Dedicated to my colleagues in military unit 14129 “Starry” and to GUKOS*…


The first time I heard about the wonders of Japanese technology was when I was still a preschooler, at the beginning of the distant 60’s. One of my native grandfathers, Odessa’s man, father of my father, teased the soul with stories about the city near the very blue sea to another grandfather—the mother’s father—who, then having saved a certain amount of money for vacation, waved to look on the Odessa-mom.** Despite the warnings of a relative to be attentive, my grandfather was robbed in Odessa, and he returned without gifts. But, not bringing gifts, my grandfather avidly shared his impressions, and one of the strongest was his acquaintance with the Japanese transistor radio.

“Imagine,” he said to his wife, daughters, my father, and just acquaintances, “the receiver, the radio plays, and it is the size of a pack of cigarettes! And it catches all sorts of different stations: about five, and maybe more.”

The radio was not to surprise us. My grandfather from Odessa, a former professional card player who was imprisoned in Stalin’s prison for unearned income*** and released from there, as he expressed a desire to participate in the restoration of the mines of Donbass, worked hard. In addition to the title “Honored Miner of Ukraine” and two Orders of Lenin, my grandfather was awarded the domestic miracle of radio engineering. But it was a Soviet unit, with dimensions like a big suitcase or a small chest, but the mother’s grandfather told him about a small receiver smaller than a book. It was believed weakly.


Afterwards, my grandfather’s stories were forgotten, but the elder brother of a school friend, a navigator cadet, went to his first trip and brought back from it, as you might guess, the miracle of the Japanese radio industry. It was perfectly tuned and kept the wave, emitting sounds of music and news into the surrounding space. All the boys of our district visited my friend as an excursion. In the end, his mother got tired of it, and, wailing, “You will break it, bullies!” hid him out of sight. The future “sea wolf” moved for further knowledge of the sciences in his navigation, and the popularity of the Japanese receiver fell. It ended due to a thief climbing into my friend’s dwelling. Judging by the fact that apart from this Japanese miracle, he did not steal anything, the radio receiver was targeted.

We grieved, though not for long. A little more than a couple of years in the newly opened department store, we found a whole offshoot packed with “transistors.” Although they were all native, a fashion immediately appeared among the boys to come to gatherings with such a radio device.


However, the memory of the Japanese miracle lived. When I enrolled in the capital military academy, I once walked around Moscow and accidentally ended up in the commission store at Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street.**** That was something! By that time, the transistors, both ours and foreign ones, no longer caused a stir, except for the cases of the sale of foreign ones in GUM***** or TsUM****** at the state price.******* But in this commission store, I saw what was the dream of every advanced boy of those years: a portable tape recorder. The miracle was imported, Japanese. The proud “Sony” inscription sparkled with the reflection of fluorescent lamps, and in this reflection faded everything native and even socialist. The label, with a mad price of 375 Brezhnev’s rubles,******** made my heart stop, but the desire to possess this device took over, and I began to save the required amount.

Studying in a prestigious military academy did not allow me to earn extra money on the side; it was strictly forbidden to cadets. There was a second obstacle of sports, which practically did not leave any free time, but I did not lose heart and resorted to the old tried and tested method: collecting and donating empty bottles.

To this end, I bought a large, roomy briefcase—its insides consisted of three compartments—one of them I singled out for textbooks and exercise books, the other for sports uniforms, and the third for glassware. To prevent empty bottles from ringing, I would place newspapers in the branch, with which social activists and Komsomol********* leaders supplied us in abundance.

Most shameful in this disgraceful work was the risk to be caught by one’s classmates or acquaintances, so I had to follow the rules of conspiracy invented by myself: I never went to wander around the city with my friends and never returned from training with other athletes. Pretending that my laces were unleashed, I lagged behind them when we tried to get on the tram or trolleybus, jumped first into the departing bus or subway train, risking being squeezed by the casement doors, or pretended to be distracted by reading newspapers in a vending machine selling the press.


