Stalin's Falcons: John Etty Shows the Vital Importance of Aviation in the Stalinist Soviet Union

Article excerpt

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At one point during the 1930s, Soviet aviators concurrently held 62 world aviation records. These men and women, dubbed 'Stalin's Falcons' by the state-controlled media in the USSR, performed heroic feats in the name of the Soviet motherland and received the grateful plaudits of Stalin and the Central Committee. Indeed, Stalin and his colleagues supervised the efforts of the Soviet Union's aviators so closely that these 'Falcons' themselves became a part of the Cult of Stalin. Moreover, they and their achievements fed into all of the key themes of the Stalinist 1930s.

Soviet Aviation before Stalin

Flight is a crucial theme in Russian cultural history. Russia even has its own Icarus myth, with different versions ascribing the events to the reigns of different tsars. A boastful serf was promised his freedom if he could fulfill his claim to be able to fly on home-made wings.

According to two separate accounts, Ivan the Terrible had the ambitious serf beheaded, while Peter the Great was satisfied simply with having the man beaten. Regardless of the serfs' failures to fly, these legends led Russians to believe in their preeminence in the field of aviation. Other stories, about Russian balloonists and Russian powered aircraft, perpetuated the notion that Russia was the home of human flight.

The Tsarist regime was not slow to appreciate the significance of aviation. In 1890 an Aeronautical Training Park was set up in St Petersburg, and Russian hot-air balloons were used for aerial reconnaissance during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5. The Russian secret police (Okhrana) also appreciated the potential power of the aircraft, setting up a Special Commission to combat terrorist use of aircraft and monitoring flying training across the Empire and even across Europe. The first Russian heavier-than-air flight took place in Moscow in November 1909, and by February 1910 Tsar Nicholas II had allocated 900,000 rubles for the development of a military air fleet.

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By the outbreak of World War One the Russian air force was one of the largest in the world. Moreover, among its 260 aircraft were some of the biggest in the world. The Il'ia Muromets, built by Igor Sikorsky, was the world's first four-engine bomber, and the design was so impressive that both the French and the British began building them for their own air forces by late-1916. Russian aviators played important, though limited, roles during the war, but after the end of the Imperial regime in February 1917 Russian aviation was temporarily grounded.

The tremendous dislocation of the economy and the social and political structures brought about by the October Revolution and the ensuing Civil War, 1918-1921, paralysed many aspects of Russian development, but aviation was perhaps especially seriously affected because so many of the pilots from the Imperial Russian air force were supporters of the old regime. The Bolsheviks managed to persuade only around a third of the tsar's pilots to fly for them, and so many pilots, engineers and designers fled the country that it took years for the industry to recover from the 'brain drain'.

The Soviet state lacked the resources to re-develop the air fleet, and so in March 1923 it created the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet and called upon the support of the people to establish a Red Air Force. Assisted by the newspapers Izvestiya and Pravda, the campaign to increase the 'airmindedness' of the Soviet people involved selling shares in the state airline, raising funds to purchase propaganda aircraft, and training citizens as pilots and parachutists. The Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 allowed the German aircraft firm Junkers to construct military aircraft on Soviet soil. Since the Treaty of Versailles banned a military air force in Germany after 1919, the Soviets were able to buy large numbers of good quality aircraft, and to exploit German expertise in the meantime. …