They say that Russia is the motherland of conspiracy theories, and public reaction to the sudden meteor strike a week ago that stunned people in the Ural mountains, and injured more than 1,200, seems to be proving that true.
A survey published today by the fairly staid Moscow daily Noviye Izvestia found that barely half its readers believe the official report that the blast was caused by a meteor.
According to the newspaper, the other half prefer to believe in an assortment of bizarre explanations, including that the blast was a secret US weapon test, an off-course ballistic missile, a message from God, a crashing alien spaceship, or even an extraterrestrial trojan horse carrying a deadly space virus to wipe out the Earth.
"Our people remember the Soviet past, when news of disasters was concealed or lied about," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent Moscow polling agency.
"We have no scientific polls on what people think about the Chelyabinsk event last week, but it's safe to assume the majority of Russians accept that it was a meteorite. However, our past surveys show that up to 25 percent of Russians do believe in UFOs. A lot of our people just prefer not to accept the safe explanations they were taught at school. Even when all necessary information is available, they don't want to believe it."
An echo of a century-old mystery
Scientists insist that they already know most key facts about 10,000-ton iron and stone meteorite – now named Chebarkul, after a city nearest to where the largest fragments landed – that exploded over the Urals city of Chelyabinsk a week ago in a dazzling fireball that released 500 kilotons, the power of 30 Hiroshima A-bombs, about 15 miles above the city.
It was the largest meteorite to make contact with Earth since the vastly more destructive 1908 Tunguskaya event, which involved an estimated 50 megaton blast that leveled an area of almost 800 square miles, and flattened 80-million trees, in a remote part of central Siberia.
The Tungus event remains shrouded in mystery, and subject to many longstanding offbeat theories, in part because scientists themselves cannot decide what actually happened. The Chebarkul meteorite has yielded plenty of fragments in just a week of searching, some of which are reportedly already being peddled on eBay. But after many decades of intensive investigations scientists have yet to find a single identifiable remnant of the huge object a that shattered a wide area of Siberia a century ago.
"We already know that the Chebarkul incident was an asteroidal type of meteorite, meaning it was composed of rock and iron, because we have a sufficient number of fragments in hand," says Oleg Ugolnikov, an expert with the official Space Research Institute in Moscow.
"But Tungus might have been a comet-type, composed of ice and snow, which was totally consumed in the explosion and that's why we don't find any pieces of it. But it remains controversial, and the search for fragments goes on," he says.
But back in 1946 a popular Soviet science-fiction writer named Alexander Kazantsev proposed an alternative explanation, which has taken hold and spawned generations of true believers in Russia. In a series of popular books and novels, Mr. Kazantsev suggested that the huge explosion was caused by the crash of an alien spaceship, a theory which has been developed by followers in a wide variety of colorful directions.
Others have theorized that the Tungus event was caused by an "antimatter" asteroid slamming into the atmosphere over Siberia or even a small black hole punching into the earth.
One of Kazantsev's contemporary followers is scientist Yury Lavbin, who heads the Tunguska Space Phenomenon public organization in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, which has staged several expeditions to the site of the Tungus blast. He says another UFO probably saved Chelyabinsk last week from total destruction by an asteroid.
"In Chelyabinsk last week we had a mini-Tungus," Mr. Lavbin says. "In both cases there were two objects, and a UFO knocked down the second object. In the Tungus case, the UFO was itself destroyed. We know this because we've been to Tungus and recovered metallic fragments that are impossible to produce on Earth ... If not for the intervention of the UFO in the Tungus event, the Earth could have been plunged into a second stone age. I think we were saved again last week," he says.
Believers in this explanation point to a video that purports to show the UFO actually destroying the meteorite, now making the rounds on YouTube.
If not a UFO, then what?
For those Russians not steeped in Tungus lore, or unprepared to believe in UFOs, a wide variety of other offbeat explanations are available for the Chelyabinsk event.
Russian ultranationalist parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with a nod to the currently strained relations between Russia and the US, has suggested that anti-Russian hardliners in the US staged a secret weapons test over Russia.
"Nothing will ever fall out there," from space, Mr. Zhirinovsky told journalists. "If something falls, it’s people doing that. People are the instigators of wars, the provocateurs."
About a third of Noviye Izvestia's readers said they thought the meteor was actually a Russian missile test gone awry, or perhaps a falling satellite, which was covered up with the official story of a meteorite.
Inevitably perhaps, at least one leading Russian cleric has insisted that the meteor was a message from God, to remind us all of the fragility of life on this world.
"From the Scriptures, we know that the Lord often sends people signs and warnings via natural forces," Feofan, the senior Orthodox bishop of Chelyabinsk, said in a statement.
And from the trade union newspaper, Trud, the cheery suggestion that the meteorite could be carrying deadly viruses from outer space, possibly the work of malevolent extraterrestrial forces.
"These kinds of events always spur mysticism and give rise to all sorts of speculations. The UFO believers are an old one," says Lidiya Rykhlova, an expert at the Institute of Applied Astronomy in Moscow.
"Unfortunately we stopped teaching astronomy in our schools long ago; people are not equipped, or inclined to see these things in a rational light. I read recently about a survey that found half the population of the world believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. There you go," she says.