July 13, 1908 The Event at Tunguska

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first. Or the last. 

The first atomic bomb in the history of human conflict exploded in the skies over Japan on August 6, 1945. The bomb, code named “Little Boy”, reached an altitude of 1,900-ft. over the city of Hiroshima at 8:15am, Japanese Standard Time.

A “gun-triggered” fission bomb, barometric-pressure sensors initiated the explosion of four cordite charges, propelling a small “bullet” of enriched uranium the length of a fixed barrel and into a sphere of the same material. Within picoseconds (1/.000000000001 of a second), the collision of the two bodies initiated a fission reaction, releasing an energy yield roughly equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.

66,000 were killed by the effects of the blast, the shock wave spreading outward at a velocity greater than the speed of sound and flattening virtually everything in its path, for a distance of a mile in all directions.

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Thirty-seven years earlier, the boreal forests of Siberia lit up with an explosion 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. At the time, no one had the foggiest notion that it was coming.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international belt line of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, an area 1.6 times the size of the continental United States.  The Stony Tunguska River wends its way along an 1,160-mile length of the region, its entire course flowing under great pebble fields with no open water.

TunguskaOn the morning of June 30, 1908, the Tunguska River lit up with a bluish-white light.  At 7:17a local time, a column of light far too bright to look at moved across the skies above the Tunguska. Minutes later, a vast explosion knocked people off their feet, flattening buildings, crops and as many as 80 million trees over an area of 830-square miles. A vast “thump” was heard, the shock wave equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale. Within minutes came a second and then a third shock wave and finally a fourth, more distant this time and described by eyewitnesses as the “sun going to sleep”.

On July 13, 1908, the Krasnoyaretz newspaper reported “At 7:43 the noise akin to a strong wind was heard. Immediately afterward a horrific thump sounded, followed by an earthquake that literally shook the buildings as if they were hit by a large log or a heavy rock”.

Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure were detectable as far away as Great Britain.  Night skies were set aglow from Asia to Europe for days on end, theorized to have been caused by light, passing through high-altitude ice particles.

In the United States, lookout posts from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles recorded a several months-long decrease in atmospheric transparency, attributed to an increase in dust, suspended in the atmosphere.

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first, or the last.  Mistastin Lake in northern Labrador was formed during the Eocene era of 36-million years ago, cubic Zirconium deposits suggesting an impact-zone temperature of some 4,300° Fahrenheit.  Halfway to the temperature of the sun.

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“A bolide – a very bright meteor of an apparent magnitude of &−14 or brighter” H/T Wikimedia

Some sixty-six million years ago, the “Chicxulub impactor” struck the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, unleashing a mega-tsunami of 330-ft in height from Texas to Florida. Superheated steam, ash and vapor towered over the impact zone, as colossal shock waves triggered global earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.   Vast clouds of dust blotted out the sun for months on end, leading to mass extinction events the world over.

The official history of the Ming Dynasty records the Ch’ing-yang event of 1490, a meteor shower in China, in which “stones fell like rain”, killing some 10,000 people.

In 2013, a twenty-meter (66-ft) space rock estimated at 13,000-14,000 tons flashed across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia, breaking apart with a kinetic impact estimated at 26-times the nuclear blast over Hiroshima.  The Superbolide (a bolide is “an extremely bright meteor, especially one that explodes in the atmosphere”) entered the earth’s atmosphere on February 15, burning exposed skin and damaging retinas for miles around.  No fatalities were reported, though 1,500 were injured seriously enough to require medical attention.

The 450-ton Chicora Meteor collided with western Pennsylvania on June 24, 1938, in a cataclysm comparable to the Halifax Explosion of 1917.  The good luck held, that time, the object making impact in a sparsely populated region.  The only reported casualty, was a cow.  Investigators F.W. Preston, E.P. Henderson and James R. Randolph remarked that “If it had landed on Pittsburgh there would have been few survivors”.

