OSOAVIAKhIM is a grass-root voluntary public organization that carries out extensive useful work. It is focused on training of workers, civil servants, intellectuals, students and collective farmers in the interests of national defense. OSOAVIAKhIM also assists the Red Army with rough preparation of qualified military personnel in various spheres.
Kliment Voroshilov, People’s Commissar for Defense of the USSR
The roots of the OSOAVIAKhIM, the most powerful dozen million-strong paramilitary voluntary organization of the USSR, date back to 1920, when Military Scientific Society, or VNO (Военно-Научное общество, ВНО), was founded on November 15, 1920, amid the Russian Civil War, within the walls of the Academy of the General Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (since 1998 – the Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). Progress in military scientific training of the Red commanders was one of the initial tasks of the VNO. By 1923, nearly every regiment had group or section of the Society focused on analysis of the course of the Russian Civil War, planning of combat operations, and tactics of the Red Army. Particular attention was paid to development of the military training in the light of Marxism-Leninism theory. As such, VNO operated as a purely military structure and showed lack of enthusiasm for becoming a mass voluntary society. It was only during the first All-Union congress of the VNO (March 12-16, 1926) that Kliment Voroshilov (04.02.1881-02.12.1969), the then People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, pointed out particularly the necessity to bring the Society closer to the general public. The VNO was renamed Society for Assistance to Defense, or OSO (Общество содействия обороне, ОСО) after the congress, and since then a strategic course has been set for its transition to a mass defense organization. Soon after thousands of plants and factories workers, civil servants, students and scientific employees have joined the Society.
“Aviation component” of the future OSOAVIAKhIM originated from the Society of Friends of the Air Force, or ODVF (Общество друзей воздушного флота, ОДВФ) that was established on March 08, 1923 to support the development of the powerful Soviet Air Force, both military and civilian, to organize the collection of funds for the construction of airplanes and generally to popularize aviation. ODVF also financed the construction of designs produced by young and unestablished designers, even importing engines and planes from abroad. It supported construction of aircraft factories, training of flight personnel, technical improvement of the national aviation, and advocated fundraising campaigns for those purposes. ODVF funds consisted of membership dues, voluntary contributions of citizens and employees of enterprises, revenues from propaganda flights, lectures, exhibitions, guided tours, rallies and concerts. Territorial, regional, provincial, district and rural cells of the ODVF had been created all across the country.
The first public sign that ODVF’s twin organization for chemistry, Society of Friends of Chemical Defense and Chemical Industry of the USSR, or Dobrokhim (Общество друзей химической обороны и химической промышленности СССР, Доброхим), would be established appeared in the Pravda newspaper on March 07, 1924, exactly one year after the formation of the ODVF. Given a front-page position, the piece had an additional quality in that it described developments of chemical weaponry in the West, especially in the USA, as proceeding at a feverish pace. Moreover, it declared that a chemical attack would touch most of the civilian population in a future war. These alleged realities and assumptions left the Soviet population with only one choice: “the entire populace must be prepared for chemical warfare”. Thus, preparation for chemical war in the West made Dobrokhim imperative. Its purpose was to assist the Red Army by providing civil defense for communications in the rear. The whole population had to be taught basic elements of chemical defense, and mass support for chemical industries as well as chemical research was necessary to achieve that aim. An organizing assembly founded Dobrokhim on May 19, 1924, and the first working session of the Central Council convened in June. The Central Council leaders defined the Society’s relationship to the ODVF as one of mutual support. Functional subsections were formed in the Council to lead the various specialty activities of the Society. At the same time a few industrial enterprises and several institutes of higher education took the cue from the center and founded local Dobrokhim organizations.
In structure, Dobrokhim seems to have been a mirror image of the ODVF. The Central Council, elected by a congress and containing a presidium, was not outwardly different from the ODVF. Agitation, fundraising campaigns, membership recruitment and elementary training made up the central work in the beginning just as they did for the ODVF. Dobrokhim sought its initial membership among student groups and persons connected in some way to chemical industry activity, but in fact, it never acquired a vast membership. Thus, by August the membership exceeded 100,000, but in comparison with the ODVF, this remained a modest figure.
