Subject essay: James von Geldern
The three merry fellows in Ivan Pyriev’s 1939 film Tractor Drivers returning home from service against the Japanese in Manchuria served their generation as emblems of many things. By nationality – a Georgian, a Ukrainian, and a Russian – they embodied the amicable union of peoples in the healthy Soviet organism. The crewmen of a tank, they represented the modern corps of the Red Army. And returning from their victory over the “samurai” of their song, their health and vigor boded a future of strong defense against the aliens to the East. Unfortunate events were to undermine all these rosy pictures, and some in fact already had.
The year previous to the premiere of Tractor Drivers had seen the military leadership subjected to a brutal purge that left few of the higher command alive. Among the many victims were younger commanders such as Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii, the brilliant leader responsible for modernizing the Red Army during the 1930s. Son of a noble family, tsarist officer during the First World War who commanded Red troops during the Civil War, he participated in many campaigns, including the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion. He was made Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935 for his efforts in educating and rearming the army. In June 1937 he found himself on trial with seven other top commanders for conspiracy with Fascist Germany. All were convicted and shot, taking with them the strategic brilliance that made for successful tank warfare. In the purges that followed others fell, including Marshal Vasilii Bliukher, who had commanded the successful 1929 invasion of northern Manchuria. Left in control of the army were old Civil War horses Klim Voroshilov and Semen Budennyi, whose resentment of new technologies would spell disaster in the early months of World War II.
The movie stars Nikolai Kriuchkov (seated to the right in the clip) as Klim Iarko, driver of the tank who is returning home to his collective farm to resume his duties as tractor driver. His role in the film underlined an important theme in Soviet propaganda on military preparedness, the close connection between introducing tractor technology on the farm and tank technology in the army. He returns home to find his job ready, and through his record-breaking performance manages to win the heart of Mariana Bazhan, played by Marina Ladynina, a Stakhanovite driver who bore a striking resemblance to Pasha Angelina. Kriuchkov and Ladynina would star in many more of the films of director Ivan Pyriev, reviver of the musical comedy genre whose future hits would include The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941), At Six o’clock in the Evening after the War (1944), and Kuban’ Cossacks (1948).