1938 — 1940
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Why Korolev Was Arrested?


Accusations against Korolev were related to his work on the «powder-propelled winged torpedo» (missile, in today terms) that failed a row of tests. Thus, according to the indictment, «the state sustained damage in the amount of 120,000 rubles».

Korolev after his arrest. 1938

In addition, the NKVD investigators «established» that Korolev «was a member of a sabotage organization» and «carried out subversive work to disrupt the delivery of new weapons samples».

Korolev was also accused of attempting to assassinate Red Army command officers in order to undermine the defense capabilities of the state. Such crimes were punishable by death sentence.

«Death to Saboteurs», condemnation gathering at an orphanage. 1936

Korolev was not the only one who was arrested at the Reaction Engine Institute. Ivan Kleimenov, head of the Institute, and his deputy Georgy Langemak, who supervised development of the Katyusha rocket launcher, were apprehended in the fall of 1937. In March 1938, the closest associate of Korolev, the rocket engine designer Valentin Glushko, was arrested too.

Repair of «Katyusha» launcher. 1942
The Reaction Engine Institute was the brainchild of Tukhachevsky  Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who set it up and supported all the way. That was the true reason for the arrests.

Mikhail Tukhachevsky, along with several other top Army commanders, was arrested in May 1937 on charges of espionage in favor of Germany and of conspiring a plot to kill Stalin. According to the then-existing practice, most of Tukhachevsky’s subordinates, as well as anybody he had had contacts with on professional matters, were also arrested. Those included Kleimenov, Langemak (the one who coined the word «cosmonautics»), and, by extension, Korolev.

Mikhail Tukhachevsky addressing an audience. 1932

During the investigation, the charge of an assassination attempt was dropped, which was quite logical — at that time the missile had no guidance or targeting devices, hence, could not have been aimed anywhere or at anyone. That saved Korolev from the death penalty; instead, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison with confiscation of property and deprivation of civil rights for five years.

What happened to the torpedo

Who Denounced Korolev


The arrests in the Reaction Engine Institute began following the denouncements made by one of the employees, Andrey Kostikov, who knew Korolev since the time they worked together in GIRD. In his «letters» to the NKVD he named the main «saboteurs» — Ivan Kleimenov, Georgy Langemak, Valentin Glushko, Sergey Korolev, and others.

In 1938, Ivan Kleimenov and Georgy Langemak were sentenced to the firing squad.

Kostikov was Korolev’s supervisor at the Reaction Engine Institute, but did not excel professionally. Witnesses of those events shared more or less the opinion that Kostikov, being a mediocre engineer, just took advantage of the situation with the arrest of Tukhachevsky to get rid of his talented competitors. After Kleimenov and Langemak were arrested, Kostikov was appointed Head of the Institute. In that way, he made it to the list of Katyusha launcher creators, although he had not taken any part in this work. In 1944–1945, Kostikov himself spent a year in prison on charges of espionage and sabotage.

Andrey Kostikov

Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was executed by firing squad in 1937, as well as all the employees of the Reaction Engine Institute, including Korolev, were cleared of all charges in 1955–1957.

Labor Camp

After the sentence, Korolev spent eight months in the Novocherkassk transit prison. On June 1, 1939, he was sent to Kolyma to the Maldyak gold mine. About 500 prisoners worked there at the time. Korolev worked underground in pit-holes, digging into frozen soil with a jackhammer.


At the camp, Korolev had a lucky chance to meet Mikhail Usachev, who knew him well from days back. The man used to be director of the Moscow Aircraft Plant and was accused of the plane crush that killed the legendary pilot Valery Chkalov. His remarkable physical strength secured him the position of camp warden shortly before Korolev’s arrival, and he was able to place Korolev in the infirmary when the latter seriously weakened of overwork and disease.

There Korolev got much help from the camp medic Tatiana Repyeva, who, years later, met with Korolev’s daughter and biographer Natalya to recount many details of Korolev’s stay at the camp. Repieva did her best to help prisoners, especially those in such a precarious condition as Korolev. She cured him of scurvy, which in the camp setting could in a few months drive to grave even a strong and healthy man. There were no medicines available — scurvy was treated with raw potatoes and spruce brew, any other illnesses, with manganese water solution

Korolev retained a lifetime deep gratitude to his rescuers. In the early 1960s, already in the position of chief designer, he searched out Mikhail Usachev and hired him as deputy chief engineer of the pilot plant.

Korolev did not like to recall his camp experience. From those times he harboured a deep hatred of laundry soap and gold. He could hardly stand the smell of that soap, and all woman employees of his design bureau knew better than to wear gold jewellery at work.

Novocherkassk prison. 1970s
Maldyak mine. 1970s
Korolev’s camp mug

Who Tried to Get Korolev Released

Immediately after the arrest, Korolev’s mother Maria Balanina turned for help to her son’s good familiars, pilots Mikhail Gromov and Valentina Grizodubova, Soviet superheroes and celebrities.

Although it was very dangerous even for celebrities to petition for arrested «enemies of the people», Gromov and Grizodubova wrote several letters with a request to «deal objectively with the case of Comrade Korolev» to Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD. It is not known exactly how those letters influenced Korolev’s fate, but in 1939 the NKVD decided to review cases of a number of «saboteurs» who had previously been involved in military and defense programs so as to use them in their field of work.

Valentina Grizodubova. 1930s
Mikhail Gromov. 1930s

In November 1939, Korolev was ordered to be taken to Moscow for a retrial. Due to a delay in paperwork in Magadan, they failed to send him to Vladivostok on the last steamer that sailed before the winter storms. On December 12, this steamer, Indigirka, sank off the Japanese island of Hokkaido. All prisoners it was carrying died.

Korolev got to Moscow on February 28, 1940. The indictment was revised and it was ruled that Korolev was in fact responsible for the damage, but that there was no malice and no intent on his part to undermine the defense capability, and that he «was sincerely mistaken».

Korolev’s ten-year sentence was changed to eight years in prison. He was to serve the sentence in the NKVD special prison in Moscow, where an in-prison design bureau headed by Andrey Tupolev was located.

About the project


Georgy Avanyan


Natalya Akulova


cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko


Elena Matza


Natalya Makarova


Pixeljam Studio
  • Art director:
    • Aleksander Grigorev
  • Developers:
    • Dmitry Udovichenko
    • Dmitry Orlov
    • Daniel Denisov



  • Producer:
    • Artem Patyn


Studio Lastik


  • Actors:
    • Valeria Dorokhova
    • Alexander Vladimirtsev
  • Director:
    • Gleb Dobrovolsky


Elena Kuklina


Julia Baklanova


Anna Ulyanskaya, Alla Chetaeva, Victor Koreshev, Georgy Kulikov, Vladimir Derevyanko, Alexei Taranin, Natalya Bogoyavlenskaya, Maxim Makarov, Svetlana Alexikova, Dmitry Anzhaparidze, Dmitry Koshelev, Danila Koshelev, Ivan Karyshev, Arthur Salikhov, Mikhail Tatyanin


Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara for the filming opportunity

Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow for the filming opportunity on the territory of the Memorial House Museum of Academician Sergey Korolev in Ostankino


Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive



Yaroslav Golovanov, Boris Smirnov, Evgeny Ryazanov


Documentary footage:

«Pilot Shabanov’s Flight Moscow-Berlin (1920-1930)», «The Country of the Soviets Turns 16. (1933)», " May 1 Celebration in Moscow (1923)», «Sovjournal No. 64/173 (1928)», «Aero March (1934)», «Aircraft Inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1927)», «Into the Air Now! (1923)», «The Great Scientist of the Great People (1935)», «The Eastern Flight (1924)», «Socialist Village No. 3 (1935)», «Fighter Planes (1942)», «Airplane in the Service of Culture (1925)

Documentary films and stories (1960-1992):

«Korolev», «Conquerors of the Universe», «Columbuses of the Space Era», «Twenty-Five Years' Undertakings», «Documentary Filings of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov» — footage of cosmonauts in the TV studio, footage of flight preparation of the first team of cosmonauts


  • Dmitry Zilmanovich. Friedrich Tsander, Pioneer of Soviet Rocketry. 1966
  • Cosmonautics. Soviet Encyclopedia article. 1968
  • Pyotr Astashenkov. Academician Sergey Korolev. 1969
  • Vadim Shavrov. History of Aircraft Designs in the USSR up to 1938. 1978.
  • Irina Strazheva. Tulips from the Cosmodrome. 1978
  • Creative Legacy of Academician Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Selected works and documents. 1980
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Road to the Cosmodrome. 1982
  • Mark Gallay. With a Man on Board. 1985
  • Boris Rauschenbach. Memoirs about Sergey Korolev. 1985.
  • Academician Sergey Korolev. Scientist. Engineer. Personality. Creative portrait in recollections of contemporaries. 1986
  • Valentin Glushko. Development of Rocket Building and Cosmonautics in the USSR. 1987
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Korolev, Facts and Myths. 1994
  • Boris Chertok. Rockets and People. 1999.
  • Mikhail Rebrov. Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Life and Singular Destiny. 2002
  • Anton Pervushin. Battle for the Stars. Space Rivalry. 2004
  • Natalia Koroleva. Sergey Korolev, My Father. 2007
  • Anton Pervushin. 108 Minutes That Changed the World. 2011
  • Anton Pervushin. Sergey Korolev’s Empire. 2017
  • Korolev. Horizon of Events 1947-1965. Tender Letters of a Stern Man. 2019
What happened to the torpedo

Korolev built four prototypes of the winged torpedo (missile, in today terms). All that mattered at that stage was to ensure that the missile simply followed a set trajectory and did not explode in flight, so the development of targeting devices for it was delayed. Of course, a missile without any sort of targeting or control was not able to hit a target, on purpose at least. In fact, one of the missiles impacted as far off target as to hit the shelter from where military officers watched the test.


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