Igor Sikorsky was a giant of aviation history. He designed the world’s first heavy bomber (Ilya Muromets), the world’s first mass produced helicopter (Vought-Sikorsky VS-300), and founded a multi-billion worth aviation company that continues making helicopters to this day.
He was also a devout Orthodox Christian and a strong Russian patriot: “My family, which comes from the rural Kiev region, were priests and of pure Ukrainian stock – but we consider ourselves Russians… [the Ukraine is an integral part of Russia], like Texas or Louisiana are an integral part of the United States.”
In a normal 20th century in which Bolshevik zealots didn’t take over Russia, he would have no doubt played a central role in creating a world-beating aerospace industry in Russia.
Instead, he was forced into emigration, and only the first of his major engineering accomplishments would serve Russian interests, while the rest would accrue to the benefit of its eventual Cold War rival.
But as they say, it takes a village to raise a child – or create an aircraft. In the final chapter of their magisterial 2003 biography of Sikorsky, Russian historians Vadim Mikheev and Gennady Katyshev analyze the life fates of the 75 leading Russian aviation specialists who worked with Sikorsky, including at the Russo-Baltic Wagon Factory which manufactured the Ilya Muromets*. Here are the shocking statistics – out of Sikorsky’s 75 engineers:
- 1 died during World War I before 1917.
- 25 died between 1917 and 1924.
- 32 emigrated
- Of the 17 who remained in the USSR, a further 8 were subsequently repressed.
Consequently, including Sikorsky himself, we have the remarkable fact that only 23% of the cream of Russia’s aviation human capital crop survived the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. Further, around half of the rest – including fighter designer Nikolay Polikarpov – were subjected to persecution by the Stalinist state, and severely crippled in terms of their professional potential.
Nor was the aerospace industry some sort of exception – according to the estimates of Dmitry Saprykin, a researcher at the Institute of Scientific History RAN, Russia lost 70%-90% of the most qualified cadres across a range of hi-tech industries**.
We should note that the aristocide of Russia’s best and brightest was entirely intentional on the part of the Bolsheviks:
From pp.302 of Mikheev & Katyshev’s book:
The entire Russian aviation industry found itself in a comatose state. This was partly due to the dark developments in July 1918, when repressions against “counter-revolutionaries” were sharply increased under the Red Terror. According to Nikolay Bukharin, these people included:
“3) Bourgeois entrepreneurs – organizers and directors;
4) Higher bureaucrats – state, military, and religious;
5) The technical intelligentsia, and the intelligentsia in general;
(В. Кардашов. Наши разногласия. Ленинградская панорама. 1990. № 2. С. 34-35; А. Смолин. У истоков красного террора. Ленинградская панорама. 1989. № 3. С. 25-28)
The peak of the repression fell on Petrograd, where the Red Terror was headed by Grigory Zinoviev, called on the workers to deal with the intelligentsia “by its own hands, on the streets.” Thousands of bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, priests, officers, teachers, professors, and nobles were shot. V.I. Yarkovsky, who had repeatedly refused offers to go abroad for prestigious and well-remunerated work, was arrested for “sabotage” in 1918; despite petitions from major figures in the arts and sciences, he was executed at the Peter and Paul Fortress. M.V. Shidlovsky attempted to flee with his family by way of Finland. At the border, he was beaten to death by Red Guards. G.G. Gorshkov was shot by the Odessa Cheka. Many of Sikorsky’s companions perished, who had made it their life’s work to create and nurture Russian aviation.
More than 75% of Russia’s elite cognitive workers – destroyed or expelled in the space of less than a decade. And just a bit more than a decade later, the mustachioed Georgian BDSM master unrolled yet another wave of bloody repressions against Russia’s cognitive elites.
This might have well been the single biggest human capital destruction event in world history.
I suppose the one nice thing about the above is that the Bukharins and the Zinovievs would eventually get their just desserts in the 1930s.
But this would have been of no consolation to the Russian peasants starved to import German and American technical expertise in the 1930s to replace that which had been destroyed, or who died in much higher numbers in 1941-45 than they should have because so many brilliant men who would otherwise have occupied senior positions in their Armed Forces or Design Bureaus were instead working for the US, or rotting in an unmarked ditch.
** Сапрыкин Д.Л.: Образовательный потенциал Российской Империи (2009), see pp.48.