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

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May 30, 1896 A Cup of Sorrows

When it was over, 1,389 people had been trampled to death, and another 1,300 injured.

On May 26, 1896 according to the Gregorian calendar, Tsar Nicholas II, known as Saint Nicholas II to the Russian Orthodox Church, was crowned Tsar of Russia.  The traditional celebration banquet was scheduled for May 30 at a large open space to the northwest of Moscow, called Khodynka Field.

697452_tsar-nicholas-ii-tsarina-alexandra-feodorovna_cardIt was customary that gifts be given to the guests of such a celebration. There were commemorative scarves and ornately decorated porcelain cups, bearing the ciphers of Nicholas and Alexandra opposite the double-headed symbol of the Imperial dynasty, the Romanov eagle.

There were food gifts as well, bread rolls and sausages, pretzels, gingerbread, and a cup of beer.  150 buffets and 20 pubs were constructed, to handle their distribution.

Revelers began to gather on the 29th.  By 5:00am on the 30th, the crowd was a half-million strong, and growing.

Khodynka Field

Khodynka field was a poor venue for such an event, the crowd far larger than could be safely handled. A military training ground, the plain before the speaker’s Cups of Sorrowspodium was pocked and lined with trenches and pits.

Rumors began to spread among the crowd. There wasn’t enough beer to go around.  Those enameled cups, already a great novelty for the time, each contained a gold coin.

The crowd became a mob and began to surge forward, as rumors grew and spread. An 1,800-man police force was inadequate to maintain order. The crush of the crowd grew into a panic, and then became a human stampede.

1,389 people were trampled to death in the rout, another 1,300, injured.

The new Czar and Czarina didn’t hear about the disaster at first but, when they did, the royal couple spent the rest of the day visiting their subjects in hospital.

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Nicholas thought it best not to attend a ball put on that night by the French embassy, fearing that it would make him appear insensitive to the suffering of his people. The Tsar’s advisers persuaded him to go, however, and later events proved him correct.

Khodynka, aftermath

There was great public indignation over the disaster at Khodynka field, despite generous subsidies paid to victims, by the Russian government.  Despite his best efforts, Tsar Nicholas became ‘Bloody Nicholas”, to the Russian people. For the Tsarina, that enameled coronation cup more closely resembled a ‘Cup of Sorrows “.

Mystics prophesied that Nicholas’ refusal to decline the invitation would lead to his doom.  J. Balmont wrote in 1905 that “Who started his reign with Khodynka, will finish it by mounting the scaffold”.

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Hat tip to the Russian artist known as ‘Klimbims’, for her work in colorizing these vintage images

Tsar Nicholas was murdered by order of the Ural regional Soviet in Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. The Tsarina, the couple’s five children, servants, dogs and a number of individuals who had chosen to accompany the Imperial family into imprisonment, were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death.

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Great countess Maria Vladimirovna.

It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia. The malignant ideology which arose to take its place, would murder more of its own civilians, than any system of government, in history.

 

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January 10, 1869 The Mad Monk of Tobolsk

What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex-crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed Rasputin had the power to make her boy better. Many around her openly spoke of the man ruining the Royal Family, and the nation.

Traditionally, the line of succession to the Imperial Russian throne descended through the male line. By 1903 the Tsarina Alexandra had delivered four healthy babies, each of them girls.  Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In 1904, the Tsarina labored to deliver her fifth.

That August, the country waited and hoped for an heir to the throne. All of Russia prayed for a boy.

The prayers of the nation were answered on August 12 (July 30 Old Style calendar), with the birth of a son. The Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich. The happy news was announced with a 301-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress, and all of Russia rejoiced.

Those hopes would be dashed in less than a month, when the infant’s navel began to bleed. It continued to bleed for two days, and required all the doctors at the Tsar’s disposal, to stop it.

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Alexei Nikolaevich, 1904

The child suffered from hemophilia, an hereditary condition passed down from his Grandmother British Queen Victoria.  She’d already lost a son and a grandson to the disease, both at the age of three.

