by Vladimir V. Rubtsov
Vladimir Rubtsov is Director of the independent Research Institute on Anomalous Phenomena (RIAP) in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
What is the state of world ufology nowadays? Having been engaged in ufological investigations for some 40 years, and firmly believing that these investigations are of very high importance for science as well as for the future of humanity, I feel I have some right to offer an opinion. Ufology today is a heterogeneous mixture of serious research with entertainment, pop-religion, and hysteria. There exists a distinguished circle of serious UFO students in various countries, but the general public judges ufology by its worst elements.
Some 40 years ago Jacques Vallee described the UFO phenomenon as a “challenge to science.” Science as a social institution has pusillanimously refused to meet this challenge and shirked its main responsibility to society – namely, serving it as a searchlight, not as a blindfold. Fortunately, some individual scientists have been more responsible, thanks to which UFO phenomena are still being investigated.
What place was occupied by the now-departed Soviet branch of ufology, and what place is occupied by its shade?
Until the middle 1980s only a feeble streamlet of Soviet UFO data reached Western ufological organizations. It contained both reliable and not-so-reliable reports, the usual mixture of obvious IFOs and quasi-UFOs with true UFOs. This was fully explainable and did not cause much discontent on the part of Western ufologists. Everyone understood that these data were obtained with difficulty in a totalitarian state, being another – and valuable – confirmation that flying saucers under socialism do not differ significantly from their democratic counterparts. And thank goodness for that.
Beginning with 1986, however, this streamlet turned into a real flood. It became possible for Soviet citizens in general, and for Soviet ufologists in particular, to go abroad and participate in ufological meetings, which resulted in considerable expansion of the data exchange. Even the secret UFO reports gathered by the Ministry of Defense became available to the public in the atmosphere of economic and social liberation.
There is a danger, however, that all the difficult experience of Soviet ufology will be reduced to effusive citations from post-Soviet newspapers about alleged Roswell-like incidents and other wild rumors. Pop-ufology is already exploiting this tasty morsel, making serious research more difficult and worsening the general atmosphere of superficial and incompetent denial of UFOs by “educated” (or rather miseducated) public opinion in the West.
The situation in the USSR was always very different in this respect. Soviet ufology originated and existed as a pure field of research and cognitive interest. Yes, the state suppressed independent investigations in this field, but at least we lacked any sort of pop-ufology.
An ostrich cannot keep its head in the sand forever; sooner or later the poor thing will have to pull it out and look around. Similarly, one day in the future, science will discover that UFO phenomena deserve serious study. Then the data accumulated by Soviet ufologists will be properly used.
Nervous Life in a Bureaucratic Environment
Ufology in the USSR had two different wings: official, government-funded studies, and independent or “dissident” research. Both had their pluses and minuses. The former was sometimes overly skeptical, the latter overly enthusiastic. Their mutual relations were less than serene. Independent ufology emerged first, but the most essential findings were certainly made during the fulfillment of the government-funded UFO study program. I participated in Soviet ufology on both sides.
Independent Soviet ufology originated in the late 1950s through the mid-’60s in the talks and papers of Yuriy Fomin, an engineer and lecturer at the All-Union Society for Propagation of Political and Scientific Knowledge, and of Felix Zigel, Assistant Professor at Moscow Aviation Institute. UFO observations in this period were not few and far between, but witnesses usually did not know where to report their observations. Some wrote to astronomical observatories and popular science journals, usually receiving a few indifferent words in reply. Only debunking articles were then allowed to appear in Soviet newspapers and journals. The official position for a long time remained unequivocal: Soviet people never see any mysterious objects in the sky, but even when they do, specialists can always convincingly account for the events.
In October 1967, Dr. Zigel established in Moscow the first Soviet public organization dedicated to collecting and analyzing UFO reports: the UFO Department of the All-Union Space-Exploration Committee of the USSR Voluntary Society of Support to the Army, Aviation, and Navy (DOSAAF). It included more than 200 scientists, engineers, military representatives, journalists, and others. Its elected head was Major-General Stolyarov; his deputy for science was Zigel. On November 10 they spoke on central TV about the new organization and invited UFO observers to send in their reports.
Reports arrived and were used by Zigel to prepare the first volume of his famous typewritten collection, UFO Observations in the USSR. But in the meantime the Soviet authorities realized their mistake, and in November the Central Committee of DOSAAF disbanded the UFO Department. Sometime later the Branch of General and Applied Physics of the USSR Academy of Sciences passed a resolution against UFO research in the Soviet Union.
In the late 1970s, ten years after Zigel compiled his first collection, it was subjected to serious statistical analysis by Soviet scientists L. M. Gindilis, D. A. Men’kov, and I. G. Petrovskaya. They concluded that there was no conventional explanation for one-third of these reports. Clearly, there was something here worth studying.
However, the ban on public UFO studies in the USSR did have a certain rational basis. Regardless of how much the Soviet scientific establishment overestimated its importance and authority, the main force behind this prohibition was the Soviet military-industrial complex. Military leaders feared that publicity given to UFO sightings (some of which were undoubtedly inspired by chance observations of military and space rocketry) might result in the uncontrolled circulation of military secrets.
Strategic parity with the U.S. was the chief political goal of Soviet leaders under Leonid Brezhnev, and “flying saucers” were not the biggest thing sacrificed for this purpose.
Glavlit, the censorship office, was ordered to prevent any publications on the UFO problem, except those that said there was no problem. Even the term “unidentified flying objects” was prohibited. Organized independent UFO research in the USSR ceased – leaving only the most stubborn dissident ufologists.
By 1977 it seemed that the Dark Age of Soviet ufology would never end. But then something unexpected happened, and changed everything in the Soviet ufological scene.
Red Army UFO Alert
In the early morning of September 20, 1977, the residents of Petrozavodsk, capital of the Karelian Autonomous Republic, witnessed the apparition of a luminescent jellyfish in the dark sky, throwing “a multitude of thinnest ray spurts” over the city. Thanks to careless censorship, the incident was reported by the largest Soviet newspapers. It raised many questions within the Soviet Union and beyond.
We know today that the Petrozavodsk phenomenon occurred almost simultaneously with the launching of the Cosmos-955 satellite from the Plesetsk launching site. But whatever its explanation, this incident will be remembered as the stone that triggered an avalanche.
The Petrozavodsk phenomenon attracted attention at the very top and caused the authorities to understand that the UFO phenomenon was worthy of attention. Military and scientific bureaucrats were directed to look into the question. A complex research program was included in the State Plan of Scientific Research Works in Defense Fields for 1978: “Investigation of anomalous atmospheric and space phenomena, their possible origin and influence on the operation of equipment and on the condition of the personnel.” This program was divided into two parts:
“Setka MO” (“The Net of the Ministry of Defense”) – “Studies of anomalous atmospheric and space phenomena and their influence on the operation of military technical equipment and personnel”; and “Setka AN” (“The Net of the Academy of Sciences”) – “Studies of the physical nature and mechanisms of manifestations of anomalous atmospheric and space phenomena.”
In 1981 and 1986, Soviet authorities approved five-year plans that included scientific research on anomalous phenomena. The state-directed program of investigating UFO phenomena proceeded without interruption until 1991, and for several years later on a lesser scale.
In accordance with the State Plan, two centers of UFO research were formed, one in the Ministry of Defense and the other in the Academy of Sciences. The main difference between these studies was in their sources of data. The MOD center obtained its information from diverse arms of the service, whereas the academic studies were based on reports gathered in scientific institutes, hydrometeorological centers, and various periodicals.
The aims of the two investigations were also different. The military worried about possible harmful influence of UFOs on equipment and personnel, and hoped to puzzle out and use for military purposes such attractive properties of UFOs as radar invisibility and high maneuverability. The Academy of Sciences was mainly interested in investigating the physical nature of the phenomena.
Both military and academic researchers understood that only joint effort could lead to a well-substantiated answer to the UFO question. At the same time, I am not sure that the military shared all their data and findings. Most likely, something was and still is kept secret.
In January 1980 the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR authorized a directive that played the main part in all this work, containing instructions on how UFO data should be gathered and where should they be sent for further examination. The directive was immediately announced to every unit of the Soviet armed forces. Now every military man, wherever he was, had to report any extraordinary phenomena he happened to observe in written form to his superiors. For some 13 years the armed forces were put on duty observing anomalous phenomena in the whole territory of the Soviet Union, as well as in those foreign countries where they were stationed.
During this period some 3,000 official reports of UFO sightings were obtained. Some 90 percent of them could be explained by conventional causes such as rocket launches and flights of high-altitude balloons. But ten percent of these sightings (some 300 cases) remained unexplained, even after a thorough examination.
This figure may not seem that large, but one should note that these were reliable, informative, and detailed reports, filtered on the site by experienced officers, whose main duty was to send only the best data to the center. Bearing this in mind, nobody can assert that UFOs are an invention of irresponsible saucer buffs. In fact, they are real and truly enigmatic.
Saucers over Airfields
In 1980, I defended my dissertation on philosophical and methodological aspects of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I was writing a book based on this dissertation, and I wished to include a chapter on the UFO phenomenon and its possible connection with extraterrestrial intelligence. The censorship limitations were still fully alive, however, and the publication of such a chapter had to be approved by the academic committee on anomalous phenomena. I had little hope for such approval, as my sympathy for the extraterrestrial hypothesis was obvious. To my great surprise, the chapter was immediately approved. With time, I was even offered the opportunity to participate in the work of the expert team. However skeptical about the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs the experts seemed in their public statements, they were ready to discuss this possibility seriously among themselves. And they tried to collect as much information about the phenomenon as possible.
