Buried within the bowels of the Ural mountains, some 1,600 km east of Moscow, lay huge deposits of the invaluable raw material iron. The region of Ural is widely known as Russia’s mining and metallurgical base. In the early 18th century, Ural made Russia into Europe’s primary iron exporter, as well as a key producer of iron and steel for domestic needs.
The Urals are sometimes called “the stone belt of Russia”. They stretch for 2,500 km from the Arctic ocean in the North to Kazakhstan’s steppes in the South, forming a natural border that divides the continent into Europe and Asia. The Urals are particularly rich in natural resources including copper, iron and aluminium as well as over 200 types of minerals – precious and semi-precious stones (“Ural gems”).
Perhaps, no Russian was more alert to the Ural iron than Tsar Peter the Great. It was on his order that Russian statesman Vasily Tatishchev and industrialist Nikita Demidov established iron-producing plants in Ural which were to ensure sufficient iron for Russia’s arms industry amid the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against Sweden.
The industrial profile of the region led to the emergence of a special type of urban formations in Ural – “factory-cities” that grew up around iron factories (like Nevyansk, Yekaterinburg, Nizhnii Tagil and others) which nowadays represent a unique phenomenon of Russia’s historical and cultural space.
Urals industry received a new, albeit grim, impetus with the massive evacuation of industry from the USSR’s western regions following the Nazi attack in 1941. The Wehrmacht’s initial rapid advance through Soviet territory, created a threat of occupation of large areas. Entire plants with machines and equipment were relocated to Ural in a short time and converted their production for military purposes. In 1941-1945, “Uralvagonzavod” in Sverdlovsk region and “Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant” produced dozens of thousands of tanks for the Red Army.
In 1943, the Ural Volunteer Tank Corps otherwise known as UDTK was formed, including 3 tank brigades with plants’ workers becoming its first recruits. Everything from buttons on uniforms to tanks themselves was produced or paid for by donations of the population of Ural. During the war, the formation was referred to as the “Black Knives Division” by the Nazis because all the tankmen of the UDTK had black handled knives manufactured in Zlatoust of Chelyabinsk region.
The immense contribution of the Ural population to the victory over Nazism on the battlefields and the selfless labour in the rear earned the region of Ural the name “Nation’s Backbone Land”.