The Flight that Launched a Thousand Rumors

Gagarin sometime from 1953 to 1955 as a student in the Saratov air club (DOSAAF), a paramilitary organization that trained young Soviets to fly and repair airplanes.

As I noted in my first post (“Creating Cover Stories: A National Pastime”), an intense feeling of vulnerability and insecurity had compelled the Soviets, along with Russia’s authoritarian traditions, to surround Yuri Gagarin’s flight in secrecy. But they paid for their secret ways in the coin of rumor — a legacy that survives as the world celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight this April 12. As a noted geographer once remarked: “When we wonder what lies on the other side of the mountain range or ocean, our imagination constructs mythical geographies.” Gagarin’s flight and life were (and will forever be) a mythical geography.[1]

To navigate the mythical realms of Gagarin’s flight I have analyzed special summaries of foreign press reports (located in the State Archive of the Russian Federation). Those summaries, with occasional commentary, were provided by Soviet analysts. Those analysts systematically sampled the foreign press, and also the climate in the Moscow press corps, for reactions to Soviet space exploration. The target audience for these reports was apparently the political leadership as well as managers of the Soviet space program. 

A Rumor-Mongering Frenzy in the Press Corps

Another photograph of Gagarin at the Saratov air club, 1953-55

The earliest surviving summaries from January 1961 paid special attention to NASA claims that the United States would launch a man into space sometime in early 1961. They highlighted American press reports that NASA, in supposed contrast to the Soviet Union, pursued non-military goals with its space program. The American style of presentation – the emphasis of civilian over military goals – seems to have impressed Soviet leaders; it was partly from the capitalist enemy that the Soviet Union was learning to craft a narrative of the Vostok as a mission of peace (though its justification was to test ICBM capabilities). As the January 20 inauguration date for the new American President JFK approached, press summaries noted speculation in the West that the Soviets planned to launch a man into space to upstage the ceremonies (which probably made some high-level readers in the Central Committee wonder: “Why didn’t we think of that?”). American reports of Soviet superiority were a warm salve, providing the ever insecure Soviet leadership with a comforting story of Soviet accomplishment. “Many space and rocket experts [in the United States] believe first place in the competition to launch a man into space will almost certainly be occupied by the Russians,” noted a January 27 summary. Another confidence booster came from a report from January 31: Werner Von Braun’s call for closer cooperation between the United States and the USSR was interpreted as a sure sign that the Americans were falling further behind in their effort to “hop” into a low-earth orbit.[2]

Rumors of a flight intensified in the second week of April, which the Soviets did little to dispel. Indeed, Soviet officials seemed to be seeding the public arena with stories that they hoped would pique the world’s attention and maximize the impact of Gagarin’s flight. Following the lead of the British communist newspaper The Daily Worker, a French newspaper’s Moscow correspondent reported a rumor on April 10 that the Soviets had launched a man into orbit — the son of the famous aerospace engineer Ilyushin. This semi-mythical chap, a certain Colonel Vladimir Ilyushin who was actually a test pilot, had supposedly flown into space on April 7 and was severely injured during re-entry. A variant of this rumor, which later claimed that Gagarin was a stand-in for Ilyushin, was the basis for a 2009 documentary narrated by Elliott Gould, entitled “Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy.” Similar to the 1998 book Starman (see my post “NPR Causes Gagarin Kerfuffle”) this documentary was based also on the bogus testimony of someone claiming to be a former KGB agent. (For the debunking of this and other Gagarin myths, see James Oberg’s web site: http://www.jamesoberg.com/)

Gagarin in the center is sitting with his "kompaniia" (the Russian term for a close-knit group of friends) in Saratov in the mid-1950s. He studied foundry work at the Volga city technical college.

At any rate, two days before the flight the Soviets suspended the normal censorship rules for many foreign correspondents in Moscow. The new rules allowed correspondents to make their reports directly by telephone without prior approval from the Soviet authorities. The unusual (and temporary) gesture was apparently designed to facilitate the fastest possible communication of the flight to the foreign press once it was announced. It also heightened the atmosphere of expectation two days in advance of the historic launch.

Whatever the intent, the foreign correspondents in Moscow were in a rumor-mongering frenzy, imploring their official and unofficial Soviet sources for news – any news – about an alleged flight. Said the compiler of foreign press trends: “Usually well-informed [foreign] circles in recent days have been inundated with rumors about an impending launch,” which they surmised might be true, among other things, from the lifting of censorship restrictions. “Since the end of last week foreign correspondents in Moscow are in a state of alert, expecting an important announcement.”[3]

Fed an impoverished diet of “nothing yet” from Soviet press officials, foreign reporters continued to sample the Soviet rumor sphere for “news,” especially the old standby: Moscow taxi drivers. By April 11, the rumors of the launch had spread from Moscow and Washington D.C. to Paris and Vienna – and from there to the rest of the world.  A newspaper in Stockholm on April 11 proclaimed, “A Man is Already in Space,” seemingly confirmed by a previous report from a Danish newspaper, which declared confidently that the flight had already occurred. The British tabloids followed suit (again), as did British newspapers more generally, either reporting a launch or conveying news of rumors of a launch. The rumors spread like wildfire from Europe to Tunisia, Cairo, Japan, and Iran, where one newspaper reported that “the whole world is engulfed in rumors about a successful flight of a Soviet man into space.” The deluge of rumors had become so intense that the U.S. Congress called an emergency hearing on April 11 and interrogated the NASA administrator. The NASA chief said there was no factual basis for an impending Soviet launch, a claim that must have made Korolev smile. “As far as we know,” the compiler’s translation of NASA’s statement put it, “these are only rumors.”[4] NASA, according to the Soviet source, attributed the speculation to unprofessional reporters who got their information from Moscow taxi drivers with overly active imaginations.[5]

Gagarin cleans a plane at the Saratov air club, 1953-55

Perhaps Moscow hacks played a role, but as with all rumors, the source is impossible to determine: that’s why rumors are called rumors. Partly, the rumors were simply the result of the expectation, stimulated ever since Sputnik in October 1957 and the subsequent menageries of creatures sent into space, that a launch for the highest member of the animal kingdom was inevitable and therefore imminent. High-level public hints, winks and nods provided more grist for the rumor mill. On March 15, Khrushchev piqued the interests of the global media when he said, “the time is already not far off when [the first manned] space flight will occur.” When officials in Moscow were asked on April 11, the day before the flight, by foreign correspondents in Moscow about rumors of a flight, officials neither confirmed nor denied the report, adding that “something serious is expected.” In an analysis of the climate among foreign correspondents in Moscow, the Soviet media analyst remarked that the foreign correspondents were convinced one day before the flight that “something very unusual had happened and that they need only await final confirmation of the details in order to file a story that will exceed all others as the most sensational news ever.” The climate of anticipation also affected Soviet newspaper editors and journalists, who were said to be, “in a frenzy…and a state of military preparedness,” which in turn intensified expectations among their foreign colleagues. One unnamed “well-informed personage” from the Soviet press corps, according to the press summary on April 11, told his foreign colleagues in Moscow that the famous radio announcer Yuri Levitan – “who always reported the most important news events” – was on alert in the central radio studio, along with a group of specialists on space flight, to read an important announcement (the next morning he would do precisely that).[6] As midnight approached, and the day ended with no news, the unnamed authoritative sources informed their colleagues that nothing had happened and “that put an end to the state of military alert. Everyone went home. What had happened? No one knew anything.” [7]

The compiler of the foreign press summaries, surveying the spectacle of rumor on April 11, could not remember such a heightened state of anticipation – the speculative frenzy in which the second, legendary Gagarin was born.  The entire world, it seemed, had a “premonition” of Gagarin’s flight, as the Russian film maker Alexei Uchitel put it in a 2005 film about that era entitled “Premonition of Space.” (http://www.worldscinema.com/2009/10/aleksei-uchitel-kosmos-kak.html) All that remained was for Gagarin to fulfill their dreams — and to prove that his flight was not just a rumor.[8]

What to Say and When to Say It

Gagarin meets the Saratov regional party boss shortly after his landing near the cities of Saratov and Engel's