The early years of any small boy are punctuated by dents and dings and the Tsarevich was no exception. Bleeding episodes were often severe, despite the never-ending efforts of his parents, to protect him. Doctors’ remedies were frequently in vain, and Alexandra turned to a succession of quacks, mystics and “wise men”, for a cure.

Born on this day in 1869, Grigori Efimovich Rasputin was a strange man, a Siberian peasant wanderer and self-proclaimed “holy man”, a seer of the future claiming the power to heal.  Rasputin would leave his home village of Pokrovskoye for months or even years at a time, wandering the countryside and visiting holy sites.  It’s rumored that he once went as far Athos in Greece, at that time a center of monastic life in the Orthodox church.

RasputinThe precise circumstances are unknown, but the monk came into the royal orbit, sometime in 1905.  “We had the good fortune”, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his diary , “to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk”.

Alexei suffered an internal hemorrhage in the spring of 1907, and Grigori was summoned to pray.  The Tsarevich recovered the next morning.   The royal family came to rely on the faith-healing powers of Rasputin.  It seemed that he alone was able to stop the boy’s bleeding episodes.

The Tsarevich developed a serious hematoma in his groin and thigh in 1912, following a particularly jolting carriage ride. Severely in pain and suffering with high fever, the boy appeared to be close to death. Desperate, the Tsarina sent a telegram, asking the monk to pray for her son.  Rasputin wrote back from Siberia, “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” The bleeding stopped, within the next two days.

The British historian Harold Shukman wrote that Rasputin was “an indispensable member of the royal entourage”.

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Romanov family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

As the royal family became more attached to the monk Rasputin, scandals followed the peasant holy man like the chains of Jacob Marley.  Rumors abounded of sexual peccadillos, involving society ladies and prostitutes alike.  Gossip describing trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that pornographic postcards were openly circulated, depicting these liaisons.

What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex-crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed the man had the power to make her boy better. Those around her openly spoke of Rasputin ruining the Royal Family, and the Russian nation.

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Influential people approached Nicholas and Alexandra with dire warnings, leaving dismayed by their refusal to listen.  Rasputin was indispensable according to the Royal Couple.  He was the only man who could save the Tsarevich.

Rasputin_listovkaBy 1916 it was clear to many in the Nobility. The only course was to kill Rasputin, before he destroyed the monarchy.

A group of five Nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace on December 16, 1916, using the possibility of a sexual encounter with Yusopov’s beautiful wife Irina, as bait. Pretending that she was upstairs with unexpected guests, the five “entertained” Rasputin in a basement dining room, feeding him arsenic laced pastries and washing them down with poisoned wine. None of it seemed to have any effect.

Panicked, Yusupov pulled a revolver and shot the monk.  Rasputin went down, but soon got up and attacked his tormentors. He tried to run away, only to be shot twice more and have his head beaten bloody with a dumbbell. At last, with hands and feet bound, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was thrown from a bridge into the icy Malaya Nevka River.

Police found the body two days later, with water in the lungs and hands outstretched. Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

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Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

In the end, the succession question turned out to be moot. A letter attributed to Rasputin, which he may or may not have written, contained a prophecy. “If I am killed by common assassins and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia…[I]f it was your relations who have wrought my death…none of your children or relations will remain alive for two years. They will be killed by the Russian people…”

The stresses and economic dislocations of the Great War proved too much to handle.  The Imperial Russian state collapsed in 1917.  Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne within three months of the death of Rasputin.   Members of the Ural regional Soviet shot, bludgeoned and bayoneted the Russian Imperial family to death:  Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, all five children, the Grand Duchess Olga, the Romanov family physician, their footman, maid, and their dogs.

A coded telegram was sent to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov.  “Inform Sverdlov”, (Communist party administrator Yakov Sverdlov ) “The whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation”.

