Cold War Gender and Sexuality Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight

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. Svetlana Boym, “Kosmos: Rememberences of the Future, in Kosmos: A Portrait of the Russian Space Age, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001, 83.] 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. 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.]


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. RGAE, f. 9453, op. 2, ed. khr. 151, p. 46-46ob]

Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991 Transnational History

Russian Space History — Transnational Culture and Cosmism

In balmy Culver City near Los Angeles, not far from the campus where I teach, there is a wonderful little museum called the Museum of Jurassic Technology ( The museum contains a Russian tea room and aviary on the roof. Next to the Russian tea room are two exhibition halls. One contains portraits of all the Soviet space dogs. Another is devoted to the life and myth of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, whose translated technical works as well as science fiction are available in the museum gift shop. I often thought about that exhibit –and how odd it must be for casual visitors — as I worked about 40 miles to the south, in the place where Richard Nixon grew up, at the Nixon library and archives.


The Museum of Jurassic Technology room honoring Soviet space dogs
The Museum of Jurassic Technology room honoring Soviet space dogs
Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Uncategorized

Russian Space History – Part of Soviet History Without Tears?

I am not sure what provoked the outpouring of scholarship on the history of Soviet space culture over the past decade or so. Was it part  of the cultural “turn” that historians of the post-Stalin decades started to take in the 1990s? Did it have something to do with what historians of American space technology were writing? Or was the inspiration more proximate – maybe Vail and Genis’ chapter on the kosmos from their book on the Soviet sixties, originally published in 1988 but not immediately well known? Whatever its origin, the abundance of riches surely is a remarkable development. It is, among other things, transnational – the 23 authors who have contributed to these four books work in nine different countries. It also varies in emphasis and focus – pioneers and projects; myth and reality; gender, regional, and international political dimensions.

Blog Conversations Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Uncategorized

Russian Space History – A Blog Conversation

posterI am very excited to kick off the seventh conversation on the Russian History blog on the topic of Soviet/Russian space history. Instead of the usual focus on one monograph, we are using a number of recent texts that recover, explore, and rethink the intersections between “cosmic enthusiasm” (as the title of one of the books characterizes it) and Soviet/Russian culture. These are two individually authored monographs: my own The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Andrew Jenks’ The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), and two edited books that have some overlap: Eva Maurer, Julia Richers, Monica Ruthers, and Carmen Scheide, eds., Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies (Macmillan, 2011) and James T. Andrews and Asif Siddiqi, eds., Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

The appearance of these texts (as well as many other books and essays on Soviet space culture in the past few years) suggests that academic interest in the topic has attained a critical mass that warrants some self-reflection. Before we launch this exchange, I wanted to introduce and frame the topic and then raise a few pertinent questions to serve as a catalyst towards more in-depth discussion.