Stalin hid his disinclination to fly behind a facade of air enthusiasm: In this cardboard reality he was a patron of airshows, the builder of a mighty air force, and the inspired genius behind Soviet air triumphs in the pre-war years. He basked in the accomplishments of his elite pilots, Stalin’s Falcons, and his name was emblazoned on Valery Chkalov’s ANT-25 airplane as it made a flight across the North Pole in 1937. At Stalin’s behest, Soviet aircraft flew against Franco’s rebels in the Spanish Civil War, and on the eve of World War II, the Soviet Union boasted a force of 10,000 aircraft.
To the citizenry, Stalin was remote and godlike—the audacious revolutionary and heir to Lenin, a brilliant prophet of Communism, great teacher, and kindly and infallible father of the nation. Yet he presided over the great purges of the late 1930s. Arrests, show trials, and a vast system of prisons and labor camps reflected his fear that enemies were poised to overthrow his regime.
Stalin lived a cloistered and secretive life, always fearing conspiracy. He was a night owl who obliged party and government officials to remain close to their phones at all hours in anticipation of a call. Many contemporaries described Stalin’s eyes as yellow and alert, like a tiger’s. His short stature, pockmarked face, and withered arm had not slowed his advance to absolute political power. He did not drink to excess, but he was an inveterate chain smoker, known to Americans in World War II as the benign, pipe-smoking “Uncle Joe.”
To Stalin, every failure was a sign that the enemies of the people were at work. A tragic crash of the giant Tupolev ANT-20 transport raised the specter of sabotage carried out by hostile elements.
The eight-engine aircraft, named the Maxim Gorky, was built in 1934 and made dramatic flyovers of Red Square. Passengers enjoyed bourgeois comforts: easy chairs, reading lamps, sleeping berths, a galley, and even a library. With onboard cinema, loudspeakers, and a print shop, the airplane became flying proof that the Soviets were at the cutting edge of aeronautical technology. Rides on the Maxim Gorky were reserved for the party elite and those factory and farm laborers who had dramatically exceeded their work quotas.
The Maxim Gorky came to an abrupt end on May 18, 1935, when Nikolai Blagin, performing aerobatic maneuvers in an I-5 biplane escort, crashed into its right wing. The lumbering airplane shook upon impact, continued on briefly, and crashed. The accident killed Blagin and 49 others, and cast a pall over Soviet aviation at the very time Stalin was vying with European powers for air records. No doubt this tragedy added to Stalin’s personal fear of flying.
Nonetheless, in 1943 Stalin was compelled to attend the Allied conference in Tehran with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The earth-bound Stalin would have preferred an overland trip to Iran, but no secure or practical rail link existed, and he reluctantly agreed to fly.
Two Soviet versions of the Douglas DC-3 airliner, built under license as the Li-2, had been specially configured for the flight. Always suspicious, Stalin rejected the two aircraft in favor of two American-built Lend-Lease C-47 transports drawn from active service in the Soviet air force.
For the mission, the air force’s Supreme Command took special care to test and service the two aircraft. Air Commander Alexander Novikov then ordered the two C-47s flown to Baku, the departure point.
On November 27, 1943, Stalin arrived at the airfield to face the dilemma of which C-47 transport to board for Tehran. Air Marshal Alexander Golovanov, commander of the 18th Air Army (strategic aviation), had been designated Stalin’s pilot, a logical choice. The second C-47 was to be flown by a relative unknown, Lieutenant Colonel M. Grachev, a pilot pulled from frontline duty.