On September 27, 1938, one of the leading rocket scientists of the Soviet Union, Sergey Korolev, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in labor camps.
At the peak of Stalin's purges, many leading Soviet specialists were arrested and interrogated - with confessions usually extracted by torture or threats - and then shot or imprisoned. As part of Stalin's terror campaign, Korolev was charged with “counter-revolutionary activities”, despite being absolutely innocent.
After spending eight months in a transit prison, Korolev landed in a gold mine labor camp in the harsh Kolyma region of Eastern Siberia. However, Korolev got lucky. In the autumn of 1940, he was sent to Moscow for a retrial. By that time, he could move around only with great difficulty. Weakened by beatings and the camp's severe conditions, his arms and legs were swollen, and he had lost almost all his teeth. The retrial still found Korolev guilty, but instead of a labor camp, he was sent to a “Sharashka” directed by airplane designer Andrey Tupolev (also arrested in 1937).
A “sharashka” was a combination prison and research and design bureau. Those Soviet scientists and engineers who happened to be most lucky not to be tortured to death or executed ended up in these special prisons. The convicts were constantly under NKVD [predecessor to the KGB] surveillance, and lived in cells. Korolev took an active part in the creation of bombers (the TU-2 and the PE-2) and put together a project for the development of new rocket interceptors. In his “free time”, usually at night, the designer worked on a project of his own – a rocket for stratosphere flight.
In November 1942, Korolev was transferred to a sharashka in the town of Kazan headed by another prisoner, and his former colleague, Valentin Glushko. Both Glushko and Korolev were finally released in 1944. Korolev was only completely rehabilitated in 1957.
The years he had spent in the camps forever crippled his morale, and for the rest of his life he acquired a dim view towards life. “I'm classified in such a way that if they want, they'll shoot me dead without an obituary,” he used to repeat to his colleagues. And looking in the window, observing people who guarded him, he thoughtfully said, “It seems that right at this moment someone might knock on my door and say 'Korolev, you bastard, pack your things and come with us'.”
For years, the life and career of Sergey Korolev were kept a mystery as state secrets. The Nobel Prize committee appealed twice to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, requesting that Korolev be awarded and his name finally recognized. However, Khrushchev always replied by saying, “In the Soviet Union, the creator of new technology is considered to be our entire nation.”
Korolev's contribution to the space program was publicly recognized by the authorities only after his tragic death in 1966 at the age of fifty-nine. Korolev was the single most important figure in the Soviet space program of the 1950's and 1960's. Many remain confident that if Korolev hadn't died so soon, the Soviet Union wouldn't have lost the “moon race” to the USA.