In those days in Moscow it was not customary to drink beverages on the go, so the entrances to the subway were not strewn with empty bottles. But I knew the places in which vacationers left empty bottles, not trying to carry them to the collection point for glass. Moving at a walking pace along the avenue from the CSKA********** sports complex to the Airport or Dynamo metro stations, I could collect 15 to 20 empty bottles. Even the fact that the receptionist spotted a lanky guy and began to take empty bottles of ten kopeks and not twelve did not cool my ardor, but stimulated an increase in the intensity of collection.

The summer holidays were approaching, and the moment of purchase was approaching. The “Sony” tape recorder was already sold by that time, but that didn’t upset me, because the shelf with goods in the thrift shop on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya was never empty, and it was full of “Panasonic,” “Grundig,” “Philips,” “Toshiba,” and all sorts of others, the appearance of which in my homeland would have caused delight in the boys and would raise my authority to unprecedented heights.

The joy of the purchase was short-lived. My youthful heart could not stand it, and I turned on the glittering miracle in the barracks in the presence of my fellow students. The whole course came running with the admiring exclamations to watch and to listen the tape recorder. We listened to music, shared our impressions, discussed the problems of the domestic radio industry. And in the morning, I did not find even a trace of my purchase. The tape recorder disappeared into the dark of the night, sort of like it never was. Attempts to purchase foreign equipment again I no longer made until the end of my studies. Then there was a release, and my military service began.


In Transbaikalia, things were bad. An officer’s hostel with bedbugs and souls with occasionally disappearing hot water did not contribute to increasing the authority of the space forces. The meager menu of the officer’s canteen has instilled a strong dislike for rice, lard, and all derivatives of these products: plov, pork cutlets, rice porridge with pork sauce and the like. All these crafts very much did not look like indicated in the menu. Other dishes were too rare in the canteen. The transmissions about the regular congress of the CPSU*********** with its reports on the achievements of the USSR, the rare broadcasts of sporting events, and the ancient films in the officers’ club did not brighten up dismal Siberian evenings: the military people spent their leisure time as how they could.

One of my new acquaintances was Major Valeriy Khlopotov, an officer near the retirement age of 42-43. According to old-timers, in his youth, Valera led a fairly free lifestyle, did not go to drills or weat his uniform, and therefore his superiors repeatedly bypassed him in promotions. Having lost all hope of obtaining a position and the rank of lieutenant colonel, Valera, in turn, began to openly skimp on the military service and performed it only so as not to give reason to bring himself to criminal responsibility. But this was not supposed to be—Khlopotov had positive qualities—after spending many years at the same service place, he thoroughly studied the technique assigned to him. No one could find the fault or the cause of the failure faster than him. The authorities knew about it. Valera could be pulled out at any time of the day when the situation became critical, even if he was fairly drunk on alcohol. Valera was eager to transfer to the Crimea or to the Moscow region, but the commanders of the military units there, who had heard about his zeal for the service, rejected him, and the commander of our unit, reading out the next “trap” of the personnel’s officers, made a helpless gesture and sympathetically advised him to change his attitude to performance of duties. Having received another refusal, Valera began to cuss terribly and arranged a funeral for an unfulfilled dream, after which he did not go to service for a couple of days.

The second feature of Khlopotov was a passion for the theory of probability. We often saw him with books about this science, but we thought it was a whim, until Valera suggested we collectively play Sportloto.************ We dropped off our money—who could—and Valera went to the regional center for the cards. We did not become millionaires, but the amount of the prize exceeded the amount of the invested funds, and this was encouraging. We added more money, and Valera again drove off to the city. The result exceeded our expectations somewhat: Valera returned us a part of the invested funds.

