The space kingdom of Asgardia How a Russian defense industry wiz built humanity’s first ‘extraterrestrial state’
In the 2000s, Igor Ashurbeyli was the head of Almaz-Antey, one of Russia’s biggest defense conglomerates. Owned by the state, the company manufactures missile systems, air-defense systems, radar stations, and other military hardware. Since 2016, Ashurbeyli has been managing an entirely different project: the creation of a new state called “Asgardia,” which he expects will soon gain UN membership and establish a colony on the Moon. Tens of thousands of people from all around the world have already registered as citizens of Asgardia. Meduza special correspondent Taisiya Bekbulatova learned more about how a retired Russian defense industry insider dreamt up his own “space kingdom” and why he believes it’s what the world needs.
Igor Ashurbeyli spent years working as the head of a major Russian defense conglomerate. Today, he’s a 54-year-old bespectacled man with a round, good-natured face and a gray mustache, and you’d never guess that he’s the leader of an extraterrestrial government. When we meet, he behaves like a spoiled child and refuses to answer any uncomfortable questions, turning to his assistant and asking, “Who is this person? What’s all this about?” Then he turns back to me and says, “I’ve forgotten parts of what you asked me.” After another question, Ashurbeyli gazes at the wall clock in his office and says with surprise, “The clock has stopped. There’s something wrong with you. Even the clock has stopped.”
For a whole decade, Ashurbeyli headed one of the largest enterprises in the Russian defense industry: Almaz-Antey. On YouTube, you can find footage of Ashurbeyli at a conference with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2009 at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, where Ashurbeyli says he’d like to see more state protectionism in the Russian defense industry’s personnel policy.
Ashurbeyli still works out of the same building that houses Almaz-Antey on Leningradsky Prospekt, where you’ll find the premises of “Sotsium,” a holding company he owns that also has ties to the defense industry. His office is filled with the rich mahogany of a serious person, but before visitors can take all this in, they’re surprised by a skeleton parked in the vestibule between the inner and outer doors. Ashurbeyli’s assistant says the bones are there to let people know that the office’s occupant “doesn’t hide his skeletons in the closet.” The skeleton “demonstrates openness,” the assistant explains, “which is the essence of the future world.” This was where Ashurbeyli — the former head of a defense conglomerate, a member of Russia’s Academy of Military Science, and the owner of a profitable business — recorded his appeal to the citizens of Asgardia, the “space kingdom” he created shortly after he left Almaz-Antey.
Asgardia now has almost 170,000 citizens from across the world, and Ashurbeyli says he’s determined to establish a colony in outer space. “In my lifetime, I want to create a permanent settlement on the Moon and fly there. Everything else is just adventurism, insofar as the issue isn’t even technology but physiology,” he says. “Humanity simply can’t survive in an environment of cosmic radiation. That’s why any talk about Mars is nothing more than idle chatter. I mean, yes you could buy yourself a one-way ticket, but that’s it. The Moon, on the other hand, why that’s something tangible, understandable, and nearby.”
The quiet boy with blue eyes
Igor Ashurbeyli was born and raised in Baku, he graduated from the Azerbaijan Institute of Oil and Chemistry, and in 1990 he moved to Moscow and became a businessman, managing a handful of co-operative stores involved in the development of computer hardware and software. To hear him tell it, he started with nothing — “without any support and without protection.” “The 1990s were a difficult time, and I lived through every bit of it,” he says. “I chose sides at gang showdowns and learned all the criminal slang. What else was I supposed to do? You had to survive somehow and find a way to make sense of everything happening around you.” Today, the holding company he created includes more than 30 enterprises, most of which produce weapons and military equipment. Some of his other companies develop information technology, manufacture medical and agricultural equipment, provide private security, offer banking services, and so on. One of Ashurbeyli’s representatives told Meduza that preliminary data in late 2017 put the value of the holding company’s total assets at roughly 10 billion rubles ($176.3 million) with an annual net profit of 900 million rubles ($15.9 million).
