Chkalov festivities include surprise

Discovery of hidden memoirs revealed at dinner honoring flight

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoValeria Chkalova, left, along with nephew Valery Chkalov, has been watching out for her father -- shown on a downtown Vancouver mural.

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Doug Lasher and Jess Frost were among those who hosted a Russian delegation last week, wrapping up Vancouver's 75th anniversary observance of the 1937 Chkalov flight.

But the visit didn't exactly close the book on discussions of the pioneering transpolar flight. It turns out that thousands of pages of memoirs and accounts haven't even been read yet. Those documents were recently discovered when relatives of Chkalov's copilot stumbled across a hidden archive that goes back almost 80 years.

Last week's delegation included family members of pilot Valery Chkalov; his daughter, 77-year-old Valeria Chkalova, and her nephew Valery Chkalov, the aviator's grandson, were part of the group.

Copilot Georgy Baidukov was represented by his granddaughter and her husband.

Chkalov and Baidukov -- along with navigator Alexander Belyakov -- landed in Vancouver on June 20, 1937, after a flight of 63 hours and 16 minutes.

The first nonstop flight over the North Pole was an aviation milestone. Among other recognitions and honors, Baidukov was given a house.

At Thursday's dinner, that 1937 gift from Russian leader Josef Stalin figured in a surprising revelation, said Donna Seifer, a Russian interpreter and translator. She helped relay the story told by Dmitry Khaustov, whose wife, Olga, is Baidukov's granddaughter.

"Dmitry startled the dinner party with his revelation," Seifer said.

Members of Baidukov's family were doing some renovation work on the home of the Soviet general, who died in 1994. When they tried to move an armoire in Baidukov's study, the massive wooden cupboard wouldn't budge. It was screwed to the wall.

They assumed it was secured so the armoire wouldn't tip over. But when Khaustov took out the screws, he found a niche in the back of the armoire filled with thousands of pages of documents. They included accounts of conversations and meetings with Stalin and his inner circle dating to the early 1930s.

"Nobody knew it existed," said Frost, a member of the local Chkalov Cultural Exchange Committee. "He didn't even tell his family."

For good reason …

"He was brought up in a time when something like that was a death sentence," said Frost, a former Russian language instructor at Clark College.

There also were book manuscripts, with entire sections blanked out by censors.

Khaustov has reviewed only about 5 percent of the material so far, Seifer said, but he shared a few details during the visit to Vancouver.

"We heard different perspectives on assembling the team" for the 1937 flight, Lasher said. He was interested to learn how Stalin was involved in selecting the crew.

It certainly doesn't parallel NASA's selection process for our pioneering space missions, Lasher said: "Our presidents didn't pick Alan Shepard or John Glenn."

Stalin also had some interesting input in planning long-distance flights. With World War II was on the horizon, Stalin wanted to demonstrate the reach of Soviet air power. That included showing Japan that it was not beyond the range of Russia aircraft.

Baidukov wrote several books on Russian aviation, so his interest in writing is no surprise.

But based on her own experiences with Baidukov, the Soviet aviation hero had a good memory and a nice sense of detail that went beyond aviation, Seifer said.

"In June 1975, I was hired by Vancouver to interpret during the delegation visit to dedicate the Transpolar Flight. I was primarily assigned to interpret for General Baidukov," she said.

Seifer's baby was only about six weeks old, and it was the first time she left her daughter with a baby-sitter. During her assignment, Seifer dashed to a pay phone two or three times to call home and check on her daughter.

Seifer worked with Baidukov six years later when he visited the Northwest again.

"He asked me, 'How's your baby?'"

"I said, 'What baby?' And he said, 'The one you were checking on.'"

Chkalov, the pilot of the 1937 flight, was killed in a plane crash in 1938, so Valeria Chkalova didn't have much time with her father.

"She knew him as well as a 3- or 4-year-old girl could," Frost said. "But she has always been solicitous of her father's reputation."

A recent Russian television miniseries offers a portrayal of Chkalov that "was not all that flattering," Frost said. "Valeria was really upset about that."

The family got a preview copy of the film and refused to support it, Frost said. "They're even exploring the possibility of suing the film company."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.