A Short History of UFO Research in the Former Soviet Union

After 20 years of official negation of its existence, little by little scientific studies of the UFO phenomenon were launched at several different levels in the Soviet Union for more than two decades.

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Published 2024-07-06 at 04:31

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It is well known that the modern UFO era started in the year 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw nine very strange objects over the Cascade Mountains. Shortly after a so-called "UFO Wave" (sharp increase of «flying saucer» sightings) began in the United States, stirred up by sensational articles in the media. The Soviet press almost immediately stated that it was a dirty trick of «American warmongers», who wished to instigate a new war. This is one such news items quoted in its entirety:

«American press, which, with small exception, is located in the hands of capitalists, gives enormous aid to the warmongers. Each day newspapers printed some fictional stories about the Soviet Union by the orders of their owners. Here is only one example. During this summer newspapers raised a terrible noise about so-called «flying saucers». Each day newspapers reported on the first pages, under the enormous titles that people in the different places of America supposedly saw flying objects in the sky. They have an oval form and approximately aircraft size. Newspapers explained to their readers that this is, obviously, some projectiles, sent from the Soviet Union toward America through the north pole. American doctors unanimously stated that all «flying saucers» are only the fruit of the people's imagination, agitated by talks about the war, or simply someone's idle fabrications. And actually, if these «saucers» existed in reality, they must have fallen somewhere. However, no such «saucers» were ever found. Nevertheless newspapers continued to make noise around this matter for several months. Special forces with high-speed aircraft were created with the aim to pursue «flying saucers». It's clear that they shot down nothing» [1]

This point of view was repeated by one of the top Communist Party leaders, M. G. Pervukhin. During a speech given in November 1952, at a meeting celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Revolution, he caused much excitement by saying that the Americans fancied «flying saucers» and «green fireballs» in the sky. Of course, he stated that all sightings are caused by «loss of mental peace» because of «military psychosis» [2]

When Soviet citizens mustered some courage to report UFO sightings to the scientific organization or media, they received only answers in the debunking style. For example, the Moscow Planetarium had a standard reply letter for all «strange» cases: «Dear Comrade! The phenomenon you observed was, in all probability, due to an experiment that was conducted to measure the density of the atmosphere on high altitudes with the aid of a sodium cloud».

The position of the Soviet officials was unequivocal: our people don't see any mysterious objects in the sky, but even when they sometimes do, specialists can always convincingly solve such events. Information about UFOs in the 1950s was mostly confined to official agencies. Some cases were leaked decades later, when it became possible to talk about UFOs again. After Stalin's death, some enthusiasts, notably Yury Fomin, senior instructor at the Food Institute, Moscow, who was also lecturer of the Society for Propagation of Political and Scientific Knowledge (later Knowledge Society), began to collect information on UFOs and give lectures on this topic. His activity evoked great public interest, but official bodies decided to put a stop to it. On January 8, 1961 «Pravda» («Truth», main newspaper of Communist Party) published an article by academician L. A. Artsimovich, entitled «The Flying Saucer Myth». He stated that «so-called flying saucers» do not exist: «All talk on this issue... stems from the same source, namely unscrupulous and antiscientific information contained in lectures made in Moscow by some irresponsible persons. These reports tell fantastic tales borrowed mainly from the American press, dating from a time when flying tableware was the main sensation in the United States... The saucers and other material objects, which are said to appear in the sky, exist only as reflections on water or as rainbows exist, as the play of light in the atmosphere. All the rest is either self-deception or falsification» [3].

The «irresponsible» Y. A. Fomin was expelled from the Knowledge Society, and his lectures were forbidden. Of course, Artsimovich knew about Menzel's mirage theory and even mentioned Donald Menzel in his article. The following year a Russian translation of his book «Flying Saucers» was issued. It was the first book about UFOs in Russian [4].

There wasn't a direct prohibition against the mention of UFOs in Russian media, but editors still preferred to repeat the same old story about «American psychosis» and malicious «warmongers». The situation only began to change in 1966, when the young Vladimir Rubtsov published the first article that treated the UFO problem as being worth serious consideration. His article appeared in the Ukrainian-language magazine «Znannia ta Pratsia» («Knowledge and Work»), 1966, # 9. This article encouraged the reader to report their observations [5]. Some of the letters that arrived were later published in the magazine.

