Flights of Fancy From a Harsh Life

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For Mikhail Puchkov, the only way to experience freedom in Soviet life was to steal it: paddling down a river in the dead of night in a homemade pedal-powered submarine.

Traveling in his illegal craft, with its pedals quieted to avoid detection, was an eccentric escape from the crushing reality of Soviet rule with his dignity and creativity intact.

Now, sailing out to sea in this chunky, ungainly vessel is his only escape from the disappointment and poverty of the new Russia.

All over the nation, even in the most remote and primitive villages, people like Puchkov tinker with outlandish inventions in their solitary workshops, driven by dreams of a better life and a better world.

At first Puchkov planned a paraglider with flapping wings, but he fell back on the idea of a submarine. Viktor Frolov dreamed of making a submarine and ended up building homemade planes. Nikolai Kirzhayev scares the local cows and annoys the neighbors with his unreliable flying machines.

Ask 40-year-old Puchkov why he decided to design and build a personal submarine in the suffocating era of Leonid I. Brezhnev's rule, and he pauses at length before chuckling quietly, recalling the optimistic 20-year-old he was then.

"I was not satisfied with the fate that was laid out for me," he said. "I wanted to satisfy myself and to have some respect for myself. If I learned to respect myself, I felt it would be easier to find my niche in life."

Twenty years later, Puchkov has a soul-destroying factory job instead of a fulfilling niche. But he has dignity and self-respect because he realized his improbable--and illegal--dream.

Russians call this quaint breed of quixotic inventors kulibins, after Ivan Kulibin, an 18th century mechanical engineer who designed dozens of devices, both practical and whimsical, few of which were manufactured. He died at 83 in deep poverty.

The Soviet space, weapons and aviation programs were all testament to Russians' inventive genius, but there were as many creative misfits as there were conformists. These kulibins channeled their talents in eccentric ways.

Nearly everyone in St. Petersburg has heard of Puchkov and his submarine, but almost nobody can say where he is. Search long enough, however, and he can be found in a wooden shed amid a clutter of maritime junk on the Neva River.

Puchkov opens the hatch of his submarine, releasing a heady waft of gasoline fumes. Five years ago he increased the length of the craft from 10 to 16 feet and added an engine for surface operation, an electric motor for diving and two fuel tanks. In case of an emergency, he still has the pedals and carries a paddle.

He sits inside on a hard steel bench amid the dials, valves, rubber tubes and steel pipes. He can sail 100 miles a day and submerge to 30 feet.

In 1981, when he started building the submarine, he feared that friends and neighbors would misunderstand his passion and knew that the authorities would have crushed his dream and confiscated the sub. So he built the craft secretly in an attic in Ryazan, about 120 miles southeast of Moscow.

"I started building it even before perestroika," he explained, referring to the political reforms of the mid-1980s. "If people had known I had a submarine, I wouldn't have been allowed to go out into the sea."

With no experience and no instruction manuals, he designed and improved the sub by trial and error, testing it at night in a river and concealing it during the day 10 feet below the surface.

"I didn't know it would work," he said. "I just hoped."

The longer the project dragged on, the more caustically his father condemned it. During the first test in 1984, it sank like a stone, breaking a rudder. The early dives were always tense.

"I was so distracted watching for leaks, checking all the equipment, that I didn't have time to enjoy it," he recalled. "You don't remember a thing afterward."

It took three years before he got the submarine to dive and surface. In 1988, he put the reinforced plastic sub in a box on a truck and shipped it to the Tosna River about 15 miles south of St. Petersburg. There, he continued his nocturnal voyages. In 1994, he took to the open sea on a secret cruise to the island of Kronshtadt, a closed military base in the Gulf of Finland.

Puchkov pedaled nine miles to the base, his body covered in sweat, his back muscles shrieking with pain. Submerged off Kronshtadt with only an air pipe showing, unable to stretch his legs or neck, he grabbed a few hours' rest before returning. The voyage took 18 hours and convinced Puchkov that he had to get an engine.

The Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 and Russia's economic slump since then toppled his ambition to become a designer in a submarine plant. He has no passion except his sub. There was once a girlfriend, but "she always wanted bigger compromises" and his affection for the submarine won out.

Without a dream of sailing, flying or standing out from the rest of the crowd somehow, any kulibin would suffocate in the constricting provinces of Russia.

Nikolai Kirzhayev, 34, is a rustic genius stranded in the tiny, remote settlement of Novotroitsky, about 400 miles southeast of Moscow.

He has a ramshackle and spartan cottage, typical but for the eccentric electric inventions grafted clumsily to the rough wooden walls. The effect, like crossing Fred Flintstone with George Jetson, is surreal.

Approaching through ankle-deep, sole-clenching mud, sidestepping the cowpats, visitors reach Kirzhayev's battered wooden front door. With a shriek of friction, it slides automatically sideways.

"It's a little noisy," Kirzhayev conceded.

The family of seven sleeps in one chaotic room, and there is no sewage or septic tank, only an outhouse with no door or seat.

A huge switchboard with glaring dials that looks like it could have been a spare part from a nuclear power station looms over the kitchen sink. It controls everything in the house: hot water, the heating and the stove.

The system, while brutish and inelegant, is a luxury: Everyone else in the village has to boil water in a pot and fire their clay stoves with wood for heat.

