Report on “Observations of Unusual Atmospheric Phenomena.” Memoirs of an Employee of a Secret Soviet Design Bureau

Unidentified flying objects (UFOs)[1] were one of the key themes of the Soviet paranormal discourse – the “Soviet improbable” (Konakov 2022, 7) or “the unknown”[2] – along with psychics, Bigfoot, telepathy, and hypnosis. The first mentions of UFOs appeared shortly after the end of the Second World War, and in the 1960s ufology, a quasi-science dealing with UFOs and contacts with extraterrestrials, became a notable feature of popular culture, fuelled by lectures given by the All-Union Society of Znanie (Knowledge), popular science brochures and publications in magazines such as Tekhnika – molodezhi (Technology for Youth) and Nauka i zhizn’ (Science and Life) (Kukulin 2017; Mitrokhin 2020; Golubev 2021). Simultaneously, a discourse of denial of ufology as superstition developed, and attempts were made to bring the “UFO problem” into the realm of the natural sciences or the humanities (e.g., folklore studies).

The overlapping of scientific and esoteric discourses in describing “the unknown” phenomenon was reinforced by the atmosphere of secrecy created by the military and the State Security Service (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti – KGB) around the apparent fact that a significant percentage of UFO observations were associated with the launch of rockets, space satellites, and other military aircraft. The effects of these launches, observed by occasional witnesses, became the subject of close military attention. At the beginning of 1978, the military-industrial complex (MIC) launched the Setka (Grid) program (a code name of the secret topic: “Study of anomalous atmospheric and space phenomena, the causes of their occurrence and their influence on the operation of military-technical means and the condition of personnel”). According to published memoirs written by former participants, this program worked in two main directions: Setka-MD (Ministry of Defence) studied anomalous atmospheric phenomena based on observations made by various branches of the armed forces; Setka-AS (Academy of Sciences) studied the physical nature of these phenomena based on reports collected from scientific organizations, newspaper and magazine editors, etc. (Platonov and Sokolov 2000, 508–509). In this regard, the memoirs of the late Soviet technical intelligentsia, especially former employees of the MIC, can be a valuable source that can shed light on the mechanics of the formation of the discourse of “the unknown.”

S., a theoretical physicist by training, headed the information and library service of a secret design office (konstruktorskoe biuro) within the military-industrial complex from the early 1970s until the late 1990s. She had a wide and unspecified range of duties. In particular, she managed the accumulation and systematization of information on the topics of scientific and engineering developments of the Design Office and the scientific interests of the Chief Designer (Head of the Design Office). The department she headed subscribed to Soviet scientific and popular science journals and reference collections of foreign publications, as well as foreign journals, including those from the capitalist bloc countries. The company was based in a large city where the military, particularly the aerospace and missile industries, were concentrated.

In the autumn of 1978, S. received an unexpected assignment from the Chief Designer:

He called me to talk about some issues and, by the way, at the end of the discussion, he said: “Well, prepare a report on UFOs.”

It turned out that the regional press regularly received letters from readers who had witnessed strange phenomena in the sky. This evidence needed to be collected, systematized and used to prepare a report “above”– for the MIC leadership, who had initiated this research. In addition to the report, S. was also instructed to write simple and understandable statements explaining these phenomena and give them to newspaper editors to use in their responses to readers. The assignment was unusual, but S. admits she was interested in delving into the subject and discovering how people felt about the unusual celestial phenomena. She went around the editorial offices collecting letters from readers. There were just over ten of them, but all the observations were made on different days and described different phenomena. Some letters were accompanied by drawings, but there were no photographs (cameras were rare in those days).

