Eugene Kuchinov
Quesalid’s Knots: A Guide to the Soviet Union’s Esoteric Research Institutes

Telepathy, generators of death, “dermal vision” phenomenon, psychotronics and practical ufology are just some of the many parascientific fields developed in secret Soviet research institutes. Eugene Kuchinov traces the activity of these esoteric establishments and explores some of the bizarre projects devised to change humanity. 

-1. Clouds and Revelations

Blind faith in pareidolia into which clouds coalesce or a thirst for debunking — such are the two incompatible and equally unacceptable attitudes towards the esotericism in our essay’s title. Two diametrically opposed books could be written about the mysterious research pursued in Soviet institutions, laboratories, centres, groups, cooperatives, and military units, books irreconcilable in their presumptions, methods, and “atmospheres”. One book (lacking the proper documentation and scholarly legitimacy, of course) would recount methods for turning Soviet soldiers into supermen, encounters with emissaries of extra-terrestrial civilisations, miracle machines, transmitters that cleaned polluted lakes and routed whole tank battalions by remote action, engines that defied the laws of nature, astrologers who successfully drew up horoscopes for technical facilities and predicted earthquakes, and psychics in the service of Soviet law enforcement who in their spare time prevented environmental disasters comparable to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The second book would open by denouncing everything in the first book as a lie before telling the self-same story, but clearly distinguishing frauds and charlatans from honest scientists, “miracles” from the hunger for sensation, make-believe from the actual (albeit boring) truth, myths from facts, and pseudo-science from genuine science. The first book would muddy the waters, while the second book would make them clean again. Why are none of these books and none of the stances behind them acceptable?

First published in 1949, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s essay ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’ tells the story of a Kwakiutl Indian named Quesalid who became a shaman.[1] Initially a disbelieving sceptic, as Quesalid studied and successfully applied the techniques (which he well knew to be tricks) used by the shamans of his tribe, comparing them with the even more dubious practices of shamans from other tribes, he reached the discouraging conclusion that not all false techniques were the same; there was a significant difference between them in terms of their intricacy, expression and effectiveness. The discovery was a turning point. As Lévi-Strauss wrote: “the radical negativism of the free thinker has given way to more nuanced feelings”,[2] feelings in which the poles of absolute truth and absolute falsehood dissolved. There remained, however, the tense ambiguity that, indeed, made shamanism possible — there was no clear answer to the question of whether real shamans existed or not.

Quesalid and the search for “more nuanced feelings” will be the guiding thread of our investigation: we will tie knots on this thread as we go along. What is important in Quesalid’s example is a curiosity that overcomes the unambiguousness of belief and scepticism, an ability to immerse oneself in “alien” environments and to move from one such environment to another. His story demonstrates the inadequacy of the stance of the adept, endowed with secrets, and that of the debunker: they both lack the power of discrimination. In the case of the adept, the tension between truth and falsehood usually slackens and, hence, the capacity for moving into “hostile” environments is reduced. The debunker is unable to make meaningful distinctions between different levels and types of falsehood, collapsing his “feelings” to a black-and-white binary opposition and immersing the very genesis of his stance and his ideology in a cloud of indistinguishability: the debunker of magic loses the awareness that he behaves like a magician himself. The basic principles of anarchist epistemology are conceptually analogous to Quesalid’s gamut of “nuanced feelings”: counterinduction introduces and elaborates hypotheses incompatible with well-founded theories and facts, while the proliferation of viewpoints — the salubrious multiplication of theories — is a counterweight to the dominant ideology, both scientism and its opposite.[3] It is the way of proliferation that Quesalid follows.

0. The Nautilus Incident

The winter of 1959 — 1960 saw the publication of two articles in French magazines: ‘The Transmission of Thought as a Weapon of War’, and ‘On the Nautilus’.[4] They shed light on a chapter in the shadow history of the Cold War, a chapter that would also encompass the strange work carried out in secret Soviet research institutes from the early 1960s onwards. The articles in the two French popular science magazines discussed a successful telepathy experiment, conducted on board the US nuclear submarine Nautilus in July and August 1958. At an appointed hour, on sixteen days in a row, “Smith”, a student at Duke University, tried to mentally transmit the images from five randomly chosen Zener cards to the USS Nautilus, where Lieutenant “Jones” attempted to intercept and interpret his signal. The experiment produced a match in 70 percent of cases.

The news of telepathy on the Nautilus caused a stir. In the USSR, the results of the experiment were declared to be a confirmation of experiments that had been carried out by Soviet researchers in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1962, Leonid Vasiliev, a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, wrote:

The experiment has shown — and this is its main significance — that telepathic information can be transmitted without delay through the thickness of sea water and the closed metal casing of a submarine, that is, through environments that make radio communication very difficult. They completely absorb short and, partly, long radio waves, greatly weakening them, while the as yet unknown factor that transmits mental suggestions easily passes through them. This result was obtained by the Americans a quarter of a century later […] than our experiments of the 1930s and has fully corroborated them. The advantage of the American experiment over ours is that their experiment was designed in such a way that telepathic action overcame a great distance and more serious obstacles (the thickness of sea water plus the submarine’s metal casing).[5]