The active rumor sphere made it all the more critical for Soviet leaders to figure out what to say once the flight actually happened. What if the flight failed and the cosmonaut died?  News of the failure would not only embarrass and humiliate the political leadership. It would also cast doubt on the Soviet Union’s ability to launch ICBMs (the main justification, after all, for Gagarin’s flight). The military therefore wanted maximum secrecy, insisting that the flight be reported, with few details, only after its successful completion. Korolev, meanwhile, was reasonably confident that if the cosmonaut made it alive into space, he would probably survive the harrowing trip back to earth – although where on earth was another question.  The idea that the Soviets would withhold their plans from the public struck him as cowardly and, even worse, as an expression of lack of confidence in Soviet technological capabilities (a sentiment that was shared by some Soviet citizens, as evidenced by unpublished letters to the editor after the flight).[9] The Americans and Werner von Braun, Korolev’s Cold War doppelganger, had the guts to be far more up front about their intentions, so why shouldn’t they? In the end, a compromise was reached: There would be no advance announcement of the launch, but the Soviets would report the mission by radio and news wire, with a lag time of a minute of nearly an hour, as soon as it was clear Gagarin had made it into orbit (the launch occurred at 9:07 am, the first news report was at 10:02, and the landing was at 10:55). If the cosmonaut died on reentry, the whole world would know, whereas his death on liftoff would remain a military secret, safely tucked away (or so it was hoped) in a top-secret file, just like the ICBM that had exploded on the Soviet launch pad in October 1960 and killed more than 100 onlookers.[10]

Gagarin and Khrushchev on the podium of Lenin's Mausoleum, April 14, 1961

There were other reasons, however, that made announcing the mission before its completion a risk worth taking. If Sputnik and the various space dogs had taught the Soviet political leadership anything, it was that Soviet triumphs in space made the capitalist world nervous and hysterical. And Khrushchev loved to make his enemy squirm. He once quipped that Berlin was the testicles of the West, “Whenever I want to make the West scream I squeeze Berlin” (which he did just six months after Gagarin’s flight, precipitating construction of the Berlin Wall). The near real-time report of a man in space and descending back to earth was bound to amplify the impact of the event. Citizens of the world would be dumbstruck and awed by news of the flight, hanging on every word on the news wires about the fate of the cosmonaut as he alit from his perch in the heavens. The Soviets also wanted to seize the initiative from foreign propagandists, who were expected to claim the mission had pursued military and surveillance purposes (which, of course, it had). Soviets and American in those days were spooked by visions of spies raining down from the heavens. Less than a year earlier, Khrushchev had presented the American spy Gary Powers to the world as a Cold War trophy (another way he made the West scream). Powers had been shot down in a U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory in May 1960. Should Gagarin have the misfortune of landing on enemy territory, the Soviet leader preferred that he be greeted as an intrepid “scientific” explorer rather than paraded about as a captured and humiliated foreign agent (the way Khrushchev had treated Powers). Finally, Korolev wanted to use the radio announcement to provide advance notice that a cosmonaut was about to appear from the heavens, since he realized that Gagarin might land anywhere in the territory of the Soviet Union, or beyond.[11]

Brezhnev confers the award "Hero of the Soviet Union" on Gagarin. Brezhnev competed with Khrushchev to be photographed with the newly minted Soviet idol.

The Achilles Heel

Of all the reasons to alert the world to Gagarin’s imminent re-entry, fear of a wayward landing was arguably the most compelling. Rocket guidance was the Achilles heel of Soviet rocketry. As one cosmonaut remembered years later, “When it came to engines we were flawless. With the Americans it was just the opposite. They had few problems with guidance systems, but they had them with the most complex part of the rocket, the engines.”[12] To make matters worse, the landing system on the Vostok involved not one but two landing systems: one for the cosmonaut and one for the capsule. The Soviets had not yet figured out how to insure the safety of the cosmonaut inside a capsule that would land on the ground rather than in the water (which was the American approach). The hatch was therefore designed to blow off at an altitude of seven kilometers, catapulting the cosmonaut in his seat into the atmosphere. The cosmonaut’s parachute would then open and his seat would detach. “Optimizing the circuits involved in blowing out the hatch, ejecting the cosmonaut, and deploying the parachutes caused the electricians more trouble than all the other systems,” remembered the rocket engineer Chertok. “Here, there were no manual systems to save the cosmonaut’s life in the event of a random failure.”[13] The engineers, in addition, experienced constant headaches with braking systems during re-entry. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to eject the cosmonaut at the precise point required to have the capsule and cosmonaut land somewhere near the anticipated point of landing. If all systems worked as planned, the engineers figured that the capsule and cosmonaut could land “a few hundred kilometers” from the planned site – like throwing a dart blindfolded in the direction of a target. In the event of unplanned events during descent, the cosmonaut could find himself “at any point on the globe between 65 degrees north and 65 degrees south latitude.”[14] The rescue team apparatus therefore had to be equipped with planes and helicopters that could retrieve the cosmonaut both within and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Military patrols on the Volga were equipped with scuba divers in the event of landing in the mighty river. And depending on the wind, the cosmonaut might land hundreds of kilometers from the touchdown point of the capsule. (For the definitive account of the the Vostok flight, see Asif Siddiqi’s thorough retelling, available online at: http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4408pt1.pdf, pp. 243-298).

Gagarin meets his boyhood hero, the writer Aleksei Maresyev, whose semi-autobiographical account, Story of a Real Man, tells the tale of a WWII pilot who continues to fly missions even after his legs are blown off. The book was one of Gagarin's favorites.

Previous launches had provided rescue crews with little cause for comfort. The rescue teams searched in vain for the remains of the ship that sent the poor dogs Pchelka and Mushka into space, which was launched in December 1960 and disintegrated upon re-entry. The seventh test of Gagarin’s rocket in March 1961 — with a mannequin famously named simply “Ivan Ivanovich” and a dog that Gagarin had dubbed “little star” (Zvezdochka)– landed safely, but nearly 700 kilometers from the anticipated point of touchdown. The rocket with “Ivan Ivanovich” had been launched on the same trajectory as Gagarin’s flight — designed to land near the city of Kyubishev, which was located between the Siberian cities of Omsk and Novosibirsk. The engineers, however, were happy simply to have a successful landing. “[I]n those years ‘trifles’ like the point of touch down did not phase us,” said one. As it turned out, Gagarin’s flight also landed nowhere near the anticipated spot — which did not prevent Soviet officials, as well as Gagarin, from later proclaiming that the ship had landed in precisely “the planned spot.”[15]

Lights, Camera, Lift-Off!

As the launch hour neared, Korolev and Kamanin took in the media spectacle from the sidelines, secure in the knowledge about which the rest of the world could only guess. It was thrilling to be an insider, a welcome break for Korolev and Kamanin from the terrifying thought that they might be sending a man to his death. In their few moments of spare time, they surveyed the commotion caused by their top-secret labors, reading the summaries of foreign press reports and monitoring Voice of America broadcasts from a radio receiver at the cosmodrome. One VOA piece on April 11 especially caught their attention: it claimed that the Soviets were just “days” away from launching a man into space. Gagarin also experienced the intoxicating feeling of being privy to secret plans. He traveled with his double Titov to Moscow one final time before his flight. Establishing a rite of passage for cosmonauts, Gagarin walked incognito in civilian clothing on Red Square – the last time he would be able to do so unrecognized and un-accosted by acolytes, photographers, and autograph seekers. It was, for him, a symbolic recreation of the parade that started on Red Square at the outset of World War II in June 1941 when soldiers marched directly from the parade grounds to the front. Contemplating that sacred pilgrimage, Gagarin stopped to pay homage to Lenin’s corpse in the Mausoleum and gazed up at the Kremlin walls. “Soviet people have an internal need before a decisive action in life to go to Red Square, to the Kremlin, to Lenin,” he later remarked. “Thousands of people walked toward me and around me. And no one, of course, had any idea that a grandiose event, unprecedented in history, was about to occur.” He took another glance at the Mausoleum, walked down to gaze at the Moscow River, and then returned to the airport for the flight to Tiura-Tam.[16]

Korolev, meanwhile, was well aware that the cosmodrome was more than a place to launch rockets; ever since Sputnik and Laika it had become a staging ground for the embarkation of new legends and myths. Korolev thus approached the launch site in the barren, wind-swept steppe of Kazakhstan like a director on a movie set – a Spaghetti Eastern. The launch pad was his sound stage, Gagarin his leading man. The first scene in the script had already been written and filmed. A week earlier, on April 7, Gagarin and the other finalists had recorded a speech that Gagarin later said he gave impromptu right before getting into his capsule. “It reflected my spiritual condition right before the flight,” he said at the news conference after the flight, with a straight face. The legendary announcer Yuri Levitan, whose voice was familiar to every Soviet citizen, was standing by, ready on cue to report the flight, just as he had reported all the victories over the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. He, too, had been handed a script. Finally, Korolev made sure to have a reliable camera man on hand to shoot the dramatic scenes – a tribute for the ages and, in addition, an insurance policy against future doubters and naysayers who would cite the rumor mill to claim it was all a hoax. “Tell your guys to shoot more,” he often said to the camera man, who became a fixture in the daily life of the cosmodrome. “It’s history in the making.”[17]

After his flight Gagarin was made head of the Soviet-Cuban friendship society. The disastrous Bay of Pigs operation occurred five days after Gagarin's landing.

