the strange tales of phantom soviet cosmonauts

October 30, 2012

lost at baikonur

Apparently the start of the Cold War must’ve been really easy on intelligence agencies since it seemed that whatever strange rumor surfaced, these agencies bought it hook line and sinker, if you believe a relatively recent article on Discovery Space. In this case, the rumors were those of mysterious cosmonauts who either didn’t survive the Soviet space program’s more ambitious or riskier efforts, or survived them but were now unfit to be shown in public. Now, you can’t fault an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist too much when it comes to the Soviet space program because for its entire history, it was shrouded in deep secrecy and cloaked by zealous propaganda that made sure only the successes were ever broadcast or detected. The Politburo feared that any public accident would be immediately taken as a sign of weakness and damage the image they were trying to project for the USSR and its doctrine of "classify now, announce later if ever," had even spawned some bizarre space-related rumors among Soviet citizens.

One of the more pervasive conspiracy theories has always been that of a flight before Gagarin famously soared into orbit, and another astronaut who was either denied fame or never made it back. At the time, the USSR could afford several do-overs for the first manned launch, and so some reporters were told by unnamed sources speaking off the record — or so they thought — about a Soviet test pilot who either died when his rocket exploded on the launch pad, made it to orbit but didn’t survive the re-entry, or survived the flight but was horribly disfigured after a very nasty accident during descent and hid away from the public eye. The last version was popular mostly in the Western Communist circles while the Russian conspiracy mantained that Gagarin was an alternate for a pilot who died during the mission. Adding to this theory’s popularity was a Soviet admission that Gagarin ejected from his spacecraft rather than land with it, as they had initially insisted after the flight’s announcement. If the government would lie about something as small as that, goes the conspiracy mindset, what else could they have covered up?

Couple the leaks about failures, accidents and shortcomings beneath constant claims of a swift mastery of manned spaceflight with bizarre transmissions caught by radio enthusiasts and often attributed to Soviet spacecraft or spy stations, and you can see why the conspiracies would be flourishing. Everyone knew the Politburo was image-conscious to a fault and admitting that their vaunted space exploration program was not going as smoothly as it had hoped, or acknowledge any accidents which could be simply covered up and forgotten, simply wasn’t in its nature. And so these rumors grew and survived, taking every Soviet article or photograph of its cosmonauts, their craft, or their training as more proof that something was being glossed over, or someone’s death or disfigurement was being suppressed for all those happy promotional news reels and fluff pieces in the state-run press, even when things were indeed going smoothly. But that’s what will happen when a government in inherently dishonest with its people and the world. Even when it really does have nothing to hide, people are convinced that it does, and is actively hiding it…

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