OSOAVIAKhIM is one of the most outstanding features of the Soviet reality. Those were millions of proletarians, collective farmers, engineers, teachers and students who created this grass-root organization that contributes to the national defense. All of them have given very selflessly of themselves, of their own free will. This agency creates great values and helps raising new socialist citizen who is prepared at any time to dedicate himself to active defense of his proletarian Fatherland.
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 /RKKA/ (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).
Quite vivid description of variety of clothes worn by the so-called “labour units” at an early stage of the OSOAVIAKhIM history could be found in the news story “Battle Reserve Has Arrived. OSOAVIAKhIM Unit at the Manoeuvres of the 4th Turkestan Rifles” by M.Dneprovsky published in the “Krasnaya Zvezda” [“The Red Star”] newspaper on September 06, 1927. на маневрах 4-й Туркестанской”: “Here they are, jumping off railway wagons bristled with rifles. Factory workers from “Treugolnik”, Putilov plant and “Elektrosila”. (…) Here are guys from the “Treugolnik” factory representing the true battle unit. All of them wear leather jackets, indispensable in cold and rain. “Skorokhod” factory workers are clad in tarpaulin coats and jackboots. OSOAVIAKhIM battalion is raised from residents of the three Leningrad districts – Moskovsko-Narvsky, Vasileostrovsky and Volodarsky”.
Air-chemical defense units of the OSOAVIAKhIM were issued with distinctive insignia that consisted of a breast badge and armband in July 1927. The latter was manufactured of 10 cm wide yellow cloth and had paint-stenciled number of the unit. It was worn on the left sleeve above the elbow. Commanding personnel had 0,5 cm wide separate black stripes paint-stenciled at the edges of armbands and combination of short red stripes (1 cm wide and 7 cm long) sewn below the number of the unit. Thus, head of a detachment wore armband with one stripe; assistant to the head of a unit who also held the rank of the head of reserve – two stripes; head of a unit – three stripes. Armband for unit equipment manager had black edging but no red stripes. Non-permanent personnel of air-chemical defense units wore yellow armbands with unit number only.
Regular uniform, i.e. headgear and suit, for each unit was introduced by local branches of the OSOAVIAKhIM, and as a rule it corresponded to the uniform described above.
Badge for air-chemical defense units personnel had a shape of green enameled vertical diamond frame with red enameled five-point star on its upper part. Central part of the badge showed symbols of the OSOAVIAKhIM: sickle and hammer, horizontally placed two-bladed propeller and standard gas mask of BN model [BN abbreviation stood for “unclassified combat”]. Single-piece cut-out badge measuring 31x41 mm approximately was manufactured of bronze or brass and was attached to the left side of the breast with screw and round nut.
Uniform for personnel of the OSOAVIAKhIM naval sections was introduced by the Presidium of the Society in August 1928. Regulations were summarized in the “Krasnaya Zvezda” newspaper on August 04, 1928 under the heading “About Everything”. Traditional white sailors’ shirts authorized for wearing by the Order of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic No.2443 dated October 27, 1921 and reasserted by the Order of the same authority No.006 dated January 05, 1925 were the main feature of the uniform. Those shirts had three dark blue stripes sewn on collars and dark blue Admiralty pattern anchor sewn on patch pocket. According to the brief news story, unlike military sailors, OSOAVIAKhIM naval sections personnel wore black cap tally inscribed “ОСОАВИАХИМ” in capital silver letters.
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.
Uniform of the OSOAVIAKhIM described above was worn by its members until 1932 when it was replaced with a new model.
The author thanks Dr.Leonid Tokar (Saint Petersburg, Russia), a renowned expert on Soviet paramilitary organizations, for providing all color drawings as well as for information on M1927 uniform for air-chemical defense units of the OSOAVIAKhIM.