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.
I won’t speak for others, but for me, one of the big appeals of this literature is what I elsewhere have called “Soviet history without tears.” The heyday of Soviet space culture, roughly from 1957 through the mid-1960s, corresponds almost exactly with what generally is regarded as the happiest, most optimistic period of the Soviet Union’s existence. Several of our authors cite evidence in support of their claim that space achievements contributed to the optimism. Of course, we should exercise due caution when making such assertions. Are we putting too much weight on what “Zhivago’s children,” the Moscow-based intelligentsia, thought? Do letters surviving in the archives reflect general attitudes, those of their authors, or, as post-modernists would say, the discourses that “produced” the letters? Are we in danger of exaggerating the impact of Western expressions of anxiety about losing the Cold War (my favorite is the 1961 Billy Wilder comedy “One, Two, Three” set in West Berlin) that Soviet propagandists eagerly recycled for domestic consumption? Perhaps we need to be in better conversation with our east Europeanist colleagues who generally take a dimmer view about whether the ideals professed by ruling Communist parties ever struck responsive chords. Judging by Anneli Porri’s contribution to Soviet Space Culture, even in the Estonian SSR, “the cosmonaut was a foreign figure … a hero of the Empire, a man from the news.”
Still, the Soviet public’s reception of cosmic propaganda, although maybe not cosmic, seems extraordinarily positive. As Asif Siddiqi and Andrew Jenks have pointed out, a lot of this resulted from the technological utopianism engrained not only in Bolshevism, but also more broadly in Russian modernism. The role of fantastika – to say nothing of the weird dreaming of Nikolai Fedotov and nuttiness (and, as Michael Hagemeister reveals, nastiness) of the “grandfather” of Soviet space flight, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii – is particularly relevant here. So too is the cult of science and the scientist that according to one of Khrushchev’s biographers reached its peak during his administration thanks in part to Nikita Sergeevich’s encouragement.
The trick in getting right not only Soviet space culture but history in general is to combine the diachronic and synchronic in such a way that, as Sewell’s Logics of History suggests, changes in structure can be explained through events. The Gagarin cult, brilliantly analyzed by Jenks, illustrates this point well. Jenks stresses the structural features of Gagarin’s Russian ethnicity, kolkhoz background, suffering at the hands of Nazi occupation, and appeal as the ideal son – a hero who could replace the “father” (i.e., Stalin) that nobody could talk about or publicly acknowledge anymore. He also brings out the eventfulness of the occasion – the employment of television and radio (and Levitan’s voice in the latter medium) to publicize it, for example.
Pondering, however, what changed structurally as a consequence of Gagarin’s flight and for that matter other Soviet space achievements is not easy. In one sense, it could be said that massive investment in Korolev’s projects represented a double con: the Americans were conned into thinking they were losing, and the Soviet public was conned into thinking their side was winning. What was won and what was lost, how to separate the putatively peaceful purposes of exploring the cosmos from the more obvious (to us!) military benefits is an even larger issue. Writing in 1958, 13 years after the end of the Great Patriotic War and a year after the launching of the first Sputnik , a group of 100 residents of a Leningrad apartment building noted that, “during this time … two artificial earth satellites have been launched! …. But our building remains without change, not improving, but rather worsening.” The hard-pressed Leningraders were not necessarily suggesting that the one improvement had prevented the other from happening, but perhaps we could try to figure out how to relate the two.