The continuum of images in Asif’s last post attests to the emergence of a distinct visual vocabulary of space flight long before it became a reality. It is not coincidental that the first of these images is from Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita, a 1924 film that enthralled moviegoers but left official critics scratching their head. In “Imagining the Cosmos,” Asif situated the film’s ideological complexity as well as its striking visuals within an astonishingly diverse network of early-twentieth-century cosmic enthusiasm. Here I would like to think about a different set of relations between cinema and the cosmos, based not so much on modes of representation but rather on the fundamental convergences between the process of making movies and the “co-production of imagination and engineering” long before space flight became a reality. The interface between engineering and imagination underlying the very apparatus and materiality of the cinematic medium — which becomes particularly visible in special effects — links the history of Soviet space culture with the spectacular pre-histories of its future projected on the big screen.
As this week closes, I wanted to highlight that seems somewhat obvious to those with even a casual interest in the history of Russian/Soviet space activities, its incredibly rich visual record. The picture that Andy posted of cosmonaut Shatalov meeting Native Americans in the U.S. in 1974 is one perfect example of that record. I’m posting here 6 images from the pre-Sputnik era which I think capture interesting moments in this long and rich history with appropriate captions. I’ll post some images from the 1960s and 1970s in a separate post.
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.
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]
This is in response to an interesting comment on my earlier post regarding the stamp image I used, which commemorated Aleksei Leonov’s 1965 space walk (https://russianhistoryblog.org/2013/12/russian-space-history-transnational-culture-and-cosmism/#comments). The comment noted differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only was the Soviet Union more concerned with celebrating space feats on stamps, but Soviet cosmonauts were themselves directly involved in the creation and promotion of those stamps. After his flight Gagarin wrote an article on the theme of cosmonauts on stamps and carried on a correspondence with avid philatelists. Leonov, the cosmonaut-artist, actually drew the images that appeared on many cosmonaut-themed stamps (yet another illustration of how the cosmonauts promoted themselves above and beyond official state promotion).
Cosmonautics was also celebrated on coins issued for various jubilees of Soviet space accomplishments. I’m not aware, though it is far from my specialty, of the extent to which American astronauts appeared on coins, if at all. With regard to the celebration of Soviet cosmonautics in various media Cathleen Lewis at the Air and Space Museum has done quite a bit of work.
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]
In balmy Culver City near Los Angeles, not far from the campus where I teach, there is a wonderful little museum called the Museum of Jurassic Technology (http://mjt.org/). The museum contains a Russian tea room and aviary on the roof. Next to the Russian tea room are two exhibition halls. One contains portraits of all the Soviet space dogs. Another is devoted to the life and myth of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, whose translated technical works as well as science fiction are available in the museum gift shop. I often thought about that exhibit –and how odd it must be for casual visitors — as I worked about 40 miles to the south, in the place where Richard Nixon grew up, at the Nixon library and archives.
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 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.