Tractor Drivers (Traktoristy, 1939) review Preparing for a lecture, I made one of those serendipitous YouTube “discoveries,” stumbling across the Soviet musical-romantic comedy-propaganda film Traktoristy (Tractor Drivers, 1939). Wonder of wonders, it had English sub-titles (be sure to turn them on), and after about 10 minutes, I was hooked. This is a fascinating piece of edu-tainment: a time capsule of pre-WWII Soviet attitudes, and a fun watch, to boot.
The opening scene depicts three Soviet military men, recently demobilised after serving in the Far East. Klim sings a song which describes the “samurai” crossing the Amur River, only to be repulsed by the gallant Soviet armed forces (and more specifically, the tank corps, of which all 3 men were a part). This alludes to clashes between the Japanese and Soviets in Manchuria, a tense situation but one which is largely ignored for the rest of the movie (instead, suspicion of Germany is paramount).
However, for the moment the three comrades are on a train, returning to civilian life. One is going back to Moscow, where his wife works in a ball-bearing factory. Another has a fiancee in Georgia. They each urge Klim to join them, but he is intent on going to the fertile steppes of Ukraine, where he’ll drive a tractor. He shows them a newspaper article and photograph of Maryana, the leader of a tractor brigade on a kolkhoz (collective farm), who’s being lauded for her outstanding work. Klim says he’s going to find her.
This sequence contains various layers of information and meaning. The three soldiers represent three major regions of the Soviet Union: Moscow (Russia), Georgia, and the Ukraine. [Not coincidentally, the soldier from Georgia has dark hair and a moustache, and strongly resembles a younger, jollier Joseph Stalin—a native of Georgia.] Each part of the USSR is extolled as productive: the industrial workers and the agricultural workers are equally important. The fact that these three young men are not career soldiers is also significant, and later in Traktoristy it is made clear that the Soviet military is composed of citizen-soldiers who take up arms when their nation is endangered.
Additionally, the idea that women and men are equal under the Soviet system is suggested in this first scene—the Muscovite’s wife works in a factory and Maryana drives a tractor—a theme that is elaborated upon throughout the rest of the movie. Klim does not fall in love with a glamourous actress, or a (traditional “women’s role”) teacher, shop clerk, artist, or even a political functionary—he is attracted to Maryana, a farm worker, a “celebrity” under the Soviet system due to her work performance. The photograph shows her wearing a cap and overalls, a costume she wears almost without exception throughout the entire film—until the very last scene, when she dons a dress for her wedding.
[It seems likely Maryana’s character is based on Angelina Pasha, a real-life Soviet woman who organised an all-woman tractor team in the early 1930s and won various production awards. She was prominently featured in Soviet propaganda and in 1938—the year before Trakoristy was made—lent her name to an appeal for more women tractor-drivers.]
Maryana’s designation as a Stakhanovite (translated as “shock-worker” in the sub-titles)—a term coined after a Soviet coal miner named Stakhanov who exceeded his daily quota in 1935, to great acclaim—is, curiously, seen as having some negative (if humourous) consequences. She gets “50 letters a day” from would-be suitors, and is constantly receiving proposals of marriage from men she meets. To dissuade them, and to allow her to continue her work without these distractions, she convinces burly fellow tractor-unit foreman Nazar to pose as her fiancé. This sets up a romantic-comedy “misunderstandings” plot, when Klim arrives at the collective farm and believes Nazar’s story.
If there is one structural flaw in Traktoristy, it is that the romantic-comedy sub-plot is introduced and developed, but is then shunted aside for much of the second half of the picture—in favour of rather repetitive propaganda—until a rushed resolution at the very end. The idea of having a “collective hero” rather than focusing on a single character (or a couple) was a tenet of Soviet cinema, and Traktoristy shows signs of this: it’s not really about Klim and Maryana’s romance—although that is a significant component of the plot—but the tone of the first half of the film rather fools the audience into thinking this might be so. It is conceivable that the change in focus was deliberate, implying that collective efficiency (and security) take priority over personal relationships. Klim and Maryana later deliberately schedule their wedding for “after the first snow falls,” i.e., at a time when the collective farm’s work begins to abate for the winter.
