Cold War Historiography Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991 Uncategorized

Call for a Wider Perspective

Many thanks to Alexander Geppert, a leading figure in the history of space flight and European culture, for this review of two recent volumes on Russian space flight and culture (in which I and fellow blogger Asif Siddiqi have essays). It’s nice to see a scholar from outside our field address our scholarship.

What I find most interesting about this outsider’s perspective is that it confirms something that many of us perhaps already know – or should know: the parochial nature of our scholarship and scholarly community (as an aside, it’s great that the Russian History Blog has included scholars from outside the Russian field to comment on our scholarship in the Blog Conversations). The point was driven home to me at the April 2012 conference in Berlin put on by Alexander ( I was the lone Russianist at the conference. I was struck by the marginalization of Russia in the European context (even as the papers devoted to the United States, in a conference dedicated to European visions of space and utopia, dominated parts of the agenda). I think we Russianists share some of the blame for this, precisely because of our tendency to eschew transnational or global approaches to writing the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. But what would a transnational history of space flight and culture look like? It’s a question that consumes me now as I attempt to research the space race in a transnational context — focusing on collaborative moments such as the Apollo-Solyuz Test Project, the Interkosmos flights beginning in 1979, the Association of Space Explorers in the 1980s, and the Mir and ISS space stations. If anyone feels so inspired, perhaps they could point me to interesting examples of attempts to write Cold War Russia and the Soviet Union into a more global — or at least — pan-European history.

2 replies on “Call for a Wider Perspective”

This is a question I have been thinking a lot about for a couple of years, minus the space part. I got my PhD in Soviet history in 1999, and I’ve come to realize that what sparked my interest in Russia was growing up in Cold War America. Now I am groping toward some kind of transnational Cold War cultural history. I’m working less on Soviet history itself than on how Americans understood the Soviet Union, how values, beliefs, fears played themselves out at the regional and local level in the US. But I don’t want to be just an American historian with a background in Russian history. I’m interested in how cultural ideas move back and forth between the local, regional, national, and global contexts.

I’ve developed a course on Cold War Cultures, and in putting together the reading I was struck by how much the Cold War was really about debating the “right” way to live. That seems much more important, much more central than economic or political systems. After all, what are economics and politics but structures that make it possible to live in a certain kind of way? Without an understanding of the values that support those structures, economics and politics are illegible.

By the way, these collections on space flight, plus your new book on Gagarin, will make nice additions to the course bibliography. The last time I taught the course in fall 2011, students complained that there wasn’t enough on the space race. My reply that the scholarship was just getting started didn’t seem to appease them.

I’d love to talk more about a transnational Cold War Cultural History. And I’m very glad that I’m not the only person trying to figure out how to do it.

Of course, I love that you would use the growing body of material on the space exploration. My current focus on collaborative ventures in space delineates two distinct ways of interpreting the history of space flight. One vision – dubbed “cosmopolitics” by a space policy analyst – viewed space as an extension of national power on Earth, just as “the great maritime powers of the past used specific means and instruments, such as navy and naval bases, to achieve and maintain their power position.” According to this narrative, space exploration served a national and military purpose, extending military prerogatives — and national economic growth – into outer space, just as European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries had expanded their political, military, and economic reach into Asia, Africa, and the open seas. This interpretive framework emphasizes the dictates of Cold War politics and various national programs for economic growth and strategic nuclear capability (“mutual assured destruction” through rockets as delivery vehicles). In this interpretation the pursuit of scientific goals through space exploration or utopian projects for unifying people across ideological and national barriers were secondary to military and strategic imperatives. As Foy D. Kohler, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Kennedy administration noted: “Whatever else may be said of America’s motivations in embarking on its great space undertaking, certainly a compelling reason was to deny to the Soviet Union a monopoly of the benefits – political, strategic, and psychological – that went with the forward surge of science-technology in the conquest of space.”
Others, however, viewed space exploration as something that could rise above traditional politics. According to this interpretation, the Cold War and geopolitical considerations played a subordinate role in the history of space flight. Instead, observers focused on the scientific and utopian potential of space exploration. The colonization of space, in this view, signaled the final stage of history leading to a more perfect global community. Ecological awareness occupied center stage in the new global consciousness of the space age; it emerged in response to the cosmic view of Earth as a unified yet fragile ecological system. The iconic 1968 “Earthrise” and 1972 “Blue Marble” images of Earth, like bookends around the first Earth Day in 1970, would inspire people to be far better stewards of the home planet and to unify against the militarization of space and nuclear war. Drawing on the Russian tradition of cosmism, as well as the counterculture of the 1960s and ideas about building a Europe without borders, these space enthusiasts believed “mankind’s use of space will be high on the list of factors shaping the Earth’s future.” Manned space flight was thus, “a foundation for building a galactic and eventually a universal civilization….beyond national and ideological barriers.”
If the Cold War encouraged “cosmopolitics,” the threat of nuclear annihilation continually fueled romantic visions of universal unification and global peace, the romance of collaboration. These ideas migrated across numerous ideological and political borders. The signing in 1967 by the Soviet Union and the United States of a United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons from space was one watershed moment, prompting paeans “to cooperation and mutual understanding” from Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and President Lyndon Johnson. Seeking an exit from the path of self-destruction, space powers in the 1970s and 1980s joined forces to overcome the very national military and strategic prerogatives that had launched them into space in the first place. The cosmonaut Oleg Makarov remarked: “Unconsciously, you look for the lines that are usual on such maps, the parallels and meridians; it is strange not to see the markings on the living map.” The East German Cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn said that “when it takes 90 minutes to go around the world, there is no need for borders.”
The Cold War narrative tends to obscure the other collaborative moments and ideals that drove twentieth century world history, at least in part.

As an aside, I think the history of cyberspace colonization is similarly driven by the competing urges to “nationalize” the virtual world — to turn it into a vehicle for enhancing nation-state power, as evidenced by the activities of the NSA and the “Great Firewall” that the Chinese have erected around their internet — and more romantic visions of building new forms of transnational human community that would explode existing boundaries, rather than reinforce them.
At any rate, thanks for your comment. The movement of ideas across borders is a key feature of historical development, especially in the modern world. Figuring out how to study that movement, and tease out its various consequences, is a fascinating challenge. That also seems to be a way to begin to research and write world history, which is all the rage but often little more than a patching together of national histories or, at best, comparative history.

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