Ukrainian tractors vs. Russian tanks: The hundred-year history behind the meme

Photos and videos of Ukrainian farmers hauling away Russian tanks have been wildly popular since the war began. History shows why tractors are such a powerful symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

These photos and videos symbolize a popular narrative of Ukrainian heroes defending their homeland, risking their lives for the democratic world. In this narrative, farmers and, by extension, civilians, are not merely powerless victims of Russian aggression; they are people who just want to lead normal lives and are determined to fight back.

“We need this epic-creating for courage,” said Artem Chapeye, a Ukrainian writer and photographer who joined the army to defend Kyiv. “You’re the good guy helped by tractors and naming your kids — of course only in fantasy — Javelina if it’s a girl or Bayraktar if a boy.”

While Javelin anti-tank missiles and Bayraktar drones are instruments of war, the tractors’ main task is to provide food. Ukrainian agriculture feeds not only the army and the civilians, but also people elsewhere in the world. The country, which has long been nicknamed “the breadbasket of Europe,” is one of the largest exporters of grains. Before the war, it accounted for roughly 10 percent of global wheat exports and almost 15 percent of total corn exports, according to the country’s national bank.

Ukrainians and their tractors

At that time, tractors were a game-changer. They were the epitome of engineering, replacing wooden horse-drawn plows that rolled over the soil. Their disruptive power was highlighted by Soviet propaganda, including movies about tractors, parades, songs and celebrations, according to Christina E. Crawford, assistant professor of architecture at Emory University.

“The tractor becomes such an important symbol because you could also construe it as a machine that was, in a way, imported to dominate the peasantry,” Crawford told Grid.

Ukrainians regained control of their agricultural land only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the decade that followed was challenging. Workers from across the former Communist bloc had very modest salaries because their factories made products of lower quality compared with those in the West. As a result, most families couldn’t make ends meet, and yearly inflation reached triple digits. Some were forced to sell their belongings for food.

Anatoliy Kostyuk, now the head of the agricultural enterprise Pylypchanske in the Kyiv region, remembers that the farm he worked for bought a worn-out Kharkiv T-150 tractor in 1996 for “a bag of sugar.”

“This tractor was far from perfect and gave us more trouble than it was worth,” but it helped the farm move forward and grow its business so that a few years later, in 2000, it could purchase “a more reliable KhTP [Kharkiv Tractor Plant] 17221 wheeled tractor,” he said. “This tractor worked great and never let us down!”

A photo example of a typical Ukrainian tractor provided to Grid by Anatoliy Kostyuk.

Still, the Kharkiv tractors made a name for themselves, at least in the former Eastern Bloc, because they’ve always been affordable. Often, when the tractors broke, farmers would roll up their sleeves in the middle of the field and fix them themselves.

In its near-century of existence, the Kharkiv factory “produced more than 3 million units of heavy equipment,” according to Sergii Rodionov, a spokesperson for the plant. In fact, there were many tractors all across the former USSR. The Soviets had about twice as many tractors as the U.S. during the Brezhnev Era (1964 to 1982). “The main problem they had was that they produced tractors, but not parts,” said Mark B. Tauger, a history professor at West Virginia University. “So Soviet farms acquired extra tractors just to use as sources for spare parts.”

Rodionov said the agricultural machines the factory makes are versatile, so he was not surprised to see them in photos and videos shared all over the internet.

“It was in the first weeks of the war when we were sitting in the basement,” he recalled. “Someone I know showed a video showing a KhTP T-150 tractor pulling abandoned military equipment. This tractor model has been produced for over 40 years.”

Now, Ukrainian farmers have flipped the old narrative of the machine brought by Moscow leaders to dominate them. The tractor, Crawford agreed, has become “an important symbol of resistance.”

Farmers vs. tanks

Hauling away a heavy-tracked military vehicle with an ordinary tractor is not that difficult from a technical perspective. It’s the same process as towing a car. “If the wheels and tracks are intact, you can set the gear neutral and release the brakes,” said the owner of the Finnish YouTube hobby channel Satunnaista sotilashistoriaa (”random military history”), who created a video to explain how it’s done.

“Farmers have a lot of experience with machinery and vehicles. I’m pretty sure they can figure out how to handle any vehicle they want to tow,” he told Grid.

In the former Soviet Bloc, the idea of using tractors to tow tanks is nothing new. A military book published in 1980 in Romania shows civilians different ways of dragging a tank during a potential invasion. The book, “Asigurarea tehnica de blindate si autotractoare,” (“Technical maintenance of armored vehicles and tractors”), by Tiberiu Urdareanu, has several instructive images.

In 1980, an instruction manual for military vehicle maintenance shows different ways to tow a tank with tractors.

Still, approaching an abandoned piece of military equipment in a hot war is not a task for civilians. There could be armed soldiers nearby, land mines, booby traps or even a Ukrainian army unit across the field, a few kilometers away, targeting that tank.

But many farmers take these risks in order to do their part in this war. “They are showing the middle finger to the Russians,” said Alexander Grover, a computer scientist from Chicago who has lived in Kyiv and Lviv for the past six years and is now based in Lviv. He added that he has a deep respect for “these middle-aged and older-age farmers, people between their late 40s and early 80s, [who] are taking part in the war without any weapons.”

In interviews with Grid, several farmers speculated that some of their peers had simply moved the military vehicles to clear the land for the spring planting season, perhaps selling them for scrap or on eBay to anyone who wants to own a piece of history.

“Have you captured a Russian tank or armored personnel carrier and are worried about how to declare it? Keep calm and continue to defend the Motherland! There is no need to declare the captured Russian tanks and other equipment.”

To Chapeye, the writer who joined the army to defend Kyiv, the value of these combat trophies is monumental. They keep the dream of independence alive and help motivate him and his fellows to continue fighting. “This feels like the time we’re creating a legend or rather an epic of the Ukrainian People, ourselves,” he said. “This is our ‘Iliad.’”

Stories like these help him for two reasons: “humor and realizing we are the future.”

A collective resistance

War trauma is collective. But so is resistance. A strong sense of belonging and connection can make it easier to navigate rage, grief, and survivor’s guilt. “Every individual who resists shows others that they are trying to change in small ways the landscape they are facing,” said Gwen V. Mitchell, a psychology professor at the University of Denver.

“As we watch the farmers in Ukraine engage in acts of collective resistance, we are naturally finding ourselves deeply moved because we are not simply observing resilience; we are watching collective action,” she said. “We can indeed find a way to thrive while others are attempting to destroy us.”

The war trauma will likely be imprinted in many generations to come, but right now, Ukrainians don’t have the time to think about that. They focus on the immediate and the biblical story they associate with their fight.

“We have the feeling like we’re the guardians of the galaxy,” said Chapeye, “unwillingly placed at the pivoting point in human history, deciding whether there will be a new turn toward a 1930s-style autocracy in the world, or repelling this tendency with our bodies, our lives, when needed.”

As a soldier helping to defend his country, he feels bolstered by that sense of collective resistance — by the bravery of farmers.

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