Creating Cover Stories: A National Pastime

This coming April 12 marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space. In honor of that jubilee, and also because I’m finishing a biography on the world’s first cosmonaut, I’ll be blogging on and off about various aspects of Gagarin’s life and legend.

More than just a delivery vehicle, Gagarin’s ship, the “Vostok,” was a special kind of space portal: it connected the super-secret world of national defense to the Soviet public realm. In passing through that portal, Gagarin had done something totally unprecedented — as shocking, perhaps, as the actual technical feat of the flight. He had revealed his secret identity and life. This act of revelation, in a system that constructed elaborate barriers to protect closed worlds from public view, created an initial sense of panic as well as joy among Gagarin’s handlers and commanders, many of whom worked in the ranks of the KGB. They were overjoyed that he had survived his ordeal, his trial by technological terror. They were eager to trumpet the flight as proof for the whole world to see that the Soviet Union had a superior way of organizing its political and technological affairs. They wanted to brag. But they were terrified that in the process of talking about themselves they might compromise national security.  One eyewitness account remembered the alarm of KGB officers who arrived at the landing site of Gagarin’s charred capsule, which alit about 2 kilometers away from Gagarin. People were climbing all over it, snapping pictures (photography of military objects was strictly forbidden!), and stripping off pieces as personal souvenirs. One souvenir seeker managed to “privatize,” in his words, a few tubes of space food. Within hours, before a security cordon could be reestablished and a black tarp placed over the capsule, the details of a top-secret enterprise had been dangerously exposed to the public.[1]

The solution to the problem of Gagarin’s blown cover was simple and inelegant: the Soviet authorities began a cover up, followed by lies. The process began, literally, when authorities covered up the capsule with a black tarp to prevent locals from seeing any of the craft’s details. From the KGB point of view, there was not much difference between cover-ups, lying and protecting national security. They had to conceal and alter the details of his feat — especially information that might provide insight into the technological capabilities of the Soviet Union, already dangerously compromised by inquisitive locals at the landing site. They had to impress the hostile capitalist world with the Soviet Union’s awesome technological capabilities, but leave it befuddled and confounded regarding the generalities and specifics. Official news of Gagarin’s feat thus began as a conscious distortion and fabrication. It was a noble and sacred fabrication from the perspective of its KGB creator, and Gagarin’s commander, General Nikolai Kamanin. The cult of Yuri Gagarin was born — from a cocoon of lies, a kind of original sin.[2]

Distortion Zones

Gagarin’s situation was certainly unprecedented, but in many ways it was also typically Soviet. Creating cover stories was a national pastime — indeed, one of the key attributes of modern Russian culture revealed in Gagarin’s story. Like Gagarin, millions of Soviets lived simultaneously in open and closed worlds. The vast infrastructure associated with the Soviet military-industrial complex touched, directly or indirectly, nearly every aspect of Soviet life. Millions of Soviets worked in secret factories about which they could not speak. The elaborate rules of national security dictated that vast realms of the Soviet economy, and of Soviet society, remain a secret, even if they were in plain view. Of course, pretending that these realms did not exist did not mean that people were not aware of their existence. But the inability to call things by their names did change the way people talked and acted to those who lived outside the secret worlds they occasionally inhabited. Like Gagarin, Soviets became adept at negotiating the boundaries between closed and opened worlds, at reading the various literal and figurative Do Not Enter signs of their existence. Making matters more complex, secret worlds resided within secret worlds — like the famous Russian nesting dolls. For instance, the cities of Saratov and Engels, spanning both sides of the Volga and close to the site where Gagarin landed, were themselves officially “closed” cities. They were closed because they contained a preponderance of defense and military factories (many of which continue to operate). Thousands of locals, just like Gagarin, worked every day in “secret” factories, closed to the more general public and certainly to foreigners. Many of those workers actually produced the parts that comprised Gagarin’s rocket systems — and thousands were secretly rewarded for Gagarin’s flight. Like Gagarin, they led “secret” lives. “Everything in the area of space work was a secret,” said Gagarin’s basketball coach from Saratov — who, it turns out, worked in the production of electronics parts for Gagarin’s space ship and received a medal (secretly) for his efforts. His sporting life was a kind of cover. “Now I can talk about this openly, but not then.”[3] The secret nature of one’s life grew more intense the closer a person was to anything remotely associated with supposedly military interests, which was potentially anything, since the entire society was mobilized for national security — and the state owned and operated all of the nation’s resources.