It was the first set of Soviet UFO reports, published in the Ukrainian SSR (USSR). People saw a «silent fiery ball» without trail, a cylinder-shaped object «three times larger than an airplane», something «shaped like a flattened ball», «a moving ring, shaped like an automobile tire» and so on. One reader even mentioned a case from 1914, where «several brilliant cigar-shaped objects'' passed through the sky from the north to the south at great speed  [6].

In April 1967 appeared the first pro-UFO article written by the now famous Dr. Felix Zigel for the popular magazine «Smena» [7]. During the coming months it was followed by other articles about unidentified flying objects in various journals and newspapers.

On May 17, 1967, in the Central House of Aviation and Cosmonautics the first meeting took place of the Initiative Group for UFO Studies. Its 45 attendants, mostly scientists and military personnel, selected Major-General P. A. Stolyarov as Group leader. The basic purpose of this Group was to lay the groundwork for creating a scientific UFO organization.

In October 1967, the first Soviet public organization designed to collect and analyze UFO reports: the UFO Department of the All-Union Space-Exploration Committee of the USSR Voluntary Society of Support to the Army, Aviation & Navy (DOSAAF), was formed in Moscow . It embraced more than two hundred scientists, engineers, military, journalists, etc. Its elected head was Major-General P. A. Stolyarov, his Deputy for Science was Dr. Felix Zigel. The first session of the new Department took place on October 18. Stolyarov and Zigel spoke on Central TV about the new organization and invited UFO observers to send in their reports. The reports that arrived were used by Zigel to prepare the first volume of his typewritten collection «UFO Observations in the USSR» (1968). But in the meantime forces were at work behind the scenes, and in November the Central Committee of DOSAAF disbanded the UFO Department. Some time later the Branch of General & Applied Physics of the USSR Academy of Sciences passed a resolution against UFO research in the Soviet Union.

On February 29, 1968 «Pravda» stated that «flying saucers» just don't exist: «All objects flying over the territory of our country are identified either by scientists, or by the people responsible for the security of our Motherland» [8]. From this date forward, pro-UFO articles were forbidden by Glavlit (Soviet censorship). Some people from the disbanded UFO Department wrote so-called «open-letters» to «Pravda» and the Academy of Science, in which they emphasized the importance of UFO study for the defense of the USSR, and the possible harm to science itself. An official answer was signed by academician  A. Shchukin: «The question about the nature of so-called flying objects was examined with the aid of many competent organizations, associated with USSR AS Presidium, Administration of Hydrometeorological Service, Ministry of Defense ets. As a result of this examination, it has been established that the nature of the flying objects, observed under different circumstances, can always be established by competent experts. At this time organizations, which carry out the study of the atmosphere and space, have the instruction to record and study cases of unknown flying objects' appearance for the purpose of their identification. General supervision for this task is accomplished by USSR AS, so there is no need for creating any special organization for the UFO study» [9].

It was a very low-profile «study»: The Branch of General & Applied Physics of the USSR AS appointed several researchers, headed by the scientific secretary of the division, V. A. Leshkovtsev (one of the authors of the anti-UFO article in «Pravda», February 29, 1968), to work with the letters and military reports of unidentified objects. Their task consisted of registering the letters and reports received, consulting with specialists in corresponding scientific areas, analyzing the data, and replying to the report authors. Something akin to the process of «Blue Books» in the USA. Pro-UFO enthusiasts, including Rubtsov and Zigel, were forced to continue their UFO studies almost underground, without access to the media or public lectures. In the late 1960s, there were no more than 25-30 people actively engaged in UFO studies throughout the entire Soviet Union. In general, they knew each other quite well, exchanging letters and meeting in person from time to time.

Certificate for the «Setka-AN» scientific group that gathered information about sightings of
anomalous phenomena in the lower atmosphere

In 1975, Dr. Zigel finally succeeded in opening a state-financed project for UFO studies at Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI). Top officials of the Institute approved a preliminary report for the project and applied to the Civil Aviation Ministry, the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR on Hydrometeorology, the Institute for Space Research and other organizations for cooperation. It was intended to set up a Scientific and Technological Council for the UFO problem. But this project was also disbanded when the shortened text of Zigel's UFO lecture at the military plant «Kulon» leaked to the Samizdat. As a result, Zigel was expelled from the Knowledge Society and criticized in the Soviet newspaper «Komsomolskaya pravda» [10].

