When I began my study of Yuri Gagarin many years ago, my biggest challenge, as any historian who has worked in Russian archives can appreciate, was getting access to sources. Gagarin was and remains not just a Soviet icon — but a Russian icon, manipulated and exploited for various patriotic purposes by Soviet and post-Soviet governments. That is especially the case with the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight less than two weeks away. Vladimir Putin has personally chaired the organizing committee for celebrations. Relatives, cosmonauts, government officials, museum workers, and curators have arranged the proverbial wagons around Gagarin to protect him from any attempt to tarnish his image — either those based on historical evidence or those concocted from urban myth and hearsay (the main source of information about Gagarin for many journalists, as noted in my previous blog). Here’s one piece of evidence that shows just how defensive the gatekeepers of the Gagarin myth have become. A few months back some people at NASA in Houston asked me to participate in a panel devoted to Yuri Gagarin’s flight. NASA rightly deferred to Russian participants and sponsors to approve the panel. As is often the case in Russia, it took some time to get word back on the Russian view of the panel that NASA had set up to honor Gagarin. Finally, the Russian representative for the conference organizing committee responded with a resounding “Nyet,” offering instead a line-up of Russian panelists (not one historian, incidentally) who would fly in and present their views for the sacred occasion.
I struggle constantly with the thought — as is true of any historian writing a biography of an official idol, as opposed to someone like Charlie Sheen — that it is possible to turn a human being into bronze but nearly impossible to turn that bronzed hero back into a human being. My solution to this challenge was hardly ideal, given the impossibility of consulting a Gagarin file that apparently exists in the Russian Federation Presidential Archive — a place that functions less as a site for historical research than for deep-freezing historical documents that Russian presidents, for whatever reason, prefer never enter into the public historical record. I consulted the rather substantial post-Soviet memoir literature and went to the provincial places where Gagarin grew up and attended school. I talked with people who knew Gagarin before and after he became famous. I found many amateur and local historians in Saratov and Gagarin’s hometown of Gagarin (formerly Gzhatsk) who had collected bits and pieces of Gagariniana and of Gagarin’s life over the years.
As with biblical scholars, who are keen to understand the historical or profane Jesus, I wanted to write about the historical Gagarin — the flesh and blood one, and not he of the potted myth. But I also was also interested in the sacred Gagarin, the birth of his legend in Soviet society and its continual transformation and exploitation for various purposes ever since. Fortunately, when it comes to the legendary Gagarin I have found no lack of material to work with — archival and otherwise.
A Curious Collection of Letters
Thanks to a tip from fellow historian Slava Gerovitch (who is following his pioneering work on Soviet cybernetics with a study of the professional identity of the Soviet cosmonauts: Designing a Cosmonaut: The Technopolitics of Automation in the Soviet Human Space Program,) I stumbled into a fascinating collection of sources in the Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE). (For information on Slava and his work, see his web site: http://web.mit.edu/slava/homepage/.) The archive shares a building and a reading room in Moscow with the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). The collection of files (fond 9453 and dozens of files in opis’ 1 and 2) contains hundreds of unpublished letters to the editor that Soviet citizens sent to major Soviet newspapers immediately following Gagarin’s flight. For reasons that are not entirely clear, those letters were gathered together and deposited in the archive — fortuitously, as it turns out, since many were sent to the newspaper Komsomol’skaia pravda, whose archive perished during a fire following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During the summer of 2007 I spent two weeks going through these letters deep in the bowels of the archive itself, rather than in the main reading room. Many of my colleagues are familiar with documents that are to be collected and read in the claustrophobic upper floors of the archive located across the courtyard — where stray cats compete for the researcher’s affections — from the archive’s main reading room. (Perhaps someone can explain to me why certain documents can be accessed in the main reading room and others only in these tiny rooms adjacent to the dark and dank hallways of the archive itself).
The letters provide at once a predictable and far more complex picture of Soviet society’s response to Gagarin’s flight. Many read as if they were lifted directly from the front pages of Pravda.
Such readers accepted whole-cloth the version of events they read in the papers. Other letter writers overwhelmingly celebrated Gagarin’s Russianness — as opposed to his Sovietness. “We are proud of our Russian people to whom there is no equal,” went one typical letter, reflecting late-Stalinism’s praise of all things Russian (RGAE, f. 9453, o. 1, d. 21, l. 4).
But not everyone wrote in the official categories and language of the regime. Many letters expressed ideas that one would never encounter in the press — and in a language that was distinctly un-Pravda-like. A surprisingly large number were skeptical about the official story they had read in the papers. They understood they lived in society where a newspaper called “Truth” (Pravda) contained anything but the real story. In their letters they recounted the rumors and legends they had already heard about previous unsuccessful flights that had supposedly occurred (perhaps a result of Voice of America broadcasts, which repeated rumors started even before Gagarin’s flight that the Soviets had botched an earlier manned-flight attempt). Others questioned whether Gagarin had actually landed in his capsule, as the Soviets official claimed until the 1970s (he had in fact parachuted from his capsule at seven kilometers and landed separately from the ship). Those readers noticed that the first report in Komsomol’skaia pravda, unlike other ones in Izvestiia and Pravda and later editions of Komsomol’skaia pravda, had implied that Gagarin and his capsule landed separately. Some Soviets, in short, were careful and critical readers of their own newspapers. They weighed and balanced the many rumors they heard in Soviet society against the stories in the official press, viewing all with skepticism and doubt. If only my undergraduate students could be as critical of sources.
