Sunday, April 16, 2006

Tsar Bomba!

Test: No. 130
Time: 11:32 AM 30 October 1961 (Moscow Time)
Location: Mityushikha Bay test range, Novaya Zemlya Island (located above the arctic circle in the Arctic Sea)
Test Height and Type: Parachute retarded airburst, 4000 m altitude
Yield: 50 Megatons

The Russians have always loved building the biggest, despite the very scale of their accomplishments often rendering them useless.

The Tsar Kolokol is the world's largest bell, but has never rung a note. Still on display in the Moscow Kremlin it weighs 222 tons, is over 20 feet high and boasts a diameter of 21 and a half feet. A fire in 1737 cracked a huge slab of metal, weighing 11.5 tonnes, from the bell when it was still in its casting pit and that was that.

The world's largest cannon Tsar Pushka (Царь-пушка - "king of cannons") was founded in 1586 by Andrey Chokhov with the intention of defending the Kremlin. It weighs 86,668 pounds, is 17 feet 6 inches long and has a theoretical calibre of 35 inches. Vast as this howitzer is, the cannon balls, cast in 1835, displayed alongside it are still too big to fit down its maw. It was actually designed to fire grapeshot, and has never fired a shot in anger, though its ornamentation suggests it was always intended for display.

The ludicrous Tsar Tank was designed as a genuine weapon of war. Also known as the Netopyr (Нетопырь - Pipistrellus bat) or Lebedenko Tank it was a Russian answer to the ground breaking british tanks of the Great War. The vehicle received its nickname because its model, when carried by the back wheel, resembled a bat hanging asleep. Thankfully for the safety of the soliders it might have carried into battle, it was scrapped after tests proved it was utterly unwieldy and desperately vulnerable to artillery fire.

Eschewing the use of caterpillar tracks, the tank rather brilliantly chose an enormous tricycle design. The front spoked wheels were 27 feet in diameter; the back one was smaller, 5 feet high. The upper cannon turret was 26 feet off the ground, while the hull was nearly 40 feet across, with two more cannon in the sponsons. Quite how enemy fire was supposed to miss it remains a mystery.

The huge wheels were supposed to allow it to cross any obstacle on the battlefield, in reality its bulk of over 40 metric tons left the back wheel stuck in soft ground and ditches and the front wheels, powered by one 250 hp motor each, were insufficient to pull it out. This led to a fiasco of tests before the high commission in August 1915, it was cancelled in 1916 and the last of the two examples built was dismateled for scrap in 1923.

Tsar Bomba!
The Tsar bomb shows the Soviets hadn't abandoned every tradition of the Tsarist age, although its western (and now russian) nickname would never have been used by the Soviet authorities of the time. During its development it was, of course, called Ivan while Sakharov calls it simply 'Big Bomb' in his Memoirs.

It was simply the largest nuclear weapon ever constructed or detonated. This 8 metre, three stage weapon, weighing about 27 tons, was designed to yield 100 megatons, that is an explosion equivilent to 100 million metric tons of TNT. No Soviet test prior to the 1961 resumption had yielded more than 3 megatons. Tsar Bomba was limited to 50 megatons for its test, with the uranium fusion stage replaced by lead in the tertiary, and possibly secondary, stage. This eliminated 97% of its fall out. At full yield it would have increased the world's total fission fallout since the invention of the atomic bomb by 25%.

It was developed in an incredibly short time. On July 10, 1961 Nikita Khrushchev told Andrei Sakharov, the senior weapon designer who would become the USSR's most famous dissident, to develop a 100 megaton bomb by September to create the maximum political impact. It was designed to intimidate the west, rather than for any practical use in warfare. The Berlin Wall was about to be built in August, short range missiles were to be deployed to Cuba, prompting the missile crisis and the Soviets wanted to forstall any intervention by the west. 'Ivan' was tested only 16 weeks after its inception.

Sakharov recounts that the mathematical analysis normally conducted for a new thermonuclear design was skipped, with estimates and approximations substitued at every turn and design and construction occuring simultaneously. It was built at Arzamas-16, now called Sarov, one of ten 'secret' Soviet cities dedicated to the production of nuclear weapons. These cities were closed to all foriegners and most Russians themselves did not know of their existence or true purpose. Over 20 cities and military areas remain closed to foriegners and most Russian citizens even today.

A de facto nuclear test moratorium had existed between the US, USSR and UK since the conclusion of the last US and Soviet test series in 1958, and two years of discussion had been conducted regarding formal limitations on nuclear testing. But the Cold War continued at high pitch, and the Khrushchev decided to resume its programme with a "testing spectacular" to 'show the imperialists what we could do' coincide with the Twenty Second Congress of the Communist Party.

Khrushchev announced the new superbomb on the day the Soviet tests resumed on 1st September 1961, putting pressure on the scientists to produce a workable bomb. Alluding to this, Sakharov said: "If we don't make this thing, we'll be sent to railroad construction." [Adamsky and Smirnov 1998]. This was however a marked improvement over the days of Stalin when nuclear weapon designers ruminated over the prospect of being shot!

Far too large for any ICBM it was dropped from a specially modified Tu-95 "Bear A" strategic bomber piloted by mission commander Major Andrei E. Durnovtsev. Weighing 2 and half times the planes normal bomb load it was carried externally, too large for the bomb bay.

The Tu-95 and an accompanying TU-16 'airbourne laboratory' were covered with a special white reflective paint to protect them from the thermal radiation of the fireball - the 50 Mt test was capable of inflicting third degree burns 100 km away. At full capacity the bomb would have burnt everyone within a radius of 170 km - only slightly less than the width of West Germany. Turning immediately, and powering away at maximum speed, the bomber had at most a minute to get clear.