When Vasiliev wrote this, he had already given several public lectures in Moscow and Leningrad, organised a seminar at Leningrad University to study the legacy of Soviet telepathy researchers, and headed a laboratory for the study of telepathic phenomena at the University’s Physiological Institute. In the 1920s and 1930s, drawing mainly on the research of Vladimir Bekhterev[6] and Konstantin Platonov, [7] Vasiliev had worked at the Brain Institute on a number of commissions and in laboratories that studied mental suggestion, and from 1932 to 1937 he headed a laboratory for the experimental study of telepathy and its physical nature. The original hypothesis was that electromagnetic waves were the medium of telepathic communication, and the key technical metaphor was “mental radio”. It was soon discovered, however, that metal shielding around the mentally suggestive “inductor” or the “percipient” who received the mental suggestion in no way impaired its transmission.[8] Research was halted during the War, and it was not until 1959, shortly before the reports of the experiment on the Nautilus were published, that Vasiliev published the pamphlet Mysterious Phenomena of the Human Psyche, one chapter of which, ‘Does Mental Radio Exist? ’, summarised the history and current state of telepathy research. Vasiliev’s exhortation for the new phase of research was telling: using earlier work as a foundation, scientists should not expect universal recognition, but should carry out further research on the phenomenon “as if” its real existence had been definitively established.[9] This “as if” triggered a convective flow of ideas, generating a huge cloud of nebulous research on telepathy and the reality that allegedly made it possible.

The mid-1960s were marked by two other semi-mythical events. In 1965, the Soviet journal Nauka i religiia (‘Science and Religion’) published a memoir by Wolf Messing, [10] which could serve as a template (with a standard set of clichés) for the biographies of all future Soviet psychics: early manifestation of miraculous abilities; encounters with and support from prominent scientists; secret meetings with government officials and secret service operatives who authenticated the telepath’s supernatural skills; and effective assistance rendered by the telepath to the authorities and secret services. These clichés cemented the two mythical poles in the anthropology of the emergence of the psychic: science and state power. The mid-1960s also saw the establishment of the legendary ‘Box No. 241’: a secret laboratory in Moscow where the Soviet Defence Ministry and the KGB oversaw scientific tests of the telepathic abilities of people and animals. In 1999, Kirill Leontovich, who was had been involved in those experiments, reported that all of them had ended in failure: [11] so the experiments had not followed Vasiliev’s “as if” recommendation, and the reality of telepathy had not been confirmed. Box No. 241 had shown that when the two poles of the psychic’s emergence were short-circuited, telepathy was debunked. When, however, the poles of science and state power were kept separate, a convective movement was produced that formed a “cloud of unknowing”, rich in “more nuanced feelings”, as will now be shown.[12]

[Quesalid’s Knot] There is a dramatic episode in Quesalid’s story in which a defeated shaman, whose craft proved less effective than Quesalid’s, asks Quesalid to reveal his secret: is he really a shaman, or merely a more skilful prestidigator? However, Quesalid, who along the way had extracted from his rival the secret of his own tricks, does not answer the question, leaving the failed shaman prey to doubts, which eventually drive him mad.[13] This knot enables us to interpret the closedness or secrecy of “strange” research as the pure retention of ambiguity and hence the impossibility of separating truth from falsehood — even when “there is no secret”.

1. Unidentified Flying Mechanisms

In 1967, Zdeněk Rejdák, a doctor of psychology at Prague University, announced the creation of psychotronics, which was to be a strictly materialist science of the phenomena of telepathy, telekinesis, telegnosis, etc., contrasting with and opposed to the occult idealism of bourgeois parapsychology.[14] Psychotronics studied extraordinary human capabilities, manifestations of “specific neurophysiological and physiological processes”, associated with an “energy form exteriorised by the human body”.[15] The reality and materialist nature of psychotronics was borne out by documentary footage of the unusual mechanisms created by Robert Pavlita, a design engineer at a textile factory in the Bohemian town of Hradec Králové. At Rejdák’s suggestion, Pavlita’s bizarre machines were dubbed “psychotronic generators”. The functional principle of the machines was explained by reference to a triadic ontology in which, along with organic and inorganic forms, there was a special form of psychotronic energy. It was this energy that was stored in Pavlita’s generators, producing effects that could not be explained by modern science, including spontaneous rotation, the stopping and movement of small parts in laboratory devices, the magnetisation of organic matter, etc. The psychotronic generators were shrouded in mystery. It was said that Pavlita did his work in deep secrecy: he encoded his notes and blueprints with a personal cipher and kept them along with his generators in safes, demonstrating them in action only occasionally and never letting anyone touch them.

According to documents declassified in 2000, the CIA took an interest in the devices in 1966, before the emergence of psychotronics, and had been tracking Czech publications on the topic.[16] The renowned American parapsychologist Stanley Krippner visited Czechoslovakia, where, among other things, he examined the psychotronic generators.[17] Finally, American journalists Lynn Schroeder and Sheila Ostrander devoted an entire chapter of their book Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain to Pavlita’s inventions.[18] Pavlita explained to them how his machines worked: psychotronic generators were powered by vital energy like an electric appliance by electricity. Directed into the machines by their operators, the energy accumulated inside them, before radiating and producing bizarre telekinetic effects.[19]

Rejdák succeeded in interesting Czechoslovakian government circles in Pavlita’s designs and research, enabling the inventor to focus on designing new machines and patenting them. In the early 1970s, the Czechoslovakian Interior Ministry took an interest in his designs. They had two questions. What was the physical basis for Pavlita’s inventions and how could they be used? In 1972, the Ministry asked the Soviet Embassy for “fraternal assistance” in finding answers. To this end, Alexander Kitaygorodsky, a director of the Institute of Biophysics, and KGB officer Yuri Azarov, who had previously headed a laboratory at the Institute, were sent to Czechoslovakia. Azarov’s personal account of the tests they ran on the psychotronic generators was recently published in full.[20]

