I present you an interview with a man, who does not need an introduction. For those of you, who does not know, Steve Zaloga is a well known around the world historian and a modeler. He received his BA in history from Union College and his MA from Columbia University. He wrote numerous books on military technology and military history, especially on the US Army in World War II as well as Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has worked as a military analyst in for over two decades, covering missile systems and the international arms trade. He is a member of the AMPS (Armor Modeling and Preservation Society) and a moderator at Missing-Lynx.com. And that was just to name a few… Steve agreed to spare a little time out of his busy schedule and answer some questions for ScaleModels.ru.I really appreciate this chance to talk to you, and ask you some questions. Would you like to tell a little bit about yourself and your background? And who was first: Steve Zaloga — historian, or Steve Zaloga — scale modeler?
Modeler — first. I started building models when I was 4 years old (1956) with a Lindbergh “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane. I built mainly airplanes until about 1965 when I became interested in tank models from the new American magazine “Scale Modeler”. By the time I went to college in 1968, I was mainly building 1/76 scale tank models. I didn’t build much in the 1980s because I had a long commute on the train to my job in New York city. I started building a lot again around 1990 when my job changed and I had more time. I have been interested in military history since I was child. My grandfather was in a US Army combat engineer battalion that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day in June 1944; my dad was also a US Army engineer and landed in Normandy after D-Day. Most of my older relatives were in the war, also, many of the older men in my neighborhood. So I have been interested in World War II history for many years.
Why such an interest in Soviet/Russian armor?
I developed an interest in Soviet tanks in the 1960s after getting John Milsom’s classic book. I always thought that Soviet tanks were a greater research challenge than US or German tanks, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when there was very little information about this in the USA. For me, the research is as much fun as the model building. Also, when I went to university, my field was eastern European history (20th Century) and I studied Russian and Polish language at university.
I have to agree that research is just as much fun. Sometimes I even forget that I was going to build a model after all. But research on the Soviet armor of 20-30 years ago was very challenging. Even for Soviet historians, it was hard to find information back then. What were your sources for World War II Soviet armor? Did your knowledge of the Russian language help a lot?
Actually, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s there was practically nothing worthwhile in Russian on tank history that was published. The material in Polish and Czech was much better (for example, the writing by Janusz Magnuski). Now of course, it is completely different with the best material being in Russian. Aside from the Polish and Czech material, back in the 1960s-80s there was a lot of material on Soviet WWII tanks in the German intelligence (Fremde Heer Ost) records at the US National Archives.
As times change and more information becomes available, do you ever think about going back and rewriting some of your older books?
Since I’ve written over a hundred books, this is difficult to answer. Some subjects continue to interest me, and I will continue to write in those subject areas. I do not plan to do much new writing on Russian/Soviet subjects as the new Russian writing on this subject is better than what I could do. I may do occasional books on Russian subjects based on the requests from my publishers such as Osprey.
Are you working on any books right now?
I am always writing new books, and I have contracts extending out over two years into the future. My next Osprey New Vanguards
are on “Tanks of the Spanish Civil War”
and “French Tanks of World War I
”. My next Osprey Duels
are “M26 Pershing vs. T-34-85: Korea 1950”
and Char B1 bis vs. PzKpfw IV”
. My Osprey Campaign
on Operation Nordwind just appeared, and my next is on Operation Pointblank. After my “Armored Thunderbolt”
, I am doing a few more hard-covers for them which will be out in 2011-2012.
It is somewhat popular on Russian language modeling sites to publish one's own articles on different research topics. Sometimes after reading reference books, a young modeler will combine information and write his own little research paper only to be «critiqued to death» by older visitors who have read more books than he has. It is obviously very discouraging for them. Do you have any advice for self-taught historians like that?
I do not follow Russian internet modeling sites, so I am not aware of the articles you are describing. (I do subscribe to M-Khobbi magazine). There is so much stuff on Internet, it is very difficult to keep track of it all. I think there is a general problem on the Internet of a lot of cheap criticism and sarcasm by self-appointed experts who do not publish or write anything worthwhile themselves, but who spend all their time complaining about the work of others. This is not limited to Russian hobby sites, but is common on English language sites also.
You have been building models for a very long time. Back in 1960-80s one had to put a lot of scratch-building into each model to make it historically accurate. Nowadays we have kits with over 500-600 parts in each + after-market of every possible kind. Do you think our hobby is losing some creativity because of that?
I think the focus has changed. I think there is much more emphasis now on painting, figures and diorama bases. The painting quality now is many times better than 10-15 years ago. But I do agree that we see much fewer scratch-built models, or models involving extensive corrections by the modeler (and not just after-market parts). Generally, the painting is now better, construction less ambitious.
German WWII armor has been the most popular subject with AFV modelers and, obviously, manufacturers for a very long time. In the last few years Dragon came up with several versions of T-34, Trumpeter — with KV tanks and B-4, Tamiya introduced IS-2 and ISU-152, and now — BT-7. Do you think the situation is changing and might we see more Soviet armor soon?
Actually, I think that WWII Soviet armor is very well covered. I just finished building the Tamiya BT-7 (as a Finnish BT-42) but I was happy with the older Eastern Express kit. We could use a better T-26. I think that modern Soviet/Russian stuff is more necessary such as a good T-64 and T-80. And there are some big gaps in other Allied WW2 armor (British Universal Carrier/Bren Carrier; French SOMUA S-35, Renault R-35, etc.) World War I tanks would also be nice.
What are your likes and dislikes in finished models (built by you or other modelers)? Do you pay much attention to historical accuracy?
I do pay attention to historical accuracy due to my historical interests. There are certainly some styles of painting and modeling I prefer over others. I generally like the “Nordic” style of painting that is more subtle and (in my opinion) more realistic. I don’t like the “Spanish” school as much as I think the colors tend to be a bit too vivid and a the weathering a bit too extreme. I think it may due to perception of light; the northern Europeans grow up under grey skies, the Mediterranean under bright sun.
Is there a model (or models) you wish to build some day?
I always have projects on the shelf, but these days, my projects are often influenced by new kits. Most of my models appear in hobby magazines such as Military Modelling from the UK, and of course, the editors like coverage of new kits.
Did you ever have a chance to travel to the countries of the former USSR? If yes, what did you find most interesting?
I’ve been to Russia quite often. Most often to Moscow, but to Ekaterinburg, Omsk, Vladimir. I finally visited St. Petersburg two years ago. One of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and of course the Artillery & Engineer Museum is spectacular! Of course, I love the museums. Aircraft museums like Monino, and other military museums. I also found the hobby shops in Moscow to be very good when I was there last year. Hobby stores are dying in the US because of Internet shopping, and the shops I visited in Moscow were better than any of the shops near me.
Steve, thank you very much for this opportunity to interview you!
* Russian language version published at ScaleModels.ru
**The photo was taken from www.historicon.org