Last Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted more than a dozen Russians and Russian-linked interests, laying out a compelling and chilling analysis of how the Russian government sought to create discord in the United States through propaganda efforts to manipulate American public opinion about the 2016 presidential election, including efforts to inflame racial tensions. Officials including the assistant attorney general and the sitting national security advisor said that these indictments provided “incontrovertible proof” of Russian election meddling. Shortly after the school shooting in Florida, which occurred just two days before the indictments, thousands of Russian and Russian-linked social media accounts began spreading memes designed to inflame mostly conservative opinion about gun rights and gun control.
The extent of Russia’s propaganda war on the United States is breathtaking in its audacity, but in seeing the vast amounts of money and effort the Russians have poured into propaganda, I can’t help but think that these efforts to destabilize the United States are not limited to presidential politics, gun rights, and racial tensions. I have repeatedly run into Russian-linked material in examining the ancient astronaut theory and UFOs, and it seems to me that there is an effort to support “alternative” science in an effort to destabilize America’s faith in science and reason.
I can’t prove it, and much of what I have found is circumstantial and impressionistic. But the fingerprints of this campaign play out across both official documents and media accounts going back to the Cold War. The trouble is that only some of the fingerprints are legitimate. Others are more than likely to be the result of political paranoia. Far too many come from the words of fringe writers, themselves unreliable sources. But distinguishing between the two threads is difficult due to the lack of definitive proof and the continuing classification of official records. The following vignettes are only partial and suggestive, but the pattern they imply seems difficult to deny, especially in light of the documented fact that American intelligence services purposely used UFO reports to spread disinformation and propaganda behind the Iron Curtain, as when the CIA faked a UFO crash at Spitsbergen, Norway, a fact confirmed by the National Security Agency, which identified the story as an American “plant.”
If American intelligence service records confirm U.S. efforts to weaponize the UFO phenomenon for propaganda reasons, it is difficult to imagine that the Soviets and their Russian successors did not do the same. Indeed, the U.S. government was concerned about such actions from the beginning.
Only a month after Kenneth Arnold saw the first “flying discs,” American newspapers began reporting that Soviet spies were investigating UFOs in America in the belief that they were American spy planes. On August 15, 1947, the FBI looked into the story on orders from Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover and determined that it was untrue, but the source behind the articles, carrying a Washington dateline, was never determined. In 1952, just five years after the invention of the UFO, the CIA concluded that there was significant risk that a foreign power, namely the Soviet Union, was conditioning the American public to believe incredible, antiscientific things such as UFOs. “This whole affair has demonstrated that there is a fair proportion of our population which is mentally conditioned to acceptance of the incredible. Thus we arrive at two danger points which, in a situation of international tension, seem to have National Security implications,” read an August 19 memo on flying saucers. The Air Force, meanwhile, was monitoring UFO groups because of the suspicion, not always unfounded, that their funding and membership had ties to Communist countries. The government at the time worried that there was the potential that UFOs could be weaponized for “psychological warfare.”
In 1953, a scientific committee chaired by H. P. Robertson and acting on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies released a report about how to handle UFO information in light of the risk that enemy agents could use flying saucer reports as a way to inject “hostile propaganda” into American homes. The panel wondered, however, why Soviet journals contained no discussion of UFOs, while the subject fascinated the West. “The Panel noted that the general absence of Russian propaganda based on a subject with so many obvious possibilities for exploitation might indicate a possible Russian official policy,” the official report read.
It is a virtual certainty that the authorities in Moscow became aware of U.S. concerns that claims about space aliens could be used to undermine American society, the Christian faith, and faith in science. I find it hard to believe that it is only a coincidence that within months of the intelligence services hashing out their concerns, Moscow changed its tune about space aliens. In the first years of the UFO craze, Soviet authorities rejected space aliens and put down the whole affair to decadent Western madness. But as they readied their own space program for the shocking launch of Sputnik, suddenly the Soviet press began publishing accounts of “ancient cosmonauts,” with a message much like the one American authorities feared might destabilize American audiences. The American Embassy in Moscow sent word back to Washington in February 1968 that Soviet ancient astronaut material was “primarily for U.S. consumption.” The previous year, the CIA dryly reported that interviews with Soviet scientists about UFOs returned no useful information, with Soviet officials claiming that no Soviet media would report on such things because they are not “scientific.” “This is interesting,” the CIA reported, “in view of the readiness of Soviet newspapers to print rather fantastic reports of hypotheses and ‘observations’ suggested by the more imaginative members of the scientific community. Apparently some official sanction is needed.” The report concluded that the Soviets had no clear UFO policy since the scientific establishment and the Soviet media were of different minds, but this is almost certainly not the case.
