The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917

By Eric Lohr; Marshall Poe | Go to book overview

MILITARY AVIATION, NATIONAL IDENTITY,
AND THE IMPERATIVES OF MODERNITY IN
LATE IMPERIAL RUSSIA
Gregory Vitarbo

The airplane was emblematic of the dilemma of modernization, both for army and state, in the last years of the Russian empire. It represented both a serious challenge and a tantalizing opportunity; it sharply exposed the limitations of Russia's economic, technological, and infrastructural development while simultaneously offering a means to rapidly overcome them; it provided a means to demonstrate and assert Russia's achievements, pride, and place while also giving rise to fears of the penalties of backwardness with the stakes of modernization now risen, literally, dramatically higher.

The airplane thus offered a potent symbol around which to contest visions of what modernization would and should mean for the Russian Empire and its future. While drawing upon a broader discourse regarding military power, technological modernization, and national identity, the debates surrounding aviation recast this dialogue, expanding its scope and implications. Russian social, cultural, and political distinctiveness was simultaneously perceived as uniquely favorable and particularly threatening to the successful development of the airplane. This tension would be exposed graphically by two pressing and closely related issues: how to define the proper form and scope of civilian assistance in military aviation, and whether to rely primarily upon foreign or domestic industry in the building of an air force.1

Given its symbolic power, the airplane served as a focal point for both contemporaries and historians to criticize the ability of the tsarist army and state to meet such challenges of modernization. In this regard, Soviet historiography on the Imperial air force took pains to sharply distinguish between the feeble efforts of tsarist aviation and

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1
These issues are explored at greater length in Gregory Vitarbo, “'The Power, Strength, and Future of Russia': Aviation Culture and the Russian Imperial Officer Corps, 1908–1914” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1999).

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