In 1991, Ashurbeyli’s company started working with the defense enterprise “Almaz” and in 1994 he was invited to become its deputy general director. Six years later, he took over, leading Almaz-Antey (as it was renamed in 2008) for the next decade. Over time, Ashurbeyli became one of the most visible figures in Russia’s military industrial complex. Considered an excellent manager under crisis, he’s credited with putting Almaz back on the map after it fell on hard times in the 1990s. Under Ashurbeyli’s leadership, the company’s design bureau developed anti-aircraft missile systems that were highly sought after by foreign customers, providing Almaz-Antey with stable revenue and a top rating among defense industry enterprises.
Thanking him for his service to the company, Almaz-Antey’s board of directors fired Ashurbeyli in 2011. To this day, he harbors resentment against those who took away his job, and he’s angrily declared that he now has the moral right to move all his accounts and firms overseas and transfer all his earnings abroad. “I’m not going to hide the fact that I’ve still got the aftertaste of having been kicked out from my position as Almaz director. And my private endeavors today are far less extensive than the state projects I managed successfully at the previous stage of my life. It’s weird to be back at the bush league,” Ashurbeyli said in 2015. “But for my son, who’s 30 years old, being in management now at Sotsium is a wonderful chance to practice at some real work and take a few knocks.”
Today, Ashurbeyli doesn’t like to remember being fired from Almaz-Antey, and he hates it when people ask questions “picking at his old wounds.” Once he’s reminded of it, he gets worked up instantly. “There’s something called the S-400; it’s the pride of the whole country. I’m the person who made this missile system happen. Period. And as thanks they showed me the door,” Ashurbeyli says. When he was forced out, however, Ashurbeyli faced accusations that he was to blame for supply disruptions affecting the S-400 (he denies that this is why he was fired).
Ashurbeyli says he doesn’t rule out the possibility that everything turned out for the best. “There’s a TV near my assistant’s desk, and whenever I come through the lobby and catch a few seconds of whatever’s on, I’m suddenly made nauseous,” he says. “Of course, you can always and should always seek compromise. But when the space that’s left for compromise is only the head of a pin, then you’ve got to jump down. That’s what I did: I jumped down from the head of the pin. And thank God, otherwise I’d be tied up doing all kinds of garbage,” Ashurbeyli refuses to explain what he means exactly, saying, “I don’t want to talk politics. We’re not here to discuss that. If that’s what you want, go see [Alexey] Navalny.”
By his own admission, Ashurbeyli struggled with stress after he lost his job, and it became “necessary to find an escape.” That’s when he started building cathedrals, which he says brought him “enormous spiritual joy.”
“Igor is a deeply religious person and this wasn’t his first time participating in the creation and renovation of cathedrals. He has been wholeheartedly involved in serious charitable work for some time, with the blessing of the Patriarch of All Russia. The cathedral turned out just stunningly beautiful, so cozy and homey,” says former Accounts Chamber Chairman Sergey Stepashin, praising Ashurbeyli’s support for the construction of the Church of St. Elizabeth in Moscow’s Pokrovskoye-Streshnevo District. The weapons entrepreneur has also financed the construction of the Church of St. John the Baptist in the village of Khirino, south of Nizhny Novgorod, and he often introduces himself as a ktitor of the church. Ashurbeyli allocates a significant chunk of his time and money to Russian Orthodoxy, even acting as the director of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in Israel, as a doctor of engineering science.
Despite his reluctance to specify his grievances against today’s government, Ashurbeyli is nonetheless involved in politics as the head of the Party of Russia's Rebirth, which he says he inherited in 2015, following the death of his old friend, former Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, who founded the party. “I just had to grab this suitcase and carry it for two years with horror,” he says, explaining that the party tried to compete in regional elections but came away empty handed. “I basically poked the system, to test it. It works. We couldn’t break in,” Ashurbeyli says with a certain satisfaction. The party has attempted several initiatives, including an effort to promote public bathrooms as Moscow’s “national idea.”
Back in 2005, Ashurbeyli launched the “Citizens for Themselves” movement, and more than a decade later it’s still got nothing to show for itself. He says the movement is “in hibernation” and “working out plans” for better times in Russia. Ashurbeyli also says he’s no fan of Vladimir Putin, but neither did he forget last year to wish the president a happy birthday in an open letter published on his personal website.
