Secrets of Soviet Technology

Friday, Nov. 16 2018,  20:15 h , ZDFinfo

A production of zb Media for ZDF (45 m)

Screenplay: Stephan Bleek, Peter Kocyla.
Director: Stephan Bleek
Camera: Oliver Portmann, Elias Bleek
Edit: Gaby Kull-Neujahr, Maria Zimmermann

Most people associate Soviet technology with simple but robust equipment for the Siberian steppe. Very few people know that Russia has been one of the world’s leading high-tech nations for many decades. Hardly anyone has ever seen the “Caspian Monster”, a flying ship. Or has flown with the Soviet Concorde. Who knows the Soviet Buran shuttle or still knows about the first woman in space? Russian technicians fulfilled human dreams. They served the prestige of a system that considered itself superior in science and technology. The film shows with newly discovered, fascinating shots from Russian technology archives secrets of a lost empire.


Technology in the Soviet-Union

The film shows examples of high-tech projects in the history of the Soviet Union.

The Tokamak

In the mid 1950s Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm designed the Tokamak fusion reactor. In a tokamak, a plasma heated to several million degrees is enclosed in a ring-shaped magnetic field so that it floats without contact. Nuclear fusion reactions take place in this plasma, in which enormous amounts of energy are generated. A fusion reactor is comparatively clean, and there are no high-level radioactive waste materials produced. It burns “water” and thus provides us with an inexhaustible source of energy. The technical hurdles, however, are enormous, since a plasma heated to over 100 million degrees can only be kept stable with great effort.

In the Soviet Union the Tokamak reactor was developed under the direction of Lev Arzimowitsch at the Moscow Kurtschatow Institute and at the end of the 1960s temperatures of 10 million degrees were reached for the first time – proof of the feasibility of the Tokamak concept. Despite the Cold War, further research and development is already taking place in international cooperation between nuclear physicists. Tokamak test facilities are currently located in Culham, Great Britain, Garching near Munich, Russia, Korea, Japan and the USA.  The ITER fusion reactor under construction in southern France is to generate more energy than is needed to heat the plasma for the first time. Power generation, if ITER were to work, would be possible with the next larger DEMO power plant. Lev Arzimowitsch has already answered the question of when the first functioning Tokamak power plant will be built: “When mankind needs it or a little earlier”.

Space travel – Sputnik, Vostok, Soyuz,

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union was the nation that made significant pioneering contributions to space travel. Leaving the globe and opening up the cosmos had been dreams rooted in Russian culture since the 19th century. Konstantin Ziolkovsky is a visionary pioneer of space travel. He established the basic rocket equation, which proves that it is possible to overcome gravity. In the 1930s, the young engineer Sergei Korolyov pushed Soviet rocketry forward. His fate is characteristic of the history of the Soviet system. In 1938 he is arrested and sentenced to forced labor in the GULAG on false charges. Only by luck he survives Siberia and through the intervention of his friend Andrej Tupolev at Stalin, he is released in 1944.

Start of the Sputnik. Photo: Bleek (editing)
After the war, Korolyov becomes head of the Russian missile program. The missiles are designed for military purposes, they should be able to carry nuclear warheads to America. But after Stalin’s death Korolyov succeeds in convincing Khrushchev, the party leader, to use the ready-to-use R7 rocket for a space flight of a satellite. During the international geophysical year 1957 proclaimed by the UNO, the Sputnik was successfully launched into space with an R7 rocket. A triumph of Soviet technology, which triggered the “Sputnik shock” in the USA, because it showed how small and vulnerable the USA had become. This is how historians Julia Richers tells it in the film, which deals with Soviet space travel. As a result, Koroljow succeeded in reaching Space Firsts by the dozen: Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, Alexei Leonov, the first man to float freely in space.

