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Excerpt: 'The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling' by Andrew Jenks

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Yuri Gagarin in 1961

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. On that day he was also made anew—the first of a series of personal makeovers. He left earth’s atmosphere a human being (at the rank of senior lieutenant). He returned to earth a national icon (at the rank of major, a heavenly promotion). In the years that followed he became a sex symbol, motivational speaker, politician, beloved hero, son of the motherland—and ultimately a martyr, in a picture-imperfect ending. When he died mysteriously during a routine training flight in 1968—with the exception of a brief news release from the Russian government for the fiftieth anniversary of his flight in 2011 there has never been an official explanation for the cause of his death—Russians filled the official vacuum of silence with their own explanations, elaborate conspiracy theories involving aliens, assassins from the KGB (Committee for State Security), drunken copilots, and CIA spies. In death, Gagarin’s story became the Soviet equivalent of the Kennedy assassination or the car wreck of Lady Di: an outlet for the expression of public fears and fantasies, for the elaboration of heroes and villains, of friends and enemies. Each one of those conspiracy theories said far more about the obsessions and folk fantasies of Russian culture than about Gagarin’s death, which remains a mystery to this day.

My new biography is a search for Gagarin. It contains elements of conventional biography, but it also examines Gagarin as a window into Soviet and Russian culture.  Few figures in twentieth-century Russian history have attracted more attention than Gagarin since his flight. In the early 1960s, Gagarin was possibly the most photographed person in the world. He met Nehru, toasted Castro in Cuba, dined with the queen of England, and grinned broadly as he stood beside the Italian sexpot Gina Lollobrigida. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he became one of the few Soviet-era figures to be immortalized on a post-Soviet piece of Russian money—a series of commemorative coins honoring his feat issued in 2001. People value what they put on their money. He continues to be grist for the Russian popular-culture mill as the subject of pop-rock ballads and rap songs, the equivalent, perhaps, of Eminem doing a rap song about John Glenn or the nerdy Neil Armstrong.

Much of the reason for the Gagarin phenomenon has to do with the Soviet propaganda machine, but it is hard to imagine the Gagarin phenomenon without Gagarin. He was straight out of Soviet central casting: an ambitious, handsome, clever, and charismatic provincial boy who had all the right Soviet stuff. Born on a Soviet collective farm two hundred kilometers to the west of Moscow, he grew up in one of the most impoverished and depressed areas of the Soviet Union. Too young to fight in World War II (the “Great Patriotic War,” as Russians call it), he spent his boyhood under Nazi occupation, witnessing a Gestapo thug torture his younger brother in the backyard. The horrific memory fueled Gagarin’s fierce patriotism. He dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, like those that he met in person during the war and in the pages of Soviet novels after the war.  His entry into the military sphere was partly driven by patriotic passion, but he also wanted to prove his validity before the older generation, who constantly reminded him of their superior heroism and sacrifice in fighting the Nazis. “What did you do during the war?” was a familiar and irritating refrain for those like Gagarin who spent most of World War II playing at war rather than fighting it. Gagarin must have often thought to himself: “I watched helplessly as a Nazi maniac tortured my little brother.” But above all the young Gagarin dreamed of rising above the miserable circumstances of his youth—just like so many other millions of Soviets—and of making himself into someone his parents, party, and commanding officers would be proud of—and that the capitalist world would have to respect. Gagarin the provincial boy, like Russia itself, was forever trying to prove himself to others.

But there were other Gagarins. If there is a trait at the core of Gagarin’s identity, it was that he had a talent for becoming what people wanted him to be, for adapting himself to the expectations of his Soviet and foreign audiences. He loved to dress up in costumes for masquerade balls in Star City. He was a great charmer and storyteller. He was an official optimist, a man with a love for life and a fondness for partying and practical jokes. He adored fast cars, taking his buddies for harrowing spins in his fancy French sports car, hands off the steering wheel and accelerator to the floor, and smirking as he watched their ashen faces. He was an athlete, an avid outdoorsman, a hardworking student, a water-skiing enthusiast, an obedient soldier, a competent foundryman, a communist youth leader, and a respected commander. Even before he became a household word, he managed to put himself at the center of nearly every photograph in which he appeared. Improbably, he was selected captain of his technical institute’s basketball team in 1953—the smallest man on the team, little more than five feet tall, but easily the player with the biggest smile.


