to be anything from a light brown to a dark green!

As with his summer scale of issue our soldier wears high leg ‘sapogi’ boots with a leather bottom and felt calves. While these are usually adequate for winter wear, in particularly cold postings fur lined or padded boots may well be issued. The Russians have typically eschewed the use of socks and preferred cloth ‘foot wraps’ to be worn under their boots and many veteran soldiers testify to their comfort and superiority over socks in wet and cold weather.

Spartan Equipment
i19-03As with all Soviet soldiers of the era, load carrying equipment is spartan and somewhat outdated by western standards. Unlike NATO soldiers the Soviet infantryman was not expected to operate for any length of time away from his squad’s Armoured Personnel Carrier and support services. Our soldier’s equipment pouches are carried upon a rubberised canvas belt and yoke similar to WWII German ‘Y straps’. Attached to this harness are his water bottle, an ammunition and cleaning kit pouch for his assault rifle and his rifles 6kh4 bayonet, while fitted to the central rear strap is a groundsheet capable of serving as a waterproof cape/shelter quarter. This item is again similar to the WWII Soviet design and is known as a ‘plastch’. Consisting essentially of a square of waterproofed canvas of (roughly 5’ square), the plastch has a number of eyelets, grommets and ties that enable it to be secured around the body or combined with others to make rudimentary shelters.

Suspended across our warrior’s chest is his respirator bag for his ShM gas mask. This model again dates back to a late WWII design and was vastly inferior to western models, as the ShM covers the soldier’s ears with a rubber hood and has no speech outlet making verbal communication extremely difficult if not impossible in battle – additionally its hermetically sealed, hood-like nature make it extremely hot and uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods. However, as with all armies of the period, the respirator was carried at all times in the field as both sides fully expected to fight a chemical or nuclear war – missing from his kit however is the equally cumbersome (and unpleasantly hot)OP-1 chemical defence suit, although a foldable chemical defence poncho is likely to be carried in the haversack. For the Soviet soldier the need to carry an NBC suit at all times was less of an issue as, as aforementioned, the rifleman would be expected to fight from the confines of a chemically protected armoured fighting vehicle.

As with most of our Warsaw Pact warriors in this series, he is armed with a model of assault rifle from the venerable Kalashnikov family. While most motor rifle soldiers would be issued the new AK74 5.45 calibre assault rifle with a full laminated wood stock it was not unknown for reconnaissance soldiers to be seen with the folding stock variant, a variant normally seen with airborne forces.
In summary we at Airsoft Action think it’s safe to say that while this is definitely one of the more iconic ‘Cold War Warriors’ impressions we’ve displayed it’s probably also one of the least practical for skirmishing in the UK with and this is largely because of the cumbersome heavy greatcoat. We felt that even if you didn’t overheat within half an hour on the field, the chances of you feeling a ‘hit’ through this seriously hefty winter clothing was pretty slim indeed!