Still others were outraged by the climate of secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program. Some wondered why the government had not revealed the identity of the Chief Builder of the rocket (Sergei Korolev)? Why did the media focus so much on Gagarin who was, after all, just a passenger, rather than on the engineers and scientists who built the rocket? If Gagarin was just an ordinary Russian guy, as they were being told, then what was the big deal?
Some letter writers were incensed by the creation of a cult of personality around Gagarin — at precisely the time that Khrushchev, as they pointed out, was condemning the cult of personality and declaring that streets, cities, collective farms, and so forth should only be named after dead people, not living ones. Thus alongside feelings of joy and national pride, Gagarin’s feat also prompted many Soviets to question their own system (including some who wondered why so much money was being spent on sending men into space when the Soviet collective farm system could barely feed people on Soviet earth).
Many skeptics were from the older generation. They resented young whipper snappers like Gagarin who hadn’t sacrificed their life and health fighting the Nazis. One reader challenged Gagarin’s heavenly promotion to Major during his flight as a violation of proper military protocol (thus skipping over a rank and achieving in 108 minutes what usually took years of service). “And so this Gagarin, like Stalin, will get to the rank of Generallisimus,” wrote the war veteran, a front-line serviceman (frontovik). “And it’s the same thing. They were never soldiers. They didn’t smell gunpowder. But still they went right up to the rank of Generallisimus.” (RGAE, f. 9453, o. 2, d. 34, l. 39).
Another distinctive type of letter writer expressed feelings of envy (zavist’)toward Gagarin. These writers lamented their own difficult circumstances and wondered when, like Gagarin, they would be able to escape their earthly existence and do something heroic. Many said they were willing to die for the chance to escape the tedium and disappointments of their daily existence. Contemplating Gagarin’s feat, they were reminded of the insignificance of their own lives — a response, not surprisingly, that Soviet editors chose not to publish.
It is hard to say how common the sentiments expressed in these letters were. But they clearly suggest a far more complex picture of Soviet society’s reaction to Gagarin than I had initially expected.
A Child’s Fantasy
Still, the overwhelming response to Gagarin was one of awe-struck wonder as well as national pride (Russian but also Soviet). As a father of young children, I was especially touched by the responses of children. One group of children from the provincial city of “Paris Commune” sent along drawings they had composed in honor of Gagarin’s feat. Those children would now be in their late 50s and early 60s — precisely the generation that today most vehemently defends Gagarin’s sacred image. Here’s one image from Yura, aged 5, entitled “Mama Watches Television,” drawn immediately after the flight (RGAE, f. 9453, o. 1, d. 37, l. 76):
Yura in this picture has captured something historically significant — the critical role of television in making Gagarin a Soviet and Russian idol. Gagarin was arguably the first Soviet and Russian television hero; indeed, his feat coincided with the emergence of television in Soviet society as a main new driver of mass culture. Many letters — and adults many years later — have the images of Gagarin from television indelibly stamped into their memory, like letters on a granite monument. His charisma and, above all, his smile were made for the new age of television. Reaching out of the television screen and into Soviet living rooms, Gagarin conveyed youth, dynamism, optimism, and confidence in the future — a stark contrast to some of the gloomier and more cynical reactions to Gagarin’s feat noted above.
Here are some other drawings from Russian children inspired by Gagarin’s flight, all of them reflecting values of patriotism and loyalty that Gagarin’s flight helped to solidify among younger, less critically minded Soviets:
The tradition of children celebrating Gagarin’s feat lives on in the twin cities of Saratov and Engel’s, not far from Gagarin’s landing site in a collective farm field along the Volga. During my stay there in 2007 I discovered an active effort by middle-aged Russians — primarily school teachers, museum workers in the cities’ Gagarin-themed museums, and local historians — to keep Gagarin’s sacred memory alive in the post-Soviet generation. The Gagarin memorial museum in Saratov, as well as the school systems of Saratov and Engels, sponsor yearly art competitions devoted to cosmonautics, thus reliving through their students the same aesthetic encounter with Gagarin which they had experienced in their own youth. Here are some of those images from 2007, which line the main road of Engel’s that leads to the “Gagarin Fields,” the site where Gagarin landed. These are just a few of the murals that caught my attention. (I was being driven at the time to the Gagarin landing site by a Saratov state television news team, which was doing a special on the American scholar who was so interested in their national hero.) These images, at least for me, convey more than simply a youthful romance with space travel: they also embody a fantasy, inherited from the Soviet Union, of conquering, cultivating and colonizing the spaces beyond Russia’s borders.
This last image revives a fantasy that enchanted millions of Soviet children after Gagarin’s flight — the dream of growing apple orchards on Mars. Like Kazakhstan, from whence the rockets flew, Mars was thus more virgin territory to be put under the collective farm plow.