Yuri Gagarin with Fidel Castro

Perhaps the greatest paradox about Gagarin was that he became the most famous public figure in Soviet life, yet he came from the inner sanctum of the most secretive part of Soviet society. Living in a secret world taught Gagarin to wear masks and create cover stories. His closest friends after his flight were his KGB bodyguards. He led a bifurcated existence—one life behind the fences of the “Do Not Enter” zones and another life outside those fences. He cultivated an image of candor and openness, yet he was secretive and had a penchant for telling lies. He seduced the public with a bewitching smile and seemingly boundless optimism, but privately he experienced moments of intense sadness, grief and disillusionment. He presented himself as an ideal family man, yet his home life strayed far from the ideal. He preached a sober life, yet he and his fellow cosmonauts drank prodigiously and heroicly. He was faithful to the point of naiveté in the superiority of the Soviet system (after all, this was the system that defeated the Nazis and launched the first man into space), yet he was sometimes shockingly cynical about what a person must do to succeed in the system. His million-ruble smile became a symbol for a Soviet people who were famous in the capitalist world for frowning in public. He was as contradictory and complex as his country and its leaders: proud of his humble roots yet intensely ashamed of the Soviet Union’s poverty—and fearful that it would once again embolden enemy attackers.

Gagarin’s charisma and chameleon-like abilities, combined with the remarkable flight and the instant fame it provided, ultimately transformed him into more than a run-of-the-mill Soviet hero. During World War II, heroes of the Soviet Union multiplied, becoming a kopeck a dozen; inevitable, perhaps, when nearly thirty million people die in war. But Gagarin stood out as the first and perhaps last of the official Soviet heroes in the post-World War II era. Officially hyped, yet popularly worshipped, he became a kind of palimpsest. Into the image and biography of Gagarin, Soviets and Russians began inscribing their dreams, hopes, fears, values, ideological preferences, manias and perversions. The construction of Gagarin as a Soviet and Russian icon began with the first report of the flight. Almost immediately, Gagarin dictated his life story to Pravda journalists, who then edited the story into a standard socialist hagiography, the collective farm boy and Soviet hero. He was the hero of socialist-realist novels come to life. Photography specialists smoothed over the blemishes and wrinkles that began to appear on his face as he grew slightly longer of tooth and bigger of paunch. He was even outfitted with a fake eyebrow after a drunken mishap fractured his skull and nearly killed him. The shaping and alteration of the Gagarin story continued long after his death—indeed, up to the present—as more and more people created an image of Gagarin that suited their various personal, political, and aesthetic agendas. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the new tabloid press of the 1990s, centered in Moscow, had constructed a new Gagarin: Cosmonaut Number One as an alcoholic and dim-witted rube (versions of which had circulated unofficially in the form of jokes and anecdotes since the 1970s). He was Boris Yeltsin in a space suit, “the first rogue in space,” as one popular joke put it. The aim of these journalists was partly to tear down old icons, but mostly to titillate and sell newspapers.

The transformation and complication of Gagarin’s public image was itself a by-product of what one scholar has termed the “privatization” of memory in the Soviet space program. With the collapse of the Soviet system of censorship and the emergence of market mechanisms in the dissemination of information in Russia, the memory of Gagarin splintered, presenting a profound dilemma for the self-appointed “custodians of public memory.”  In the Putin years, as the fiftieth anniversary of his flight approached, the pendulum swung back toward an official revival of the Soviet cult of Gagarin—led by the provincial homeland and haunts from whence Gagarin came. His relatives have launched a vigorous defense of the heroic and prim Gagarin. Like some sort of legal Battle of Stalingrad, the drama has played out in Russian courts and libel suits defending Gagarin’s name—and in competitions among schoolchildren from the provinces to “be like Gagarin” (the sober and industrious one, that is). Journalists began calling for an end to the “anti-Gagarin campaign,” which was supposedly rooted in an attempt, “since the time of perestroika… to demonize Russian history and to make public consciousness schizophrenic.”

