Archives For soviet union

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…

One would think that when the Cold War ended and the United States began enjoying its new dominance as the world’s sole superpower, it would be able to keep global peace and control rogue states by continuing to fund the defense infrastructure of its allies and providing much of the West’s firepower. After all, it’s military is immense and at the time, its coffers were flush with the cash needed to support it indefinitely. In this light, the conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama wrote an entire book heralding the end of the Cold War as the end of history as we know it. But that’s not at all what happened. In fact, the United States is just as involved in war after war as it was before, maybe even more so if we also tally up all of today’s shadow conflicts. Why? Well, a thought-provoking opinion by political scientist Nuno Monteiro posits that the sole superpower status is really the problem and instead of subduing wars, it actually incites them by backing states into a corner

… As Saddam’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz lamented after Iraq’s humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, “We don’t have a patron anymore. If we still had the Soviets as our patron, none of this would have happened.” [ … ] Now that the Soviet Union is gone, America’s enemies feel vulnerable even if they comply with Washington’s demands. They know that the United States has the wherewithal to take them down if it so decides, so they are unlikely to accept any U.S. demands (to abandon a nuclear program, for example) that would leave them in a position of even greater weakness. This is what explains U.S. involvement in so many “hot” wars since the Cold War ended.

Well, this sort of makes sense. If you’re a rogue state, especially one ran by an autocrat very unhappy with the events of the Arab Spring and feeling overwhelmed by the powers heading the Security Council, you’ll want to build a deterrent. Borrowing from MAD, you start working on a nuclear weapon, knowing that so far, there has never been a direct attack on a nuclear armed state by another military because these nukes raise the stakes immensely. But if you’re found out and backed into a corner by the enormous and extremely advanced armies and air forces of powerful states, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. May as well play a game of chicken and see how it turns out. Would they really mobilize to unseat you? Of course this doesn’t really give a good explanation for the Taliban’s defiance to give up its support of al Qaeda, but here, we’re dealing with very irrational actors who believe that their faith brought down the Soviet Union and will certainly destroy the other superpower, perhaps not even fully aware to which extent this superpower funded their handlers in Pakistani intelligence back in the days of the Afghan War. As we know, it’s very hard to reason with religious fanatics.

But here’s what bugs me about this explanation, which I think has merit even though it needs that irrationality clause which Monteiro dismisses. The implication here is that we need opposing superpowers to operate a small clutch of proxies and keep each other in line by intimidation. It’s a very old school, Cold War way to look at things, and considering that the Cold War was marked by serious clandestine human rights abuses on both sides, in secret and behind closed doors, as well as paranoia about an incoming apocalypse from new world wars at the slightest provocation, I don’t think we want to revert to that. Superpowers which thrive on the economic reciprocity of true globalism keeping their satellites well behaved because it’s in their interest not to involve their trading partners in a costly and politically messy conflict would seem at least somewhat better. It does raise the possibly very disturbing question of how a satellite state would be kept in check and one would hope that it would be only by significant monetary inducements, but it significantly reduces the specter of MAD looming over the horizon once again. Though considering how superpowers usually behave, it’s very unlikely to be all fun, games, and occasional joint military exercises if another superpower emerges.

It’s a little unsettling that one of the greatest bursts of technological advancement and exploration was fueled by a rivalry between two global superpowers afraid of war with one another, but also eager to show off to every other nations how much they could accomplish. The Soviet Union sent the first humans into orbit. The United States landed the first humans on another world. Both of them developed advanced aircraft, weapons, digital technology, and both entertained or carried out extremely complex, elaborate plans in the political and military world that would instantly be shot down today as being too expensive or too radical for consideration. While a good deal of those plans were pretty out there, there seemed to have been an environment where ideas were allowed to flourish and tested on the off chance that they could yield a competitive advantage. But a downside to half a century of runaway R&D competitions was the human cost, and in Popular Science’s retrospective of their coverage of the Red Menace’s military and engineering might, that’s a vague but recurring theme.