August 23, 1942 War of the Rats

A German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

WWII could have ended differently, had two of the most homicidal dictators in history become allies. It actually started out that way, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, in August, 1939. That would end two years later with “Operation Barbarossa”, the German surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, beginning on June 22, 1941.

We’re accustomed to thinking of World War II in terms of the European and the Pacific “Theaters”, but the most horrific casualties of the most destructive war in history, took place on the “Ostfront”, (Eastern Front).  95% of all German Army casualties between 1941 and 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war, took place on the Eastern Front. The bloodiest battle of the Eastern Front, probably the bloodiest battle in all of history, began this day in 1942, in the city of Stalingrad.

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Photo by Nara Archives / Rex Features (2093505a) October 1942, Stalingrad – Soviet Guardsmen Fighting In The Streets Of The Stalingrad Outskirts

Soviet propagandists called it a “harvest victory”, when most of the cattle, grain and rail cars were shipped out of the city in advance of the German assault.

Most of Stalingrad’s civilian residents remained however, leaving the city short of food, even before the commencement of German attacks. Making things worse, the Luftwaffe bombed Volga River shipping, sinking 32 ships and crippling another 9 in the narrow waterway, cutting off this vital link in the city’s supply chain.

Wilfred von Richtofen, cousin of the famous “Red Baron” of WWI, opened up with his heavy bombers on August 23rd, dropping over 1,000 tons of high explosive on Stalingrad.

The Soviets suffered from extreme manpower shortages in the beginning.  The burden of the early defense of the city fell to the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, a primarily female unit of young volunteers who had no training and the wrong weapons to engage ground targets. These women were all alone at this point with no support from other units, but they traded shot for shot with the German 16th Panzer Division until all 37 AA guns had been wiped out or overrun. When it was over, 16th Panzer soldiers were shocked to learn they’d been fighting women.

1077th

Stalingrad was quickly reduced to rubble, with the German 6th Army controlling 90% of the city.  Still, Lt. Gen. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov’s army held on.  With backs to the Volga, they fought for the very sewers of the city, men and women alike reduced to a primitive level of existence. The Germans called it “Rattenkrieg”. “War of the Rats”. A German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

As many as 80,000 Red Army soldiers lay dead by the middle of October, 1942. Counting German losses and civilian deaths, the battle cost a quarter of a million lives up to this point, and the fighting still had months to go.Stalingrad

Ice floes in the Volga river further cut off the defender’s supplies, reducing them to cannibalism as a massive Soviet counter-attack was building on the German’s exposed left flank.

By November, General Georgy Zhukov had assembled over a million fresh troops, 1,500 tanks, 2,500 heavy guns, and three Air Armies for the assault on Stalingrad. The rumble of artillery, the “Great Soviet God of War” could be heard across the steppe as the Soviet counter-attack commenced in a blinding snowstorm on November 19th, 1942. It was now the Germans who were trapped.

German General Friedrich von Paulus asked Hitler’s permission to withdraw before they became surrounded.  The response was that he should fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet.”stalingrad1

German forward movement on the Eastern Front came to an end in February, 1943, when 91,000 freezing, wounded, sick and starving Germans were surrendered to the Red Army.

Even then, as many as 11,000 Germans refused to lay down their arms and continued to fight from the cellars and the sewers of Stalingrad, holding on until early March.

Disease, death marches, cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition would all take their toll on the prisoners.  Of the nearly 110,000 who went into captivity after the Battle of Stalingrad, fewer than 6,000 lived to return to Germany, after the war.

May 30, 1896 Beer Stampede

A rumor began to spread among the crowd that there wasn’t enough beer or pretzels to go around. At that point the police force of 1,800 wasn’t enough to maintain order

Nicholas II was crowned Czar of Russia on May 26, 1896, according to the Gregorian calendar. It was traditional to hold a celebration banquet, and the date was set for May 30 at Khodynka Field.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

It was customary to give gifts to the guests of such a celebration.  In this case everyone was to receive a bread roll, a piece of sausage, pretzels, gingerbread, and a cup of beer.  150 buffets and 20 pubs were built for their distribution.

