I 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.
Almost all of the recent works on Russian and Soviet space culture circumscribe their focus, implicitly if not explicitly, on two loosely constructed periods. The first is the roughly thirty-five-year span from 1890 to 1935 that saw the first burst of popular (and populist) interest in cosmic travel (in many ways rooted in the much larger Russian obsession with modern science and technology). The second period covers the 1950s and 1960s, around the time that cosmic dreaming became materially manifest in the early Sputniks, Vostoks, and so forth, as hero cosmonauts sailed into the unknown. In both of these periods, popular interest in space was driven by active popularizers–novelists, popular science writers, artists, poets, journalists, curators, and, in the second period, cosmonauts–all of whom to different degrees shaped the general contours of public discourse. If the earlier burst of enthusiasm lost its charge with the arrival of interwar Stalinism, the latter period’s fascination faded away as the Khrushchev era slid into complacent and disgruntled Stagnation. Focusing largely on these twin periods, historians, literary scholars, anthropologists, and cultural studies academics have begun to mine the vicissitudes of cosmic fascination, seeing in this obsession larger themes within Soviet civilization such as claims about modernity/modernization, technological utopianism, spiritualism, atheism, Cold War posturing, national identity, the construction of gender, generational mobilization, the future of socialism, etc. All of these four texts engage with one or more of these broad themes, and each invites us to rethink larger issues of Soviet and Russian history.
I have organized my questions around four thematic issues that I explain below.
First, I want to amplify a point I made in Red Rockets’ Glare about the co-production of imagination and engineering in Soviet space culture. Let me explain here. When I was working on my dissertation in the early 2000s (in what would eventually become Red Rockets’ Glare), I had set out to write an ostensibly Cold War story about the Soviet drive to conquer space, now with the benefit of archival materials. But as I got deeper and deeper into the research, I found myself subsumed in what I initially thought of as cultural ephemera—popular science, fictions, movies, posters, art, music, theater, and so on—but which proved to be not only perdurable but critical to understanding the Soviet drive to the cosmos. The enormous richness of this fascination with the cosmos, as embodied in discourses, objects, and practices, was intimidating at first but I soon realized, essential to telling any story about the space program.
I sought and struggled to situate this popular discourse about space in a context that also drew in the material reality of the space program. It was clear to me that the unbounded imaginative anticipations about space characterizing Soviet culture in the early 20th century and later in the 1950s and 1960s was possible at least partly because of the material accomplishments in science and technology that were available for consumption to hungry and ever-growing publics. In turn, this cosmic-themed discourse was a powerful companion and stimulant to actual engineering achievements by Soviet scientists and engineers. We often treat these two narratives as independent–as if, to give a hypothetical and reductive example, engineers never read science fiction, and writers never built things. But these two narratives, in my mind, are fundamentally intertwined. The characterization of this mutual relationship might seem like a self-evident axiom but in some of the literature on the cultural dimensions of the Soviet space program, we often find a disconnect between cultural production and the material achievements of the space program. Although cultural studies of the Soviet space program have proliferated much in the past few years, many of these avoid any treatment of the Soviet space program’s actual accomplishments. This eschewal is understandable on some level: histories of technologies, in the conventional senses of the word, have a danger of drowning in techno-babble redolent of buff culture (or perhaps Cold Warriors). But I would argue that framing the Soviet space program in a cultural context requires a degree of engagement with real world manifestations of that culture. Andrew Jenks’ excellent biography of Gagarin is a worthy step in this direction with his expert integration of the production of the cultural myth surrounding Gagarin with the actual circumstances of his flight. I would be very interested to to hear more from Andy as well as from Roshanna (who has looked at the influence of Tereshkova’s flight on the education of girls) about the challenges of drawing connections between popular discourse and real world changes. [1. Another excellent work that connects state directives with social and cultural history in this context is Susanne Schattenberg‘s superb Stalins Ingenieure: Lebenswelten zwischen Technik und Terror in den 1930er Jahren (München: Oldenbourg, 2002), which has been translated into Russian as Inzhenery Stalina: zhizn’ mezhdu tekhnikoi i terrorom v 1930-e gody (Moscow: Rosspen, 2011). She uses a rich trove of memoirs and diaries to reconstruct the mentalite of the engineering community in the 1920s and 1930s.]