Several of the highlighted articles lament how few household goods there are for ordinary Soviet citizens and how outdated and bare-bones virtually everything was, from elevators to hotel rooms. That’s not just plain, old propaganda at work. Having lived in the Soviet Union, though during its twilight years, I can tell you that many of the things typical Americans take for granted were luxuries in the USSR and constant shortages made very basic products difficult to get, sometimes requiring connections and favors to speed things along. It’s not that the Soviet Union didn’t have the capacity to make plenty of food or manufacture plenty of high quality and high level electronics for common use, it’s just that no one had the incentive to do so and corruption at every level of the supply chain was so pervasive, I wouldn’t be surprised if a historical study uncovered that more than half a product’s cost was graft. Why didn’t the government step in? Because at first, the leadership didn’t care about the people, viewing them as nothing more than simple cogs in its machine, cogs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial age, creating a mighty military, and then, when its rules favoring seniority and the devotion of its members over their merit as leaders turned it into a gerontocracy, the Politburo was far too busy keeping its grasp on power than actually caring about what the people needed.

There’s of course a lesson in this. A government that cares only about its own perpetuation and can’t be voted in or out of office, and a government on which people rely for anything and everything rather than just the basic things required to function in society, can both lead to a very sad end for the citizenry. In the United States, we may argue about how we vote and why we vote, and partisanship often overtakes reason in public discourse, but the government does have to deal with the public and its fury should it upset enough people. The nation’s entire population is typically not left to fend for itself and told to live off government rations, or placed in a state factory or power plant and told to do a particular job knowing that the only pay raises will come with seniority in one’s post rather than skill or merit, and that obedience to old and often dimwitted bosses was the only way to get enough seniority to be well off. In other words, the extent of the Peter Principle was on a level that very few establishments in the United States could ever meet. But this is not to say that American citizens were living it up in paradise while the Soviets suffered under their government’s indifference. They were subjected to highly dubious and very dangerous experiments by the CIA, spied on by multiple intelligence agencies, and groups that were considered a "leftist threat" were often broken up, their members harassed or prosecuted.

In their fear of the Evil Empire, Americans allowed their government to create institutions which could afford to do almost anything they pleased, just as long as they prefaced it by some reference to national security. This is why today’s return to domestic wiretaps and a heavy-handed Homeland Security department is actually an instinctive return to how things were with an ever-present danger rather than a new development. But while a lot of people may decry the TSA’s freedom gropes and FBI snooping in their personal finances, all that pales in comparison to what the KGB did to Soviet citizens. While the worst that can happen to you if you ridicule the American government today is a guest spot in Fox News, and a secretive investigation into your life during the previous administration, very rarely do you have to worry about being sent to a hard labor camp in Alaska. For an agonizing stretch of time in the Soviet Union, just writing a book that the leaders thought may contain some sort of ridicule of their actions could net you two decades in a Siberian prison, where all sorts of horrible and sometimes unspeakable things happened. When we look back at the Cold War now and list all the things we accomplished as a civilization, be they advancements in everyday life or in warfare, we have to ask ourselves two important questions. Was it worth doing it that way, and how many people suffered in the process, for the sake of "the cause"? And unfortunately, these questions are fiendishly difficult to address in advance…

Tetris is one of the most popular and beloved games of all time. Created by a programmer in Moscow at the twilight of the USSR, it spread across the globe in countless variations and styles, still delighting players to this day. I remember playing it obsessively as a kid and even as an adult, I’m still a huge fan. And I promise it has nothing to do with my birth in the former USSR either. But both my love for Tetris and my background just blended together into a mix of bizarre emotions when I saw the following tribute to the game and the history of Russia in this video featuring Dan Woods of the UK neo-folk band Pig With The Face Of a Boy, summarizing the wild ups and downs of those who lived and still live in the playgrounds of oligarchs and authoritarians. As the tune continues, its pace speeds up, just like the game, for that added touch of respect to its inspiration.