Khodynka FieldPeople began to gather on the 29th.  By 5:00am on the 30th, the crowd was estimated at half a million. A rumor began to spread among the crowd that there wasn’t enough beer or pretzels to go around.  At that point the police force of 1,800 wasn’t enough to maintain order. The crush of the crowd and the resulting panic resulted in a human stampede.  Before it was over 1,389 people were trampled to death, and another 1,300 injured.

The new Czar and his wife didn’t hear about it right away.  When they did, the pair spent the rest of that day visiting people hospitalized by the stampede. Nicholas thought it best not to attend a ball put on that night by the French embassy, fearing that it would make him appear insensitive to the suffering of his subjects. His advisers persuaded him to go, however, and later events seem to prove that the Czar was correct. There was great public indignation over the event in Russia, despite generous subsidies paid to the victims by the Russian government.

Mystics prophesied that Nicholas’ refusal to decline the invitation would lead to his doom.  J. Balmont wrote in 1905 that “Who started his reign with Khodynka, will finish it by mounting the scaffold”.

On July 17, 1918, communist forces under Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as “Lenin”, assassinated Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, in Yekaterinburg. It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia.  The number of citizens murdered by the totalitarian system of government which took its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

April 16, 1917 The Sealed Train

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

The “War to End all Wars” entered its third year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Neither side seemed able to gain strategic advantage on the front. The great battles of 1916 seemed only yesterday, in which any single day’s fighting produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1_DatabaseBy 1916 it was generally understood in Germany, that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring to Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the Triple Entente side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to breaking. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was on the edge of the precipice.

The United States had declared its intention to enter the war barely ten days earlier. While no American forces had arrived as of yet, both sides understood that the balance was about to shift. For Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, it was time to throw a knockout punch.

Imperial Russia had seen the first of what would be two revolutions back in February, when food riots led to the overthrow and exile of the Imperial family.  Full scale civil war broke out in 1918, resulting in the Bolshevik murder of the Czar and Czarina, together with their children, servants and dogs.

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the more radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking Sealed Train Locomotivethe more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, the Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union work, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In a small town in the northeast of Sweden, there is a train station.  A bronze plaque on a blue tile wall, proclaims: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia”.

Lenin was in exile, and Imperial Germany was at war with Russia at this time.  British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to inflict such a bacillus on his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting  “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!”,  Lenin turned to a friend.  “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, the group traveled the length of Sweden, crossing at the border village of Haparanda into Russian-Occupied Finland.  The group arrived at Finlandsky Vokzal (Finland Station) in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, that small faction inserted into the picture that April, would help to radicalize the population, and consolidate power on the Bolshevik’s side.

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Lenin’s Journey from Zurich to St. Petersburg, April 1917

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution in a year.  The Kaiser’s Germany could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller”, was out of the war. Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could move their divisions westward, in time to face the American’s arrival.

Since the end of the Soviet era, Russian historians have come to believe that Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin personally ordered the murder of the czar and his family, and that the Lenin era was every bit as bloody, as that of his successor Josef Stalin.

Lenin called for “Mass Terror” during the civil war of 1918, resulting in executions in the tens of thousands.  Historian Alexander Margolis had the last word on the subject if not the understatement of the century, when he said:  “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble”.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

April 14, 1958 Laika

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

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“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

Laika
Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11lb mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

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Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that onlyLaika and capsule allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

Mach2Sputnik2In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.Atomic_Robo_Last_Stop_Sputnik_Poster2

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

Afterward

belka-strelka-2As a dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript, to this thoroughly depressing story.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960, and returned safely to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in

Charlie, Pushinka
Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  Nikita Khrushchev gave “Pushinka”, one of the puppies, to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies.  Pups that JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka’s descendants are still living, to this day.

kennedy-dog-pushinka-puppies
Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn