Throughout this time in “The Russian Watch Corner”, we have been presenting different articles that have dealt with the most significant watches made in the Soviet Union. Today it is the turn of perhaps the most well-known watch (with the possible exception of the Amphibia) to have come out of its factories. As you might have guessed, we are talking about the Vostok Komandirskie.
We are well aware that, paradoxically, there is a lot of literature about these watches but very little real information on them. However, in this post we propose to focus on the first models of these magnificent watches that appeared, and we shall try to set out their chronology.
“Заказ мо СССР”
This inscription, which appears on the lower part of the Komandirskie dials and can be translated as “by order of the Ministry of Defence of the USSR”, is undoubtedly the starting point to know and understand the origin of this piece.
We must go back to the 1960s. The Soviet Union was in the middle of an arms race due to the Cold War. The race to conquer space was bearing fruit. In the field of watches, the Soviet factories had been reorganised and modernised thanks to the import of watch-making machinery from Lip, as we can see in this article. In a military context, at the end of the Second World War, the watches used by the military continued to be the Kirovskie Type I and the striking Vodolaz 191, as shown in the following images.
Further into the post-war period, these watches were beginning to become obsolete, even though they continued to be manufactured for several more decades. The Soviet watch industry had been reorganised and the dominant watch in the 1950s was without doubt the “Pobeda”. A good example of this reorganisation was provided by our friend @lobito in his excellent work focusing on the Maslennikov factory. We do not have any documentation to certify that the Pobeda replaced the obsolete “Kirovskie” as a military issue watch, but we do have proof that various models were used by the Czechoslovakian armed forces.
We should also remember that the watch developed for the Soviet Air Force was based on the Pobeda: the Sturmanskie, which we already examined in depth in this article.
Thus, the likelihood is that Pobeda watches were used by the Soviet military in the 1950s. These new watches, equipped with the latest calibers, already had more modern features: a shock-proof balance, seconds-hand hacking and certain protection against dust and moisture. All these features resulted in more versatile and suitable watches in terms of their military use than the well-known Type I.
The Chistopol Factory
Everyone knows the history of this legendary (and still active) factory, whose beginnings we looked at in depth here; however, I would like to focus on something that I believe is important around the birth of the Komandirskie. Although the Chistopol factory manufactured Pobeda watches based on the 2608 and 2602 calibers, it also specialised in the production of 22XX series calibers. These movements were resistant and very precise, perhaps due to their origins being linked to the Zenith 135 caliber that inspired them. A good example of this is the Vostok “Precision” caliber, this being the first certified “chronomètre” wristwatch of the Soviet Union and which was discussed in this article. Other models from the Chistopol factory, such as the “Kama” line, already had certain characteristic elements in terms of the construction of their cases (such as hermetically-sealed case backs) that future Komandirskie watches would inherit. Although it is very risky on my part to venture this theory, it is possible that the army leadership fixed its attention on the Chistopol factory and its experience in making such components, to develop a new watch to be used by Soviet troops in the years ahead. If we take into account the abstract principle of “efficiency” that prevailed across all Soviet industry, plus the fact that in 1960 production of Pobeda watches at Chistopol ceased, the idea that we have set out does not seem so preposterous.
The First Komandirskie
As I have previously indicated, we do not have any documentation to confirm the government order that directed the design and manufacture of the first Komandirskie watches, nor even the date when this took place. Presumably, we can place it no earlier than 1965, in other words, when the Chistopol factory permanently adopted the name of “Bostok”. We can assert this based on the fact that there are no known examples of a Komandirskie with a caliber engraved with the Chistopol factory signature; they all display the “Bostok” mark. It is possible to come to the same conclusion based on an image of a watch passport dated 1965, which we shall see later in this article.
There is a general agreement amongst collectors that the first Komandirskies that were created were like the one shown in the above image. This model (381XXX), which we will designate 1A, was created in two colours, black and white, with the hours indicated by equilateral triangles, the 12, 6 and 9 numerals in large format, the hour and minute hands coated with phosphorus (as were the numerals) and the seconds hand ending in an arrowhead. The date is noticeable in red.