Where ever Gagarin went on the evening of April 11, and forever after, the sounds of cameras whirring and clacking followed. The cameraman accompanied Gagarin and his backup Titov to a small shack on the cosmodrome on the eve of the flight. Gagarin performed for posterity, enlivened by the camera’s gaze. He good naturedly endured the familiar routine of being wired to monitor his physical condition and then played chess with Titov and listened to some “Russian songs.” As the cameras whirred, Gagarin appeared preternaturally calm, turning to Kamanin at one point and saying: “Tomorrow I will fly, and I still don’t believe that I will fly and I am surprised by my own composure.” The cameraman followed Gagarin, Titov, and an exhausted Korolev (who felt and appeared, in contrast to Gagarin, like a nervous wreck) out of the shack and into the crisp night air of the Kazakh steppe for a final evening walk. Before retiring late that night the cameraman trained his lens on the rocket, inspired by the moment to wax poetic. “The thick velvet of sky is bestrewed with diamonds of stars. There is now a wind, and the air is cold. At the launching pad the gigantic rocket is lit by the powerful search lights and towers over the deserted silent steppe and into the dark violet sky. The sight is unreal and even scary, as if all this is taking place on an alien planet.” The cameraman finished by filming the doctors monitoring the sleep of the cosmonauts. Gagarin’s pulse was 64 and his blood pressure 115/60. “Everything is normal: the monitors show that the cosmonauts are sleeping. The pulse and breathing are normal. They are like healthy babies!” Before Kamanin went to bed he looked in on the slumbering cosmonauts in the shack. Writing in the bombastic style of Soviet triumphalism, he noted in his secret journal that a “humble Soviet person” would be the first in space. “Today no one says his name to anyone, but tomorrow his name will fly around the entire world and humanity will never forget it.” Perhaps he was aware, like the cameraman, that someday his secret narrative of the Soviet space program would find a publisher.[18]

The next morning the physician tapped Gagarin on the shoulder and said: “It is time.” The two washed, dressed, and had a light breakfast. The cameraman wrote in his diary: “Yuri is very calm, at least he looks it, and eagerly assists the people who are dressing him…Gagarin puts on a bright orange suit, then they put high laced boots on his feet. Then follows the white helmet,” with the inscription CCCP. The cameraman later remembered that Gagarin signed his first autographs, although for whom is not clear; perhaps like his college thesis they will show up some day on E-Bay, or for sale at Sotheby’s, just like a copy of Gagarin’s top-secret official report about his flight.[19]

Gagarin was issued an ID card, side arm and hunting knife should he land in a remote area, along with the following instructions: If he landed in the Pacific Ocean, and was attacked by sharks, he should scare them by slapping “flat objects” on top of the water. Should he land in the North Pole and encounter a Polar Bear, he should not shoot the bear with his pistol, even if he was hungry, because that would only make the bear mad. He was told that a Polar Bear would eat every part of a human except its liver, which was supposedly poisonous to the beast (or perhaps simply not very tasty compared, say, to the spleen). In the event of landing on enemy territory he must not reveal the launch site or any “data concerning the launcher and other technical mechanisms,” beyond what was allowed to be published, which was next to nothing. He could not reveal any information about the design of the space capsule. He could not mention the names of any “military or civilian leaders” involved in the space program, or of any institutions, military or civilian, connected with space flight. The cosmonaut was to inform the enemy that his address was “Moscow. Cosmos.” The final point in the instruction, which Gagarin had to sign as proof that he had committed it to memory, told him to request immediate contact with the closest diplomatic representative of the Soviet Union. The instruction was then put into a file marked: “Top Secret – Forever.” The guidelines were, it should be noted, also excellent preparation for Gagarin’s first press conferences after the flight – elaborate exercises in feigned sincerity and dissimulation.[20]

Gagarin with his wife in the Grand Kremlin Palace reception after his flight

As Gagarin was being led up to the bus that took him to the rocket, his comrades lingered around him much longer than had been allotted in the tight schedule – just as a company of tight friends lingers on the platform before the very moment that the train and their dear friend depart the station. Said Kamanin: “Yura and his comrades let go a bit and started hugging and kissing. Instead of wishing him a safe flight some said goodbye and even cried. I almost had to extract the cosmonaut by force from the embrace of those accompanying him.” At the elevator to the capsule, Kamanin shook Gagarin’s hand and said: “Until we meet at the Kuibyshev region in a couple of hours,” a reference to the planned landing spot. When Gagarin parted for the capsule, he and Titov attempted, according to Russian tradition, to kiss the person going away three times on alternate cheeks. They forgot they were wearing helmets, so instead of exchanging kisses they bumped helmets three times, which made everyone chuckle and broke the tension.[21]

After Gagarin climbed into the capsule and shut the hatch, a signal that the capsule was hermetically sealed failed to light in mission control. When technicians approached to re-open the hatch, Gagarin cracked: “What happened? Do you need a light?” Everyone was puffing away nervously on cigarettes. As Gagarin sat in the capsule, he went through a series of routine checks and chatted with his comrades by radio. The banter alternated between light-hearted jokes and tearful farewells for the nearly two hours that Gagarin endured in the capsule before liftoff.  “We’ll sing a song together tonight, okay,” said the cosmonaut Popovich, the lone Ukrainian among the first cohort of cosmonauts who had a reputation for a fine singing voice (he would later become the first Ukrainian and fourth cosmonaut in space). As the time to launch dragged on, Gagarin requested some music, a love song to ease the boredom. Finally, to the great relief of everyone, the countdown began. Gagarin’s heart rate and blood pressure rose dramatically. At 9:07 Gagarin then uttered his immortal phrase, “We’re outta here!,” repeated by tippling Russians ever since during vodka toasts. As the roaring rocket engines hurled the Vostok into the heavens Gagarin imagined that triumphal military march music was playing in his head.[22]

Yuri Gagarin becomes an honorary "Pioneer"

Initially, at least, everything went as planned. Four minutes after launch Gagarin gaped like a schoolboy in wonder at the view of the clouds from above, “how beautiful!”  If Gagarin ever felt anxiety or nervousness, he hid it well. “Vse normal’no” (“Everything is normal”), he said. Gagarin at one point broke into song, a patriotic tune: “The Motherland is listening, the Motherland knows where her son flies in the clouds!” Perhaps it was the show tunes that were piped in to keep up his good humor; or maybe relentless optimism was Gagarin’s way of masking his anxiety. More likely, Gagarin was simply having the time of his life, on the ride of his life, in contrast to the earth-bound Korolev, whose ashen face, corpse-like demeanor, and torment continued throughout the entire 108 minutes of the flight.[23]

Confident that Gagarin had survived the most perilous part of the trip, the order was given, as planned, to tell the world what it had been waiting to hear. The famous radio announcer Levitan thus went on the air at 10:02 a.m. – 55 minutes after the launch and 13 minutes before the landing — and triumphantly announced to the world that a Soviet man by the name of Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin had become the first man in space.[24]

Back at the cosmodrome, buses appeared with officers in ceremonial dress. As they stepped down, the radios played the usual programming, which blared from all the open windows of houses and buildings. “You could feel that this was a special moment,” said one eyewitness, a child of one of the engineers. Soon Korolev arrived by car. He whispered something to a commanding officer who fell down on his knees and kissed a banner offered by the Marshall of rocket forces, K. S. Moskalenko.[25] Korolev called Khrushchev and literally yelled into the phone, his voice hoarse from exhaustion and nerves, “The Parachute opened, it is landing. The space ship is in order!” Khrushchev was desperate to know about Gagarin. “Is he alive, are you getting signals, is he alive, is he alive? Just tell me, is he alive?!” Finally, after frantically tense minutes, the Soviet leader, along with Anastas Mikoyan, who was standing behind him, got word that Gagarin was alive. “He’s alive!,” Korolev yelled to Khrushchev through the phone, beside himself with joy. “Heeee’s alive!”[26]

Gagarin and Khrushchev at the Vnukovo air field on April 14, 1961.