The life of Dobrokhim was short, only one year before it was amalgamated with the ODVF to form Society of Friends of Aviation and Chemical Defense and Industry, or Aviakhim (Общество друзей авиационной и химической оборон и промышленности, Авиахим) on May 23, 1925. The reason for that merger was that aviation and chemical warfare were considered two of the obvious markers of technological modernity in the 1920s. However, its mission differed very little from those previously undertaken by the two independent organizations. Goal of the Aviakhim was to bring ideas about aviation and chemical warfare to the masses, that is, to integrate the larger population with military and civilian aviation and chemical industry. It continued efforts to raise chemical consciousness, to generate public support for state policies, and to promote air-mindedness through the orchestration of aeronautical spectacles, air shows and propaganda flights. More significantly, the creation of the Aviakhim pointed to an ongoing transition in Soviet aviation culture. Although aeronautical development would remain the society’s most important function, the pairing of aviation and chemical interests indicated the Communist Party leadership’s growing concern with exploiting the military potential of flight technology.
By the fall 1926 Aviakhim boasted ca. 3 million members. The Society consisted of nearly 30,000 cells, more than 5,000 aviation and chemical corners, ca. 1,000 aviation hobby groups, more than 40 aviation and chemical instruction courses as well as the Europe’s biggest Leningrad Flying Club and Museum. Aviakhim collected 6 million Rubles, and thanks to its financial support more than 150 airplanes and 30 hangars have been built.
Thus, two major voluntary public organizations, Society for Assistance to Defense and Aviakhim, existed in the Soviet Union by the beginning of 1927. As goals of both societies were fundamentally the same, their merger was the only reasonable solution. Less than one year following the conclusion of the ODVF-Dobrokhim union, Soviet aeronautical culture witnessed another major institutional transformation: joint meeting of the first congress of Aviakhim and the second plenary session of the OSO held on January 23, 1927 in Moscow adopted unanimous decision to merge both structures and form a mega-society devoted to civil defense and military education of the country’s populace – Union of Societies of Assistance to Defense and Aviation-Chemical Construction of the USSR, or OSOAVIAKhIM (Союз Обществ содействия обороне и авиационно-химическому строительству СССР, ОСОАВИАХИМ).
The creation of the OSOAVIAKhIM represented a fundamental shift in both the direction and the content of the Soviet aviation. Although OSOAVIAKhIM continued to promote the development of civil aviation, the Society now undertook efforts to train citizens in rifle marksmanship, chemical defense and guerilla warfare tactics as well. New civil defense mission meant that Soviet aviation culture would take on an increasingly militaristic character. The creation of OSOAVIAKhIM also represented long-standing effort of the Communist Party leadership’s effort to strengthen military preparedness through the militarization of the Soviet Union’s civilian population.
Initially top-level Central Council of the OSOAVIAKhIM oversaw nine sections (later expanded to sixteen) reflecting its thematic focus: agitation-propaganda, agriculture, chemical-scientific industry, aviation industry, aviation law, military-scientific research, air-chemical defense, riflery, and sports. Sections divided themselves according to more specific themes under bureaus, for example, for specific areas of agriculture. At the local levels, the working units were cells that were organized in factories throughout the country. Cell membership could vary from five to a hundred people who helped with production on factory floors. Cells operated under the jurisdiction of appropriate sections or bureaus, which funded their activities with money collected from membership dues, donations, lotteries and revenues from publications and souvenirs.
By the end of 1929 OSOAVIAKhIM had about five million Soviet citizens in its ranks. The Society had 65 defense clubs; ca.17,000 military corners; ca.26,000 military study groups; more than 15,000 shooting circles; 1,080 shooting ranges and galleries; four flying clubs; more than 1,000 aviation circles; five glider stations; 760 chemical units; ca.2,000 air and chemical defense circles.
Later on special emphasis was placed on expansion of special programs of military training, e.g. cavalry, naval, signals, proficiency in machine gun shooting; on deploying of well-developed network of instruction stations and camps; on strengthening of instructors training; and on enhancement of the general quality of training.
While at the time the 3rd plenary session of the Central Council of the OSOAVIAKhIM was held (March 29, 1932) the Society had about 10 million members, that figure have surpassed 13 million as at January 01, 1935.
The final pattern uniform and insignia for trainees and training shooting units of the OSOAVIAKhIM were introduced by the Decree of the Presidium of the Central Council of the OSOAVIAKhIM of the USSR and Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic dated November 24, 1937.
Raglan overcoat made of dark grey coarse cloth or light grey thick woolen cloth was replaced with double-breasted overcoat made of coarse cloth or thick woolen cloth of steel colour.
Dress uniform consisted of a service jacket and trousers worn outside made of worsted cloth of steel colour (as opposed to light grey previously).
Jacket for students of flying schools made of dark grey cotton or woolen cloth was replaced with gimnastyorka, i.e. military shirt-tunic made of khaki cotton or woolen cloth.
Dark blue beret was replaced with khaki visor cap. The latter had either light blue, black, blue or crimson piping depending on specialization: flight personnel, chemical defense units, cavalry units or other employees.
