Cold War Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991 Soviet Science

NPR Causes a Gagarin Kerfuffle

A recent controversy surrounding the biography of Yuri Gagarin, and involving NPR, highlights the gaping divide separating academic history writing and the public presentation of history. Last week Robert Krulwich, who writes on science for NPR, posted a blog based on a 1998 book entitled Starman ( The blog uncritically presented the book’s dubious account of the tragic death of the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on April 24, 1967. Gagarin was the back up for that flight. Historians at NASA immediately alerted fellow blogger Asif Siddiqi and me to the blog. Asif, who knows the history of Soviet space better than anyone, posted his critique of the NPR article, followed by many others (see the comments following the blog above). To his credit, the journalist involved has decided to investigate further(

Meanwhile, the New York Times recently published excerpts from the same book, a biography of Gagarin set to be republished for the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight on April 12 ( That article did not mention – and neither, at first, did the NPR blog – that the book is now more than a decade old and that its conclusions have been largely dismissed by professional historians. Critical parts of Starman are cobbled together from rumor and urban myths about Gagarin that have circulated ever since his flight. The book’s authors legitimized those rumors by passing them through the mouth of an ex-KGB person who claims to have known Gagarin (I’ve met such people during my research on Gagarin. For the right amount of money, they’ll say anything).

I, for one, would have expected more from the NYT and NPR. Not only did editors at both organizations seem completely uninterested in the history of the book whose contents they showcased with nary a caveat (indeed, both at first treated the book as if it was new), but they also seemed to have no sense that it might be a good idea to verify the book’s contents by consulting professional historians with expertise in the area.

Is it too much to expect journalists to distinguish between a popular history, which is not vetted by experts, and one whose facts and claims have been checked and verified by historians in the field?

The incident is a sad commentary on the disconnect between the history profession and the public presentation of history. Along with journalists and editors, who are in too much of a hurry to launch their fact-free missives into cyberspace, we academics share some of the blame for this state of affairs. We are cloistered in our academic journals and university presses. Our research in increasingly expensive academic journals – as Steve Barnes, who created this blog, has noted – remains largely imprisoned behind various pay walls that prevent the broader public from accessing our expertise. And to make matters worse, we often write in impenetrable, jargon-filled English – for an audience of a dozen or so (or less) sub specialists.

It’s a conundrum that is worth considering, especially given the broad-based attack on the value of a liberal arts education: how to bridge the divide between the professional historian/teacher and the broader public. Perhaps this group blog — and hopefully many others like it that will provide an expanded forum for academics — is the beginning of an answer.

5 replies on “NPR Causes a Gagarin Kerfuffle”

Posts like this one are a good start for bridging the gap between public and academia. As someone who has been blogging about Russia for over 5 years, I’m not surprised that NPR, the NYT or any media outlet doesn’t have its facts straight when it comes to Russia. Some of it has to do with the nature of journalism today, some because of access academic writings, but a lot has to do with base assumptions about Russia. Cold War concocted myths prevail even among some of the most seasoned and knowledgeable journos. Much of the work academics have done in the last 20 years to paint Russia, and Soviet Russia in particular, as a complex place has failed to make a dent in public opinion.

So the gap is more like a chasm, and sadly, some of that distance is maintained by academics themselves. I can’t count how many times I’ve been directly or indirectly told how blogging is a waste of time from my colleagues. Part of this is generational, but part of it is rooted in disinterest, academic careerism, and, dare I say, snobbishness. Apparently for many “experts,” having one foot in academia and another in public discourse is untenable. Personally, I think we can all learn a lesson from Juan Cole’s efforts to shape public opinion on the Middle East.

So I hope that this blog continues challenging and correcting the record when it concerns Russian history in particular and Russia in general. Take it from me, there’s a lot in the public to engage.

Hi Sean,

Great to hear about your experiences. Reading through comments posted in response to the Gagarin article I mentioned in my post, the depth of public ignorance about questions of historical evidence — even among supposedly educated NPR listeners — has astounded me, though I shouldn’t be surprised.
Seems like we are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. Many of our colleagues don’t take blogging seriously. And most journalists don’t take academic expertise seriously, as you note. Meanwhile, many journalists (I worked as one for a while) genuinely seem to think academics are just splitting hairs when they demand to know about the reliability of a source and corroboration for that source’s story. The attitude seems to be: “Let the reader decide for himself if it’s accurate or not. I just find information. I don’t evaluate it.”

Sean and Andy. Thanks to both of you for what you are doing here and at Sean’s Russia Blog. I don’t have high hopes for our ability to change the discourse in mass media, but if we stay behind pay walls, we’ll have given up without ever trying.

Sean, your blog was one of my inspirations for creating Russian History Blog. I do think the resistance to blogging and other forms of digital scholarship will over time dissipate both for generational reasons but also for economic ones. The way we do things now will and should become untenable.

The old (current) ways, though, will not go quickly or quietly. Speaking of kerfuffles of a different sort, check out the conversation in the comments (many by my George Mason history colleagues) on three consecutive posts at Michael O’Malley’s The Aporetic.

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