Aircraft, awful and awesome:
Flying Propaganda Machine

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image4***One of the first priorities of the Soviet Union’s communist leadership in the 1920s, after they solidified control of the state, was modernization. And modern aircraft provided a very public display of a country’s technological progress.

Pre-communist Russia had produced some of the largest and  most advanced bombers of World War I, including the world’s first four engine bombers, the Il’ya Muromets, and even with the loss of many scientists and designers (including Igor Sikorsky, the designer of the Il’ya Muromets) there was a technological base for an aircraft industry.

Another priority of the communist regime was propaganda. In October 1932, to celebrate the birthday of the writer Maksim Gorkii, the government decided to combine propaganda and aviation and build a huge “literary aircraft” that would be named after the writer and serve as a flying propaganda service to travel over the vast reaches of the Soviet Union trumpeting the communist party’s accomplishments.

For the project A. N. Tupelov, one of the leading Soviet designers, enlarged his four engine AN-16 transport by adding two more engines and enlarging the wing, making them the largest wings designed until that time. 

However, after looking at the weight of the wing and other weight increases in the new aircraft, Tupelov decided to add two more engines mounted above the fuselage in a single nacelle puller-pusher arrangement. 

When completed, the aircraft, identified as the ANT-20 but named the Maksim Gorkii, carried, among other items, a telephone switchboard with 16 lines, buffet dining room, film theater and a film library, as well as a photo processing dark room.

It could carry up to 76 passengers and it carried loudspeakers for an internal radio station, an audio recording studio, a leaflet distribution system and, under the wings, a series of lights that turned the aircraft into a “flying billboard” for flashing propaganda slogans at night.

The aircraft first flew on June 17, 1934 and its flying characteristics proved to be good. It entered active service two months later as the center piece for the “Maksim Gorkii Propaganda Squadron.”

The aircraft began making flights all over the Soviet Union, usually escorted by fighters to emphasize the ANT-20’s huge size, and this desire to emphasize its size proved to be Maksim Gorkii’s  undoing.

On May 18, 1935, on a show flight over Moscow, an escorting I-5 fighter tried to make a barrel roll around the ANT-20 but misjudged the maneuver and slammed into the underside of the huge aircraft, and both crashed.

The crash killed 43 people including 10 crew, 26 passengers and some high officials on the Maksim Gorkii, and after such a public tragedy a successor was never built.

The crash is immortalized today by a large memorial in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, where a large number of famous Soviet officials and prominent citizens are buried, including the Maksim Gorkii’s designer, Andrei Tupelov.