My second point has to do with the Russian spaceflight theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii who makes an appearance in practically every work on Soviet space culture, often as an obligatory punctuation (or question?) mark in the grammar of Russian cosmic enthusiasm, and sometimes as a metonym for all manner of intellectual strands in the Russian thought. Tsiolkovskii—especially his carefully constructed image—undoubtedly had a profound impact on the shape and nature of Soviet space culture. In fact, his influence, I would argue extends far beyond space culture, into many other arenas of Soviet intellectual history. Yet we do not have a comprehensive and critical biography of Tsiolkovskii in the English language, especially one that integrates his technological utopianism, religious millenarianism, occult leanings, eugenicist ideals, obsession with air (not space) ships, and of course, his cosmic aspirations. [2. Among worthy biographies of Tsiolkovskii, I would still rank the 1969 volume Sergei Samoilovich as still worthy. See his Grazhdanin vselennoi (Kaluga: GMIK im. K. E. Tsiolkovskogo, 1969). More recently there is V. N. Demin’s Tsiolkovskii (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 2005) and James Andrews’ Red Cosmos (College Station, Tx.: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), but these look at particular aspects of his life.] Scholars such as Michael Hagemeister have done much to dispel some of the myths surrounding Tsiolkovskii that continue to endure, such as the supposed influence of philosopher Nikolai Fedorov on his worldview. Many other misconceptions abound, such as the notion that the Soviet government plucked Tsiolkovskii out of obscurity in the aftermath of 1917 and lavished him with praise and pensions, when in fact, he was willfully ignored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences his entire life and the Stalinist state only paid attention to him during the last three years of his life. I would be curious to see our other bloggers meditate on the pitfalls and challenges of situating such a complex figure as Tsiolkovskii in accounts of Soviet space culture, given the edifice of hagiography that protects his memory from critique in contemporary Russia.
My third point has to do with the transnational nature of Soviet space culture, one that is beginning to attract some attention, with work by Lewis Siegelbaum who has written on Soviet space exhibits abroad and by Tat’iana Zhelnina, a curator at the K. E. Tsiolkovskii State Museum on the History of Cosmonautics in Kaluga who has written on Soviet-German connections in the 1920s. It is evident that already by the 1920s, Soviet space culture was but one node in a transcontinental matrix of circulation that included Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States. Books were traded, ideas exchanged, claims staked, and dreams were exaggerated and reformulated as they crossed borders and communities, often in entirely unexpected ways. We have for instance, the example of Russian popular science writers Nikolai Rynin and Iakov Perel’man who communicated actively with dozens of correspondents abroad [3. I have written about these “international discursive networks.” See my “Nauka za stenami akademii: K. E. Tsiolkovskii i ego al’ternativnaia set’ neformal’noi nauchnoi kommunikatsii,” Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki no. 4 (2005): 137-154]. Such exchanges reduced but ever entirely subsided even at the zenith of inward-looking Stalinist gaze, but took on new and subtle forms. For example, in 1952, satellite pioneer Mikhail Tikhonravov had his entire staff watch a bootleg copy of the German classic Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1929), inspiring them in unexpected ways. I found letters from American space enthusiasts written to their Soviet counterparts in the early 1950s that were stored at GARF. Such contacts expanded in the 1950s and 1960s and took on new forms during the Thaw years as the aestheticized imagery of space travel moved across continents through exhibitions, texts, cosmonaut visits, and so forth, are extremely important. [4. The topic of cosmonaut visits to places beyond the Soviet Union is rich with possibility. See especially the work of Radina Vučetić and Heather Gumbert, dealing with cosmonaut visits to Yugoslavia and East Germany, respectively, featured in the edited volumes mentioned above.] In that sense, it may be useful to ask what was particularly “Russian” (or “Soviet”) about the visual, textual, and artifactual tropes of Russian space culture, a question that, I think, begs a comparative view of space culture. There is an abundance of excellent work on space culture in the United States, particularly the work of Howard McCurdy, and more recent work on the so-called “astroculture” in Western Europe by Alexander Geppert [5. Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011; Alexander C. T. Geppert, ed., Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2012).]. I would ask my fellow bloggers to add their thoughts on the possibilities of comparative or truly transnational works, ones that might help us situate this phenomenon not only within Russian history but also global history.
