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Red Skies: A History of UFO’s in Russia

By William L. Moore
UFO Report 1976

In Russia, where even the most ordinary sort of information is sometimes treated as secret by the government, it often follows that those subjects that are officially “disapproved” are the ones that enjoy the highest levels of public interest. And so it is “with the question of “Anomalous Atmospheric Phenomena,” better known as UFOs-a subject that has piqued the interest and curiosity of the Russian public over the past three decades in spite of an often vigorous official campaign to discredit sightings and discourage investigation.

Until recently relatively little was known in the U.S. about UFO activity in Russia. Now, thanks to a recent relaxation in the official skepticism of the Soviet government and the resultant availability of material previously unavailable to Western investigators, it is possible to piece together for the first time what amounts to an excellent insight into 30 years of UFO activity and investigation in the Soviet Union. It is important to note that much of the source material used in the writing of this article has up to this time been available only in manuscript form to relatively few researchers here in the United States, and so should be regarded as new to the majority of American readers.

In Russia, the approach to the UFO problem can best be described as sober and highly scientific in nature, with little regard for publicity and sensationalism. Perhaps the principal difference between those who study UFOs in the Soviet Union and those who study them in the United States is that Soviet researchers seem more interested in hard scientific facts than in appearing on the “Today,” “Tonight,” or “Tomorrow” shows. In Russia, where little is done without first considering governmental reactions, professional vanity has taken a back seat to professional survival for those few civilians who have managed to pursue their interest in the UFO question.

While in the United States men like Donald Keyhoe are permitted to cry out against government secrecy and others like George Adamski have been able to write books and make lecture tours to promote their bizarre claims, in Russia such behavior is dangerous. Clearly, those few civilians who have emerged as spokesmen for Soviet ufology have done so only because they have been careful and thorough enough to earn the respect of their scientific colleagues while at the same time managing not to tread too heavily on officially skeptical toes.

Even so, Soviet interest in paranormal phenomena in general and UFOs, in particular, has remained intense over the years. Much of Soviet interest in possible visitations from space has centered around the so-called Tunguska “Divo” (or “Miracle”) of June 30, 1908, when something exploded with the force of a 10 megaton bomb about 10 kilometers above the desolate Siberian tundra and set off seismic detection devices around the world.


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Numerous expeditions to the remote site in the 70 years since the event has turned up remarkable facts, among them that the object that exploded not only executed a change-of-course maneuver before it blew up, but that it was traveling far too slowly to have exploded from any cause except internal energy. Based on the evidence, there appears to be no question that the explosion was atomic in nature. Not only do the tree rings for 1908 and 1909 indicate increased levels of radioactive carbon, but the area of damage from “lightburns” (the flash at the time of the explosion) matches that expected from an atomic blast. All of this, coupled with the fact that the blast left no impact crater, has led Prof.

Aleksei V. Zolotov, a prominent physicist at the Soviet All-Union Geophysical Institute who has led four expeditions to the blast site in the past 22 years, to conclude that the Tunguska explosion was no cosmic accident, but rather “a compact nuclear device, sent with great precision, (and) deliberately exploded over a relatively uninhabited area to let us know we are not alone in space.”

Although Zolotov’s research has been generally supported by the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences, a small but vocal group within that organization still regards the case as unresolved and is busily trying to show that the “Miracle” was a purely natural phenomenon.

Soviet civilian research into UFOs generally, however, seems to have been virtually nonexistent until the middle 1950s, with the prevailing attitude voiced in both Soviet scientific circles-and the government-controlled press being that American and Western European reports of flying saucers were just “so much cold war’ propaganda.”

Typical of the official “nichevo” (there’s nothing to it) attitude was Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s flippant suggestion, when asked his opinion of flying saucers by The New York Times in July 1947, that the saucers were really discs from Soviet discus throwers practicing for the “Olympic Games” (If this is so, one wonders whether to expect another flap at the upcoming Moscow Olympics.) In any event, throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, while official research was undoubtedly being carried on behind the Kremlin walls, occasional government signals made it painstakingly clear that any civilian attempt to study the subject would be looked upon with extreme disfavor.

Summarizing the situation for his fellow scientists, top Soviet astronomer Prof. Boris Kukarin dismissed flying saucers to a foreign journalist in 1952 as “an optical illusion growing out of sheer war psychosis,” and went on to say that those who encouraged the reports of such nonsense were nothing less than war mongers. Radio Moscow, in 1953, went even further. “Flying saucers,” it said, “are figments of the imagination of Western War Mongers designed to make taxpayers swallow heavier military budgets.”

