(W)Archives: Junk Science and Russian National Security

January 2, 2015

During his marathon annual press conference in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sees Western perfidy wherever he looks, mentioned further evidence of the West’s ill intentions toward Russia: “We have heard it even from high-level officials, that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety.” He was referring to an alleged statement made by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Putin’s claim says a lot about the state of Russian politics. The belief that Albright has cast a greedy Yankee eye on Siberia is a widely-held urban legend in Russia. Albright, of course, never made any such statement. In fact, it turns out that the story traces back to a claim made in 2006 by a retired general from the Federal Protection Service which was Russia’s rough equivalent of the U.S. Secret Service. According to Boris Ratnikov, a retired one-star general of that service, psychics read Albright’s mind in 1999 and found that she held this belief about Siberia. Ratnikov further claimed that he had been among the analysts who worked with the data pilfered from Albright’s brain.

This is not merely a quirk of the Yeltsin and Putin-era Russia. Rather it is an inheritance from the Soviet Union. Ratnikov has claimed that during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union fought entire “astral battles.” While that is presumably not true, declassified documents from the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Freedom of Information Act website show that junk science was an important line of research in the USSR and communist Eastern Europe. In 1975, the Defense Intelligence Agency published a 68-page research paper written by Army medical intelligence specialists on Soviet and Czechoslovak research into parapsychology. It concluded that after a period of being denounced by Communists theorists for its lack of a materialist basis, parapsychological phenomena were no longer on the wrong side of Communist ideology. An even lengthier 1975 analysis prepared by the U.S. Air Force and published by the Defense Intelligence Agency portrayed flourishing Soviet research in the field.

Little has been published in the West about the use of parapsychology by the Soviet military or intelligence services. However, intriguing snippets of information indicate that the USSR tried to operationalize this junk science in pursuit of national security. For instance, The New York Times reported in the 1980s that President Carter had “ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct a high-level review of psychic research behind the Iron Curtain in an attempt to assess a possible Soviet threat.” In 1977 the Soviets arrested a Los Angeles Times reporter and accused him of having stolen state secrets relating to parapsychology. Then in 1981 when Soviet grandmaster Anatoly Karpov and Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoy met in Milan to battle for the world chess championship, the KGB sent its parapsychologists to support Karpov and psychically attack Korchnoy.

The well-informed reader may note that the United States has engaged in similar research. This is true. However, there are two differences between the United States and Russia when it comes to national security uses of this sort of junk science. First, the United States finally got out of the psychic warfare business in 1995 (as far as we know) and only kept the work going that long because Congress insisted on it. Secondly, while the psychically-based claim about America’s designs on Siberia are part and parcel of Putin’s tenuous relationship with objective truth, President Obama would be embarrassed to cite the work of a psychic.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: www.kremlin.ru