Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, news outlets and social media have captured the magnitude of the destruction: Cities like Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv and Kherson surrounded by Russian tanks; shelling; children taking shelter in subway stations with relatives’ phone numbers written on their skin. But occasionally there have been more hopeful images, like those of the Ukrainian popular resistance. In the country’s small towns and villages, farmers driving humble tractors have hauled away Russian tanks.
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.
While these images are hard to verify, they’ve birthed a plethora of memes that raise the morale of Ukrainian troops and their supporters. Internet users have created images in which the defiant tractor drags a Soyuz space rocket, a submarine, the sunken Moskva cruiser on the bottom of the Black Sea. There are T-shirts featuring tractors and army patches that read “Tactical Agricultural Unit”; there is a video game called Ukrainian Farmy and an NFT project. Most of these products are marketed to raise funds for soldiers and displaced mothers and children.
“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.
“Disruption of grain supplies from the Black Sea region, mainly from Ukraine, threatens global food security,” wrote Olga Bondarenko, chief economist of the National Bank of Ukraine, in an op-ed for the Kyiv Independent. “Shortages of cereals can worsen nutritional intake and living standards of more than 5% of the world population.”
In interviews with Grid, farmers said they had done what they could during the spring planting campaign, some of them working in difficult conditions: wearing bulletproof vests, fearing land mines and planting their seeds under gunfire. “We completely understand the responsibility that is on us,” said Vitalii Primov, a farmer from the Sumy region, which has been heavily shelled since the first day of the invasion. “Many countries are concerned about the food crisis because of the war, but we will do our best.”
Ukrainians and their tractors
Ukrainians’ affinity for tractors began around 1930 in the vibrant city of Kharkiv, then the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was there that the Soviets decided to erect one of the country’s largest tractor manufacturing plants, which Joseph Stalin called “a steel bastion of the collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine.”
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.
“At the most intimate scale, the tractor lifts the former peasant, now collective farm worker, above the ground,” she wrote in her book, “Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union.”
But it took some time to get there. In the late 1920s, Soviet leaders tried unsuccessfully to build tractors themselves, relying on industrial espionage and reverse engineering. They took apart an American Fordson tractor in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and replicated the parts, but after years of trying and failing, they realized they couldn’t do it — they didn’t know enough about the necessary alloys, so the tractors broke easily. So a group of Soviet executives went to Caterpillar hoping to strike a deal for the development of the Kharkiv plant. Caterpillar asked for 7 million rubles gold and prohibited the Soviets from getting involved in the enterprise or studying the production of the machines. These conditions were rejected.
Ultimately, in the spring of 1930, the Soviets decided that it was more efficient to duplicate a tractor plant than to build one from scratch, so they modeled the Kharkiv factory on the one in Stalingrad (now Volgograd). That plant’s blueprints were created by the famous American architecture firm Albert Kahn, which also worked for Henry Ford at the large River Rouge auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
The Stalingrad factory already produced the International Harvester tractors, so those tractors were also chosen for Kharkiv. In 1932, the plant made 17,374 tractors, an accomplishment that earned it the Order of Lenin, a medal awarded for outstanding services rendered to the state. Soon after, in 1937, the plant made the first mass-produced tractor of Soviet design, the caterpillar SXTZ-NATI, followed by many others. Later, another factory was built in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), which produced smaller tractors, as well as space rockets, trams, wind turbines and satellites.
The working class and the peasantry had tractors. They had fertile land. They worked the fields growing crops. But they couldn’t benefit from it: In the early 1930s, over 90 percent of the agricultural land in the Soviet Union was collectivized, and rural households lost the ownership of the goods they farmed. The wives of American engineers working in Kharkiv wrote in their journals about food shortages and deaths due to famine, known in Ukraine as the Holodomor. Experts estimate that some 4 million people died of hunger.
“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!”
Granted, the Kharkiv tractors are not the best in the world. “They are not as advanced and up to date as … foreign machinery,” said Artur Levytskyy, who leads the machinery department of the agricultural enterprise El Gaucho, located in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine. “Most tractors have been imported into Ukraine, [and] the most popular [is] John Deere.”
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.”
Now, as the area of the Kharkiv factory is shelled heavily by the Russians, Rodionov looks back at its history. “[We have] survived the Second World War, [and] twice the occupation of Kharkiv,” he said. The factory has always adapted. During World War II, it built an improvised tank, the KhTZ-16, on the chassis of one of its tractors.
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
Farmers know a thing or two about wars. Throughout history, soldiers came disproportionately from the countryside, both in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
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.
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.”
Grover, who used to work for a company in eastern Ukraine that owns several farms, is about to launch an NFT project that features tractors towing tanks, hoping to raise money for the army. He said selling digital goods is more practical than T-shirts in a time of war because they “have a higher profit margin, with less supply chain issues.”
Like Grover and other civilians, tractor enthusiasts and farmers are doing their best to support the army. As the outskirts of Kyiv were attacked by the Russians, Kostyuk and his fellow farmers dug trenches, built dugouts and provided Ukrainian soldiers with three meals a day. Near Kharkiv, in a territory controlled by Russians, dairy farm owner Nataliya Koval started distributing food to the villagers. “We provide people with milk and dairy products, cheese, bread, pastries and meat,” she told Grid.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the farmers in a speech: “Our ‘tractor troops’ — Ukrainian farmers — take Russian equipment in the fields and give it to our Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Across the country, professional and amateur mechanics take Russian military equipment, restore it, paint the blue and yellow flag on top of the Russian symbols, and hand it to their army for free.
Nobody knows exactly what happened to the Russian military vehicles taken by tractors, but it is said that the Ukrainians have more tanks now than they did at the beginning of the war.
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.
Seizing Russian military equipment has recently been legalized in Ukraine, and it’s tax-free, according to the National Agency for the Protection against Corruption:
“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.
The interview with Vitalii Primov was translated by Inna Virin, an English teacher from Kyiv who is now in Berlin. Anatoliy Kostyuk’s words were translated by Elizaveta Shevchenko, a 17-year-old high school student from Irpin currently in Bucharest, Romania. Oleksandra Horchynska, a journalist living in Bonn, Germany, helped translate songs and provided insights into Ukrainian culture. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.