Soviet ufology seems to have had its modest beginnings in 1956 when engineer Yuri Aleksandrovitch Fomin, then a senior instructor in the Department of Automatic Devices of the Moscow Technological Institute, became interested in UFOs after reading a number of foreign reports and articles on the topic. So far as is known, Fomin was the first person to begin collecting information on sightings within the Soviet Union and cataloging them in an orderly form. He was joined in 1959 by fellow engineers B. V. Makarov and V. M. Gulisov; and together they collected data, interviewed witnesses, and gave low-key lectures on UFOs.

Fomin and his associates generally preferred to avoid the spectacular in favor of good solid sightings from competent and reliable observers.

Typical of the cases in his files are these two from the late 1950s: e Aug. 9, 1957, p.m.¬† A field group of scientists from the Moscow Institute of Atmospheric Physics had just gone to bed at their campsite near Tsymlyansk when they were awakened by loud cries. Upon looking out of their tents, they saw a large, red disc-shaped object crossing the sky from west to east leaving a fiery trail. According to physicist L. N. Babin, who spoke on behalf of the group, the disc was not a comet or any other sort of natural celestial phenomenon. “The disc appeared to be of a hard substance, with a silvery sheen. Above the disc (there were) two protrusions which could have been antennas, and which appeared to be made of the same materials.”

June 4, 1958, 9:00 p.m.: Dr. B. Muratov and his son, an engineering student at Moscow University, were returning from a fishing trip on the Aral Sea. They were near the town of Chimbay, Karapalpak, when they both suddenly noticed a strange aerial object approaching them at a low altitude from the northeast.

Thinking it was an aircraft of some sort, they continued to watch it as it passed about 300 feet above them.

Only then did the Muratovs realize that it was not a plane, but rather a shiny, disc-shaped flying object about 80 feet in diameter which glowed red on one side and “emanated a melodious chiming sound-zing-zing-zing, almost like a voice …. ” At the tip of this mysterious object was a sort of protrusion “which looked like a short antenna.” The Muratovs estimated its speed at “no more than 300 kilometers (200 miles) an hour.”

When they told local fishermen of the strange experience, they were surprised to learn that a similar object had been seen in the area about two years earlier.

Fomin’s report notwithstanding, the Moscow Planetarium during this time maintained a sharply negative view on UFOs. A form letter was routinely sent out in response to any and all inquiries from the public on the topic:

Dear Comrade:

The phenomenon that you observed is apparently connected with one of the experiments being conducted to measure the density of the atmosphere at great altitudes, or with the creation of a sodium cloud (such as are formed during the flight of space rockets).

The letter was signed “V. A. Bronschtein, Scientific Consultant to the Moscow Planetarium,” and was credited with the loss of many good sighting reports in those years.

An interesting sidelight that should be mentioned here is the sharp distinction that began to develop in the Soviet Union at this time between the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the study of UFOs. One of the more interesting quirks of Soviet logic is that their long-term interest in and support for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligences) program which they regard as a topic “worthy of further scientific investigation” has never been publicly connected in any way with the question of UFOs or their possible origins.

Fomin and his colleagues were rewarded for their mild but persistent efforts on Jan. 8, 1961, when a blast from the Communist Party’s official newspaper Pravda (Truth), in response to a “flap” then apparently in progress in the U.S.S.R., labeled all UFO reports as “fantastic fairy tales” and castigated those “lecturers who have reported about them as if they are actual facts.”

Only a few weeks later, after a similar denunciation had appeared in the January 22nd edition of Vechernaya Moskva (Moscow Evening), the All-Union Society for the Propagation of Political and Scientific Knowledge took the hint and expelled Fomin from its membership. It was to be nearly six years before public policy would undergo sufficient change of attitude to permit the open study of UFOs to begin again in Russia.

Aside from the publication of a Russian edition of U.S. astronomer Dr. Donald Menzel’s UFO’ debunking book On Flying Saucers in 1962, the first glimmer of official interest in the topic came in June 1965 when an international colloquium was held in Moscow on the microstructure of the Earth’s atmosphere. Quite surprisingly, several of the Soviet delegates to this conference showed an interest in discussing the nature of strange objects they referred to as “angel-echoes” which, they said, had been observed on radar screens with distressing frequency by scientists working at the Central Aerological Observatory near Moscow. According to scientist A. Garelik, it had been determined that these mysterious objects could not be birds, flights of insects, or plant seeds, for they frequently moved against the wind and appeared in places where there were no birds or insects. Other members of the conference pointed out that similar objects had been detected on screens in the United States, Australia, India, and Japan.

By 1967 it was apparent that a relaxation of policy with respect to UFO study was in the works. This was signaled by a featured article entitled “UFOs, What Are They?” in the Feb. 7, 1967, issue of the Soviet youth magazine Cmena (Change). The article was written by Prof. Felix Y. Ziegel, professor of cosmonautics at the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute, and a man of outstanding scientific background. Dr. Ziegel, it turned out, had been interested in the UFO question since 1955 but had maintained a low profile on the topic. Indeed, Ziegel had only recently seen the publication of his book Ufe in the Cosmos (1966), which dealt with the question of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. Now Ziegel saw fit to speak out. After a brief and cautious outline of the world-wide scope of the UFO mystery, followed by a discussion of what he felt were five possible areas of explanation for it (nonsense and hoax, optical illusion, military secret, unknown phenomena of nature, and spaceships from another planet), Ziegel carefully concluded his article by commenting that “the UFO phenomenon exists almost everywhere. The nature of this phenomenon has still not been unravealed and not one of the existing hypotheses can pretend to be the final answer to the problem.”

Later that same year the well-known journal Nayka (Science), under the editorship of Dr. B. P. Konstantinov, vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and one of the nation’s most respected scientists, published Inhabited Cosmos , a collection of papers “devoted to a comprehensive examination of the exciting problems connected with life outside the Earth, the inhabitability of the planets, the development of civilizations on other worlds, and the establishment of contact with them.”

For a time it appeared as if the Soviet government were going to do a complete about face. In October 1967, a Department on UFOs was created within the All-Union Committee on Astronautics. But even this dramatic development was upstaged on Nov. 10, 1967 by an even more unexpected turn of events-undoubtedly the most significant in the study of Soviet ufology up to that time. At the direct invitation of the Soviet government, Dr. Ziegel and Maj. Gen. P. A. Stolyarov addressed the Russian people on a live, prime-time, nationwide television broadcast from Moscow. “UFOs are a very serious subject which we must study fully,” they said. “We appeal to all viewers to send us details of any observations of strange flying craft seen over the territories of the Soviet Union. This is a serious challenge. We need the help of all Soviet citizens. Please write us at the following address in Moscow…”

Within a matter of days literally hundreds of letters came in to the address given in the program, and newspapers were flooded with news items about the saucers and related research. From these, follow-up investigations by Ziegel and his colleagues yielded more than 200 well documented cases that seemed to lend themselves to further study. In fact, the public’s respo11se was so overwhelhming that one thing became obvious: The anti-UFO propaganda of the preceding 20 years had not succeeded in diminishing the frequency of UFO sightings at all, it had merely discouraged the public from reporting what they had seen.

Public interest in UFOs was also fueled at this time by several rather sensational announcements from members of the SETI group. Several scientists in this group viewed the new governmental attitude as a good opportunity to gain publicity for their continuing interest in the strange radio signals discovered in 1960 to be emanating from the constellations of Aries and Pegasus. Many members of the group reiterated their belief that these mysterious signals might be messages from advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. Public curiosity was at an all-time high.

With the sanction of the Soviet government, and aided by the other scientists in his UFO study group, Ziegel completed and released in manuscript form the first volume of UFO Sightings in the U.S.S.R.-a work that is still regarded as the most significant compilation of Soviet UFO sightings to date.

Ziegel’s euphoria was to be short-lived, however. The official attitude suddenly switched from approval to disapproval again. Newspapers went back to their former “anti” stance, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, obviously under official pressure, issued a statement to the effect that “there is no scientific reason to believe in UFOs,” and Ziegel was officially “advised” to cease researching UFOs in favor of “more productive work.”

Unlike Fomin before him, Ziegel could see the handwriting on the wall.

Officially, he became no longer interested or active in the research of UFOs. Unofficially, he could hardly be blamed if others sent him unsolicited reports. While the public continued to regard him as the top UFO researcher in the country, Ziegel himself maintained as low a profile as possible.

He gave no interviews, wrote no papers, and maintained the strictest silence about such material as managed to find its way to him. Foreign journalists seeking to visit him were politely informed by his office that he was “not available for comment.”

And so it remained for the next seven years-until the ice unexpectedly thawed again in 1974. In that year, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, acting with government approval, began the development of what was to become known upon its publication a year later as “Program of Exploration of Possible Communications with Extraterrestrial Civilizations.” Part of what was to be the Academy’s official policy on this new program reads as follows: Special attention should be given to the possibility of discovery of probes sent out by extraterrestrial civilizations that may be at present within our solar system and possibly even in orbit around Earth. To find such rapidly moving objects, a system of continuous observation of the entire heavens should be complemented with newly built radio-triangulation systems.

Action on these recommendations was soon to be entrusted to the Popov Radio-Technological Institute which created a new department for the task: the Department for Close-Range Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with the Aid of Radio-Electronics. This department is still in operation and has recently focused a great deal of its attention on the possibility of intelligent life on Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn.

Although the civilian study of UFOs remained (and indeed still remains) strictly unofficial, Ziegel’s seclusion ended in 1975 when he was unexpectedly given government approval to present a paper on UFOs.

Taking this as an official green light to open his files, he cautiously agreed to grant informal interviews from his private apartment to foreign journalists who had been recommended to him by trusted friends and associates.

Having just recently completed yet another definitive textbook on Soviet astronautics, Dr. Ziegel took the opportunity to comment on the Soviet Academy’s newly rejuvenated SETI policy. In an interview he observed that ” … there is only one step from extraterrestrial probes in passive Earth orbits to extraterrestrial spaceships that could actively penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. I am fully aware that this one step is particularly difficult for scientists, since it calls for the crossing of psychological barriers . . . (but) they will have to take the step. We have reached a stage when sidestepping of the UFO as a practical issue has become impossible. The opponents will have to recognize it even as they back away from it.”

Ziegel went on to release Volume II of his UFO Sightings in the U.S.S.R., the first volume of which he had made available in 1968.

Among the most interesting of these Volume II cases is a curious multiple sighting on Dec. 3, 1967, of an unknown object near Cape Kamennyy in the Soviet Arctic. At 3:04 p.m. several crewmen and passengers of an IL-18 aircraft on a test flight for the State Scientific Institute of Civil Aviation sighted an intensely bright object approaching them in the night sky at an altitude of 2,800 feet. (In this far northern latitude, night comes in midafternoon in December.)

At first those aboard the IL-18 thought this object was an aircraft with landing lights on, but as the flight commander maneuvered and the object followed, it soon became apparent that it was not an aircraft. As the object approached above and to the left of the IL-18, the powerful beams of light emanating from the object illuminated the entire horizon.

In addition, several cones of light seemed to descend from the object to the ground. “When the course angle of this illuminant equalled approximately 270-280 degrees, that is, when it practically came up to us, it was quickly extinguished in three seconds and these bright cones continued to shine independently for several more seconds and then were extinguished slowly.” All during this observation and for another 10 minutes until the object disappeared into the distance, radio contact was maintained with the dispatcher services of both Cape Kamenny and Vorkuta, both of which could also see the mysterious object but were unable to identify it. Communication was described as excellent with no atmospheric interference. The remainder of the flight went normally, with landing at Moscow recorded at 7:25 p.m. conical-shaped beams of light as were witnessed from the aircraft.

Other reports in Ziegel’s files, as revealed in the two volumes of his UFO Sightings manuscripts, reveal a fascinating array of reports collected from all parts of the Soviet Union. The restrictions placed on Ziegel by his goverrment forced him to emphasize scientific facts ahead of sensational publicity. According to his friend and colleague Prof. A. Kazantsev, Dr. Ziegel realized ” . .. that if one of the sightings he has reported on in his two volumes is established as a fake, it would then and there destroy all his years of work, because it would be used against him . … ” As a result, Dr. Ziegel’s reports tend to be limited to those UFO cases that have managed to withstand the most rigorous scientific investigation. Most of the witnesses involved with these reports are either people of authority or with a scientific background. Also, Dr. Ziegel’s files are devoid of cases that involve any hint of landings or creature involvement.

Even so, much of Ziegel’s information remarkably parallels the types of UFO and related activity observed in other countries.

Among the startling evidence in Ziegel’s files are incidents involving so-called “Angels’ hair,” stalled cars, power outages, multiple sightings, a highly reliable report of the downing of two Soviet military aircraft, and a most interesting case involving the discovery of a “Space tumbleweed” -a strange intertwined ball of metallic needles ranging from two to three inches in length and about 1/50 of an inch in diameter-found by geophysicist Aleksandr Zayekin following a UFO sighting in the Tambov region south of Moscow in December 1974.

Whether Ziegel and the newly burgeoning study of the UFO phenomenon in the U.S.S.R. will continue to be allowed to proceed is a matter of conjecture. In the Soviet Union, the rule that last night’s patriotism may be tomorrow’s treason remains as true as ever, but one surprising recent development is encouraging. That was the unexpected appearance in January 1979 of a somewhat bland, middle-of-the-road article on UFOs in the prestigious Russian newspaper Nedelya (This Week), which ended by calling upon Soviet citizens to report the sighting of anything unusual in the skies to the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that, as of the writing of this article a year after the appearance of the Nedelya appeal, Soviet public interest in the UFO problem still rides high and soviet UFO researchers are still openly pursuing their researches in full view of the world.

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