Even confinement in Stalin’s gulag failed to stifle the
geniusof Russian aircraft designer Andrei N. Tupolev.
By C.V. Glines
Andrei N. Tupolev, Russia’s premier aircraft designer, was a pioneer in aerodynamic design and experimentation with the structural strength of aircraft materials. Born in 1888, he attended the Imperial Moscow Higher Technical School, considered the alma mater of Russian technical thought, where he became fascinated by aeronautics. He was expelled for a year for participating in a student uprising and went to work on a farm. Chastened by farm work, he resumed his aeronautical studies with increased fervor. He worked in a design and testing bureau during World War I and, encouraged by mentors, designed a glider and the ANT-1, a single-seat monoplane powered by a 35-hp engine.
Leonid L. Kerber, Tupolev’s fellow engineer, wrote a biography of his friend and mentor in 1973, but much of the material was suppressed by the Soviet Union at the time. Now the uncensored biography is available in the United States as Stalin’s Aviation Gulag: A Memoir of Andrei Tupolev and the Purge Era (edited by Von Hardesty, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1996, $45).
Together with N.E. Zhukovsky, Tupolev founded the Central Aero-Hydrodynamics Institute and served as its deputy director from 1918 to 1935. Tupolev’s first significant aircraft design was the ANT-2, a single-engine, single-pilot, two-passenger plane made entirely of duralumin (an alloy of aluminum containing copper, magnesium and manganese), one of the earliest uses of that metal. Many other aircraft followed. The first built for combat was the ANT-3, a reconnaissance plane, followed by a series of heavy bombers, beginning with the TB-1 (also known as ANT-4); the ANT-9 trimotor; the four-engine TB-3; and the ANT-25, which was flown to the United States from Moscow via the North Pole in 1937. Tupolev’s ANT-14, a five-engine transport capable of carrying 36 passengers, typified the Soviet Union’s interest in building giant aircraft. It was followed by such Tupolev-designed giants as the eight-engine ANT-20 and the six-engine ANT-22 seaplane; still later came the Tu-4 (a copy of the B-29 Superfortress), Tu-95, Tu-124 and Tu-154.
Tupolev visited Germany and the United States in 1936-37 to study aircraft manufacturing methods. On his return to the Soviet Union, he was arrested and sent to one of the corrective labor camps (gulags) under the control of Stalin’s secret police. There, he shared confinement with some of the finest scientific aeronautical minds in Russia. But the prisoners were not starved or physically tortured. Tupolev and the other aeronautical engineers were placed together under guard with one purpose in mind: to design new aircraft that would move the Soviet Union to the forefront of military aircraft makers. The specifications came from Josef Stalin via Lavrenti P. Beria, head of the secret police. The designers, working under the constant threat of reprisal, were organized into teams. Tupolev headed a group of 150 specialists that designed the fast, twin-engine Pe-2 and the Tu-2, a medium bomber that saw service during World War II.
Although Kerber’s 1973 manuscript was heavily censored when it was originally published, today’s readers can learn through Stalin’s Aviation Gulag about the aviation aspects of Stalin’s purges and about life in the sharagas, or special prisons, where aeronautical engineers like Tupolev worked under the surveillance of police and Communist Party members who knew nothing about aviation. Although the prisoners had minor luxuries such as cigarettes and were relatively well-fed and well-clothed, they never knew when or if they would be released. Most were eventually freed, however, and Tupolev’s lifetime design output eventually totaled nearly 100 types of prop-driven and jet passenger aircraft and war planes, including the supersonic Tu-144, the last design he completed before his death in 1972.
The route of Tupolev’s life between the first and last of his aircraft, especially its gulag detour, is a fascinating story that makes this book a valuable addition to the Smithsonian’s History of Aviation Series.