Despots Aloft

To the three most infamous dictators of the 20th century, the airplane was much more than a way to get from Stalag A to Gulag B.

The Maxim Gorky, an enormous eight-engine Tupolev ANT-20, struck awe in those who watched its propaganda flights over Red Square (below). (Von Hardesty/NASM)
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Luckily, good weather allowed for a safe passage to Washington. On the return trip, however, the Gromyko transport limped into Edmonton, Alberta, broke down, and was declared unfit to fly. The United States provided a replacement airplane.

When Stalin traveled to Potsdam for the July 1945 conference, he chose a special train made up of 11 armored coaches with more than 17,000 NKVD troops to provide security. Stalin himself traveled in any of four green carriages, former tsarist cars removed from a museum. As the train approached Germany, the number of guards deployed to protect the tracks increased from six men per kilometer in Russia to 10 per kilometer in Poland to 15 per kilometer outside Potsdam in occupied Germany.

While 11 aircraft were ready to handle any urgent requirement to evacuate Stalin and his delegation from Potsdam, it was apparent that Stalin would never fly. Nonetheless, he continued to promote aviation, building the intercontinental Tu-4 bomber and fostering jet technology for his air force and for the fledgling Aeroflot airline. To the very end, Soviet propaganda organs portrayed him as the great prophet of aviation progress.

Stalin died in March 1953, and six years later, his political heir, Nikita Khrushchev, flew in a huge Tu-114 turboprop airliner to Washington, D.C. for a Cold war conclave with President Dwight Eisenhower. He appeared to enjoy the flight.

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