This locomotive was an unofficial Soviet Railways symbol for two decades:
Its image appeared everywhere, from station decor to candy wrappings. When I was a kid (in the post-Steam Era) I used to think that all old locos had similar shape. It was quite an unpleasant surprise to discover that this dream machine was unique.
Its story begins in mid 1930s when the railway management realized that even the most advanced Soviet express locomotive, the IS, is too slow. Two locomotive works, one in Kolomna (not far from Moscow), another in Voroshilovgrad (today Lugansk, Ukraine) started to develop aerodynamic designs.
The first was a streamline shrouding for IS, reportedly allowing speeds up to 155 km/h. The second one, more radical, has been developed in Kolomna. Of two formulas, Pacific (4-6-2) and Hudson (4-6-4) the latter was chosen. Drafts were ready by 1936, and subsequently reworked. Most important, double-disc drivers size has been increased from 1850 mm to 2000.
In 1937-1938, two locomotives were built, bearing no names, just numbers. They are known as 2-3-2K (2-3-2 is the Russian designation of Hudson formula, and "K" stands for Kolomna). Their shrouding, partly riveted, partly welded, resembled the Milwaukee Baltics (also 4-6-4s). The first was fitted with an experimental wide-pipe superheater, the second had a standard Elesco-E superheater with thin pipes. During the tests, one of the "Ks" achieved top speed of 170 km/h, hauling four (some sources say three) cars.
In autumn 1938, both 2-3-2Ks began their service on Moscow - Leningrad route. Usually they had to stick to low-speed schedule, rarely exceeding 70 km/h (44 mph). However, the schedule has been altered, and at least in one case the Red Arrow express hauled by the "K" made 331 km from Bologoye to Moscow in 3 hours. A class of 10 was ordered for express service, but never built due to the war. A beautiful pair was relocated to the East in 1941. On their return in 1946, the shrouding has been removed (unfortunately, I don't know much about their post-war fate; probably Pavel, our man in Kolomna, can tell more).
But what about the beautiful rocket-shaped locomotive from the first picture (by the way, made by Arkady Shaikhet, a world-class photographer)? Well, it was designed at Voroshilovgrad Works that also built a Commodore Vanderbilt-like shrouding for the IS streamliner. Known as 2-3-2V ("V" for Voroshilovgrad) it made its maiden run in April 1938.
Some people use to name Henry Dreyfuss' NYCS J-3a design as the source of inspiration for the Soviet "V". I won't buy it. In my opinion, the shrouding was inspired by another American locomotive - Raymond Loewy's PRR K4. Besides, J-3a streamliners were developed and built at the very same time as the 2-3-2V. And the bottom line: they simply look different.
The "V" with its enormous 2200 mm drivers was designed for high speed, up to 180 km/h. It started service in the Ukraine and then was transferred to Moscow - Leningrad route, its mission to haul the Red Arrow.
The blue streamliner, declared "the best Soviet locomotive ever", quickly became an icon, just like the ANT-25 long-range airplane. You can still see it on a mosaic ceiling panneau (by Alexander Deyneka) of the Novokuznetskaya metro station on Moscow:
Despite its fame and iconic status, the 2-3-2V remained the only one of its class, no new locos of this type built. It survived the war and, just as its "K" half-brothers, returned to Moscow - Leningrad route, hauling passenger trains through late 1950s. In 1957 it finally achieved 175 km/h, 5 km/h short of its designed top speed.
And there is no answer to the question why the "K"s are so obscure while the "V" is so famous. Probably some guys (and locos) really have all the luck. Anyway, all three were scrapped.