Yuri Gagarin. Photo: Bleek (editing)
Valentina Tereschkowa
Valentina Tereschkowa Foto: Bleek (editor)

The coronation should have been the first flight to the moon. The Americans are lagging behind, but with the Apollo program they are using enormous resources to win the race to the moon. Koroljow’s early death shocks the Russian space program – he cannot finish constructing the N1 moon rocket he designed. In February 1969 the launch attempt of this rocket and thus the Soviet moon flight program fails. In July 1969, an American was the first man to set foot on the moon.

Launch N1 moon rocket
Launch N1 moon rocket 1969 Photo: Bleek (editor)

The TU144 supersonic plane

When the British and French presented their project for the supersonic Concorde airliner at the end of the 1950s, Khrushchev followed suit. The Soviet Union will also be the first in this field. Andrej Tupolev’s design office is commissioned to build a similar superplane in only 5 years. The TU144 looks very similar to its competitor Concorde in many details. On New Year’s Eve 1968 the time has come: The Tupolov 144 rolls to its maiden flight and takeoff and landing are flawless. Once again the Soviet Union has reached its destination ahead of its western competitors and opens the supposedly promising era of supersonic passenger flights.

TU 144 Sinsheim
TU 144 Sinsheim Photo: Elias Bleek

The plane successfully completed many more test flights, but in May 1973 a plane crashed spectacularly from the sky at the air show in Le Bourget near Paris. The crash obviously had no technical causes, but the image damage was enormous. Although the TU144 still started operating between Moscow and Alma Ata, the completely uneconomical project was quickly abandoned.

The Space Station Salyut

After the failure of the moon program N1 Soviet spaceflight concentrates on the development of space stations. Also here military considerations stood at the beginning, the cosmonauts should photograph the territory of the opponent from space. But the Salyut program soon became a civilian project. The Russian developments for the coupling of space ships and the modular construction of a space station are groundbreaking. One episode remains the Apollo Soyuz program in 1975, in which an American and a Soviet spacecraft dock in space for the first time. Alexei Leonov’s famous handshake with Thomas Stafford remains an episode – until American flights to the MIR station and the ISS take place after the end of the Soviet Union.


The last major Soviet space project was the Buran shuttle, which was constructed in the 1980s. It was to serve military purposes, like the Space Shuttle of the USA. Buran could take off and land fully automatically. The first flight of the huge Energia rocket with a Buran spacecraft on November 15, 1988 was flawless. The problem with the shuttles is their lack of economic efficiency. A space ship weighing 105 tons has to be shot into space, carrying only a maximum payload of 30 tons. The good old Soyuz rocket is much cheaper and more efficient. Because it needs energy for 20 tons payload without a heavy additional apparatus to transport.

Buran and Energia rocket
Buran and Energia rocket Photo: Bleek (editing)


Another object in the film is the Ekranoplan. Ekranoplan was a military ground effect aircraft, a kind of hermaphrodite between ship and plane. It takes off in the water and rises with increasing speed up to about 10 meters altitude. There it can fly forward with 500 Kmh. The big problem, however, is the curve flight, which always carries the risk of water contact. For this reason, several test aircraft were involved in an accident. When the military lost interest in the aircraft, the end of the 80s came for the exotic planes. Ekranoplane were a further development of the hydrofoil boats, which are still in use today on Russian waters and also in the Mediterranean. The British counterpart Hoovercraft hovercraft has also been mothballed.

Technology and Soviet society

Education, science and technology

“Science and technology have played a special role in the history of the Soviet Union,” explains Dr. Mikhail Turnyanskiy of the EURO-FUSION organisation. Euro Fusion coordinates the activities of the European countries in the construction of the Tokamak fusion reactor ITER in Southern France. Dr. Turnyanskiy emphasizes the special role of the broad educational efforts that the Soviet leadership began immediately after the October Revolution of 1917. For the communist revolutionaries, the fulfilment of their dreams for the future was linked to the development of education, science and technology.

Setbacks in Stalinism

The period of Stalinism, in which numerous scientists and technicians were arrested and disappeared in the GULAG, significantly slowed down the modernisation of Russia. But after the Second World War technological change accelerated rapidly. “If you imagine the state in which the Soviet Union was after the end of the Second World War and that only 10 years later this country was able to transport the first Sputnik into space, then that is something that has astonished the world public,” explains the historian Professor Julia Richers of the University of Bern.

