Russian Space History — Dreams in Orbit

Murzilka_Jan65In an oft-quoted remark, Svetlana Boym asserted that “Soviet children of the 1960s did not dream of becoming doctors and lawyers, but cosmonauts (or, if worse came to worst, geologists.” 1 This illustration from a December 1960 issue of the children’s magazine, Murzilka, suggests that even before Yuri Gagarin’s leap into the cosmos, Soviet children’s culture was compelling the USSR’s youngest citizens to commit their dreams to the stars.

As Monica Rüthers pointed out in a recent article, in the aftermath of Sputnik and Gagarin, the twin catapults of celebrity and propaganda bombarded children with irresistible images of success and personal possibility: “The strong and meaningful motifs of ‘childhood’ and ‘cosmos’ were used in combination,” Rüthers argues. “In their symbolic meaning, these iconographic motifs signified the belief in the country’s leading role in the future of mankind.” 2

Murzilka_Sept61

In his initial posting to this conversation, Asif Siddiqi asked us to consider (among other things) “the co-production of imagination and engineering in Soviet space culture” and, more specifically, “the challenges of drawing connections between popular discourse and real world changes.” When it came to imagining their future selves, at least some among the first generation of space age children believed that they were living in a time and place where their dreams would come true. Consider the following excerpt from a letter written to Valentina Tereshkova by a girl in Irkutsk oblast:

I just finished the 4th grade, so at the moment I can’t think about a flight to the cosmos. Your deed made me very glad. I hope that when I grow up the success of our science and technology will stride far beyond the limits of outer space and in time no doubt there will be a flight for tourists to other planets. How fortunate that I live in this century, when my native people are capable of space flight and I know that my dream will also come true. 3

Tetia_Valia

Murzilka, No. 11, November 1963, 9.

Historians have tended to downplay the importance of Tereshkova’s voyage on both scientific and cultural grounds. But as the letter above suggests, for girls in the Soviet Union the flight of the “seagull” made real their own dreams of rising to the stars. Within days of Tereshkova’s successful return to earth, a girl from rural Ukraine wrote to Gagarin in his capacity as commander of the cosmonaut corps to express her own sense of mission:

I have wanted to ask you for a long time already: ‘is it possible for a simple village girl to fly to the cosmos?’ But I never decided to do it. Now that the first Soviet woman has flown into space, I finally decided to write you a letter….I know [to become a cosmonaut] one needs training and more training, one needs courage and strength of character. And although I haven’t yet trained ‘properly’, I am still confident of my strength. It seems to me that with the kind of preparation that you gave Valia Tereshkova, I would also be able to fly to the cosmos. 4

The sense of entitlement manifested in girls’ letters to Tereshkova and other early cosmonauts stands in stark contrast to the resigned hopelessness that peppers the fan mail American girls sent to John Glenn. A fifteen-year-old from Minnesota put it this way:

Dear Col. Glenn, I want to congratulate you on your successful space flight around the earth. I am proud to live in a nation where such scientific achievements can be attained. I’m sure it takes a great amount of training and courage for you to accomplish such a feat. It was a great honor to witness this historical event. I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15 year old girl I guess that would be impossible. So I would like to wish you and all of the other astronauts much success in the future. 5

It is important to note that Tereshkova’s flight had resonance for girls in the US as well as those in the Soviet Union. Not long after the news broke that the USSR had sent a woman into space, a girl from Mississippi wrote to Glenn on behalf of her junior high school class to ask, “What were our male astronauts reactions when Russia’s female astronaut made more orbits than they? …Do you seven male astronauts think that a woman will go into space within the next two years?” 6 Meanwhile, a girl from Glenn’s home state of Ohio played the Cold War card quite directly: “I really wish I knew more about space and could become involved with the space program in my later life…I hope we get to the moon before the Russians, because it’s getting monotonous seeing the Soviet Union doing everything first in space.” 7

Such remarks invite further discussion of Soviet space culture as a transnational phenomenon even as they emphasize certain aspects of experience that were unique to those living in the USSR in the early years of the space age.


