A History of State UFO Research in the USSR
Yulii Platov and Boris Sokolov
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In the mid-1970s various government organizations involved in the study of UFOs stepped up their investigation of the alleged phenomena. As a result, public interest in the topic increased considerably. The UFO debate became a prominent social phenomenon in the country, especially among the scientific and technological intelligentsia. Soviet UFOlogists delivered well-attended lectures and published literature based on speculation fueled by foreign publications. The government bodies of the former Soviet Union did not actively promote discussion of UFO claims in the mass media, but neither did they discourage lectures at institutes, military installations, and other organizations - events that continually drew crowded audiences.
The lecturers entertained outlandish hypotheses, including that UFOs represented submarine and subterranean civilizations making contact with mankind.
The “research” into UFO claims within various government organizations during this era was limited to the uncritical collection of information about alleged encounters. The data were frequently of dubious origin, distorted by repeated layers of hearsay, and frequently left unchecked. The lecturers simply used claims of strange phenomena to speculate on the presumed activities of alien civilizations. The conclusions drawn from the analyses of observed data and measurements at the locations of alleged sightings were - to put it mildly - incorrect.
However, during this period, the investigation into the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations was being carried out around the world (e.g., SETI and CETI). It was not at all difficult to arouse public interest and opinion or to establish the importance of making contact with our “space brothers.” Over the next few years several publications appeared discussing the observation of extraordinary lights and other optical phenomena in various Soviet republics. In the Soviet Academy of Sciences (AS), in newspapers and journals, and in private collections a significant number of claims and amount of data accumulated - along with requests for a scientific (or simply reasonable) explanation of these phenomena. The Department of Physics and Astronomy of the AS organized a group of its employees headed by V. Leshkovtsev, the secretary of the department, to address the correspondence on UFO claims. The task of the group was to file the received correspondence, consult with appropriate experts, analyze the data, and respond to the inquiries. It was only natural that such an ill-conceived, ad hoc approach to research would fail to bring good results. A comprehensive investigation into UFO claims would require the creation of a team of specialists, the coordination of contacts between the departments of the AS, the Ministry of Education, the Hydrometeorology Committee and, of course, the Ministry of Defense, since such an investigation was assumed to require tight cooperation with the military.
The Petrozavodsk Incident
The “Petrozavodsk Incident,” as it came to be known, gave an impetus to the development of such a cooperative activity. Over a period of several minutes on September 20, 1977, in the middle of the night, the inhabitants of the northwest region of the USSR observed an extraordinary, massive, luminescent UFO phenomenon. The description of this event, based on accounts of eyewitnesses, appeared in the newspaper Izvestiya on September 23, 1977, under the headline “Unidentified natural phenomenon: The inhabitants of Petrozavodsk were witnesses to an extraordinary natural phenomenon.” According to the article, on September 20, about 4:00 a.m., there suddenly appeared in the night sky a huge “star” radiating pulsating beams of light to the ground. This object slowly moved toward Petrozavodsk, lingered over the town like a “huge jellyfish,” and illuminated the area with tendrils of radial beams, described as being similar to a downpour of rain.
After a few minutes, the luminescent “shower” stopped. The “jellyfish” wrapped into a bright half-disk and began heading toward Onega lake, in an overcast sky. There, a round depression of bright red color in the middle and white on each side formed in the clouds. This phenomenon, according to testimony from the eyewitnesses, lasted for ten to twelve minutes.
Yuri Gromov, the director of Petrozavodsk hydrometeorologic observatory, told a correspondent of the Soviet news agency TASS that the workers at the hydrometeorologic station in Kareliya observed no such anomalies. Nevertheless, eyewitnesses to this colorful phenomenon were numerous. They included workers of a first-aid unit, on-duty employees of the militia, seamen and the longshoremen at Petrozavodsk’s port, military, local airport staff, and even an amateur astronomer. Thus, the fact extraordinary aerial phenomenon of some sort had occurred was undisputed. It was soon discovered that at the same time a similar phenomenon was observed in the sky in regions far away from Petrozavodsk, including as far away as Sandalkul, Finland, where photos of this phenomenon were taken. It was impossible to disregard or dismiss such a widely observed event. The local authorities wrote the Presidium of the Academy of Science desperate for an official explanation. At the same time the AS and the newspapers were flooded by letters from the public demanding to know what had taken place in the night sky. Finally, official government letters from the nations of northern Europe to the Anatoly Aleksandrov, president of the AS, expressed concern about whether the observed phenomenon came from Soviet weapons testing and whether there were dangers to the entire region’s environment.