The next stage of the work was to meet eyewitnesses. S. took a chauffeur-driven car from the design office and, together with a department member, traveled to the addresses given to her by newspaper editors. It is noteworthy that all the authors of these letters turned out to be villagers who had observed UFOs not far from their homes. She went with one eyewitness to the place where he had seen the UFO, recorded the geographical position, and refined the description: the size of the object, its speed, phase, and direction of movement, determining its azimuth using a specially purchased compass, and sketched this image. S. noticed that all the descriptions were of the same type and coincided with her own experience of observing an unusual phenomenon belonging to the same period, 1977–1978, near the house where she lived:

I noticed a bright luminous point in the darkening evening sky, in a north-eastern direction, at about 60° to the horizon. From it came waves of concentric greenish glowing circles. The bright point soon disappeared as if flying away from the observer in the opposite direction. The circles slowly increased in diameter and spread across a large part of the sky. The glow gradually faded. It took at least 15 minutes for the glow to dissipate completely. Many people saw a similar image at about the same time, but they described it slightly differently, for example, someone saw a ball. However, I perceived it as a projection in the celestial sphere.

None of the eyewitnesses she interviewed gave their own version of what exactly they had seen, let alone mentioning aliens, extraterrestrial civilizations, or “flying saucers.” People said they had seen something incomprehensible and, recognizing S. as an editorial team member, asked her what it could be. She immediately offered them a rational, short formulation: “You have observed an unusual atmospheric phenomenon.” She wrote the same in a typical response to the editor.

The final document, entitled “Report on Observations of Unusual Atmospheric Phenomena in the K. Region,” contained ten examples and only factual data: the name and address of the eyewitness, the date and time of the observation, coordinates and azimuths, and drawings. There was no introduction or conclusion, just a record of personal observations.

It was obvious to S. from the beginning that these effects were caused by rocket launches, but neither in the report nor in her conversations with eyewitnesses did she mention this. The origin of these phenomena was left out as if in parentheses. A few months later, in 1979, again at the request of the Chief Designer, she made a second such report. In total, there were more than 20 cases of UFO sightings in one area within a year and a half. The reports, with an accompanying letter typed in a secret typewriter office, were sent by a special secret courier to Moscow, to the Military-Industrial Commission under the USSR Council of Ministers.

Secrecy gave special significance to anything unexplained and paranormal. S. said that the legalization of design themes was a particularly important activity in all the enterprises of the military-industrial complex. In addition to the First Department, which dealt with secrecy in the enterprise, there was also a special officer from the KGB who dealt with the “ideology of secrecy.” Each secret production or design project had to have a so-called legend, often more than one – first and second-level legends. For example, a tank factory had a tractor production department; an enterprise that produced military optics also produced television sets; a design bureau that dealt with the problem of using lasers for military purposes also developed ways of using lasers in the national economy.  Meanwhile, it was necessary to create the illusion that this open part of the work had a closed secret part but not the one that existed in reality. Similarly, a designer or researcher working on a project in such an enterprise would have to create a suitable legend for it. This complex multi-level game created an atmosphere of total secrecy in late Soviet society, which contributed to the spread of various conspiracy theories and interpretations of “the unknown,” as well as the feeling that “we will never know the truth.” At the same time, those who mastered navigation in this non-transparent space had a sense of its incredible possibilities. S. recalls that the General Designer was fond of various “fashionable quasi-scientific theories.” For example, on his initiative, the design office, in collaboration with the Institute of Biophysics, carried out experiments on weak electromagnetic signals, which were associated with bioenergetic or psychic influence, and also studied the “Kirlian effect.”[3] Returning from another trip to Moscow in 1980, B. shared his plans to work with the famous healer and psychic Dzhuna “to study the possibilities of her bio-field,” but this project eventually failed.

The readers’ letters, which formed the basis of the report, were not published. Overall, publications on UFOs in the regional press from 1978 to 1979 were rare and limited in their coverage of the “scientific approach” to the problem. In 1978, for example, the regional newspaper published an article by Vladimir Avinsky, a well-known ufologist from the city, devoted to the 1971 International Congress on Extraterrestrial Civilizations (ETCs).[4]  The article explained the so-called “engineering” or “technological” approach to finding evidence of contact with aliens in the distant past. Allegedly, scientists were finding various material traces of “biological, engineering and social activities of ETCs,” as well as their echoes – images of flying machines or alien figures – in works of culture and art: Paleolithic paintings, Bronze Age objects, medieval European frescoes, etc. (Avinsky 1978, 3).

