Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1429:
RUSSIAN AIR RECORDS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1429.

Today, Joseph Stalin tries to set flight distance records. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If I learn one thing from history, it's that technology works when it flows from some internal wellspring of the technologist. Kings and emperors cannot tamper with that process in the long run. When they try to harness it, they damage it.

Joseph Stalin gave us a clinic in this simple truth after he completed his takeover of Russia in 1929. His first order of business was a program of ruthless collectivization and murderous purges. Then, in 1933, he started a campaign to rebuild Russian morale -- to draw attention away from his ongoing slaughter of so-called "enemies of the people." He flung Russian airplane designers and pilots into the competition for flight records.

That way, the papers could boast of technical success while Soviet citizens were being trucked off to the gulags. Russia posted her first record in January 1934 when three Russian balloonists beat the American altitude record. As it happened, they died doing so. The year before, Stalin had seized on the work of the famous Russian designer Tupolev, who was already developing a long-distance airplane.

By 1938 Russia had claimed nearly seventy distance, altitude, and other records. One of the more spectacular was a 6300-mile polar flight from Moscow to San Jacinto, California, in 1937. Before each flight, Stalin met the pilots, discussed their plans, and publicly worried about their safety. He met returning airplanes while flashbulbs popped. All the while, the death toll rose. Russia's day in the sky began coming apart almost before it'd begun.

In 1935 Tupolev built the largest passenger plane ever made, the Maxim Gorky. It was decked out like a luxury liner, with one servant for every two passengers. The Maxim Gorky crashed on its maiden flight over Moscow. But worse things lay ahead.

In 1939, for example, a plane left Moscow to set a record flying to New York. It was supposed to get there in time for the opening of the New York World's Fair, but it crashed in New Brunswick. The pilots arrived in New York, all right. But they did so in an American rescue plane.

Russia's greater failure came in the Spanish Civil War -- that ghastly proving ground for fascist and Bolshevik ordnance before WW-II. By 1937 it was clear that Russian airplanes, designed to win distance and altitude records, were no match for German combat planes. Stalin reacted by jailing Tupolev and nearly five hundred of his aeronautical engineers.

Russian aviation had done brilliantly in the short term, but when all was said and done, it never did recover from the long-term damage Stalin had inflicted. We've seen that happen before in this series, but seldom in such gross and simple terms. It is an inescapable fact that creative people best serve society's general health when they chase, not their leaders' dreams, but their own.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bailes, K. E., Technology and Legitimacy: Soviet Aviation and Stalinism in the 1930s. Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 1976, pp. 55-81.

White, M., The People's Plane. American Heritage (This story in the "My Brush with History" feature tells of the Maxim Gorky crash.), October, 1997, pp. 20-22.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 62.




The Tupolev ANT-20, Maxim Gorky


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.