With a tractor-obsessed two-year-old, tractors have become a big part of our lives. We’re surrounded by tractor toys of all scales and we watch a lot of tractor videos on YouTube (sugar beet harvester videos are a personal favourite). Every time farm traffic goes past our house, we stop what we’re doing and look to see what kind of tractor it is and what they’re hauling. With all of this tractor talk, our family enjoyed the recent viral video of a Ukrainian farmer towing a Russian tank with a tractor. There have been a few similar videos, racking up millions of views across all of the major social media platforms.
The video got me thinking about propaganda and psy ops, and my former mentor Phil Taylor’s book Munitions of the Mind–it’s also the title of a blog belonging to his colleagues at University of Kent’s Centre for The History of War, Media and Society. On the blog, I came across this piece. Mark Connelly does a great job of concisely explaining the symbolic value of tanks. They are a symbol of war and power, of military might and threat. He cites the examples of the iconic protestor vs. tank moment in Tiananmen Square, or the tanks on the Champs Élysées as the image of Paris under Nazi occupation.
These Ukranian tractor vs. Russian tank videos represent a new twist on the tank’s symbolism: a David and Goliath message of underdog resistance and victory. That narrative explains why they’ve gone viral. In a conflict that defies so many of our established ideas of what’s right or fair, there’s something amusing and even encouraging about seeing the people get their own back.
The videos also evoke messages of peace, “swords into ploughshares”, with the visual juxtaposition of weapons and farming equipment. Tractors represent a significant feature of peace-time Ukrainian life, as agriculture is Ukraine’s largest export industry and 70% of the country’s land is agricultural. Likewise, it could be argued that the tank represents the current state of Russia under Putin’s leadership. Showy display of military might on the outside, but complicated and fragile on the inside.
The whole war can be summed up in the image of tank vs. tractor, as things currently stand. Putin surely did not expect the Ukrainian resistance that they’ve encountered, nor the surrender of Russian troops and abandonment of tanks resulting from insufficient supplies and low morale. The phenomenon of the videos going viral is also a good summary of the world’s reaction to the war–people are closely watching the conflict, cheering on the underdog, and they can’t help laughing when the aggressor’s tank breaks down. It’s a brilliant form of pro-Ukrainian propaganda, made and distributed by the people.
Let’s hope the war ends soon and the tractors can get back to their spring planting.