Businessman Wants To Trade Historic Soviet Spacecraft For Kazakh Hero's Skull

Buran spacecraft gathering dust in a hanger at the Cosmodrome Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Image credit: Kotomiti Okuma/Shutterstock.com

If you’re interested in buying a genuine Soviet-era space shuttle, then be prepared to solve the mystery of a Kazakh hero's skull. 

An ongoing feud over the fate of a Buran-class orbiter took a surreal turn recently when the Kazakh businessman who claims to own the space shuttle said he was interested in trading the Soviet-era artifact with Russian authorities in exchange for the skull of the last Kazakh Khan, aka Kenesary Kasymov, a 19th-century Kazakh liberation fighter who went toe-to-toe with the Russian Empire.

Dauren Mussa, a Kazakh entrepreneur, recently spoke to the Russian-language newspaper Caravan regarding the Burya orbiter and how its story has become intertwined with the mystery of Kazakh Khan’s skull.

The Buran-class orbiter was a reusable spacecraft designed by the USSR during the 1980s, designed to be a rival to — or arguably a copycat of — NASA’s Space Shuttle. While a handful of the experimental spacecraft were built, the Buran program only had a single successful test flight, completed on November 15, 1988. Just one year after this success, the Berlin wall fell and the dissolution of the Soviet Union quickly followed, meaning high-risk space exploration was not top of the agenda. The program was eventually canned and the vehicle laid unused in a decrypted hanger at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for years. In 2002, the hanger ceiling collapsed and the prized spacecraft was destroyed. 

Another model of the Buran orbiter, called Burya, which never saw a test flight, still remains intact in Kazakhstan, quietly gathering dust and graffiti in another hanger at the Kazakhstan-based Baikonur cosmodrome. According to Mussa, he fell into his possession of the spacecraft some 20 years ago and decided to keep hold of the relic to prevent it from being sold for scrap metal.

Mussa says that the Russian space agency Roscosmos has been extremely keen to have the Burya back in their possession as a matter of pride, especially since 2021 saw the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gargarin becoming the first human to journey to space. Mussa explained he would happily offer the Buran-class orbiter to the Russians, but only in return for Kasymov's skull.

Much like the remains of the Soviet-era spacecraft, Kasymov's skull is a source of national pride across the border in Kazakhstan. Kasymov was decapitated 1847 and the remains have remained in Russia since. This has long been an issue for proud Kazakhs who see the skull as a symbol of their national identity and independence from Russia. Back in July, former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked whether Russia could return the severed head of the 19th-century liberation fighter to Kazakhstan. This move stirred the old debate once more.

“That the head of our khan should become a museum exhibit in a foreign state would be a disgrace for the Kazakhs,” Zhasulan Musin, a resident of Nur-Sultan, the capital city of Kazakhstan, told EurasiaNet. “We need to return the remains at all costs and bury them with honors, so that Kenesary’s soul may find peace.”

There’s just one major problem: the skull's whereabouts are not known. Some suspect the head is stored deep in the archives of one of two museums in Saint Petersburg, but both museums have denied this. Who knows how this diplomatic gridlock will resolve, but it certainly seems like Russia and Kazakhstan will continue to miss their prized possessions for some time to come.

 [H/T: Ars Technica]

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