If the Gagarin of the 1990s was a wobbly, space-traveling Boris Yeltsin, the Gagarin of the twenty-first century was beginning to resemble a cosmic, karate-chopping Vladimir Putin. The connection was made explicit in the city of Saratov in late 2007. A group of patriotic politicians floated two proposals, apparently hoping that making two would increase the chances that one would pass: one proposed that the city of half a million be combined with the adjacent city of Engels and be dubbed “Putin,” and the other that the two be conjoined into “Gagarin” (never mind that another city, Gagarin’s hometown and the former Gzhatsk, already had that name). The proposal was narrowly defeated, but its proponents vowed to continue their quest.

Peer long enough into the many images of Gagarin, and the outlines and details of modern Russian culture begin to emerge. The images are a projection of Russia’s fantasies, its utopian urges and mania for secrecy. They broadcast Russia’s paranoid delusions and technological enthusiasm, its cynicism and patriotic pride, its hero worship and personalization of power, and, above all, its intense insecurity as a Cold War superpower which lost nearly thirty million of its own citizens to defeat the Nazi scourge. Gagarin could have been a nuclear bomb perched atop his rocket, a nuclear deterrent with a smile painted on its detonator. That would have suited Soviets just fine, haunted as they were by the memory of the war. The sense of insecurity, and the chip on the shoulder it engendered, still lingers, amplified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the petulant posturing and defensiveness of the Putin/Medvedev era. The biography of Gagarin therefore contains more than the story of one man; it is also the tale of the society that continually looks into Gagarin and sees a mirror of its many selves—from the time of Gagarin’s emergence from behind the barbed wire of the Soviet military-industrial complex to Russia’s current petroleum-powered renaissance.


Yuri Gagarin visiting his hometown of Gzhatsk

Among other things, Gagarin’s ambiguous position at the boundaries of the open and secret worlds accentuated the mythological and mysterious quality of his cult, the idea that Gagarin was different than he was purported to be (which, ironically, was that he was a supposedly simple and forthright fellow). Perhaps as much as the feat itself, the looking-glass quality of his public persona—as a kind of public portal into a mysterious and secret world that distorts everything that enters into it—gave his reputation and image an enduring power.  Gagarin could go places others could not: vertically into space, horizontally into the heart of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and, after his flight, to dozens of countries ordinary Soviets could only dream of visiting. Gagarin occupied a shaman-like position in Soviet society as someone uncannily linked to other worlds—to the cosmos, of course, but also to the super-secret Soviet world, invisible to all but the most connected. He was no ordinary idol; he was a Soviet space traveler.

In my understanding of biography, biographical truths, like most truths, operate on many different levels. What passes for truth on one level very often resembles a bald-faced lie on the other, and vice versa. The official Gagarin story was a sacred reality. Rather than a literal or objective truth, sacred reality, according to the philosopher Mircea Eliade, conveys a symbolic and metaphorical certainty. It embodies and propagates notions of virtue, honor, and proper conduct that a society holds dear. As with the biblical story of creation, sacred reality is therefore, “of a wholly different order from the ‘natural’ (or ‘profane’) realities.”

Eliade’s distinction between profane and sacred realities in many ways mirrors the difference in Russian culture between the word for everyday existence (byt) and the word for a more exalted and profound existence (bytie). Both share the same root for “being,” but they imply very different things. Gagarin’s heroic biography is bytie rather than the more mundane byt. It is life as it should be led and not life as it is, or in his case, was. Indeed, the flight itself was a symbolic re-creation of the movement from the earthbound profane to the heavenly sacred realm.

Keeping in mind the distinction between sacred and profane realities, my book takes a cue from biblical studies. Religious scholars distinguish between the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus that Christians worship. Piecing together bits and pieces of evidence from the many stories told about Jesus long after he died, they have reconstructed a portrait—albeit often contradictory and far from certain—of the actual figure of Jesus, as opposed to the Son of God. In the spirit of Jesus studies, I tell both the story of Gagarin’s profane everyday life and of the sacred values and ideals that his iconic image embodied.  If both are part of the larger Gagarin biography, they were also not entirely separate. It was the dream of millions of Soviets to transcend in one remarkable feat the myriad frustrations, irritations, difficulties, and humiliations of everyday life in the post-World War II Soviet Union. Gagarin was their hero precisely because he seemed to suggest that everyday life was pregnant with heroic, transformative possibility.

Piece republished with permission of the Author. Today marks the 51st anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight.


About the Author:

Andrew Jenks is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach.