From the Fall of Soviet Ideology to the Rise of Aliens
By Irina Poleshchuk | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
I remember overhearing a conversation between two Belarusian women in the early 1990s, when I was still a young girl. In a low voice, a woman in her sixties told her friend that the previous night, she had seen a moving dot in the sky. It had felt as if somebody was watching her. Agitated, she continued to explain that it had to be some alien force, a “they”. She had always known this. At that time, many people were saying that “they” probably caused the fall of the Soviet Union and “they” are responsible for the life we had at that time and for the suffering of the Soviet people. This “they”, who were always out there somewhere, was a fairly popular topic of conversation in the 1990s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, during the continuous change of different social and political regimes in newborn post-Soviet countries, several newspapers and journals were constantly writing stories about eyewitnesses who saw UFOs and who were abducted by aliens or just happened to take pictures of the platelike and cigarlike alien ships or flying dots in the sky.
In those days, the popular TV programme “Ochevidnoe i Neveroyatnoe” (“Obvious and Incredible”), which focused mainly on unexplained phenomena, was gathering a huge audience. People with different education and cultural backgrounds were sending letters to this programme asking the reporters to visit their places in order to investigate and to explain strange situations and phenomena. In the 1990s the taste for the mystery was everywhere: there was always a hidden reason why this season’s cucumbers had a weird taste, why the neighbour fell ill or why the summer was exceptionally cold.
‘‘At that time, many people were saying that “they” probably caused the fall of the Soviet Union and “they” are responsible for the life we had at that time and for the suffering of the Soviet people. ’’
The knowledge that had been provided by well-respected Soviet academic scientists was not enough to explain these strange legends, stories, facts and innumerable manifestations of saints and martyrs all around post-Soviet countries. At the same time, pseudoscientific explanations were attracting more and more interest. After the long reign of the Soviet regime, which did not allow any alternative vision of the world and did not recognise religion, the 1990s blossomed with all possible and impossible varieties of the truth: new-age literature, courses in astrology, new Christian sects and UFO science.
This sudden explosion of interest in the presence of alien civilisations in the sky above often very small villages led to the publication of very debatable articles. Thus, in 1990–2000 we would encounter stories about humanoid aliens in Siberia, in the unknown villages in southern Russia, or in Belarus and Ukraine practically on a monthly basis.1 Following this line, some official news outlets turned their attention to the problem of extraterrestrial civilisations.
For instance, one newspaper reported that on 26 April 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev was meeting with the staff of the Uralmash factory in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), and the workers wanted to know how the USSR government was dealing with unidentified flying objects. The President replied that groups of researchers engaged in studying such phenomena actually existed. The former head of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, even claimed that UFOs had flown over Elista, and he himself personally had encountered aliens. While the project which was supposed to investigate abnormal phenomena was running, almost 3,000 messages were received about the observation of 300 events classified as “extraordinary or anomalous phenomena”.
In 1991, the astronaut Pavel Popovich founded and became the director of the All-Union UFO Association, which began researching extraterrestrial life forms. The two-time Hero of the Soviet Union repeatedly claimed to have seen a UFO from a passenger plane while flying from Washington with a delegation of the Academy of Sciences.
“I personally once encountered something incomprehensible that we could not explain”, Popovich asserted in an interview with Russian and Ukrainian television channels. “We flew at an altitude of approximately 10,200 metres. I looked out the porthole and saw an object, a triangular-shaped object, bright white, that was above us. There were no signs of engine operation. It looked like an isosceles triangle with a side of about 100 metres. There are no such aircrafts on Earth.”2
The interesting fact of these stories and pictures of the aliens and the UFOs is that they appeared in journals with a focus on the religion and the significance of the church. The famous journal “Nauka i Religia” (“Science and Religion”) emphasised that we lived (1993–1999) in a time of unexplained phenomena and West is no longer the source of the threat. The usual logic and habits did not work and the best scientists could not help to save us (not even the US or blockbuster superheroes). Often, the appeal was either to become a born-again believer in “strange things” or to rely on the Christian faith and to follow Christian values.
From time to time, witnesses testified that the UFO appeared accompanied by an epiphany of Christian saints in the same places, to show that the saints were protecting us from the threat of the alien civilisation. For almost a decade, this weird fusion of UFO and born-again Christianity was much stronger than any political party or political debate on TV. As late as 2011, a monument was erected to honour aliens in a region of Perm, Molebka, which was the area they supposedly visited most.
Now, looking back to these strange times, I wonder: were people trying to replace the loss of a totalising ideology with a new kind of rationality? Were they unable to tolerate the freedom that had appeared so suddenly after seventy years under a totalitarian regime? Were the aliens saviours, or just silent spectators? Or was the passion for UFOs yet another conspiracy theory about aliens who, in all secrecy, exercise power over us?
Thirty years on, in the late evenings, I am still looking up into the sky and trying to identify dots or other strange shapes. I am still hoping to find answers which could explain these times of turbulence and the reasons why things happen the way they happen.
¹ Volozhin, a small town in Belarus, is famous for its stories of the appearance of UFOs. There is still a community there that is gathering eyewitness reports: https://www.ufo-com.net/observes/detail.php?ELEMENT_ID=4062
² “Kak v SSSR iskali NLO?” (“How They Searched for UFOs in the USSR), 18 February 2023: https://lenta.ru/articles/2023/02/18/nlo/