Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost (1988)

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“A disturbing aspect about the Soviets’ reaction to revelations of their secrets was the insistence that any Western attempt to explore these secret mishaps had to have been inspired by malice, not by an understandable interest in the truth. Even during the period of glasnost the ancient and strident Russian paranoia toward foreign curiosity about their failures is very evident.”

– James Oberg, Uncovering Soviet Disasters

One of my favorite “mysteries” is the conspiracy of the lost cosmonauts. Basically, it’s a theory that claims that “The Space Race” may have been built upon the corpses of many forgotten heroes lost to both time and Soviet censorship. These so-called “lost cosmonauts” have been proven to be usually more fantasy than fact, and I don’t actually believe in many of the stories that have been circulating for upwards of sixty years. But all one has to do is listen to the chilling Judica-Cordiglia brothers audio recordings from 1962 that claim to be the last words of a handful of such cases, and think “what if…” I was looking for a book on this subject and was shocked to see that there really aren’t many that aren’t conspiracy nut garbage, so I broadened my net and found a series of books written by James Oberg during the Cold War. There is a chapter in here about lost cosmonauts, both factual and mythical, and information on the narrative that makes a conspiracy like this so hard to shake – if the USSR lied and covered up so much stuff, what don’t we know about?

The Purpose of Uncovering Soviet Disasters by James E. Oberg is to explore the USSR’s new (at the time) government policy of open discussion, or Glasnost (openness in Russian). The USSR had routinely covered up almost any bad news pertaining to not only government affairs but personal tragedies for so long that many were living in a dream-world of sorts for many years. This book is an attempt to “level the playing field” and expose a lot of these blatant misuses of censorship. Oberg does this by organizing everything into a series of articles each covering a different Soviet Era disaster that had been in some way wiped from public records or covered up.

Oberg usually presents many sides to each story, and since most of his “experts” were going off of eye-witness testimony or professional gut-feelings, many of the theories were vastly different from one another. For example, chapter one talks about a suspected anthrax epidemic in the early 80’s that caused dozens of deaths, but was almost unheard of until the fall of the USSR within the country itself. Some experts chalked it up to being a case of tainted meat, others blamed it on a misplaced vaccine that somehow got out of a medical facility. Since this book is so old (it was published in 1988), it was fun to look up many of the incidents listed to get an update of what really happened (since all of this info has largely been unclassified since). After the fall of the USSR it was revealed that, according to Wikipedia, that the USSR did in fact violate a biological weapons ban and produce Anthrax like many suspected, and the whole ordeal was caused by a miscommunication between workers in said weapons facility rendering a vent system offline for a few days allowing anthrax to escape unfiltered into the town. Now the whole ordeal is called “Biological Chernobyl” and is pretty infamous.

Some of the stories are a bit “tainted”, I suppose, with American Cold War era propaganda – many Soviet “characters” are described in a less than flattering manner. In many instances, the reader is presented with the narrative that The USSR was always up to no good as if populated entirely by mustache twirling Bond Villains, or reactionary morons that were only trying to protect themselves in the face of disaster. while this wasn’t too over-the-top, it colored an otherwise well-done book. He does go to great length to talk-up the heroism and toughness of many everyday Russians in an almost “noble savage” sort of way, leaving you to admire their resolve. If anything, I REALLY wish there was a later edition of this where Oberg went back and updated everything, but alas the entire book would have to be basically re-written, and he is now in his 70’s.

All-in-all this is a good read despite the age and political motivation. I will need to look into reading more of Mr. Oberg’s work.

Here’s Your Saturday Links for 8/16

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Fleet Street goes sci-fi: Daily Express’s starring role in The Day The Earth Caught Fire

“An apocalyptic science fiction film showing the world overheating and society thrown into turmoil is about to be released. But this is no modern commentary on global warming and war – the film was originally shown in 1961. The Day The Earth Caught Fire, a pioneering production and scathing indictment on Cold War posturing, has been rescued from the archives and digitally restored for public release….”

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Best sci-fi books round-up: Where imaginations run wild

According to The Independent “Science fiction and fantasy is a broad church, and many who preach its tenets might not be wholly aware that they are doing so.”

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‘Tractor Beams’ Are No Longer Science Fiction

“Tractor beams – invisible tethers which pull space ships into cargo bays through no definable mechanism or physical law – are the latter. Or they were. Researchers at the Australian National University say they have developed what amounts to a tractor beam which is capable of pulling objects using 3D wave currents. “

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Peter Capaldi Discusses Matt Smith’s Final Day on Set

Peter Capaldi describes his first visit to the TARDIS set and what it was like to take over the role from Matt Smith.

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Red Dwarf XI Confirmed at Convention

“A big update came during the Sci-Fi Scarborough convention on Saturday a Red Dwarf panel comprised of Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn confirmed the news. John-Jules said that shooting is scheduled to get under-way in October 2014 with a view to being aired on Dave in Autumn 2015.”