At heart, however, Ashurbeyli is a monarchist. He’s said many times that Russia needs a constitutional monarchy, specifying that “a young tsar of about 40” would be best. He even claims that it was foretold in his youth that he would end up serving a Russian tsar (and luckily he has “aristocratic” Azeri roots, he loves to tell people). “The new Russian Sovereign will announce his ascension to the Throne with the blessing of the Patriarch of All Russia at the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem in … I’d like it to be in 2017, or by 2018 at the latest,” Ashurbeyli hoped in the summer of 2016.
Ashurbeyli devotes a great deal of attention to himself and his many beliefs. On his official website, you can read about his “worldview” as a “scientist, public figure, philanthropist, and industrialist,” and find his thoroughly detailed biography, where the chapter on his youth is titled “The Quiet Boy With Blue Eyes.” There’s also a whole section about his philosophical views, such as: “My soul’s office is the whole universe!”; “Russia needs altruists and romantics, not faggots and pickpockets”; and “You probably pissed yourself when you were a kid, but that doesn’t make you a bedwetter for life.”
Though a monarchist, Ashurbeyli makes time for Soviet nostalgia, too. “The bottle and the chocolate bar, not to mention the 10-ruble coin, have ceased to be a Russian-Soviet linkage. Nobody even remembers. The rotten dollar has replaced everything,” he complains, adding that the modern social order has failed because the people have surrendered power to “schemers without professional experience,” “phrase-mongers,” and even “bandits.” The Russian state, he says, has “grown obsolete and transformed into a vassal fortress for thieving Mamonite elites.”
Ashurbeyli’s many reflections on the sad state of modern civilization, including Russia’s bleak demographic situation, apparently drove him to envisage a new state all his own. At first, when imagining his future citizenry, Ashurbeyli had Slavs in mind, but the project soon grew global. And before long, even planet Earth was too small for this big idea.
“Humanity can’t cope with all its problems on Earth. It never could and it never will,” Ashurbeyli explains. “That’s why it was necessary to find the exact configuration and substance that would make this possible.” In 2016, the Russian defense industry entrepreneur found this magic formula in the “extraterrestrial state” of Asgardia.
The Earth: a bandit planet
On November 12, 2017, the American aerospace manufacturer Orbital ATK launched an Antares rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as part of a resupply mission for the International Space Station. Among other things, the rocket was loaded with a CubeSat miniaturized satellite weighing just over six pounds. Made and deployed into orbit by the private company NanoRacks, the satellite is called “Asgardia-1” and it carries 512 gigabytes of data from Asgardia’s first 1.5 million “citizens,” who could upload personal files (like family photos) when they registered online.
“I have a suspicion that this is the first mention of rap music in outer space, so maybe that makes me some kind of Gagarin for Russian rap,” joked a Russian musician named Leonid Popov, who decided to “make his mark on Earth’s orbit” by registering online, after hearing about Asgardia. “It just so happens that I was preparing to release my single ‘Interstellar’ around this time, and I figured it would be very symbolic to launch this track into outer space,” he says, “but unfortunately I couldn’t upload any audio files, no matter how much I compressed them, because of the limit on file sizes. In the end, I could only send an image of the album cover.”
The satellite has a scientific mission to fulfill (testing the effects of cosmic radiation on data integrity), but its real goal is something else: the creation of a new state born in the mind of Igor Ashurbeyli — small, yes, but entirely sovereign. Before the rocket ever lifted off, Asgardia already had its own flag, anthem, coat of arms, and “population.” What it lacked was even the smallest space where it could “have a state.” With its own CubeSat orbiting the Earth, Asgardia now — technically speaking — has the makings of an independent state. Once it separated from the International Space Station, Asgardia-1 entered a low-Earth orbit.
Ashurbeyli says he bankrolled the satellite entirely on his own, spending about €500,000 ($612,00) — ten times the normal cost of a CubeSat launch. The payment was in euros because Asgardia’s legal headquarters is in Vienna, which Ashurbeyli says he selected because Austria is a “neutral country” and because it’s home to the United Nations Space Committee.
