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Scott W. Palmer, author of Dictatorship of the Air: Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, $40), has accomplished that most difficult task, writing a readable scholarly book. Well accoutered with footnotes and an excellent bibliography, Dictatorship of the Air gives an insider’s view of aviation in the mystery wrapped in  an enigma that was Russia.

Aviation was controversial from its birth in Russia, simply because there is a freedom implicit in flight that ran counter to the tsarist regime and the Communist governments that followed. This sense of freedom vastly enhanced its appeal to the clever individuals who would go on to create an aviation industry within the Soviet Union. The situation was further complicated by the need of the Soviet state to use aviation as a symbol first of industrial progress and then of military might. Yet the ubiquitous paranoia implicit in the Soviet system of government made it dangerous for people to distinguish themselves, for as in the old saying, the tallest nail gets hammered first. This hampered progress throughout the aviation industry, so that Soviet Russia had to repeatedly turn to the “decadent democracies” for technological infusions.

Dictatorship of the Air takes the reader through the history of aviation in Russia in a detailed manner, and always relates the achievements and the failures to social and cultural factors. Palmer manages to keep the human element in the forefront by the judicious use of quotes. It is manifestly apparent that while the people who were advancing aviation—the pilots and engineers in particular—were virtually identical to their counterparts in the West, the government organizations that supervised their activities were vastly different in each country. While manufacturers in the United States have always complained about government restrictions and requirements, they have never had to put up with the climate of fear in which their Soviet counterparts operated. No one was immune. Andrei Tupelov was at the peak of his power and prestige when he was arrested on spurious charges in 1937, and he spent the next several years as a prisoner at Central Design Bureau 29. He was one of the fortunate ones; many of his peers were summarily executed.

It was Stalin’s stated goal for the Soviet Union to first overtake and then surpass the United States in terms of the quantity and quality of its industrial products. The creation of better aircraft was seen to be the most immediate and the most obvious way to demonstrate Russia’s progress. Although Stalin himself feared flying, he was delighted to be portrayed as aviation’s benefactor in propaganda posters. The desire to be first in aviation was equated in typical Soviet fashion with building the largest airplanes and flying the longest distances, and while there were many spectacular achievements, this was not the most productive approach to creating an aviation industry.

Stalin was farsighted enough to allow many aviation delegations to be sent to the West—an exceptional privilege denied to almost everyone else—to learn as much as possible about the industry. These so-called aerofication campaigns made immense contributions to the Soviet aviation industrial base.

The greatest Soviet failure was the inability to create a genuine indigenous research and development environment comparable to that found in Europe and the United States. While the engineers of the Soviet Union were able to produce some excellent aircraft, they remained technologically behind the West, particularly in the development of engines.

This is a valuable book. Its only major failings are in the publisher’s choice of paper, print size and photo reproduction, which do not do justice to the text.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here