Sunday, January 5, 2014


This is the Tupolev ANT-20. Introduced in 1934 and retired in 1942, the ANT-20, better known as the Maxim Gorky (named after a writer celebrated by the Communist Party; Joseph Stalin himself served as pallbearer during his funeral), was an eight-engine Soviet aircraft, the largest of its day, with a wingspan of 63 meters (a modern Boeing 747 has a 64-meter wingspan). Its purpose, as was the case with so many Communist megastructures, was pure propaganda: to be a massive, in-your-face statement of Stalinist-era Soviet power. Look at this huge-ass plane we've got. Aren't you impressed?

No, because its top speed was 171 mph. A 747 can get north of 600 mph. (More era-specific, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the plane that bombed Pearl Harbor, could do 331 mph.)

The Maxim Gorky's task was basically to fly around and about Soviet airspace looking impressive, and was decked out with all sorts of media resources to make sure everybody knew how impressive it was, including a radio station, a printing office, a movie theater, a photo lab, and a loudspeaker called the "voice from heaven" that could communicate with people on the ground. As it flew, the Gorky was accompanied on either side by a couple tiny little biplanes, who were there so everybody could look at the Gorky, then look at the biplanes, and go 'Wow, look at that huge-ass plane they've got. We're impressed!'

As one of the biplane pilots, your orders were simple: just fly alongside the Gorky and don't draw any attention to yourself aside from your comparative tininess.

And they all did and we have nothing further to talk about. Of course someone drew attention to himself.

On May 18, 1935, a man named Ivan Blagin was manning one of the biplanes as the Gorky flew over Moscow. (Some sources have him named Nikolai, but it appears Ivan's the name to go with.) There's little out there about Blagin, and that's exactly the way the Soviets wanted it, because Blagin, who was clearly a bit of a showboat, decided that the day was instead about him. He decided he'd try and impress the crowd himself by doing aerial stunts, namely, loops around the Gorky. This despite explicit orders not to attempt stunts.

Blagin succeeded in doing something spectacular. Unfortunately, this was because Blagin slammed right into the Gorky, which promptly spun out of control, cracked up, and crashed in several pieces into a residential area not far from the aerodrome. 48 people died in the crash, Blagin among them.

47 urns were laid in state two days later. It should not take much guessing to figure out which of the dead was not among them. The place in the cemetery in which they were laid to rest not only memorialized the victims, the Gorky, and the crash, it also went out of its way to condemn Blagin. State officials went so far as to coin a new word- 'Blaginism'- which meant exhibitionism unbecoming of a Communist Soviet. And then some months later, an obviously forged "last will and testament" from Blagin was published, in which whoever it was that actually wrote it claimed, "Tomorrow I will fly my winged machine and ram it into the airplane which bears the name of the scoundrel Maxim Gorky. In this manner I will kill dozens of Communists."

Plans were made to build four more planes just like it, though in the end they only built one, the Maxim Gorky II. Without the hoopla, it was relegated to the role of civilian transport until its retirement in 1942. And by retirement I mean it crashed due to pilot error.

How fitting.

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