The first claims started showing up in Western-facing Soviet publications around 1955, and by 1960 these had commanded the attention of the Western media. Time magazine, summarizing news accounts of the time, noted that the Soviet state publications that had once ridiculed UFOs were now triumphantly exploring a strange new theory, alien visitors from the past dubbed “cosmonauts from outer space,” and they noted with disapproval that official organs of the Communist state had “opened their pages” to bizarre claims, including the idea that the Tunguska explosion was caused by a UFO, that Sodom and Gomorrah had been felled by a nuclear bomb, and that Baalbek was a UFO launchpad. On February 22, 1960, Time suggested that “ever since the first Sputnik, the Russians have indulged in their own kind of science fiction about possible visitors from outer space.” But the claims were aimed largely at a Western audience, and seemed custom designed to undermine Western religion and science—replacing God with space aliens, and making technology into frightening, unknowable magic. While Time might have scoffed, less elite writers quickly fell in line. This is not just my opinion, by the way. As far back as 1980, Omni magazine noted that the ancient astronaut theory seemed to be “a notion encouraged in official antireligious propaganda” in Russia.
UFO researchers were not shy about revealing their Soviet connections. For every conspiracy theorist or fantasist, like Gray Barker, who alleged that the KGB was tapping his phones, dozens happily wrote in print about ancient astronaut and UFO material they received directly from Moscow or Leningrad authorities and publications. Ivan T. Sanderson, Jacques Bergier, Louis Pauwels, Erich von Däniken, Robert Charroux, and Peter Kolosimo were only some of the many writers who made use of Soviet research in their ancient astronaut books, and several of these authors traveled to Soviet Russia to meet with Soviet officials, in part because these trips gave them the fiction of being respected thinkers denied them in the West. Just read through the ancient astronaut books of the 1960s, and you will find them teeming with references to Russian scientists and Soviet “discoveries.” Gullible “ancient mysteries” writers gobbled up any “forbidden” science from behind the Iron Curtain. After reading a Soviet Sputnik magazine article on ancient astronauts in the late 1960s, Von Däniken—who was and is an adamant anti-socialist—flew to Moscow, where he met with I. S. Shklovskii, a collaborator of Carl Sagan’s, who had pioneered ancient astronaut ideas. Despite his politics, he had no trouble making use of everything Russian sources fed him about space aliens and ancient astronauts. Kolosimo, whose Not of This World won a prestigious Italian literary prize, was himself a dedicated communist and used Soviet material for ideological reasons and needed little convincing.
Once the Western media had been seeded with anti-scientific ancient astronaut nonsense, the Soviet government immediately clamped down on the material. The rapid change in policy took outside observers by surprise. U.S. diplomatic officials expressed puzzlement that in 1968 anti-UFO literature started to appear in the same Soviet magazines that had previously endorsed ancient astronauts, with no attempt by those magazines to explain the discrepancy. By 1970, UFOs and ancient astronauts had been officially condemned by the Soviet Academy of Physics as anti-scientific. While Western governments did not connect the dots, it seems that with the success of Chariots of the Gods and its ilk, the propaganda purpose of promoting ancient astronauts in the West had been achieved. Internal Soviet media would henceforth condemn UFOs, while Western-facing media would, intermittently, keep the story alive.
By 1980, the trend of Western fringe writers using Soviet materials had become so clear that Omni magazine chided ancient astronaut theorists for their use of untrustworthy Soviet propaganda: “Reports from these Russian [UFO] enthusiasts— Western newsmen are delighted to find Russians willing to talk on the record about anything — are considered highly credible by Western ufologlsts when they appear in UFO magazines and newsletters.” The prevalence of Soviet and Russian propaganda in the ancient astronaut field was so noticeable that no less a believer than the late Ancient Aliens pundit Philip Coppens wrote in his Ancient Alien Question (2011) that articles from the Soviet Union shortly after the 1969 moon landing about Egyptian-style obelisks and pyramids on the moon were actually anti-American propaganda designed to discredit American scientific achievements. These pseudoscientific claims were quickly picked up by American writers, including Sanderson, who spread the intended message to Argosy readers. A few months after Coppens published his concerns, his Ancient Aliens colleague David Wilcock shot a propaganda video for Russian television in which he discussed anti-American themes, including allegations that the U.S. government was controlled by space aliens and Jews and that 9/11 was an inside job. The show aired in 2013 in Russia, and according to Wilcock, writing at the time that an English subtitled version launched on YouTube, the show was a paid adaptation of one of his books: “[My] investigation was taken seriously enough to be turned into a major Russian television documentary -- nearly three years later. … In the fullness of time, information that was once thought to be ‘crazy’ might start making a lot more sense.”
