Origin of the Soviet rocket industry


Quick links around this page:

Searching for a boss

The "discovery" of the secret rocket development program in Germany posed an unexpected dilemma for the Soviet officials, overseeing trophy-seeking activities in Germany. In the chaos and confusion of the first weeks of the Soviet occupation of Germany, representatives of different Soviet industries were taking possession of German "know-how" and hardware they were familiar with or could find useful back in the USSR. However, the extensive rocket development infrastructure of the Nazi Germany hardly had any equivalent institution in the Soviet industry. As a result, the valuable rocket secrets were getting dispersed by the competing teams of trophy seekers from various industries.

It was clear that rocket technology, as the new field for the Soviet industry, needed a government institution, which could consolidate recovered rocket trophies and employ them in the future.

Aviation industry (NKAP) attitude

The most logical candidate for the "adoption" of the German rocketry would be the aviation industry. Rockets and aircraft share numerous technologies and it was a usual practice for aviation institutions around the world to develop rocket technology. In the USSR, the NII-1 research institute of of the aviation industry conducted original studies of the A-4 recovered in Poland. This organization employed a number of rocket enthusiasts, who survived Stalin's purges of the 1930s.

By 1945, NII-1 engineers like Chertok and Isaev, who already realized the scale of German advances in the field, appealed to the new director and their scientific boss General Bolkhovitinov to start a methodical search for the rocket technology in Germany. However, they met little understanding in the Ministry (Commissariat) of Aviation Industry, a government body, which oversaw their institute.

The commissariat's officials were mostly concerned with collecting advanced German tooling and machinery and acquiring jet-engine technology for fighter aircraft -- a "weak spot" of the Soviet military aviation.

With the help of his friends, Boris Chertok arranged a meeting with General Nikolai Petrov, director of Scientific Institute of Airplane Equipment (NISO). Chertok tried to convince Petrov in the importance of acquiring German high-tech materials before they were dispersed among other institutions or destroyed by the army.

In the mid-April 1945, the director of NII-1 Bibikov informed Chertok that he was included in a group of 10 people led by Petrov and bound for Germany. They left Moscow on April 23, 1945. The official purpose for the trip was the search for valuable avionics, radar equipment and aviation armaments. The engineers, all dressed in military uniforms, were instructed by their bosses from the Aviation Ministry not to get involved too much into collecting design ideas and documents, but first of all to register tooling and machinery! (58)

Munitions industry (NKB) involvement

Another potential "refuge" for the rocket technology could be within the industry of munitions, NKB, led by Boris Lvovich Vannikov. (18)

During 1945, Vannikov did make a number of steps to build a base to accommodate the rocket program. Vannikov considered the creation of a rocket organization "of his own," which could "back up" the development of rockets within the aviation industry. On March 19, 1945, the government approved the idea, creating GTsKB-1 development bureau within NKB.

The first known document concerning removal of German rocket technology was issued by GKO on May 31, 1945 under title "On conducting work for search and removal of industrial and laboratory equipment, blueprints and experimental articles of German reactive projectiles." According to this decree, the representatives of the Special Committee, including M. Z. Saburov, P. M. Zernov, P. S. Kuchumov and K. S. Gamov, were charged with the organization of the search for hardware and blueprints of the German "reactive projectiles" and transferring them under jurisdiction of the munitions industry, NKB. (170)

NKB-NKAP bickering

In the meantime, back in Moscow, the industrial bureaucracy remained uncertain whom to delegate the responsibility for the German rocket legacy, or as one veteran of the industry put it "on whom to hang this yoke." (170) During his short visit from Germany to Moscow on June 12-14, 1945, Chertok tried to get a clue from his boss Bolkhovitinov, which government institution might take responsibility for the A-4. In his memoirs, he quotes Bolkhovitinov as saying: "Nobody needs A-4. There is a need for jet aviation... And as soon as possible. Missiles are in the future, but the commissariat believes, this is not of their business." (58)

On June 14, 1945, Chertok returned to Germany accompanied by the chief-engineer of the NII-1 N. V. Volkov and professor from Moscow Aviation Institute, MAI, G. N. Abramovich, still having no idea about the ultimate fate of missile recovery efforts in Germany or the institutional jurisdiction of any future rocket development program.