Vladimir Avinsky. “Echoes of cosmic contact?” Volzhskaya Zarya, 13.09.1978 (211): 3.

Despite the great interest in the UFO problem in Soviet society, press coverage of such issues was strictly censored. In particular, the widely used “popular” name of UFOs was replaced by various scientific variants such as “anomalous,” “atmospheric,” or “light” phenomena, etc. This became particularly noticeable after the story of the so-called Petrozavodsk phenomenon, an unusual large-scale light phenomenon observed on 20 September 1977 by many people in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Karelian republic, and throughout the north-western regions of the Soviet Union, as well as in Finland. This effect was caused by special atmospheric and meteorological factors during the launch of a space satellite from the Plesetsk cosmodrome, the existence of which was denied by the Soviet authorities at the time. In the open press, the phenomenon was attributed to the fall of a meteorite, the remnants of a launch vehicle, or some extraordinary, unexplored atmospheric phenomenon, leading to a wave of ufological speculation (Siegel 1978; Chernobrov 2008, 125–130).

Vitaly Lukianets. Petrozavodskoe divo (A Miracle from Petrozavodsk). The science fiction writer Aleksander Kazantsev noted that this picture “will surely excite not only UFO fans but also serious scientists” (Kazantsev 1980, 19).

Although it was never discussed, S. is sure that her assignment was carried out within the framework of the Setka program, which was launched by the MIC in connection with the Petrozavodsk phenomenon and which she learned about only in the 2000s from the publications by former participants of the program (Platov and Sokolov 2000). The usefulness of gathering such information was obvious to her:

There were a huge number of launches of all kinds of rockets, space and military, tests of new rocket engines, and all kinds of balloons. They were launched from the territories of different countries and could fall anywhere – it was impossible to calculate what would fall where. So, it made sense to collect observations, including those of random eyewitnesses.

The Setka program, which eventually ran for 13 years (1978–1991), received about 3,000 reports of sightings from just over 300 unusual phenomena. The program’s participants admit that the version that UFOs were related to extraterrestrial civilizations “did not arouse much enthusiasm, but it would be wrong to exclude it completely from consideration” (Platov and Sokolov 2000, 509). The study found that the main causes of UFOs (more than 90%) were high-altitude balloon flights and rocket launches, and about 10% of the observations recorded “unknown to science” or “anomalous” phenomena – this left room for the most incredible ufological speculations and conspiracy theories. With the loosening of censorship pressure during the perestroika period and especially in the early 1990s, there was an explosion of publications on UFOs, and ufological magazines and newspapers appeared in abundance. However, the contribution of academic science, as well as the military-industrial complex and the security services, to the creation of a specific late-Soviet discourse of the “anomalous,” surrounded by an aura of secrecy, ambiguity, and suspicion, this new “forbidden knowledge,” remains insufficiently studied. Given that there has been no sociological research in the Soviet Union on people’s attitudes to UFOs and belief in extraterrestrial civilizations and contact with aliens, the reports collected under the Setka program could be a valuable source on the subject.


[1] Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) (in Russian Neopoznannyi letaiushchii ob’ekt (NLO)) – a moving, or stationary object visually observed in or outside the Earth’s atmosphere that cannot be identified as a known natural (e.g., bird, falling meteorite, cloud structure, atmospheric electricity) or man-made objects (e.g. aircraft, rocket, balloon). Ufology (from UFO) is a quasi-science whose subjects of interest are the UFO phenomenon and “contacts” with extraterrestrials.

[2] The concept of “the unknown” (contrary to “the “improbable”) conveys the desire of people interested in paranormal phenomena to unravel and explain what is perceived as mysterious but presumably objective phenomena.

[3] The Kirlian effect (Kirlian photography) is a method of creating images of electrical discharges around an organic object caused by the ionization of a gas or liquid. Such discharges often look like an energy field or halo around the object, so some people consider Kirlian effect photography to be a form of aura or “biofield” photography. The method was developed by Soviet physiotherapist Semyon Kirlian and his wife Valentina Kirlian, who received a copyright certificate for their invention in 1949 (Kirlian and Kirlian 1964).