Only after the so-called «Petrozavodsk phenomenon» (September 20, 1977 UFO sighting over the capital of the Karelian Autonomous Republic, later explained as the launch of the «Cosmos-955» satellite from the Plesetsk launching site) , was the UFO phenomenon considered a topic worthy of serious investigation. Top Soviet officials, including the same academician A. Shchukin, began a wide program for the study of so-called «anomalous phenomena» (words like «UFO» or "flying saucers" were almost prohibited even among its participants). The program was composed of two parts - civilian and military.

«Setka-AN» («AS Network») was a civilian study of «physical nature and development mechanisms of anomalous atmospheric and space phenomena». Its head organization was the Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere & Radio Wave Propagation of the USSR AS (IZMIRAN). «Setka-MO» («MoD Network») was a military study of «anomalous atmospheric and space phenomena, and of their effects on the performance of military hardware and the status of personnel». Its head organization was a NII 22 (Institute of Anti-Aircraft Defense), located in Mytishchi, near Moscow. Both parts of this program were connected via the Military-Industrial Commission. All its activities were secret for three reasons - the necessity to ensure «abatement of public response», the closeness to the defence-related themes and the possibility that some discoveries could be used for military purposes. The program changed its name twice during its final periods: first to the «Galaxy», then to the «Horizon».

«Goskomgidromet» (State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR on Hydrometeorology) took an active part in this program since 1979, when all Soviet meteorological stations and personnel engaged in the field studies received instructions and long questionnaires about so-called «anomalous phenomena» (AP) sightings. In Ukraine, these instructions are still active, but filled questionnaires are now sent to Kyiv instead of Moscow.

In the 1980s, government censorship rules about UFOs were changed. Now all articles, books ets. must have an additional approval sign from the «Setka-AN» authorities. To publish any pro-UFO article was still impossible: such articles had no chance to get  through double censorship.

By the early 1980s, the number of UFO enthusiasts increased sharply. In Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and elsewhere, various scientific and technical societies and journals organized public clubs for investigation of Anomalous Phenomena (AP). When the first Ukrainian meeting on AP was held in Kyiv in 1981, there were twelve doctors of sciences and 40 candidates of sciences participating.

The resolution of the Kyiv meeting stated that «in the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, on the ground surface and also in the near space a large group of complicated phenomena are constantly observed, by means of physical instruments and visually, which defy being simply explained as well-known natural phenomena or as being due to the human technological activities. This group of phenomena referred to as anomalous phenomena in the environment is to be studied profoundly in the interests of the sciences and practical activities of human society» [11]. Ukrainian Academy of Science (especially academician G. S. Pisarenko, who became a chairman of the local Commission for the AP Studies), gave important support for the local UFO investigations.

In February 1984 all scientifically oriented UFO enthusiasts united into the Commission on Anomalous Phenomena of the Committee on the Problems of Environmental Protection of the All-Union Council of Scientific Technical Societies. Of course, they obtained permission from the «Galaxy-AS», including from the main person behind this study – V. V. Migulin, director of IZMIRAN. They intended to use enthusiasts for the «primary job» in Ufology - collecting raw reports from the people and performing on-site field investigations. The chairman of this Commission was the corresponding member of the USSR AS V. S. Troitsky from Gorky, head of the Gorky Commission for AP Studies. His deputies were N. Zheltukhin, the same G. S. Pisarenko, and Major-General P. R. Popovich, a former astronaut. A. Mordvin-Shchodro from Leningrad became scientific secretary of the Commission. News about the Commission appeared in the biggest Soviet newspapers: «Sovetskaya Rossiya», «Izvestiya», «Socialisticheskaya Industriya» and «Trud». All these newspapers provided a postal address to the UFO witnesses: 101000, Moscow, P.O. box 764.

