Steel and machinery are two crowning results of industrial power and ingenuity. With Stalin’s first Five Year Plan complete, the USSR had reached a level of industrialization achieved by few other nations.Pictured above is a parade of Soviet T-34 battle tanks. This beast of steel was the Soviet’s primary battle tank from 1934 through World War Two. The tank, in many ways, was a mobile example of industrial prowess and served as a testament to the success of the industrial system of the USSR. The latter half of the 1930’s saw the USSR begin to drastically increase their military output. With a looming fascist threat to the West and a constant border dispute with Japan to the East, the USSR retaliated in the seemingly only logical way. They built a bigger, more threatening army to project their power and establish the precedent that the Soviet Union was not a nation to turn a blind eye to military threat.
In 1937, Boris Laskin and the Pokrass Brothers wrote the poem Three Tank Drivers. This poem centers around three tanks and their commanders as they stand a dutiful watch over the border of Manchuria. This border was a metaphorical hot spot on the foot of the USSR. For years the Japanese and Soviets (and the Russian Empire before) had struggled for control over this region. This poem pays testament to the men who served to safeguard the region. The poem opens and sets a somber tone with the statement, “Thunderclouds have gathered on the border, The perimeter is in silence’s embrace.” These opening lines set the mood, but it is constantly changing throughout the work. We initially see the bleakness of the taiga that will become the battlefield, but then are introduced to the tank crews who are presented as fun-loving buddies who are close as family. The image is now painted of a bleak environment with a single flicker of light, the Soviet military. Here, on the taiga plains of Manchuria, the difference between life and death, the bleak grey sky and flame of hope and progress in the Red Army holding back the enemy at the border. The poem closes in an interesting manner. The second to last stanza is as follows:
The tanks rush by, whipping up a tailwind,
And the armor clanks atop the hills
And the samurai come crashing earthwards
Under pressure of the fire and steel
The image and meaning presented here is deep and interesting to say the least. The major idea of the stanza is the might of the Soviet tank, and its ability to easily throw down its challenger on the field of battle. The closer we look at the poem, however, the more interesting these lines become. For many years “fire and steel” were words used to describe the Japanese proficiency at steel forging. The samurai’s katana is, to this day, regarded as one of the finest examples of steel craftsmanship the world has seen. The poem implies that the fire and steel represents the Soviet battle tank. It can then be inferred that the Soviets are making the bold statement that their proficiencies with steel have surpassed that of the Japanese. Furthermore, the Japanese samurai was long regarded as the most elite, most disciplined warrior in the world. To compare the Japanese forces to these figures in 1937 serves two causes. The first implies that the Japanese have done little to progress themselves from the feudal age which saw the height of the samurai and their power. Secondly, it uses the notoriety of the samurai’s fighting prowess to demonstrate the power of the Red Army. The fact that the Red Army so easily casts aside this foe that is hallowed in history gives the reader the idea that this army is the greatest to ever be fielded.
With the optimistic view presented of the Red Army in the poem, we gain a glimpse at anew mindset developing within the USSR. This idea is known as New Patriotism and uses history (primarily that of the military) to establish a sense nationalism in the people of the USSR. Below is a clip that demonstrates New Patriotism as taught in schools around the USSR.
This video serves as an excellent example of the scope of the ideal of New Patriotism. The Party sought to implement it into the lives of its people starting at quite a young age. This idea of putting such an emphasis on the military exploits of the nation and teaching it to such a young audience may be questionable, but it served as a way to unite the people under the common idea of Soviet military excellence. In a time where the environment and atmosphere of the USSR can only be described as bleak, due mostly to the purges and threat of war on two fronts, New Patriotism served as a way for the people to reestablish faith and hope in a nation that seemed to be hurt on the inside and trapped by enemies on the outside. The ideals of New Patriotism would be echoed throughout the USSR through World War II and into the Cold War.
These posters from 1943 represent the concept of New Patriotism and how it continued to effect the USSR past its inception in the late 1930s. Each poster is centered around soldiers in the Red Army and in the background, we see heroes from wars past. Wether it be the Mongols, Peter the Great, or heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution, they are all backing the “heroes of today”, or the men currently fighting for the USSR. The poem, the video and these posters help frame the mindset of the USSR with regards to their military and its role in the world. These works define the ideal of New Patriotism and the importance that military history played in the education of the younger generations. This ideal served as a way to hone the people’s minds to support the cause of their motherland. New Patriotism gave the people of the USSR a way to grow nationalism in a time when their nation seemed down. It gave them a flicker of hope in an otherwise dark night.
Check out the source material below!
Three Tank Drivers by Boris Laskin and the Pokrass Brothers (1937) found in Mass Culture in Soviet Russia page 318-319