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Soviet Spetsnaz - separating myths from reality

Spetsnaz - the Soviet Special Forces have an aura of secrecy around them. This aura has created a hell of a lot of myths and legends, most of which stand strong to this day. So, in this article, we will discuss and debunk the Top Five myths that you might have come across about the Soviet Special Forces.

Soviet Spetsnaz

All members of the Soviet Special Forces were professional soldiers

To begin with, let us define the word "professional". In the Soviet system, anyone who has conducted formal training was considered professional. However, when comparing a US Army sergeant, who has been in the forces for 20 years to a Soviet conscript who received 6 months of formal training, the odds are not going to be on the conscript's side.

So, the majority of the Soviet Special Forces battalions consisted of regular conscripts. Of course, they were not just any conscripts - the Soviet Special Forces officers had a priority to choose from fresh recruits, and they would try to acquire the best of the best. They would look for the guys who would play some sports, preferably parachuting or boxing, as well as those who were generally well-built.

Soviet Spetsnaz
Army physical training

Another aspect was high morale, but this was something that was developed during years of service. A lot of work was put into building trust and brotherhood between the soldiers and the officers of the SpN battalions.

All in all, the myth of the Soviet GRU units consisting exclusively of officers and warrant officers - is just a myth, which comes from modern times, when this did become the case.


Training in the Soviet Special Forces was so harsh, that not everyone finished alive

This myth was likely to emerge during the later stages of the Cold War, or maybe even in the 90s, under the influence of the period movies. The training in the SpN battalions was, indeed, quite harsh. And it was, without exception, harder than in any other unit of the Soviet Armed Forces.

Soviet Spetsnaz

The training schedule for the SpN units was similar to paratroopers, but way more intense and with more emphasis on actual military skills. However, they were still part of the Soviet Ground Forces and were subject to internal regulations. The death or severe injury of a conscript was a serious headache for most of the officers in the unit. It is not that there were no accidents, but people tried to avoid them at all costs. An officer with a death in his unit could kiss goodbye to rank promotions anytime soon.

Members of Soviet Special Forces were universal soldiers - they could do anything

It sounds intuitive, that the member of a Special Forces Team would be trained to do a very large specter of military jobs - from driving to first aid to diving and parachuting. Yet, to acquire new skills, one needs time. Usually, to perfect a military or adventurous skill, a person needs considerable time. And this was not the resource at hand - Soviet Special Forces conscripts only served for two years.

So, the regular training would usually consist of an extreme version of the Paratrooper Regiment training. More emphasis was done on weapon handling, so it is safe to say that most members of SpN groups were proficient at all the Soviet small arms and explosives. If lucky, some foreign weapons were also studied.

Soviet Spetsnaz

Special Forces soldiers would also do a lot more field training exercises, than their colleagues from paratrooper regiments and airborne brigades. However, in terms of tactics, they were limited to the geographical area around them - hence they would specialize in this particular potential theater of war. Trips to desert or arctic environments were not practiced back then.

But in terms of actual practical skills, it was impossible to teach everyone everything. So every Spetsnaz soldier usually had one military specialization and was only proficient in this one - more or less the same as it was in any other Soviet military unit. After the begging of the Soviet-Afghan war and the deployment of the Spetsnaz units, it became obvious that Spetsnaz units do not have soldiers of all those military specializations required to wage this war. For example, SpN units did not have any armored vehicles, and hence no mechanic drivers. As well as they were seriously lacking field medics. Soldiers with these specializations were taken from the Infantry regiments and moved to Spetsnaz battalions stationed in Afghanistan.


Spetsnaz forces had special weapons and equipment

This is probably the most common myth, especially famous among reenactors and militia collectors. Everyone is eager to get some very special uniforms, unique pieces of equipment, and some imaginary versions of AK.

The reality is often disappointing. The uniform that was worn by the members of Spetsnaz was, indeed, unique to the Soviet Ground Forces. Not without a twist though - we have discussed this in one of our previous articles.

Soviet Spetsnaz

But in terms of everything else - it was largely the same as for everyone else in the Army. There were no special weapons, but you can consider foldable weapons as special. All Spetsnaz units were armed with these - as they were largely dependent on parachuting. The equipment was as regular as it gets - all the same, stuff as issued in the Paratrooper Regiments. If anything, Spetsnaz units were underequipped - as they did not have any armored vehicles or artillery.


All members of Spetsnaz were black belts in martial arts

This one is actually closer to a reality, rather than to a myth. Hand-to-hand combat is part of the curriculum in any Special Forces unit across the world. And they usually master it to a very high level. The reason to do so is not to actually prepare for a fistfight, but to improve the morale qualities of the soldier. Despite what we have learned from the movies, is very unlikely that even a single member of special forces ever died in a fight in his line of duty - all the casualties actually come from firefights.

What is also interesting is that martial arts became ridiculously popular in the Soviet Union in the 1980s - mostly due to pop culture and blockbuster movies of the era. By the end of the 1980s not just the guys from Spetsnaz, but essentially all conscripts were very much into practicing martial arts.

Soviet Spetsnaz
Officer cadets practicing karate

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