After Asgardia assembles the governing bodies and agencies that will comprise its state infrastructure, Ashurbeyli plans to seek membership in the United Nations. “The UN will dissolve before Asgardia fails to gain statehood,” he says. “What is the UN, anyway? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Really, it’s a public organization that can’t recognize or not recognize a state. It’s bandits the Earth over — the whole planet. You stand on your little square of land with a knife in your hands and you say, ‘This is my state.’ If a neighbor disagrees, bang, you stick him. That’s how it works.”
Ashurbeyli says his main concern now is getting other states to recognize Asgardia in bilateral agreements. “If about five states around the world — I already know which ones — recognize Asgardia, then we’ll just walk straight into the UN building in New York and say, ‘Hello.’ And just let them try not to take us.” A source close to Ashurbeyli told Meduza that he’s counting on support from Monaco and Liechtenstein, among others.
Ashurbeyli unveiled his space kingdom at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at a press conference on October 12, 2016. He told Meduza that he got the idea while drinking a beer in Montreal after an international conference on space law, earlier that summer. He’s told other people, meanwhile, that he cooked up the whole idea while sitting in his office in Moscow. “Throughout time, the best of us have looked to the stars with hopes and dreams about a new happy world and a new celestial country,” Ashurbeyli said, addressing Asgardia’s future “residents.”
Ashurbeyli refers to Asgardia exclusively as a “state,” and he’s visibly annoyed when people call it a “project.” Whatever it is, Asgardia has attracted real people from around the world. Today, the space kingdom’s population — that is, the number of people who have registered online — is more than 168,000. Asgardia’s website proudly claims to be the 174th largest country on the planet — bigger, for example, than Kiribati or Andorra. In the future, once Asgardia has fully verified all its citizens, Ashurbeyli promises to issue special ID cards linked to individuals’ fingerprints and retinal scans. “The whole nine yards,” he says. For now, registration is far simpler: you complete a small form and agree to the Asgardian Constitution. Once that’s done, you can even vote in elections. A whopping 84 percent of Asgardians are self-reported men; 15 percent say they are women, and one percent define themselves as “other.” The space kingdom’s people are young, too, and just one in four “residents” is over thirty-five. On Facebook, posts linking to Asgardia draw hundreds of likes and comments, mostly in English.
One of the people leaving comments is Khassan Buchaala, a 36-year-old Arabic and French teacher living in Morocco. He also sent a selfie into space: a photo he took while fishing, which he says he hopes might make him outer space’s first fisherman. He says he decided to register for Asgardian citizenship after learning that its founder has a scientific background. “This is the first nation in history that’s had the goal of becoming a nation in space, or at least in orbit,” Buchaala says. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Any new revolutionary idea needs the devotion of people who believe the dream could one day come true.”
Thirty-one-year-old Asgardian Jason Mikhail Linney (whose dad was a big Baryshnikov fan, hence his middle name) lives in Australia. Jason says he likes Yuri Gagarin and “Star Wars,” and he hopes human beings soon learn how to mine precious resources from passing asteroids.
Twenty-five-year-old Jessie Mary Barnes is a self-confessed trekkie from Illinois. She says she signed up for Asgardia because she believes the colonization of space is key to overcoming overpopulation and resource scarcity, and carrying out needed socio-economic reforms. She’s even met up with some fellow Asgardians. “They look like normal people with the same dream as me: to leave the Earth and bring peace,” she says.
Some Asgardians have bonded over shared objections to the concentration of power in the space kingdom, complaining publicly that most of the state’s decisions are made without their participation. Asgard created its Constitution, for instance, by assembling a group of lawyers from around the world to write it, without directly involving the larger community, which upset many people. Lena De Winne, the executive director of Asgardia’s legal entity, told Meduza that “citizens” discussed the matter on the group’s website and on social media, and the lawyers writing the Constitution were given summaries of these debates. Nevertheless, many Asgardians still accuse the space kingdom’s leadership of “forcing through” its own norms.
According to its website, Asgardia’s Constitution was adopted with 72.5 percent of an unorthodox vote, where “yes” votes were counted directly, but the state only logged a “no” vote when someone visited the website and didn’t vote yes.