Of course, the problem of boundaries between open and closed worlds was as much a Cold War phenomenon as it was a Soviet phenomenon. During the Cold War, the United States, like the Soviet Union, developed a mania for building walls and no-go zones. The United States, similar to the Soviet Union, built a gigantic infrastructure of secret weapons production at a cost of nearly $6 trillion, “hidden in plain view,” as one scholar has noted. The Cold War was “a war with no clear boundaries, no clear battlefields, a war of scientists and radar; a war waged in such secrecy that both records and physical locations are often utterly blurred.” On both sides of the Cold War divide, the civilian-built environment was bifurcated, split into places off limits to the public and devoted to national security and places that remained “open.”[4] Citizens on both sides of the Cold War became accustomed to fences, no-enter signs, barbed wire, secret installations. They began to master the complex rules for negotiating open and closed space. They accepted as “natural” the existence of man-made fences and concrete barriers. They became accustomed to the paradox that they lived in a supposedly democratic society where public often meant off limits to the public, where the most sacred public spheres became no-go zones for most of the public, marked by signs that read: “Top Secret.”

While the bifurcation of society into open and secret worlds was common to the United States and the Soviet Union, it was nonetheless far more intense and pervasive on the Soviet side of the Cold War divide. Driven by a far more profound sense of insecurity stemming from the devastation of the World War II, not to mention an intensely paranoid and occasionally terrifying style of politics, the Soviet system erected physical barricades in every conceivable place. There were secret worlds within secret worlds. The Soviet authorities placed bans on all aerial photography — and on the photographing of any structure or site with a potential national security function. The bifurcation was mental as well as physical. Soviets consciously distorted maps to change or conceal the location of military facilities. They said they launched rockets from a place called Baikonur, but in fact they launched from another place not on the map called Tiura-Tam, which was sometimes referred to within secret circles as simply “Tashkent 90.”  People got used to talking about things in indirect and coded ways, not merely because they were afraid of frank talk, but because they believed that national security demanded silence and an occasional lie. Again and again, in the summer of 2007, defense and aerospace workers who contributed to Gagarin’s flight said that national security demanded secrecy — and secrecy, on occasion, required “a little lie,” in the words of Vladimir Tsybin, an engineer who built and tested guidance systems for the Soviet space program in the 1960s. “We couldn’t always say the truth,” he said, adding that his position was really no different than the position of his colleagues in the United States. “Isn’t that right?” he said, offering a knowing wink and smile.[5] So the fact that the Soviet government lied was not particularly surprising or even damning for many Soviets; they believed that lying was a patriotic necessity — and under certain circumstances, a moral duty, given the Soviet Union’s security needs. To condemn lying outright was therefore wrong — and naïve.

Still, the Soviets were proud of their technological accomplishments. They had become accustomed to legitimizing themselves through the construction of large-scale technological projects — which were simultaneously exercises in physical and social engineering. For example, the Soviets treated completion of massive hydroelectric plants in the first five-year plan, or of the first line of the Moscow Metro in 1935, as definitive signs of progress toward the final victory of communism. Through the 1950s, Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders also measured progress toward utopia by tallying and trumpeting technological accomplishments. Along with the guidance of the party, those accomplishments were supposed to move Soviet society inexorably along a path toward the communist promised land. This element of technological determinism in Soviet ideology — the idea that technology is the driving force in human history — became even more pronounced in the post-Stalin years. Thus, even as the Soviets hid the truth of the Soviet space program, they desperately wanted to tell the whole world all about their triumphs in space, precisely because those successes seemed to prove that history was on their side.

The story of Gagarin’s flight and public persona was a product of these competing urges to invite the world into Soviet society and to keep it far, far away; to tell the world all about how they managed to put a man into space and to prevent the true story from ever getting out. The dilemma mirrored the larger political problem Khrushchev faced when he condemned the Stalin’s terror — halfway and without mentioning his own role; or when he attempted to open Soviet society to the outside world, even while berating writers such as Boris Pasternak for being too open to the outside world. Unable and often simply afraid to lift the veil of secrecy, the authorities transformed Gagarin and his life story (along with much of the Soviet Union) into a kind of distortion zone, a place where truth, lies, and power blurred and became indistinguishable.

