Have you ever seen the pictures of the Soviet version of the space shuttle, the Buran? It looked almost like its American counterpart but was just slightly off, was used only once, and ended up on the scrapheap of history when its hangar collapsed on it, crushing it. In the same way, a lot of Soviet consumer goods were blocky, inefficient knockoffs of Western products.
I bring this up because of something I have neglected to write much about: The Soviet ancient astronaut theory. Like its consumer goods, the Soviet ancient astronaut theory was derivative, clunky, and an ersatz copy of the West. But unlike Soviet cars and clothes, the Soviet ancient astronaut theory was influential.
The reason I haven’t written much about the ancient astronaut theory in the Soviet Union is because I don’t speak Russian, and I can’t read most of the material printed in that era. It would be interesting to see a fuller discussion from someone who can properly evaluate the source material firsthand.
The Communist government of the Soviet Union was staunchly atheistic, following Marx’s dictum that religion was the “opiate of the masses.” Soviet scholars struggled to find a way to combat religion by providing a suitably scientific-sounding explanation for ancient mysteries and beliefs. The West already had a mystical tradition, Theosophy, that had suggested that beings from other planets stood behind ancient gods and human evolution. There was also literature, known to Soviet thinkers, about ancient astronauts, most notably the famed French novella The Xipehuz, about aliens in Neolithic Mesopotamia. By the 1950s, Europe had started to develop a science-fiction-inspired set of proto-ancient-astronaut texts, including the early work of the Italian Peter Kolosimo and the UFO works of George Adamski and others, which adapted Theosophy’s spiritual beings from other worlds as actual extraterrestrial, biological Venusians.
Could Western pseudoscience, religion, and science fiction be adapted into a suitably socialist-realistic, materialist framework? And could it be used to defeat the claims of religion?
The Soviet mathematician Matest M. Agrest (1915-2005) sparked the Soviet ancient astronaut craze nearly a decade before the theory gained widespread popularity in the West. In 1959, he proposed that Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed by an extraterrestrial nuclear device (which conveniently also killed Lot’s wife in the presence of witnesses), and that the terrace of Baalbek in Lebanon was a launch pad for alien spacecraft. Because Agrest was a scientist, unlike earlier European and American writers, his work attained a spurious credibility, especially with Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, who saw in it not the anti-religious propaganda it was but rather confirmation that H. P. Lovecraft and Charles Fort had been on to something. His work found its way into Morning of the Magicians (1960), through which it was disseminated to Erich von Daniken, Zecharia Sitchin, and countless others.
As the ancient astronaut theory developed as a pop culture phenomenon among New Agers in first France, then all Europe, and then America, in the Soviet Union officials wondered if it could be used as a propaganda tool for atheism. Beginning in the 1960s, Carl Sagan began working with Soviet scientists on questions of extraterrestrial life. He worked closely with I. S. Shklovskii, who in 1962 first developed the suggestion—expanded with Sagan’s input in 1966 as Intelligent Life in the Universe—that aliens had advanced civilizations on other planets and may have been responsible for creating an “artificial” satellite for Mars, the moon Phobos. While in the United States, these questions were met, essentially, with bemusement, in the Soviet Union the suggestion that aliens existed and could be contacted was treated much more seriously, largely because of Shklovskii’s credibility as a scientist. By 1964, the Soviets were fully invested in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Western scholars attributed this interest in ETs and ancient astronauts to the Soviet commitment to atheism, materialism, and evolution. Soviet scholars argued that if advanced civilizations were proven to exist, and if they demonstrated aspects of socialism, then this would be another argument in favor of Marx’s assertion that socialism was the inevitable product of invisible forces. Further, any proof of intelligent life in the cosmos was a prima facie rebuke to religion’s claims of special creation, not to mention evidence in favor of materialist, godless evolution. (See James A. Herrick, Scientific Mythologies [InterVarsity, 2008], 49 & 67.)
The consequences of these official dogmas was that much of the Soviet “evidence” for ancient astronauts was highly suspect, interpreted according to Communist doctrine, and in many cases outright fabrications. Even Jacques Bergier, himself no strict adherent to truth, found the Soviet works suffused with “antireligious propaganda” and poor quality evidence: “Unfortunately, they accept such evidence a little too easily, and it is not always very convincing” (Extraterrestrial Visitation, p. 133). This did not stop him, of course, from relying upon Soviet sources. Nor did it stop Erich von Daniken, Zecharia Sitchin, and sundry others from using Soviet “evidence” in their own ancient astronaut books of the 1970s.
It did not help matters that Soviet publications freely mixed fact and fiction, leading to the ridiculous situation where a modern illustration became heralded among alternative authors of the West as an “ancient” depiction of a UFO and extraterrestrial!
Soviet interest in ancient astronauts declined along with the power and influence of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, Orthodox Christianity saw a resurgence, effectively ending any (semi-)official program of ancient astronaut studies.
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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