Korolev’s intense relief is all the more understandable given new information about the landing that only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Again, see Asif Siddiqi’s definitive account of the Vostok mission for all the details). The initiation of the final landing procedures, which involved the separation of an instrument module from the capsule, occurred ten minutes later than planned. Incompletely detached cables between the module and the capsule during the descent caused Gagarin’s capsule to spin wildly, sending him tumbling uncontrollably head over heel, “a ballet with the cords,” as he put it in his post-flight top secret report. “I saw Africa, then the horizon, then the sky….I realized something was wrong.” Only as the capsule was engulfed in flames during reentry did the cables burn off. Gagarin, in short, may have been closer to perishing on reentry than anyone admitted publicly until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.[27]

The Birth of the Gagarin Cult

A local military commander from a top secret rocket division near Saratov was the first eyewitness. Like tens of thousands of other soldiers around the Soviet Union, he had been on alert that morning to search for unspecified large objects falling from the sky. When he heard Levitan’s radio report he put two and two together and realized that the person parachuting down in an orange jump suit from the heavens was Gagarin. “About 11 Moscow time I saw from the highway an orange parachutist over the Volga. I had just heard about Gagarin and thought: is that him and is he going to land in the Volga? But it was good that he still had some height, and there was a noticeable wind that took him to the field. He then disappeared behind a hill.” Gagarin, meanwhile, was surprised by the smoothness of his ejection from the capsule. As he gazed down he saw a broad and majestic river straddled by two cities. “I thought, that’s familiar.” And indeed it was – he was landing across the Volga River from Saratov, not far from Saratov’s twin city of Engels, where he had first learned to fly and studied the finer points of steel foundry work! The freshly plowed collective farm field where he landed embraced him like a warm pillow on that sunny spring day. He could hardly believe his good luck, especially after the harrowing descent and his initial expectation that he might just be landing on enemy territory. “I looked at myself – I was in one piece. That means I was alive and healthy.” He noticed a woman and a young girl tending a cow nearby. For six exhausting minutes he struggled to detach the parachute, which was caught on his undergarments. When the military eyewitness who first spotted him finally arrived on the scene a half hour or so later Gagarin was already surrounded by people – including the collective farm cow herder Anna Ivanovna Takhtarova and her young granddaughter, who would soon become household names as the first earthlings to encounter the space man. Korolev and Kamanin could not have written a better script: Gagarin, the smiling and humble provincial boy born on a collective farm in Smolensk province, had landed on a collective farm named “Lenin’s Path,” which was right next to a village called “Audacity” (Smelovka) and situated not far from the city of Saratov where Gagarin had studied the intricacies of forging steel and first learned to fly. Gagarin was without doubt the most valuable commodity ever produced by the Soviet collective farm system.[28]

Gagarin at his first press conference. Gagarin's KGB handlers found that he was an able and eager practitioner of obfuscation. At his first press conference he uttered a number of lies about his flight, including the legend that he landed in his capsule.

In his secret report of the flight, Gagarin said his appearance initially terrified the collective farm woman and her granddaughter, who fled from him as if were an American spy – or worse yet, an alien invader. Gagarin tried in vain to convince them he was not another dastardly U-2 pilot. “I’m one of yours,” he yelled. “A Soviet! Don’t be afraid, come here.”[29]

It was a good story but apparently not good enough for the Soviet censors, who made it more socialist realist – and hence, from the Soviet point of view, more sacred. Rather than running away from Gagarin, the collective farm woman was said to have immediately run toward him, instinctively recognizing him as one of her own. “Before us was an extremely calm and absolutely harmless person,” she told the newspaper Komsomol’skaia pravda. Whereas Gagarin’s secret report of the flight said he first told her not to be afraid, that he was a “Soviet person,” the published interview with Takhtarova recounted his first words very differently — as if he were a guide at a Soviet friendship of Peoples exhibit: “Hello, comrades! Let me introduce myself: I am a citizen of the Soviet Union, the first Soviet cosmonaut Iurii Alekseevich Gagarin. Let’s be friends!” Gone also was her observation that Gagarin landed in a parachute separately from the capsule, since that contradicted the official lie that Gagarin landed in his capsule. Sacred reality had almost instantly eclipsed its profane counterpart.[30]

Gagarin and his daughter Yelena. She is now the director of the Kremlin complex of museums, the top museum position in the Russian Federation today. As both her father's daughter and caretaker of the nation's sacred relics, she has vigorously defended her father's image -- in part, by securing exclusive rights to control use of his name and image for any commercial purpose.

The rocket division major stationed a guard by Gagarin’s parachute and drove Gagarin toward the division’s secret headquarters, where Gagarin reported his successful landing to Kamanin, who was waiting for him in Kuibyshev (the planned point of landing 2,106 kilometers away). A helicopter with a Gagarin search team eventually arrived. In an earlier scene reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, the helicopter had landed in the collective farm field ten minutes after Gagarin had left. The pilot tried to get information on Gagarin’s whereabouts from the collective farmers, but they were unsure just where he had been taken, since the rocket division headquarters’ location was a secret. After getting lost and flying in circles over the Volga, the frantic helicopter pilot eventually found Gagarin and took him to the air base at the nearby city of Engel’s. (Gagarin, at his first press conference, later claimed that the helicopter arrived immediately to pick him up at the site where he landed, a point that was also contradicted by some of the initial Soviet press accounts as well as his own secret report on the flight). Before Gagarin was spirited away by helicopter, someone managed to find a camera. Gagarin posed with the lads from the secret rocket division, though he was exhausted and on the verge of collapsing. A disheveled Gagarin, still in his jumpsuit undergarment, was surrounded by 50 members of the division, dwarfed and crushed in the center of the frame, as his admirers elbowed and pushed their way to their new idol. Nearly everyone was smiling except, for once, Gagarin, who appeared confused and perhaps a bit surprised by the ease with which he now attracted the attention he had craved for so long. One division member thrust his party card in front of Gagarin with a pen and demanded an autograph – which Gagarin dutifully scribbled, a habit that would soon become second nature. Gagarin, incidentally, emphasized in his official but secret report of the flight that at no time had he ever been photographed in his space suit. The claim assuaged fears (partly stoked by press accounts of curious eyewitnesses claiming a desire to photograph him) that he had allowed a classified piece of technology – the space suit or even himself– to be photographed without advance permission from the protectors of state secrets.[31]

Gagarin at a masquerade party with his two daughters and one of their friends. Gagarin greatly enjoyed wearing costumes and arranging masquerade parties in his residence in Star City outside Moscow. Here he is one of the three musketeers (he often repeated the phrase "One for all and all for one!). Other times he dressed as "Neptune," along with a balding, middle-aged man who appeared comically as his sidekick mermaid. Practical jokes and humorous role playing were among Gagarin's many talents -- perhaps one reason he was chosen to be the first cosmonaut.

The blindingly fast transformation from anonymous servant of the Soviet military industrial complex to beloved public idol continued as Gagarin stepped out of the helicopter at his next stop, the Engel’s air force base. A general handed him a congratulatory telegram from Khrushchev. Another officer stuffed a bouquet of flowers in his hand – hastily pulled out of flower pots from around the base. A band quickly assembled and played triumphal march music as he exited the helicopter. The surging crowd, barely kept back from crushing the cosmonaut, yelled out, “Hoorah,” and “How do you feel?” to which a woozy and nauseous Gagarin yelled back a lie, “Excellent!” Overwhelmed by a “welter of emotions,” Gagarin began to weep, as he received the official news that his flight into space had prompted an unprecedented promotion in rank: from Senior Lieutenant to Major, thus skipping a rank. It was one of the fastest promotions the history of the Red Army – and the only instance of such a promotion in the history of Soviet and Russian cosmonautics. (In fact, he knew of the promotion in advance and was probably weeping because he was just happy to be alive.) He then was handed a phone to speak first with Leonid Brezhnev (who upstaged Khrushchev by arranging that he get the first call) and then with the Soviet leader Khrushchev, who inquired about Gagarin’s family and parents, who were also now on their way to becoming idols themselves. He then fielded calls from the main correspondents of Izvestiia and Pravda, remembering the valuable lesson he had learned from his father about humility. When asked about his “feat,” he responded that the accomplishment was not his, “but the entire Soviet people, all engineers and technical specialists, all representatives of Soviet science.”[32]

Gagarin emerged around 2 p.m. from the headquarters in a blue body suit – the one that the cosmonauts wore underneath the space suit – as he prepared to make his way to a car and from there to an airplane waiting to take him to meet Kamanin in Kuibyshev. On the tarmac Gagarin appeared overwhelmed by the whole ordeal – as many eyewitnesses, contrary to official published reports, remarked.  Said one: “I don’t know how the cosmonaut really felt, but he did not conduct himself normally. He seemed taken aback, distant and then suddenly for no reason he would laugh loudly and uncontrollably.” The eyewitness concluded that Gagarin “probably could not believe that he had returned safe and sound, that he was on earth surrounded by people.” Despite attempts to maintain secrecy, Gagarin’s location and identity were very much public knowledge – thanks to the efficacy of the Soviet rumor mill. Masses of enthusiastic spectators gathered outside the air base to the get a glimpse of Gagarin, though military officials had tried, in vain, to keep all unauthorized personnel away. The crowds climbed trees to get a glimpse (one spectator fell and broke his arm). Not even a brick and iron fence could hold the crowds back. Acolytes hot on the trail of their idol managed to punch a hole through the wall separating the military base from the outside world. “With great difficulty [Gagarin] made his way through the wall of people and made it to the airplane,” remembered one individual on the plane that picked him up at the Engel’s air base to take him to meet Kamanin. “[Spectators] were trying to embrace him, to shake his hand, or simply touch their hero. From the boarding ramp he turned around, smiling, and thanked the crowd for the greeting.” Once inside the plane, Gagarin gazed out the window of his seat back at the crowd, still gathered to get a glimpse of their hero in the plane. Gagarin smiled broadly again, striking one eyewitness as a bit embarrassed, and gave the crowd a symbolic handshake, clasping his own hands over his head as he beamed. KGB officers tried their best to prevent photographs, but there were simply too many cameras and too much film to confiscate.[33] The people’s love had overwhelmed the security services.

