For my first post for the blog, I decided to draw from a forthcoming project of mine on the history of Soviet science and technology as it intersected through the apparatus of repression. What follows is a short summation of several chapters on the so-called sharaskha system. I was led to this topic partly by an interest in censorship during the late Soviet period. As many older Russians undoubtedly remember, by the early 1970s, the culture of underground or samizdat literature in the Soviet Union had evolved into a highly risky but established system for disseminating information among the dissident community. Banned literature—poems, fiction, accounts of current events—vied for space in poor quality publications circulated through a clandestine network. One such type-written manuscript of less than two hundred pages struck a chord among many samizdat readers despite its unusual subject matter—it described the work of an aircraft design organization from three decades before. Known by the title, Tupolevskaia sharaga, the manuscript attracted a large leadership and became a classic in the literature of dissent.
In vivid language, its anonymous author recalled his experiences as an engineer in a special prison workshop headed by the giant of Soviet aviation Andrei Tupolev.
The prison camp had been organized sometime in the late 1930s and housed hundreds of leading Soviet aviation designers who, cut off from the outside world, labored through physical and psychological hardships to produce new airplanes for the cause of Soviet aviation. By coincidence, Tupolev died soon after this manuscript began circulating. In Moscow, he was given a state funeral and his contributions eulogized by Leonid Brezhnev, but unsurprisingly there was no mention of his arrest, incarceration, and work in a labor camp during the Stalin era. The anonymously authored memoir, smuggled out to the West and published in English, remained a peculiar anomaly in the historical record, suggesting tantalizing lacunae in Tupolev’s official biography. [1. A. Sharagin, Tupolevskaia sharaga (Frankfurt: Possev-Verlag, 1971). A French translation was also published in 1973.]