[Quesalid’s Knot] [It was] a curious mixture of pantomime, prestidigitation, and empirical knowledge, including the art of simulating fainting and nervous faints, the learning of sacred songs, the technique for inducing vomiting, rather precise notions of auscultation and obstetrics, and the use of “dreamers”, that is, spies.[21]

The Soviet scientists videotaped Pavlita’s demonstrations of his machines. The videotapes were then analysed, and Pavlita’s experiments were simulated in such a way that the concept of psychotronics would not be required to explain their alleged outcomes. The dramatic composition of Azarov’s story is simple, containing three rhythmically recurring elements:

1. The surprise caused by the details of how the generators functioned and the impossibility of offering a simple explanation for their functioning:

The “generators” looked exactly like “psychotronic devices” were supposed to look — like things that had no analogues among the everyday devices, edifices, and other creations of our manmade civilisation. […] It was funny to see [Kitaygorodsky’s] bewilderment […] when he became convinced there was no trickery or fraud in the experiment that had been described by the American female journalists, the experiment that involved stopping a metal strip on the tip of a rotating needle.[22]

2. The absence of an instant solution:

Unfortunately, no external manipulations could stop the strip in its uniform movement. The hypotheses that were advanced crumbled one after another, including a quite complex one involving molecular phenomena at the boundary between the tip of the rotating needle and the strip.[23]

3. Debunking:

Everything became clear! […] We found a suitably sized piece of metal and, after a series of tests, set it in the box so that, when the lamp was turned on, the strip almost immediately began rotating in the opposite direction. The rest was routine.[24]

These three elements are present in each of Azarov and Kitaygorodsky’s simulations of Pavlita’s generators, including the most sinister of them, the “biogenerator of death”, which had been of particular interest to the Czechoslovakian security services. This machine was debunked more easily than the others.

We built a replica of the “generator of death” in the laboratory. Since we understood how it worked, we were able to use our ersatz-generator to kill flies much more effectively. On average, the flies attached to the tweezers lasted only 15 to 20 seconds and, in some cases, just two or three seconds![25]

Thus, Kitaygorodsky and Azarov concluded that most of Pavlita’s 30 experiments could be explained as “trivial electrostatic effects” and the Soviet scientists “left Czechoslovakia with mixed feelings of satisfaction and disappointment […] The work had been done thoroughly; the veil of mystery had been removed from around Pavlita’s ‘generators’ had been removed. And yet, […] deep down each of us had hoped to see something incredible, something supernatural”.[26]

Their investigation, however, made almost no impact spread of the ideas of the new science. The First International Conference on Psychotronic Research took place in Czechoslovakia in 1973, and Rejdák was elected president of the International Association for Psychotronic Research. Pavlita’s generators were often written about in Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1975, US military intelligence published a report in which psychotronic weapons were discussed as something that actually existed.[27]

The same period marked the “return” in the Soviet Union of various technical facilities, which, like the research into telepathic phenomena of the 1920s and 1930s, had been forgotten for many years. The ontological programme developed around these “unidentified technical facilities” in the Soviet Union was much more impressively complex than that of Pavlita’s psychotronic generators.

1968 saw the publication of The Basic Principles of Mechanics in a Materialistic Presentation. Its author, Vladimir Tolchin, an engineer and head of the design office at Perm’s Dzerzhinsky Machine Plant, tried to bring mechanics back from mathematical abstractions to direct engagement with matter and to give a materialistic reading of the basic laws of mechanics by philosophically reworking such concepts as rest, motion, mass, and energy. The first and primary law of Tolchinian mechanics, the “law of rest”, states: the mass of a body remains in a state of rest as long as the body maintains uniform speed and magnitude of motion as conserved energy. Since this law appears tautological from the viewpoint of classical mechanics, Tolchin focuses on “the first and most difficult stage for the theorist: deriving original axioms from their qualitative side”.[28] According to the book’s preface, this revision “indicates that another revolution in science and technology is overdue, this time in such fundamental areas as mechanics and physics”.[29] Without going into the details of this rather bizarre physical theory and the revolution which it proposed, we should focus on their genesis. In 1936, Tolchin had invented, described, and engineered a mechanism he dubbed the “inertioid”. It was a cart on which one or two loads were moved about — one slower, the other faster — by means of a spring motor. The cart itself then moved in an uneven fashion, even though no power was transmitted to the wheels. What is most interesting in the story of the inertioid (and its numerous variations) is the ontological interpretation of its principle of motion. Tolchin believed his cart moved without propulsion (there was no transmission mechanism from the motor to the wheels), arguing at the same time that it functioned “in accordance with the laws of a full mechanical process”, some aspects of which he interpreted in a new way.[30] However, the Perm designer’s intemperate followers, responding to critics who pointed out that the movement of Tolchin’s cart violated the law of conservation of momentum, made the dizzying conclusion that the inertioid challenged existing physical laws. A new physics was needed to explain its motion. By the time Tolchin published his book in the late 1960s, the “natural” objects of this other physics had, in fact, been in evidence for some time.