Klim and Maryana “meet cute,” Hollywood-style. She’s riding her motorcycle through the steppes at night and has an accident. Klim happens by: he repairs the bike, bandages her injured leg, and takes her back to the collective farm. He finally sees her clearly, and realises it’s the famous Maryana, but doesn’t reveal his previous infatuation. However, there is a “spark” between the two. Klim agrees to stay on the farm for a time, proving his worth as a mechanic, but when he learns Maryana is engaged to the blowhard Nazar, he decides to leave, despite her pleas. Kolkhoz leader Kirill brings Klim back and makes him the foreman of Nazar’s unit (Nazar has been demoted for trying to obtain fuel for his machines by hijacking a delivery truck). Kirill asks Klim to make Nazar into a valuable worker, so he’ll be worthy to wed Maryana. Klim does so, then declares he loves Maryana (and his feelings are reciprocated), so the film ends happily, with their wedding (attended by Nazar, who may have been attracted to Maryana but never expected to marry her).
As part of his attempt to forge Nazar and his happy-go-lucky, lazy team into an effective working unit, Klim sets up a “competition” with Maryana’s all-female group, a plot thread that goes nowhere. Klim also begins instructing his men in tank tactics, marksmanship, and other military skills, saying tractor drivers can become tank drivers if war comes; Maryana demands equal training for her group and Kirill promises this, although the only example we see is Maryana later reading a military manual.
Klim’s discipline and ideas (he yokes a second cultivator to Nazar’s tractor, increasing the amount of earth tilled in each pass) produces solid results. Nazar himself doubles his “norm” (quota) and gets his photograph in the newspaper (although he’s apparently illiterate, so he can’t read the laudatory caption!). But the theme of increasing agricultural production, like the romantic plot, takes a backseat to the concept of military preparedness.
Although, as mentioned above, Klim’s adventures in the Far East are discussed in the first half of the film, the focus shifts to the inevitable (or so it seems) confrontation with Germany. Klim unearths a spiked German helmet (Pickelhaube) in a newly-plowed field. It’s been buried there since “our glorious 1918,” when—as Kirill tells the residents of the collective farm, while brandishing the relic—“we defeated the Germans and wiped them off our young Ukrainian soil!” He goes on: “the battle time is coming. The Germans are attracted to our land again…so we’ll fight again…we have to be ready for this fight every hour.” Kirill equates tractors with tanks, and this leads to a one-minute sequence of slightly sped-up stock footage of tanks racing through forests, leaping over streams, and so forth.
Klim’s after-hours military training of his tractor crew is depicted in one short scene, where he lectures the attentive men on the purpose of tanks in modern warfare. More time is spent singing the tankmen’s anthem, “Thundering with fire, gleaming with their steel, the machines will move in their furious march. When comrade Stalin sends us into battle, and the first marshal leads us into it! We don’t need a span of foreign soil, but we won’t yield an inch of our own. When the day of trial strikes, our Fatherland will send us into battle!” This song continues in the next sequence, showing Nazar and the others plowing fields while singing patriotically.
The anthem is heard a third time, at the wedding reception for Klim and Maryana. Before the song begins, Kirill makes another speech, praising the workers as the sons and daughters of those who “drove the aristocrats to Warsaw, that taught the Germans their lesson, and with their own blood won the power, land and socialism!” He adds, “Every minute be ready to stand up to the enemy!” (I thought it was every hour? Boy, the geo-political situation must be getting worse!)
Alexander Nevsky, made in 1938, is another Soviet film with an anti-German theme, using history as an allegory: Nevsky = Stalin and the Teutonic Knights = Nazi Germany. Traktoristy never openly mentions the Nazis, but refers to the First World War and explicitly identifies the Germans as a threat to the Soviet Union, covetous of the fertile land and other resources. Alexander Nevsky was withdrawn from circulation during the tenure of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but it’s unclear if Traktoristy was similarly affected (it was extremely popular in the Soviet Union, and director Ivan Pyryev and his two leads—Nikolai Kryuchkov and Marina Ladynina—all won the “Stalin’s Prize” for the film in 1941). [Apparently the film was cut for a subsequent re-release in the 1960s, removing “Stalinist” content.]
Trakoristy could have been intended in part as a recruiting film for potential agricultural workers. Life on a collective farm seems pleasant and fulfilling. The people are congenial, the work is hard but rewarding, and everyone sings a lot. Furthermore, at least three times the film makes a point of depicting the abundance of food enjoyed by the workers: when Klim first brings the injured Maryana home, the camera lingers on a hearty meal prepared by the motherly Markovna; later, Kirill and the women’s tractor crew visit a watermelon patch and enjoy the luscious fruit; a third scene begins with a closeup of Klim slicing bread, then lunch being served, “3 plates of cabbage soup with fat and garlic” for the over-producing Nazar. “Our land is so fertile,” one character says, and the farm workers reap the benefits. Late in the movie, Kirill tells Klim the farm pays 2,000 [rubles?] towards wedding expenses, so Nazar can have a new suit and a band can be hired. All in all, not a bad life, at least according to Traktoristy.