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Doctor Who: Cold War (2013)

After The Rings of Akhaten puzzled fans with what is quite possibly the most unconventional (and divisive) episode of modern Doctor Who, this time we have something so conventional it feels almost retro! This is definitely helped by the fact that a returning villain, The Ice Warriors, make their modern era debut in Cold War, and with a make-over to boot. The recipe for tonight’s episode is easy: just take one part classic “base under siege” template, add it to one part Ridley Scott’s Alien then mix it all in a bowl of Hunt for Red October.

The story follows The Doctor and Clara stumbling in on a Cold War era Soviet submarine at the height of tensions with the U.S. The crew is taking part in a routine test to see if they have the testicular fortitude available to nuke everything if the call was ever made to start a nuclear war. It seems that the crew has taken a bit of “extra cargo” in the form of a huge ice block with a presumed mammoth inside. Of course, this isn’t the case, and we have a loose Ice Warrior running around. His name is Grand Marshall Skaldak, and the poor guy thinks that he is the last of his people. In fact, he is utterly devastated that his family, including his daughter, aged to dust by the passage of almost five thousand years in his icy tomb. When faced with losses of that sort combined with his militaristic nature means that he may just cause a nuclear incident because he has nothing to lose.

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First things first, I’d like to discuss the changes made to the ice warrior costume itself. The new costume, as we see with Grand Marshall Skaldak, is a vast improvement on the older suits, without losing the iconic look of the classic series version. Really the only BIG change was the hands, and let’s be honest, most people are happy that they lost their robot claws/Lego guy hands in favor of three-fingered Ninja Turtle-like ones. The problem I always had with the 1960’s iterations are that they looked so much like a guy in an overdone fiberglass and fur suit that I was expecting Godzilla to fight them off. You could tell the actor’s visibility was bad, and the mobility was clunky and slow. The new suits look somehow more maneuverable and more armor-like at the same time despite being obviously made from a less rigid material.

As for one controversial aspect of the episode, I quite enjoyed seeing Skaldak outside of his armor. It seems like I am the only one out there, but the effect wasn’t so bad. Yeah I know his face was computer generated, and that folks are averse to any CGI creatures, but the unusual take on them was interesting. I think many people figured that there would be a random make-up faced dude under there, but what we got was more alien. Let’s be honest if it was just somebody with lizard make-up they would have been too similar to the Silurians.

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Another big plus for me was the guest cast. It was almost refreshing to see a bit of media based on Russian soldiers to escape the almost propaganda-esque portrayal found in most shows. Instead of a crew of militant Stalinists hell-bent on the decimation of the United States, we have a level-headed crew of guys that look like they’d be fun to hang out with. The inclusion of veteran actor (and former audio-only Doctor Who actor) David Warner as professor Grisenko especially stood out. I’m not sure if it was the adorable grandfatherly wacko-vibe (the one that made me love Wilf so much in season 4) or his love for new wave music that I enjoyed so much, but Warner delivered the goods. I’m one of probably four people who have yet to watch the blockbuster show Game of Thrones, but I hear Liam Cunningham is quite good in it. I’m not familiar with him much aside from smaller roles, but if his stint as Captain Zhukov is any indication, he is pretty good.

On a side note while we are discussing the ship’s crew: That the guy that originally released the Ice Warrior from the block of ice was comically inept to such a hilarious degree, I’m amazed that he didn’t inadvertently kill the entire crew long before the Doctor even showed up. He causes the whole catastrophe simply because he couldn’t wait to see the mammoth they found, and took a blowtorch to it like a naughty child on Christmas Eve peeking at their presents.

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The way the whole episode was put together was very good. I really enjoyed the script, which is amazing since it was penned by Mark Gatiss. I’m no Gatiss hater by any stretch of the imagination, but he has had troubles for some reason or another doing solid scripts for the new series. I loved The Unquiet Dead, but was let down in most of his other episodes. Cold War contained his old-school sensibility and his attention to historical detail very well, and unlike Victory of the Daleks, it didn’t fall apart in the end. The direction was very well done as well and retained the cinematic feel that Douglas McKinnon got so right in The Power of Three. The claustrophobic feel of all the steamy, drippy submarine corridors and the attention to shadows and darkness gave this episode a nice nod to the Ridley Scott Film Alien.

Cold War is quite possibly the best episode this half of the season so far. Keeping the tense mood and claustrophobic vibe ramped up to eleven was great, as it really helped the “mini-film” nature pop out. Skaldak is a great adversary for the Doctor, and I really hope we see him again at some point. His honor code mixed with his refreshingly real emotions and motives are a nice change for a show usually populated with villains that are evil for the sake of being evil. You really feel for the guy, even though he decides to handle his predicament pretty poorly, but honor wins out in the end. He honestly reminds me of Klingon characters throughout the many Star Trek shows. While they are usually the antagonists of any given story, rarely are they doing any action solely based on bad intentions alone. That’s what makes them so iconic in that universe, and I hope this carries over to Doctor Who. Move over Sontarans, I think the show has rediscovered its resident “Klingons”.

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In closing, I really hope that professor Grisenko is still alive in the modern Doctor Who world and is enjoying the recently re-united Ultravox; hopefully he never gave up hope after they broke up around the same time as the fall of the Soviet Union!