At any rate, they had been around since 1946, when the engineer and science fiction writer Alexander Kazantsev hypothesised that the 1908 Tunguska impact was caused by an alien spacecraft that crash-landed on Earth. Two opposing and even hostile camps — the ufologists and their opponents — emerged almost immediately from this interpretation of celestial anomalies. With the blessing of Major General L.D. Reino, head of the Central House of Aviation and Cosmonautics in Moscow, in October 1967 the ufologists established a UFO Department within the All-Union Cosmonautics Committee of of Russia (part of the Soviet Army, Air Force and Navy Volunteer Society). Multiple materials on UFO sightings in the Soviet Union were collected, but not investigated, because, in late November of the same year, the opponents of the ufologists succeeded in having the department dissolved. Pravda told its readers that the UFO problem was non-existent, and that the initiative group for their study was a harmful, self-appointed organisation. The open polemic came to an end in 1977, when the Office of the Department of General Physics and Astronomy at the USSR Academy of Sciences issued a condemnation of the “unhealthy, charlatanistic sensation”.[31]

Felix Ziegel, one of the founders of Soviet ufology, argued that there were five possible explanations for UFOs. They were either hoaxes, hallucinations, atmospheric phenomena, terrestrial aircraft (or the byproducts of their testing) or extraterrestrial craft.[32] If the last hypothesis were confirmed, the “significance of this fact for humanity would be utterly extraordinary”, and UFOs would be something like the natural (non-human) analogues of “strange” mechanisms such as Pavlita’s generators and Tolchin’s inertioid, whose principles of operation and “behaviour” were not encompassed by “ordinary” mechanics.

On September 20, 1977, after Soviet ufology had been officially condemned, an event occurred, which was dubbed “the Petrozavodsk Phenomenon” and led to the establishment of two secret UFO research laboratories. As Izvestia wrote on September 23, 1977:

A huge “star” suddenly flared in the dark sky, sending impulse beams of light to the earth. The “star” moved slowly towards Petrozavodsk, spreading over it in the shape of a huge “jellyfish”, and then hung there, showering the city with a multitude of thin rays like torrential rain.

The local authorities sent an official request to the USSR Academy of Sciences to explain the phenomenon, which could not be dismissed as a “non-existent problem”. The Academy’s president, Anatoly Alexandrov, sent a letter to the Soviet government asking it to urgently organise scientific research into anomalous phenomena with the assistance of the Defence Ministry and the defence industries. Thus, in 1978, the Soviet Union launched an official UFO research programme, which existed until 1990. Since there was a high probability that the anomalous phenomena were related to military technology, and the “probable properties of the UFOs” (including their invisibility to radar and manoeuvrability) could have military applications, the programme was classified, and press coverage and public discussions of its work were limited.[33]

The programme investigated two main questions: the possible impact of the anomalies on the equipment and condition of army personnel, and the physical nature of the anomalies. V.P. Balashov, a specialist in the effects of radiation on military equipment, was appointed head of the programme’s military division, while Vladimir Migulin, director of the Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation (IZMIRAN) at the Russian Academy of Sciences, headed its physics division. Surprisingly, the programme adopted the hypotheses and research principles previously formulated by the ufologists. A special directive of the General Staff enabled the researchers to use the observational resources of the Soviet army. As historians of ufolgoly in the USSR have written:

For 13 years, the army had standing orders to monitor anomalous phenomena in places where military units were deployed, that is, across nearly the entire Soviet Union, which, after all, covered approximately a sixth of the world’s land mass. It is unlikely that anyone has ever mounted such a large-scale study, moreover with almost no financing.[34]

Of the 3,000 reports that were analysed, around 300 were classified as anomalies and:

The study showed that the vast majority of phenomena regarded by eyewitnesses as anomalies had perfectly mundane explanations. Most of them had to do with humankind’s rapidly developing technologies or with rare natural anomalies. The researchers did not receive a single report of UFO landings, contact with “UFO pilots” or abductions of people by UFOs.[35]

The second (non-governmental) laboratory for the study of UFOs, set up in 1979, consisted of enthusiasts led by Felix Ziegel. It did its work without attracting public attention, almost secretly, and without the staggering human and technical resources marshalled by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and Soviet Defence Ministry on behalf of the official programme. Before Ziegel’s death in 1988, his group summarised the results of its research in 13 typewritten digests, mainly theoretical and hypothetical in content, entitled Introduction to a Future Theory of the UFO Phenomenon. Ziegel and his team treated reports of UFOs in a way analogous to Leonid Vasiliev’s conceptual “as if”, that is, they addressed the question, what kind of physics was implied by unidentified flying machines — whose reality was not subject to doubt, — by reflecting on their supposed operational principles. As with Tolchin’s inertioid, UFOs were a new technology that required a new ontology. “We have come to the firm belief that, in order to explain the UFO phenomenon, we need a fundamentally new approach, a new paradigm. We would emphasise once again that UFOs are INEXPLICABLE in terms of modern physics and technics”, Ziegel wrote.[36] Attempts to devise a new paradigm to explain UFOs led to the emergence of Albert Veynik’s theory of the thermodynamics of real processes (TRP). The sixth issue of Introduction to a Future Theory of the UFO Phenomenon (1980) contains a series of articles by Veynik on the theoretical basis of UFOs, their capacity for flying at supersonic speeds, and the principles of their propulsion systems.[37] Veynik explained most of the “exotic effects” of UFOs in terms of their ability to control time. In a sense, each UFO was a time machine, a machine for accelerating, decelerating, condensing, and warping time by means of a “chronal field”, which “violated Newton’s third law, producing motion without jet propulsion”, thus recalling Tolchin’s inertioid.[38] TRP theory, whose main postulates Veynik set out in 1991, was an attempt to provide a purely materialistic interpretation of both space (consisting of special particles called “metriors”) and time (consisting of “chronons”). Both types of particles are made of an ultra-thin material substance with a high capacity for penetration.[39] Veynik used these substances to explain not only the engineering of UFOs but also such phenomena as ghosts, levitation, and teleportation.