The effort to promote ancient astronauts among Westerners extended even to mainstream writers who they thought could be bent to Soviet ends. Carl Sagan’s interactions with Soviet scientists like I. S. Shklovskii on space aliens and the ancient astronaut theory generated enough concern that American intelligence services tracked and monitored Sagan, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, an ex-KGB spy claimed that the intelligence service had used these connections to feed Sagan propaganda that Sagan later used in attempting to lobby Congress about weapons issues. Similarly, Soviet conferences in 1964 and 1971 on the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe served multiple purposes, including propaganda and, some have suggested, espionage. (Sagan edited the proceedings of the 1971 conference.) The Scottish astronomer John Macvey, for example, was so influenced by these conferences that he wrote a book about ancient astronauts that was marketed to “disciples of von Däniken.” J. Allen Hynek, the U.S. government’s top UFO researcher, rushed back from the International Astronomical Union conference in Prague in 1967, after meeting with Soviet officials, convinced that there was now a “UFO gap” and that the Soviets had with “dispassionate thoroughness” analyzed the UFO problem and would soon beat the U.S. in revealing the existence of extraterrestrials. He took to Playboy magazine to demand the U.S. military devote more resources to hunting space aliens. Skeptical Inquirer reported in 2005 that UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass had claimed that Russian businessmen, whom he was certain were actually Kremlin operatives, used to meet with him about UFO questions in the hopes of obtaining “insider information” about aerospace projects but Klass said he kept the FBI informed about these meetings. (The FBI had actually investigated Klass for disclosure of classified information in the 1950s and considered him “intemperate” and “irrational” by the 1970s due to his strident and sometimes unhinged communications about UFOs.)
After the Soviet government backed off its interest in UFOs, the Soviet Union had given the KGB authority over most UFO material, and for good reason: Since Soviet UFO sightings were often tied to spy missions, secrecy was of paramount importance. In 1977, a Soviet rocket launch near the city of Petrozavodsk spawned claims of a UFO sighting, and the tale spread around the world, from Soviet UFO journals to the National Enquirer. The event was actually quite mundane, as New Scientist reported in 1981. It was the launch of a spy satellite. However, Soviet officials could not admit as much, and for more than two years after the event, they government tried, without success, to suppress claims of a UFO over Russia by forcing government scientists to falsely ascribe the sighting to everything from a natural phenomenon to a Sputnik launch gone wrong. Nobody believed the lies because they were transparently false, and the incident served as notice that the Soviet Union would use scientists, when necessary, to tell transparent lies, and that the Soviet government officially condemned flying saucers. However, in the dying days of Soviet Russia, news organizations like TASS began, with official approval, to publish transparently fake tabloid stories about alien encounters and UFO sightings.
“They’ve been feeding us rubbish about the dream of Communism for years, and we now see they were lying,” a Soviet citizen said to Time in 1989. “At least this gives us something new to dream about.” In 1990, the Soviet government teamed up with China to launch a massive UFO investigation and promoted it triumphantly to the world, though it was forestalled by the collapse of the regime the next year.
This was apparently the state of things when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the first years of a weakened and independent Russia saw little effort, so far as the records seem to indicate, to continue Soviet policies. But things started to change in the middle and late 1990s, at the time when Vladimir Putin was rising to power. In 1998, Putin was appointed the head of the FSB, the Russian successor to the KGB. But even before this, the FSB released formerly secret KGB UFO files to American media. Books like The Soviet UFO Files (1998) and much-hyped television specials, including an ABC News documentary (1995) and a TNT documentary hosted by Roger Moore (1998) reported Russian UFO stories. Around the time of the second Gulf War, UFO publications began reporting that Russian intelligence had given out the story that Saddam Hussein was reverse engineering alien technology from a crashed UFO, and this was the real reason for the invasion of Iraq. As far as I know, the Russians, who opposed the Iraq War, never took credit for the story, but it lives on to this day in anti-American fringe claims about U.S. forces stealing “star gate” or “Nephilim” technology from Iraq.
After Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia, relations with the United States worsened, and Russian efforts to reassert Soviet-style international influence began to increase. In 2005, Putin’s government launched an English-language propaganda channel, Russia Today, now called RT. In 2010, a dedicated American channel replaced the English service for U.S. audiences. Governments around the world have declared the network to be a propaganda outlet for the Russian government, and a purveyor of “materially misleading” information, as British regulators declared. The U.S. government forced the network to register as a foreign agent, and in 2015 a party celebrating the channel saw Vladimir Putin, future Trump national security advisor and federal convict Michael Flynn and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (who continues to support Russian interests) seated together at the same table. Amidst the pro-Putin commentary on the network, the channel devotes a disproportionate amount of time to coverage of UFOs, ancient astronauts, and prehistoric mysteries. At first blush this seems like an odd fit for a channel devoted to pushing Moscow’s interests. But it makes entirely good sense. First, such content draws an audience to an otherwise little-watched channel. But more importantly, such content draws audiences already primed to accept conspiracy theories about nefarious U.S. UFO cover-ups, who are then more open to accepting anti-American messages and straight-up Russian propaganda against U.S. interests.
It is for this same reason that other Western-facing Russian propaganda outlets, such as the new Sputnik magazine (not to be confused with the 1960s version), also heavily feature UFO and ancient astronaut material, which they package in forms ready for sharing on social media.
The consistency of this material across Russian propaganda outlets heavily implies that the promotion of ancient astronaut themes is an official propaganda objective. It is unlikely that Russian outlets would so consistently push these claims, and especially conspiracies about U.S. and Jewish efforts to suppress the “truth,” if Moscow did not want these conspiracy theories spread. Putin-linked media companies and even official organs of Russian science advocate for similar conspiracies within Russia, part of what some observers have called Putin’s policy of discrediting the authority of science as part of a push for greater power for himself and for the Orthodox Church. In 2016, Russians staged protests of Putin’s pseudoscience, and Foreign Policy reported that Putin intentionally encourages lunatic ideas because they cast the West in a bad light, as the suppressors of hidden truths.
With so much pseudoscience coming out of Russia, it was inevitable that it would make its way into the American media, both directly and indirectly. RT stories eventually generate social media presence that forces mainstream U.S. publications to cover ancient astronaut claims. David Wilcock, who participated in Russian propaganda, has remained in contact with Russian agents, if his blog posts about his “secret” Russian sources are to be believed. It is not impossible that disinformation agents are feeding him lies. His anti-American rants about how evil Jews and space aliens have corrupted the Democratic Party are of a piece with Russian propaganda efforts, and his blog posts routinely make use of false information from Russian propaganda outlets or are attributed directly to Russian sources. Ancient Aliens, on which Wilcock has appeared since 2009, has devoted several segments and a full episode to celebrations of Putin’s Russia and the supposed truths possessed by Russian authorities regarding space aliens. Similarly, the FBI began investigating Alex Jones’s InfoWars for Russian connections after discovering that Russian bots were being used to amplify the social media reach of some of Jones’s conspiracy theories. Jones, of course, routinely promotes conspiracies about Nephilim, ancient astronauts, and UFOs—including David Wilcock’s work—alongside pro-Trump propaganda. This returns us to the beginning and the discovery that Russian bots are still at work amplifying divisive messages on social media.
It would be a mistake, however, to attribute to Russia nefarious mastery of the media. There is, as yet, no proof that Russian promotion of these claims extended beyond enhancing the profile of ancient astronaut claims and passing along conspiracy theories to a few key figures. Indeed, an Associated Press report found that a leading Russian troll farm was staggeringly unprofessional and amateurish. While the otherwise baffling focus on ancient astronaut and UFO conspiracy theories on RT and in Sputnik speaks to an official policy, such material has never been a dominant theme in Russian propaganda. Indeed, so far as I can tell, it has passed so far beneath the radar that there has never been a study made of Russian UFO propaganda. But the bigger question is this: Why bother at all?
The answer to that can be found in Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy, in which the scholar outlines the growing connection between UFO and ancient astronaut beliefs and anti-government rightwing politics. In the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, claims of secrecy and suppression of UFO truths by the U.S. government allowed space alien beliefs to become aligned to militia movements and other extreme rightist causes that similarly claimed that the government was evil and not to be trusted. Thus, ancient astronaut and UFO conspiracies served as a wedge issue and recruiting tool to attract new members to rightist causes and indoctrinate them in anti-government extremism. It is important to remember that the Russians did not invent the ancient astronaut theory, which had long before emerged from Theosophy (widespread in Russia before Bolshevik suppression), nor were they involved in the emergence of flying saucers into American culture in the late 1940s. Instead, the Russians seemed to be reacting to developments in America and Western Europe, exploiting issues of concern in the West, and using wedges like ancient astronauts to do so. By keeping such material circulating and enhancing its reach and effectiveness, Russian propaganda outlets serve to generate and enhance internal discord in the United States by encouraging anti-government and anti-science views.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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