Even its retarding 800 kg parachute was on a vast scale, its fabrication disrupting the less than developed Soviet nylon hosiery industry. Even special ground handling equipment had had to be developed to lift the bomb to the aircraft. Built on a raiway flatcar, it was delivered by rail and loaded directly onto the bomber.

The Explosion

The Tsar Bomba detonated at 11:32 a.m., located approximately at 73.85° N 54.50° E, over the Mityushikha Bay nuclear testing range (Sukhoy Nos Zone C), north of the Arctic Circle on Novaya Zemlya Island in the Arctic Sea. The bomb was dropped from an altitude of 10,500 metres, and designed to detonate at a height of 4,000 m over the land surface (4,200 m over sea level) by barometric sensors.

Since 50 Mt is 2.1×1017 joules, the average power produced during the entire fission-fusion process, lasting around 3.9×10-8 seconds or 39 nanoseconds, was a power of about 5.3×1024 watts or 5.3 yottawatts. This is equivalent to approximately 1% of the energy output of the Sun during the same fraction of a second. By contrast, the largest weapon ever produced by the United States, the now-decommissioned B41, had a predicted maximum yield of 25 Mt, and the largest nuclear device ever tested by the USA (Castle Bravo) yielded 15 Mt.

Despite exploding at 4,000 m (13,000 ft) the vast fireball engulfed the ground below it, and swelled upward to nearly the height of the release plane. The blast pressure below the burst point was 300 PSI, six times the peak pressure at Hiroshima. Despite overcast skies, the flash was seen 1,000 kilometers away. One observer recalls feeling the heat flash 270 km away.

One cameraman recalled: "The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards.... Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural."

Another observer, farther away, described what he witnessed as: "... a powerful white flash over the horizon and after a long period of time he heard a remote, indistinct and heavy blow, as if the earth has been killed!"

In districts hundreds of kilometers from ground zero, wooden houses were destroyed, and stone ones lost their roofs, windows and doors; and radio communications were interrupted for almost one hour. A gigantic mushroom cloud rose as high as 64 kilometers (210,000 ft). The seismic shock was measurable even on its third passage around the world.

Some time after the explosion, photographs were taken of ground zero. "The ground surface of the island has been levelled, swept and licked so that it looks like a skating rink," a witness reported. "The same goes for rocks. The snow has melted and their sides and edges are shiny. There is not a trace of unevenness in the ground.... Everything in this area has been swept clean, scoured, melted and blown away."
[Adamsky and Smirnov 1998]

The radius of complete destruction extended to 25 km, and ordinary houses would have been severely damaged out to 35 km. Atmospheric focusing would have generated localised regions of destructive blast pressure over 1000 km away. Had it been used in western Europe the fall out would have blown into the Soviet Union, while the chances of the slow, prop driven Tu-95 evading American fighters for 8 hours to drop the bomb on New York, Chicago or L.A. were remote.

Although Tsar Bomba was never deployed as a weapon, it exemplified Soviet strategic thinking in its day. Hydrogen bombs were still too clumbersome to be carried by ICBMs at the time and the Soviets believed that few of their bombers would penetrate US defences, and so wished to maximise the destruction wreaked by every one. Prior to satellite intelligence, each side lacked precise knowledge of the location of the other side's military and industrial facilities and a bomb dropped without benefit of Global positioning systems could easily miss its intended target by 5 km or more. Parachute retardation would only worsen this inaccuracy.

The Soviet philosophy was to ensure a bomb would wipe out an entire large city even if dropped 5-10 km from its center. This objective meant that yield and effectiveness were linked up to a point. The advent of ICBMs accurate to 500 m and especially of GPS made such a design philosphy obsolete. Subsequent nuclear weapon design, in the 1960s and 1970s, focused primarily on increased accuracy, miniaturization, and safety. The standard practice for a number of years has been to employ multiple smaller warheads (e.g., MIRVs) to "carpet" an area. This is believed to result in greater ground damage.

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly about the test, Khrushchev used the Russian idiom "show somebody Kuzka's mother", which means "to punish". Because of this, sometimes the weapon is referred to as "Kuzka's mother" (Кузькина мать) in Russian sources. On 16 January 1963 Khrushchev made an explicit claim that the Soviet Union was in possession of a 100 megaton bomb, claiming that it was located in East Germany.

'We will bury you.'


Sources - Wikipedia, Atomic Central, Nuclear Weapon Archive, Andrei Sakharov.

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.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The face of the enemy

Zacarias Moussaoui's booking photo

Eagle Jet International, INC Application for Admission for Mohamed Atta

From an Aug. 6, 2002, Moussaoui letter to Judge Brinkema, entitled "DEATH TO UNITED SATAN DEMONCRACY"

'I have no right but the obligation, the duty to harm the United Satan by any mean possible and imaginable.

As ALLAH order me.
ALLAH order me, 'Urge the believer to fight"

So I, Zacarias Moussaoui urge, incite, encourage, solicite Muslim to kill American, civilian or military, anywhere around the world until all our children will get revenge and that all American troops and civilian leave Muslim land. KILL AMERICAIN, ANYWHERE ANYHOW, ANYTIME UNTILL THEY GET THE POINT OUT OF THE HOLY LAND.


As ALLAH says (in english translation)


Slave of ALLAH

Original trial documents, photos and voice recordings from the trial of Moussaoui, the self confessed '20th hijacker'.

Although not everyone agrees Al Queda were responsible. Not least that well known geo-political commentator Charlie Sheen

Wild conspiracy theories are still rife on Iranian and Arab TV

Despite this thorough debunking of 16(!) of the main conspiracy theories, excitable 'radicals' still seek to blame everyone but the true culprits. Some people even want to be the next Michael Moore, anyone remember him?