[Quesalid’s Knot] “For I beg you to have mercy and tell me about the way you did it so that I can imitate you. Pity me, friend.” […] Silent at first, Quesalid begins by calling for explanations about the feats of the head-ring and the rattle. His colleague shows him [his tricks]. […] He himself probably does nothing but lie and fake, simulating shamanism for material gain […] But Quesalid remains silent.[40]

2. Communications Breakdown

By the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, technical metaphors for the phenomena of telepathy, telekinesis, and telegnosis — manifestations of remote (inter)action — had exhausted themselves. The metaphoric sequence that explained the medium for telepathic messages using an electro-technical vocabulary (animal magnetism, brain electricity, mental telegraphy, biological radio, etc.) broke down in the early 1960s, not long after the Nautilus experiment. Jacques Derrida wrote in 1979 that the telephone metaphor captures telepathy so nicely that they merge: when we talk on the telephone, we become telepaths. On the other hand, however, it captures it too nicely — since we have the telephone, the need for telepathy disappears. The paradox, however, is that, unlike the telephone, telepathy is not needed for reaching the right number: “[I]t is because there might be telepathy that a postcard may not arrive at its destination. The ultimate naivety would be to allow oneself to think that Telepathy guarantees a destination which ‘posts and telecommunications’ fail to provide”.[41] In other words, the breakage means the loss of the physical medium, the support for distanced (inter)actions: it is as if the (telephone) connection broke off, but the voice on the other end continued to sound.

Two new “abstract machines” emerged in the gap formed by the missing technical metaphor — one, utopian, the other, realistic. The utopian communication/connectivity machine is a generator that produces the non-existent (the medium of telepathic messages) in two ways: it produces a medium that does not exist in nature; and it does not produce any medium — that is, it is dysfunctional. These two aspects of utopian generators overlap to the point of indistinguishability. Like Pavlita’s generators, Tolchin’s inertioid, and UFOs eluding state surveillance, these machines simultaneously produce something that does not exist (psychotronic energy, spontaneous motion, chronal fields) and they do not function, do not move, do not exist. In other words, utopian generators are designed as broken, producing the malfunction for which, according to Derrida, telepathy as such is responsible. The realistic communication/connectivity machine, on the other hand, is a detector of that which exists. Again, two meanings are to be distinguished: it does not detect what is not there; and it only detects what is there. And, again, these two aspects of existence detectors overlap to the point of indistinguishability: they confirm as existing only what is detected. In other words, reality detectors never break down, just like the reality that they detect and (re)produce.

3. Detectors of What Is

c standards of observation and reporting. 1965 saw the publication of the first article about Kuleshova’s dermal vision in the Soviet scientific journal Biofyzika (‘Biophysics’).[42] It produced a welter of contradictory information, including a number of debunkings by Literaturnaya Gazeta (‘The Literary Gazette’) which carried out experiments at its offices, [43] and generally positive findings of the Commission for the Study of Parapsychological Phenomena, launched at the behest of the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Pyotr Demichev.[44]

One of the most notable Soviet laboratories investigating telepathic phenomena in the 1970s was the Bioinformatics Section of the Popov Scientific and Technical Society for Radio Engineering, Electronics and Communications in Moscow, headed by Ippolit Kogan. According to a report, between 1972 to 1973, the section performed 6,000 shielded image-recognition experiments (the images were mainly shielded with foil and cardboard). The subject was Lyudmila Korabelnikova, a violinist, artist, and psychic who, like Rosa Kuleshova, allegedly possessed dermal vision. Kogan concluded that it was possible to obtain information about an object by means of “bioinformation channels”, that is, without using “sensory channels”. The informational medium in recognition of shielded images is material, and the effectiveness of the experiment depends on the image being behind a shield. An information-carrying field is generated around the subject, enabling contactless reception.[45] The section continued its research until the late 1980s.

The metaphor of “the fields” generated by psychics and telepaths, and the search for their material medium made rapid advances after 1982 largely thanks to Dzhuna Davitashvili, who had come to fame as a healer (psychic healing had had very little public prominence in the USSR before Dzhuna.) Party leaders reacted to the Dzhuna phenomenon by commissioning the USSR Academy of Sciences to cooperate with physicists and engineers in the study of psychic phenomena and to report their findings to the next Party congress. This led to the creation of Yuri Gulyaev and Eduard Godik’s laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Physics and the Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics (IRE) of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Even before the laboratory was set up, Gulyaev had invited Godik to witness experiments carried out at his apartment, where Godik experienced for himself the “calling card” of Ninel Kulagina — the burning touch. Godik’s attitude was remarkable in that he did not take sides — he was neither a debunker nor a believer in such controversial topics as ESP or telekinesis. In his memoirs, he writes:

“Wizardry” did not interest me at all. […] I saw an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about life at state expense and proposed a project entitled ‘Physical Fields and Radiation of Biological Objects’. The project had nothing to do with wizardry, but was meant to stop the idle talk about “biological fields”.[46]

In nearly 10 years of its existence, Gulyaev and Godik’s laboratory conducted a huge number of interdisciplinary studies combining physics, biology, medicine, and psychology, and the number of technical devices invented in the laboratory is too great to be listed. Most of them were detectors and devices for measuring varieties of “radiation” — heat, acoustic, electromagnetic, infrared, optical, microwave, and even colour radiation — emitted by the human body and individual organs. The whole array of detectors was supposed to represent the body in the form of a digital-contrast animation, reflecting its functioning on all physical levels. Although Dzhuna (officially employed at the IRE as a senior researcher) was the main research subject, neither she nor other psychics (including Kulagina and Korabelnikova) were of interest as individuals to the laboratory staff, who enthusiastically studied “ordinary bodies” (most often their own) using the newly designed devices and biofield detectors.