While this gem of a music video is masterfully done, there are a few small quibbles I should raise. Today, the notion of free enterprise isn’t rejected in Russia or any of the other Soviet territories. However, because those who ended up holding the best assets from an empire that collapsed after decades of incompetence and an out of control kleptocracy at every level of society, prompted by constant shortages of just about everything, are frequently either close friends, relatives, and allies of those who gave away these assets, the benefits of free trade were concentrated at the very top of the social hierarchy. So while former Party officials and their friends schmoozed international corporations, importing and exporting just about everything from sugar and candy, to exotic fruits and assault rifles from the Red Army surplus, most people were mired in poverty and those who tried to start their own businesses better make some friends up high, or face mafia-style shakedowns for the right to keep operating their business, and fraudulent investigations into their personal affairs. And if they got tough with their intimidators, they might come home and find themselves face to face with a hitman.

So yes, there is free enterprise in Russia for those who are well armed, well connected, and on friendly terms with the government. They’re allowed to do pretty much whatever they want, whether it be to have themselves appointed as governors, buy a soccer team in the UK, or trash hotel rooms all over the world while partying in the most decadent ways they can imagine on their private planes. And hilariously enough, while some highly hyped and popular pundits wail about the United States turning into the Soviet Union, or Russia in a bit to stir up the good, old Cold War propaganda and Red Scare fever with which their primary audience of 40 to 60 year olds grew up, what they don’t understand is just how far away the U.S. is from anything even remotely trying to resemble Russia back in its USSR days, or today. Imagine if when the Democrats came to power, they rigged elections to whittle down the number of Republicans in the Senate down to 10 or so, and to less than 70 in the House, then proceeded to pass anything and everything they wanted in rapid succession while ignoring every single Republican lawmaker, making sure that state sponsored news networks never even talked to them.

Instead, what we have is a media world ran by huge, private corporations, one of which gives a million dollar donation to the Republican Party and employs a cadre of pundits to scream Red-baiting gloom and doom at the soothing volume of 90 decibels day in, day out, and a political process ran by a party which saw one of the biggest majorities it ever had, and yet allowed it to whittle away while it was single-handadley focused on its monster healthcare bill that managed to span more than 2,000 pages and address almost none of the basic causes for soaring healthcare costs rather than seeking transparency, accountability, and truly studying why the nation has such a dysfunctional medical system. The U.S. is nowhere close to what Russia was then or is today, neither politically, not financially. There are alarming decreases in upward mobility and a substantial discrepancy in income between managers and rank and file employees that simply aren’t sustainable in the long run, but these phenomena are nowhere near those far too many pundits fear and far too many partisans love to chant. Likewise, as long as there’s real competition in politics and new presidents aren’t nominated by the outgoing one, the U.S.’ political system is far from heading down the Russian road.

When you run a blog which focuses on skepticism and fact checking, you can occasionally discover that even a seemingly common, everyday, undisputed bit of science can have its detractors. About two months ago, two people who commented on my review of NatGeo’s dramatic what-if scenario about our future if all the oil in the world were to suddenly vanish, alerted me to the fact that the abiogenic oil hypothesis was still alive. Even after some five decades of research into the relevant geology and the chemistry of petroleum, there are those who think that oil isn’t a fossil fuel, but a byproduct of chemical interactions within the Earth’s mantle and thus, we shouldn’t be worried about peak oil because there’s always going to be a steady supply of it. According to them, far from playing chicken with the limit of petroleum we can extract, the planet’s innards are awash with the stuff. We just need to keep securing the areas where the oil will pool into vast, underground reservoirs.

Unfortunately for the theory’s supporters, the most cutting edge studies on the topic are products of the Soviet drive to secure oil supplies. After the end of WW2, it was thought that the USSR had paltry oil deposits and to figure out how to boost their reserves, the government decided to sponsor a scientific investigation into how petroleum actually forms in 1947. They had the first answer in 1951 from Nikolai A. Kudryavtsev (pronounced as it’s spelled, with an emphasis on the second syllable), a geologist who thought that oil couldn’t have come from organic materials because no lab has ever been able to replicate the process of zooplankton and algae decomposing into kerogen and eventually, petroleum. Since many deposits have been found in rocks which aren’t normally associated with active marine life, Kudryavtsev concluded that petroleum must be abiotic and come as a result of hydrocarbon formation deep within the Earth. The political members of the committee that reviewed his work didn’t raise the issue of whether a lab could even simulate the temperatures and pressure necessary to create petroleum from scratch in the lab, or question the time such an experiment would require and it if was even feasible, so his hypothesis was accepted as valid.