Capsule Recovery and More Rumors

Gagarin received the latest model Volga as a reward for his flight. It is now displayed outside his hometown of Gagarin (formerly Gzhatsk). But the car he really loved to drive was a fancy French Matra "Djet," featured in the photograph below.

If millions of ordinary Soviet citizens were eager to catch a glimpse of their new hero, the engineers who had designed the capsule were focused on his spaceship, which had landed two kilometers away from Gagarin. Realizing that curious onlookers were likely strip it down like car thieves in a chop shop, they rushed like mad men to their destination. Unfortunately, their helicopter got lost for a half hour and flew helplessly around the banks of the Volga before finally finding their quarry.[34]

By the time they arrived a crowd had already assembled by the charred spaceship, which looked very much the worse for wear. The capsule was lying face down on the hatch through which Gagarin had catapulted. Another emergency hatch was open and the rescuers noticed that tubes of food were missing. They surmised that one of the onlookers had purloined state property. So they organized a search, threatening the crowd with the gravest of consequences if the thief did not fess up.  A chastened tractor mechanic sheepishly stepped forward. He told them that he saw the capsule descending underneath a gigantic parachute. “I’d never seen anything like that before,” he said. But he immediately realized it was Gagarin’s capsule, whose flight he had just heard about on the radio. He went up to the capsule and saw instructions: “Take the key, open the hatch, and provide help!” When he discovered there was no cosmonaut inside, he began rooting around, discovering, in his words, “tubes with tasty names on them. So I took a few things, to show off to people and try out myself. When I got out of the capsule I turned out the power – I’m a mechanic, you know, and can figure these things out myself, and thought why waste the battery power…” The mechanic very reluctantly agreed to return the things he had taken from the capsule. One tube was already empty – he had devoured its contents. He wore a toothless grin when the capsule rescue team gave it to him as a souvenir.[35]

Gagarin's Matra "Djet," a gift from the French people in 1965. He appreciated his Volga, but this is the car he really loved to drive. Brezhnev, a huge aficionado of cars, Soviet and foreign, was probably jealous. The Djet is rumored today to be in a private collection in Lithuania.

The capsule rescue team was ill-equipped, however, to deal with the growing mass of people who had heard about the capsule landing spot and were clamoring for souvenirs of their own. How news traveled that fast, regarding a capsule whose landing site was never announced and was supposed to be top secret, suggests the occasional accuracy of the Soviet rumor mill – at least as compared to official reports. One eyewitness recalled that tough-looking fellows in civilian clothes, KGB officials, seized his camera and ripped out the film, but new arrivals with cameras paid little heed to warnings. “[The crowd] refused to listen to our warnings and commands to move away from the capsule,” remembered one member of the rescue team. “We had to resort to a tried and true method. We drove stakes into the ground around the capsule and connected them with a band of thick brush. That simple means worked better than any conventional fence.” They then threw a tarp over the capsule to protect the crowd from gaining a glimpse of a classified technology – and tossed some smoke bombs around the perimeter. But those efforts were also futile. Within hours, both the collective farm field and the field in which the spaceship landed two kilometers away had become spontaneous pilgrimage sites – a testimonial to the unprompted nature of the Gagarin cult itself. Whole factories and schools had declared an end to the work day and loaded people into buses for a trip to the landing sites. They came from as far as 100 kilometers away. Many of those gathered were model workers at factories who had been honored by their bosses to leave work immediately, go to the capsule, and bring back some sort of memento or photograph. And they were irate when their plans were frustrated. “We were released from work at such a crucial time to come all the way here to see the capsule and tell people about it – what a space capsule looks like. And you won’t let us see it! We are going to complain about this!” The rescue team continued to plead with the insistent crowd. “You’ll see it in the museum,” they said. “It’s not allowed.” But it was clear the crowd would not disperse, so they compromised, at first ordering everyone back 20 steps and then lifting the tarp to give them a peak. Willy-nilly, the landing site had been transformed into a boundary separating the closed from open worlds, “a space for struggle and a zone of negotiation and reflection,” where Soviets gained a rare opportunity to peer inside a world usually completely off limits.[36]

When the crowd surged forward the guards struggled mightily to push them back and restored the tarp. Finally, they allowed those who gathered to approach individually, touch the capsule, look inside, and even “take a piece of insulation material as a souvenir.” For one member of the capsule retrieval crew, the incident illustrated “the enormous interest with which everyone followed the first steps into space. We were literally deluged with questions – about the construction of the ship, future flights, and even the sort of people that are taken on space flights.” The rescue team staged a mini “press conference,” as another participant put it, “improvised lectures in answer to all sorts of questions.” Those lucky Soviets from Saratov received far more information about the capsule than any other public in the world, Soviet or foreign.[37]

The monument to Gagarin near the site where he landed on the "Lenin's Path" collective farm. The area is overgrown with pine trees because of the yearly ritual of planting trees at the place locals call "the Gagarin fields."

While the crowd expressed awe at the accomplishment, it also showed a high degree of skepticism about some claims already made by the government regarding the flight. “Was it true that Gagarin was really the first,” they asked, thus repeating a rumor, as noted earlier, that had already been circulating in Soviet society. Official Soviet accounts only fed these urban myths. For example, the Soviets reported, contrary to the truth, that Gagarin had landed in the capsule. Yet eyewitnesses at the capsule landing site had seen only the capsule land; and by April 13 it was common knowledge in the Saratov region that Gagarin’s landing site and the place where the capsule alit were two different places. The only “logical” conclusion for some – since there were apparently two landing sites — was that another flight had taken place. It didn’t help that official sources had trouble keeping their stories straight. In their first report on the flight, Komsomol’skaia pravda initially reported that Gagarin had landed in his parachute separately from the capsule – a report that slipped passed the censors. It was the only Soviet newspaper to report the truth, though it would correct this “error” in all future accounts of the landing. Astute Soviet readers all over the Soviet Union, and not just in Saratov, noticed the contradiction. One unpublished letter to Izvestiia from workers in a construction brigade in Briansk oblast’ asked: “Did he land in a capsule or parachute? Izvestiia said he landed in a capsule while Komsomol’skaia pravda implied that ‘the landing was in a parachute.’ Maybe we don’t understand this issue well, but among us there is a dispute.” Another unpublished letter from Leningrad – this time from a reader of Komsomol’skaia pravda to its editors – noticed the same contradiction, as did a worker from Tula: “Explain this to us,” said one. “Where is the truth?” asked another. If the official Gagarin landing story was intended to impress the capitalist enemy with the Soviet Union’s technological capabilities, its unintended consequence was to feed domestic doubts about the official story of the flight – though skepticism about Soviet news reports was hardly new. And those doubts did little to dampen the Soviet public’s enthusiasm for their new hero. Not for nothing did one Saratovite refer to the field where Gagarin landed as the “touchdown that launched a thousand rumors.”[38]

A painting of Gagarin in the Saratov Gagarin museum. The painter captured Gagarin's triumphal 1965 return to the city near where he landed and where he studied for four years (1951-55) to receive a degree in steel foundry work.

