The Great Patriotic War Victory Parade was held in the Kazakh city of Astana on 7 May 2015, and was heralded by the Astana Times as the largest military parade to be held in the country’s history, commemorating and celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Steve Comber reports from Kazakhstan.
The parade included 40 Kazakh veterans who fought in the Great Patriotic War and more than 5,000 military personnel divided in two sections; the first was made up of 1940’s uniformed soldiers and women with period weapons and also included 36 types of historic military vehicles used during 1941-1945. These were drawn from Kazak army reserve storage or were former ‘street monuments’ dedicated to the Great Patriotic War (‘tanks on planks’) specially removed and restored by the Semey-based Kazakhstan Engineering Plant for the anniversary!
The second section featured examples of modern weapons and military equipment currently in service with the Kazak armed forces, including 84 aircraft. Such a large contingent of Kazak Air Force aircraft has not been assembled in Kazakhstan before, not even for the Kadex. The opportunity to witness this spectacle was not to be missed in favour of the Moscow May Day parade or NATO Tigermeet in Konya, Turkey.
Thus it was an easy decision to head out to Kazahkstan and catch some elusive airframes in action. The recent introduction of a visa on arrival system in 2014 makes the country easier to travel to on short notice, boosting both business and tourism; hopefully this rule will be extended permanently at the end of May 2015, and attendance to Kadex 2016 will become a more attractive proposition for many next year.
As with most military parades the climax usually comprises an aerial element, and four rehearsals were staged over a five day period prior to the 7 May parade offering plenty of opportunities to capture the flypast above the city in the best weather conditions at approx 1150. Transport and helicopter sections taking part in the flypast departed and recovered to Astana, whilst fighter and ground attack elements operated from Karaganda and Almaty.
The types of participating aircraft highlighted the recent modernisation programme currently underway to ensure Kazakhstan’s independence within the region for future generations. My personal highlight, without any shadow of doubt, were the MiG-31s of the Kazakhstan Air Force. The sight and sound of six of these mighty beasts in formation made it difficult to maintain composure whilst capturing the digital moment!
So what’s it like to photograph these beasts at their home base? Seriously? It’s not for the faint hearted! Earlier this year I shot Myanmar Airforce F7s, MiG-29s and a Y8 from paddy fields, which was challenging enough! Karaganda’s on a different level, literally! Located on the former Russian steppes, Karaganda city held little respect during the former socialist era and was ridiculed for the fact that it is, quite literally, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, in any direction. Coal is the only reason Karaganda exists.
The original city and area was undermined so much the entire city was abandoned due to subsidence and rebuilt six miles away. Kazakhstan’s rich coal, oil, gas and mineral reserves mould the country into what it is today – a wealthy expanding nation hauling itself very quickly into the 21st century with a growth in GDP of 18 fold in as many years, the prospect of joining 30 of the world’s most developed nations looming ever closer.
Recently re-elected with a landslide majority of 97.7% based on a turnout of 95.22%, President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s new five year term in office includes, amongst many initiatives, major road and infrastructure investment. It currently takes between four and five hours to drive from Astana to Karaganda, 200 km of continual roadworks across one of the world’s most inhospitable plains, breathtakingly beautiful nowheresville between 1500-2000 metres’ altitude, it’s minus 40c in the winter and +40c in the summer with probably the worlds highest concentrated population of mosquitos – and with Cold Lake, Canada in mind that’s saying something! Last winter’s record snowfall, melt and spring rainfall caused major flooding across the region, and with a state of emergency declared bridges and major highways were destroyed or simply washed away.
Consequently the open grassland steppes, tracks and terrain around Karaganda airport 20 miles to the south are boggy and almost impassable, less than ideal for any visit. There is no reason to be in the middle of nowhere, with little ground cover, if any at all, and detection by security will be swift – spotting is not understood in Kazakhstan, the obvious consequence of which being you are very likely to have a discussion with the authorities in Russian, if you speak Russian that is… good luck on that one! Four commercial flights per day currently operate from Karaganda in addition to a few visiting cargo 747s, usually on fuel stops.
Little is known of the frequency of military activity for obvious reasons. General observation shows the based MiG-31s operate from a flight line, and Google imagery confirms there are no shelters; testament to the tough MiG-31 airframe withstanding extremes of temperature during the year. Heat haze also obscures any possibility of keepsake image, suffice to say some of the best images are those etched in your memory.
There is what appears to be a former ICBM launch site to the south-east of the airport, speculation as to this facility being part of the Soviet Anti-Satellite Laser programme are as yet unfounded though there is sufficient evidence this programme did exist. As with most bases a strong wind heading is ideal to ensure your at the correct end for take-offs and recoveries, and a last minute change will make any visit futile with associated risks.
Personally, an official visit would be much more advantageous, and with new UK diplomatic links and move towards the Kazak armed forces working jointly with the UK recently in Steppe Eagle 2015, this may just be possible. Steppe Eagle is a joint international peacekeeping exercise led by NATO & the UN and will involve other countries within the region later in 2015.
Kazakhstan’s economy is moving fast, hurtling the country into the modern world; this comes with changing values, minds and the Internet, and perhaps a visit may be possible sooner rather than later – let me know if you’re interested?! Images from Karaganda are rare, with stories behind them. Now I know why!
And just to prove lifes not all about aviation for me (well, not quite all of it) I spent my last few hours walking around the city of Astana on a nightshoot. Luckily I witnessed a spectacular 15 minute audio visual presentation projected onto the front elevation of the Astana Opera House at 2200, fortunately repeated at 2230 & 2300.
This was a finale to a staged three hour evening music festival event, all part of the Great Patriotic War Victory Celebrations. I was so, so pleased I had my camera with me, such a great way to end this visit. Well done to the people of Kazakhstan: you truly marked this 70th Anniversary of Soviet triumph exceptionally well.