The Tractor Has Become a Symbol of Ukrainian Resistance

A Ukrainian tractor hauling away Russian armor is a powerful symbol and a propaganda victory.
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Painting by Nils Westergard.

Like St. Javelin and the Ghost of Kyiv before it, the humble tractor has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion. Videos and pictures of tractors hauling away Russian armor have gone viral on social media. Though none have been verified, there’s half a dozen or so clips making the rounds and as they’re shared, they’re eventually turned into memes, posters, and T-Shirts. A tractor hauling away Russian armor is now as ubiquitous a symbol as the Javelin or Molotov Cocktail.

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The first video appears to have surfaced online on February 28, just four days after the war started. In the video, a tractor is shown hauling away a Russian tank while someone runs alongside, desperately trying to catch up. “Ukrainian farmer steals Russian tank from right under the nose of the Russians who occupied it,” a subtitle says.

The footage spread far and wide and soon it was matched with other, similar videos and photos. A green John Deere hauled a Russian tank through a snowy street. Two tractors hauled a piece of Russian armor through a muddy field. A Ukrainian farmer with a blurred 

Bellingcat told Motherboard it hasn’t geolocated or verified any of the footage of the tractors hauling tanks and it seems other journalists and OSINT folks haven’t either. To be fair, they’re busy documenting the use of cluster munitions and tracking Russian military movement.

But the veracity of tractors hauling tanks doesn’t matter to people sharing the footage and transforming it into memes. It’s a powerful symbol that bolsters twin narratives about the war: Russia’s military hardware was not prepared for this war and everyone in Ukraine is ready to fight back against Russia, including farmers.

The War in Ukraine is being documented and observed in real time. Satellite imagery, social media accounts, and live streams all help outside observers keep track of what’s going on and sort truth from fiction. But the fog of war persists and, as with this footage of tractors hauling tanks, we may not know the truth of it for a long time. If ever.

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It is plausible, however. Ukraine has claimed it captured massive amounts of Russian military hardware. On March 1, Kyiv also announced it won’t be charging taxes on Russian assets captured by Ukrainian citizens. "Have you captured a Russian tank or armored personnel carrier and are worried about how to declare it? Keep calm and continue to defend the Motherland! There is no need to declare the captured Russian tanks and other equipment,” read the announcement.

And the footage keeps rolling in. On March 15, a video of a tractor convoy in Chulakivka, Ukraine hit the internet. “Legendary farmers have already become the symbol of all-Ukrainian resistance,” Olena Halushka said on Twitter. “In Chulakivka tractor convoy is moving to the fields under the Ukrainian flags. This is Kherson region on the south of Ukraine, which Russians try to occupy.”

The videos and images have inspired memes and artwork. One of the most striking is a concrete block coated in the blue and gold of Ukraine, with a small tractor hauling away a “Z” painted tank. Another shows a little Revell-style model of a similar scene.

This is not the first time Ukrainian tractors have become synonymous with resistance. For years, American farmers using John Deere tractors have fought the company for the right to repair their own tractors. The sophisticated on-board electronics often lock out farmers from doing simple fixes to expensive machines. Though some farmers have found a workaround—hacking the firmware using specially designed software that comes from Ukraine.