UFO flap in tsarist Russia 1892
By Stefan Roslund/UFO-Sweden
The age of "flying saucers" and "ufology" began for real in the Summer of 1947 with the observation by Kenneth Arnold, but reports of unknown and unidentified phenomena in the skies go way back in history.
In modern history we have had UFO flaps such as "ghost fliers" in Sweden in the 1930s, "foo fighters" during World War II and mysterious air ships in 1897, mostly in the USA. But a few years earlier a UFO flap took place that until now has been practically unknown.
It happened in tsarist Russia, which in those days was much larger than today's Russia and even than the former Soviet Union. An ambitious ufologist in St. Petersburg by the name of Mikhail Gerstein has read a great number of newspapers from that time and has found many reports concentrated to the period March-April 1892.
Gerstein has published his findings in a series of articles in the newspaper "Anomalia" (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thus far he has found more than 100 reports, but he continues his investigation and counts on finding several more.
The sightings are strongly concentrated in time but rather dispersed geographically. Most of them took place close to the western border of the Russian tsarist empire in today's Poland. But there were also sightings reported from Belarus, Finland, The Baltic countries, Bessarabia (Moldova) and at least on from Moscow.
The Moscow incident took place on March 12 and was presented as an eyewitness report, published in the newspaper "Svet" on March 17 1892:
"The pillar of light was pointed straight down to earth, forming a cone-shaped bundle of rays in the colour of ordinary flames. The rays spread out on their way down and seemed to come from a strong reflector with considerable curvature, since the light fell in the shape of cone with an extremely narrow top and a very broad base.
The point of light, from where the rays originated and which was seen only as the top of a cone, seemed incredibly bright. It was situated above the clouds at a distance of 1/4 of the distance between the clouds and the ground at the time, and at an angle of 30-35 degrees above the horizon in west-north west.
The light varied in brightness, probably due to the clouds hurrying by in a south-western direction. The brightness was considerable and could sometimes be compared to the brightness of an electrical street lamp with an arc. The point from which the rays originated didn't move during the whole time, and the rays were visible for 20-25 minutes."
So much for the eyewitness. Other information said that the ray of light emerged at the horizon at 9.30 PM on a "pitch-dark sky", and that the light disappeared from down and upwards. The Moscow University observatory was of the opinion that it could be a reflection of northern lights; Gerstein is doubtful.
Most observations were made in today's Poland, close to the Prussian border. The military thought that it was air balloons with powerful searchlights, sent up by the Prussians in order to spy on Russian defence installations.
The witnesses often called what they saw "air balloons", even if it was just a point of light in the sky. Balloons were the only manmade objects to fly through the air at that point in history.
But there were other descriptions as well; in Voronezh in Russia a "new moon, turned upside down", in Tiflis in Georgia a "globe-shaped meteor", in Lomza in Poland an "airborne aggregate". Other varieties were "smear", "pointy object" and "oblong burning celestial body with pointed edges".
Still more interesting is perhaps talk about a "flying machine", which had been observed by soldiers and peasants on at least four occasions in mid March a few kilometres north of the city of Lutsk in the Ukraine. It moved towards the west faster than a bird on the altitude used by cranes. Furthermore, it made noises.
The journal "Razvedchik" could tell its readers about a light-coloured metallic object, observed in daylight. The peasants thought that it had the shape of a box, while the soldiers who also saw the object meant that it looked like a haystack; that is cone-shaped.
In the same issue "Razvedchik" related an observation close to Rajgorod in the Ukraine on the morning of April 1. A soldier had seen a "flying craft with several masts", flying by while accelerating. The soldier reported the incident to his officer in command, so it was hardly an April fool's joke.
What did they think in those days that people saw? The most common theory was that hostile neighbours spied on Russia with the help of some new invention.
An other common theory, at least from the official military side, was that people quite simply made a mistake or were hallucinating. One general called the shining balloons a "flying newspaper hoax" and meant that they were meteorites.
Many critics thought that an unusually bright Venus was the villain of the piece, as is often the case nowadays. The problem is that Venus was used as a comparison object in many cases.
People guessed on natural explanations such as northern lights, balls of lightning, weather balloons and so on. The only missing theory was rocket launches, Gerstein rounded off his articles with a humorous twist.
This article has been published in "UFO-Aktuellt" 1/97 (UFO-Sweden)