Nevertheless, in July 1945, apparently with Stalin's and Malenkov's blessing, GKO assigned the minister of aviation industry Shakhurin to chair a special commission, which would make proposals on the organizational structure of the future rocket program.

On July 19, 1945, Vannikov, reported to GKO, that German reactive projectiles, and especially large and long-range missiles like A-4 go beyond the jurisdiction of a single government institution, but rather cover a broad range of industries, such as electrical industry, engine development, pipe manufacturing, heavy machine building etc. (170)

Yet, on July 23, 1945, NKB presented the commission with a draft of a decree, which called for creation of three development bureaux specialized on missiles of different ranges, and all under the jurisdiction of NKB:

  • GTsKB-1 bureau would be responsible for solid-propellant missiles with the range of 20-30 kilometers;
  • GTsKB-2 based at Plant No. 67 Mastyazhart would develop solid- and liquid-propellant missiles with the range up to 100 kilometers and, finally...
  • GTsKB-3 based at Plant No. 70 would "cover" "super long-range" liquid-propellant missiles derived from the A-4. (During the war Plant 70 was one of the major producers of the Katuysha rockets.)

NKB also proposed to organize a missile test range on the Caspian Sea, south of Makhachkala. For this purpose, in June 1945, Vannikov's deputy, Peter Nikolaevich Goremykin reviewed nine different areas along the Caspian shore, 80-90 kilometers from Makhachkala. The range was to cover 50-60 square kilometers.

The same proposal also called for the development of winged missiles by the aviation industry and launch systems by the armaments industry. (83)

GAU involvement

Later, on August 3, 1945, Stalin signed Decree of GKO No. 9716ss, ordering the formation of a special interagency commission on rocket trophies, which included representatives of the Chief Artillery Directorate, GAU; Munitions, Aviation, Armaments, Electrical Chemical, Ship Building and Mortar "commissariats." Lt. General of Engineering-Technical Service Lev Mikhailovich Gaidukov, led the commission. (170)

On August 5, 1945, the head of aviation industry Shakhurin signed final recommendations (N-22/3341) of his commission for the organizational structure of the future Soviet rocket industry. As proposed by Vannikov, the commission recommended to consolidate the development of short and long-range missiles, as well as antiaircraft missiles and rocket propulsion systems under Vannikov's "commissariat" (ministry) of munitions, NKB. In addition, the Commissariat of Electrical Industry would be responsible for radio and radar equipment, while the Commissariat of Armaments would cover optical systems, launch and calculating equipment and ground control stations. Thus, Shakhurin essentially avoided any major involvement of the aviation industry into the work on rockets.

As a result of these decisions, A-4-related technology, removed from the underground production plant near Nordhausen would go to the munitions plants, while aviation engines and related equipment, which was produced inside the same mountain to the Soviet aviation plants. (170) Plant No. 70 of NKB reportedly received A-4, Rheintochter, Henschel HS-293A and HS-294 missiles, Fritz X gliding bombs, and antitank rocket-propelled grenades. (83) In addition, 150 turbines from the A-4, radio control systems, 20 sets of graphite rudders and 25 test benches recovered in Peenemunde, were shipped to Plant No. 70. (170)

However, parallel developments on the world's stage soon would shift priorities of the munitions industry away from rocket technology. In August 1945, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, opening a whole new era in the history of warfare. The Soviet response was then predetermined -- an expeditious development of its own nuclear weapon. On August 20, 1945, Stalin signed a decree of State Defense Committee N9887, which gave Vannikov and his Commissariat of Munitions, NKB, a new major responsibility -- the Soviet atomic bomb. (72) The nuclear program would quickly become a priority for the munitions industry, yet as late as November 1945, the NKB still remained a candidate for the "adoption" of rocket technology.

On November 22, 1945, heads of various Soviet industries signed a letter addressed to Lavrenty Beriya, Stalin's right hand, proposing another version of the structure of the future Soviet rocket industry.