Newspaper editors played a primary role in creating these distortions. The Soviet editor’s job bore a superficial resemblance to his Western counterpart’s — they made news fit, wrote headlines, figured out which story should go where, rewrote bad copy — but the purpose of the job could not be more different. Even as Soviet editors revealed the news, their job was to conceal it.  A guide for editors across the Soviet Union from January 31, 1961 illustrates the point — as well as tremendous lengths to which Soviets went to distort and hide vast sectors of life from the outside world — and from themselves. The document, deposited in the party archive of the Saratov oblast’ where Gagarin landed, came from the Central Administration for the Preservation of Military and State Secrets.  It provided a long and extremely detailed list of everything that could not be published in regional and local newspapers. Reading it, one appreciates how hard it must have been to publish a newspaper and make sure much of the interesting daily news went unreported. The task was especially challenging for editors in Saratov and Engels — next to Gagarin’s landing site — because the cities were themselves officially closed to foreigners and to all Soviets who did not have permission to visit them. Both cities were dotted with defense and electronics factories, many of which produced technology that flew on Gagarin’s ship.  They were particularly concerned with photography. Under no circumstances could editors ever publish aerial photography that revealed any factories or construction sites “the publication of which might bring harm to the state interests of the USSR.” That included any photograph of a “closed object,” which in the case of Saratov and Engels, at least theoretically, meant everything since both cities were themselves closed. Only with special permission from defense and KGB officials could editors publish photos of “closed” subjects, which would have included Gagarin’s capsule (though this didn’t stop amateur photographers from snapping its picture on the sly after his landing, pictures that came out of the proverbial woodwork when the Soviet Union collapsed).[6]

Another brochure from 1960 provided a detailed list of all types of information “forbidden to be published in regional, city, and large-circulation newspapers and radio programs.” The extremely detailed list — 60 pages long and in small type — includes just about everything that most people in the United States would call news, “any information about military accidents or catastrophes…information directly or indirectly revealing the location of scientific-technological organizations, construction bureaus, experimental factories…defense and aviation technology, closed factories.” Editors were unable to report on any “plans for the introduction of new technology” in the aviation or shipbuilding industries. There was no permissible discussion of production techniques for technologies with real or potential military applications. Editors were forbidden from revealing “the surnames or photographs of people working on the development of any kind of weapon or military technology,” a prohibition that clearly extended to Gagarin. Military space — including any space directly or indirectly associated with the military, which is to say potentially everything — was to be consciously distorted, which was also reflected in the common Soviet practice of creating maps that hid, rather than revealed, the locations of places in the Soviet landscape. Since the “organization of defense” against radioactive contamination and toxic chemicals was a matter of national security, nothing relating to radioactive contamination and toxic chemicals could be reported. Nor could Soviet media outlets report on the number of prisons, statistics on crime, “mass poisonings and epidemics,” industrial or transportation accidents, and the processing of nuclear materials. In the end, the only possible way to discuss a militarized landscape — or any landscape since nearly everything, directly or indirectly, had a military function — was to falsify its location, function, and identity.[7]

The brochure made it especially clear that editors could not publish “any information about artificial satellites, rockets, investigations of the upper layers of the atmosphere and space with the help of satellites and rockets, about the launch of Soviet space rockets.” Editors could not discuss any details of space technology, including those who created it, and they certainly could not suggest in any way that Soviet space technology served any military purpose — precisely because it served a military purpose.[8] It seems a minor miracle, in the context of the Soviet mania for distortion and secrecy, that the Soviet press said anything at all about Gagarin.

Ultimately, the editors in Saratov, like their colleagues across the Soviet Union, dealt with the dilemma of reporting a military secret by distorting nearly everything associated with Gagarin and his flight. Facts were changed and invented and then reported as fact — and eyewitnesses who knew better also knew well enough to keep their mouths shut. Over the years and decades, with every anniversary of the flight and of Gagarin’s life, reporters again reported these same distortions, which soon were accepted as fact. While at first constrained by what the KGB people in the space program fed them, reporters began adding their own details– so long as they reflected positively on Gagarin and the Soviet Union — thus allowing retellers of the Gagarin myth to enter the distortion zone of Gagarin-land and fabulate. Liberated from any objective or documentary requirement of truth, those who entered into the Gagarin myth acquired a license to provide positive spin. That license, of course, came with a price. Anything that revealed military purpose or cast negative light on Gagarin had to be ignored. If anything has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is not that those who discuss Gagarin now base their ideas on Gagarin’s actual life. Rather, they have simply extended the license to spin to include negative as well as positive falsehoods.

