Soviet Frunze – a Centre of Space Research?

by Mohira Suyarkulova
When one strolls along the streets of Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, it never registers that this city was once a centre for space research. A modest building on Toktogul Street, which is now home to textile sweatshops, once housed a unique institution with a long cryptic abbreviated name – OKB IKI AN SSSR (Особое конструкторское бюро Института космических исследований Академии наук СССР), which when translated from Russian stands for “Special design bureau of the Institute of space research of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR”.Created in the mid-1960s, this special design bureau was essential for scientific exploration of space, contributing to equipping satellites and space missions with special devices for the scientific study of the earth, the moon, Mars, Venus and even the tail of the Halley comet. The bureau was among the most advanced centres of scientific equipment design and construction at the time, contributing greatly to the country’s scientific advancement, economy, as well as defence at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race. The bureau was also a part of international space research cooperative efforts – both with socialist and capitalist countries, as shown in this screen grab of an animated map from a documentary about this institution.

Image 1 – A screen grab from a documentary film “Special Design Bureau” (dir. V. Vilenskii, “Kyrgyzfilm”, 1982).

Why and how was such an institution created in what was a predominantly agrarian republic? Such questioning betrays our commonly held assumptions regarding the relations between the ‘centre’ and the ‘peripheries’ that existed during the period of so-called ‘late Socialism’. The story of the Special design bureau in Frunze (Bishkek’s Soviet-time name) challenges our preconceptions, allowing us to complicate and enrich our understanding of this small republic’s development history.

Image 2 – The building of the Special Design Bureau in Frunze and the Clean Room workers. Source: Georgii Ivanovich Petrov: 100 let so dnia rozhdeniia pervogo direktora IKI [Georgy Ivanovich Petrov: 100 anniversary of the first director of the Institute of Space Research], Moscow: Institute of Space Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012, p. 72.

Following Khrushchevite reform of the economic management and as part of de-Stalinisation efforts, republics within the Union were afforded greater economic autonomy and Central Asian leaders – while being loyal to the Soviet state – made a case for completing a ‘decolonisation’ process for their republic through advocacy of large industrial development projects. Thus, starting from the 1960s we see construction of large hydropower stations feeding new aluminium and chemical plants as well as the emergence of machinery and equipment for building factories in the region. In Soviet Kyrgyzstan we see during this period the launch of the famous ‘Fizpribor’ (physical devices) plant, followed by the creation of a number of similar enterprises, which not only built but designed new technologies. It was on the basis of the existing plant and its excellent staff of engineers that the new special bureau was created. Even before the new entity was created, the workers of Fizpribor developed and built radiometers for scientific research to be installed in one of the sputniks.

Image 3 – Tuning of a piece of equipment. Source: Shcherbakov, V. 2010. Frunzenskoie OKB IKI: Osoboie konstruktorskoie niuro Instituta kosmicheskikh issledovanii AN SSSR [Frunze OKB IKI: the Special Design Bureau of the Institute of Space Research of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR]. Kaluga: Friedhelm, p. 126.

Mikhail Dobrian, a former worker of the Special bureau describes the story behind the creation of the institution in Frunze: “In the mid-1960s I found myself working for a construction bureau, where a part of the collective had experience in designing devices for satellites of the ‘Prognosis’ series [this initial construction bureau was based at the Physical devices plant in Frunze]. It was when the first experiments studying the radiation belts of the earth were staged on those sputniks. A completely unexpected chain of production was developed then. The scientists working at the Moscow State University’s Nuclear physics research institute, who worked on this issue somehow connected to the Plant for Physical Devices based in Frunze and placed their first order. As is often the case, it was a chance that determined the life paths of people and whole organisations alike. The Space research institute in Moscow did not have its own production base. Our chief engineer (of the construction bureau in Frunze) was an acquaintance of one of the Space Institute’s scientists. By chance they met at a resort during their vacations, got talking, told one another of troubles at their work places and realised that together they could resolve those issues. Back then all matters related to space were quickly dealt with. A report notice was sent to the military-industrial commission under the Communist Party’s Central Committee and everything was resolved literally within a couple of months. In such a fashion, we ‘automatically’ became employees of the Space research institute in 1967. Our organisation in Frunze was named a ‘special design bureau’.”

The story of the special design bureau might be unique yet, arguably, it is also typical for the period of late Socialism. I would even call this a ‘consistent coincidence’.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Mohira Suyarkulova obtained a PhD degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in 2011. She is a research coordinator of the Central Asian Studies Institute and an Associate Professor at the International and Comparative Politics Department of the American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Note: The research for this article was started in 2014-15 within the project undertaken by STAB (School of Theory and Activism Bishkek) exploring sites related to science and technology in Soviet Frunze (Bishkek the Utopian). A more in-depth study of the Special Design Bureau was presented in April 2016 at the concluding symposium of STAB’s “Concepts of the Soviet in Central Asia. Communist promises of the Soviet: between the programme and the effects”. This blog contribution summarises the article included in STAB’s second almanac ‘The Concepts of the Soviet’ (Russian language, forthcoming in February 2017). Here you can read the editorial introduction.