In our gambling company began to join the new players who had heard about the successful system. The fun did not last long. The rumor about the lottery winners reached the commander, the head of the political department, and the special officer.************* Commanders and сhiefs began to drive Valera and the programmer around by the offices of management, to “sausage” at service, party and Komsomol meetings at various levels the simple officers, lottery participants. Commanders tried not to touch me and other young lieutenants. We were protected by an order of the Minister of Defense that in the first year of the officer service, young lieutenants could not be punished.

Most of all got to the programmer, Senior Lieutenant Shurik Tsvetkov. He was accused of greed, unworthy of a Soviet officer, and of using official computers for personal purposes. It is not known how this would end for Tsvetkov, but a unit came to a request for an officer for further service in Kamchatka as the commander of an operational technical company; that is, the chief of soldiers of plumbers and electricians, and, as a rule, slobs. The second disadvantage of this position was its low category: “captain.” But there were undoubted advantages: double salary, double experience of service and, in the case of a successful course of affairs, the opportunity to serve more than three years in a privileged area. Shurik, heeding the wishes of the command and taking into account the deteriorated relations with the authorities, abandoned the programmer’s position and agreed to go to Kamchatka to command OTC.


Gradually, the storm of separation and scolding subsided, but Valera suddenly shook with the unpredictable event not only of our military unit, but also all the space forces. It happened like this.

The flight schedule of foreign satellites within the range of our antennas was known in advance. We could just ascertain from the commander of the duty shift the estimated coordinates and time of appearance of foreign vehicles in our sky, put the antennas in the required mode, and entertained ourselves by measuring the azimuth, elevation and range to the foreign board. We were not punished for it and were not encouraged—have fun, guys—everyday life!

It was more difficult another – to control someone else’s satellite. If, during the usual measurement of parameters—range, azimuth and elevation—we worked in the so-called “passive” mode—the cosmic wanderer did not respond to us, and we carried out all the measurements ourselves using our reflected signal, then to control the operation of the satellite, we needed “active” mode, the mode in which the board opened and the satellite responded to commands sent to it from the ground.

This was a very difficult matter. To develop the program, it was necessary to know the satellite control commands. In the manual mode, we were not able to transmit them too much, even if operators were preparing them in advance on punch cards. Each satellite had its own 128-bit and 256-bit commands; there was nowhere to read about them or to find their descriptions.

The situation was aggravated by the fact that the signals were encrypted. It was impossible to open the board without knowing the commands and the encryption codes; they were the secret behind the seven locks. We did not know not only foreign codes, but even ours. Programs to bookmark the board came to us via communication lines from the control center, located in the Moscow region, and immediately went to the satellite. We worked as a repeater with our boards and practically did nothing manually.

However, the wrong actions of the calculations sometimes happened. There were also emergency situations associated with equipment breakdown or force majeure natural phenomena.

Once, the antenna tuning was destroyed by a train passing on the rails and sparking its high-voltage contacts. It should be honestly admitted that the officer in charge of the calculation was negligent in performing his duties: he confused the azimuth and elevation angle, and as a result, the antenna did not look at the heavenly firmament, but at the residential town of the aircraft factory, and between it and us, the Trans-Siberian Railway passed. The receiver reacted to the electromagnetic field created by the railway caterpillar and led the antenna behind a sparkling garland, ignoring the transcendental target.

Such situations could lead to a violation of the communication session with the satellite, to the so-called breakdown of a satellite circle, which, in turn, entailed official proceedings and punishment of all those involved. Army chiefs love to punish their subordinates, especially if the object of punishment was not a flunky or corrupt.

But the breaks of turns were a very rare thing: programs for interaction with satellites were created in a closed  scientific research institute, in the process of which they were repeatedly tested on mockups, then on instructional training satellites, and only after that they were allowed into real communication. Therefore, manually closing the board is very rare.


