The Tyuratam Enigma

March 1, 1984

The Soviet Union refuses to recognize, and detests, the place-name designation “Tyuratam” affixed by the US government to the principal USSR missile and space test center. The name Tyuratam has long been accepted throughout the West, but has never appeared in Soviet announcements or publications concerning their deep-space and ICBM weapons programs.

The Soviets will really be disturbed to learn that their spaceport was named by a Central Intelligence Agency official using a Nazi map. This was not done purposefully, but rather because, in the 1950s, the Soviets wrapped their missile production and launch programs in the strictest secrecy, and the Nazi map was the most accurate map of the area available to the Americans at that time.

The US intelligence community inevitably became aware that the Soviets were constructing a missile test site somewhere south of the Aral Sea. But the exact location was unknown, and the site became a priority target for U-2 reconnaissance missions. The U-2 mission tracks were aligned along the main rail line in the area, and the site was quickly located. The mission launch complex was located in the Bet Pak Dala Desert, south of the Aral Sea, and near the north-flowing Syr Dar’ya River. The huge launchpad was located at the end of a spur extending come fifteen miles into the desert from the main rail line.

Logic of the Choice

As the chief information officer of the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretations, I also prepared the briefing notes for the Director of the Center and had a key role in the naming of all new installations. The name that I initially applied to a new installation was used to brief the Director of Central Intelligence, Congress, and the President. Once the President had been briefed on an important installation, the name would usually not be changed in order to avoid any possible confusion.

During the 1950s, it was the practice in the intelligence community to derive an installation place-name from that of a nearby town. The best available maps of Siberia and Central Asia had been prepared by Mil-Geo, the geographic component of the Wehrmacht. Tyuratam is shown on the map as a “Bf.,” for Bahnhof (railroad station), and is located at the point at which the spur leads from the main rail line into the desert. The spur probably led to a prewar quarry that, in later years served as the flame bucket for the first launchpad.

Tyuratam is fifty-seven miles south of the town of Novokazalinsk and forty-two miles north of Dzhusaly. Arguments were advanced by others in favor of either of these locations as the designation for the Soviet missile test center. I argued that the towns were too far removed and that, since the US was so open about its space effort, the Soviets undoubtedly would eventually make public the exact location of their missile test center.

My argument prevailed and the Russian center was officially designated as Tyuratam.

The Cosmodrome

A terse statement by Tass and Radio Moscow when the Soviets launched their first successful ICBM on August 26, 1957, afforded the Soviets and even better opportunity to place their own designation on the test site. Still, they refused.

To counter the Sputnik publicity, President Eisenhower directed that Western leaders be briefed on our knowledge of the Tyuratam Missile Test Center. The name now became firmly ensconced in the lexicon to records.

With the launch of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital mission on April 12, 1961, the Soviets referred to their space center as the Cosmodrome and reluctantly admitted that it was located in Central Asia. The soviets subsequently committed perhaps their most serious blunder with respect to Tyuratam when they began to refer to it as the Baykonur Cosmodrome. Baykonur, however, is 200 miles northeast of Tyuratam. Under the path of missiles launched from Tyuratam. This will still another attempt to confuse the West, although the Soviets were well aware that Tyuratam had been photographed a number of times by the U-2s and was, in fact, a prime target of the Gary Powers flight.

Sticking with the Story

The German map that I used has long since been declassified and is now filed in the Geography and Mapping Division in the Library of Congress. The name Tyuratam now appears on Russian maps — not as the large city it is, but as a small hamlet. The Soviets still insist, however, that their Cosmodrome is at Baykonur.

I’ve often wondered why they did not use the name Tyuratam to begin with. The probable reason is that they did not want to admit they had erred in their overwhelming penchant for security. It might also be because, in Kazakh, “Tyuratam” means “arrow burial ground” — hardly a good name for a missile test center. Tyuratam sounds bad enough, but “Baykonur” in Kazakh translates as “the master with the light brown hair.”

Mr. Brugioni’s by-line last appeared in Air Force Magazine in the March ’83 issue with the article “Hiding the Aircraft Factories.” During World War II, he flew sixty-six bombing missions and a number of reconnaissance missions over North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, and Yugoslavia. After the war he received a B.A. and an M.A. in foreign affairs from The George Washington University. He joined the CIA in 1948, becoming a senior official and a reconnaissance and photo-interpretation expert for the agency before his retirement.