THE UNITED States had William Boeing. Germany, Hugo Junkers. And Great Britain, Geoffrey de Havilland. From travel to warfare, the airplanes these designers produced transformed the world and made them household names.
In the Soviet Union, the most famous aviation designer was Andrei Nikolaevich Tupolev (1888-1972), whose aircraft also made him a household name. From gliders to strategic bombers and a supersonic passenger plane, Tupolev and his design bureau helped make the Soviet Union an aviation superpower.
His incredible career spanned Russia’s tumultuous 20th century, from the reign of its last tsar, Nicholas II, and Stalin’s regime to the twilight of the Soviet experiment under Leonid Brezhnev.
Born in a small village in Tver province, Tupolev came from a progressive family of the rural intelligentsia. Coming of age when the Wright Brothers first flew, he left for Moscow in 1908, where he found his calling in aviation at the Imperial Moscow Higher Technical School.
Shortly before he completed his education, the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to the Romanov dynasty and propelled the Bolsheviks to power. Although not politically engaged himself, Tupolev joined the young Soviet state’s efforts to modernize the largely peasant country through science and technology.
In turn, the Soviet state provided Tupolev with his own design bureau to produce aircraft the country desperately needed.
By the early 1930s, Tupolev’s bureau was riding high on the wings of Stalinist industrialization. His most famous aircraft of the period was the Maksim Gorky—an eight-engine behemoth that served as a showcase of Stalinist technological propaganda. The largest airplane in the world at the time, its interior even boasted a radio studio and a printing press.
Despite many successful designs, Tupolev and his colleagues became victims of Stalinist terror. With a questionable social background in the pre-revolutionary scientific and technical intelligentsia, Tupolev fell under suspicion as potentially disloyal.
Scrambling to explain its disastrous policies—from the collectivization of agriculture to rapid industrialization—the Stalinist state found convenient scapegoats among so-called “specialists” like Tupolev.
In October 1937, Tupolev was arrested by the dictator’s secret police on false charges of sabotage and spying. Along with other aviation designers, Tupolev was incarcerated in the Gulag, the regime’s vast system of labor camps and mass death.
Amidst growing threats of war, Stalin’s regime soon realized it actually needed specialists like Tupolev. But instead of releasing them, the secret police forced them to work on scientific and engineering projects in special workshops inside the Gulag.
Despite these conditions, Tupolev’s prison workshop successfully produced a tactical bomber used in the war against Nazi Germany. Released shortly after the war began, Tupolev found his way back into Stalin’s good graces.
In 1947, he led the team that reverse engineered the American B-29 strategic bomber, giving the Soviets a critical boost in catching up with their new adversary.
After the dictator’s death, Tupolev’s bureau continued to dominate Soviet aviation by producing scores of military and civilian aircraft. It was Tupolev’s bureau that also brought ordinary Soviet citizens into the jet age in 1956 when he converted a strategic bomber into a passenger jet, the Tu-104.
Tupolev was celebrated in the USSR as the country’s leading aviation designer. Like William Boeing in the United States, his planes often bore his name, featuring the abbreviation “Tu” before a number, such as the Tu-16 bomber or Tu-144 supersonic airplane.
But one feature of Tupolev’s life that was never revealed to Soviet audiences was his time in Stalin’s Gulag. This was only known to those close to the great designer. Others learned about it through an illegal biography that his fellow aviation designer, Leonid Kerber, circulated in 1971.
Most citizens of the USSR would have to wait until after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 to learn that their greatest aviation designer had also been a victim—and a survivor—of Stalin’s Gulag.
Dr. Steven E. Harris is a professor of European and modern Russian history at the University of Mary Washington. He will speak on Tupolev and Stalin as part of UMW’s Crawley “Great Lives” Lecture Series on Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The Zoom lecture may be accessed at umw.edu/greatlives.
Dr. Steven E. Harris is a professor of European and Modern Russian History at the University of Mary Washington. He will speak on Tupolev and Stalin as part of UMW’s Crawley "Great Lives" Lecture Series on January 28 at 7:30 p.m. The Zoom lecture may be accessed at umw.edu/greatlives.