Missile technology and a cold flame, or what is so special about the Eternal Flame

Missile technology and a cold flame, or what is so special about the Eternal Flame
Photo: Photo by the Mayor and Moscow Government Press Service. Yevgeny Samarin
Throughout its 50-year history, the Eternal Flame has not been extinguished a single time. In this mos.ru feature, you will find out what makes the flame eternal, why it is orange, and who looks after it.

The Eternal Flame near the Kremlin wall, a symbol of Victory, turns 50 on 8 May. It has been burning continuously since 1967. Even when the Alexander Garden was closed for renovation, the flame was carefully removed and returned later to the same place.

How the flame is made eternal

The Eternal Flame burner was made at the Khrunichev plant using a unique technology. It relies on materials similar to those used in missile engines. The flame was designed, installed and set-up by Mosgaz experts.

The main task for the developers was to ensure that the flame never dies out. Water was poured over the flame, and a wind generator produced wind to test the flame for resilience, prominent inventor Kirill Rider, one of the creators of the device, recalls.

Of all the devices that were tested, the burner with three igniters was the one that showed the best results. If one of the igniters malfunctions, the other two keep the flame alive. Natural gas is channelled through a special pipe, goes through the igniters with thin electric spirals, and ignites into a flame. The spirals are under constant current, so even if the flame is put out by strong wind, it reignites instantly.

The other requirement was to have a high flame that would be visible at any time. Gas usually produces a blue flame, and Moscow residents know this all too well since many use gas cooktops. However, this flame is hard to see in daylight.

Developers were able to produce a bright orange flame by changing the gas-to-air ratio within the burner. When there is not enough air, the flame becomes red. The flame rises 50 to 70 centimetres above the ground.

Extremely challenging job

Gas workers continuously monitor the Eternal Flame with daily visual inspections and measurements when necessary. Routine maintenance is carried out monthly, and verification inspections are arranged ahead of major state holidays, such as Defender of the Fatherland Day or Victory Day.

There is an established tradition to have the most experienced gas workers from Mosgaz’s sixth department perform maintenance work. In order to ensure that the Eternal Flame lives up to its name, during maintenance the flame is transferred to a temporary burner using a special torch. Once this is done, gas workers dismantle the star from the memorial complex, clean any residue and deposits off all the parts, check the igniters and replace the platinum spirals, if needed. It takes about 40 minutes, after which the flame returns to this original location.

For some Mosgaz workers, keeping up the Eternal Flame has become a life cause. Great Patriotic War veteran and veteran of labour Viktor Volkov has been involved in maintenance of the flame since the monument was created in 1967, while Ivan Karchin has been ensuring that the flame does not die out for the last 25 years. Their experience taught them that being the main symbol of memory and glory, the flame should never be extinguished. Legendary Soviet actor Vladimir Zeldin, who has recently celebrated his 100th birthday, also took part in maintenance work. Even when the memorial was renovated in 2009, the Eternal Flame was transferred to Poklonnaya Gora using a temporary burner, and on 23 February 2010 a ceremony to return the flame to its original location took place.

The temporary burner also deserves attention: its foundation is made of red brick reminiscent of the Kremlin wall, and the flame also comes from the centre of a star. In terms of its reliability, the device is just as good as the original. Gas comes from a gas container. The flame can withstand temperatures down to 50 degrees below zero, wind storms, tropical rainfall and blizzards.

Creating an architectural ensemble

The idea to create a monument to a rank-and-file soldier who fell while defending Moscow emerged 20 years after victory in the Great Patriotic War. Finding the right place for the monument took some time. Manezhnaya Square, Maurice Thorez Embankment (now Sofiyskaya Embankment) and other locations were considered as the possible locations. Finally, it was decided to have the monument in the Alexander Garden near the Kremlin wall. On 3 December 1966, the ashes of an unknown soldier were transferred there from a mass grave discovered on the 41st kilometre of the Leningradskoye Motorway.

On 8 May 1967, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier ensemble opened. The memorial was designed by Yury Rabaev, Dmitry Burdin, Vladimir Klimov and sculptor Nikolai Tomsky in just two and a half months.

The eternal flame was delivered in an armoured vehicle from the Marsovo Pole memorial in Leningrad. Hero of the USSR Alexei Maresiev received the torch on Manezhnaya Square and General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev placed the flame in the centre of the star.

At that time, the monument was not completed. The bronze colours, helmet and a laurel branch were added later. The inscription under the star reads: “Your name is unknown, your deed is immortal.” To the right of the memorial were installed containers with earth from the Hero Cities: Leningrad, Kiev, Stalingrad, Odessa, Sevastopol, Minsk, Kerch, Novorossiysk, Tula, Murmansk, Smolensk and Hero Fortress Brest.

In 1997, the honour guard post was moved from the Mausoleum to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Since then, soldiers from the Presidential Regiment have stood guard at the monument from 8 am through 8 pm, changing every hour. In 2009, the monument was awarded the status of a national monument, and the Day of the Unknown Soldier has been marked in Russia on 3 December since 2014.