The obsession with secrecy also fed other rumors. News of the tragic death of Valentin Bondarenko during training just three weeks prior to Gagarin’s flight was supposed to be a secret, but faint echoes of his ghastly demise somehow seeped through gates of the Star City cosmonaut training center and into the broader society. On April 12 that news turned into the rumor that the “real” cosmonaut had died just prior to Gagarin’s flight – and that Gagarin was a stand in. It then fused with another rumor, reported in London on April 7 but perhaps originating back in the Soviet Union, that an engineer’s son had perished on reentry in the “real” first flight and that Gagarin, who never went into space, had assumed his position.  Others who gathered around the capsule related yet another tale about a certain “Gabriel” who had flown in March but was seriously injured. Gabriel, it turns out, was the unofficial name for the mannequin who had flown with the dog “Little Star” in March. Officially named Ivan Ivanovich, the mannequin’s unofficial alias came from the head of rocket forces Mikhail Tikhonravov, who made a toast on the eve of the flight in which he dubbed the dummy “Gabriel.” It was an odd appellation for an avowedly atheist system since Gabriel, in Christianity, was God’s messenger.[39]

At any rate, the Soviet rumor mill got the message from behind the surprisingly penetrable gates of the secret Soviet military-industrial complex, preferring the unofficial “Gabriel” over “Ivan Ivanovich” – just as it seemed to prefer its own tales over those offered in the Soviet press. Gabriel, according to this tale, had thus preceded Gagarin into space. One of the individuals at the capsule landing site was adamant. “You can’t fool us,” he told the retrieval crew. “We didn’t see it, but we heard, so to speak, from reliable sources that already in March some sort of Gabriel flew into space…” One member of the capsule recovery crew at this point let out a loud guffaw – and wondered in amazement about the strange dynamics of the Soviet grapevine when he understood the origin of the Gabriel myth: The capsule that had contained the mannequin “Gabriel” was retrieved in March 1961 700 kilometers away from Gagarin’s Vostok landing site. He was there for that recovery as he was for the recovery of Gagarin’s capsule. When they lifted the mannequin’s capsule by helicopter from the ground, “Gabriel,” aka Ivan Ivanonvich, was indeed dangling from it – and one leg, bent and misshapen, nearly fell off. Some peasants nearby had witnessed the scene. The retrieval crew had to stuff poor Gabriel back into the helicopter. How those peasants knew he was unofficially called “Gabriel,” however, was still a mystery. “There were only a few eyewitnesses, but somehow the rumor traveled 700 kilometers [to the landing site of Gagarin’s capsule] and look what it gave rise to!”[40] It was a powerful illustration of a phenomenon noted by one geographer: “Factual errors abound in the unperceived field.”[41]

There were many monuments erected near Gagarin's landing site -- almost all supported by voluntary initiatives from the Saratov region. This was the first, a marble tablet announcing that a monument would soon be erected on the field which almost immediately -- and to this day -- became a site of pilgrimage.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rocket engineer Boris Chertok was still denying the validity of these rumors. “I hereby testify and once again solemnly declare that, before Gagarin, not a single human being flew into space from the territory of the Soviet Union!”[42] The Soviets were now reaping what they had sown. A flight born in a climate of secrecy and rumor-mongering, which the Soviets had partly encouraged to create an atmosphere of intense anticipation for the flight, was now challenged by the very same rumor mill. Such was the cost of secrecy: far from providing control over information, it provided a fertile breeding ground for fables, myths, and legends. Indeed, just as fables and hideous sea creatures grew on the edges of medieval maps, so too had rumors multiplied in the mysterious realms of Gagarin’s flight.

International Reactions and Information Wars

While rumors continued to “clarify” news of Gagarin’s feat domestically, they also spread to the pages of the capitalist press – and then back again into the Soviet Union via Voice of America, which was ramping up a disinformation campaign. Voice of America in the days after the flight aired reports to Soviet listeners that Gagarin’s flight was not the first attempt to launch a man into space, prompting some Soviet readers to ask for an explanation in unpublished letters sent to the editors at Komsomol’skaia pravda.[43] The Soviet compiler of news reports, meanwhile, was disgusted by the “fantasies of English newspapers.” On April 13 the Daily Express, along with others, repeated earlier published accounts of a flight that had supposedly taken place on April 7. “Moscow’s lie in the sky” was the headline of one article, which claimed Gagarin was a stand-in for the “Ilyushin” who died on reentry April 7. The analyst also remarked bitterly upon British claims that the Soviets would never have the courage to report the flight while a cosmonaut was in orbit, lest he not survive the reentry. So the British journalists concluded that if Gagarin flew into space, it was not on April 12, but April 7 – thus confirming, according to the circular logic of the rumor mill, the validity of earlier rumors of an April 7 flight.  A particularly insulting article on April 13 in the Daily Mail drew special attention: it claimed that the reason Khrushchev banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations on October 12, 1960 was because of an earlier unsuccessful attempt to launch a man into space (a report that also surfaced in the New York Times, referred to by the Soviet press analyst as “the concoctions of the New York Times”). The news report, incidentally, was not completely wrong: the Soviets had covered up a Soviet ICBM launch that exploded on the launch pad in October of 1960, killing more than 100 bystanders, but that happened 12 days after Khrushchev’s famous shoe-banging incident. One French newspaper wondered why the Soviet Union itself was awash in rumors before the flight – and why, for two days in a row before the flight, the Soviets had put the Moscow press on high alert, suggesting that something big was about to happen. Those rumors, it concluded, could only mean one thing: there were two flights – a first one that failed and then Gagarin’s flight, which may or may not have actually occurred. If there was any comfort for the press Soviet press analyst, as he viewed Western reactions to the flight, it was that rumors of a previous Soviet flight did suggest that the West had no doubt about the Soviet Union’s technological capabilities.[44]

The banner of the Gagarinites, held aloft by Aleksandra Rossoshanskaia, director of the Gagarin Memorial Museum in Saratov. Teenagers competed in the 1970s for the honor of being accepted into the ranks of Gagarinites. Every April 12, at the monument to Gagarin in the "Gagarin Fields" where he landed, these patriotic youngsters were inducted into the order of Gagarinities. Graduates from that era have revived the tradition among youngsters in the Saratov region today.

While the capitalist press cast doubt on the flight, it also challenged the narrative about Gagarin as a simple collective farmer boy. A summary of these reports for April 13 came under the heading: “The fabrications of Western information agencies about the origins of Iu. Gagarin.” It noted that a Russian émigré at Fairleigh-Dickinson University in the United States, a certain “Professor Aleksis Shcherbatov,” had told reporters he believed that Gagarin, far from being a collective farm boy from Gzhatsk, was the grandson of “Prince Mikhail Gagarin, owner of immense estates near Moscow and Smolensk, who was shot by the Bolsheviks.” Another Gagarin living in the West said he trained horses in the Tsar’s stables – and the cosmonaut was his nephew. “Russian émigré circles” in London, according to the press analyst, were telling reporters that Gagarin had princely rather than peasant origins, as were their colleagues in the United States. “And thus the American press hopes to wash with cold water the ears of Americans who were excited about the flight of a Soviet man into space.” To counter the capitalist lies about the flight and Gagarin’s origins, the Soviets on April 14 assembled a team of genealogical experts and engineers at the Academy of Sciences to reveal “the truth” (which, of course, also involved lying about the numerous aspects of the flight, especially the landing).[45] At least in the United States, the results were decidedly mixed.  The American press continued “to belittle the significance of the Soviet triumph in space,” noted the press analyst. “The enraged lackeys of American capitalism are resorting to all sorts of pathetic methods,” by which the analyst presumably meant challenging the many questionable Soviet claims – as well as perpetuating the idea that Gagarin’s flight followed a failed attempt. One reporter wondered about the Soviet claim that Gagarin had been promoted from Senior Lieutenant to Major during his flight. He and his colleagues had all received almost immediately after the flight a photograph of Gagarin in Major’s stripes. Since there could not have been enough time to take the picture since Gagarin’s flight, they logically surmised that it must have been taken before the flight, in which case the promotion happened before and not during the flight, as the Soviets claimed. Caught in a lie, the Soviets simply ignored the report as a provocation unworthy of response – unlike claims challenging Gagarin’s muzhik origins.[46]

A painting of Gagarin's reception in the Saratov region shortly after his landing. Saratov Gagarin Memorial Museum.

Finally, the Soviet press analyst noted that Western press coverage had died down considerably within a few days of the flight, as Gagarin and his feat were pushed to the back of the newspapers’ news sections. The analyst interpreted the downgrade as a deliberate provocation (though he might have mentioned that the Soviet refusal to release meaningful details about the flight was perhaps the cause of both rumors and waning press coverage). American newspapers thus belittled the flight by “using the following technique: they write very little about the first flight of a Soviet person into space and almost no commentary on the event….It is worth noting that neither the New York Times, nor the Daily News and New York Mirror, have bothered to write editorials about Gagarin’s flight,” a claim that apparently missed the editorial the New York Times had published on April 12. According to the press analyst, the refusal to fill nearly every news hole with details of Gagarin and his flight, in contrast to the Soviet press, could only be a desperate maneuver by enemies to belittle what could no longer be denied as the greatest achievement in human history. The absence of hyperbolic praise in the Western press was especially insulting. “For example, all [the American] newspapers are publishing Gagarin’s story about how he continued to work under conditions of weightlessness, about his hopes, his magnanimous statements that there is enough room in space for everyone, including Americans. And yet they report Gagarin’s historic thoughts…as if they were ‘everyday news’.” Thus when it came to spinning their own tales for national security and propaganda purposes, the Soviets did not feel the slightest moral compunction; but when untruths blared forth from the organs of the capitalist press, or when editors downplayed the earth-shattering significance of Gagarin’s every utterance, they experienced a feeling of moral outrage about “the poisonous, malicious spirit” of Western press coverage.[47] Such was the adjustable and hypocritical moral compass that operated on both sides of the Cold War divide: our newspapers tell the truth; yours are full of lies and rumors; we report the news; you report the fantasies of your political hirelings.