It turned out that the temperature of the hands fluctuated synchronously, that heat waves coursed through the brains of animals, that there was electrical potential energy around individuals, modulated by breathing and heartbeat […] More interestingly, when we looked closely at the human body, we were able to see strange reactions on areas of the skin associated with internal organs (dermatomes).[47]

Summarising his lab’s work, Godik (who in his memoir, incidentally, describes instances of telepathic action, as detected by the lab devices, but which could not be explained in terms of the standard worldview)[48] concludes that we must transcend specialisation in science and medicine and develop a radical “whole body” approach, where different scientific disciplines would work together and western technical rationality would be complemented by the eastern arts of subtle “sensory dialogue”. The ultimate goal of this synthesis would be “hardware objectification”, i.e., the transformation of art into technology.[49]

[Quesalid’s Knot] Only one shaman was seen by me, who sucked at a sick man and I never found out whether he was a real shaman or only made it up. Only for this reason I believe that he is a shaman: he does not allow those who are made well to pay him. I truly never once saw him laugh.[50]

One of the last chapters in the history of Soviet esoteric research, associated with “more nuanced feelings”, was written by torsion researchers. This research coalesced in the early 1990s at the crossover of two vectors. The first vector was represented by Anatoly Kimov, who, in his own words, started working in a classified laboratory, authorised by Soviet radio industry minister, Valery Kalmykov, at the Institute of Radio Communications. The lab was the successor to Box No. 241. It carried out research directly related to the Nautilus incident, and worked on devices that would make telepathic effects possible in communications and materials processing.[51] Thus, by analogy with the Nautilus, attempts were made to transmit telepathic messages from a basement on Lubyanka Square to the outskirts of Moscow. Akimov innovated on the previous experiment by amplifying the telepathic connection using a special field generator that formed a “filamentary” path and transmitted the message over distances without loss of power and without absorption by intervening media. It was later claimed that this enhanced communication also had the benefit of being instantaneous.[52] After a period of classified design work, readymade devices dubbed “torsion generators” emerged in the mid-1980s, powered by rotational fields, which were supposed to be a new basis for remote action between objects.

The second vector was represented by Gennady Shipov who, beginning in 1972, attempted (unsuccessfully) to defend dissertation research projects dealing with the solution of two problems left over from Einstein’s discoveries. The first problem was the geometrisation of electromagnetic field equations and the second was the geometrisation of quantum mechanics equations.[53] He applied his theoretical insights in experiments with an inertioid on an air cushion: it was the practical continuation of his second undefended dissertation, a study of fields and inertial forces. In Shipov’s words: “Inertial forces do not obey the third law of Newtonian mechanics, and the inertioid demonstrates the violation of this law”.[54]

In the early 1990s, these two vectors — engineering and theory — met in an organisation called the Centre for Unconventional Technologies, where the elan of Shipov’s “physical vacuum” theory and his fascination with unidentified flying objects combined with Akimov’s torsion designs. However, a full-scale war then broke out between the “torsionists” and the Academy of Sciences, as recounted in detail by Vladimir Zhigalov, who took the side of the torsionists and presented a blow-by-blow account of the battles in his investigative report, and by Eduard Krugliakov, who described the same events from the Academy’s viewpoint.[55] There are many curious episodes in this story, including a clean-up of Gelendzhik Bay on the Black Sea coast using torsion generators, an attempt to launch inertioids into space, the discovery of the healing properties of torsion fields and, of course, the debunking of all of it by the Anti-Pseudoscience Commission. Torsion theory has more recently culminated in a universal ontology, elaborated by Shipov:

All species of matter, everything we observe around us, and we ourselves were all born from a vacuum. […] The vacuum contains a certain Plan, meaning that matter has not yet emerged, but there is a certain plan by which matter is generated and shaped. […] This is not matter in the usual sense, because it is not able to transmit energy. But it can transmit information. These are information vortexes. […] We can say that this is the knowledge of the supermind. […] In itself, the void contains a kind of trinity: the absolute Nothing, the primary torsion fields, and the vacuum.[56]

[Quesalid’s Knot] Real shamans do exist. And what about him [Quesalid]? At the end of the narrative we cannot tell, but it is evident that he carries on his craft conscientiously, takes pride in his achievements, and warmly defends the technique of the bloody down[57] against all rival schools. He seems to have completely lost sight of the fallaciousness of the technique which he had so disparaged at the beginning.[58]

P. S. The Noise of Telepathology

According to the theory of telepathy, the transmission of messages is hindered by background noise and distortion. (The Czechoslovakian psychotronicists argued that the telepathic channel was so clogged with noise that most messages simply got lost in it — hence the need to repeat them.)[59] Perhaps the very topic of telepathy and ESP in the history of esoteric Soviet research institutes could be regarded as an ever-louder noise. By the late 1980s, telepathy was literally going off the rails, permeating Soviet society at many levels (for example, secret military units that trained psychic soldiers and tried to contact extra-terrestrials via young female telepaths who went into trances)[60] and turning everything associated with telepathic research in the past into nonsense and noise.

It may be, however, that the noise is, in fact, the telepathic message, because it is precisely due to telepathy that the message does not reach its destination: Pavlita’s generators do not work, inertioids do not move, alien ships do not land. . .

[Quesalid’s Knot] . . . the radical negativism of the free thinker has given way to more nuanced feelings.

Translated from Russian by Thomas H. Campbell


[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 167 — 185.