The confirmation letter about forwarding reports on anomalous phenomena to the Ukrainian
Civil Aviation Authority in 1985

On January 30th, 1985 «Trud» published a long article about a recent UFO case, which had been studied by the Commission on AP. This article created a big stir among the Soviet people, because it had been written from a pro-UFO position and depicted a very striking incident involving an Tu-134 plane. Its author,V. Vostrukhin deceived the censorship by replacing the officially approved article with his own. Of course, Vostrukhin was fired, but his article «Exactly at 4.10...» became a big sensation even abroad. After this event the Commission on AP received 12,000 letters from witnesses. Some of them (especially letters that were sent for investigation to the Leningrad branch of the Commission) were recently digitized by the author of this article. Analysis showed that approximately 60% of these letters contained misidentifications (bright stars, rocket launches etc-), 8% had no value (general reasonings, theories). All remaining cases definitely are of interest, although some contain too little information.

On February 7 and 8, 1986 in Gorky took place the First All-Union seminar «Technical Methods of AP Research». This meeting was only covered in the local press from an anti-UFO position.

In January 1987 amateur Yaroslavl UFO Research group (it wasn't part of Commission on AP) started to publish its periodical, the first monthly UFO bulletin in the Soviet Union. This «samizdat» bulletin had a very small circulation - about 50 copies.

Since 1988, the strict censorship started weakening. On the movie screens appeared the first Soviet documentary about UFOs and life in the Universe, entitled «In search of the aliens». It was made by the studio «Kyivnauchfilm». Among the script writers was A. I. Mordvin-Shchodro, the scientific secretary of the Commission on AP.

At the end of 1988, the Leningrad branch of the Commission created a separate amateur association for UFO studies, named «Fakt». Its main aim was a «wider attraction of people toward the UFO problem». «Fakt» was disbanded in 1990; part of its archives were saved and recently digitized.

In 1989 all censorship restrictions about UFOs were broken. In the Soviet press many articles about recently forbidden topics immediately appeared. Since 1990, new magazines and newspapers, entirely devoted to UFOs and paranormal phenomena have been published. Some of them still exist nowadays. Most famous of them, the newspaper «Anomaliya» («Anomaly») from Leningrad (St-Petersburg), recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, but circulation has dropped from 150.000 copies to 1000 over the years.

The Main Soviet UFO research program «Horizon» was closed in 1991, after the collapse of the USSR. Some participants continued working with UFO reports, albeit at a low level, especially the so-called «Group for the AP Research» inside the IZMIRAN. In 1996 this group was also discontinued, due to financial reasons. All archives of «Horizon-AS» are currently kept in a wet IZMIRAN basement, and unfortunately could be lost in the near future due to the very bad storage's conditions.

The NII 22 also continued to study military UFO reports from time to time, as a low priority. The head of this study, A. Plaksin (now Colonel) often appeared on TV and gave interviews to various media outlets. For example, in May 2002 Plaksin stated that he had never obtained any direct proof that there were alien civilizations active on our planet. There had not been any UFO crashes in the USSR, and all rumours about secret UFO storage facilities were only hoaxes. But 20% of UFO sightings are of physical origin that are still unknown to us. Our laws of physics cannot explain such objects, said Plaksin [12].

Since 1978 all meteorological stations of Ukraine State Hydrometeorological Service
are involved in the program of anomalous phenomena observations

Part of the military archives («Horizon-MoD») were stolen by Colonel B. A. Sokolov from the Military-Industrial Commission. The most interesting documents, about 400 cases, were later sold to American ufologists Brian Gresh and George Knapp in 1993. These documents are still unavaliable to UFO researchers, and we know about their content only via articles written by these individuals and by the ufologist Antonio Huneeus, who obtained a full copy of these documents [13].

The Commission on AP was also disbanded in 1990. The main part of its archive was lost after an accident at the storage facility. The remaining documentation is now the property of private individuals. Some participants of the former Commission later took part in the pseudoscience UFO organization «Soyuzufocenter» («All-Union UFO Center»), created by infamous V. Azhazha. The organization was disbanded in 1995 due to hard economic situations.