"I'm one of many Russians trying to make life a little better and a little different," said Kirzhayev, washing his hands lustily in the hot water but failing to remove the ingrained layer of black.

His dinky Moskvich car is ancient--circa 1965--but he added automatic functions and a comic book dashboard, making it the wonder of the village.

Instead of ignition keys, there is a big red button on the dash labeled "Start" and a complicated "anti-hijacking" system. An old-fashioned telephone crouches on the dashboard, connected to a radio system installed at home and the local railroad depot, where he works as an electrician.

Kirzhayev's father, a tractor driver, tried to build a diesel-powered helicopter in the mid-1960s but the rotor spun off and the chopper never left the ground. He died when Kirzhayev was a baby.

At 16, Kirzhayev built his first color television from discarded parts; it's still the only color set in the village. At 18, he showed unusual enthusiasm when drafted, confiding to officers that the military might help him to realize a lifelong dream to fly.

They promptly sent him to an asylum for what they suggested was a prerequisite psychiatric exam, and two weeks later he emerged with the report disqualifying him from training as a pilot. That spurred him on.

His real pride is a boxy homemade plane with duct tape over a hole in the body. Its design and Kirzhayev's skills were both matters of trial and error. He has survived several nasty crashes in his two flying machines.

Centuries of oppressive rule made it impossible for many people to channel their creativity for the popular good, said Rashid Kaplanov, 52, professor at the Institute of General History in Moscow.

"For hundreds of years, the only way for many talented and energetic people to express themselves freely, especially those in far-flung provinces, was to indulge in eccentricities like trying to shoe a flea, as a famous Russian tale has it," he said.

"These Russian kulibins devote so much energy and talent to their eccentric hobbies--which basically became their way of life--because they are trying to escape the monotony of a gray, bleak life where little, if anything, depends on them and their talents are not required," Kaplanov said.

Talented people in the West usually could find a niche in business, banking, trade or art, he said, enriching society and perhaps themselves.

"But they are here in Russia, and they still find no better way to express themselves but to escape into their childhood dreams of flying planes and sailing submarines," he said.

In Soviet times, kulibins inevitably wound up in trouble.

When Viktor Frolov, 61, built a plane powered by a motorcycle engine between 1971 and 1973, it was a criminal offense. He managed it with just four years of primary school education, some advice from an aviation student and a 1930s journal on small-plane construction.

Frolov decided that the best way to evade the attention of the KGB was to take no pains to conceal the plane. So he towed it openly to a field near his home in Vyalki, 12 miles from Moscow, for his flights.

"I knew it was illegal, but I really wanted to fly," he said. "I knew they wouldn't be happy with me flying, but I wasn't sure what the punishment would be."

He was often stopped by traffic police who scoffed at his statement that he had a homemade plane in tow. They would let him drive on, having discovered no traffic offense.

It took the KGB more than 10 years to catch up with him and issue an order in 1984 banning him from flight.

By then, there were hundreds of illegal homemade planes buzzing about the Soviet skies like mosquitoes. In 1985, the authorities accepted the inevitable and let enthusiasts register, fly and crash their home-built planes.

But they did not legalize personal submarines. In 1988, Puchkov was pedaling at night on the Neva River when he became tangled in a steel net put in place to snag loose lumber. The KGB seized the submarine, arrested Puchkov and interrogated the suspected spy for two days.

They finished up with enough admiration for Puchkov and his submarine to recommend him for a place in the St. Petersburg Shipbuilding Institute, where at 29 he became the oldest student. The nation's economic collapse frustrated his dream of becoming a designer.

The border guards, also involved in the investigation, asked him to pedal his sub around the Gulf of Finland so that they could test their radar equipment, only to discover that--short of a collision--he was impossible to track.

Even today, the submarine would never get legal registration, so his plan is to try to register it as a surface vessel but continue his dives.

"After all, there are no underwater police," he said, with unswerving kulibin logic.

Kulibins learn to skirt the authorities and disobey the rules. But they are still captive to the laws of nature.

On the second flight in his first flying machine, a modified motorized paraglider, Kirzhayev tried to turn and plummeted 160 feet to earth.

"It smashed to smithereens. When I emerged from the ruins of that plane, I thought, 'That's it, I'm never flying again.' But I restored it and started to go up again."

Once, when the engine overheated, he crashed into poplar trees. A dozen of his friends have died in such accidents. Similarly, Frolov has survived two bad crashes and watched his best friend die in a homemade plane.

Puchkov and his submarine were once tossed like a cork onto shore in a violent storm. A short-circuit once created a cloud of poisonous smoke in the submarine, and he had to use his emergency oxygen supply, breathing through a pipe.

Even today, the gasoline engine is not safe: "It may explode at any time," Puchkov said, but he cannot afford to buy a diesel one.

Puchkov believes that poverty pushes people to the limits of their creativity.

"We don't have money. If I'd had money I could have installed a good engine in the submarine right from the beginning."

But for the kulibins there are no complicated psychological motives for their obsessions; just sheer, exhilarating freedom.

"It's all about the thrill," Kirzhayev said. "It feels wonderful when you rise on wings you made yourself. You feel like you're master of the whole world."

Sergei L. Loiko and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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