Naturally Noam Chomsky blames it all on the evil American imperialists.

Let's be clear about this, the left isn't anti war, it's on the other side. Their only desire is to see western liberal democracy fall and capitalism crushed. Having spectacularly failed to bring down 'the system' from within, indeed having been humiliated in their attempts, they now ally themselves with our enemies from outside. Anyone who opposes 'the west' in general or American in particular is their friend, regardless of the fact that our foes despise everything the left professes to stand for.

It's not that they would rather see Iran destroy Israel in a future nuclear strike than for the US to destroy Iran's nuclear programme now - it's that they WANT to see Israel destroyed. They see Iran now, as they saw Saddam and Al Queda in the past, as their champions. When 'Bush is the number one terrorist' then anyone who opposes him is a hero. Being entirely impotent themselves, they abase themselves at the feet of any murdering thug who they think can get the job done, just as they did with Stalin and the grey butchery of the USSR.

The embrace of uncritical deep green environmentalism is simply another stick with which to beat the capitalism which provides all the wealth and leisure they're so happy to self richeously bitch about but seem unwilling to personally relinquish. Their assault on the language itself, through hand wringing political correctness and post modern 'history' may provide amusement, but their blatent support for those who would destroy us is worthy only of contempt.

How long before this man becomes their hero? Well, Zacarias Moussaoui longs to become a martyr for his cause. Thanks to the UNITED SATAN DEMONCRACY, let's hope his wish is granted soon.

"The further we move away from 9/11 without another domestic attack, the more tempting it is to believe that awful day was an aberration, to think that we can return to normalcy if we merely leave Iraq and the other Middle Eastern regimes to their own purposes. But the forces of radical Islam aren’t going to leave us alone merely because we decide that resisting them is too hard. The men and women on that plane weren’t soldiers overseas; they were traveling to work, or on vacation, or to their homes within the United States.

The main political difference in the U.S. today is between those who appreciate that Islamic terrorists represent an existential threat to American life and liberty and are prepared to do what it takes to defeat them, and those who think the threat is overstated and can be ameliorated or appeased. Only yesterday, al Qaeda kingpin Ayman al-Zawahiri exulted in a videotape posted on the Internet that “the enemy has begun to falter.” He’s wrong, but the transcript of Flight 93 is a reminder of our fate if we do."

April 14, 2006, 'The Meaning of Moussaoui' - Wall Street Journal Editorial .

Thursday, April 13, 2006


One of the more interesting things about 'paranormal' phenomona is how they swing in and out of fashion. No-one pretends to see ectoplasm spewing from spiritualist's mouths anymore, sightings of ghosts have dwindled in recent years and the once massive American 'alien abduction' industry was fatally skewered by that first South Park episode. Angels had a brief flare of publicity in the late eighties, but where are the fairies of yesteryear? What will be the big flap of tomorrow?

Raised in a society where critical reasoning was not only discouraged but downright dangerous, Russians are still prey to whatever lunacy happens along. Pravda (the Truth) has morphed from leaden propaganda mouthpiece into a ludicrous dimestore rag several parsecs behind the National Enquirer in journalistic integrity and conspiracy theories are even more rife in the wider Russian media than in the USA, which is saying something.

Tales of Soviet UFOs ("NLOs" in Russian) have enjoyed periodic brief waves of popularity both home and abroad, with the most famous incident, the 1967 flap, even prompting brief official sanction. This is the Soviet 'Roswell', but while the American incident was nothing more than a fallen Mogul spy balloon, searching for Soviet nuclear tests, the Soviet wave of sightings was altogether more sinister.

The '67 Flap

On the evenings of July 17, September 19, and October 18 1967 thousands of people across the Ukraine, Black Sea, Volga Valley and Caucasus reported a "crescent-shaped" object moving east. Waves of UFOs seemed to be invading southern Russia. Cossacks on horseback saw them high in the evening sky. Pilots aboard commercial airliners and military interceptors chased and dodged them. Astronomers at observatories in the Caucasus Mountains noted their crescent shape and their fiery companions.

The reports have excited western UFOlogists for years, thousands of reports, rather than one isolated sighting, surely this at last was the real thing, not mere saucepan lid fraud or hysterical misidentification?

An exciting, meticulously detailed, account by astronomers near Kislovodsk appeared in the magazine "Soviet Life" in February 1968.

"It was shaped like an asymmetrical crescent, with its convex side turned in the direction of its movement. Narrow, faintly luminous ribbons resembling the condensation trail of a jet plane followed behind the horns of the crescent. Its diameter was two-thirds that of the moon, and it was not as bright. It was yellow with a reddish tinge. The object was flying horizontally in the northern part of the sky, from west to east, at about 20 degrees above the horizon. A bright star of the first magnitude was moving at a constant distance ahead of the crescent. As it moved away from the observers, the crescent dwindled, turned into a small disk, and then suddenly vanished.

These cases appeared in Western UFO books of that period, too. The Caucasus apparitions, for example, were described as flying saucers hundreds of yards in diameter.

"Suddenly a huge flying object appeared, moving swiftly across the sky. As it passed the observatory its orange glow made it easily visible in the dusk. It was an amazing sight - an enormous crescent-shaped craft at least eight times larger than any known airplane. The horns of the crescent were pointed backward, emitting jetlike exhausts...Confirmation of the giant spaceship's existence soon came from other astronomers. The diameter of the flying crescents were between 500 and 600 meters...Several times, Soviet astronomers had reported that the huge spaceships were preceded or flanked by smaller UFOs which kept precise formations, matching the crescents' terrific speeds."

So what was this 'huge horned craft'?

The re-entry of Cosmos 169.

The Soviet Life UFO?

The shock wave caused by the re-entry of Cosmos-171.