  1. Svetlana Boym, “Kosmos: Rememberences of the Future, in Kosmos: A Portrait of the Russian Space Age, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001, 83.
  2. Monica Rüthers, “Children and the Cosmos as Projects of the Future and Ambassadors of Soviet Leadership,” in Eva Maurer, et. al., eds., Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 206.
  3. RGAE, f. 9453, op. 2, ed. khr. 151, p. 46-46ob
  4. RGAE, f. 9453, op. 2, ed. khr. 154, p. 41-42ob.
  5. The Ohio State University Archives, The John Glenn Archives (Record Group 57/a-1-26-16, Non-Senate Papers Sub-Group, NASA Series, Mercury Seven Sub-Series, Box 26, “Children, Minnesota, 1962”
  6. The Ohio State University Archives, The John Glenn Archives (Record Group 57/a-1-27-22, Non-Senate Papers Sub-Group, NASA Series, Mercury Seven Sub-Series, Box 27, “Children, Maryland-Nebraska, 1963”
  7. The Ohio State University Archives, The John Glenn Archives (Record Group 57/a-1-27-23, Non-Senate Papers Sub-Group, NASA Series, Mercury Seven Sub-Series, Box 27, “Children, New Jersey-Ohio, 1963”
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3 Responses to Russian Space History — Dreams in Orbit

  1. OM says:

    …Roshanna, I’m curious: what’s your view(s) on the accuracy of the various detrimental assessments of Tereshkova’s performance on her flight? Although she’s one of the few Heroes of the Soviet Era to retain her image, prestige and even her political position essentially unscathed, there are those reports that began trickling out following the fall of the USSR regarding Sergei Pavlovitch’s extreme dissatisfaction with her inability to maintain a professional demeanor. First starting with the reports of her suffering from Space Adaptation Sickness for most of her flight, then progressing to incontinence with both bladder and bowels, and – depending on who’s telling the tale – culminating in at least emotional breakdown, with the first occurring within the first five to ten orbits.

    Excellent commentary, by the way :)

    :OM:

    • Roshanna Sylvester says:

      Thanks for your question. I have to say that I’m skeptical about the narrative line that emphasizes Tereshkova’s lack of prowess. Nikolai Kamanin’s diaries are frequently cited as the key source for such discussions. Given that Kamanin was in charge of cosmonaut selection and training, and later became the chief architect of the cosmonauts’ public personae, his diaries provide excellent insight and tell us more than many other sources about the personal lives of Soviet space heroes. Of course little of that insight would have been available to the contemporary public, who would not have been privy to the many anecdotes Kamanin described (except to the extent that they were leaked). It shouldn’t be forgotten that Kamanin was long of the opinion that only Air Force pilots should be cosmonauts, so hadn’t championed Tereshkova to begin with. He was also one of the people responsible for spreading the idea that Tereshkova’s alleged space sickness was the result of heightened female emotions. As Slava Gerovitch shows in his article “The Human Inside a Propaganda Machine,” Kamanin was much more interested in Tereshkova as a celebrity than as a cosmonaut. He believed she was an extraordinary propaganda asset, and took personal credit for making her famous. His plans for her trumped Tereshkova’s own ambitions. She was able to continue training in the cosmonaut corps for a short time, and worked to develop her scientific and technological skills through further education. But in the end, she became a politician, which is exactly what Kamanin wanted her to do all along.

      • Asif says:

        Roshanna, the letters you posted are striking in terms of how they capture the ways in which Soviet space achievements resonated at the daily level in people’s lives. I found the contrast with the U.S. also instructive, in that while the young Soviet girl felt was able to conceive of a future that would include her, the American girl was perhaps more resigned at being excluded. Yet, the reality is that in the early years (and arguably still) both programs were highly sexist and male-oriented. In that sense, do you see perhaps that the high hopes that Tereshkova raised among a generation of young Soviet girls were betrayed in the end, since the Soviet space program remained dominated by a male-oriented culture?

        I want to also comment on two other points. The first is that if you look at group photos of Soviet engineering teams from the 1950s and 1960s involved in the space program, there are a surprisingly high number of women in the pictures, surprising given their near-absence in the cosmonaut corps. Admittedly this is anecdotal evidence, but it would be interesting to see the numbers of Soviet women in the sciences and engineering fields and how those numbers changed in the 1950s and 1960s.

        Finally, about Tereshkova: her reputation was clearly marred by the fact that the men in charge of the space program were only eager to pile criticism on her. Some of this was undoubtedly because she was woman. And some of it was because engineers were loathe to blame the technology when things didn’t go right on a space mission. Instead they blamed the cosmonauts for screwing up (as happened on a number of missions in the 1970s)

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