Where ever Gagarin traveled, where ever he left a track, he created a kind of distortion zone. The distortions began at his first press conference, in the first news reports of his flight, in his “auto”-biography (written by propagandists from the party newspaper Pravda). They continued to be repeated and monumentalized in his childhood homes, the institutes where he studied, the site where he landed in his craft, the place where he died tragically in March 1968, the “Star City” gated community where he lived and worked outside Moscow — they all became distortion zones. Those distortion zones became second nature to Soviets and later to Russians, and their central role in Soviet and Russian life is also a subject for my study of Gagarin.

Among the cosmonauts, the distortions associated with the public presentation of Gagarin’s feat became a kind of running joke. German Titov, Gagarin’s back-up for the first space shot who became the second man in space August 6, 1961, remembered his own landing. As with Gagarin, the newspapers said he landed in the “planned spot.” And like Gagarin, he not only landed nowhere near the “planned spot,” but he also happened to land just near Saratov, not far from the same “unplanned” spot where Gagarin landed. He liked to tell the story of his landing — also on a collective farm. When collective farmers approached and they told him where he was (a settlement called Krasnyi kut), he said: “Not again — in the so-called planned spot!” Henceforth, to say you were in the “planned spot” among the cosmonauts meant just the opposite — that you were in fact lost. That’s how things worked in the bifurcated Soviet world: things were often called precisely the opposite of what they were.[9] Words and appearances were meant to be deceiving — and only fools took them literally. And there were plenty of fools.


[1] Stranitsy istorii: Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk,  (March 2004), 8.

[2] Kamanin’s diaries, published posthumously by his son, provide a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of the cosmonauts and into Kamanin’s active role as a creator of Gagarin’s public persona. On Gagarin, see especially volume one of Kamanin’s diaries: N. P. Kamanin, Skrytyi kosmos. Kniga pervaia, 1960-63 (Moscow: Infortekst, 1995).

[3] Interview with Gennadii Grigorevich Sokolov July 7, 2007, Saratov.

[4] Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 88.

[5] Interview with Vladimir Tsybin, July 8, 2007, Saratov; Stranitsy istorii: Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk,  (March 2004), 3.

[6] Partiinyi arkhiv Saratovskoi oblasti (PASO), f. 594, o. 2, d. 4653, l. 97. Many of these photographs were published in Stranitsy istorii: Prokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-tyi vypusk (March 2004).

[7] PASO, f. 594, 0. 2, d. 4653, ll. 120, 125, 127, 128, 132, 138, 139.

[8] Ibid., 138.

[9] Interview with Vladimir Tsybin, July 8, 2007, Saratov; Vasilii Butskikh, German Titov na Saratovskoi zemle (Gorod Engels, 2005), 8.

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2 Responses to Creating Cover Stories: A National Pastime

  1. Steve Barnes says:

    Andy, this is a fascinating post. It makes me think a bit of how I teach the film Ballad of a Soldier, and really the whole Khrushchev era to an extent (an approach that I’m quite certain I began to take after listening to a conference presentation you made on some of the issues discussed in your post). I like to get the students to focus on the issue of truth-telling in the film and in the era. Thus, we obviously talk about Khrushchev’s secret speech and the question of whether telling a partial truth constitutes telling the truth or telling a lie. When Khrushchev leaves out so many of Stalin’s crimes, leaves out his role in those crimes and the roles of many of his close associates, is that a lie? The film brings the point home as it is filled with the issue of truth- and lie-telling. At times the lying is presented as justifiable, but at times it has baleful consequences. The question usually comes down to who is doing the lying and for what reason. Of course, themes like this are exclusive neither to the Khrushchev era nor to the Soviet Union, but they seem to take on a particular importance in that time and place where the question of how much truth to tell about the Stalinist past is so poignant.

    • I know it’s a bit out of left field, but Foucault’s 1982-83 Lectures at the College de France on “The Government of Self and Others” deals primarily with analyzing the Greek term ‘parresia’ – a specific notion of truth telling that often endangers the person speaking it. Although a bit thick for the average Film Class, it might provide a nice philosophical background to a problem encountered more and more in the modern world.

      Here is a link to the WorldCat entry for Foucault’s book:
      http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/499078856

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