Imperial Russian Air Force, 1898-1917

  • Published

Imperial Russian Air Force, 1898-1917 by Gennady Petrov. Unicorn Press, 2013, 263 pp.

As the subtitle on the inner title page indicates, Imperial Russian Air Force, 1898–1917 is, first and foremost, a history in photographs. The 17 pages of text, although double columned, are interspersed throughout 259 pages of pictures. The book is divided into seven chapters, each covering a specific theme, including early balloon flight as well as World War I Russian aces. Each chapter begins with not only one to three pages of introduction that offer a brief history of the theme but also several pages of related pictures.

The failure of this book, however, is that the author, Gennady Petrov, attempts to crowd too much detail into these meager introductory pages and refers to over 300 names, most of which only the most dedicated historian of Russian aviation will recognize. For less knowledgeable readers, the names are left floating meaninglessly in the multiple lists of “important” figures in Russian aviation that the author includes throughout the book.

In the limited text, many subjects that could take up chapters by themselves are covered in one paragraph. Moreover, if the reader wishes to delve further into any particular event, he or she is out of luck because Petrov offers no bibliography. Even direct quotations go unreferenced.

Since the history of powered flight paralleled the Russian empire by only a little less than two decades, most of the pictures cover the time between 1910 and 1915. The images vary in quality, and the captions supply minimal details. Most of the pictures, many of them posed, consist of various individuals standing by different designs of powered aircraft. Unless readers are familiar with the litany of names posted in the captions, those individuals will remain mere curiosities with little historical value. However, the aircraft design enthusiast may find the pictures interesting because the book depicts multiple configurations throughout.

Although Petrov’s primary purpose is to compile a photo history of early Russian aviation, he does propose the theory that had the empire survived, its air arm could have surpassed that of other developing nations in both design and capability. Unfortunately, although the author lists several firsts and makes bold proclamations regarding the influence of early Russian aviation design, he presents little evidence to support his claims, leaving the reader with only a few statements and pictures (p. 193).

The text, although limited, does offer a solid historical timeline of early Russian aviation. However, without sources or references, the book has little research value. As a history in pictures, this volume is also limited. As is typical of the time, the photos are grainy, and many are too dark to discern details. However, the saving grace of the Imperial Russian Air Force is that it does provide considerable photo evidence in a compact package. For the informed, the images complement the many historical tomes written about Russian aviation. Furthermore, for the novice historian, it delivers a cornucopia of lists regarding early Russian aviation that afford a good starting point for further research.

Capt Daniel W. Purvis, USAF
United States Forces Korea
Seoul, Republic of Korea

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."