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One small step for Hollywood? In Russia, denying moon landings may be matter of national pride

A view of Earth from the moon. (NASA/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In October 2015, Russian blogger and space enthusiast Vitaly Yegorov began crowdfunding for an ambitious project.

With help from aerospace engineers, he pledged to send a microsatellite to the moon and bring back the clearest images to date of the places where American astronauts landed as part of the Apollo missions, which first set down on the lunar surface 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969.

“What do you think, have humans really been to the moon?” began a text that Yegorov posted on the website Boomstarter. In a country where many deny the landings ever took place, he was confident the idea would take off.

But even Yegorov, who had for years heard Russians argue that the six Apollo moon landings were staged, was surprised by the reaction. Within three days, he had hit his target of 800,000 rubles ($12,725 at current exchange rates) to complete preliminary tests and acquire the licenses to go forward.

“I knew this would attract a lot of attention, but even I underestimated the interest,” he said during an interview in Moscow ahead of the moon-landing anniversary.

An opinion survey conducted last May by state-backed pollster VTSiOM found that 57 percent of Russians believe there were no lunar landings, and that the U.S. government made a fake documentary in 1969 about the mission. Only 24 percent of the poll’s 2,000 respondents aged 18 and over said they believed U.S. astronauts landed on the moon.

‘We’ll Go Check’

The Kremlin gives no official weight to such suggestions, which have been convincingly debunked by scientists. In 2011, President Vladimir Putin dismissed the idea as a conspiracy theory on par with the notion that the 9/11 attacks were organized by U.S. intelligence services. “You can’t falsify an event like that,” he said of the moon landing.

But even members of Putin’s government are prone to peddling the theory, whether in jest or not.

Last November, during a visit to satellite manufacturer Russian Space Systems, Dmitry Rogozin, who heads the country’s space agency, Roskosmos, spoke about Russia’s plans to land humans on the moon after 2030. Then he issued a dig at the United States.

“We’ve given ourselves the task of going there to check whether they’ve been there or not,” he said, smirking in response to laughter from the room. “They say they’ve been. We’ll check that.”

When John F. Kennedy set a goal in 1961 for the United States to land a man on the moon before the decade was through, the Soviet leadership also took up the challenge. However, parallel efforts to achieve a crewed landing by the U.S.S.R., which had beat the United States in earlier space-exploration milestones, yielded a series of spectacular crashes.

But even in the face of defeat, the Soviet leadership did not deny the veracity of the images transmitted across the world by NASA as millions across the world watched Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon’s surface just hours after Apollo 11 landed in 1969.

“We were there at Soviet military base 32103,” the Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, told The Guardian recently. “I swear to God we sat there with our fingers crossed. We hoped the guys would make it. We wanted this to happen. We knew those who were on board and they knew us, too.”

Ivan Moiseyev, the director of the Institute of Space Policy in Moscow, says Russians only began to embrace the “lunar conspiracy” en masse after the Soviet collapse. “During the Soviet era, no one denied it,” he says of the moon landings. “There was nothing at all written about the lunar conspiracy.”

‘They Beat Us In Hollywood’

But in Russia, the conspiracy theory appears to be gaining traction. In 2011, the last time VTSiOM carried out its poll, only 40 percent of respondents denied that American astronauts had reached the moon. Within seven years, that figure had increased by 17 percentage points.

Like many conspiracy theories popular in the country today, the one alleging that the six Apollo Moon landings were faked originated in the United States. It first surfaced in 1976, when a former space industry employee, Bill Kaysing, published a pamphlet titled We Never Went To The Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

But it wasn’t until 1997 that Kaysing’s claims began gaining traction in Russia. That year, popular TV journalist Aleksandr Gordon released a documentary in which he cycled through the usual moon-landing conspiracy theories and interviewed Kaysing, among others.

The documentary landed on fertile soil in a country that was still suffering from the effects of the Soviet collapse in 1991 and dreading the very real prospect of economic collapse. Even today, any “evidence” that the landing was staged and filmed in a Hollywood studio — as many “lunar deniers” hold — fills a niche for Russians, Yegorov says.

“No one wants to feel themselves a loser nation. So this denialism is not so much revenge, but it brings some calm to people: they beat us in Hollywood, but not in space,” he says.

For Moiseyev, Russians’ willing acceptance of the conspiracy theory reflects a drop in education levels, a theory supported by the VTSiOM survey, in which respondents with only a high-school education were most likely to believe there was no moon landing.

Moiseyev also cites the scarcity of quality information, noting the plethora of articles, books, and websites peddling fake claims. But he admits there’s another, deeper element to it.

“There’s a demonization of the United States that is left over from the Soviet Union,” he says. “Demonization in two ways: as the axis of evil, and as an almighty country that could do anything, including staging such an event.”

Russian state TV continues to periodically air programs that give air to the conspiracy theory, ensuring it remains in the public imagination. But Yegorov believes the recent spike in proponents of the notion comes also from a broader perception among Russians that the United States, and the West in general, cannot be trusted.

“It’s the result of government propaganda that forms the image of America as a lying nation,” he says. “People perform a kind of reverse extrapolation. Their current perception of the country is applied to the past.”

‘Playing Chess With A Pigeon’

Despite the early signs of a speedy liftoff, Yegorov’s crowdfunded project has proved hard to get off the ground. He tries to keep his donors informed on a regular basis of his efforts to move things forward, though he now admits he’ll need a lot more time.

And money, too: at least $20 million, he estimates, to complete the microsatellite and get it on a launchpad — so the $12,000 or so he’s gathered won’t quite cut it.

In the meantime, he continues to appear at space-themed events across Russia. When he was recently invited by a Russian TV channel to debate a group of lunar deniers and astronauts on air, he says the exchange dropped to such a low level that he walked off the show, which ultimately never aired.

Now, he says, there’s a view among space enthusiasts that members of the scientific community should not engage lunar deniers in debate, because it’ll lower the authority of astronauts and raise the authority of the conspiracy theorists.

“There’s a saying: ‘Don’t ever play chess with a pigeon. He’ll make a mess on the board, scatter the pieces, and fly off to tell everyone he beat you,'” he says. “That’s why we don’t debate them.”