Published Aerospace Power Journal - Winter 2000

Stalin’s Aviation Gulag: A Memoir of Andrei Tupolev and the Purge Era by Leonid Lvovich Kerber, edited by Von Hardesty. Smithsonian Institution Press (, 470 L’Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20560, 1996, 464 pages, $45.00.

On the evening of 21 October 1937, four agents of the NKVD (the KGB’s precursor) entered the offices of Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev and arrested him. Tupolev, the principal figure in the early development of Soviet aviation and a leading aircraft designer, was led away to immediate imprisonment. With this reprise of a scene played thousands of times during the Stalin era began one of the most bizarre (and telling) episodes of Soviet history. For Tupolev found himself not in the cells of Lefortovo or Butyrka prisons but locked away with hundreds of other aviation specialists and ordered to carry on his aircraft-design work. Like most of the NKVD’s deeds, the tale of the prison workshops remained unknown and may never have seen the light of day if not for Leonid Kerber and his book Stalin’s Aviation Gulag. This fascinating story is all the more compelling since it is based on Kerber’s own imprisonment with Tupolev and on the long professional and personal relationship that followed.

Stalin’s Aviation Gulag relates how Kerber, Tupolev, and hundreds of other aviation specialists were arrested and forced to work in three NKVD-run prison workshops (sharaga in Russian). Tupolev and his design team were imprisoned, along with the Petlyakov and Myasischev design teams, in the buildings Tupolev had worked in prior to his arrest—later to become the Tupolev Design Bureau. There the men lived and worked, isolated from their families and allowed outside only in the “monkey cage”—a rooftop enclosure of steel bars. Once, when the aircraft of a sharaga design team flew over Red Square in a May Day parade, the jailed designers were permitted to view the fruits of their labor from the monkey cage. Kerber paints the entire grim picture with similar vignettes: sharaga colleagues who disappear in the night, summonses to NKVD headquarters for interrogation on design projects, and books inscribed with the names of known purge victims appearing in the prison library. Tupolev, Kerber, and most of their design team somehow survived and even managed to design and fly a plane, the TU-2 bomber, under these horrendous conditions. Then, in 1943, they were released as abruptly as they had been arrested.

Like millions of others swept up in Stalin’s purges, the sharaga interns had been arrested on false charges. Kerber devotes little attention to the question of why the sharaga inmates were arrested, seeming to treat as a given that any charges were trumped-up. He does write, incorrectly, that Tupolev was accused of selling Soviet aircraft designs to Germany. Actually, records released in 1997 from the KGB archives show that the charges against Tupolev were even more serious. The documents indicate that in 1940, three years after his arrest, Tupolev was found guilty by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court of “having led a harmful anti-Soviet organization within the Soviet aviation industry and, personally and through his agents, conducted harmful sabotage with the aim of weakening the Soviet Union’s defense capabilities. Additionally, Tupolev has been an agent of French intelligence since 1924 and . . . has turned over Soviet secrets to French intelligence.”

Whatever charges were cooked up, Kerber underscores the absurdity of Tupolev’s arrest and the caprice and cruelty of the regime that created the prison workshops by setting the tale of the sharaga within the full context of Tupolev’s life. Despite its title, Kerber’s book is more a Tupolev biography than a tale of the Gulag. Kerber recounts Tupolev’s central role in Soviet aviation before and after his imprisonment, beginning with his effort to establish the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI)—the Soviet Union’s leading aviation research and development center—his prescient advocacy of the transition from wood to metal aircraft construction, and his leadership in the advancement of Soviet bomber and transport aviation. The book also highlights some of the unique influences on Soviet aviation. Kerber’s description of Tupolev’s efforts to circumvent Communist Party doctrine against computers (“a pseudo-science . . . to be closed and forgotten, now and forever!”) is just one example. In short, the story of Tupolev’s life is the story of Soviet aviation from its prerevolutionary beginnings to the early seventies, and Stalin’s Aviation Gulag is an important source on both scores.

Despite the seriousness of its topic, the book is refreshingly lively reading. Its anecdotal and frank tone is probably due to Kerber’s having originally written it as samizdat—underground material to be passed from hand to hand within a trusted circle. In a real break from the standard Soviet practice of biography as hagiography, Kerber presents Tupolev, warts and all, describing his demanding, often rude, nature and his temperamental outbursts. Kerber even alludes to Tupolev’s “resorting to strong Russian words to help his audience understand.” Those who knew Tupolev personally have been blunter in talking to the reviewer, saying that Tupolev, in whatever mood, could hardly utter a sentence without resorting to the mat words—the foulest Russian jargon.

Kerber falls short on only one score. Among the most interesting episodes in Tupolev’s long career, in terms of outside influences on Soviet aviation, were two extended trips he made to the United States. He first traveled here in December–January of 1929–30 as a member of a delegation that had as its main goal the purchase of aircraft engines to try to make up the Soviet lag in this area. Kerber makes brief mention of this trip and of Tupolev’s impressions. However, he completely omits Tupolev’s second visit to US aviation centers in 1935, a serious omission for several reasons. First, the 1935 trip was the more significant of the two—Tupolev was the delegation head this time and spent a total of 105 days touring the United States. Second, the trip had a much greater emphasis on observing US aviation design and development capabilities than the more commercially oriented first trip. Tupolev was especially impressed by a visit to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and Langley Field. Finally, Tupolev had his original US trip as a baseline for his 1935 trip, and his observations regarding strides in world aviation and the comparative development of Soviet aviation would be historically significant. In fact, Tupolev’s accounts of the 1935 trip, found in Rus-sian aviation archives and a handful of Soviet-era publications, hint at his sense that Soviet aviation had begun to lag since his first visit to America when “Stalin’s Falcons” were regularly setting world records. He noted that monoplane designs had almost completely supplanted biplanes in the West by 1935 and hinted that, although the Soviet Union was holding its own in large planes, it lagged in small-plane design. The drubbing that Soviet fighters, including the I-15 biplane and the underpowered I-16 monoplane, took in Spain from 1936 to 1939 bore him out. Unfortunately, available accounts are circumspect in their opinions, and Tupolev was obviously trying not to offend with overly frank comments. It is hard to imagine that Kerber was unaware of the 1935 trip or its significance, and, considering the frankness of the rest of his book, his silence on it is frustrating and confusing.

Nevertheless, Stalin’s Aviation Gulag stands both as an important contribution to the history of the Stalin era and as a significant biography of one of the key figures in the development of Soviet aviation. Perhaps most importantly, the author has thwarted an effort to subvert history. Although Tupolev was officially rehabilitated in 1956, the Soviet regime never intended the story of his imprisonment or of the sharaga to be told. According to one researcher who reviewed Tupolev’s files in the KGB archives, the rehabilitation committee required Tupolev to sign a lifetime nondisclosure agreement. When he died in 1972, the phrase neobosnovanno repressirovan (“groundlessly repressed”) would have looked out of place among the many official honors listed in his obituary, so it was omitted. If Leonid Kerber had not dared to put the whole story on paper, the monkey cage, which stands on the roof of the Tupolev Design Bureau to this day, might have remained the only evidence of the sharaga. Kerber has done a service both to his old friend and to history by telling the truth behind that strange monument.

Maj David R. Johnson, USAF
US Defense Attaché Office
Moscow, Russia


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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