Final Clean-Up and a Few More Distortions

The phone that Gagarin used after his flight to report his landing. It is located in the Gagarin Memorial Museum in Engel's. The many Gagarin museums across Russia proudly display their cherished pieces of Gagariniana.

Meanwhile, the capsule recovery team continued its work of protecting the capsule from curious onlookers and gawkers as they prepared it for partial dis-assembly and transport by helicopter. And then they received word that not a single part of the capsule be touched before a special commission could arrive and inspect it. So they had to wait through the night of April 12, as inquisitive spectators continued to gather, staying the night in makeshift tents and partying around campfires. The landing site began to resemble a gypsy encampment.[48]

The commission finally arrived the next afternoon of April 13, more than one day after the landing. It was led by Korolev, who stepped off one of three helicopters carrying the commission members. Korolev beamed, congratulating everyone and shaking their hands, as onlookers were shooed away by armed guards. Korolev – who seemed to share with everyone else a fascination with pureed food out of tube — then took a tube of food from the capsule (pate) and squeezed out a centimeter’s worth for everyone. Before lifting off with the capsule on April 13, the day after the flight, the capsule recovery crew performed one last task. To make sure the historic site of the landing was not forgotten, each of the capsule rescue crew took turns pounding a crowbar into a hole left in the ground by the capsule’s landing. On the end of the crowbar sticking out of the ground they etched the following: “12.VI.61.” “Somehow a bottle of Stolichnaia appeared from God knows where,” said one of the rescue crew, and they polished it off, along with another tube of space food. Alas, their act of commemoration was all for naught; the post was discreetly removed shortly thereafter and the exact location of the capsule’s landing deliberately obscured. They had forgotten that there could be only one place to commemorate the landing since the official line on the flight was that Gagarin had landed in his capsule. And because Gagarin’s landing spot was also a secret, the only solution was to mark the Vostok’s landing in a place where neither Gagarin nor the capsule landed.  Moreover, with the erection of subsequent monuments on the supposed site of Gagarin’s landing (through the 1980s, a number of different new monuments replaced previous ones), the commemorated place of landing, as with the decay of historical memory more generally over time, has grown more and more distant from Gagarin’s actual place of landing – about 250 meters, by one observer’s estimation. As Henri Lefebvre, the great French sociologist once remarked, “on close examination…spaces made…to be read are the most deceptive and tricked-up imaginable.” Truth be told, the link between fact and memory, already tenuous to begin with, had become irrelevant for most of Gagarin’s acolytes – even if there were some, as on the Gagarin landing site on April 12, who noticed some troubling inconsistencies in the official story. Besides, it was just too damn difficult in the Soviet Union to distinguish rumor from fact.[49]

The entrance to the technical college where Gagarin studied. The sign quotes Gagarin: "A person can only be happy together with his country."

With the business of capsule recovery completed, it was now time to register the event officially with the world community, thereby laying to rest once and for all doubts about the flight’s truth. The Soviets followed the requirements of the Federation Aeronatique International for documenting the flight and putting it into the history record books. Created in Paris in 1905, the organization’s purpose was to provide an objective basis for comparing new feats in air flight around the world. In the Soviet Union, the recording of aerospace achievements was handled by the paramilitary organization known as DOSAAF, the same one that had given Gagarin his wings. The organization had created a special commission concerned with various athletic and technical problems associated with being a cosmonaut, which eventually became the Federation of Cosmonautics in the USSR. The head of sports in the Soviet Union had the responsibility for registering and propagandizing virtually all space records in the Soviet period, including Gagarin’s. At the FAI’s 53rd general conference in Barcelona in 1960 an “international sporting” commission was created to set the ground rules for recording the first human flight in space. The American position had prevailed that day: that the first man in space had to land in the craft in which he was launched. That condition clearly favored American technology, based on a capsule landing on water with an astronaut inside. Perhaps for that reason, the Soviets felt justified in their lie that Gagarin had landed in his capsule. At any rate, the head of Soviet sports, I. G. Borisenko, was quickly transported to the landing place and recorded three world records: length of flight (108 minutes), altitude of flight (327 kilometers) and weight of payload thrust into orbit (4725 kilograms). The procedure required that an official representative of FAI be present to provide independent confirmation. Fortunately, Borisenko wore two hats: he was both the recorder of the record and the official representative of FAI, so he had little trouble in vouchsafing for his own results. Data in hand, FAI at its 54th general meeting dutifully awarded Gagarin the “Gold Medal” for satisfying their requirements for being the first man in space. At the same time, the Soviet delegation urged FAI to make April 12 “Global Youth Day of Aviation and Cosmonautics,” a proposal which quickly became the subject of Cold War bickering. Americans at the Paris headquarters of FAI tried to kill the proposal, but to no avail. “I must say,” said the Soviet author of the proposed new holiday, “the American side agreed only with great reservations.”[50] (For some other details on the recording of the flight for FAI, see: http://www.newsru.com/russia/30mar2011/gagarin.html)

Another Gagarin portrait in the entrance hall of the technical college where he studied in Saratov.

The Soviets, whose officials sat alongside Americans and Europeans on the governing board of FAI, were understandably determined to exact more propaganda advantage. So they proposed a new international medal for space achievement to be named after Gagarin. American representatives protested vehemently. The main American argument was that there was no precedent at FAI for conferring medals in honor of a particular individual — a position that turned out to be untrue, since FAI conferred a Leonardo da Vinci medal. Truth in hand, the Soviets gleefully pressed their advantage, arguing “that if there are not medals named after people, then we accept not having a Gagarin medal, and if there are, then let’s affirm the Gagarin medal without further discussions.” There was no further discussion. The Soviets had nothing left to do but gloat – and celebrate.[51]


[1] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1977), 86. Many Soviets remembered that news of the Nazi invasion came first from rumors rather than from the Soviet media. Timothy Johnston, “Subversive Tales? War Rumours in the Soviet Union 1945-1947,” in Juliane Furst, ed., Late Stalinist Russia: Society between Reconstruction and Reinvention (London: Routledge, 2006), 63, 66, 68.

[2] GARF, f. 4459, o. 43, d. 1010. ll. 10-16, 20, 39, 52, 62.

[3] GARF, f. 4459, o. 43, d. 1010, l. 238.

[4] GARF, f. 4459, o. 43, d. 1010, ll. 239, 240, 244, 245, 246,  248, 250, 251.

[5] GARF, f. 4459, o. 43, d. 1010, 1. 250.

[6] GARF, f. 4459, o. 43, d. 1010, ll. 242, 243, 251, 258.

[7] James Oberg’s 1981 Red Star in Orbit analyzes the Cold War context that generated such rumors. See an excerpt from his book on his website regarding the sources of rumors and other legends:  http://www.jamesoberg.com/

[8] GARF, f. 4459, o. 43, d. 1010, l. 252.

[9] RGAE, f. 9453, o. 2, d. 34, l. 75.

[10]“Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” Izvestiia Ts.K. KPSS, No. 5, 1991, 104; Gagarinskii sbornik, 2003, ch. 1, 101;  Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 6-7. That incident only came to light as the Soviet Union collapsed.

[11] “Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 105.

[12]L. D. Peryshkova, “V. P. Glushko i kosmonavty,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXX obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2003 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2004), 209; V. Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso kosmosa (Moscow: Gelios, 2002), 218.

[13] Boris Chertok, Rockets and People. Volume III. Hot Days of the Cold War (Washington D. C.: 2009), 63.

[14] E. F. Atachkin, “Razrabotka i vvod…spasatel’nogo kompleksa,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002), 145.

[15] B. E. Chertok, “Termoiadernyi vzryv prolozhil dorogu v kosmos,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002),Chertok, 21; Vasilii Butskikh, German Titov na Saratovskoi zemle (Engel’s, 2005), 8.

[16] Syn zemli Smolenskoi (Smolensk: Madzhenta, 2004), 33-34; Iurii Ustinov, ed., Bessmertie Gagarina (Moscow: Geroi otechestva, 2004), 355-356; M. N. Burdaev, “Iu. A. Gagarin – pervyi chelovek v kosmose,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002), 84.

[17]B. N. Kantemirov, “Pervyi nachal’nik TsPK,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002) 40; Burdaev, “Iu. A. Gagarin – pervyi chelovek v kosmose,” 81; Syn zemli Smolenskoi, 34; Suvorov, The First Manned Space Flight, 23, 114; Feoktistov, Zato my delali rakety (Moscow, 2005), 104. Those films are preserved in the State Russian Archive of Scientific-Technical Documentation (with little influence, it should be noted, on the doubters and conspiracy theorists).