FOBS fobbed off as UFOs

Misidentification of aircraft, satellites, rocket tests or even innocent lenticular clouds is nothing new, what makes these accounts significant is that these UFOs really were spacecraft and they really could have heralded the end of the world.

They were tests of a thermonuclear warhead space-to-ground delivery system, diving into the upper atmosphere on their way to a touchdown point east of Kapustin Yar. The programme was called FOBS (Fractional Orbit Bombardment System) by the Pentagon and entirely denied by the Soviet authorities who claimed the flights were Cosmos "scientific satellites".

For example, the September 19th event included sightings from Svatovsk (7:20 p.m.) Zimnik (7:20 p.m.), Volzhskiy (7:30 p.m.), Novooskolsk 7:40 p.m.), Severodonetsk (about 7 p.m.), Donetsk (8:20 p.m.), Zhdanov (8:20 p.m.), Mariinskiy (about 8 p.m.), and Roy (8 p.m.). Meanwhile, the Cosmos-178 spacecraft had blasted off from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan shortly before 6 p.m., circled the planet, and was flaming its way across the southern Soviet skies at 7:30. Cosmos 160 (May 17), 169 (July 17), 170 (July 31), 171 (Aug 8), 178 (Sept 19), 179 (Sept 22), 183 (Oct 18) and 187 (Oct 28) produced a spate of 'sightings' which are still cited to this day as proof of an alien assault.

FOBS had made a public appearance during the 1965 October Revolution (Nov 7) parade. A TASS announcer boasted that "the column of rocket troops ended with orbital [sic!] rockets with atomic warheads, which are capable of hitting any aggressor unexpectedly, after making one or more orbits around the earth." The missiles shown here SS-10 "Scrag", though the FOBS flights were actually on SS-9 'Scarp' missiles. by Western military analysts - and may have been a ruse, since when FOBS test flights began they were atop SS-9 (R -36) "Scarp" missiles. The "Scarp" itself was unveiled late in 1967 with the threat that they could "deliver to target nuclear warheads of tremendous power. Not a single army in the world has such warheads. These rockets can be used for intercontinental and orbital launchings."

A typical FOBS flight involved launch from the Tyuratam test range east of the Aral Sea in Soviet Central Asia. The two-stage missile placed a two-ton payload into a low but stable orbit 100 miles above Earth's surface. An hour and a half later, near the cnd of its first orbit around the globe, the payload turned tail forward and fired a powerful braking engine which deflected it out of orbit and toward the ground. In the 6 minutes before impact onto a target zone east of the Volga River, the gradually descending warhead crossed over Athens, Istanbul, and the northeast coast of the Black Sea - where thousands of unsuspecting citizens were suddenly treated to a spectacular light show in the evening sky.

The Soviet authorities at first encouraged the UFO theory. Despite the earlier bombastic slips in the propaganda machine the official line was that the peaceloving USSR would never test such illegal orbital system. FOBS was patently a first strike weapon, explicitly designed to carrying out a devastating sneak attack on the USA. As a sub-orbital weapon it had no range limit and its orbital flight path would not reveal the target location. This would allow it to attack the USA from over the South Pole, evading NORAD's early warning systems which are built to detect attacks from over the North Pole.

Secrecy was paramount because the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" had been signed in Washington, London and Moscow on January 27, 1967 and came into force on October 10, 1967. Article IV stated that "...Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction."

Though the Outer Space Treaty banned nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in earth orbit it did not ban systems capable of placing weapons in orbit, and the Soviets avoided violating the wording, if not the spirit, of the treaty by conducting its tests without live warheads. Exposure of the FOBS tests in the very year Moscow had signed the treaty would, however, have greatly embarrased such a 'peaceloving' regime. Any use of FOBS in wartime would, of course, of broken the treaty, but that would have been the least of the worries of the world.

The brief rise and long fall of Soviet UFOlogy

The Soviets had dismissed every spate of western UFO reports as a product of 'capitalist war hysteria' and 'money grubbing yellow journalism' but with thousands of their own citizens reporting undeniably spectacular lightshows the authorities tried to turn it to their advantage. They had every interest in deflecting western media attention from tests of a frightening first strike weapon system.

A group of Moscow UFO enthusiasts, led by Feliks Zigel, astronomy professor at the Moscow Aviation Institute, formed a committee to study the events, chaired by a retired general, Porfiny Stolyarov. They were allowed to hold well attended public meetings and were invited to appear on National Television on November 10 and invite observers nationwide to send in UFO sightings for scientific analysis.

So by late 1967 the Soviet government was faced with the uncomfortable prospect of its citizens scanning the skies and reporting all strange lights they saw - and all with official approval. As these lights were often clandestine activities Moscow was striving to keep top secret, what started as an ill-considered but apparently harmless pandering to public curiosity was getting out of control.

The 1967 wave ended with the first tranche of 8 FOBS test flights. After October 28, there were no new flights until the following April (a rare pre-dawn test), an evening flight in Qctober, one a year later in September 1969, and finally two more in 1970.

If the dusk/dawn FOBS re-entry times were designed to allow optical tracking of the warhead descent trajectories it's remarkable, but telling, that no consideration was given to the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people would also see the fireballs.

It wasn't just the FOBS spaceshots that needed coverups. The top secret new military satellite center at Plesetsk north of Moscow had opened the year before for polar-orbit spy satellites. Sooner or later, one was bound to be launched in twilight when its sunlit rocket exhaust plumes would standout like a torch in the sky. With the sanctioned UFO mania sweeping the USSR, such reports were bound to be published widely, betraying strong hints about the hitherto concealed existence of the military space center.

