Soviet Tanks: Creating Heroes and Winning the War(s)

In 1937 when Boris Laskin wrote “Three Tank Drivers” the Nazi war machine was ramping up its modernization and mobilization efforts and tensions were building in the East as the Japanese prepared for an excursion in to Soviet territory. On the home front the second five year plan was coming to an end, an era of rapid and large scale industrialization that had been the primary object of socialist rhetoric for the last ten years was concluding, and a new plan was being drawn up. These events gave socialist propaganda planners a clear objective: spur the common people to new heights of achievement and direct their efforts towards industrial preparation for the war that was sure to come. They did this in a number of ways, the primary form of course being that of Socialist Realism in art, literature and music. The particular example I have selected focuses on a tank crew in Manchuria, tanks were a major focus of the Soviet propaganda machine, they were a product of industrialization, linking the efforts of the people to the war effort in a very direct manner; they also provided tank aces as heroes to the Russian people, giving them legendary figures to rally behind and inspiring them to work harder to produce war machines for the motherland.

The song I selected is a story of three tank crewmen on the far eastern borders of the Soviet Union, here they await orders, and are told to attack the Japanese when they cross the border, presumably at the battle Lake Khasan, a Soviet victory in the border conflicts. One of the focuses of this piece is linking tanks to mass culture and common workers in the Soviet Union. Following the form of Socialist Realism, this song uses simple language, powerful imagery and nameless characters to create a strong association with the common people of Russia, for all we know the three tankers could have been workers themselves before they joined the Red Army! The song is also used to demonstrate to the workers of Russia how their hard work is being put to use, describing exclusively the action of the tanks, which would be produced in factories manned by these same workers, this gives them a common connection with the soldiers in the form of the tank, and raises their sympathy to the Red Army and thus their support of the conflict. Tanks and Aircraft were commonly the subject of propaganda pieces, they demonstrated the wondrous new technology that the five year plans had brought, and at the same time gave the workers a stake in the war because they manufactured these war machines.

The second method that was utilized by the Soviets to manipulate tanks and their drivers for propaganda was the creation and veneration of tank heroes. Great aces, frequently common people, would be recognized nationally for their achievements and held up as a shining example for the rest of the nation to behold. This trend strongly echoes the Shock Worker and Stakhanovite movements, glorifying individuals for their achievements and using their behavior to inspire and set standards for the rest of the populace. One of the finest examples of this is the story of Mariya Oktyabrskaya, a Ukranian woman who’s husband was killed by the Nazis at Kiev, she was a stout communist and a factory worker, the perfect candidate for a propaganda drive, so when she sold her possessions and offered to buy a tank for the Army on the condition that she be allowed to drive it, the military agreed to her terms. She went on to pave a path of destruction across the steppes, in much the same way as the three tank drivers in the song answer the call of their country. Throughout her career she demonstrated a high level of skill and bravery before being killed in action. Her story was the subject of a massive propaganda drive, designed to show workers that the men and women of the Red Army were just like them, and that they needed all the support they could get from the industrial base of the Soviet Union. This was repeated many times with various other pilots and tank drivers, giving workers heroes to rally behind, much like they once rallied behind Alexi Stakhanov.

All in all, Soviet Realism succeeded as a propaganda technique, its simple language and clear goals led to many excellent works of propaganda that succeeded in driving the industrialization drive and war effort forward at a fever pitch.



Socialist Realism

Mass Culture in Soviet Russia by James von Geldern and Richard Stites (pg 319)