We thought it was about time we had a regular columnist and so we turned to Sam Wise, a man who travels the world driven by an unquenchable desire to stand in the shade of vast aluminium, steel and titanium machines. In the first of what we hope becomes a monthly column, here is his report from arguably the best aviation museum in the world, Monino, home of the Central Air Force Museum in Russia.
“Stalinist architecture is fascinating. Littering the former USSR and its satellite states are
hundreds of brutal, monolithic monuments to communism and Stalin’s ego, utterly striking in their scale and form. The Socialist-Realist movement was all-encompassing in the completely controlled artistic world of the Soviet Union, especially in the early years of the Union when the new country was keen to celebrate the success of the proletariat in the class struggle – and later the Red Army’s supreme victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War.
Stalin, the exemplar egomaniac, was hugely in favour of enormous testaments to his, and the USSR’s, power and influence, especially to his own people.
At its heart, this scale of architecture was intended to both impress and impose,
simultaneously inspire awe and dread at who was in charge. Much of Soviet art was like this – when we see posters, paintings and the like from the country it can seem drearily conformist – well, largely this was the intention. Too much individualism or creativity, and people start getting ideas.
Many such monuments are a glorification of socialism, communism and the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution that changed global history – giant statues of Lenin and Stalin (the latter mostly gone now), idealised tributes to labourers and workers that perhaps didn’t quite reflect the attitudes or opinions of those that built them. Even if you didn’t like them – hated them even – you knew they were in charge of your every move and you’d better play ball. Just look at the chilling and blankly named Rear-front Memorial looming over Magnitogorsk
We can only carry if our readers donate. Seriously, please do consider this. If you’ve enjoyed an article donate here. Recommended donation amount £13. Keep this site going.
But who could fail to weep at the majesty of Батьківщина-Мати in Kiev, the Mound of Glory (quiet at the back!) outside Minsk or, most breathtaking of all, the gargantuan Родина-мать зовёт! on the outskirts of Volgograd, site of that most bloody of battles.
After all the USSR suffered at the hands of the German war machine – about 27 million people killed, or more than one in ten of the population – you can’t blame them wanting to shout to the heavens about their victory. The monuments to the war dead have tended to stay preserved but outside of Russia many of those other reminders of an unhappy past have become, justifiably, the subject of defacement and destruction, their illusions of a powerful and prosperous union no longer effective.
Aircraft engineers are somewhat more constrained by the physics of aerodynamics than
Soviet sculptors and so it’s rare to find an aircraft conforming to the ideals of
Socialist-Realism. When you look at the Myasishchev M-50, ignominiously dubbed the
‘Bounder’ by its NATO opponents, however, it’s hard not to imagine that Stalin’s ghost came back to influence its designers in some way. Only one ever flew and only one survives, as unique as any other testament to the Soviet Union’s prowess, and this now languishes in the famous Central Air Force Museum at Monino.
Even in a field of giants it towers over the rest of the museum, its bow proudly soaring into the sky unlike any other design there. It truly does look like an artist’s imagining of a
warplane of the time, unblemished curves and wildly placed wingtip engines, at once
beautiful and space-age.
It’s quite hard to picture it flying – even just as an aeroplane its size and form belies any ability to take flight, particularly with the aforementioned engines sitting ungainly on the end of the wings. Somehow it fits the style. If it were carved from stone on some hill overlooking Plovdiv, or Novosibersk, or Kaunas it would look completely and wonderfully in place, a Soviet Monument to the Long-Range Aviators or some such title, deliberately designed to look imposing and formidable to those who saw it.
You really can’t shake the feeling that it was designed from the outset to make an aesthetic statement about the USSR’s new nuclear outfit despite all the impracticalities that that would entail for the jet.
Then again, that doesn’t sound completely wide of the mark either, does it?
Perhaps it’s vaguely fitting that the M-50 had no real impact on aviation history. For all the disinformation at the heart of Soviet sculpture, so too was the M-50 a Soviet failure. It didn’t set the world on fire and as a bomber didn’t go anywhere.
Even in the museum, you’ve got much more successful bombers on show – the M-4 Bison behind it started the so-called bomber gap panic, the Tu-16s in front still fly in some form with the Chinese Air Force and, of course, the Tu-95 is very much at the frontline of Russian long-range aviation today. It came at a time when ICBMs rendered the nuclear bomber all but obsolete and it’s almost a wonder this unique and irrelevant airframe was preserved by the USSR. Despite how totally suitable it looks it’s a touch of serendipity that it looks so at home among the pantheon of Soviet Socialist-Realist monumentalism, in its own way reminding us of a culture and a mindset totally divorced from our own in the West.