In our increasingly worldaround world, it is a rare, if not obsolete, occurrence for two wildly disparate and equally sophisticated cultures to meet for the first time. That’s probably for the best, of course, because when it did happen in spades, during the centuries on Earth before instantaneous global communication, all bets were off, and what went down was almost always marked with catastrophe (as with the indigenous people of North America) or powderkeg-and-a-match mutual distrust (as with the first United States naval expeditions to Japan in the 1850s, a cultural collision that is beautifully explored in Charles and Ray Eames’ 1972 film The Black Ships).
There are, of course, exceptions to this grim surmisal. When such a meeting takes place on a smaller scale, and is filtered through the lens of a profound — and autonomous — common interest, only good can come of it. This is a roundabout way of getting at the nucleus of my new favorite book, Jacques Vallée’s UFO Chronicles of the Soviet Union: A Cosmic Samizdat, which documents the first meetings between Soviet and Western UFO researchers at the dawn of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, a period of transparency in Soviet politics which effectively lifted the Iron Curtain from decades of underground paranormal research and samizdat dissemination of literature.
This is what happened: In 1990, one of the world’s most respected and most rigidly scientific ufologists — Vallée — was invited by a Soviet press agency, Novosti, to visit the USSR in the wake of one of the country’s most controversial waves of UFO activity, the infamous Voronezh sightings. On arrival, Vallée discovered a rich community of well-organized researchers, the ironic result of censorship itself forcing Soviet ufology into unofficial underground networks, where it flourished. On this unusual result of the Iron Curtain, Vallée is almost nostalgic: “It was obvious that knowledge was revered here to a degree that our information-saturated world had forgotten…Russia has never had a distribution system…ideas percolated among students, scholars, and private groups who created a verifiable cult around the books that influenced them.”
Whether or not you buy into UFO research, particularly Vallée’s especially tinfoil strain of non-extraterrestrial hypotheses (“I am a heretic among heretics,” he is known to lament), this book is a fascinating cultural document. Before glasnost, the broad-reaching and colorful world of Soviet UFO research was completely isolated from the West, forced to depend on non-institutional research bodies, catalogued with a uniquely Russian strain of manic order, and often effectively shut down by the government or by prevailing cultural opinion. At this moment in 1990, however, ufologists were free to pontificate at will to Vallée, a Western scientist, about Tunguska explosion of 1908, the Voronezh incidents, the rampant UFO activity in the Perm region of Russia, and about the widespread Soviet technique of “biolocation,” kind of biological-field dowsing — all this for the first time. Before Vallée’s trip to Moscow, no Soviet ufologists had ever compared notes with a Western scientist or researcher. I mean, imagine the mind-fuck that this represents, especially when someone from the West says to you, “yes, we have reports of alien abductions, too.” This accidental control group created by Soviet isolation seems, at face value, like a solid corroboration that we are really in the midst of legitimate visitations.
Vallée’s speculations about the Soviet scene are intimate and fascinating. He often reflects on the abject cultural misery of the USSR, its inescapable sense of pervading gloom; he is also struck by the tenacity and vibrancy of its paranormal research. After a roundtable conference with Muscovite scientists, he notes, “the Soviets…still regard the future with the somewhat naïve passion of a Jules Verne or an H.G. Wells,” an observation that resounds strongly when you consider the average Soviet witness’
description of an extraterrestrial being: 10 feet tall, silver boots, three eyes.
This, incidentally, is one of the most interesting aspects of the cross-cultural summit: that the Russians, unbeknownst to the West, have been experiencing the same kinds of crazy unexplainable phenomena as we have, forever, totally isolated from our singular conception of the extraterrestrial or paranormal as being necessarily “grey” or “little green man” in persuasion. The result is a manifestation of the unknown that is perhaps more fantastic than Vallée might have anticipated, and certainly as alien — pun wholly intended — to our worldview as these phenomena themselves.
The big question, of course, remains unanswered. While the Soviet data is replete with well-documented sightings, none of them bear any resemblance to the Western data. Instead of saucers, we see glowing spheres; instead of almond-eyed gangly creatures, we encounter robots and headless giants. Does this mean that UFO phenomena are simply irrational experiences heavily filtered through our cultural conceptions? Are we even talking about the same thing? With so many varieties of manifestation, the UFO problem becomes almost semantic, especially in the case of this glasnost-fueled conference, for we lack a common language.
I’m tempted to read this as a version of the kind of cultural catastrophe that usually results from the communication of two formerly isolated groups; with a lack of shared language, and the only common ground being a commitment to the fantastic and conspiratorial, the Soviet-Western ufology conference might have spelled a death knell to the whole movement. Vallée is more hopeful, however, and that is the eternal asset of the UFO movement: “These developments,” he concludes, “give us hope that a fruitful, long-term dialogue might be opening at last between researchers in the Soviet Union and their Western counterparts…it is only through such dialogue that the UFO mystery will eventually be solved.”