That is exactly what happened, three weeks after the televised UFO appeal, on December 3rd, 1967. The Cosmos-194 Vostok-class spy satellite blasted off from Plesetsk at 3 p.m. local time, shortly before sunset. As it rocketed northeastwards along the Arctic coastline, its contrails were visible to eyewitnesses in the wintry night below. It became, and remains, the famous "Kamennyy UFO" since it was spotted from an aircraft on route from "Mys Kamennyy" (Cape Stoney) in the New Siberian Islands to Moscow.

The last straw came in February 1968 when Zigel published a UFO article containing a precise technical description of the officially nonexistent FOBS warhead re-entry masquerading as a flying saucer and so, a few weeks later, a new Soviet UFO policy was abruptly unveiled. There would be no more published reports of UFOs since it was all "nonsense." The Stolyarov Committee was disbanded and Zigel was told to drop the topic of UFOs. The lid was clamped down and the FOBS/UFO connection went unrecognized in the public literature for 15 years.

The U.S. Defense Support Program produced early warning satellites which enabled the US to detect a FOBS launch, the 1979 SALT II treaty prohibited the deployment of FOBS
("Each Party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy:...(c) systems for placing into Earth orbit nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction, including fractional orbital missiles") and the missile was eventually phased out in January 1983.

The 1977 'Giant Jellyfish' UFO.

In 1977 Tass carried a dispatch from the northwestern port of Petrozavodsk entitled "Strange Natural Phenomenon over Karelia." Nikolay Milov reported that "On September 20 at about 0400 a huge star suddenly flared up in the dark sky, impulsively sending shafts of light to the earth. This star moved slowly toward Petrozavodsk and, spreading out over it in the form of a jellyfish, hung there, showering the city with a multitude of very fine rays which created an image of pouring rain."

The "visitation" unleashed a torrent of rumors. People later reported being awakened from deep sleep by telepathic messages. Tiny holes were reportedly seen in windows and paving stones. Cars were said to have stalled and computers to have crashed, and witnesses smelled ozone.

Soviet UFO enthusiasts rushed to embrace the case. "As far as I am concerned," claimed science-fiction author Aleksandr Kazantsev, "it was a spaceship from outer space, carrying out reconnaissance." According to Dr. Vladimir Azhazha, "what was seen over Petrozavodsk was either a UFO, a carrier of high intelligence with crew and passengers, or it was a field of energy created by such a UFO." Zigel, the dean of Soviet UFOlogists, agreed it was a true UFO: "Without a doubt--it had all the features."

This mass sighting did spark high-level official interest in UFOs. Two studies, one civilian, one within the military, were set up, the civilian team continuing formal investigations until 1996.

Platov and Sokolov Report

After the collapse of the USSR, Dr. Yuliy Platov of the Academy of Sciences and Colonel Boris Sokolov of the Ministry of Defense, summarized the results of the Soviet Union's official 13-year study of UFO reports for an issue of the Academy of Sciences journal, published in Moscow. They explained that from the start, the teams "assumed a high probability of a military-technical origin of the observed strange effects."

"Many people are the eyewitnesses of strange things, which cannot always be precisely identified with natural or man-made effects. However, this amount is very insignificant, and from this there does not follow even a 'hint' of the probable interference of extraterrestrial forces into our lives."

The infamous "Petrozavodsk Jellyfish UFO" of September 20, 1977 was actually the pre -dawn launching of the space spy satellite Cosmos-955 from the secret Plesetsk space center. The multiengined booster's contrails, backlit by the dawn sun, were split in the imaginations of excited witnesses into multiple glowing tentacles.

It was the start of a series of twilight satellite launchings from Plesetsk which were widely observed in Moscow and surrounding densely-populated regions of central Russia - and were misperceived as giant flying saucers. Other similar events occurred on June 14, 1980 and May 15, 1981.

In 1981, a midnight rocket launch from Plesetsk lit up the skies of Moscow itself and sent the capital city's residents into a blitz of unconstrained creativity. UFO expert Sergey Bozhich's notebooks contain reports of numerous "independent" UFO encounters during this ordinary launching. "Pilots of six civil aircraft reported either a UFO in flight or a UFO [attacking] their aircraft," he wrote. "At 1:30 a UFO attacked a truck along the Ryazan Avenue in Moscow." One witness even reported waking from a deep sleep to see a "scout ship" with a glass cupola and small alien pilot cruising down his street.


A much earlier incident, still reported in Western UFO books, took place at Kamchatka on July 25, 1957 when, supposedly, anti aircraft guns opened fire on a fleet of fast-moving UFOs.

The summer of 1957 was also marked by the first flight tests of Russian SS-6 ICBM from the Tyuratam rocket center east of the dusty remains of the Aral Sea. The 4,100 mile flight path crossed the Kamchatka peninsula, with the warhead splashing down in the Pacific just offshore. Such tests were undertaken in strict secrecy and ordinary Soviet soldiers had no more idea about their existence than anyone else. The keen gunners were trying to shoot down Soviet test warheads and rocket fragments.

UFOs nearly spark war

Another oft related story tells of how UFOs nearly triggered nuclear war on October 5, 1982, at a missile base near Khmelitskiy in the Ukraine.

This story famously appeared on ABC 'Prime Time Live' in October, 1994 when host Diane Sawyer and correspondent David Ensor presented uncritical interviews with former Russian military personnel who described a 900-foot-wide UFO hovering over their missile base while their command consoles switched themselves to "prepare to launch" for 15 seconds before returning to normal. The location was given as Byelokoroviche, but it's the same incident.

Sokolov, who took part in the investigation which began the very next day, presents a very different version.

The eyewitness reports from more than 50 people, as documented within hours of the sighting, described bright flashing objects on the northern horizon, in the form of "a balloon." Within hours the investigation team had located records of parachute flares and night-bombing exercises occurring at another military base in precisely that direction at precisely that time.

