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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.

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.

5 replies on “Russian Space History – Part of Soviet History Without Tears?”

Regarding the Modernist/ Thaw/ Stagnation meter of measuring cosmic enthusiasm, one of the best things about the new work we are talking about is that it focuses on flows and disjunctures rather than hermetic compartments of periodization. I have also come to realize that disaggregating demographics is important in the study of popular trends. Youth culture is fascinating in this way. Four years before the actual launching of Sputnik, for example, periodicals for children and young adults were already fully in the throes of what Asif has called “the liberation of fantasy” via cosmic travel, and space comedies were one of the most popular television genres for youth during the Stagnation (as were robots).

The point about periodization: While researching and thinking about Gagarin I did not find the usual ways of periodizing Soviet history very useful. Gagarin’s formative years were in the late-Stalin period. From his perspective, at least, the Khrushchev period was less a disjuncture than a continuation of his career path trajectory in the military and then into the secret space program. Later, when Khrushchev was ousted, he and the space program continued on to many successes. After Korolev’s death in 1966, and Gagarin’s in 1968, there was indeed a stagnation in the space program that seemed to mirror a broader supposed stagnation in Brezhnevite culture. But the 1970s were also a period of high-cosmism — in the sense that musings about space exploration and collaboration leading to some better future intensified. While NASA experienced a long malaise that would last from the last Apollo missions in the early 1970s until the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981, the Soviets continued to send cosmonauts into space and set space endurance records. These feats were widely reported and genuinely admired by millions of Soviets (though how much Soviets resented the money spent on them is an interesting and necessary question to answer). In the late 1970s the Soviets initiated joint missions sending non-Soviets into space through the Interkosmos programs. It was a Soviet rocket that sent the first West European into space, Jean-Loupe Chretien, in 1982. Each of these Interkosmos missions was accompanied by paeans to peace and brotherhood and by repetition and propagation of the canonical ideas of collaboration in space as a way of building a better world. These developments do not fit easily with prevailing notions about the late Brezhnev era as a moment of stagnation, as Gorbachev referred to it.

Andy, good point about the problems of periodization. I think that is one value of this work, that it asks use to reconsider some of the older ways of thinking of transitions in Soviet society. I tried to conjecture a little about the transformation of Soviet cosmic enthusiasm in the late 1960s in my concluding essay (“From Cosmic Enthusiasm to Nostalgia for the Future”) for the ‘Soviet Space Culture’ volume edited by Maurer at al. As you point out, the deaths of Korolev and Gagarin were key events in this transformation. After 1968, you had a cult of the holy triumvirate (Tsiolkovskii, Korolev, Gagarin) that made the Soviet program more backward looking (or more precisely “nostalgia for a future that never came”) rather than forward looking. That’s a bit reductive perhaps, since as you point, there was a vibrant space program in the 1970s and 1980s, but I think there is something about the way in which the cult of the holy trinity seemed to excite people about the past more than the future.

Anindita, excellent point that we need to disaggregate the consumers of this discourse. Would love to hear more about these space comedies on Soviet TV in the late Brezhnev era….

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