The International Situation and the Red Army

V. Building the Air Fleet


At the Ceremonial Meeting of the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet, April 26, 1923 [1]

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Comrades, the air fleet should help us to fulfil that task which is the fundamental task, or, at least, the fundamental material task, of our Russian, and now our Soviet-Union, culture, namely the conquest of expanse of territory.

Expanse of territory is our greatest ally, and at the same time a harsh adversary. But for our expanses we should long since have been plundered, crushed and enslaved, especially during the revolutionary upheaval. Remember how brief and fleeting was the fate of Soviet Hungary. And yet, at the start, we were armed no better, perhaps worse, than Soviet Hungary; if we saved ourselves, held out, grew stronger and are alive today as an independent revolutionary country, and if we are now probably going to go on living till the end of time, then this is due to our expanses. Our second greatest resource is our population. How many, many cruel calamities we have suffered calamities such, perhaps, as have been few in the memory of mankind – yet our population, glory be to our Soviet destiny, lives and multiplies, and this is the resource for our constructive work, for our independence, for our defence. And we have a third resource, of newer and more conscious historical origin. This third resource consists in the fact that the destructive phase of the revolution is behind us. Everywhere, throughout Europe, throughout the capitalist world, the revolutionary process which precedes the conquest of power by the working class is only now growing more acute, more profound, and therefore material culture in Europe and all over the capitalist world, will, in the main, suffer injury: but we, for all our poverty, have entered a phase of progress, and, I repeat, the destructive stage of the revolutionary process is already behind us. Expanse of territory is our greatest ally, and so we are certainly not going to renounce it. On the contrary, we possess and we are building and strengthening the Red Army and the Red Navy, on land, sea and in the air, to defend the expanses of our Soviet Union. Just now we are again passing through a phase of frenzied attack upon our revolution, upon our Union state, all over Europe and the world. The press, parliament, ministries are all foci of furious hatred, malicious slander and baiting against us, against Moscow, against the Soviet Union. If it were at all possible, if they were in a position to convert these lies and slanders into asphyxiating gases, dynamite and explosives, they would have hundreds of thousands, millions of tons to direct against us. But, for all that, we have our great expanses. Even if they did convert their malice, hatred and slander into explosives, our marshes, our lakes, our expanses, our dense forests would swallow up that mass of explosives, almost without trace. Our expanses are our greatest ally. We have not the slightest grounds for renouncing this ally. And at the same time we have to overcome expanse of territory – while relying on this expanse, to overcome it, for then we shall become more cultured, more clever, and a hundred times more invincible than we are now. Aviation serves, among other things, to overcome expanse of territory, and in the future that will be its primary function.

It is possible, comrades, to look at the whole of human culture – this is a somewhat conditional proposition from the standpoint of man’s victory over expanse of territory, from the time when man first taught an animal to carry him until the time when he created an apparatus heavier than air that could rise up into the sky and be subject to control. One may, of course ask what need we have to dream about aviation, with our impassable country roads, our marshes, our dense forests, or one may say it is too early for us to set ourselves extensive tasks in this sphere. I think this is not so. Our whole culture, comrades, has been both cut out of and also fastened together with contradictions. In our country, even before the revolution, there was, on the one hand, a barbarian nomad economy, and, on the other, the most up-to-date factories on the American model. We have today, on the one hand, backward tribes who follow a nomadic existence which is still close to that of cave-men, while, on the other hand, it is no secret that the Communist Parties of Europe, which are the political vanguard of world culture, come to see us in Moscow, in the Kremlin, and look upon the ruling Party of our Soviet Union as their teacher and leader. There is a contrast here, because, on the one hand, we drag behind us a heavy tail of backwardness, poverty and barbarism, while, on the other, in the struggle, both material and ideological, with more cultured countries, we have been obliged to strain all our forces and draw level with them. Our entire past history has been determined by these two factors. We began to lay down railway lines before we built surfaced roads. Even today, our surfaced roads can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but our railway network has left far behind the development of any sort of convenient, cultured roads. It is the same with aviation. Aviation has come to our rescue in the struggle against the bad qualities of our expanses. There can be no doubt that, in this sphere, we shall follow the line of least resistance, and in a comparatively short time, shall be able to, and will, achieve substantial successes.

