Post-Soviet Russia Russian Orthodoxy Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Gagarin as Christ

Adding to the previous thread of comments about Gagarin and religion, perhaps the most striking amendment to the Gagarin legend since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been his re-imagination as a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. I often heard from Gagarin’s acquaintances and Gagarin museum officials that Gagarin was secretly a believer.

New legends also emerged about Gagarin’s efforts to save local churches from being blown up during Soviet anti-religious campaigns. “He did not reject God!” proclaimed a local poet in a poem entitled “Faith.” If Gagarin was a kind of Jesus, his mysterious death in a 1968 plane crash (at the age of 34, just like Jesus) was a test of faith, an act of sacrifice that challenged Russians to consider their sinful nature and united them in grief. Said another poet from his hometown: “He gave his life for us/So that people would remember and value him…Oh, how my dove of peace circles overheard!/Over Gzhatsk he will fly for all eternity.” (Gzhatsk-Gagarin. 300 Let: Stikhi, poemy, pesni [Moscow: Veche, 2007], 83-84.)

Others pointed to something that they believed could not possibly be a coincidence: his landing on April 12 occurred at nearly the same time as Christ’s Easter resurrection. It was a dramatic fulfillment of Alexander Ivanov’s 1857 masterpiece, “Christ Appears to the People.” A poem entitled “Arrival of Spring” reflected the sacred and saintly aura surrounding Gagarin in his provincial homeland after the Soviet collapse:

The star burns on our vault of heaven,
It is there where Yura soars in the cloud dome,
And we all await him on the horizon,
To return to Russia, his beloved home

His portrait shines like the sun,
His sweet smile, his tender eyes they shine,
Oh, guys, how they radiate
Always faithful, full of honesty and virtue sublime. (Gzhatsk-Gagarin. 300 Let: Stikhi, poemy, pesni [Moscow: Veche, 2007], 91.)

One religious publication in Saratov proclaimed that Gagarin had all the qualities of an Orthodox saint, “heroism, humility, greatness, charm,” all of which “shone all the more after his death,” and confirmed the “truth of long-forgotten Slavophile-Christian ideas.” Especially saintly was his smile, which the author, a priest, said contrasted so markedly with a soulless foreigner’s smile. “You’ll see the distinction. Look at the young Soviet Russian officer and you’ll see not only our typical broad gesture, but also a purely Christian abstract quality, an internal life, a peacefulness of the soul.” The official atheism, moreover, was a trial that only made Gagarin’s faith stronger. Thus when he told Khrushchev he had not seen God in space (there is some debate as to whether he actually said this) he had not lied or violated his supposedly true faith. Instead, he was like the surgeon who once said: “I operated on the brain many times but never saw intelligence there.” (Pravoslavnaia vera, March 2004, No. 6, 1.)

4 replies on “Gagarin as Christ”

Which leaves us, I suppose, with the question: was it true enough, and kept out of the officially atheist press while there was an officially atheist press? As, logically speaking, it would have been? I might question the credibility of poets and museum officials, but acquaintances–especially if more than one–may properly carry more weight.

Unfortunately, the poetic aura that’s gathering is probably a bigger challenge to the credibility of such a report than anything else–except that it doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. As you’ve pointed out, though, it’s interesting how the thing seems to be taking on a life of its own–becoming part of a post-Soviet hagiography, perhaps in the same way that Nicholas and Alexandra did through their (relatively recent) canonization.

Always difficult to get inside a person’s head and deconstruct his/her belief system, especially when there’s a political and personal price to be paid for saying the wrong thing. People get used to saying things (and reading them) in cryptic and ironic ways. Smiles can be smirks. Yes can mean no. That said, the idea of Gagarin as a holy figure obviously says more about the religiosity of the acolytes than about Gagarin as a historical figure.

That said, the idea of Gagarin as a holy figure obviously says more about the religiosity of the acolytes than about Gagarin as a historical figure.

From a historian’s standpoint, I’d have to agree with you, absolutely. I think what makes it different for me–the reason I tend to focus on the likelihood/unlikelihood of authenticity, is that when I write as a novelist, I’m essentially rendering judgments of fact, at least in the minds of my readers. It’s surprising how many people will take fiction for authentic record. So I get very fixed on was-it/wasn’t-it types of scenarios.

What’s interesting to me about this, though, more broadly speaking, is the element of mysticism that’s creeping in. You mentioned April 12 and the Easter Resurrection. I’m wondering if down the road, we’ll see more and more of these “links” emerge in a developing trend towards popular canonization. I’d hesitate to call that a particularly Russian phenomenon, but at the same time, I can’t really imagine an American parallel. Not only does our hero-worship lack the religious element (mostly)–but our popular memory seems to be very much shorter.

Thanks again for a thought-provoking post–which I do mean quite sincerely: I’ve spent part of the weekend mulling it over!

Just because one is an atheist does not mean that one would automatically support or be indifferent to the demolishing of religious buildings, or be in favour of the harassment of religious bodies and people. Indeed, I feel that a genuine secular approach to society does not involve religious persecution and the concomitant demolishing of church buildings and destruction of artefacts. I have been atheist all my adult life, and I enjoy visiting religious buildings and appreciating them as examples of human ingenuity and culture, despite my having deep philosophical differences with the people who had them built and who today use them for religious purposes. I would be opposed to the demolishing or mutilation of religious buildings, be this carried out as part of a campaign against any particular religion by other religions or supposedly secular authorities, or as a result of neglect or thoughtless action on the part of the religious body itself. I can understand how Gagarin could be an atheist and nonetheless oppose the demolition of churches, and it would be wrong to assume that he was a religious man purely on that count. I must add that in his circumstances, even with the degree of protection that his fame would provide, his actions took a lot of courage on his part.

Dr Paul Flewers
London, UK

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