Sunday, April 16, 2006

Soviet Sea Monsters!

Scotland boasts Nessie and Morag, lurid tales of lake monsters raise their heads throughout Canada, the USA and Scandinavia, so it's surprising that Russia, with thousands of lakes, has so few mythical creatures to populate them. This 'monster gap' is all the more inexplicable given the Russian's love for wildly improbable stories and their predeliction for believing that everything from cheese to TV was invented in the motherland.

Lake Ladoga in Northern Russia is the largest lake in Europe covering 6,830 square miles. Lake Oenga, second on the list, is fed by 58 rivers and boasts 1,369 islands. Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia (pictured right) is by far the largest and oldest body of fresh water on the planet, for up to 30 million years it's held a fifth of the world's fresh water. An incredible 395 miles long, with an average width of 30 miles, its 5,315 feet at its deepest and covers 12,200 square miles. Its where Nessie would go for her holidays but despite its vast size, and the vaguest of rumours of 'strange animals' in the past, not a cryptozoological sausage.

Lake Khaiyr

A story is told of a monster in lonely Lake Khaiyr, in the Yanski area of Yakutsk. A soviet scientist searching for mineral deposits, Gladkika came across a huge, jet black animal with a long neck and small head feeding on grass by the side of the sake. It says everything about Soviet Scientists that, like the astronauts in 'Solaris' dealing with a sentient planet by dropping nuclear weapons on it, he ran for his gun.

He ran to find the rest of his party but, predictably the monster had disappeared on their return. Suspicions that he'd seen the apparition through the bottom of a vodka bottle were dispelled when the animal reappeared a couple of days later, this time rearing up in the middle of the lake. The party noticed that, uniquely, it sported a dorsal fin. The animal has not been seen again, the Lake's tourist industry being nonexistent, and it's unlikely this hybrid of icthyosaur, plesiosaur and fresian cow will be spotted again.

Koskolteras Rhombopterix

'Nature' carried a small story in 1977, just after Sir Peter Scott had claimed to have photographed 'Nessie' that 'Koskolteras Rhombopterix' might have been seen in Lake Kos Kol in Kazakhstan. This monster was 15 metres long with a large, 2m x 1m head. It quoted an unnamed commentator on Moscow radio observing that since several "extinct" species had been recently rediscovered to be still surviving, it was possible that "unknown creatures of the kind reported in both these lakes" might, indeed, exist.


Lake Brosno, 50 miles north of Moscow near the city of Tver, is Russia's last hope of a decent monster panic. Far from one isolated sighting, it has a long history of mystery and intrigue from legends of giant snakes and dragons living in the water to underwater volcanoes.

A local caravan magazine, Karavan + Ya (caravan and me), boosted its sales in 1987 by reporting stories of a 'dinosaur' in the lake. Journalists from around Russia and the wider world descended on the place and, as elsewhere in the former USSR, a little hard currency can buy any story you wish to hear. The magazine stills runs small expeditions to seach for the beast. Witnesses report the classic mock-plesiosaur small head on a long neck perching out of the water, a long tail and, unusually, reptilian scales. The monster is reputed to be around 5 metres long.

Members of the 'Kosmopoisk Research Association' carried out echo sounding in the lake in conjunction with the caravan magazine in 2002. On finding a 'huge jelly like mass the size of a railway car about five metres from the bottom' they did what any self respecting Russian naturalist would do and dropped a grenade on it, Vadim Chernobrov, the Kosmopoisk coordinator told Moscow based Argumenty i Facty (Arguments and Facts). The mass moved, but no monster was seen.

The lake, like Loch Ness, is too small at just six miles long to hold a breeding population of a large predator.

Legends of the lake Brosno monster supposedly date from the 8th (or 13th) century, when the creature saved a Russian city from the mongol horde. A Tatar-Mongol army, heading for Novgorod, stopped to water its horses by the lake when a huge beast reared up from its depths, terrifying man and steed alike, and began to devour everything in its path. The Batukhan troops promptly turned tail and fled back to the steppes. Other legends tell of an 'enormous mouth' devouring unwary fishermen and of 'sand mountains' that emerged from time to time. One chronicle relates how a group of Swedish mercenaries (Varangians) planned on hiding stolen treasures in the lake but when they approached the small island they had chosen, a dragon came to the surface and swallowed the small island up.

'Brosnya' was seen again in the 18th and 19th centuries, appearing on the surface during the evening only to disappear when approached. It is even said to have swallowed a German plane during World War II. Locals still say it turns boats upside-down and is involved in the disappearances of people.

As at Loch Ness, the lake is too small and barren to support a breeding population of large carnivores, so theories abound that the creature is actually a freakishly large pike or beaver, or a misidentified deer swimming through the waters. Others favour geological explanations, surmising that the venting of volcanic gases creates disturbances on the surface from time to time.

Lyudmila Bolshakova, an expert at Moscow's Institute of Paleontology, dismissed ideas of a Brosno 'dragon', saying "It sounds like a country fairy tale, the kind of story told over the years in the countryside" but trips to the lake to search for the monster are increasingly popular among young Muscovites, so though Russia may lack a 'Nessie' a similar tourist trap industry might be just around the corner in these enterprising times.