"It should be added," Platov and Sokolov continue, "that the fault of the operation of the command post equipment had nothing to do with the observed phenomena, it just completely accidentally coincided in time." The fault merely involved an indicator light, and there was no evidence the missiles themselves were affected in any way. Nevertheless, the missile base commander, while genuinely alarmed, evidently found it more convenient to blame extraterrestrials rather than his own maintenance troops for the scare.

Siberian UFO sightings

Platov and Migulin describe events on June 3, 1982, near Chita in southern Siberia, and on September 13, 1982, on the far-eastern Chukhotskiy Penninsula when Air defense units scrambled interceptors to attack supposed UFOs. In both cases, balloon launches were recorded, remarkable only because the balloons reached a higher than normal altitude than usual before bursting.

"The described episodes show that even experienced pilots are not immune against errors in the evaluation of the size of observed objects, the distances to them, and their identification with particular phenomena," the report observes.

Won't get fooled again

However credulous western UFOlogists continue to be, western military intelligence wasn't so easily fooled at the time. An NSA document, written the year after the soviet 'flap, was obtained by eager UFO researchers via the Freedom of Information Act and discusses the UFO 'problem' and hypotheses of explaination.

"Many responsible military officers have developed a mental 'blind spot' to objects which appear to have the characteristics of UFOs," the paper warned - precisely the 'blind spot' the Soviets hoped to exploit by allowing their launches to be seen as UFOs. One of five explanations for UFOs was "secret Earth projects," and so "Undoubtedly, all UFOs should be carefully scrutinized to ferret out such enemy projects."

UFOSKI flies again

Russia may be one of the few places where belief in UFOs lingers on, as this UPI report from 2001 bears testimony.

MOSCOW, Jan. 29 2001 (UPI) - An unidentified flying object hovering above the runway of an airport in Barnaul, in eastern Siberia, forced the airport's closure for almost two hours, Russian news agencies reported Monday. During the incident, which occurred on Friday night, the crew of an Ilyushin 76 cargo jet refused to take off after spotting the glowing object hovering above the end of the runway. Another freighter preparing to land at Barnaul airport also spotted the object and the pilot diverted his jet to an alternative airfield. The object flew off and vanished some 90 minutes after it was first spotted, the reports say.

Quite how much vodka had been drunk that day isn't recorded.

Video of a Russian UFO
UFOs in the Urals
This month in UFO history

The excellent work of UFO debunker James Oberg
Entirely contradictory 1994 report from Flying Saucer Review

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

13 films which cost nothing

As Orson Welles might admit, a writer/director's first feature is often his best work - apart from those hundreds of directors like Martin Scorsese and John Ford for whom it obviously isn't. For a certain kind of one trick pony though, it holds. The tricks are new, the energy is real and a zero budget tames the ego which often fatally bloats later, more 'serious' work.

Zero budget films are also insanely commercial. Why don't the big studios realise this? When it hits, a film made for nothing, hits big - making back its costs a hundred times in the cinemas and a thousand times on DVD. It's the $80 million, focus grouped to death, rewritten till all the jokes are gone, romantic comedy that disappears down the pan.

A zero budget film cannot rely on tedious computer effects or lazy star power, but must concentrate on plot, dialogue and above all provide a fresh vision - the very thing this space dog loves movies for. A great definition of a true poetic image is that those few words change how you see, say a tree, forever. All these films increase the possibilities of movie making, no matter how many times they've been done before.

Modern technology produces bloated worthless behemoths but equally it allows anyone with a pocketful of ideas and a Prosumer digital video camera to conquor the world. All the films here could have been made for Meg Ryan's weekly botox bill.

They're best watched late, when all the fish are sleeping, on DVD of course. Forget the multiplex, DVD is the future of cinema, all that begging at the Oscars to 'embrace the movie experience' was such a pathetic give away. Who wouldn't rather watch a flick in the comfort of their own home, in the company of their own kettle, toilet and reasonably priced array of custom snacks? No chinese girl yacking into her mobile phone. No gangster yoofs talking all the way through. No boots on the seat or popcorn on the floor. And no stupid adverts for something you've already paid for! Frankly, when road testing a new prospective mate there's nothing better than sitting them down before one of these films and gauging their reaction. If they don't like it, you won't like them, cut your losses before she asks you what sign you are and introduces you to her aunties. Here's a brief run down of some canine couch favourites.


As something of a 'happy, scrappy, hero pup' myself Kevin Smith's homespun debut tops my list of dirt cheap recommendations. Made at night in the convenience store he worked in and financed by credit cards and the plundering of his comic book collection, Clerks is as fast and true as every other film he's made has been ponderous and dire. Imagine Woody Allen as a skateboard punk, only funny. This is literally Dante's journey through the nine stages of hell as filmed by a security camera.

Playing like Noel Coward with tourette's syndrome, there's only one clunky line in the whole movie - "I'm making a generalization about broads". Clerks remains vital while a dozen other GenerationX products languish in the bargain bin, yes I'm looking at you Douglas Coupland. Its ethos can be summed up with the fact that non smoker Kevin Smith begins the film with an anti smoking rant and ended the shoot as a two pack a day man. It's hell, but we all wish we were there with them.

Not the least of its merits is its refreshingly anti-slacker libertarian message, delievered by Randall as bluntly as he phrases everything else. How often do our oh so activist hollywood stars challenge their audience in this way? I'm obviously alone in thinking the original, brutal ending was better, if only because 'life is a series of down endings' but Clerks, in a word, is berserker!

Repo Man

Shrimp? Plate of Shrimp? You knew I was going to say that. It's often claimed that Americans don't understand irony. This is nonsense, as any fan of "Larry Sanders" knows, what Americans can't do is punk. Yes, I'm looking at you Green Day. This is as near as they got, thanks to immaculately British Alex Cox, who understands it perfectly. The more times you watch this, the fresher it gets. It creates its own perfectly logical world of complete madness in exactly the same way that Dune doesn't. Intensely weird (but then a repo man's always intense) it's everything a boy wants in a film, wacky chases, diamond dialogue and a sci-fi maguffin lifted straight from "Kiss Me Deadly", itself the darkest, and therefore best, noir film ever made. This was ranked #7 on Entertainment Weekly's "Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time", you can't get any better than that.

The Last Broadcast

This was the first desktop computer feature film, photographed, edited, and screened entirely digitally. One day it'll be as famous as the Jazz Singer in that respect. Unfairly seen as a 'Blair Witch' clone, it's actually the film that 'Blair Witch' shamelessly ripped off. Once again a small party of young film makers disappear into the woods to search for a mysterious monster - this time the famed 'Jersey Devil'. This time one of them survives. The documentary style, making full use of its 'footage' as a major plot point, again anticipates Blair Witch and it shows something of the vaguaries of fate that this film sank without trace in the mass market while 'Witch' became an international phenomonen. Perhaps it's because 'Broadcast' is let down by its ending, while Blair Witch ended in unforgettable style. The budget for this one? $900.

Blair Witch Project

So it's not Citizen Kane. No-one ever said it was. It's a smart little horror film that scared people. Cinema is pretty simple really. A comedy should make people laugh, a weepie should make people cry and a horror film should make people throw up in alleys and then pay to see it again. After 36 Friday the 13th films had disemboweled the genre and Scream had danced over its bones along came this and everything seemed possible again. Made for absolutely nothing it's strength was the nth rediscovery of the fact that terror is best transmitted by showing terrified faces, rather than 'scary' monsters or CGI cartoons. Using nothing but sticks and stones, a few scufflings in the undergrowth and some shaky camera work this is a film which, love it or loathe it, rips a hole in your heart. The climax is the scariest thing I've ever seen. It's like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, it's got nothing, but somehow it always wins.

Cat People

Cat People is a haunting, wartime horror noir employing supernatural suggestion and smoldering sexuality to wonderfull effect. It's spoilt only by the studio's insistence of showing the 'monster' towards the end and the memory of a quite dreadful remake with Natassia Kinski. Sex kitten Simone Simon is a young bride menaced by fears of the unknown, as unbeknownst to her, her repressed emotions may transform her, werewolf like, into a feline killing machine. Its brooding atmosphere of suspense and dread works its way into the watcher's imaginations while the stark photography is a treat for the eye.

It was shot in less than a month on a shoestring budget and borrowed sets but spawned not only sequels but a whole subgenre of film. It's delight in dated phsycological clue dropping may seem naive but it stands up on all four slinky legs far better than such leaden clunkers as the 'Exorcist' today. Anyone tempted to watch Alien 4 again, just to see if it really was THAT bad, should rent this instead.

LA Takedown

Remade as the arthritic, elderly 'Heat' Michael Mann's original TV pilot heist is fresh, fast and exciting. The director's lush style tends to the pretentious and self regarding on the big screen but the small budget forces concentration on the story, which rattles along. Riding the last ripples of the designer detective wave of the eighties 'LA Takedown' failed completely in its day but is far more watchable because of its lack of preening star quality. The lack of great actors acting ac each other is its strength rather than flaw. Good as 'Ali' is, Mann's best film remains the peerless 'Manhunter', which frankly eats the liver out of the ever more woeful trilogy with extra gay Anthony Hopkins as the laughable Lecter.

Fucking Amal

It's a film about young swedish lesbians with 'fucking' in the title, of course it's going to be good. Far from a sleazy sex show, Lukas Moodysson's first film is an acute and funny film about the sweet agonies of first love, and did I mention it has young swedish lebsians in it? As big as Titanic in its home country, this film cost a millionth of the amount though, to be fair, it is only a hundred times better. There's a tiresome new american teen flick to ignore every day, but this affair, both drab and tender, captures the essential boredom of youth. The dreary town is lit with the tentative bravado of the young girls in love, and though the dogme style is an aquired taste for some, there's a cup of chocolate all round for this one.

I've heard the mermaids singing

Patricia Rozema's debut feature is another sweet comedy of manners, featuring a misfit's hopeless love for an unattainable ideal, soon revealed to be a fraud. It's funny, original and full of ideas and was the first time I heard that bit of lorelei opera that gets played all the time now and no-one knows the name of. If you've ever ordered raw octopus in a fancy japanese restaurant by mistake you know just what 'organisationally impaired' Polly's going through. I can't believe this is twenty years old. Like any other great work of art, from Vermeer's paintings to 'Blonde on blonde' it hasn't aged a day. It's a very sexy film too, far more erotic than any naked screen portrayal could be.


You've heard of garage bands, this is a garage feature film - Shane Carruth made this movie for $7000, yet it's slicker than 'A.I.' in a bucket of eels. Its cool isolation and ever tightening paranoia evoke the spirit of HG Wells' 'The Invisible Man' rather than 'The Time Machine' as two garage inventors stumble across a bizarre scientific effect and, in trying to get rich, unpick the fabric of reality. As an exercise in off hand style the dense techno-babble finds perfect counterpoint in the crisp white shirts of our heroes and the clinical interiors they inhabit. In demanding intelligence and concentration from its audience, Primer is a rare gem in an era when effects driven blockbusters are giving science fiction, the most thought provoking literature of the 20th century, a bad name. Just as the experimenters seek to gain through endlessly repeating the process, the film itself rewards repeated viewing, the puzzle unravelling like onion skins. The question is, what collapses when you create an unsolvable paradox, the universe - or you? As their doubles begin using the machine, it becomes hard to tell who the 'primers' are but I'm sure Harrison Ford might want to use it to go back twenty years to when he was a star.