There are reasons to question whether the gathering of UFO information through official channels was effective, however.
One day I went to the Borisoglebsk Military Pilot School to give a lecture on the UFO phenomenon to the fighter pilots and managerial staff. The pilots listened with attention, but reacted poorly. I was somewhat surprised by their passivity.
In the evening, meeting in an unofficial atmosphere, the pilots explained to me why they had been so silent. They found themselves between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, there existed the directive of the General Staff, demanding the hand, the pilots knew well from their own experience that making such a report put them at risk of being sent to a hospital for a long and unpleasant examination. Under these conditions the optimal behavior for a wise pilot meeting a UFO would be to shut his eyes. Within the airspace of the country nobody would consider this a crime. Of course, if a strange object appeared from beyond the border, their behavior would have been radically different.
The pilots told me about a very interesting case of radio contact with a UFO and showed me some official documents that confirmed this case. This episode took place on April 9, 1975, in another military pilot school located at the town of Zherdevka of the Tambov Region of Russia.
There were the usual training flights that day. In the evening, when the last airplanes were landing, the operator of the airfield radar detected a target in the air. Thinking that it was just another school airplane, the operator gave it commands that were smoothly fulfilled. When a pilot overheard his call sign being used by the operator to talk to the would-be-plane, he expressed his surprise rather loudly. At that moment he was at a low altitude and out of range of the radar. The operator felt something was wrong and gave the target a false command – that was again executed faultlessly. Then the object entered the dead zone of the radar and never returned.
Winds of History
I could cite here many extraordinary stories of this sort. But such stories in themselves are just a form of folklore. It would be at least naïve to expect that one day in the future, having accumulated a very large set of them, we could automatically jump to a scientifically meaningful model of the UFO phenomenon.
Eyewitness reports are only a starting point for further collecting of information with the help of scientific instruments and in full conformity with scientific methodology.
The mass collection of UFO observations has already reached the limit of its potential. What is needed now is not so much a large-scale official program of UFO studies as a sharp change of scholarly attitude to the UFO problem. Only if the scientific community comes to perceive UFOs as a normal scientific problem will it be possible to move forward.
With this aim in view, Dr. Yuliy Platov and I wrote a book to provide an introduction to the UFO problem for the Soviet academic community. The manuscript obtained the approval of several high-ranking academic readers, and in the summer of 1991 it was published under the title UFOs and Modern Science by the central academic publishing house Nauka (Science). Unfortunately, this book was not only the first but also the last Soviet scholarly book on UFOs. After the disintegration of the USSR, Soviet science languished, and, naturally enough, had little inclination to pay serious attention to radically new fields of investigation.
After the Petrozavodsk event, Soviet authorities were forced to confront the following questions: Is the UFO phenomenon indeed real? If so, what is it? And can it be dangerous?
The first question has been successfully answered: the UFO phenomenon in the strict sense of the term is real. Having established this, it would have been reasonable to move from visual chance observations by eyewitnesses to instrumental observations. If the objects and processes composing the unexplained part of the UFO phenomenon do objectively exist in the atmosphere and near space, it is evident that their physical characteristics can be determined only with the help of sophisticated technical means. The latter may include general-purpose equipment like military radars, as well as other surveillance systems and/or specialized instruments designed and built specially for UFO tracking, but in any case they must have the ability to monitor the whole of near-Earth space, from several hundred meters to a few thousand kilometers in altitude.
Why has nobody in Russia ever attempted to develop UFO research in this direction? The answer is simple: too much money and effort would have been needed. In the very grave economic situation of the early 1990s Russia simply could not allocate the necessary funds for an endeavor comparable in its dimensions with the atomic bomb and the first Sputnik.
On the Threshold of the Unknown Future
What can ufologists learn from the experience of Soviet ufology? First of all is the hopelessness of the further collection of “ufological folklore.” By its very nature this information can be useful only for folklore studies, not for hard science. Official study in itself, even such a large-scale one as that fulfilled in the USSR and Russia between 1977 and 1996, cannot lead to the solution. What ufologists need is a normal scientific methodology and systematic gathering of hard data.
Ufology possesses a considerable amount of information about the UFO phenomenon. We know that it is physically real and enigmatic. A thick aura of fantasy and rumor has formed around it, and the phenomenon is very heterogeneous and elusive. But in its core we can see mechanical devices flying in the atmosphere of the Earth whose technical capabilities far surpass those of human-made aircraft. The hypothesis about an extraterrestrial origin of this machinery is verifiable and therefore scientific.
One should not forget, however, that having substantiated this hypothesis we will probably find ourselves before new – and more difficult – questions. Such is the path of human cognition.
The UFO phenomenon is not only a challenge to science. It is a challenge to humanity. Let us hope that we will be better prepared to cope with the solution of this problem than we were prepared to cope with the problem itself.