On February 15, 2013, a ten-thousand-ton meteorite exploded near the Russian city of Chebarkul in the Ural Mountains of Russia, injuring over 1000 people. The meteorite, subsequently named “Chebarkul,” is estimated by scientists to have contained approximately thirty times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in World War II. The event reminded many Russians of the 1908 Tunguskaya meteorite, which destroyed an area of over 800 square miles. While not nearly as devastating as the 1908 event, the meteorite captured headlines throughout Russia and the world.
Beyond the destruction of property, however, the Chebarkul meteorite has served as an important reminder of the scars that Russia’s Soviet past have left on the country. The decades of official state lies about significant events and disasters have led a number of Russians to question whether a meteorite was really to blame for the destruction, or whether something more ominous and sinister was to blame. As one Russian political commentator put it, “even when all necessary information is available, [many Russians] don’t want to believe it.”
A survey of Russian public opinion on the incident by Noviye Izvestia reveals the continued skepticism with which many Russians react to official explanations of events. Almost one third of those polled expressed belief that the meteorite was actually a failed Russian missile test or a satellite that had fallen out of orbit. Another explanation was that the government was using the meteorite story to cover up the crash of a UFO. Some respondents also reflected a belief that the government was hiding the full extent of the danger posed by the meteorite, speculating that it might contain dangerous viruses or bacteria that could threaten a larger population.
Still other Russians have been influenced by lingering Cold War tensions between Russian and the United States, and have joined Liberal Democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in blaming the explosion on a U.S. weapons test. Shortly after the meteorite hit, Zhirinovsky took to the airwaves asking, “What meteorite?” “The universe has its own laws…when something falls – it’s man-made. People are warmongers and provocateurs.” As evidence to support his accusations, Zhirinovsky referred to reports that in the days leading up to the explosion, Secretary of State John Kerry made several failed attempts to contact Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. According to the U.S. State Department, Kerry wanted to speak with Lavrov about the North Korea’s nuclear test. According to Zhirinovsky, however, the real reason for the calls was that Kerry “wanted to warn Lavrov about the plot and that it may affect Russia.”
To be sure, few Russians have put much stock in Zhirinovsky’s accusations that the meteorite was a U.S. weapon, yet these collective alternative explanations and the large number of people believing them speak powerfully of the legacy of Soviet deception and the effect it has had on public trust in government in Russia. While conspiracy theories and suspicion of government reports are hardly unique to Russia, its particular cultural and political history makes for a particularly fertile breeding ground for such skepticism.
At the same time, the Chebarkul meteorite has also put on display the determination of Russian officials to break from the Soviet past. The Russian government has allowed scientists from throughout the world widespread access to the crash site and are collaborating with experts in several countries to assemble as much data as possible about the meteorite event. Beyond this, Russia has announced plans to lead a global effort to protect the planet from future meteorite impacts. Announcing a new project called “Citadel,” Roscomos, the Russian space agency, is embarking on a project to create an early warning system and public training courses to protect citizens from meteorite impacts. Plans are also underway to form joint ventures with other nations to build new telescopes and satellites that will be capable of detecting space objects that threaten the planet. Convincing other nations to get on board with the cost and cooperation of such projects will be daunting, but Russian officials believe that the improvement to human safety is worth the effort. To achieve such an ambitious undertaking on behalf of the world’s population will show just how far Russia has progressed from its past, and may just give a skeptical Russian public something to believe in.
Written By: Katie Pettet
Osborne, Hannah. "Russia Building Anti-Meteorite Shield to Protect Earth." International Business Times. 12 March 2013: online.
Weir, Fred. "Was Chelyabinsk Meteor Actually A Meteor?" Christian Science Monitor. 22 February 2013: online.