Under this plan, the main organization responsible for the A-4 technology was "upgraded" to the status of a State Union Scientific Research Institute No. 70, or GS NII-70, and, as the number implies, it would be still based at Plant No. 70 of NKB. The organization would include an 11-member group of the OKB-SD from the Aviation Plant No. 22 led by Sergei Korolev. Valentin Glushko was to assume the position of a Chief Designer.

The plans to organize a second rocket development center at Plant No. 67 had been abandoned, and instead the transfer of Branch No. 2 of the NII-1 in Vladykino from the aviation industry under jurisdiction of munitions industry was considered. Two test sites had been also planned:

  • Central Scientific and Research Range in Sofrino near Moscow, for short-range missiles;
  • State Central Range south of Makhachkala for testing missiles with the range exceeding 50 kilometers. (83)

Involvement of the Industry of Armaments, NKV

Despite these rather detailed plans and ongoing shipments of German rocket trophies to the organizations of munitions industry, the fate of the rocket development program would remain uncertain until spring of 1946. Yaroslav Golovanov explained such delays by the lack of attention to the issue from Joseph Stalin. (18) A terrifying Soviet dictator was well known for assigning responsibilities with a single "nod of his head," after which, any further discussions would be mortally dangerous for anybody. Yet, in case of rocketry, Stalin appears to be delegated the issue to his subordinates, particularly to General Gaidukov. The situation left room for further bickering between different industries.

By the end of 1945, Shakhurin's deputy Dementiev ordered specialists of the aviation industry in Germany to wrap up their work on rocketry and return home. However, General Gaidukov protested the decision and only Isaev and later Raikov returned to the USSR. (58)

In the meantime, the industry of armaments led by Dmitry Ustinov and until then specialized primarily in artillery systems, "probed waters" in the field of rocketry. Since government plans had previously gave Ustinov the responsibility for flight control and launch systems of missiles, some of the German rocket trophies had been earmarked for shipment to the Industry of Armaments. (83)

Boris Chertok in his memoirs explained that Ustinov had motivations to get involved in rocketry. He clearly realized limitations of the artillery systems and knew that Main Artillery Directorate, GAU, the main client of the Commissariat of Armaments, was interested in rockets, particularly as the antiaircraft weapons.

Town of Podlipki


On December 30, 1945, Ustinov singed an Decree No. 463 to his "commissariat," ordering the creation of a design bureau for the development of the "new technology" led by the artillery engineer Pavel Ivanovich Kostin. The new organization would be located at the Artillery Plant No. 88 on the northeastern outskirts of Moscow, near the station of Podlipki on the Yaroslavl Railroad.

Ironically, Germans had been involved in the history of Plant No. 8 long before anybody heard about rockets. (20) What's even more ironic this involvement has not been acknowledged by the official Russian sources long after the role of German engineers in the early rocket program was widely described.

The arteillery production started in Podlipki with the evacuation of an artillery factory from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1918, during World War I.

In the early 1930s, German armaments industry expanded Plant No. 8 to manufacture artillery systems. The effort was a part of a wider Soviet-German military industrial cooperation, allowing Germany to avoid restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.

In the face of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Plant No. 8 was evacuated to Sverdlovsk, Molotov and Votkinks, and, in 1942, its production facilities were occupied by the Arsenal plant, which itself was evacuated from Leningrad (St. Petersburg). During much of World War II, the site in Podlipki was used as an artillery repair site and it was upgraded with machinery delivered within the Lend-Lease agreement with the United States. During the same period, the plant received designation Zavod No. 88.

By the time Ustinov picked it as the new home for the rocket program after the end of World War II, the site in was reported to be in disarray and disprepair.

In December 1945, the original "rocket team" in Podlipki officially counted only eight people, out of 250 or 300-strong personnel officially designated as its staff, however this number would swell many times next year, as the Soviet rocket specialists were to return from Germany. (83)

On March 30, 1946, the technical directorate of the Ministry of Armaments sent Plant No. 88 a research and development plan, NIR, for 1946, which included the production of antiaircraft missiles and rocket-propelled artillery shells. In April 1946, an effort to rebuild the production of A-4 missiles was also added to the tasks of the plant in Podlipki.


At the beginning of 1946, the Soviet industry went through reorganization, reflecting changing priorities in the post-World War II period. On February 25, 1946, People's Commissariat of Armaments was renamed Ministry of Armaments. Concurrently, People's Commissariat of Ammunitions became Ministry of Agricultural Machine Building, or shortly Minselkhozmash. (176)

Final decision

In April 1946, Ustinov sent his deputy Vasily Mikhailovich Ryabikov to tour Soviet rocket research centers in Germany. Ryabikov and his associates met many of the Soviet specialists and saw a live firing of the A-4 engine at the German test stand in Lehesten.

One of the results of Ryabikov's trip to Germany was a report on missile technology, which was signed by Beriya, Malenkov, Bulganin, Vannikov, Ustinov and Yakovlev. It was delivered to Stalin on April 17, 1946. The document apparently contained further proposals on the organization of the missile development within Ministry of Armaments.

By the beginning of May 1946, Petr Kirpichnikov, Deputy Chairman of the State Planning Committee, delivered Lavrenty Beriya the analysis of the current work on the German rocket technology along with latest proposals on the future structure of the rocket industry. This time, Plant No. 88 was named as the home for the production of Taifun, Rheintochter and Wasserfall missiles. The plan called for testing of the missiles in the period between the end of 1946 and mid-1947.

Yet-to-be-identified organizations of the Ministry of Agricultural Machine Building, Minselkhozmash, would take responsibility for solid-propellant and cruise missiles. On the subject of the A-4, Minselkhozmash was expected to make further proposals. (83)

Decree of May 13, 1946

Most crucial decisions on the structure of the Soviet rocket industry were made in a top-secret decree No. 1017-419ss of the Soviet of Ministers USSR. The document signed by Stalin on May 13, 1946, distributed responsibilities for the rocket technology among several industrial ministries and created a special government committee on reactive technology, which would oversee the effort. (Similar special committees were created on the nuclear and antiaircraft technology.)

On August 9, 1946, Minister of Armaments Dmitry Ustinov appointed Sergei Korolev as the Chief Designer of the long-range ballistic missile, or Article No. 1 and on August 26 of the same year, Ustinov approved an organizational structure of NII-88, which included Department No. 3 within the insitute's Special Design Bureau, SKB. Department 3 would be specialized in long-range ballistic missiles.

On April 26, 1950, Ustinov issued an order approving the formation of the Specialized Design Bureau No. 1, OKB-1 within NII-88, with Korolev as its Chief Designer and specialization in long-range ballistic missiles. OKB-1, along with its production plant, was officially detached from NII-88 on August 14, 1956, with a Decree No. 310ss of the Minister of General Machine-building.


NKB: Narodny Commissariat (Narkomat) Boepripasov, -- Industry of Ammunitions)

NKV: Narodny Commissariat (Narkomat) Vooruzheniya, -- Industry of Armaments

NKAP: Narodny Commissariat (Narkomat) Aviatsionnoi Promyshlennosti -- Aviation Industry

MAP: Ministerstvo Aviatsionnoi Promyshlennosti -- Ministry of Aviation Industry


Boris Lvovich Vannikov, the head of the Industry of Ammunitions. Credit: 72

Dmitry Fedorovich Ustinov, the head of the Industry of Armaments circa 1944. Credit: 176


Aleksei Ivanovich Shakhurin, the Minister of Aviation Industry.


An undated photo shows the artillery plant in Podlipki, possibly around the time it was being converted into a rocket-assembly facility after World War II. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Two of multiple artillery systems produced at Plant No. 88 in Podlipki before its switch to rocket production. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak

Grounds of RKK Energia in Podlipki, where NII-88 originated in 1946. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


On Sept. 29, 1946, the collective of Glushko's OKB-SD design bureau moved from the City of Kazan to the aviation plant No. 456 in Khimki in Moscow. Credit: NPO Energomash


The construction of the first test stand near Zagorsk (Sergiev Posad) in June 1949. Click to enlarge. Credit: NIIKhimmash


An automobile plant in Dnepropetrovsk as seen in a circa 1944 rendering, was converted to missile production after World War II.


Members of the Chief Designers' Council in the 1950s (top) and in the 1940s.