Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Threat to Public Order

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Threat to Public Order

Article excerpt

Or, How My Love ofBelarusian Tractors Got Me Arrested by the KGB

From the Soviet Union

they sent us

a Belarus tractor,

a pretty one

with a plow.

- Bulgarian song

ONE OF MY EARLIEST MEMORIES IS RIDING a Belarus tractor. My grandmother was the mayor of a small village in Communist Bulgaria and, being her favorite grandchild, I seemed to wield enormous power over all municipal employees. To be on good terms with me was a smart career move. Whenever there was road work in and around the village, I was there, riding the paving machine, the dump trucks, and the roller, hungrily breathing in the tar fumes and squealing with joy When summer came around and the hills of the Danubian Plain turned into a sea of wheat, I was given a privileged spot on a combine harvester. The heat was dreadful and my lungs got congested by dust, but I liked it anyway. My favorite ride, though, was the tractor.

It was a blue machine with large rear wheels and the loudest engine in the world. The driver, uncle Mitko, had a bushy moustache, like Stalin's, and always wore the same dirty cotton wife-beater. He was a good friend of my grandmother's and every afternoon he would stop by our house after finishing work at the collective farm. With mayoral permission he would lift me up into the cab and place me on the seat next to him. I could smell the alcohol on his breath, along with the headier mix of diesel, sweat, and earth. I loved that smell. I loved the levers and buttons and dashboard instruments, the steering wheel that looked enormous even in uncle Mitko's enormous hands. "Welcome to Belarus," he'd say every time with a mystifying smile, the way I had seen Stalin smile at little children in the old picture books in my grandmother's library. "This tractor was made in Belarus, in the mighty Soviet Union," he'd explain. "It's the best tractor in the world." Then he'd thrust the stick shift into first gear, the transmission growling, and the next moment the tractor would jolt forward, jostling me into the air. It was the closest thing to flying. From my place in the cab I was the tallest kid in the village, looking at the receding world far below, the people, the angry geese hissing and reluctantly making way for us. My friends wanted to become mountaineers or cosmonauts one day, but I already knew that it was tractor drivers who had the best vantage.

Some years later, the Communist regime in Bulgaria quietly passed away in the autumn of 1989, uncle Mitko died of cancer soon after (his tractor became his hearse, pulling the flatbed trailer on which his coffin was laid), and I failed to become a tractor driver, but for some reason tractors got stuck in the muddy fields of my mind. And not just any kind of tractor. More and more often I'd see the gleaming green John Deere machines, recently imported from the US, plowing and sowing my homeland with the grains of capitalism, and I'd feel a twinge of resentment. What did a deer prancing across the American prairies have to do with me? My first and only love was Belarus, the one with the large rear wheels, assembled at the Minsk Tractor Works in the mighty Soviet Union, the classic MTZ -50. I'd still see them on the roads of Eastern Europe sometimes, hobbling like ghosts in their old age, decrepit and forlorn, their collective farms gone, and I'd feel the impulse to flag one of them down, and cry over its bitter fate. What happened to you, dear Belarus?

AT THE END OF WORLD WaR II, THE SOVIET economy and infrastructure was in shambles, with the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) suffering some of the worst damage: a third of its population dead, 209 of its 290 towns demolished, 85 percent of its industry devastated. The few operational factories in the country had been militarized, and farming machines were in severe shortage or were too old and inadequate. Hunger threatened to finish the work of German bombs. Times were so desperate that some decommissioned tanks were stripped of their turrets and armor and used to drag plows in their wake. …

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