Gender and Sexuality Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Science

Russian Space History — Soviet Women in STEM Fields

Ogenek, June 1963

In a comment to my last posting, Asif noted that in “group photos of Soviet engineering teams from the 1950s and 1960s involved in the space program, there are a surprisingly high number of women in the pictures, surprising given their near-absence in the cosmonaut corps.” He wondered how many women in the 1950s and 1960s were, in fact, involved in science and engineering fields.

Pionerskaia Pravda March 1963
Pionerskaia Pravda, March 1963

As I noted in previous publications, the 1970 all-union census reported that more Soviet women than ever before were engineering-technical workers, their number more than doubling in ten years from 1.63 to 3.75 million.[i] Women’s influence in science and technology was evidenced, too, by increases in the number of higher degrees they earned in science, engineering, and technology fields. Official statistics published in 1975 confirmed that the number of female researchers among science personnel in the USSR had increased dramatically in the post-war period, from 59,000 in 1950 to just shy of 129,000 in 1960 to nearly 465,000 in 1974.[ii] That said, a 1971 study that broke down female accomplishment by branch of science showed that women in physics and math still lagged considerably behind men in the attainment of advanced degrees.[iii] And yet, it is significant to note that three out of four women awarded candidate and doctoral degrees in the 1971-73 period were in the natural and applied sciences.[iv]

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]