The Battle of the Tractors

SERGEI ANTONOV, who was born in Leningrad in 1915, is well known for his deft and amusing satire. He was trained as a road-building engineer and is at home with tractors and bulldozers. He served at the front throughout the war and did not publish his first volume of stories until 1947. The narrative which follows is taken from his popular and mischievous novel of a cooperative farm, IT HAPPENED IN PENKOVO.


THE flax was spread on the other side of the Kazanka River later than planned, but the weather held, and in the autumn dew the flax grew softer and softer with every day.

Comrade Ignatyev, the young secretary of the district Party committee, came three times to the village of Penkovo. On the first occasion he urged them to hurry with flax-seed deliveries; on the second he gave them a talk on the forthcoming regional meeting of dairymaids; and on the third it was a mystery to everyone why he came at all. He did not look for Ivan Savich, the chairman of the collective farm; he passed no criticism on anything. He chatted with Tonya about literature in general, gave her a writing pad for a present, and went on his way. Tonya was a comely young agronomist who had been transferred from Leningrad to Penkovo only two weeks before. Her tan had deepened, her cheeks wore a dark flush, and her smart blue overcoat was a familiar sight now in the fields or on the farm.

Matvei Morozov was a lanky young fellow of twenty-five or so. His movements were awkward, his eyes sad, and his hair worn in a fringe brushed forward on his forehead. He had recently resigned from the kolkhoz and joined the M.T.S., the district headquarters. At the moment he was one of the tractor drivers on Zefirov’s team. Ivan Savich, who distrusted Matvei, had already caught his daughter Larissa out in the fields where this team was working. This made him furious, and he swore he’d get at Matvei, he’d lock him behind bars.

So far, however, there was nothing he could get at Matvei for. The man had been longing to get back into a tractor, and now he worked with verve. Every day left less doubt that Zefirov’s team would fulfill the plowing quota plan ahead of time. At a morning meeting of the tractor drivers, the director of the M.T.S. made special mention of Zefirov and promised him an extra bonus besides the one due for overfulfillment of quota.

The day of this meeting was a momentous one altogether. To begin with, a radio correspondent arrived to make a recording of a talk with the best workmen. Khromov, an elderly tractor driver, was summoned. The correspondent told Khromov to relax when answering his questions and to laugh, while he directed a sort of tube at him. Khromov combed his hair, drank a glass of water, and staring at the tube as if it were a rattlesnake, tried to laugh. The correspondent called a halt with an angry shake of his head, wrote the answers for Khromov on a piece of paper, marking the words that were likely to stump the man, and then everything began all over again, to the delight of the spectators. The procedure was repeated again and again until poor Khromov was utterly worn out. Toward the end, he read “Communism” for “mechanism” and “mechanism” for “Communism” and his laughter gave out altogether. Matvei offered to do the laughing for him. The correspondent, provoked and angry, thrust his tube out of the window, recorded the drone of welding, and departed. As for Khromov, he turned guiltily away from his fellows, slunk home, and got terribly drunk that night.

It was also payday that day. Zefirov counted the notes he got, paid his trade union dues to the young girl posted by the cashier’s window, and made for the tearoom with Matvei. They had a glass of vodka each. Then they tucked their trousers into their socks, got on their bicycles, and rode out to their held team.

It was a beautiful evening. The sky was aflame with the sunset glow, flooding the ground with an orange light. The two men, their faces the color of red Indians, rode along the forest edge. The shadows they threw stretched across the path to the very trees.

The rusty trunks of pines with their peeling, onionskin bark looked blazing hot. Yellow birches and aspens, standing among the dark, austere spruces, had spread fluffy little rugs of fallen leaves. A leaf fluttered now and then in the shadowed depths of the wood; humbly and softly, as though floating through water, it fluttered lower and lower, suddenly stopping in mid-flight, caught in an invisible spider web.

The air itself turned dusty-rose, and in that transparent, delicate haze the rooks were clearly etched as they flew slowly and wearily, weighed down with their gilded wings, as it were, over the harrowed field green with weeds.

Matvei and Zefirov, it must be said, took not the slightest notice of all this beauty around them. The farther they left the village behind them, the more persistent grew their regretful thought: Why, when they had money to spare and were actually in the tearoom, did they have one glass of vodka each and not two? The thought first struck Zefirov when they had reached the wood, and by the time they got to the fields it was mysteriously communicated to Matvei as well. It was clear to both that something had to be done to correct the mistake. But the M.T.S. was far away, and the Penkovo cooperative store was already closed for the day. They put their heads together, and Zefirov dispatched young Vitka to Penkovo with strict orders to find the woman in charge of the store and ask her in Zefirov’s name to unlock the store and get him what he wanted — this favor to go down on their “mutual aid” account.

