“At the village of Strelka I met the old Tungus Vasily Okhchen who … had been sleeping at the moment when the tent was torn away and had been thrown to the side by a powerful jolt. He had not lost consciousness. He said that he heard an unbelievably loud and continuous thunder; the ground shook, burning trees fell, and all around there was smoke and haze. Soon the thunder stopped, the wind ceased, but the forest continued to burn.”
“They said that they had been startled by loud rumbling noises. Everywhere they heard great crashing sounds and felt the earth shake. A terrible storm, so great that it was difficult to stand upright in it, blew down the trees near their hut. In the distant north, a cloud formed which they thought was smoke.”
“‘I was sitting on my porch facing north when suddenly, to the northwest, there appeared a great flash of light. There was so much heat that I was no longer able to remain where I was–my shirt almost burned off my back. I saw a huge fireball that covered an enormous part of the sky. I only had a moment to note the size of it. Afterward it became dark and at the same time I felt an explosion that threw me several feet from the porch. I lost consciousness for a few moments and when I came to I heard a noise that shook the whole house and nearly moved it off its foundation.'”
These are a few testimonies quoted in a 38-year-old book by John Baxter and Thomas Atkins, The Fire Came By: The Riddle of the Great Siberian Explosion (Doubleday, 1976). I found the book about a year ago in a used bookshop, and a few nights ago got around to reading it. Of course it’s out of date. Research into the cataclysmic explosion that rocked the Tunguska region of Siberia on the morning of June 30, 1908, has kept on in the years since Baxter and Atkins published, and some of this research may have cut the legs out from under their theory.
Still, the book is interesting for more reasons than one.
What precisely caused the Tunguska explosion? No one really knows. The pioneer Soviet scientist and explorer who located the site of the blast in the inhospitable Siberian wilds, Leonid Kulik (1883-1942), was sure it was a huge meteorite. This seems to be the current consensus, with the difference that scientists now prefer to speak of it as an asteroid. (Question for the more scientifically literate than myself: is there any real difference?)
Kulik’s problem was that, despite his best efforts, he could never locate any trace of the meteorite in the ground. There were also aftereffects that didn’t particularly suit a meteorite. The ethnographer I. M. Suslov, from whom the first two quotations above are taken–the third is from a report submitted to Kulik–was told by the locals that “this brought with it a disease for the reindeer, specifically scabs, that had never appeared before the fire came.”
The force of the blast was extraordinary. According to Baxter and Atkins, it registered on seismographs in Java and Washington, DC. For the first few nights afterward peculiar glows were seen in the nighttime sky in Germany, England, Spain. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the reindeer in the Tunguska area were killed by the violence of the explosion. Strangely–and this detail remains perplexing no matter what theory you adopt–not a single human being seems to have died.
The world wouldn’t experience anything even distantly comparable until 1945, when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that gave Russian engineer and science-fiction writer Aleksander Kazantsev (1906-2002) an idea.
What if the Tunguska event was a nuclear explosion?
In a series of publications from 1946 through 1963, Kazantsev developed this idea. He’d been to Hiroshima; he’d been on the team of Russian scientists who visited the city after its devastation. For him, it was deja vu to Tunguska. The only difference was that the 1908 blast was many times bigger, more powerful, than the bombs used in Japan.
But who was setting off nuclear explosions in 1908?
Kazantsev’s answer: a Martian spaceship paying us a visit.
“Apparently the travelers died en route from cosmic rays or from meteorite bombardment,” Kazantsev wrote. “As the uncontrolled ship approached the earth, it resembled a meteorite because it flew into the atmosphere without reducing its speed. … Its outer shield was burned off, and its atomic fuel experienced conditions that made possible a chain reaction. Then an atomic explosion occurred and our cosmic guests died on the very day they were supposed to descend to earth.”
Baxter and Atkins follow Kazantsev’s theory, although of course they shift the visitors’ home to interstellar space. (By 1978, it had become impossible to imagine there are any Martians.) Their parallels between Tunguska and Hiroshima are impressive. Also impressive, though, are the parallels that aren’t there.
Yes, the mysterious “scab” disease of the Tunguskan reindeer might suggest the effects of nuclear radiation. But there seem to have been no reports of diseases or abnormal births among humans. (Contrast the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, 8 years after Baxter and Atkins wrote.) And, yes, some of the 1908 witnesses saw a column of black smoke rising on the horizon. But it didn’t occur to any of them to compare the cloud’s shape to that of a mushroom.
If it’s true what Wikipedia says, that fragments were discovered in 2010 at the site of the explosion that turned out to be suggestive of “an iron meteoroid,” then it looks like Kulik was right after all. Kazantsev’s nuclear-powered spaceship can be permanently retired.
But Tunguska is more than a one-time event. It’s also a cultural phenomenon. “In Russia the event has acquired an almost legendary status,” Baxter and Atkins write. “In addition to hundreds of scientific papers, the great blast has inspired countless stories, poems, films, and television programs. A bibliography compiled in 1969 by a Soviet periodical listed more than a thousand items published about the catastrophe of 1908.”
I assume all of these publications were approved if not positively encouraged by the Soviet government. (Was there also a samizdat literature on Tunguska? If so, how did it differ from the official literature?) The Soviet stance on UFOs, if I recall correctly, was unremittingly hostile. Flying saucers were supposed to be capitalist tactic to distract the oppressed masses, take their minds off their economic difficulties. Was Tunguska–an event, after all, of the pre-Communist past–a Communist substitute for UFOs, serving some of the UFOs’ functions in Western societies? Did the role and image of Tunguska shift when the Soviet regime collapsed?
Of course I can’t answer any of these questions. I hope some experts on Russian language and culture may be moved to explore them, and let us know what they find out.
And I have one other question. It’s about a part of the Baxter-Atkins book I haven’t yet mentioned: its preface, by none other than science-fiction great Isaac Asimov.
Asimov bubbles over with enthusiasm for the book he’s introducing. It’s a story told “methodically,” “very rationally,” and “with great skill,” offering for the mystery “a dramatic solution” which “you may not accept” but which can’t be dismissed. Asimov, indeed, offers an argument for the extraterrestrial-spaceship theory that hadn’t occurred to Baxter and Atkins:
“In the light of the authors’ solution, consider that the fall managed to find a one-in-twenty place where it would do no damage [to humans; the reindeer’s perspective apparently doesn’t count], almost as though someone was humanely trying to avoid–“
He leaves the sentence unfinished. But the implication is clear: the extraterrestrial cosmonauts, who presumably had no intention of blowing themselves up in the first place, considerately managed to find a place for their catastrophic demise where Earthlings wouldn’t get hurt.
Is this really the Isaac Asimov we know and love? (Or in my case, mildly dislike.) In an article in Science Digest in 1962 or 1963–I am reporting this from memory–that same Isaac Asimov told how someone had asked him whether he believed in UFOs. His reply: “No, I do not. And I think anyone who does is a crackpot.”
Whereupon I, who believed in UFOs and although I had my problems was by no means a crackpot, wrote Asimov a long letter expostulating with him on his errors. He never answered.
Yet in 1978, introducing a book that attributes a 1908 explosion to what has to be called a UFO in the process of crashing, this same man writes: “I loved every page of it!”
So I’m left to wonder: what happened to Asimov between 1963 and 1978? Did he mellow in the interim? Or did he have some logic of his own by which interplanetary UFOs are acceptable in the decades-old past, yet a sure sign of mental disturbance in the present?
I’d write to ask him, if he were alive. But he probably wouldn’t answer this time either.
by David Halperin
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