It is quite natural that the initiative in forming the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet should have been taken by the Red Army and the War Council of the Soviet Republic. We formulated a proposal to this effect already in the autumn of last year, and tried to attract the attention of the broad masses to the question of an air fleet. Take-off was slow. I think it was at the beginning of February that the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic – if my memory does not betray me, it was on February 4 – confirmed its previous decision on the need to address all the organs of the Soviet state and the entire public opinion of the workers’ and peasants’ republic concerning the question of creating in our country a broad current of interest in aviation and in favour of the conquest of the air. In mid-February we formulated a proposal to set up a Society of Friends of the Air Fleet. The front of silence was broken through by the Izvestiya V.Ts.I.K., in the form of the articles you know about, announcing a collection for the air fleet, and so forth. And since then the movement has grown. There is, of course, no call for self-deception here. The greatest danger lies in the possibility that this movement, which has begun so happily, may exhaust itself in a relatively short time, so to speak, on the plane of agitational self-satisfaction. That sort of thing has happened here: one week, another week, or a month, of agitation, with very good articles – and very modest practi-cal results. We do now have some results. There is ‘Dobrolet’ [2], with a proposed basic capital of two milliard roubles and an actual capital of 900,000 gold roubles. That is a figure which, of course, will surprise nobody in the London stock-exchange, not to mention the one in New York, but which impresses us in Moscow, and produces an agreeable impression, especially when they add: gold roubles. But, after all, comrades, this is only the beginning and a modest beginning. The work of the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet has already produced undoubted results by way of stimulating interest in this cause. But from now on this interest must be widened, consolidated, organised and given practical realisation. Not only the provinces must be interested but also the uyezds, for we have uyezd towns, remember, about which one can say, as in The Government Inspector [3], that you could gallop from here for three years and not reach a foreign country. And now the question of aviation, of air travel, has come up, that is, the question of wrenching our uyezd towns out of their isolation, backwardness, cultural loneliness, ideological poverty. The question of aviation is for us the most important tactical, material question of our culture, and here we must find a correct, organised combination of the interests of military aviation with those of civil aviation and general economic, commercial culture. From the very outset, I think, we have posed this question correctly. We may hope for great help from the economic, soviet, trade-union and Party organisations, in so far as aviation will enter into our peacetitne, current economic and cultural life. In this matter, to put things on the plane of command, of dictatorship of the interests of the War Department and the Red Army, would have been unreasonable from the start, for we should then have received temporary cooperation, temporary help, which would perhaps have been substantial, but which, in the end, would have proved quite incommensurate with our needs, for our backwardness in aviation, even compared with our immediate western neighbours is measured – I say this frankly – in the most terrifying figures, and, what is most important, their sources, the sources at the disposal even of our nearest neighbours, are immeasurably large compared with the sources which we draw on and can expect to draw on in the near future. It will be possible to develop the basis of our war industry, to provide it with a wider market than the War Department, only if we introduce aviation into the general economic and cultural life of our country. And, at the same time, the link, the coupling between military aviation and civil aviation must be very exact, wellthoughtout and properly organised. We cannot oblige the economic organs or the local soviets to build aeroplanes of the type needed by the War Department, for aeroplanes of this type will not always be suitable for ecenomic, transport and other needs. But we must, in the course of the period immediately ahead, bring into this sphere the maximum unification and regulation, that is, everything that may contribute to uniformity of type where aeroplane engines are concerned, and everything around them that can be reduced to uniformity of type must be so reduced. We need to achieve the maximum degree of uniformity, so that between the military (and merely military) units and the economic, transport units of the air fleet there may be a series of transitional stages which could be used, on which we could rely for military purposes as well. In other words, we need from the start, where blueprints and plans are concerned, and then in the realisation of these plans, to ensure that our civil, economic, cultural transport aviation shall constitute a mighty reserve, a tactical base for our military aviation. Here, in so far as we have, in the sphere of military construction, gone over, or, to speak more modestly, are going over, to work of a planned character, on a wider scale, not covering only the present day and the evil thereof but with a perspective of two, three, five and more years, we need to ensure, at all costs, the linking of our military plans, that is, our plans for building and strengthening the Red Army, on the one hand, with the economic plans, especially those affecting industry, on the other.