Down by Law

It's not where you start, it's where you start again. Ain't that the truth? A mismatched trio of Leningrad cowboys find themselves in the swamps of Louisiana in a film whose monochrome is as luscious as the humour is deadpan. Italian clown Roberto Beninni steals the show but don't miss Tom Waits' finest film performance as a lugubrious DJ. He described it as a "Russian neo-fugitive episode of The Honeymooners" and Mr Waits is never wrong, except about the liberation of Iraq. A down at heel fairy tale, it features the most economical, and therefore best, prison escape scene in the movies. It's a sad and beautiful world all right. Best avoided by the more avid rabbit lovers.

The Descent

After the long, turgid decline of Hammer Horror into camp, British horror films fell into an abyss. Brilliant films like the Wicker Man, and good ones like The Devil Rides Out were all we had until recently. "Shaun of the dead" was a genuinely funny zombie parody and 'The Descent' is genuinely scary. An all female cast cunningly evade the single greatest problem in all film plotting in these days of ubiquitous mobile phones - why don't they just call the police? - by descending deep into the bowels of the earth. Claustrophobia, supernatural stalkers and dark secrets within make a potent mix. These girls are english teachers, not fucking tomb raider, and it's all the better for that.

Last Night

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999? Remember when that seemed futuristic? If you're old enough to remember that Prince was once a star then you're mature enough to appreciate the best film about the end of the world since 'the day the earth stood still'. There have been a lot of big budget apocolyptic films recently but none are as real, as engaging, as moving as this. Begging the inevitable question (how could they tell?) hanging over any such film set in Toronto, it explores human reactions to the last six hours of the world on December 1999. Making up in irony, style and human sentiment what it lacks in huge cartoon monsters and wimpy heroics (i'm looking at you tom cruise) it's been criticised for romanticism, yet isn't the world more likely to end with a man ringing everyone in the world thanking them for using the gas company? Dead pan, rather than hysterical, romantic rather than bombastic, it has the appeal of a Norah Jones C.D. It's adult, it's intelligent and above all, compared with the ceaseless clamour of today, it's quiet enough to make you think. This is what everyone else does in the world while Bruce Willis is running around in a sweaty vest machine gunning people. It's a rare thing, a film about people which is actually humane.

Dark Star

John Carter went on to a long, undistinguished horror career while Dan O'Bannon wrote the original story which became 'Alien'. This low budget sci-fi stoner romp may be the best thing either of them ever did. Crammed with ideas, including super intelligent bombs discovering self consciousness and conversations with the dead, the hippy californian surfer dudes have been slowly going mad on the eponymous ship for twenty years, clearing 'unstable' planets in a way Douglas Adams obviously found amusing. The beachball alien is rather less threatening than O'Bannon's 'star beast', the ending is stolen pretty much intact from Ray Bradbury's 'Kaleidoscope' and Sergeant Pinback's video diary is on an 8-track tape but Dark Star retains a twisted manic energy even today. The down at heel squalor of the ship anticipates 'Alien' even as the sleek intelligent bombs remember HAL and it's all light years better than 'Star Wars'.

About time

A mere 15 years after the collapse of communism the Bolshoi theatre is at last going to be stripped of its Soviet trappings.

Visitors to Moscow are still surprised by the numbers of guady red stars adorning the Kremlin, the thuggish Soviet emblems pockmarking public buildings and the hordes of lumpen statues of Lenin which still besmirch every other corner in the city. While the newly liberated countries of eastern europe rushed to destroy the propaganda in stone imposed upon them, Russia has been conspicuously slow to free itself of remnants of the glorious Soviet epoch.

Sometimes ascribed to laziness, lack of money or a respect for the sacrifices of the past these displays were hardly likely to inspire confidence in freedom and democracy from visitors to the motherland. You'll have to look long and hard to find any new memorials to the victims of the gulag put up in their place.

At last things seem to be changing, and one of the most iconic symbols of Russian culture, the Bolshoi theatre, is being stripped of its hammer and sickle in a refurbishment plan. The velvet curtain, adorned with hundreds of cute little soviet symbols is to be disappeared to a small museum in the theatre and the big hammer and sickle ostentatiously reigning over what used to be the tsar's personal box is to go, replaced by Russia's double-headed eagle. The theatre dates not from 1917 but 1776.

Mikhail Shvydkoi, an official in the ministry of culture, said: "The decision to change the emblem strikes me as being historically fair and natural. It symbolises that we don't live in the Soviet Union but in Russia, a new, democratic and free country which respects its traditions."

About time too.

'Lenin is more alive than the living', that's what the Soviet state used to say.

"A lie told often enough becomes truth" - VI Lenin.
Tartu, Estonia. 101 uses for a dead Lenin anyone?

"It is true that liberty is precious - so precious that it must be rationed" - VI Lenin.
Pärnu, Estonia.

"Give us the child for 8 years and it will be a Bolshevik forever" - VI Lenin.
The last Lenin in Estonia, just 50m from the Russian border.

"One man with a gun can control one hundred without one" - VI Lenin.

"We need the real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory" - VI Lenin.

It happened like this when only the dead
Were smiling, glad of their release,
That Leningrad hung around its prisons
Like a worthless emblem, flapping its piece.
Shrill and sharp, the steam-whistles sang
Short songs of farewell
To the ranks of convicted, demented by suffering,
As they, in regiments, walked along -
Stars of death stood over us
As innocent Russia squirmed
Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
Of the black marias.

- Anna Akhmatova - Prelude to 'Requiem'