Traditional “Ushanka” that was worn as a winter headgear was abolished and replaced with “Shapka-finka”, i.e. fur cap with ear flaps that can be tied up to the crown of the cap, or fastened at the chin to protect the ears, jaw and lower chin from the cold. It was made either of beaver lamb or brown artificial fur. Top of the hat was manufactured of steel-colour woolen cloth.
New headgear insignia was introduced for all OSOAVIAKhIM employees, excluding naval personnel. It had a shape of the red enameled five-point star bearing emblem of the Society in its center. The latter represented a circle made of half of a cogwheel (at the left) and blade of a sickle (at the right), with five-point star, hammer, two-bladed propeller and rifle superimposed on it. It should be noted that despite limitation mentioned above, that cockade was worn by the naval personnel of the OSOAVIAKhIM as well. Moreover, judging from the photographic evidence, non-regulation wearing of standard Red Army cockades on cap bands, i.e. five-point star with sickle and hammer emblem, was quite a common practice.
Collar insignia was changed drastically: instead of four standard collar branch badges of the RKKA worn by the OSOAVIAKhIM personnel in 1932-1936, two absolutely new emblems were introduced. Thus, aviation specialists were issued with an emblem in the shape of a stylized single-engine monoplane. Other staff had to wear circular emblem of the Society of the simplified design due to its miniature dimensions.
Thread-edged collar tabs for the OSOAVIAKhIM personnel were abolished and replaced with tabs trimmed with silver lace on three sides. Front border of each tab was tucked under the collar and sewn to it from within. Similar to the piping of visor caps, collar tabs were either light blue, blue, black or crimson. It is worth recalling that before 1937 OSOAVIAKhIM personnel wore collar tabs which colour corresponded to the branch of service of the RKKA and with standard metal branch badges of the Army, but with distinctive red enameled five point stars denoting their rank within the Society.
Since 1937, OSOAVIAKhIM personnel ranks were denoted by 15 mm five-point faceted stars made of gilt metal pinned to wearer’s collar tabs in one row:
Employee of the OSOAVIAKhIM – blank collar without stars
Junior Instructor of the OSOAVIAKhIM – one star
Instructor of the OSOAVIAKhIM – two stars
Senior Instructor of the OSOAVIAKhIM – three stars
Chief Instructor of the OSOAVIAKhIM – four stars
Alongside with metal stars embroidered ones were sometimes worn on collars as well.
It’s worth mentioning here that certain OSOAVIAKhIM instructors decided to fix on new collar patches obsolete but much more attractive red enameled five-point stars introduced in 1932 and abolished in 1936.
Regular and reserve Red Army commanding officers temporarily detached to the OSOAVIAKhIM units wore uniform of the paramilitary Society. Thus, commanders in the ranks of Captain, Major, Colonel and in the ranks equal to them (until 1939) and commanders in the ranks of Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel and in the ranks equal to them (in 1939-1948) wore collar patches with three stars; junior officers wore two stars on their patches. However, note that upon conscription or transfer to the Red Army cadres former OSOAVIAKhIM workers and instructors were not entitled in any way for automatic promotion to corresponding military ranks.
The uniform and badges of rank described above were worn by the OSOAVIAKhIM functionaries since their introduction, throughout the whole WWII and until 1948 – the year the Society ceased its existence.
In 1948 OSOAVIAKhIM was disbanded and reorganized into three independent defense organizations according to the Decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR No.77 dated January 16, 1948, namely the Voluntary Society of Assistance to the Army, or DOSARM (Добровольное общество содействия армии, ДОСАРМ); the Voluntary Society of Assistance to the Air Force, or DOSAV (Добровольное общество содействия авиации, ДОСАВ) and the Voluntary Society of Assistance to the Navy, or DOSFLOT (Добровольное общество содействия флоту, ДОСФЛОТ). However, simultaneous existence of several defense organizations had led to duplication of their activities. Thereby, on August 20, 1951 the Council of Ministers of the USSR decided DOSARM, DOSAV and DOSFLOT to be reunited into a single organization under the name Voluntary Society for Assistance to the Army, Air Force and Navy, or DOSAAF (Добровольное общество содействия армии, авиации и флоту, ДОСААФ). The organizational structure of the DOSAAF was finalized by calling the First All-Union Conference of the Society on December 26-29, 1953. The newly established Society comprised of ca. 240,000 local primary organizations with almost 11,5 million members.
The author thanks Dr.Leonid Tokar (Saint Petersburg, Russia), a renowned expert on Soviet paramilitary organizations for assistance as well as for providing M1937 OSOAVIAKhIM collar tabs reconstruction.