[2] The published English translation from the original French is: “the radical negativism of the free thinker has given way to more moderate feelings” (Lévi-Strauss, p. 178). But “moderate feelings” is inaccurate as a translation of the French “sentiments nuancés” (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), p. 196).

[3] Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (New York: New Left Books, 1975).

[4] Jacques Bergier, “La transmission de pensée — arme de guerre’, Constellation 14 (Decembre 1959): 99; Geralde Messadié, ‘Du Nautilus’, Science et vie 509 (Février 1960): 32.

[5] L.L. Vasiliev, Eksperimental’nye issledovaniia myslennogo vnushenia (Leningrad: Leningrad University, 1962), p. 9.

[6] E.g., V.M. Bekhterev, Vnushenie i ego rol’ v obshchestvennoi zhizni (St. Petersburg: K.L. Rikker, 1908); V.M. Bekhterev, Gipnoz, vnushenie i psikhoterapiia i ikh lechebnoe znachenie (St. Petersburg: Vestnik Znaniia, 1911); and, especially, V.M. Bekhterev, ‘Ob opytakh nad “myslennym” vozdeistviem na povedenie zhivotnykh’, Voprosy izucheniia i vospitaniia lichnosti, vol. 2 (Petrograd: Gosizdat, 1920): 230 — 265. The article describes Bekheterev’s joint experiments with the animal trainer Vladimir Durov on mental suggestion in dogs.

[7] E.g., K.I. Platonov, Vnushenie i gipnoz (Kharkov: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Ukrainy, 1925); K.I. Platonov, Gipnoz i vnushenie v prakticheskoi meditsine (Kharkov: Nauchnaia mysl’, 1925).

[8] Vasiliev, p. 7.

[9] Vasiliev, p. 11.

[10] In fairness, I should note that the authenticity of these memoirs has since been disproved. They were not penned by Messing but most probably by Mikhail Vasilievich Khvastunov, who wrote under the pen name “M. Vasiliev” and was known in Moscow as “Mikhvas”, and most of the “miraculous” events described in the book were made up. (See N.N. Kitaev, ‘“Kriminalisticheskii ekstrasen” Vol’f Messing: pravda i vymysel’, Biulleten’ ‘V zashchitu nauki’ 4 (2010): 62 — 86.)

[11] Kirill Leontovich, grandson of Soviet physiologist and histologist Alexander Leontovich, worked with Bekhterev and Durov in their experiments on the potential for guiding animal behaviour by mental influence. He was the subject of a newspaper article, published in 1999, in which he discussed Box No. 241’s early telepathy experiments. (V. Vorsobin, ‘O pervykh opytakh po telepatii rasskazyvaet byvshii sotrudnik “iashchika nomer 241” vrach Kirill Leontovich’, Komsomol’skaia pravda, February 5, 1999 (reprinted His account contains many wildly incongruous details — in particular, the claim that the secret laboratory was a “Mecca for weird people from all over the Soviet Union” and that anyone who wanted to could come and watch the experiments.

[12] This separation is one of the key strictures of anarchist epistemology.

[13] Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, pp. 177 — 178.

[14] Zdeněk Vojtíšek, Encyklopedie náboženských směrů a hnutí v České republice: Náboženství, církve, sekty, duchovní společenství (Prague: Portál, 2004), p. 269.

[15] Zdeněk Rejdák, vybr., Telepatie a jasnovidnost (Prague: Svoboda, 1970), p. 7.

[16] See, for example, the brief summary, written by “J. Fleissig”, of an article on Pavlita’s inventions published in the Czechoslovakian popular science magazine Věda a technika mládeži (No. 4, 1966). SCIENTIFIC ABSTRACT FLEISCHHANS, BOH., DR. FLEKSER, S.YA., Document No. CIA-RDP86-00513R000413320005-3 (; pp. 23 — 24 of.pdf file that can be downloaded at this URL).

[17] Stanley Krippner, ‘A First-Hand Look at Psychotronic Generators’, in John White and Stanley Krippner, eds., Future Science: Life Energies and the Physics of Paranormal Phenomena (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday), pp. 420 — 430.

[18] Lynn Schroeder and Sheila Ostrander, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970).

[19] Schroeder and Ostrander, pp. 368 — 369.

[20] Yu.I. Kholodnyi, ‘Istoriia “psikhotronnogo oruzhiia”: poiavlenie, “razvitie” i ugroza retsidiva’, Biulleten’ ‘V zashchitu nauki’ 19 (2017): 140 — 162.

[21] Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, p. 175.

[22] Kholodnyi, ‘Istoriia’, pp. 144 — 145.

[23] Kholodnyi, ‘Istoriia’, p. 144.

[24] Kholodnyi, ‘Istoriia’, p. 145.

[25] Kholodnyi, ‘storiia’, p. 149.

[26] Kholodnyi, ‘Istoriia’, pp. 149 — 150.

[27] Louis F. Maire III and Major J.D. LaMothe, Soviet and Czechoslovakian Parapsychology Research (U) (US Army Medical Intelligence and Information Agency, Office of the Surgeon General, September 1975; Defence Intelligence Agency Document No. DST-1810S-387-750), p. 34.

[28] V.N. Tolchin, Osnovnye nachala mekhaniki v materialisticheskom izlozhenii (Perm: Zapadno-ural’skoe TsBTI, 1968), p. 105.

[29] Tolchin, Osnovnye nachala, p. 5.

[30] V.N. Tolchin, Sily inertsii kak istochnik postupatel’nogo dvizheniia (Perm: Permskoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1977).

[31] F.Iu. Ziegel, Iz istorii izucheniia NLO v SSSR ('_Feliks_Yur’evich/Zigel'_F.Yu._Stat’i_raznyh_let._Sb.[doc-ocr].zip).

[32] F.Iu. Ziegel, Letaiushchie ob’ekty, neotozhdestvlennye s izvestnymi letatel’nymi ili izvestnymi iavleniiami prirodi ('_Feliks_Yur’evich/Zigel'_F.Yu._Stat’i_raznyh_let._Sb.[doc-ocr].zip).

[33] Iu.V. Platov and B.A. Sokolov, ‘Istoriia gosudarstvennykh issledovanii NLO v SSSR’, Vestnik Rossiiskoi akademii nauk 70.6, (2000): 509.

[34] Platov and Sokolov, p. 510.

[35] Platov and Sokolov, p. 514.

[36] F.Iu. Ziegel, O teoreticheskikh modeliakh NLO ('_Feliks_Yur’evich/Zigel'_F.Yu._Stat’i_raznyh_let._Sb.[doc-ocr].zip).

[37] See F.Iu. Ziegel, ed., Vvedenie v budushchuiu teoriiu fenomena NLO (Moscow, samizdat, 1980), pp. 87 — 102.

[38] A.I. Veynik, ‘Obshchaia teoriia prirody i UFO’, in F.Iu. Ziegel, ed., Petrozavodskoe divo 20 sentiabria 1977 goda (Moscow, samizdat, 1980), p. 205.

[39] A.I. Veynik, Termodinamika real’nyh protsessov (Minsk: Navuka i tekhnika, 1991).

[40] Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, pp. 177 — 178.

[41] Jacques Derrida, ‘Telepathy’, trans. Nicholas Royle, Oxford Literary Review 10.½ (1988): 16. (The English translation of the first sentence has been amended. The French is “C’est parce que il y aurait de la télépathie qu’une carte postale peut ne pas arriver à destination”. (See Jacques Derrida, Psyché. Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987), p. 249).

[42] M.M. Bongard and M.S. Smirnov, ‘O “kozhnom zrenii” R. Kuleshovoi’, Biofizika 10.1 (1965): 48 — 54.

[43] Most of the articles in Literaturnaya Gazeta were written by Oleg Moroz, who later collected them in a book: O.P. Moroz, Ot imeni nauki. O sueveriiakh XX veka (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1989). The chapters ‘Thought Transmission from Moscow to Kerch’ and ‘Reading with Hands’ are especially interesting.

[44] Vladimir Zinchenko, a member of the commission and a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, pronounced the verdict: “The phenomenon exists. The communication channel is unknown. The channel of exposure is unknown. Amateurs are free to look for them”. The verdict was later enshrined in an article by commission members. V.P. Zinchenko, A.N. Leontiev, B.F. Fomov, and A.R. Luriia, ‘Parapsikhologiia: fiktsiia ili real’nost’? ’ Voprosy filosofii 3 (1973): 128 — 136.

[45] I.M. Kogan, Issledovanie bioinformatsii pri raspoznanii ekranirovannykh obrazov (Moscow: Sektsiia bioinformatsii MGP NTORES im. A.S. Popova, 1974), pp. 38 — 39.

[46] E.E. Godik, Zagadka ekstrasensov. Chto uvideli fiziki. Chelovek v sobstvennom svete (Moscow: AST-Press Kniga, 2010), pp. 4 — 5.

[47] Aleksandr Taratorin, ‘Nevydumannaia istoriia ekstrasensov v Rossii’ (1997) ( An employee at Godik’s laboratory, Taratorin programmed the devices used there.

[48] Godik, pp. 100 — 102.

[49] Godik, p. 112.

[50] Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, p. 178.

[51] V.A. Zhigalov, Unichtozhenie torsionnykh issledovanii v Rossii. Nezavisimoe rassledovanie (2009), p. 67. Accessible at Proekt ‘Vtoraia fizika’;

[52] A.E. Akimov and G.I. Shipov, ‘V milliard raz bystree sveta’, Terminator 4 (1997): 7; A.E. Akimov, V.Ia. Tarasenko and S.Iu. Tolmachev, ‘Torsionnaia sviaz’ — novaia osnova dlia sistem peredachi informatsii’, Elektrosviaz’ 5 (2001): 24–30.

[53] V.A. Zhigalov, ‘Beseda s G.I. Shipovym’ (2008), Proekt ‘Vtoraia fizika’ (

[54] Zhigalov, ‘Beseda’.

[55] Zhigalov, Unichtozhenie; E.P. Krugliakov, “Uchenye” s bol’shoi dorogi (Moscow: Nauka, 2002). One chapter of Krugliakov’s book is, in fact, titled ‘The Torsion Wars’.

[56] ‘My — eto vysokoorganizovannaia pustota. Interv’iu s G.I. Shipovym’ (1998);

[57] The shaman would complete his cure by spitting out a bloodied feather, which he had hidden in his mouth beforehand. The feather was meant to be the body of the illness, which the shaman had drawn out of the patient’s body and into his own (Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, p. 175).

[58] Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and His Magic’, p. 178.

[59] Schroeder and Ostrander, pp. 324 — 325.

[60] On the top-secret Soviet/Russian Military Unit 10003, formed in 1989 and led by Lieutenant General Alexei Savin, see Edwin C. May et al., ESP Wars: East & West: An Account of the Military Use of Psychic Espionage as Narrated by the Key Russian and American Players (Hertford, NC: Crossroad Press 2018), Chapter 9 (‘Military Magic and the General Staff: Top Secret Military Unit 10003’).

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