True sea monsters

Unlikely as these tall tales may be, there were some real sea monsters in the Soviet Union, as incredible and unique as 'Brosnya' herself. For decades the Soviets laboured to produce bizarre aircraft/ship hybrids, analogous to western hovercraft. These wing-in-ground effect (WIG) craft, known in Russia as ekranoplan, resembled turboprop airliners flying a few metres over the water on truncated wings. The Orlyonok was the only ekranoplan to see squadron service, while the missile-armed Loon had trials with the military and the awesome 'Caspian Sea Monster' won fame in the west.

Ekranoplans 'fly' over the surface of the lake (or ice) taking advantage of additional lift provided by the layer of dense air trapped under the wings. This reduces drag and offers great range, fuel efficiency and lifting capacity - in theory. The Soviet military saw them as useful for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search and rescue, sealift, amphibious assault and coastal defense while fast, efficient ferry services were promised by their civilian counterparts.

It didn't work of course. One major problem lay in simply taking off, just as with old fashioned flying boats. The relatively high take-off speed creates enormous hydrodynamic (ie water) loads on the structure. Every normal plane struggles to overcome its inertia but the energy required to displace water, instead of just air, is immense. The craft create a bow wave as they accelerate, increasing the drag, and so the planes had to carry huge engines merely to get under way. Once flying they are extremely efficient, but the physics of take off proved an almost insuperable problem.

Various solutions were tried to decrease hump drag - stepped hulls on flying boats, the Orlyonok's pneumatically damped hydro-skis, hydrofoils - and in the most modern designs, Power Augmentation of Ram wings (PAR), where the craft's engine is used to blow air under the wings. What couldn't be engineered out were the WIG planes inability to take off or land in rough waters, or negotiate oceans with large waves.

The Caspian Sea Monster

Designed in 1963-64, in 1966 the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau under Rostislav Alekseev produced the gargantuan KM (experimental plane) combining the smooth hull of a ship with stub wings, a large vertical fin and horizontal tail. It boasted no less than ten engines: eight mounted in two clusters of four directly behind the cockpit to provide augmented lift, and two on the vertical fin to provide cruise power. It was designed to lift 540 tons and cruise at over 300 mph at an altitude of over 10 feet. KM first flew on the 18th of October, 1966. It must have been a handful for its pilots, as it had manual controls.

The Soviets love of gigantism found pure expression in the beast. Over the next 15 years it was endlessly tested on the Caspian Sea, much to the bemused amusement of the Americans who gave it its famous nickname. Failing to find a role as either a troop transport or cruise missile platform, the single test plane went through 8 distinct variations, with new wing designs, jet engines, and mission profiles. A crash in 1969 was ascribed to pilot error and failed to halt the development but another disastrous crash in 1980, after the pilot tried to take off without maximum power, saw the Kremlin end the programme without producing a single aircraft for service. An attempt was made to salvage the plane but it broke it two during lifting operations.


The Orlyonok's history is typical. The military planned to buy 120 Orlyonok A90.125 troop transport and assault craft, carrying up to 28 tonnes of payload at 400 km/h for up to 2000 km, but only 4 were constructed, one of these a static test rig only, and none remain in service. The first Orlyonok (faun or young deer) was launched in the Volga river in Autumn 1973. It weighed 140 tons and was amphibious, able to taxi up out of water onto land. With a length of 58 metres, a wingspan of 31.5 metres and a height of 16 metres, it was 80% the length of a Boeing 747.

Though it flew just 2 metres above the surface the Soviets did their best to keep it secret, pretending it was "the floating stand for improvement of new engines of high-speed boats". This first Orlyonok crashed during a VIP demonstration in 1974, though was subsequently rebuilt, and the 3 examples entered Soviet Naval service in October 1979. One was destroyed in a crash in 1992, killing the entire crew and the last flight of the Orlyonok took place in October 1993.
The remaining Orlyonoks are rusting into wrecks at Kaspiisk Naval Air Base. The plant responsible for building the Orlyonoks has been privatised and, as the Volga Shipyard, claims to be developing the Orlyonok as a commercial search and rescue craft.

The Lun

Alekseev developed a smaller military WIG, the 400 ton Lun ("Dove"), armed with six large antishipping cruise (Sunburn or Mosquito) missiles perched unaerodynamically on its back. The sole example built entered Naval service in 1989, just in time to help lose the cold war.

The plane required enormas surges of power to get airbourne and proved worrying unstable, even uncontrollable, once in the air. It had a massive turning circle, required a 'noisy' radar to track the surface of the water and was slow to accelerate. Its chances of surviving long enough to launch any missiles against NATO shipping were slim indeed.

In 1989, after the tragic accident on the nuclear submarine "Komsomolets" which killed 42 seamen, the second "Lun" was refitted as a search-and-rescue maritime ekranoplane called "Spasatel". This sported 6 engines, rather than 8, but was scrapped after the breakup of the USSR.

The Monsters Rise Again!

Amazingly, the problem with the KM Ekranoplan was that it was too small for the ground effect to really work. After the failure of the Soviets to make it work, Boeing are now developing a vast WIG plane called the Pelican, a turboprop military transport with a 500 ft wingspan designed to carry 1300 tons of cargo over a distance of up to 10,000 nautical miles. The Caspian Sea Monster may not have died in vain.


Blogger Tim Newman said...

On finding a 'huge jelly like mass the size of a railway car about five metres from the bottom' they did what any self respecting Russian naturalist would do and dropped a grenade on it


4:25 pm  
Blogger Tim Newman said...

Locals still say it turns boats upside-down and is involved in the disappearances of people.

Erm, I think there may be more plausible explanations for people disappearing in Soviet Russia. It's not like it was uncommon. :)

4:27 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home