In 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]
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. RGAE, f. 9453, op. 2, ed. khr. 154, p. 41-42ob.]
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. 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”]
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. 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”] 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. 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”]
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.