Technology and the Cold War

Many of the great Soviet technological projects are connected with the arms race in the Cold War. This also applies to space travel. Or nuclear energy – in the form of nuclear fission and fusion. But Soviet scientists and engineers are intensively involved in civilian projects. So Andrei Sakharov, the later Nobel Peace Prize winner, who already designed the concept of the Tokamak fusion reactor in the mid-1950s. Sakharov was shocked by the effect of the H-bomb that he had co-developed himself. “Your test changed everything in me,” he writes in his memoirs.

Or Sergej Koroljow, the “father” of the R7 rocket, which carried the Sputnik into space and is still very reliable as Soyuz rocket in civil space travel. Korolyov convinced the part and head of state Nikita Khrushchev of the benefits of civil space travel – for the prestige of the country and for science. The launch of Sputnik, the first earth satellite of mankind, and the first space traveller of mankind Yuri Gagarin stand for the great pioneering achievements of Soviet technology. Just as the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, became the celebrated symbol of a socialist society, in which equality between men and women was to be achieved. Prestige and propaganda play a major role in financing major technological projects.

The technological superpower

At the end of the 1950s, the Soviet Union presented itself as an impressive scientific and technological power. “Soviet science and technology was then among the best in the world,” explains Professor Paul Josephson of Maine University. The negative sides of Stalinism seem to have been overcome and the road to a bright communist future seems wide open. But it comes differently.

The Brezhnev Era – Time of Stagnation

Already in the middle of the 60’s a weakening was recognizable. After the Cuban crisis, Leonid Brezhnev takes over the leadership of the Soviet Union – he stands for stagnation rather than stormy progress. The weaknesses of the planned economy and the traditional command structures in society are revealed in the failure of prestigious technical projects. The Soviet lunar flight programme fails, the first supersonic traffic aircraft, the Tupolev 144, becomes an expensive flop. Sloppiness, and a lack of technological level, especially in microelectronics, causes scientists and technicians serious problems in continuing along the paths they have taken. “It doesn’t work to decree from above, ‘You will be innovative’ or ‘You will do this and that new thing in five years’, because how can you plan tomorrow’s inventions if you can’t even know which they will be,” historian Paul Josephson describes the context.

On the other hand, toughness is a typical Russian trait. In nuclear physics, the Soviet research teams around Lev A. Artsimowitsch made their breakthrough in the late 1960s. “At the Kurtschatow Institute in Moscow they managed to reach temperatures of over 10 million degrees for the first time with the Tokamak,” says Dr. Denis Kalupin of EURO-FUSION, and the Munich physicist Professor Harald Lesch adds: “Immediately a lively scientific tourism developed to Moscow. And the Tokamak principle became the recognized concept in fusion reactor research.”

The collapse and what remains for us

The Brezhnev era ends in the 1970s with the loss of the Soviet Union’s technological leadership in some areas. The country slides towards collapse. Professor Klaus Gestwa of the University of Tübingen describes the state of the Soviet Union as an “archaic modernization built on the heavy industry of coal, oil and steel. With his reforms, Gorbachev tries to turn the tide. During his time, large projects in space technology were once again developed. The space station MIR and the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran. The Buran experiences a tragic fate. As soon as it is finished, the Soviet empire collapses and the project is buried under the rubble. But the ISS space station, based in its core and concept on further developed modules of the MIR, again shows what remains: the international peaceful cooperation in scientific and technical projects.

On the basis of Andrey Sakharov’s theoretical considerations, the ITER fusion power station is today being built jointly by 34 nations. The Tokamak could cover the energy requirements of technical civilization in a clean and climate-neutral way. Andrei Sakharov’s dream, which he communicated to the world public in his famous manifesto of the summer of 1968, consisted precisely in this: in the peaceful cooperation of the world community for scientific, technical and civilisational progress. This cooperation is a legacy of Soviet technological history.