On the dial, there are several features that would not change over the next few years.
Firstly, the name: “Komandirskie”. It is relevant that the “Bostok” name was omitted even though the factory had already amalgamated all its brands under this name. It is also curious that the former name of the factory, “Chistopol”, still appeared under the star marking. This seems to indicate that the design was completed before the brand names were unified in 1965 (or that this new creation was given special treatment). Something else to consider is the star marking. Originally red (in many of the examples that we show it has lost its colour due to ageing), the star would become the most representative symbol of the Komandirskie, and indeed still is. To conclude, we have the famous inscription “Заказ мо СССР” with which we began our debate and which is the only proof so far to identify this as a watch produced expressly by order of the Ministry of Defence to give to troops. But what made the Komandirskie a true field watch?
I would be so bold as to say that the first thing that identifies it as a “field watch” is it size. Its 34 mm (much smaller in comparison with the Type 1, at 43 mm) rendered it less susceptible to knocks. The time is easily readable, with enlarged markers and numerals, which are also coated in phosphorus. The chrome-plated brass case transforms it into a watch suitable for damp climates and, most importantly, it incorporates a new system for closing the case back that, together with a rubber gasket, makes it substantially damp and dust proof.
In the above image, we can appreciate this new system of closure, which was later adopted by the first “Amphibia type 350”, along with some of its aesthetics. Was the Amphibia an “upgrade” of the Komandirskie? This is a question that I have long considered, and it seems to me that answer is ‘yes’.
One of the most important features of the new Komandirskies, related to the new manual-wind 2234 manufacture caliber. This caliber incorporated the date and two important characteristics for any watch adapted for combat: seconds-hand hacking and a shock-proof balance. Its crystal was plexiglass, a highly shock-resistant and easy-to-polish material, that was used to manufacture jet canopies and in the space race. These features placed the new Komandirskie in the same league as western military watches of the era and meant a real qualitative leap forward for the Soviet Army.
In principle, the new Komandirskies were not available to the general public and were only supplied as military issue watches, although they could be acquired through Voentorg shops, which supplied combat items such as military clothing and accessories.
One thing that has always caught my attention is the wide variety of different Komandirskie models that came out in these early stages, before they formally appeared in catalogues and were offered to the public, including for export. This fact could undermine the generally held opinion that these watches were only supplied to the military. Or perhaps the catalogues that could verify this are missing and our original assumptions are wrong? Let us take a look at these discrepancies in the accepted chronological order of issue.
The above image shows the first variant, as is widely accepted by collectors, which we will designate 1B. We can see notable aesthetic changes in comparison with the first version. Another new element is that all the known (so far) watches of this type use the 2214 caliber (without seconds-hand hacking). All known examples have a Cyrillic inscription on the case back. The advertisement on the right (which is supposedly contemporary but appears to me to be questionable and reminds me very much of Mirabilia’s Italian designs) shows us a very similar watch, albeit not identical, as can be seen from the markers and numerals without applied phosphorus. How is it possible that the first variant of a watch manufactured by express order for the army could be produced using a caliber that did not have seconds-hand hacking? Was this advertisement displayed inside one of the Voentorg shops? Was the watch shown in the poster the first “civil” version? Too many unanswered questions…
The second variant, which we will designate 1C, is seen below:
As can be seen, the previously triangular hour markers have been replaced by bars, as have the numerals 6 and 9. The hands have also changed. This type of Komandirskie can be found with the original 2234 caliber, as well as with the 2214. So far, all the inscriptions on the case back of these revised watches have been found to be in Cyrillic.
The following variant, which we will designate 1D, would become the most standardised version, with both bars and numerals. It also uses the 2234 caliber. Later, examples of these, with minor aesthetic changes such as to the hands, were sold through the catalogue (we have at our disposal one from 1976) to the internal and export markets and this is the most common variant of all.
In 1968, another variant appeared in the market, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the revolution, as we can see in the following image.