Despite Ashurbeyli proclaiming many times that Asgardians would be responsible for determining the shape of Asgardia’s government, the new Constitution establishes a kingdom and names him “Founding Father and First Head of Nation.” And this was actually a demotion from the language in the first draft, which granted him the right to call himself “Monarch, President, and King” and guaranteed lifetime immunity against prosecution. These clauses never made it to the Constitution's final draft, but Ashurbeyli did retain the right to appoint and fire both Asgardia’s chief justice and its attorney general. He can also veto the candidacy of anyone running for the offices of judge, prime minister, or head of the state bank, and he can dissolve the parliament on a whim and block any legislation. Ashurbeyli says he doesn’t think he’s demanding too much. “I mean ... the job is a joke,” he says. “Where’s my crown and who’s going to pay me a salary?”
Asgardia’s Constitution also creates a special government body called the Supreme Space Council, which operates under the control of the head of state and resembles something like a council of elders or the boyars under the tsar. The council’s members will be older “citizens” with special achievements. This collection of elders might sound like a purely advisory board, but the council actually has a few real powers when it comes to Asgardian elections.
The space kingdom doesn’t have free elections. After the head of state ages out (when he hits 82) or decides to step down, he has the right to name a successor. (When drafting this clause, Ashurbeyli apparently had in mind his nearly middle-aged son, whom he likes to call his “little baby boy.”) The parliament and the Supreme Space Council would then nominate their own two candidates. If everyone nominates the same individual, there’s no general vote at all. When it comes to choosing the head of state, Asgardia recognizes no self-nominated candidates, just as it recognizes no political parties.
What upsets Asgardians most, however, isn’t Ashurbeyli’s sweeping executive powers, but the age restrictions on public offices. You’ve got to be older than 40 to run for a seat in the parliament or become a judge, the head of state must be at least 50 years old, and state ministers need to be at least thirty-five. In other words, young people — the space kingdom’s overwhelming majority — are walled off from government. This could explain why Asgardia’s ongoing parliamentary elections have attracted such low turnout (currently just 6.7 percent).
Tellingly, one of the leaders in the parliamentary race for Asgardia’s English-language district (the elections are divided by language) is a 42-year-old man living in Malaysia named Ivan Rosel, who states in his anti-ageist platform that his “first aim is to represent the voiceless” by repealing the constitutional age limit on holding parliamentary office.
Ashurbeyli says he’s not against young people: “I believe in the youth. They’re creative. Let them think and let them change the Constitution. It’s very simple. An online referendum and the whole thing could be changed in a week. Maybe they want a dictatorship, or maybe they want a democracy.” Ashurbeyli’s faith in young people doesn’t extend to democracy, however. “Oh, Lord! Where did you ever see democracy? Give it a rest. There’s no such thing. It’s just a facade and a gimmick. It’s a con.”
Many Asgardians have already lost confidence in their cosmic project, apparently realizing that it never really belonged to them. “It seems Asgardia might be like Communism: a good system until humans are added to it, then it goes to hell,” Jamie Sharman wrote on the Asgardia General Office Facebook group. “I'm not interested in propagating some rich guy’s self gratification,” said another Asgardian. “I realized that for all the high-minded ideals, the citizens are the same, old people. It'll just be monkeys in space,” wrote Jonathan Neal, “doing all the same awful, selfish shit to each other that we already do down here.”
Ashurbeyli says there’s no need to worry about him overstaying his welcome as Asgardian head of state. “I’m limited by the constitutional five-year term,” he explains. “Because I still want to retire to the French Riviera, like Mr. Vladimir Putin.”
According to the executive director of the legal face of Asgardia, Lena De Winne (whose husband is the Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne), every single cent funding the space kingdom so far has come directly from Igor Ashurbeyli. “We’re not joking around here. This is the real deal, which makes it a costly affair,” Ashurbeyli says, while simultaneously denying that he’s an oligarch or a billionaire. Sources who have worked on the project told Meduza that Asgardia’s maintenance costs are about €200,000 ($245,500) per month, and Ashurbeyli doesn’t skimp on costs, holding all his Asgardian press conferences at Ritz hotels in different cities around the world.