[18] Vladimir Suvorov, Alexander Sabelnikov, The First Manned Space Flight: Russia’s Quest for Space (Nova Science Publishers), 59-60; N. P. Kamanin, Skrytyi kosmos. Kniga pervaia, 1960-63 (Moscow: Infortekst, 1995), 50-51.

[19] The report was put up for sale in 2001 at Christies – for $171,000 — and again in 2008 at Sotheby’s. “Kosmicheskaia rasprodazha,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, online edition, May 11, 2005, www.ng.ru/style/2001-05-11/16_cosmic_sale.html, downloaded April 11, 2009; “Otchet Gagarina o polete v kosmos vystaviat na auktsione Sotheby’s,” NEWSrun.com, www.newsru.com/cinema/13 oct2008/sotheby’s, downloaded October 14, 2008.

[20]Suvorov, The First Manned Space Flight,  61; Syn zemli smolenskoi, 34; Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 117-119.

[21] Suvorov, The First Manned Space Flight, 62; “Vystuplenie B. E. Chertoka na torzhestvennom otkrytii chtenii,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1996-1997 gg. (Gagarin, 1998), 16; Skrytyi kosmos, 52.

[22]“Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 106-107, 109-112; Suvorov, The First Manned Space Flight, 63; Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 121, 150; Iu. S. Karpov, “O polete korablyia-sputnika ‘Vostok’ i doklade Iu. A. Gagarina,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1996-1997 gg. (Gagarin, 1998), 204.

[23]“Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 112-113, 117, 119, 127; Skrytyi kosmos, 52-53.

[24] Syn zemli Smolenskoi, 38-39; A. A. Lobnev, “Vosvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXX obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2003 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2004), 101; Vladimir Tsybin, Kosmonavty pervogo otriada (Engel’s: PKI, 2003), 18.

[25] Gagarinskii sbornik 2005, ch. 2, 274; Eduard Buinovskii, Povsednevnaia zhizn’ pervykh rossiiskikh raketchikov i kosmonavtov (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 2005), 150.

[26] Aleksei Adzhubei, Te desia’t let (Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1989), 162.

[27] V. A. Maistrenko, “Vklad predpriiatii Saratovskoi oblasti,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXX obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2003 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2004), 179; “Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 120.

[28] Lobnev, “Vosvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” 103-104; “Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 121-122.

[29] Ibid., 122; Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 57-58.

[30] “Prizemlenie,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, April 14, 1961, 1; Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 9-10.

[31]Ibid., 8-9; “Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 122-123.

[32] A. V. Glushko, “Fotografii Iuriia Alekseevicha Gagarina,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVI obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1999 g. (Gagarin, 2000), 213; Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 19; “Zvezdnyi reis Iuriia Gagarina,” 122-123.

[33]Ibid., 123;  Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 8, 13, 18-24; Lobnev, “Vosvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” 102.

[34] Ibid., 102-103; Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 8.

[35]Lobnev, 103.

[36] Kay Anderson et al, eds., Handbook of Cultural Geography (London: Sage Publications, 2003), 471.

[37] V. I. Udalov, A. I. Kobylinskii, Vstrechi s Gagarinym (Saratov: Privolzhskoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 2001), 49-50; Lobnev, “Vosvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” 103; Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 7-11; A. V. Pallo, “Vospominaniia o vstreche s Iu. A. Gagarinym,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1996-1997g g. (Gagarin, 1998), 71.

[38] Lobnev, “Vozvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” 104; Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 9; Saratovskii Arbat, 17 March 2004, 7; RGAE, f. 9453, o. 2, d. 30, l. 51; d. 34, ll. 190, 202.

[39] Lobnev, “Vozvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” 98.

[40] Ibid., 105; Suvorov, The First Manned Space Flight, 52-53.

[41] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 87; Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 50.

[42] Chertok, Rockets and People, 16.

[43] RGAE, f. 9453, o. 2, d. 34, ll. 75-76, 125.

[44] GARF, f. 4459, 0. 43, d. 1011, ll. 98-100, 117, 184, 237, 247.

[45] GARF, f. 4459, 0. 43, d. 1011, ll. 107, 117-118, 162.

[46] GARF, f. 4459, 0. 43, d. 1011, ll. 237, 285.

[47] GARF, f. 4459, 0. 43, d. 1011, ll. 285-287, 289.

[48] Pallo, “Vospominaniia…,” 72.

[49] Stranitsy istorii, Pokrovsk-Engel’s, 4-yi vypusk, March 2004, 11-12; Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London:Blackwell, 1991), 143; Lobnev, “Vozvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” 106.

[50] A. D. Koval’, “O deiatel’nosti Mezhdunarodnoi astronavticheskoi komissii FAI,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002), 186-189.

[51] Ibid., 191-192.

This entry was posted in Cold War, Soviet and Russian Space Flight, Soviet Era 1917-1991. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Flight that Launched a Thousand Rumors

  1. Oleg Sollogub says:

    Hi Andrew.

    The Kuibyshev where Kamanin was waiting for Gagrain is not that little town in Novosibirsk region, over 2000 km away from Gagarin’s landing place. This little town was absolutely beyond reach as it is located to the east of the launching site. Gagarin had to land to the west of the launching point, as the Earth under him rotated to the east. You see, the plane of the orbit stays fixed in the space, and the Earth rotates at a known rate (1 turn per 24 hours). Gagarin’s flight lasted for 108 min, so the Eart could only shift so much to the east during this time.

    Provided that the space capsule is on its orbit, it cannot change its direction and land to the left (west) or to the right (east) of it. The problem that remains, though, is where exactly along the orbit the landing would take place. Depending on the exact timing and engine thrust and some other variables, the capsule could land shorter of the planned point or fly over it and land farther along the orbit.

    The city of Kuibyshev where Gagarin was to meet (and actually met) Kamanin was a big city, a regional center on the Volga river, between Saratov and Ulyanovsk. Now it is called Samara. Founded in 1586 as Samara, it was renamed Kuibyshev in 1935 and changed its name back to Samara soon after “perestroyka” started. It is a big city with over 1,200,000 or so inhabitants. Naturally, Gagarin was not expected to land in the middle of the big city, but rather somewhere in the steppe area to the south-west.

    Smelovka (the actual landing place) is about 600 km (south-west) of Kuibyshev, which was maybe a little short of the planned spot (probably due to the incomplete separation that could slow down the capsule a little more than planned), but still well within the area of the planned search activities. (But then, no one really hoped him to land exactly at a specific pre-defined place, and this was simply not a target of the flight).

    I am native Russian and have been living in Kuibyshev (Samara) since my birth in 1962. I know there were several places called Kuibyshev on the map of the former USSR. But the one I live in is a big center of the rocket-space industry. And the rocket R7 that took Gagarin to the orbit is (still) produced here. So you see, it was quite a natural place to appoint a meeting to the first cosmonaut.

    Best regards,
    Oleg Sollogub

  2. Andrew Jenks says:

    Thanks, Oleg, for that important clarification. You are absolutely right about the mix-up of Kuibyshevs on my part. As I suggest in my blog, and as you also point out, just landing somewhere near the ideal planned spot — even 600 kilometers away — was quite satisfactory, though that didn’t prevent the Soviets from implying, contrary to the truth, that Gagarin landed precisely where they had intended that he land (and not 60o kilometers away). Admitting that they could not precisely control the rocket’s trajectory suggested less than pinpoint accuracy in transporting nuclear payloads to particular targets — an unspoken yet widely understood message attached to the flight. And so they maintained the fiction that Gagarin landed “in the planned spot.”

  3. James Oberg says:

    Andrew, you appear to have discovered a seventh version of the Gagarin-on-bus photo with Nelyubov fading away from the background — but your version (scan0013-259×300.jpg) has him not only gone, but the background painted back in! Did you make that scan from a book in your possession? Molodets!

    Apropos of the slightly off colurse landing — the most intriguing ‘news’ I’ve encountered during the 50th anniversary is a very persuasive story that the mission duration — 108 minutes — was only a guess made by officials who were not present when it happened. But they swore that they were, in affdavits filed with the FAI in Paris. Subsequent analysis and results from later Vostok bailouts led engineers tgo amend their estimated mission duration to 106 minutes, but the figure had to be kept secret since 108 was the figure that ‘sports commissar’ Borisenko swore he personally times with his own stopwatch. I’m not ready to re-re-REwrite the history books, but it would be ironic if the canonized figure of ’108′ was just another Moscow lie that they are still, 50 years later, unwilling to retract.

    Another sad example of the persistence of those lies is here: http://vrn.kp.ru/f/12/image/71/74/2467471.jpg
    which is a prize-winning child’s drawing of the Vostok landing, showing two Soviet officers assisting Gagarin out of his landed capsule.

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