Over decades, a number of other geologists worked on Kudryavtsev’s ideas, refining them further and further, but the oil deposits being found in Russia at the time didn’t really support the abiogenic oil hypothesis. Rather than abandon conventional methods of exploration, the state oil company simply improved conventional ideas and found the fields the old fashioned way. At the same time, more in depth work on the chemistry of oil saw a clear link between living things and oil formation in the form of chemicals which were best explained by living marine organisms going about their day, dying, entering the carbon cycle, and eventually decomposing into a mix of organic compounds called kerogens, supporting the theory that marine shale is the origin of oil as we know it. The temperatures for all the required reactions during the process could be found in a kitchen without much effort, but the duration of the breakdown and metamorphosis makes synthesizing oil an experiment that simply couldn’t be carried out on human timescale. To give Kudryavtsev a synthetic drop of oil would’ve taken more time than our species has been around (which is just about 100,000 years or so), and this is why there was no laboratory simulation of petroleum formation in the 1950s or the 1960s.

At the same time, geologists were still trying to explain the origin of petroleum itself. This is in part why some scientists expressed interest in the abiogenic hypothesis all the way until the 1980s. That’s just how science works. When faced with a question, experts try to present and prove their solutions, and as experiments and observations mount, incorrect ideas are cast away and the best possible fit for the data is accepted as a new gold standard which subsequent theories would need to disprove while explaining the same exact data. The supposed dispute about the origin of oil doesn’t exist anymore and it will take a lot more than quotes from the past and throwing out lists of scientists to create a new debate. It would take a brand new theory which could account for all the biomarkers in petroleum and show even a single field which can’t be explained by either a subterranean fluid migration, or the commonly accepted geological process. So far, the abiogenic hypothesis has come up short in doing so and the firm scientific consensus on the subject is that oil is a fossil fuel.

See: Glasby, G. (2006). Abiogenic Origin of Hydrocarbons: An Historical Overview Resource Geology, 56 (1), 83-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-3928.2006.tb00271.x, complete paper via pdf.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that more and more blogs are starting to post detailed accounts of someone leaving religion and embracing atheism. With surveys showing that the fastest growing belief systems in the United States is actually a lack of belief in the supernatural and the rejection of theistic worldviews, one could say that we’re seeing atheists feeling emboldened and revealing themselves to the world. Atheists are leaving the closet, starting internet communities and trying to advertise on buses and billboards that they’re not crazy or in denial because they reject a supernatural deity for which there’s no proof and that they’re not alone. For a person doubting the faith he grew up with, it’s now a perfectly viable option to become an atheist and try to find answers to existential questions through science and education after announcing his intention to the world.

It’s a post that I will never be able to make. As long time readers of Weird Things may recall, I was born in the former USSR where religious institutions were corralled by the government to ensure that a powerful church wouldn’t start grooming political figures to compete with the nation’s leaders. By the time of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church had been a major institution for almost a thousand years. If the priests tried to organize any kind of mass resistance to the regime, they would’ve had no shortage of faithful followers less concerned about the material goods offered by the Communist Party than their spiritual fiber. Knowing that it would never be possible to eliminate religious organizations and was actually likely to backfire, the Soviet leaders started to downplay the role of religion in peoples’ lives.

soviet robot poster

Interestingly enough, the campaign to de-emphasize religion was relatively subtle. Churches were open and there was a law declaring that all religions which weren’t considered to be dangerous cults (read: advocated resistance to the government or its policies), were free to practice as they wish. Seminaries were open to any would be priest or rabbi. However, being deeply religious carried with it a veiled social stigma. It might hurt a budding career because you weren’t considered to have your feet firmly enough on the ground. You would get some resistance in politics because your devotion should have been to your work in the party rather than your church. And all college students attended a class called Scientific Atheism which outlined a case for disbelief.