An Inquiry Begins
Under the pressure of these domestic and international inquiries, Aleksandrov wrote a letter to L. Smirnov, vice-president of the government and the Chairman of Military-Industrial Commission (MIC), urgently requesting him to consider starting a thorough investigation. In response Smirnov enlisted one of his assistants, Dr. A. Schokin, then Chairman of the Scientific and Technical Council (STC) of MIC, to consider the suggestions outlined in Aleksandrov’s letter at the next meeting of the STC. This meeting, presided over by Lieutenant General B.A. Kijasov (one of Schokin’s associates), was held in October 1977 at the Kremlin.
Opening the meeting, Kijasov briefly stated the contents of Dr. Aleksandrov’s letter to the MIC. He summarized the essence of his request in one quote: “The Academy of Sciences of the USSR can neither ignore, nor explain the paranormal phenomena similar to that observed in September, 1977, in Petrozavodsk, and, thus, the AS asks to organize a thorough investigation of paranormal phenomena with the involvement of organizations of the Ministry of Defense and MIC.”
The MIS members who spoke after Kijasov supported the AS president’s proposal. They noted that information on the sighting came to the offices of the Ministry of Defense from servicemen as well. The meeting resulted in a resolution recommending that the MIC include in the state plan for 1978 defense research projects a program titled “Research of paranormal atmospheric and space phenomena, and the reasons of their origin and influence on the operation of the military procedure and condition of a personnel.” The STC recommended (before the end of 1977) to send a group of experts, including members of the military, to Petrozavodsk to investigate.
The recommendation was adopted by the MIC under the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and at the following update of the current five years’ plan for defense research activities they included two topics for 1978 to studying the paranormal phenomena:
- “Setka MO” (Ministry of Defense): “Research of paranormal atmospheric and space phenomena and their influence on the operation of military technical equipment and personnel";
- “Setka AS” (Academy of Sciences): “Research of a physical nature and mechanisms of paranormal atmospheric and space phenomena.”
Thus in 1978 the USSR began its state program to study UFO phenomenon, which proceeded without interruption for thirteen years until 1990. The STC-MIC meeting in October 1977, which played so important a role in the organization of this research program, was the first and last measure on UFO phenomena involving such high level officials. The five-year plans including defense-related paranormal research were approved twice after the groundbreaking 1977 resolution (in 1981 and 1986). And it should be noted that even after the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the Academy of Sciences ceased its investigation into UFO phenomena, the group of experts that had been under its aegis continued its work up to 1996. The task of the group throughout was to analyze alleged eyewitness claims, testimony and other materials offered as evidence coming to the Academy of Sciences. Nowadays such correspondence with the public is rare, and is no longer the project of the Department.
After the STC-MIC meeting in October 1977, the representatives of the State Machinery, including the members of STC MIC, started to display keen interest in the question of UFO phenomena, and some of them have personally participated in individual projects. Nevertheless, official recognition of any urgency in studying paranormal phenomena was incomplete. In official documents the use of the abbreviation “UFO” was not accepted: instead, the term “paranormal phenomenon” was used.
To reduce the likelihood of the public’s overreaction and to avoid any assumption that the government’s research was a tacit endorsement of various unfounded “theories,” the UFO research was classified. Research was regulated by three stipulations:
- The program of activities formally entered the classified plan of defensive research;
- At the outset of research there was an assumption that observed UFO phenomena was due to military activity and/or research and development; and
- In the event of a verification of wholly new phenomena (such as actual alien flight technology), any knowledge gathered was to first be used for military applications: e.g., absence of a radar contrast, high maneuverability, etc.
Because of the classified nature of UFO research activities, the number of publications in press was rather limited, and it was recommended that the publications be first directed to the Soviet Academy of Sciences (AS) for review. The MIC actually created two centers of UFO research: one in the Ministry of Defense (MD), the other in the Academy of Sciences. The lines of research differed in the sources of the respective organizations’ data. The MD worked with the data coming from servicemen in the field, and the AS conducted the research based on correspondence gathered among scientific organizations, such as the Hydrometeorology Committee, newspapers, journals, etc.
There were differences in the purposes of the two centers’ activities. One of the main objectives for the military was to discover possible data about UFOs related to the (mal)function of military technology and personnel stress, and, if any phenomenon were verified, to isolate the cause and the degree of danger it posed.
The Academy of Sciences framed the main line of inquiry as the identification of the causes of unexplained phenomena, i.e., modeling of the processes of development and vanishing of the unknown effects, correlating them with physical conditions in the environment and identifying possible man-made sources.
The main military institution involved in UFO research was one of the central military research institutes near Moscow. V. Balashov, a highly qualified expert in the study of the effect of radiation and other phenomena on military equipment, was assigned to the position of scientific chief for this line of inquiry. To conduct the research, a small group of military and civilian experts (including four to five individuals in any given year) was formed at the MD lead institute. This group executed the bulk of work collecting, processing, and examining correspondence and data on UFO sightings, along with preparing documents.
Dr. V. Migulin, the director of the Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation of the AS (IZMIRAN), was a radio physicist and a leading expert in the field of radio wave oscillation and propagation, and radiolocation. He was assigned as chief of “academic” research, and IZMIRAN was designated the head institute. A workgroup of four to five persons was formed for direct activity on the topic of research. The group was headed by Yuri Platov. The institutes of the Academy of Science, the Hydrometeorology Committee, and the Ministry of Education became the “executors.”
Their participation in the work varied from the collection of the UFO sighting correspondence to the analysis of data and development of scientific models for various kinds of paranormal phenomena. All the money came from the budget of participating organizations: there was no special financing earmarked for the research. It should be noted that the program of investigating paranormal phenomena was the least funded among the scientific defense projects. The shortage of financing hindered progress and prevented the acquisition of specialized equipment for particular projects. Therefore some of the scheduled investigations\emdash in particular the ones concerning the development of large-scale plasma formations in atmosphere\emdash were never carried out.
Budgetary restrictions hindered research, which was mostly limited to the analysis of the assembled material and development of hypothetical models for the observed phenomena. Only in the most interesting cases did researchers visit the locations of UFO sightings.
In spite of the fact that from the outset a rather large collection of archival material on the observations of strange phenomena had been assembled, only a small portion of this information was subjected to review.
The research program was based on these main principles:
- A serious approach to the problem, an understanding that the observation of phenomena per se is an actual objective fact and that the testimony about the UFO observations came from eyewitnesses who, for the most part, sincerely want to understand the nature of the phenomena they have been witness to.
- Rejection of a priori solutions of the problem.
- Dedication to long-term and thorough investigation of a problem.
There was a recognition of three possible general sources for UFO sightings:
- UFOs are the product of human activity, i.e., these phenomena are of “anthropogeneous” origin;
- UFOs are the product of natural processes taking place on Earth, Earth’s atmosphere and in near space\emdash in short, a hypothesis of a natural origin of paranormal phenomena;
- UFOs are the result of the activity of extraterrestrial civilizations.
The last version, though the most intriguing, aroused no enthusiasm as a likely conclusion but neither would it have been proper to completely eliminate its consideration.
A major boost to the scope of Soviet UFO research came from a document prepared by the Ministry of Defense program’s chief executive and authorized by the Chief of General Staff of the USSR in January 1980. This directive allowed participants in the program of paranormal phenomena research to use the massive information gathering potential of the Soviet armed forces.
Each serviceman, wherever he was, became (without knowing it) a potential participant of the program, since in case of any observation of inexplicable, unusual, or extraordinary phenomenon he was obligated to report about it in written form and present the information to his superiors.
The directive effectively placed the army on full-time duty for thirteen years collecting data on observations of UFO phenomena across the whole territory of the USSR\emdash approximately one-sixth of the globe. It is unlikely any private body could ever organize such a large-scale research, especially with the same limited financing. There were two levels of priority for the transmission of the information about UFO sightings. The first - routine - was used when the observed phenomena did not result in any direct effects on the safety or normal function of the military unit. However, when equipment failures allegedly occurred, information on such phenomena was sent directly to program chiefs, circumventing all intermediate stages.
During the work on the program about 3,000 pieces of testimony, data and correspondence about extraordinary phenomena had been obtained. Practically all of these were analyzed and identified by a small group of researchers. The majority of the information relates to mass observations, i.e. when many independent eyewitnesses described one and the same phenomenon.
Practically all the mass night UFO sightings were conclusively identified as phenomena caused by rocket launches and tests of aerospace equipment. Researchers arrived at this conclusion by correlating the times and place of UFO sightings with schedules of launches. Launches of space rockets can be observed at a significant distance (thousand of kilometers - even on other continents). The main optical mechanism of this class of UFO sighting involves the scattering of solar light on the gas-dust cloud formed by the combustion byproducts of the rocket fuel. Thus the most favorable conditions for such observations are under twilight conditions, when the path of the a rocket lies in the region illuminated by the Sun, and the observer at a distance at a location still in night conditions. Depending on the altitude of the rocket flight, engine design, and composition of the propellant, the configuration of a gas-dust cloud and its size can vary widely. It is enough to say that in some cases the characteristic cross-sectional size of the rocket trace can reach many hundreds of kilometers. It is no wonder that given their size and altitude, along with the absence of sound, these exhaust trails evoke surprise and bewilderment in an uninformed observer.
Among the most interesting records of “rocket effects” in the annals of Soviet UFO sightings is the famous, above-mentioned Petrozavodsk Incident. This sighting was eventually attributed to the launch of the Kosmos 955 satellite from the cosmodrome in Plesetsk, USSR.
An additional example is connected with another rocket launch from Plesetsk. A massive “dolphin-shaped” object was observed by witnesses in the night sky on June 14\endash 15, 1980, across the vast territory of the European part of Russia. This UFO was seen during the launch of the Kosmos 1188 satellite. Interestingly, in less than an hour this satellite had left visual traces in, of all places, South America. In the USSR a gas-dust track left by the enormous thrust of the booster was observed, and in South America witnesses had observed a cloud connected with the thruster burn (used to accelerate the satellite into its working orbit).
The second significant class of UFO phenomena observed by the eyewitnesses were indeed “flying objects.” Or rather, “floating objects.” Balloons turned out to be a significant source of UFO sightings. In order to study conditions in various atmospheric layers and to carry out regular meteorological observations, spherical balloons are widely used worldwide. The modern “ball-probe” has a rubber shell about two meters in diameter at the ground with suspended measuring instruments. Sometimes they can climb to an altitude of about thirty kilometers (90,000 feet), where the diameter expands to nearly ten meters in the reduced air pressure.
These ball-probes are sent up regularly, but the distance of their flight usually does not exceed ten to fifteen kilometers (six to nine miles) from the start position. Therefore, as a rule, the observation does not puzzle hapless observers. However, surprising things do sometimes happen.
One episode took place on June 3, 1982, involving an air-defense squadron located near Chita in Transbaikalia. The air-defense command post received an urgent report from the squadron that while patrolling the border with China one pilot had detected, at an altitude about 17 kilometers (50,000 feet), an extraordinary spherical object. He prepared to attack it, but the object unexpectedly disappeared. The report stated that the spherical UFO could not have been a meteorological ball-probe, since such objects are well known to the pilots, are much smaller in size than the observed object, and never climb up to such altitudes.