To finish this classification, we show below a selection of models attributed to the first generation of Komandirskies, and which we designate as a new variant: 1E. Regarding this model, we have proof of its existence from a late 1974 catalogue and evidence that it was available at the same time as the second-generation Komandirskies, as can be seen in the image above.
As we can see, this new model was radically different in design, substituting the hour markers with numerals and adding an inner ring with 24-hour markings. All the watches seen by collectors have the 2234 caliber and the inscriptions on the case back are in Cyrillic.
Now that we have looked at all the first-generation Komandirskie variants known so far, I would like to point out certain purely speculative questions. Is this chronological order correct? We genuinely do not have sufficient documentation to establish this. As I said at the start, it seems very strange to me that in the course of only three years, up to four variants were issued (1A, 1B, 1C and 1D) and that in some instances the watches used the 2214 caliber without seconds-hand hacking. This undermines the whole idea of “efficiency” within the Soviet machine. It is hard to believe that a watch ordered by the Ministry of Defence was entrusted to one factory and that so many models were created with no significant improvements made to the watches. Specifically regarding this theme, my friend B P Murray has made a considerable contribution by showing watch passports and affirming that in some cases seconds-hand hacking was indeed added to the 2214 caliber, although it often broke. He has added relevant images, as we can see below. The first corresponds to a late model.
Or this document, as highlighted by the author, that shows that the first models were always issued with this function, in the same way as any modern military watch.
Were these models only issued to the military? In principle, yes, but again there is no way of confirming this. It is worth remembering that Soviet society was strongly militarised and that civilians had to undergo extensive military service. During this time, if they had enough money at their disposal, they could get hold of these watches. It is also the case that in later catalogues we find “civil” versions of the 1D variant.
There were also other non-military models from the same factory, that have similar features.
As far as other models are concerned, what can I say? They seem to bear no relation to the commonly accepted classification of the first-generation Komandirskies, but here they are.
The text from an original Russian article, which we have translated, sheds a little light on our questions:
“The Komandirskie watches were issued to the Soviet Army on the order of Marshal Malinovsky. In 1965, by order of the Ministry of Defence, the Chistopol factory developed a shock-resistant watch for troops in a short period of time with phosphorescent hands and, as tests have demonstrated, it was dust proof. And so that the watchmakers in Chistopol did not get bored with the military-industrial complex orders, the civil servants fixed a quota to create, at the same time, purely civilian watches that could be sold in large, normal outlets and allowed them to inscribe “Komandirskie” on the dials.”
In this first part of the text, it appears that some of the production was destined for the internal civil market and an exclusive part for the military. Was it this part of the production, issued to the military, that was equipped with the 2234 caliber?
“There’s no time to lose…”
“We are designing the watch under the most appalling time pressure,” recalls one of the engineers on the project, Valentina Belova, who was the director of the department of external design. “It isn’t a joke! On top of everything, Marshal Malinovsky himself ordered it to be done. The watch had to be the most precise, because punctuality is vital in war, and the most resistant manufactured so far. One new element was the dial with luminous numerals. But the highlight is the blocking mechanism or, in other words, the chronograph (seconds-hand hacking). The drawings of the mechanisms carried out in the military bases helped in development. Our group worked on the design of the case. We put forward more than fifty options. Above all, the minister liked the option with a star on the dial in a round case. To carry out the work in time, we were motivated with a bonus of fifty roubles. This was an important sum of money: almost half our salary. It seems that another portrait ended up displayed on the wall of honour… ”
Does this text explain why so many versions of the Komandirskie were issued in such a short space of time? Although the text seems credible, unfortunately the author does not cite any sources. This is a real shame, as it might have shed more light on the matter.
In summary, the Komandirskie represented a further milestone for Soviet watchmaking in its effort to modernise and adapt itself to a new age, giving rise to a generation of watches whose lasting style is successful to this day.
To end, here is an image from 1973 in which players from TSKA Moscow can be seen receiving Komandirskie watches as a prize.