On the other side of the world, priests in the United States used the growing indifference of the Soviet public to religion as a tool for proselytizing and motivating the government to put religious references on court buildings and money. They promoted a belief in God as integral to what it means to be an American and that religiosity was a bulwark against the evil, godless Reds. We can trace the chants that America is a Christian nation and true Americans are God-fearing people back to the Cold War and the Red Scares. No wonder atheists stayed in the shadows for so long. Their lack of belief was being tied to an enemy state with a nuclear arsenal poised to destroy their nation at any moment.

Of course in the USSR, people saw the ideological conflict with the U.S. as a case of establishing who would control the world and shape it in its image. Religion had nothing to do with it. And it was in this world that I was born. Growing up, there was no religious indoctrination. Churches were examples of artwork and architecture rather than direct links to a higher power. There was no serious interest in spreading religion or making sure you were “saved” and believed in the right thing in order to go to heaven. Atheism was considered a perfectly normal way of thinking and a sizable percentage of the nation were atheists. For me there was never anything to really reject or embrace. I experimented with learning about religious beliefs and trying them on for size, but found that nothing really answered any of the big questions in an objective, factual way. The only way to solve them, I decided, was to find out through research and experimentation.

Had I been born about 4,000 miles away, deep in the American Bible Belt, things would have turned out much differently. Instead of presenting evidence for evolution and debunking claims of the supernatural in nature or cosmology. this blog would have been yet another part of a chorus of religious zealotry. I wouldn’t have had to live in a nation mismanaging itself into oblivion after decades upon decades of abusing its people, then run from the chaos after its collapse, but I would’ve been subjected to proselytizing from birth. Oh well. I suppose everything has some sort of bizarre a trade off…

update 06.08.2009 – please note that this post is solely a short summary of some of my experiences of living in the Soviet Union and relates to the freedom of religion laws and a de-emphasizing campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, long after the political repressions which affected numerous religious communities were over by the mid 1950s. In no way do I condone anything the Soviet Union has done or advocate any of its activities as was grossly misrepresented on several blogs which have linked to this post. I realize that I should have done a better job during editing and that may be a source of some confusion, but this post was supposed to be just a quick and random reflection on why I grew up without strong religious beliefs and nothing more.

Apparently, the race to the Moon wasn’t just a matter of prestige for the Soviet Union. It was a military project conceived by Joseph Stalin as both superpowers were arming themselves with nuclear weapons. A recent Russian documentary claims that Stalin and his generals had a big idea in regards to the lunar surface. They would travel to the Moon and build a base, not for exploration and science, but to launch nuclear warheads at any opponent below with impunity. The Moon would become a military base enabling the USSR to carry out nothing less than a planetary assault any time it wanted.

cosmonaut day

If this sounds like total nonsense to you right off the bat, you may want to consider how Soviet rulers really thought. They saw their entire nation as a workforce they could use to achieve any project and they liked to plan big. Very big. They weren’t a scientifically educated bunch either and their big schemes weren’t always tethered in reality. Though the evidence provided by the documentary is rather slim and relies on hearsay and rumors, as someone born in the former Soviet Union, I couldn’t rule out that Stalin or some of his generals could hatch a wild plan like this. Of course, not being able to rule something out doesn’t mean it really happened and I’m not swayed to take this claim at what amounts to little more than face value.

There were also rumors of an idea for USSRs first manned lunar mission to detonate a nuclear warhead on the Moon as an ultimate act of saber rattling. For a group of people who think its a great idea to parade ICBMs down the center of Moscow, flanked by entire battalions of the army and enough military hardware to lay waste to a major city just for show, its not as far fetched a scheme as it may seem, especially to someone whos lived in the Soviet Union. But again, taking my cultural experiences aside, I cant say if there was ever such a plan. I certainly havent heard it discussed, even after many Soviet secrets were declassified and released to the public. Maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t think a plan to nuke the Moon would just be tossed aside without so much as a mention.

But the failed Soviet plans for the Moon aren’t the primary focus of the documentary (sorry, but it’s only available in Russian). The question its creators really want to tackle is why NASA had to dismantle the Apollo program despite its success. They believe that despite the deeply political nature of the space race without which there would be no NASA today, it wasn’t just politics and pragmatism that ended lunar exploration. There was another far more influential force at work. Stay tuned… We’ll explore their ideas in the next post.