We must link the plan for creating military aviation with the plan for developing and strengthening the aircraft industry, and the latter must develop in close connection with civil aviation. And, I have no doubt, we, that is, the Red Army, its leading organs, will succeed in reaching an agreement with the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet on a joint programme in which we shall not impede each other and shall not order each other about, for in this matter comrades, bureaucratisation would be very dangerous. If the War Department were to try and subordinate this work to itself, issuing orders to all its branches, that would inevitably kill the material and ideological interest of the economic organs, the local soviets, the social organisations. The only possibility here is to reach an agreement which will allow the widest emulation, the widest initiative, to be exercised by the localities, the centre, the economic, departmental and cultural organs and organisations. And agree we can and must. We shall not set ourselves any unrealisable tasks. Our programme must march in step with the process of reviving the country’s economy, perhaps running just a certain distance ahead. It is not in vain that aviation is the tactical vanguard, the aerial cavalry, if you like, of human cultureit is therefore permissible for it to outstrip the heavier instruments of our material culture. But loss of contact must be avoided, through strict attention to the material basis. I do not doubt that those comrades from the localities who are present here at this meeting of the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet will take back with them a certain increased stock of interest, concern and love for this cause of exceptional importance. Our press – we firmly count on this – will provide the public opinion of our country with more and more circumstantial information about the air fleet and about aviation generally. The Society of Friends of the Air Fleet will spread its network as widely as possible. This network must not be absolutely centralised. The separate national republics can and doubtless will have their own independent societies, which will come to an agreement with us. In this sphere, comrades, emulation is the great creative principle, and bureaucratic centralisation not at all. And we shall achieve – there can be no doubt of this great and substantial successes.

Comrades! Aviation is a serious weapon which threatens us. Those countries are the best equipped with aircraft which are the most hostile to us. We need to be clearly aware of that fact. But until we have developed our aviation, until we have created in our expanses a material, technical-cultural superstructure upon these, our existing expanses, until then we shall remain, owing to our backwardness, less vulnerable to foreign aircraft than any America, Britain, Belgium or France. In our disadvantages lie, for the time being, our advantages, and vice versa. Otherwise, comrades, how is it to be explained that a country like ours, a country which has suffered so much, a country which is, after all, a backward one, should today be standing by itself against the whole world, which is so splendidly armed, so rich, and above all, so rich in hatred of us?

There are, comrades, two countries, which at present allow themselves the luxury of an isolated position, namely, the United States of America and the United Soviet States. The United States of America have isolated themselves voluntarily, which means that they intervene when they want to and do not intervene when they don’t want to. Europe owes them, apparently, about 20 milliard gold roubles. To the best of my recollection Europe owes us nothing. [Laughter, applause] There is nothing to rejoice about in that: I should prefer it if Europe were indebted to us. On the other hand, however, we owe nothing to Europe, and we declared firmly at the congress of our Party that we cancelled our debts, down to the last kopeck, on October 25, 1917. Comrades, it is natural that New York, which has concentrated in its hands 40 per cent of the world’s gold reserve, and to which Europe owes those 20 milliard gold roubles, is able, over there across the ocean, to pursue a policy of splendid isolation. We, however, are the connecting link betwen Asia and Europe. We form part of the continent of Europe. We do not possess 40 per cent of the world’s gold reserve – I tell you that quite frankly – and yet, nevertheless, comrades, and thisis no joking matter, we are a country with which noone has formed an alliance and which receives support from no-one. Of course, this relieves us of obligations, but it also deprives us of aid. Europe has passed and is passing through so many convulsions, there have been so many peace conferences, each of which had the task of strangling us, yet we, the Union of Soviet Republics, though very poor and exhausted, stand here in our revolutionary isolation, and today noone, or at least no sensible person, anywhere in the world hopes’ or can hope, that capitalist Europe, which is suffering spasm after convulsion and convulsion after spasm, will succeed in overthrowing us. No, we have already won for ourselves a very big, very lengthy respite, and we shall use this to do many things, among them being to build a Red Air Fleet. Where this Red Air Fleet will have to be used is not known to you or to me. That will be revealed to us by the future destiny of Europe and of the whole world.


1. This speech was printed in the pamphlet The Ceremonial Meeting of the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet, published by Voyenny Vyestnik, Moscow, 1923.

2.Dobrolet’, the Society of the Volunteer Air Fleet, was formed to promote civil aviation in imitation of the Volunteer Fleet which had been formed in 1878 to promote the development of Russia’s merchant navy through build-ing ships by public subscription.

[3] In Gogol’s The Government Inspector (1834) the Mayor of the town rejects a suggestion that their frightening visitor has come to check on treasonable activities. There couldn’t be any treason in his town, he says: ‘Why, you could gallop from here for three years and not reach a foreign country.’

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Last updated on: 30.12.2006