The only minor suggestion of shortages occurs when Nazar tries to borrow fuel from Maryana’s group, since his tractors have run out (Maryana refuses, because he’s done it before and never repaid the loans). But this lack of gasoline appears to be the result of Nazar’s mismanagement—Klim later criticises the crew for failing to maintain their machines properly—because there is no actual fuel shortage: Nazar and his men attempt to hijack a truck loaded with drums of gasoline, resulting in his demotion from the post of foreman. The Soviet Union has plenty of fuel, but it must be shared among those who need it, and not wasted by irresponsible workers (Nazar isn’t characterised as a “wrecker,” since his mistakes aren’t malicious and deliberate attempts to sabotage production).
Traktoristy has numerous embedded musical numbers; some of the songs are repeated more than once (such as the aforementioned “tank anthem” ), and the topics vary, from propagandistic to standard “romance” and humour. There is even a Ukrainian folk song (in Ukrainian), sung by members of Maryana’s team. The style of the musical sequences varies considerably. An early song by the bicycle-riding postman and Maryana (on a motorcycle) is shot without back-projection (although one assumes the performers were post-dubbed), and Nazar’s rendition of the tank theme while driving a tractor is similarly “realistic.” Many of the other songs are shot simply, with people standing around, but director Pyryev uses fast-motion to provide contrast in the sequence in which Klim meets Nazar’s tractor crew for the first time: one of the wags greets him with a sappy romantic song (“Hello, my darling, I’ve been waiting for too long”), to which Klim replies with a speeded-up dance (incorporating the trepak) to the same tune, signifying the energy he’s bringing to the under-performing tractor crew.
The production values of the film (a co-production of Mosfilm and Kiev Film) are fine, with some impressive shots of the empty steppes, stretching off into the distance, waiting to be plowed, then sown with wheat. There are a handful of what appear to be studio “exteriors,” and the inside of the main kolkhoz building is almost certainly a set (when Maryana leaps out of a window, it looks like the exterior scene is a painted backdrop). The cast isn’t particularly large but it’s adequate for the film’s needs; although there aren’t any awe-inspiring shots of fleets of tractors (or tanks, for that matter), since this is a thumbnail sketch of one collective farm and its workers, these aren’t really necessary.
The 4 main characters—Klim, Maryana, Nazar, and Kirill—are sympathetic (even Nazar, except when he’s a bit put-out about losing his foreman’s job) and the actors turn in solid performances. Nikolai Kryuchkov (Klim) is handsome—he slightly resembles Spencer Tracy and/or James Arness—and earnest, the very model of a modern Soviet tank-man (to paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan). Marina Ladynina (Maryana) isn’t Hollywood-beautiful (to be fair, the film does nothing to glamourise her) but her character is appealing and sympathetic. Stepan Kayukov (Kirill) is a stereotypical, ebullient authority figure (in an odd nod to Soviet reality, he scrutinises Klim’s internal passport before allowing the stranger to stay) with a bizarre catch-phrase, “May mosquitoes ram him (or them)!” Nazar is played by Boris Andreyev as a not-too bright but essentially decent worker who merely needs the proper instruction to do his duty—and indeed, to do more than his duty, doubling his work quota once suitably inspired.
Traktoristy is an example of internal propaganda, aimed at citizens of the Soviet Union. In keeping with much Soviet cinema of the 1930s, it mixes entertainment with ideas, some subtle and some not-so subtle. Director Ivan Pyryev was reportedly one of the major directors of Stalinist cinema of the 1930s and 1940s (Marina Ladynina was his wife and frequent star), and knew what topics to utilise and which to avoid.
In light of recent events involving Russia and the Ukraine, it seems a little ironic that this film is so focused on the Ukraine (despite the inclusive opening sequence): even though the songs and dialogue mostly refer to defending the “Fatherland,” what is shown is the Ukraine and Ukrainians (although they speak Russian, except for the folk song), and there’s no attempt to disguise this or to explicitly extrapolate the film’s themes to cover other regions. Perhaps this was implicit, and Russians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Moldavians, etc., enjoyed the romance and songs and empathised with the “Soviet” patriotic propaganda. In any case, this remains extremely interesting and entertaining on multiple levels today.