originally published June 15, 2013

Yesterday I penned a touching tribute to those plucky little furry heroes, the unsung monkeys who ventured into space at the hands of American scientists, who were hungry for a forward step in their ever-mounting space race with the Soviet Union. Well, back then the Russians were doing a lot more than imprisoning dissenters and passing hate-filled bigotry legislation. Back then, they were matching America in the race for the sky.

So what about the Russian monkeys? Were there any Russian monkeys? Do they even have monkeys in Russia? I really should do more research before writing these things.

Okay, it turns out they do have monkeys in Russia, and a handful of them took that fanciful voyage to the stars. But that all happened in the 1980’s and 90’s, not back when America was claiming its triumph in the field of orbital primates. So what were the Soviets doing during that time, if not launching monkeys? Well, depending on how far you’re willing to yank on the thread of conspiracy, they may have been lobbing humans up there before we knew anything about it. Long lost humans. Long lost cosmonauts.

In the 1950’s, while the Americans were looking for the closest equivalent to little hairy humans to send into orbit, the Soviets were content to fire anything up there. And since dogs were more abundant than monkeys, that was their focus. Dezek and Tsygan were the first noble pooches to soar above the 100km line where space begins, and they both lived to tell the tale. And by ‘tell the tale’, I assume that means when other dogs sniffed Dezek and Tsygan’s butts, those other dogs instinctively understood what happened.

Several other dogs made the journey, and unlike the fate that befell the American space-monkey team, most of the puppies made it home safely. One notable exception was Laika, who was packed aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Laika was the first animal to complete a full orbit of the earth, however she was not expected to survive – in fact, no return trip was even planned.

Okay, so the Soviets were a little off-handedly careless with a dog’s life. They’d never recklessly endanger one of their humans like this, would they?

In December of 1959, there was an alleged leak of information from an unnamed source high up in the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. This report claimed there had been several unsuccessful man-into-space attempts by the Soviets in recent months. Among the deceased were Aleksei Ledovsky, Andrei Mitkov, Sergei Shiborin and Maria Gromova. Continentale, the Italian news agency, aired the story, though no established source was ever named.

The rumors continued to grow when stories of high-altitude testing were released, with the very real names of known, living Soviet scientists attached. It took a few years before this was cleared up – these were high-altitude parachutists, not cosmonauts. There was no space travel here, just some messing about a few thousand feet above the clouds.

Sci-fi author Robert Heinlein received a tip in 1960 from some Red Army cadets that the Soviets had just launched a man into orbit. While this may have simply been some army guys having fun with the fiction writer visiting their country, it was likely a reference to the Korabl-Sputnik 1, the first flight of the Vostok space program that would eventually lead Yuri Gagarin into orbit and into the history texts. There was a passenger on board one of those early flights, the guy pictured above: Ivan Ivanovich.

‘Ivan Ivanovich’ is the Russian equivalent to John Doe – a generic placeholder name, in this case for a specially engineered life-size mannequin. Ivan had a dog and some guinea pig companions on his flight, as well as a recording in order to test the radio on board the ship. So chalk this one up as fully explained with logic and science.

So far we’ve got nothing but unsubstantiated rumors and a great author’s misunderstanding. But shit’s about to get a little weird.

Meet Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia, brothers and amateur radio enthusiasts. The brothers set up a listening station just outside of Turin in Italy, in an abandoned German bunker at Torre Bert. From here they picked up transmissions from Sputnik satellites and Explorer 1, the first American equivalent. But in 1960, they captured something different.

The first sound snippet came in May. It was allegedly a manned spacecraft, reporting it was going off course. After that, nothing. Fast-forward to November, and the Judica-Cordiglia brothers pick up an SOS signal in Morse Code. The signal appears to be from another spacecraft, one that was drifting helplessly away from the planet.

Then in February 1961, there came the clear and distinct sound of a cosmonaut suffocating to death, as well as his dying heartbeats. Gennady Mikhailov was believed to be his name, and you can hear him perish (if that is indeed what this is) on Youtube.

Over the next few years, a handful of other recordings were captured at Torre Bert, including a few pleading for help before crashing or burning up in the atmosphere, and a couple who bounced into deep space. A November 1963 recording was of a female cosmonaut who didn’t make it.

Then there’s Vladimir Ilyushin, the man who may have actually beaten Yuri Gagarin into space by four days. The story goes that Vladimir’s ship malfunctioned, and that he crash-landed inside the People’s Republic of China, where he was held prisoner for a year before being released onto Soviet soil. Vladimir was a test pilot, though the Soviets claim he was never involved in the space program. They state that Vladimir suffered injuries to his legs in a 1960 car crash, and he spent a year in China doing rehab and trying out some traditional Chinese medicine.

Bullshit or not?

Sergei Khrushchev, son of then-head-Soviet-honcho Nikita Khrushchev, asserts that the space flight story was true. He claims Vladimir was indeed held by the Chinese for a year, but by the time he was released, the world had been celebrating Yuri Gagarin for almost twelve full months and it would have made the Soviets look foolish to come forward with Vladimir’s story now. Besides, they didn’t want the Americans to know that Soviet-Chinese relations were somewhat strained.

Vladimir never revealed the truth – he took that with him to his grave in 2010.

So did the Soviets send a handful of poor, helpless humans to an early death in the name of winning the space race? Was their grip on state-run media solid enough to keep their names suppressed forever? Are we so hungry to believe in conspiracies that we’re willing to buy into this?

I say why not. In a world where famed space-mannequin Ivan Ivanovich can be purchased by Ross Perot for his personal collection, anything is possible.

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