That shift, we were on duty with Valera together. We were lucky: at night there were no working turns according to the plan, and the station was on standby. It should be noted that structurally the main knots of the station were duplicated: the equipment consisted of two computers of type M-222, two receivers, two transmitters, and two antennas located on the roof of the building and covered with radio-transparent domes. We tuned in one set and launched it in standby mode, in readiness, if necessary, for immediate communication with any satellite. The second set of it saddled Valera. He took out a pre-cooked deck of punch cards and began to read them into the computer.

I watched with interest the actions of my partner: I was attracted by the opportunity to learn a new programming language and use it in practice. But I was even more interested in the algorithm for forming the command and the cipher. Of course, during our studies, we all studied this, passed tests and exams, but that was theory and this was practice. Valera developed the algorithm himself: it was his know-how, he did not advertise it, did not explain, but did not hide from me. I fumbled with the pile of sheets he brought. Occasionally, he looked at me, and an ironic smile wandered across his face.

Then he laid out on the control panel leaves with the coordinates and time of flight of foreign satellites, and with ecstasy clicked on the keys. I sat next to and read the texts of the programs developed by my colleague. Valera was preparing for demobilization and did not hide from me the secrets of the profession: he saw in me his successor.


Satellites were flying by. The silence in the room, the blinking of the yellow indicators of the scoreboard acted hypnotically. Time has passed for midnight; I began to nap. At first, I thought I was dreaming all this. Suddenly, the green panel of one of the screen segments blinked, a buzzer signal was heard immediately: the index of a foreign satellite appeared on the display panel and the inscription “board is open.”

“Opened!” roared Valera. “The board has opened!”

He began to promptly enter commands, but the work slowed down: each time, the words “unknown command” appeared on the screen, and next to the green panel, a red signal lit up with a warning that the connection with the satellite would soon be completed.

Valera introduced the last deck of punch cards and waved his hand in a doomed manner. Telemetry showed that the distance to the satellite increases, and the elevation angle decreases. The board, although it was open, went beyond the horizon…

We were ready to say goodbye to the heavenly wanderer, but suddenly, the computer screen flashed with various combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols. We began to worry. A few seconds later, on the information panel appeared: “the command was accepted,” and then, “the command was completed.” The distance to the satellite almost froze, and the elevation angle began to rapidly decrease and fell to zero.

“I landed the satellite!” Valera roared again. “I landed it!!!”

So Major Valery Khlopotov “dropped” the foreign satellite.


Half an hour later, an urgent order came from the flight control center: turn off the equipment and arrive at our duty officer in the unit. There, we were already waiting for a special officer. He put me and Valera on the chairs near his office and began to periodically summon us for a conversation. His main questions were those where we took the codes of commands and encryption of a foreign satellite, and the most important of them: what information we would like to transfer abroad. A special officer interrogated me and Valera in turn, me first.

The possibility of transferring information abroad did not occur to me. If about codes and encryption, I was still able to babble something justifiable, then the transfer of information plunged me into a stupor. The special officer, seeing this, took me to a small room adjoined to his office, gave me a few sheets of paper, a pen, and recommended writing a confession.

I listened to him, dumbfounded, and he looked at me like a boa on a rabbit and, apparently, was already looking forward to the next rank and promotion. Having seated me at a small table, the special officer returned to his office and caused Valera.


A few minutes later, I heard Valera’s laughing and him using foul swearing in the address to the special officer. And also a few minutes later, the events took on such a character that I forgot why I was brought to a separate room and forced to write. The crash of falling furniture and the cry of a special officer made me jump up from the chair and look into the office.

The Specialist and Khlopotov were running around the table, never taking their eyes off each other, and it was not clear who was chasing whom. The chair of the special officer and the chair on which Valera was sitting were lying on the floor, a pistol lying around in the corner of the room. Pencils and pens from a writing set that had previously been on the table were scattered on the floor. All this splendor of disorder covered the disheveled and scattered sheets of the calendar.

The Specialist and Khlopotov belched at each other with foul language. When he saw me out of the corner of his eye, the special officer ordered me to help him arrest Khlopotov, and Valera asked to help him catch “this creature in order to pull out her tongue.”