VITKA peddled away on Zefirov ‘s bicycle, and the two men began to fuel their tractors and talk of other things to make their waiting shorter.

“They certainly did speak well of you today,” said Matvei.

“They did, but when it comes to a radio broadcast, it’s always Khromov and no one else, see?” Zefirov said, unscrewing a drum stopper. “It’s always the way here: they make a running start singing someone’s praises, and they never put the brakes on. And what’s Khromov, I ask you? He’s got a screw loose here.” Zefirov tapped his forehead. “But they let him do the broadcast again. Why? Did he strike a bargain or something, that he’d get this privilege handed out to him just as regularly as his pay and overalls?”

“Show business,” said Matvei. “They’ve got their orders to make a fuss over the best men. When it’s the first team, it’s Khromov; when it’s our team, it’s you.”

“Don’t you compare me to Khromov!”

“You’re as high and mighty as Khromov. One can see it a mile off.”

“Just what can one see?”

“Take a look at your tractor. It’s filthy. There’s moss growing on the tubes.”

“I’ve done two quotas on it without servicing.”

“Why drive it so hard? Can’t you see it’s leaking oil? Have a heart. After all, the motor is a dumb beast. You might at least wipe the cylinder block once in a while.”

“Don’t I? Who does it for me — do you?”

“I don’t, but neither do you. You’ve handed the job down to Vitka — a fourteen-year-old boy! Do you think I can’t see? You don’t care enough for your tractor.”

“Stop nagging! With my own money I’ve bought a brush to clean the plugs.” Zefirov pulled out a toothbrush from his pocket and showed it to Matvei. “See?”

They said no more, because there was Vitka coming back. The cooperative store had run out of vodka, and instead, Vitka had been given a bottle of port with sealing wax around the cork. Zefirov cursed local trade in general, the woman in charge of the store, and Vitka, for good measure. He then found a glass settler which he kept with his fuel hoses and spanners, uncorked the bottle, and poured out some wine. All three of them took a swig of it.

“Whatever you say, with the care you take of your tractor, it’ll never pull thirty-six horsepower,” said Matvei, spitting bits of sealing wax from his mouth.

“It will pull as much as it’s supposed to pull.”

“That’s right, only as much as it’s supposed to pull.”

“Cut it out now,” Zefirov said.

“Oh, no, I won’t. Let’s ask Vitka. I say, Vitka, whose machine is the more powerful?”

Vitka darted a wary glance at Zefirov and said, “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. You’re just scared of your boss,” Matvei said. “I’ll take any bet that my machine is.”

“So what, even if it is?” said Zefirov.

“It’s easy enough for you to say ‘So what?’ since you’re getting the bonuses anyway. But I’m pretty certain you won’t take up my bet.”

“Why not? Here goes.”

Zefirov staked his promised bonus, and Matvei staked his jacket.

“The mechanic is coming tomorrow; then we’ll see,” Zefirov said.

“What do we want a mechanic for? We’ll settle it between us. Vitka, go fetch the coupler.”

Vitka stared wide-eyed at Zefirov, who turned a puzzled look on Matvei.

“This is how we’ll do it,” Matvei said. “We’ll link the tractors together and have a tug of war. The one who pulls the other over wins. Clear?”

“Have you gone crazy or what?”

“You’re scared that your tractor will fall to pieces, aren’t you?”

“I’m not scared. It’s not allowed, that’s all.”

“Suit yourself. I can trust my machine.” Matvei slapped the cowl of his tractor fondly.

“I can trust mine too. But it’s not allowed; It’s a crazy idea, anyway. Wasting fuel, the wear and tear —”

“Why the sudden anxiety for the wear and tear? It’s not the wear and tear that’s frightening you; it’s being sacked by the front-rankers.”

“Who, me? Sacked?” Zefirov growled, “Hey, Vitka, link them.”

Matvei and Zefirov backed their tractors close together, put the coupler in the links, and tightened the coupling bolts. It was agreed to switch on the clutches simultaneously at a given signal.

His heart hammering with excitement, Vitka settled down on an overturned pail some distance away. He was the judge and the sole spectator.

Matvei and Zefirov climbed into the cabs. The motors roared. Vitka doffed his cap and prepared to give the signal.

Suddenly Tonya appeared, and this made the whole thing different. Zefirov was the first to see her. He choked his motor and jumped down to the ground.

“What’s wrong?” Matvei called, leaning out of the window.

Zefirov indicated Tonya’s approaching figure with a nod and said, “Look.”