The fourth and final point is an echo of the “What-makes-it-Russian” notion from above: What is about the upsurge of cosmic enthusiasm in Soviet culture that is at heart a story about popular/populist campaigns in Soviet history rather than about space? There are other points of comparison here–for example, Arctic exploration and aviation heroics in the 1930s–that cultivated similar discourses, about the vanguard power of the Soviet state to break new frontiers of time and space, about its ability to inspire generations of young Soviet citizens, and to advertise the prowess of the Soviet state abroad. What can we, then say, about all this activity, particularly in relation to other popular campaigns to mobilize the population that were state-identified but had their own dynamics and unintended trajectories.
With that, let me briefly introduce the group of scholars who are participating in this conversation.
Anindita Banerjee is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. She is a member of the Institute for European Studies, the South Asia Program, and the Visual Studies Program, and a fellow of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell. Her research explores the interfaces between techno-scientific, cultural, and social imaginations across Russia, Eurasia, and the Indian subcontinent. She is particularly interested in science fictional literature and media, which play a crucial role in negotiating trans-local practices and global understandings of modernity. The subject is explored at length in her book, We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), which won the first Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies book award.
Andrew Jenks is Associate Professor of History at California State University Long Beach. He specializes in the history of modern Europe, Russia, environment, and science. He published Perils of Progress (2010), a book on disasters that examines four large-scale environmental and technological tragedies in the twentieth century. His most recent book (The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: the Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin) explores modern Soviet and Russian history through the life and times of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. His recent research has led him into the archives of NASA courtesy of a grant from NASA and the American Historical Association. He is examining the period of the late Cold War and détente through the history of joint manned space flight missions, beginning with the Apollo-Soyuz space venture of 1975.
Lewis Siegelbaum is Jack & Margaret Sweet Professor of History at Michigan State University. He has been teaching Russian and European history at Michigan State University for more than a quarter of a century. He migrated from labor history to the history of consumption and material culture in the Soviet Union with some digressions along the way, and in the process shifted his attention from the Stalin era to the late Soviet period. He is co-author of the award-winning website Seventeen Moments in Soviet History and his book, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell, 2008), was awarded two prizes by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. In 2011, he was appointed the Jack and Margaret Sweet Professor of History, a Russian edition of Cars for Comrades was published by ROSSPEN in Moscow, and The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, a collection of 11 essays that he edited, was published by Cornell University Press. He also became editor-in-chief of REGION, a new journal based in Seoul, South Korea devoted to Russia and the former Eastern Bloc.
Roshanna Sylvester received her PD in Russian history at Yale University and is now an Associate Professor of History at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005) and is currently at work on a monograph, Stargazing: Schoolgirls, Science, and Technology in Cold War America and the Soviet Union. Her recent articles include, “‘Let’s Find Out Where the Cosmonaut School Is’: Soviet Girls and Cosmic Enthusiasm in the Aftermath of Tereshkova,” in Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies, eds. Eva Mauer, Julia Richers, Monica Rüthers, and Carmen Scheide (2011); and “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier: Soviet Girls and the Tereshkova Moment,” in Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture, eds. James T. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi (2011)
I am Professor of History at Fordham University. I am on leave in 2013-2014 as the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution.