In the Upper Volga region of Russia, surrounded by swamps and evergreen forest, lies magnificent Lake Seliger, and at its center, Gorodomlya Island. In 1629 a rich landowner donated the island to a Russian Orthodox monastery, and for most of the three centuries that followed, Gorodomlya remained virtually uninhabited. Mid-19th-century maps of the island show the lone house of a forester. In 1928 the Soviet government evicted the monks and established a biological research laboratory. According to local legend, one of the defiant monks drowned himself in the lake, and his ghost has wandered the island ever since.
The region around Lake Seliger saw heavy fighting during World War II, and the laboratory was evacuated in the face of the German advance. By the war’s end, Gorodomlya had become home to numerous Soviet military hospitals, and was connected with the outside world by an underwater telephone cable. But its real claim to fame was the rocket research conducted there in the years immediately following the war.
It took Gröttrup and his fellow Germans days to reach the island from Moscow, but I made the trip in five hours by car. From the shores of Lake Seliger, I boarded a ferry that takes a half-hour to reach Gorodomlya. Not far from the pier is a gated entrance and a guardhouse. By the time I reached the gate, it was already under siege by a group of teens from our ferry, who were quarreling loudly with a female guard. Apparently they were here for a dance party at a nearby club, and some of them did not have permits to be on the restricted island.
As I climbed the road past the security fence, I could appreciate Irmgard Gröttrup’s feelings when she arrived here a half-century earlier: “So great was our curiosity about the island that we hardly noticed the dreaded barbed wire once we had landed. I think we were all too anxious to know what went on behind it.” At the top of the hill, the asphalt road took me around a white stone building marked “LIBRARY.” It used to be a café, which doubled as a social club for the Germans. The newcomers, it seems, tried to make it feel like home.
“The camp looks like an outsize toy village transplanted from Germany,” Irmgard wrote. “There are flowers in the touchingly well-tended gardens, and on the balconies, the windows are curtained and the washing on the lines is spotless.” More than 50 years later, a visitor can still find many houses at Gorodomlya surrounded by rose bushes, their bright flowers striking a dissonant note in that harsh landscape.
The German engineers and their family members could obtain permits to leave the island, but only for limited periods, and only with a Soviet escort. According to Valery Bukreev, a Russian engineer who has lived on Gorodomlya since the 1960s, the weekly trips German housewives made across the lake drove up prices at the local produce market. During winter the lake iced over, and the wives pulled sleds loaded with provisions. During spring thaws the trip became more dangerous, and Irmgard Gröttrup remembered watching Russians hop from one piece of floating ice to another.
Compared to Moscow, life on the island was primitive. The first German families to arrive had been given apartments with no bathtubs but plenty of bugs. (I learned on my first morning there that the descendants of these bloodsucking insects remain.) Eventually, after much bickering with the Soviet authorities and their own efforts on the weekends, things improved. In the summer of 1948, the Germans built a tennis court. “Even today,” Bukreev says, “the surface of this court gets dry in minutes after the rain, so well was it laid out.” The Soviets provided schools, which had 150 German students at one point, some of whom went on to college in St. Petersburg.
The real problem, though, was not the living conditions or even the lack of freedom, but disillusionment with the work. Gröttrup was pleased with the caliber of his German colleagues, who were well equipped and had more cohesiveness as a unit than he had seen back in Moscow. Although only a few had worked at Peenemünde, he quickly discovered a number of brilliant specialists on his new team: Joachim Umpfenbach, responsible for propulsion systems; Waldemar Wollf, a ballistics expert; aerodynamicist Werner Albring; Johannes Hoch, who led the team developing flight control systems; Alois Yasper, in charge of production; and Heinz Jaffke, who headed construction of launch facilities.
But politics worked against them. “There was a suspicion toward any foreigner in the U.S.S.R,” says Alexander Eremenko, a historian of NII-88, and the Germans at Gorodomlya were physically and intellectually isolated. Back in Moscow, Korolev was building a vast industrial network for rocket development, but the Germans were unable to test their concepts or even collaborate with anyone off the island.
Korolev was trying to push his own rocket design through the bureaucracy at NII-88. In many ways his R-2 paralleled the Germans’ G-1 concept. Both rockets minimized weight and added range. And both featured a separable warhead, so the rest of the missile wouldn’t have to survive the scorching heat of atmospheric reentry.