Winds of glasnost that have scattered Soviet secrets from KGB management skills to the final blame for Chernobyl are airing another classified operation: UFO research sightings.
"For 25 years now there have been secret studies by the Ministry of Defense," says Marina Lavrentevna Popovich, a former test pilot with a doctorate in flight technology from the University of Leningrad who, almost overnight, has become lead spokesperson for extraterrestrial happenings over Eastern Europe. "They (officials) are beginning to open the archives, but very slowly."
Full and final release, she believes, will be a long time coming in a nation addressing the more pressing priorities of bread lines and civil wars.
"We think the reports will confirm about 14,000 contacts (UFO sightings) in the past 25 years," says Popovich, 54. She was in Los Angeles to speak at this week's Whole Life Expo that heard holists, gurus, channelers, metaphysicists and a speech by presidential candidate Jerry Brown. "But I don't think we'll find anything in the secret files to change the direction of our work."
Before glasnost , she says, UFO watching was neither safe nor easy in the Soviet Union.
"We had been researching UFOs for 25 years and talking about it in small groups, but underground. People who tried to talk in public about UFOs were either fired or put in psychiatric hospitals."
But now, in just two years, a Moscow magazine titled "Inward Path" has become a 50,000-reader forum for yogis, psychics, faith healers, ufologists and other bearers of formerly taboo news. More important, the monthly is printed on the presses of Pravda, the official government newspaper.
Such outing has brought absolute freedom of speech for Popovich and her army of "tens of thousands of scientists, academics and lay volunteers" devoted to close encounters of any kind.
They, like her, believe there are too many sightings, too many unexplained visitations to not believe in an extraterrestrial intelligence struggling to communicate with our planet. The argument that such highly sophisticated ETs should have little difficulty making direct and unmistakable communication with primitive earthlings does not wash with Popovich.
"The bottom line of these multiple contacts is: 'We are not going to give you our technological information until you raise your spiritual and moral levels on Earth,' " she says. "And the only way to raise them is with unity, as one Earth together to reducing negative feelings, pollution and other detrimental-based energies."
She is equally firm in other beliefs:
* The inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, the writings of Jules Verne and now the science fiction of Ray Bradbury were and are technology transmissions from outer space using the three men as mediums. Or maybe they were, and are, messengers from outer space.
* Only 10% of all UFO sightings have significance. The rest can be explained as hallucinations, space debris, marsh gas, weather balloons, first ascendancy stars and Friday-night vodka parties.
* Skeptics pose no threat to serious students of ufology because "in Russia they once criticized cybernetics as a rotten bourgeois pseudoscience, as they once criticized genetics."
* And Soviet President Gorbachev could be an extraterrestrial front man because "he's an epoch-making phenomenon." She makes no such claim for President Bush.
Interviewed through three interpreters--one for technical terms, another for conversational nuances and jokes, and a third who said he used to be a major in the KGB--Popovich says her own experiences in space have been rather down to Earth.
As an air force colonel, she came within two finals of graduating from cosmonaut school. She was dropped, she said, after cosmonaut Pavel Popovich, the general she married, convinced officials that his woman's place was anywhere but in a space capsule.
Previously, Marina was a test pilot, living in Star City and flying the full Soviet aircraft inventory from AN-22 transports to supersonic MIG-21s. She holds 90 flight records and has been billed as "the Chuck Yeager of the Soviet Union."
It was during those test flights that Popovich's attention went from the skies around her to the Earth below.
"I saw rivers drying up, lakes dying, the whole ecological disaster," she remembers. "We were ruining soil for its natural resources, building ozone holes, creating dams that spoiled the dynamics of the Earth's rotation."
Economic activities intended to benefit a nation and a continent, she realized, were actually ravaging the ecology.
"I knew we would have to call a higher intelligence to enlighten us, to guide us through this mess," she explains. "So I started on a long, personal journey of discovery."
Popovich joined a safari in the mountain ranges of south Asia, tracking the Yeti, the infamous and Abominable Snowman that is fact to a scant few and myth to millions. She didn't get her Yeti.
But one dark night, says Popovich, "two giant hands grabbed hold of my daughter and tried to pull her out of her sleeping bag." The daughter saw nothing.
The next night, she claims, "a ball of light appeared . . . and three beams of light fell on the camp. It hovered for a while before zigzagging away at high speed over our valley.
"It wasn't an aircraft. It wasn't a helicopter. It was a UFO."
It also was a sign, Popovich says, to devote her post-military career to studying airborne phenomena.
In that work she writes, lectures, heads organizations researching anomalous phenomena and is proposing a series of television programs to contradict what she considers the UFO-busting propaganda of the PBS series "Nova."
Popovich also is aviation consultant to such groups as the Inter-Sectoral Scientific and Technical Center of Venture Non-Traditional Technologies, which addresses the theoretical, applied and technological problems of torsion field magnetism. (No television program is planned.)
Popovich does not believe that Twilight Zone experiences in the Soviet Union have been any more startling or detailed than events reported in the United States.
Our grocery store tabloids accuse the Air Force of holding mummified remains of a space being found in New Mexico. The main Soviet rumor, says Popovich, is of extraterrestrial metals found at a saucer crash site near Minsk.
We have a UFO Information Retrieval Center in Phoenix and Citizens Against UFO Secrecy in Alexandria, Va. They have the National Assn. of Ufology in Moscow and the Soyuz UFO Center in St. Petersburg.
Both nations, agrees Popovich, have stacks of photographs of glowing blobs said to be flying saucers. Crackpots who believe Elvis was kidnaped by aliens are not exclusive to America. And both sides have crops of the untalented who enter apparent trances and produce abstract paintings and oddball music.
Popovich believes these people are mediums--or telepathic cordless phones--who bring painted, printed and musical messages from space. She travels with samples.
"This is Los Angeles," she says of a small painting by one Soviet medium. It is in tempera and shows royal blue smog clouding a twinkling skyline. The effect is of fireworks over Las Vegas.
"This is the structure of the human soul," continues Popovich about another painting. It shows two clusters of eyeballs hovering in space like celestial frog spawn.
"This next one is a picture of the language structure of the constellation of Orion, believed to be the basis of Mayan," she adds. Or the basis of any Chinese menu.
As expressions, the paintings certainly may be accepted as personal interpretations. As a collection of art, they are very poor Dali.
Popovich wears an amethyst necklace that she says contains power to ward off evil spirits. She also wears a NASA watch that only keeps her safe from being late.
From her work, from her absolute faith, Popovich believes the Force is with her. Unfortunately, it hasn't carried through to her terrestrial life.
She is divorced from her cosmonaut general and says their differences were out of this world.
"I had the guidance," she reasons. "He didn't."