I did not want to catch Khlopotov or tear out the language of the special officer. I jumped out into the corridor and began calling the duty officer. In the night silence of the small headquarters, my cry echoed through the booming corridor, and after a few seconds, the duty officer and his assistant were already dragging the fighters away in different directions.

Taking advantage of the turmoil, I picked up a pistol lying in the corner. The duty officer sent Khlopotov into one end of the corridor, and his assistant passed the a special officer to the other. They told me to go down to the duty room and to respond to the calls.


The duty room was quiet. The clock showed morning, the beginning of the 4th. The phone rang. It was a straight line between the duty officer and the commander of the unit, and it was parallelized with the commander’s office and apartment. Having a little thought, I decided to pick up the phone: we must not leave the commander unaware of any situation.

“So what’s up with these nerds?” the colonel asked categorically.

“You about what?” I did not understand who he was talking about, I was taken aback and realized that he already knew about the tussle.

“Who is near the phone?” Now the commander was taken aback.

“Lieutenant Klyaus!” I introduced myself.

“Klyaus, fuck your mother, what are you doing in the duty room? Why did you pick up the phone?” roared the commander. “The duty officer is where? Assistant?”

“Comrade Colonel! They pulled apart Khlopotov and the specialist!”

“What do you mean “pulled apart”? Did they have a brawl?”

“They’re still brawling,” I blurted out.


* GUKOS (Russian: ГУКОС, an abbreviation of Главное Управление КОсмических Средств): Main Space Administration.

** Odessa-mom: slang name for the city of Odessa.

*** Unearned income: in the USSR, for certain activities that did not contribute to the creation of material values, it was forbidden to receive a monetary reward. Gambling and billiards were particularly prosecuted.

**** The commission store at Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street: in Soviet times, it was a famous store selling used foreign goods and items, often brought in specifically for resale by people who had the opportunity to travel abroad. It should be clarified that ordinary citizens of the USSR could not go abroad without special permission.

***** GUM (Russian: ГУМ, an abbreviation of Государственный Универсальный Магазин, literally “Main Universal Store”): one of the main department stores of the former Soviet Union, known as State Department Store.

****** TsUM (Russian: ЦУМ, an abbreviation of Russian Центральный Универсальный Магазин, literally “Central Universal Store”): one of the main department stores of the former Soviet Union, known as Central Department Store.

******* State price: in the Soviet Union, prices were set by the state.

******** Brezhnev’s rubles: under different leaders, Soviet rubles had differing levels of purchasing power.

********* Komsomol: the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League.

********** CSKA: the Alexander Gomelsky Universal Sports Hall CSKA, also known as USH CSKA and formerly known as CSKA Palace of Sports, is a multi-purpose indoor sporting arena in Moscow, Russia.

*********** CPSU: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

************ Sportloto: the most popular of the state lotteries in the USSR. The first edition of Sportloto was held on October 20, 1970 in the Moscow Central House of Journalists; the profits from the raffles (half of the ticket sales) were spent on financing Soviet sports. In the drawing there were one and a half million tickets. The winner was a Muscovite whose profession (engineer-economist) was directly related to numbers. Her winnings amounted to 5,000 rubles, equivalent to three years of wages for a Soviet engineer, 62 pairs of imported women’s boots, or the cost of the new Moskovich car. When interest in the lottery began to fall, the winners who won the main prize of 10,000 rubles would receive an additional bonus: the right to an extraordinary purchase of a Volga car. Prize-winners living in rural areas of their choice could buy the Volga or the Soviet Niva SUV. Due to a shortage of passenger cars in the USSR, this sparked interest in the lottery. Officially, it was believed that state lotteries contributed to the development of Soviet society and were not gambling.

************* Special officer: in the USSR, an officer of a special department that dealt with issues of political loyalty and state security. In military units, the specialist did not submit to the commander of the unit and occupied a separate position.


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