Some time ago I stumbled upon a photo article about a ‘secret depot’ with hundreds of old Soviet tanks rusting away in east Ukraine. The photographer claimed he spent months to find its whereabouts. I wanted to see if I could do that in a fraction of the time.
So in the heart of the 2014-15 winter I travelled to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city after Kyiv. During the Soviet era this city used to be an industrial powerhouse and home to the largest tank factory of its time, Malyshev. The most obvious option, could this be the ‘secret depot’? That seemed highly unlikely. Up to today tanks, armoured vehicles and other sorts of heavy (industrial) machinery are still being produced at Malyshev. It’s a well known factory and was even used as a depot for storing the bodies of the victims of the downing of flight MH17 during the summer of 2014.
The Malyshev was therefore no option. I needed help from locals so I started contacting friends in Ukraine. They linked me with Kharkiv residents, after which we were quickly able to guess on an approximate area. But in order to pinpoint the exact location, I had to scan the area using Google satellite images. I discovered a vast industrial site on the outskirts of town where I was able to distinguish what looked like hundreds of individual battle tanks. I switched to street view and saw dozens of tank barrels sticking out over a fence. I found it!
To get to the location was easy; a bus stops right in front of the gates. But my first disappointment came quick: the site was heavily monitored. There were guards in watch towers and people walking around. Second disappointment: a local living across the road explained that the site was still operational. Damaged tanks were being repaired and redeployed to the war in nearby Donbas. It was a major disappointment since I expected to find an abandoned ‘graveyard’.
So the first thing to do was to scan the area by walking around the entire facility. Me and a friend used the ordinary footpaths in order not to attract any attention. Having come such a long way, the last thing we wanted was to be send away! On top, with the ongoing war it wasn’t the right time to get arrested near a military facility!
But it felt like it was hard to get unnoticed. Our foot steps could easily be traced in the snow and there was no one else around except ourselves. Thus we decided to play it safe and only take pictures from the outside. Our first view was what I saw earlier on Google street view: dozens of snowed-under barrels sticking out above the wall.
To take better pictures our options were very limited. We could not find a vantage point and climbing up on a tree would definitely catch someone’s attention. But as we progressed I gained more confidence. I sneaked up several times to a fence to stick my camera through it. From a limited choice of angles I photographed what seemed to be freshly painted and repaired tanks, as well as the old rusty ones I was expecting.
It was hard to tell exactly how many tanks were there. Reports and pictures taken by others suggest that at least 400 tanks are awaiting a second life. I also found a recent report (10 January 2016) stating that in 2015 more than 50 tanks had been restored and modernised. With that rate, this abandoned graveyard full of historic killing machines might become history itself very soon.
Please note: I do not admire war machinery. I do admire abandoned places that are off-the-beaten-track and largely unknown to the public.