(Casey Newton) During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union battled on many fronts to demonstrate their superior technical and scientific achievements. Some of these battles are well known and well documented, such as the race to put a human in space and then on the Moon.
Others are much less well known. One of these battlefronts was in unconventional research—parapsychology (or psychotronics as the Soviets called it), mind control and remote influence and the such like. Some of the US work on these topics is now public and has famously become the basis for various books, TV documentaries and for the Hollywood film “The Men Who Stare at Goats”.
But much less is known about the Soviet equivalents. Today that changes thanks to the work of Serge Kernbach at the Research Center of Advanced Robotics and Environmental Science in Stuttgart, Germany. Kernbach provides an overview of Soviet efforts in unconventional research between 1917 and 2003 based on publications in Russian technical journals and recently declassified documents.
He shows how Soviet research evolved more or less independently of work in the western world but focused on many of the same unconventional themes as secret US programs. And he shows how the Soviets and the Americans used what little they knew of each other’s work to create a self-sustaining cycle of funding. This psychotronic arms race cost as much as $1 billion and only ended in the early 21st century when the funding bubble burst.
Kernbach begins by pointing out that research in the USSR could only be done with government support, unlike research in the west which could be privately funded. So the Soviets had a considerable bureaucracy to manage unconventional research and to fund it, albeit with a certain cyclical character as it fell in and out of favour.
Over the years, the Soviets focused on a number of areas, many of which mirrored US efforts. For example, the US Project MKULTRA, was a 20-year CIA program that studied ways of manipulating people’s minds and altering their brain function.
The Soviets had a similar program. This included experiments in parapsychology, which the Soviets called psychotronics. The work built on a long-standing idea in Soviet science that the human brain could receive and transmit a certain kind of high frequency electromagnetic radiation and that this could influence other objects too.
Various researchers reported that this “human energy” could change the magnetisation of hydrogen nuclei and stimulate the immune systems of wheat, vine and even humans. They even developed a device called a “cerpan” that could generate and store this energy.
Like MKULTRA, this program also included a study of the effects of electromagnetic waves on humans and led to the development psychotronic weapons, which were intended to alter people’s minds.
Kernbach also describes significant Soviet research on non-local signal transmission based on the Aharonov-Bohm effect. This occurs when a charged particle is influenced by an electromagnetic field, even when it is confined to a region where the field strength is zero.
Soviet scientists appear to have called this effect “spin-torsion” and built a number of devices to exploit it. But just how successful this was isn’t clear and this line of work appears to have been killed off in 2003.
One thing that Kernbach’s analysis lacks is any detailed discussion of the results of these programs. Consequently, it’s hard to escape the sense that this research is steeped in jargon and pseudoscience
All this research required substantial investment, says Kernbach. Numbers are difficult to come by but he concludes that Soviet spending on unconventional research must have reached the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars and may have hit $1 billion.
It certainly matched US spending and on projects such as MKULTRA this was in the hundreds of millions. “Soviet and US costs are comparable at least on a level of separate programs,” he says.
Although Kernbach says much of this research was discontinued in 2003, it is not clear whether Russia (or the US) has ongoing programs in these areas. However, Kernbach says there are as many as 500 researchers in Russia that are still active in the field of psychotronics (as measured by the numbers still attending conferences on this topic).
What’s also clear is that a significant amount unconventional research is still classified in Russia. “For instance, documents on experiments performed in OGPU and NKVD — even 80 years after — still remain classiﬁed,” says Kernbach (OGPU was the secret police force of the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1934. It evolved into the NKVD, which included the organisation that later became the KGB.)
Kernbach’s review merely scratches the surface of all this. There’s obviously significantly more to the Soviet work on unconventional research than he is able to reveal.
For the moment we’ll have to wait to find out whether that will ever be made public. And whether it was matched by similar programs in the West.