The Leningrad branch of the Commission on AP began an independent life without orders from Moscow. Their UFO research activities continued on the basis of the Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg (all its members have a Society membership card). Nominally the branch of Commission on AP still exists, but in reality the Commission has stopped its activities by decision of its new management and Society leaders. The same fate also struck the UFO Study Commission of Russian Geographical Society, which was established in 1981.

Some other branches of the Commission on AP and amateur UFO groups also continued their work after the collapse of the USSR. Most notable of them were Ukrainian groups. They even attempted to merge into one organization, the Ukrainian UFO Association, and successfully established their own newspaper «Ukrainian Ufologist» but it was disbanded in 1993 due to internal conflicts. Members of this Association, including astronomers A. Pugach and A. Arkhipov, created a new group, The Ukrainian Commission for the AP study problems (chairman – A. Beletzky).

Ultimately all attempts to unite UFO researchers in this country were unsuccessful until 2004. On October 21, 2004 the Ukrainian Scientific Research Center for Analyses of Anomalies «Zond», the direct successor of local Commissions on AP study, eventually became the biggest research center in the country. SRCAA «Zond» has some connections with a couple of Ukrainian official organizations, including Hydrometeorology Center – successor of the Soviet «Horizon-AS» program.

Nowadays SRCAA «Zond» undertakes an attempt to collect, save and digitize not only Ukrainian UFO archives, but all ex-USSR UFO heritage [14]. All saved paper archive documents were gathered and located in the State's Archives with safety admission. All digitized documents, if possible, will be uploaded on the web with open access [15]. The fate of UFO studies in the ex-USSR countries is now in safe hands.

References

  1. «Letayuschie tarelochki». "Leninskiye Iskry", Leningrad, 1947.10.22
  2. "Pravda", 1952, November 7; "Literaturnaya Gazeta", Moscow, 1952.11.07
  3. Artsimovich L.: «The Flying Saucer Myth». "Pravda", 1961.01.08
  4. Menzel D.: «Flying Saucers». Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. (Russian translation: Menzel D.: «О letayushchikh tarelkakh». Moscow: Izdatelstvo Inostrannoy Literatuiy, 1962).
  5. Rubtsov V.: «Guests from space or atmospheric phenomena?». "Znannua ta Pratsa", Kyiv, 1966, No. 9.
  6. «Space objects over the Ukraine». "Znannya ta Pratsa", Kyiv, 1967, No.1
  7. Zigel F.: «UFOs - What Is It?". "Smena", Moscow, 1967, No.7
  8. Mustel E., Martynov D., Leshkovtsev V.: «Flying Saucers» Again?». "Pravda", 1968.02.29.
  9. Zigel F.: «UFO Observations in the USSR - Vol.1». Manuscript. Moscow, 1968.
  10. Parnov E.: «The Technology of a Myth». "Komsomolskaya Pravda", 1976.11.28.
  11. Troitsky V.: «UFOs: Myth or Reality?». "Nauka i Religiya", 1982, No.10
  12. Plaksin A.: «UFOs helped to create US superweapon». "Komsomolskaya Pravda", 2002.05.31
  13. Huneeus A.: «Incident at Usovo». "The Anomalist", 1998/99, No.7
  14. SRCAA «Zond» official web site
  15. Kalytyuk I., Chvartkovsky A.: «Project Enlightenment», website http://ufology-news.com

This article is based upon a first version published as a chapter in the book «Anomalni yavischa: metodologiya ta praktika doslidzhenj» (Anomalous Phenomena: research methodology and practice), edited by A. Bilyka, National Technical University «Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute», Kharkiv, Ukraine, 2015

Featured Image: partial view of the «Petrozavodsk phenomenon», 1977
Thanks to: Jeff Knox for reviewing the English translation, Sveva Stallone for reviewing the reference links

Mikhail Gershtein

Born in St. Petersburg, Mikhail Gershtein graduated at Russian State Pedagogical University. He has written a large number of articles about UFOs in local and national media since 1988, has worked for some years as a journalist and UFO expert for the "Anomaliya" magazine, has been editor-in-chief of the monthly "UFO Navigator" e-zine and executive editor of popular magazine "Nexus". In 2002 he was elected as a Chairman of Russian Geographical Society’s UFO Commission and has since been an active member of EuroUFO.net.