The Maxim Gorky, a giant airliner built with money raised by the Union of Soviet Writers and Editors in 1934, was like nothing that had gone before it. The wings of the Tupolev-designed plane had a span of more than sixty metres, the same as a Boeing 747's. It was driven by eight massive engines, generating between them 7000 horsepower. Its 11 cabins, connected by telephone lines and pneumatic tubes, housed a cinema, a photographic studio and a printing press, to disseminate Gorky's works across the Soviet Union. There were 'huge loudspeakers on the underside of the aircraft, through which might emerge', according to David Pascoe, 'passages from Memories of Lenin, interspersed with exhortations about the Five-Year Plan'. Eighty red lights on the fuselage allowed it to flash slogans to the remotest regions as it swooped across the Soviet Union at night. The first foreigner to fly on the Maxim Gorky was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on 17 May 1935. Sitting in the cabin, Saint-Exupéry imagined himself on the balcony of a hotel set in the sky. The very next day, the Maxim Gorky collided with another plane during a propaganda flight over Moscow and crashed, killing its 36 passengers and crew, and three people in a house that was flattened, in what was then the world's worst air accident. The New York Times wondered in an editorial if the limits of aviation ambition had been reached, and whether 'national pride and human desire' were to blame for the disaster.
LRB 2 September 2004 | PDF Download