Ashurbeyli says he hopes Asgardia will pay for itself eventually, though it’s still vague how that’s supposed to happen. Maybe the space kingdom will fund itself through blockchain technologies and its own cryptocurrency (dubbed “Solar”), or maybe it will rely on citizens’ startup business, or maybe people will even pay voluntary taxes. In Vienna, Ashurbeyli has also registered an investment company called Asgardia and allocated €1 million ($1.2 million) in seed money, which he says will grow exponentially through the open sale of shares to Asgardian citizens and investors. On its website, the space kingdom crowdfunds from its members, but this raises only “pennies,” and Ashurbeyli says he hasn’t even touched these resources.
All other attempts to raise cash, whether it’s been merchandizing or selling additional space on the CubeSat, have led to nothing or to legal problems, one source told Meduza. “I can’t conduct any serious [fundraising] activities, or they’ll accuse me right away [of trying to scam people],” Ashurbeyli says, complaining that some have already compared Asgardia to “MMM,” an infamous Russian Ponzi scheme from the 1990s. “That’s why we’ve got to be irreproachable.”
Next, Ashurbeyli is planning to create a whole constellation of satellites in place of the current CubeSat, whose estimated service life is just two years. He says Asgardia’s more elaborate presence in orbit could cost more than 1 billion rubles ($17.7 million), and raising this money will fall to the space kingdom’s future science minister. “As soon as I flip the switch on the state and all its institutions, why would I invest in the state? It’s the state that should invest,” Ashurbeyli explains. “But who invests in Russia? Nobody. And who invests in America? That state feeds itself, printing out dollars. Here [in Russia], it pumps out oil.”
The whole project relies on about 50 staff and 100 volunteers, says Lena De Winne. Former employees say they never had specific titles or duties. “Whoever jumped on board the flying ship and suggested changing something or took on whatever task, that was their job,” one source told Meduza, saying that Asgardia didn’t offer people formal contracts at first, but it paid staff roughly a third higher than the market rate in Russia. Contracts started appearing later, but not for everybody. The project has two directors: Lena De Winne, who’s responsible for communications, and Mikhail Spokoiny, the general director of Ashurbeyli’s Aerospace International Research Center. He’s charged with developing and managing the project broadly.
According to Meduza’s source, Ashurbeyli doesn’t interact much with ordinary staff. “He has demands for the product that are often vague or mutually exclusive, which is why it’s impossible to work there for very long,” says a former employee. “But he meets all his obligations to staff. I heard that he believes in magic numbers, and that he has his own magic number. Let’s say it’s nine. That means he might cancel a meeting, if eight or 10 people show up. But that’s probably the only weird thing you’d notice about him.”
The main problem with Asgardia, one source told Meduza, is that “the demands change too quickly. Today it’s one thing and tomorrow it’s something else that cancels out the first thing. [...] This is a startup being run by people with what amounts to Soviet work experience. At the beginning, they didn’t really understand several basic things about the Internet, and sometimes it felt like we were creating a product in 2001, not 2017.”
Another source who also worked at Asgardia was even harsher: “On the inside, the whole thing works like some rich guy’s toy. It’s total chaos: seven Fridays in a row and pigheadedness.” The problem, he says, is that “the founders stupidly have no real business plan, and the project’s actions completely contradict its goals.” For example, aiming to attract as many supporters as possible so it can “brandish its numbers at the UN,” the management adopted a “tyrannical constitution” that prompted an exodus of “citizens.” (In May 2017, Ashurbeyli announced that the number of Asgardians had grown to 180,000 people. Today, there are several thousand fewer.) The space kingdom, says one former employee, turned out to be little more than one man’s hobby, though “they never admit it anywhere.” “It doesn’t even compare to a sect because sects actually take care of everyone, so they don’t bail,” he says. “The money will run out, and that will be that.”
Ashurbeyli, on the other hand, doesn’t sweat these details. For him, Asgardia has its own meaning: “You’ve got to live out all your years, somehow. So you need to stay busy somehow. It gets boring!”