Tonya, in her smart, citified blue overcoat, came close to the tractors and asked, “What are you doing?”

“It’s him,” Zefirov mumbled.

“We’re straightening the coupling bolt,” Matvei cut in.

“Oh, I see,” Tonya said vaguely.

“Get in, Zefirov!” Matvei shouted, and then warned Tonya, “You’d better go away. If the coupler breaks loose, you’ll never collect the pieces.”

Tonya joined Vitka. Zefirov climbed into the cab. The motors roared again. Vitka waved his cap, and the tracks came into motion. Matvei and Zefirov sat gripping their steering gears, their faces so tense it seemed that all this thundering power was emanating from them and not the motors at all. The tractors roared and tumbled without moving. The tracks soon stripped the grassy topsoil, and now their ribbed paws were rhythmically scraping the ground. Two hills of darkbrown earth were growing fast between the two machines, which sank deeper and deeper into the newly dug trenches. The motors roared.

“I’m sure it must be straightened now,” Tonya said uneasily.

At that precise moment something snapped with a deafening report. The tractors tore loose and darted forward. A queer, large object hurtled down from the sky, wailing like a bomb, and dropped in the field behind the plows. Silence fell, deafening in its suddenness.

“I told you it wasn’t allowed.” Zefirov’s voice came to Tonya as though muffled in cotton wool.

Matvei jumped down to the ground and inspected the damage. The coupling link was wrenched off his tractor, and it was that which had shot up into the sky and plopped down behind the plows.

THE director of the district called a meeting the following day to discuss the matter.

Matvei was in the outer office, waiting to be summoned. The door into the director’s room was shut, and no one was allowed to go in. Ignatyev, Tonya, and Zefirov were closeted in there, talking over the incident.

Matvei sat on the slippery oilcloth sofa and, for lack of anything better to do, watched the mysterious life of the office. Two middle-aged women were competing in abacus-clicking behind a low wooden railing. A typewriter by the window tinkled its melodious little bell from time to time. In front of another window, a young girl was twirling the handle of a calculating machine. Everyone else was busy writing, scratching away, all except a little old man in felt boots who stood on a chair in front of a cabinet, hunting through the files. He pulled out one thick file after another, hauled them to his desk, and patiently leafed through them. They were filled with papers of different sizes and colors: some were only a few inches square, others were huge, folded in accordion pleats, so when the old man unfolded them, the sheets covered the whole of his desk — inkstand, ruler, puncher, and all.

Matvei had been watching him for almost an hour now, but the paper he was searching for was not yet found. Ivan Savich, looking bright and cheerful, walked past Matvei and disappeared into the director’s room. Matvei guessed that the chairman had been invited to discuss the case.

About ten minutes later, Tonya appeared from the director’s room. She walked through the general office, tugged hard at the heavy front door to pull it open, and went out. After a moment’s thought, Matvei followed her out. Tonya stood by the roadside, waiting for a passing car to give her a lift.

“Will they be much longer?” Matvei asked.

“Go in and wait. They’ll call you,” Tonya told him.

“Was it you who told on us?”

“Yes.” Tonya looked straight into his eyes. “And I’m not a bit sorry.” Her voice dropped. “Because of you, I’m to get a warning too.”

“You don’t say!”

“I do believe that what you people need here is a militiaman with a club and not an agronomist at all. Now, why are you like that?”

“I’m bored, that’s why,” Matvei said.

“What do you mean, you’re bored? You get everything your own way. You wanted to join the M.T.S.; they let you. You wanted to be on Zefirov’s team; they put you on it.” Then she threw a wary glance over her shoulder and added, “Watch your step, they want to take this matter to court.”

“And what about Zefirov?”

“Zefirov stood up for you for all he was worth. He told them he was the team leader and therefore the only one responsible for the whole thing. He tried very hard to clear you.”

“That doesn’t matter. Will he be getting anything?”

“No, I don’t think he will. After all, they do think a lot of him.”

Ivan Savich thrust his head out of the office and called in a pleasant voice, “Morozov, you’re invited inside.”

“At least do try to behave properly in there,” Tonya said hurriedly. “Button your shirt collar. Here, let me.”

Matvei walked past the little old man who was still searching for his paper and entered the director’s room.

The director, a newly appointed man, grayhaired but young of face, with a badge of an honorable railwayman on his chest, studied Matvei curiously.

“Well, then, Morozov, what are we to do with you now?” the director asked.

“It’s up to you. There are so many of you here, and I’m alone.”

“What do you mean, alone?” asked Ivan Savich, his hairy hand stroking the cloth table-cover caressingly. “That’s why we’ve invited you here, to work it all out together, so there’d be no mistake in our decision. We haven’t begun talking to you yet, and you’re all up in arms already. That’s not the way. Stop yawning! Bored, are you? You’re not bored when you’re trying to wreck a tractor, but you are when you have to talk to us, is that it?”