In the region in which the fighter had met the UFO there were no settlements on the ground except the frontier post and meteorological station. Researchers decided to start by checking with the meteorological service. A telephone call to the station revealed that the launch time of a ball-probe balloon from this station coincided with the UFO encounter, and also that the shell of the launched balloon has turned to be very strong and it climbed many kilometers higher than usual. The last altitude of a probe fixed by the telemetry read 47,000 feet.
A similar incident took place on September 13, 1982, in an air-defense regiment located on Chukot Peninsula. Again, a military aircraft encountered an unidentified spherical object at an unusually high altitude - this time in the region of Anadyr Bay. The object also unexpectedly disappeared. The difference from the first case consisted in the fact that the meteorologists did not know the altitude reached by the balloon they had launched due to a failure in the telemetry. It is quite possible that both balloons with unusually strong shells belonged to one defective batch. These episodes show that even experienced pilots are not immune from errors in the identification of observed objects.
We have reported only the two most important causes of UFO sightings: the flights of the balloons at high altitude and rocket launches. These causes explain the majority of the observed phenomena (more than 90 percent). There is no doubt that the offered explanations are not the only possible ones. We do not assume that the solutions offered for the majority of observed UFO phenomena is the sum of possible explanations.
The results of the committee’s research have shown that the majority of sightings have tangible, down-to-earth explanations. These phenomena are explained mainly by either activity of human beings, or with rare forms of natural phenomena.
To our minds the explanation of the greater part of UFO phenomena was not the most important result of the research, though extremely interesting results were obtained. The most surprising realization is that, in contrast to numerous descriptions and “proofs” of aliens contact assembled by the UFOlogists, we could not obtain any material evidence or testimony to substantiate claims that an unidentified craft from an alien world landed in the Soviet Union, made contact with pilots, or abducted servicemen or civilians. And this is despite evidence gathered within the framework of a thirteen-year project that involved the great observational potential of the entire Soviet military and many civil organizations.
This means that either the territory of the USSR was closed to alien travellers during the years 1978 to 1995 or that the hypothesis of an extraterrestrial origin for UFOs is sorely lacking even the thinnest shred of evidence. Any serious UFO investigator must, at the very least, face this reality. In recent years many UFO publications have mentioned “KGB secret files,” the “classified capture of UFOs", etc. There are now many films promoting these claims. We can hardly imagine a greater absurdity. There is a good proverb in the English language: “Somebody is fooling somebody all right.” This well illustrates the symbiotic relationship between UFO authors and their readers.
The outcome of the work covered in this article has shown that the truth, is, almost always, elsewhere. There are eyewitnesses to strange occurrences that cannot always be precisely explained by any natural cause. However, this amounts to a very insignificant minority compared to the huge majority of readily explained cases. Nor does any probable inference of extraterrestrial visitation follow from the handful of unexplained encounters.
In conclusion we would like to cite UFO investigator R. Cowen, who discusses the possible results from the analysis of correspondence with eyewitnesses:
It is tempting to dismiss the charge made by UFO buffs that intelligence agencies have secret files on UFOs that they are reluctant to release. Most such material, when it is made available, contains no revelation on alien visitations. But it undoubtedly does pay such agencies to sift through UFO reports for any light they can shed on Soviet space secrets. To the extent that this process involves classified techniques, intelligence agencies probably and properly are withholding UFO information. . . . Once again, a hard-headed UFO study has shown that this seemingly goofy subject deserves serious research. UFOs are as real and significant as the secret space shots and other genuine mysteries that underlie reliable sightings.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to all the observers of the paranormal phenomena who stimulated the execution of the research program. We would also like to note the large personal role in organization of researches and scientific management of project scholar V.V. Migulin, and General V.P. Balashov. The very useful and active work was made by Prof. N.V. Vetchinkin, Ph.D.s S.A. Chernous, A.A. Plaksin, A.A. Abdulin and V.V. Rubtsov and the other collaborators. Unfortunately, we cannot name all of them here. We are also grateful to our foreign colleagues for stimulating and helpful contacts.
Skeptical Briefs co-editor Kevin Christopher extensively revised this version from the original draft.