James Bartholomew

Why I’ve spent £68,500 on a tank

Why I’ve spent £68,500 on a tank
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Buying a tank is not as easy as you might think. When we started looking for one, people delighted in telling us: ‘Oh, you should have bought one in the 1990s. There were hundreds available for practically nothing!’ Well, not anymore. Especially not if you are picky about what sort of tank you want.

I’m collecting artefacts for a new museum of totalitarianism and wanted a T-54 or T-55, two models which are pretty much the same as each other with just a few alterations and which are the most-produced tanks in history. They were used by the Soviet army to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; they were deployed to curtail the Prague Spring in 1968 when Czechoslovakia, as it was, sought to transition to a gentler form of communism; and a Chinese copy of the T-55 was used in 1989 for killing student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square who were seeking democracy and a free press.

The T-54/T-55 is an historically important tank. It’s a measure of man’s brutality – a tank which tells a story of oppression. Naturally it would have been easiest to buy one from a British dealer, but we were quoted north of £100,000 and, even at that price, one of the dealers announced that he did not really want to sell at all. He got so much money renting it out to the Ministry of Defence, he said. Why the cash-strapped MoD is spending thousands renting obsolete tanks is a mystery I haven’t unravelled.

To save our donors’ cash, we started looking for a tank in central and eastern Europe. We were warned repeatedly about the possibility of being fleeced. There is, apparently, enough of a demand for old tanks for there to be untrustworthy dealers here and there. But eventually we decided to do business with a man in the Czech Republic who was offering a working T-55 for €80,000 (around £68,500). ‘Working’ means a tank that can be driven, which helps if you want to get it from one place to another.

I flew to the Czech Republic and, accompanied by a Czech speaker and his assistant, drove to a city in the west, Karlovy Vary, once known as Karlsbad, famous for its spas. The spot specified by the dealer turned out to be a vast, empty wasteland with a few industrial buildings around the edge. There was no tank to be seen and nobody to meet us, but just as it began to feel like a spy movie – the scene in which the heroes are ambushed by gangsters – a car appeared. It crossed the concrete, drew close, then a big man inside it said: ‘Follow me!’ So we did. Out of the city, along a highway, then on to a side road and from there on to a dirt track. We passed a gate with a sign saying it was a military area: ‘No entry.’ We followed the car deep into a forest.

Finally we reached a clearing and some rundown outbuildings. Other tough--looking men were already there. They opened a garage door and there, at last, was the tank. I walked towards it, trying to exude the air of a man who knows a good tank when he sees one. I climbed up, got inside and quickly discovered that the first thing you want to do when you get into a tank is to get out of it. It was claustrophobic, with metal bits and pieces getting in your way and an uncomfortable seat.

There were actually three seats in there: one for the commander, one for the driver and the last for the gunner. Naturally I wanted see if the tank worked, but this proved tricky. There were a few clattering noises from the engine, then it fell silent. And then again and yet again. Finally, after about half an hour, it came fully to life, belching black smoke. The driver installed himself and the tank erupted backwards out of its parking space. We zoomed around the tracks through the forest and I loved it. I had to stop myself grinning like a boy with a new train set.

A couple of weeks ago, the tank was driven up on to a trailer and we paid up. I worried that both the tank and the cash would disappear, but all seems well. As I write, the tank is on the docks at the vast, bleak-looking port in Bremerhaven. It is due to be loaded onto a seriously big ship – 176 metres long – and make its way to Portbury, near Bristol. It will then go to a registered workshop to have its cannon deactivated.

The most effective museums, like the House of Terror in Budapest, create an appropriate atmosphere. The first object you see when you visit that museum is a tank looming at the bottom of an atrium. It is raised at an angle on a dark surface and surrounded by high walls covered in black-and-white photographs of people who were killed in the two terror campaigns – first by the Nazis, then the Soviets.

We aim to create the same atmosphere of harsh, uncompromising menace. We need to raise a great deal of money to build our museum, and the tank explains why it’s needed better than I ever could.

Written byJames Bartholomew

James Bartholomew works with the Museum of Communist Terror and is a trustee of the Foundation for the History of Totalitarianism.

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