“I am,” Matvei said.

“Now what did I tell you?” Ivan Savich, red with indignation, turned to Ignatyev. “Any other man would have thought better of his behavior, admitted his fault, but this one — never!”

“What’s your opinion — is Zefirov to blame?” the director asked.

“It was my idea. I alone am to blame,” Matvei replied.

“Look, how noble of him!” cried Ivan Savich. “We’ve made sure without your noble-mindedness that you were the only one to blame, that it was all your fault and no one vise’s. Zefirov has been working here for two years, and he’s had nothing but gratitude in all that time. And you, wherever you butt in, it’s trouble, nothing but trouble. You’re certainly a pest. Last year when you were working here, you had trouble too.”

“Not last year,” Matvei said.

“Slipped your mind, has it?”

“A warning’s not like a good story, so why remember it?”

“You will when we show it to you on paper.”

The director rang. The old man in the felt boots came in.

“Have you found it?”

“We’re looking hard.”

“Carry on, then.”

The old man shuffled out.

“It’s no good talking to him. Send all the papers into the prosecutor’s office — let them investigate.”Ivan Savich slapped his palm down on the table. “Just state your case: deliberate mishandling of a tractor. And I’ll add my bit to it as well.”

Everyone looked at Matvei. But Matvei only yawned.

“That’s all, then,” said the director. “If no one objects, we’ll hand the matter over to the prosecutor. Morozov, any objections?”

“No,” Matvei said.

“That means the district court,” snarled Ivan Savich, driven frantic by Matvei’s composure. “That means jail, you understand?”

“Shall I go?” Matvei asked the director.

“Aren’t you going to say anything at all?” The director looked at Matvei with undisguised curiosity. “Don’t you really care?”

“What’s the difference? Working here or working in jail?”

“You might think of your poor mother, at least,” Ivan Savich put in.

“Mother’s working on the farm. She’ll manage somehow,” Matvei said. “I’m rather sorry for my wife, of course.”

“What wife? Is he married?” the director asked.

“It’s a lie!” Ivan Savich waved the matter away. “That’s one of his usual jokes. Who’d marry a chap like him? I ask you. There’s no fool who would.”

“One has.”

“Lies!” roared Ivan Savich.

“No, it’s not. Wc signed the marriage papers this morning. I’ve got the certificate here.” Matvei fumbled through his pockets. “It’s hard on her, of course. Her man locked up on her wedding day. But never mind, she’ll get over it. I don’t suppose they’ll give me a long term.”

He found the certificate at last and handed it to the director.

“It’s a marriage certificate all right. Well, congratulations. Who is she, a local girl?”

“Yes, one of our Penkovo girls.”

“There you are, Ivan Savich, you said it was a lie. Who is this Larissa Ivanovna?”

“What Larissa Ivanovna?” Ivan Savich asked, dumfounded.

“A Penkovo girl — Larissa Ivanovna. Morozov’s wife.”

“Wife? How can she be his wife? Give it to me,” and Ivan Savich jerked the marriage certificate from the director’s hand. He studied it long and closely, and a nervous tic twitched his left eye.

“No,” he suddenly gasped. “No. It cannot be! He’s stolen a blank form at the village soviet! Look, look, you can’t make out the stamp — it’s all smeared.”

The director and Ignatyev examined the certificate scrupulously.

“Well?” Ivan Savich was anxious. “I tell you, it’s a fake. File it with the other evidence.”

The door flew open and Larissa rushed into the room. “Comrade director, forgive him!” she cried, darting to Matvei’s side. “It wasn’t his fault at all.”

“Go away, Larissa,” Matvei said.

“I swear it wasn’t,” Larissa continued, taking no heed of Matvei’s words. “The link’s been welded already. Why prosecute him, then? What for?”

“Go away, do you hear?” Matvei repeated and gave her a shove toward the door.

“Take your hands off her!” Ivan Savich shouted and brought his fist down on the table. “Take your hands off’ my daughter!”

“If you put him in jail, I’ll go with him,” Larissa went on, undaunted. “If they won’t let me, I’ll smash something too, and then they’ll have to lock us up together. And as for you, Dad, shut up! Your orders mean nothing where I’m concerned.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I obey his orders now. There!” and she kissed Matvei.

“You two had better go home,” the director said. “This is no place for wedding celebrations.”

Matvei and Larissa walked through the general office. The old man in felt boots was still standing on a chair, hunting through the files.

Translated by Olga Sharlse.