My Tractor’s Not So Sexy

Soviet DT-54 Tractor, the workhorse of the Virgin Lands. A sturdy but not-so-sleek beast to save the Soviet People.

In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev was in a bit of a pickle. On one hand, the agricultural reforms that Malenkov had put into play had been greatly popular and seemed destined for success. On the other hand, Khrushchev felt bitter that Malenkov was getting credit for agricultural reforms, something he had been working to produce. The solution? Enter the Virgin Lands Campaign, a massively audacious and risky plan that made the Kazakhs wary, party members concerned, and tractor producers ecstatic. Yes, it was a glorious time to be in charge of tractor production. Never before had a country attempted such a grand expansion of its agricultural production sector and to do so they would need a massive amount of tractors. In just the first quarter of 1955, the Kharkov factories were set to produce over 3000 glistening, new DT-54 tractors; the sturdy and reliable beast needed to tame the new lands. Adding to this the khTZ-7 tractor with a new diesel engine would allow the pioneers of this new endeavor to work with less fuel and produce far more for the Mother Land. The factories in Kharkov were pressed to optimize its production to create more replacement parts and new tractors at a higher rate. In 1955, the tractor portion of the plant anticipated a 63% increase in productivity over the last year. The people needed it’s workhorses to continue Comrade Khrushchev’s plan. Work was slow but steady and the amount of cultivated land would skyrocket under this new plan with 300,000 sq. km. would be put to the plow in the first year alone. Within the first 2 years, the grain shortage of the Soviet Union was abated and the people seemed encouraged by the record output of 1956 (180% higher than the 1949-53 average). Unfortunately, all of the glistening tractors in all of Russia could not stop the decline after the record harvests of 1956-58. Khrushchev would eventually attempt to revamp the plan by expanding fertilizer production and open up new fertilizer factories in the early 60’s but nothing could bring the virgin lands back to the much needed records of the middle of the 50’s. While Comrade Khrushchev’s plan may not have worked as a long term solution, it was not without its benefits. The Virgin Land’s reform may have saved the Soviet Union from a total agricultural disaster by buying time to revamp the previously established agricultural systems in place. The plan also succeeded in enhancing the industrial output of the USSR as a direct byproduct of the Virgin Land’s expansion campaign. Today you can still see working examples of the DT-54 in use in the former Soviet states with onlookers staring as they’re “tillin’ up the land”. Please enjoy this vintage footage of grain harvesting in Kazakhstan in 1955 featuring the lovably ugly DT-54.

They’re red, they’re dead, but there’s no redemption.

Soviet citizens search for loved ones buried in a mass grave

Starting in 1936, the Soviet world saw the beginning of The Great Terror. An event so monumentally bloody that it would come to be one of the most prominent figures in the western world’s eyes when they looked at the USSR. The Great Terror was the systematic trial and elimination of individuals deemed disloyal to the party and resulted in the deaths of an estimate 600,000 to possibly over 1,000,000. This event unfolded over two years of brutal violence that left the “opposition” members in the communist party dead or exhiled, and countless random civilians dead or worse, imprisoned in the dreaded gulags. Possibly the most damaging of these purges was that of the red army’s officer corps. Original estimates placed the impact on the Officer’s corps in the thousands. Many of these men were career officers with stellar careers; some of Russia’s most capable war fighters. Within a year the Soviet military would undertake a daring attack on Finland…without a large portion of the officers. What followed is one of the most embarrassing chapters in Soviet military history, The Winter War. The Winter War was an attempt by the Soviets to secure territory, including a coveted warm water port, along the baltic sea. The russians charged head long into the winter snow covered forests of Finland….in dark green summer uniforms…..and without their more competent officers. What followed was the utter definition of a Pyrrhic victory. The Soviets went into the combat ill equipped, horribly led, and poorly trained. While the Soviets entered the conflict with over 400,000 men, 3-4,000 tanks, and 3,800 aircraft. They left after losing nearly 200,000 men, 2,500 tanks, and 500 aircraft. Much of this has been attributed to the lack of experienced leadership present due to their losses from the purge, as any competent officers would have changed their battle strategies and equipped their men with proper snow camouflage. Ultimately, the Soviets would receive a fair portion of land in their peace agreement with the Finnish. The failure of the Red Army to take down Finland would ultimately convince Hitler that they were weak enough to be conquered. All of these failures can be traced back to the gutting of the officer corps during the Great Terror. The video below does a fair job of explaining just how damaging the purge of the military was.

The Dead Road to Stalin’s Heart

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The workers of the Salekhard-Igarka railway dig through snow and permafrost in the Siberian Winter.

Many of the horror stories propagated about the Soviet Union revolve around the legends of the labor and prison camps known as Gulags. They stand today as a testament to the sufferings of the Soviet people under the totalitarian state and remind us of the dangers of consolidated power. Few instances of the usage of forced labor in the Soviet Union stand out more than that of the Salekhard-Igarka Railway, The Dead Road. The story begins with a strategic look at the defense of the Motherland under Stalin’s regime. Siberia, being an underpopulated and dangerous land, was very weak in terms of defense. Little could be done to save this area from an attack due to the vast distances that would need to be covered in order to respond. Enter the plan to build a non-stop railway to the eastern lands of russia. Stalin demanded that a railway be built connecting the Moscow-Vorkuta line to the Gulf of Ob. Construction had been underway for a few years when the lack of planning caught up with the Soviets as it turned out that the gulf was far too shallow and the coastline unfit for construction. Siberia 1 – Soviets 0. Stalin, unable to see the futility and inefficiency of the gulag powered venture, demanded that they now divert to Igarka. From that point forward, the line would be worked on and constructed until after the death of Comrade Stalin. Due to the difficulties of the terrain and the inefficiency of the Gulag’s untrained work force, the line required innumerable hours of repairs and fixes and ultimately would fall into disrepair after the cessation of construction. Ultimately, the failure of the planning committees and slow work of gulag labor lead to one of the most drawn out, punishing, and useless projects the Soviet’s would undertake. Today, the remnants of the disastrous project remain a grim reminder of fate of many of Russia’s gulag laborers and the haunting tales of their journey through Siberia. See the video below for a tour of the remains.

The current state of the Salekhard-Igarka Line

The Beginnings of Industry

In his quest to record the development of the empire, Prokudin-Gorskii photographed this unidentified industrial factory interior with large electrical generators. The generators in this photograph have markings that indicate they were manufactured in Budapest, Hungary.

The image above may be a simple set of electrical generator’s but their presence and origin tell a lot about the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. In the late imperial period, Russia was continuing it’s transition from an agrarian state into a modern power. As they developed, they were heavily reliant on western states for the industrial equipment necessary to begin domestic production of goods. The generators seen above, as indicated in the caption, originated in Budapest, Hungary; itself a developing east European state. What I find interesting about this is the almost desperate nature of Russia’s search for equipment. I say this based on the state of relations between Hungary and Russia at the time of this photo (ca. 1907-1915). At the time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was experiencing a great deal of unrest from it’s slavic balkan neighbors. For Russia to buy these generators, they would have had to almost disregard the tension’s between the two states in order to do so. It is also worth noting that while Russia would be purchasing these from Hungary in the 1910’s, within the next 40 years Hungary itself would become part of the USSR.