[4] Although the name of the event was not mentioned in the article, it was apparently a Soviet-American ufological symposium held in 1971 at the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory (Academy of Sciences of the Armenian SSR).


Feature image: A fragment of the magazine cover Tekhnika molodezhi 8 (1989) dedicated to the theme of UFOs © Nina Vechkanova


Primary source

Interview with S., a former employee of a secret design bureau of the USSR’s military-industrial complex. Bielefeld (Germany) – Moscow (online), December 2023.


References

[Avinsky] Авинский, Владимир. “Отголоски космического контакта? [Echoes of cosmic contact?]”. Волжская Заря, 13. 09, 211 (1978): 3.

[Chernobrov] Чернобров, Вадим. Энциклопедия визитов НЛО [Encyclopaedia of UFO visits]. Moscow: Veche, 2008.

[Golubev] Голубев, Алексей. “НЛО над планетарием: эпистемологическая пропаганда и альтернативные формы знаний о космосе в СССР в 1940–1960 годы [UFOs over the planetarium: epistemological propaganda and alternative forms of knowledge about space in the USSR in 1940-1960].” Вестник Пермского университета. История 3 (54) (2021): 5–16.

[Kazantsev] Казанцев, Александр. “Вселенная в капле росы [The universe in a dew drop].” Техника молодежи 4 (1980): 1819.

[Kirlian] Кирлиан, Валентина Х., [Kirlian] Кирлиан, Семен Д. В мире чудесных разрядов [In a World of Marvellous Discharges]. Moscow: Znanie, 1964.

[Konakov] Конаков, Алексей. Убывающий мир: история «невероятного» в позднем СССР [The Decaying World: A History of the “Unbelievable” in the Late USSR]. Moscow: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2022.

[Kukulin] Кукулин, Илья. “Периодика для ИТР: советские научно-популярные журналы и моделирование интересов позднесоветской научно-технической интеллигенции [Periodicals for ITR: Soviet Popular Science Journals and the Modelling of the Interests of the Late Soviet Scientific and Technical Intelligentsia].” Новое литературное обозрение 3 (2017): 61–85.

[Mitrokhin] Митрохин, Николай. “Советская интеллигенция в поисках чуда: религиозность и паранаука в СССР в 1953–1985 годах [Soviet Intelligentsia in Search of a Miracle: Religiosity and Parascience in the USSR in 1953–1985].” Новое литературное обозрение 3 (2020): 51–78.

[Platov] Платов, Юлий В. and [Sokolov] Соколов, Борис А. “Изучение неопознанных летающих объектов в СССР [Study of Unidentified Flying Objects in the USSR].” Вестник Российской Академии Наук, Vol. 70, No 6 (2000): 507–515.

[Siegel] Зигель, Феликс. Наблюдения НЛО в СССР [UFO Observations in the USSR]. Issue 3. Moscow (1978) (on the rights of a manuscript).


Blogpost in Russian



Cite this blog post
Anna Ozhiganova (2024, April 16). Report on “Observations of Unusual Atmospheric Phenomena.” Memoirs of an Employee of a Secret Soviet Design Bureau. New Age in Russia. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w86b

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3 Responses

  1. Céline Guilleux says:

    Dear Hypotheses blogger,

    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on en.hypotheses.org portal.

    Best regards,
    The Hypotheses team

    • Anna Ozhiganova says:

      Dear Céline Guilleux and all the Hypotheses team,

      I am happy to know of your interest in the subject and of your efforts to make my article more visible to the public!

      With kind regards,
      Anna Ozhiganova

  1. May 3, 2024

    […] Report on « Observations of Unusual Atmospheric Phenomena ». Memoirs of an Employee of a Secret So…, par Anna Ozhiganova, sur le Carnet New Age in Russia – Ideologies, Networks, Discourses ; […]

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