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Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin Had the Right Stuff

Sixty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to leave our planet. The space race was inseparable from Cold War rivalry, but it also stands out as an inspiring example of what humanity can achieve through grand collective projects that aren’t geared to private profit.

Portrait of Yuri Gagarin before his departure in the spaceship VOSTOK 1 for the first manned flight to space. (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

When I used to live in Paris, I took the Metro to the end of the line one day and spent an afternoon wandering between Ivry and Villejuif. The area may not be as picturesque as the tourist zones of central Paris, but it has its own memorable spots, like the Yuri Gagarin Aquatic Stadium with its Olympic-length pool, perched at the intersection between Karl Marx Avenue and Yuri Gagarin Street.

Ivry-sur-Seine, a Communist stronghold since the 1920s, was then also the location of a housing complex called Cité Gagarine, inaugurated by the man himself during a visit to France in 1963. The municipal government knocked it down in 2019, having put up posters for the demolition that bore the message “Good Bye Gagarine” in English with Soviet-style lettering. You could hardly blame the New York Times for laying it on rather thickly in their report: “French Housing Project, Once a Symbol of the Future, Is Now a Tale of the Past.”

That still leaves at least one block of flats named in the cosmonaut’s honor: Gagarin House in London’s Battersea district, part of the Winstanley Estate. I spotted it while out canvassing for Labour in the 2017 election. But Gagarin House may not be long for this world either. The Labour MP elected that year, Marsha de Cordova, has attacked the local council’s “regeneration” plan that really amounts to social engineering: “At present, nearly 70 percent of the estate is made up of social housing tenants; when the project is complete less than 20 percent of the estate will be for social rent.”

A Lost World

In theory it could have been any country with any social system that sent the first man into space. But at the time, it seemed vitally important that it was the Soviet Union leading the way. The unbroken run of Soviet triumphs, from the Sputnik flight in 1957 to Alexei Leonov’s pioneering spacewalk in 1965, led many people to believe that the world’s first Communist state had caught up with the West and was now storming ahead into the future. The fear of being left behind prompted John F. Kennedy to assign limitless resources for NASA to reach the Moon by the end of the sixties.

Kennedy’s Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev was in jubilant form at the banquet to celebrate Gagarin’s return, as Alexei Leonov recalled:

He announced that our generation was going to live in true communism. We were all hugging, applauding, screaming “Hooray!” And we really believed him, because at that time the success of our country was obvious to the whole world.

Leonov drily observed that it was only later, when the problems of the Soviet economy had become more apparent, that he and his comrades “realized Khrushchev’s announcement was a little premature.”

The Soviet Union belonged to the history books long before the wrecking crews had finished with Cité Gagarine. The system that launched the space race now seems as far removed from our own time as Gagarin and the Vostok capsule did from his peasant forebears.

Builder of the Integral

Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff is a wonderful history of the space race in its early years, as told from the US side. But it comes with a heavy dose of free-market, social Darwinian ideology. For Wolfe, the conquest of space relied upon the innate human drive to clamber above your fellows on the pyramid of achievement, in the hope of one day joining “that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes.”

In Wolfe’s treatment, the flip side of this rugged individualism was the grey, anonymous collectivism of the Soviet space program:

The Soviet program gave off an aura of sorcery. The Soviets released practically no figures, pictures, or diagrams. And no names; it was revealed only that the Soviet program was guided by a mysterious individual known as the “Chief Designer.” But his powers were indisputable! Every time the United States announced a great space experiment, the Chief Designer accomplished it first, in the most startling fashion.

In one sense this is perfectly accurate: the Soviet authorities did indeed conceal the identity of their chief designer, Sergei Korolev, until after his death in 1966. But that was ancient history by the time Wolfe started researching The Right Stuff. He clearly didn’t want to abandon the conceit because it corresponded to his view of the Soviet system as a giant ant colony whose early successes would eventually give way to America’s swashbuckling frontier spirit:

In a marvelously morose novel of the future called We, completed in 1921, the Russian writer Evgeny Zamyatin describes a gigantic “fire-breathing, electric” rocket ship that is poised to “soar into cosmic space” in order to “subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom” — all this in the name of “the Benefactor,” ruler of “the One State.” This omnipotent spaceship is called the Integral, and its designer is known only as “D–503, Builder of the Integral.” In 1958 and early 1959, as magical success followed magical success, that was the way Americans, the leaders even more so than the followers, began to look on the Soviet space program.

This is Wolfe’s description of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight in 1961: “Early on the morning of April 12, the fabulous but anonymous Builder of the Integral, Chief Designer of the Sputniks, struck another of his cruel but dramatic blows.”

If Wolfe hadn’t gotten so carried away with his dystopian vision of cosmonauts building gulags for the microbes of the Red Planet, he might have noticed that the “Builder of the Integral” was a zek who had survived his time in a notorious real-life gulag. Sergei Korolev’s great achievement was a propaganda triumph for Nikita Khrushchev, but it was also a retrospective victory for Korolev over Joseph Stalin.

From Kolyma to the Stars

In the 1930s, Korolev had been working on the Soviet rocket program under the auspices of the Red Army. He already had a dream of sending probes into orbit, building on the work of visionaries like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. However, the Soviet state was chiefly interested in his rockets for their military potential. Korolev worked diligently as part of a research institute until 1938, when the Stalinist purges began to engulf every part of the Soviet system, even those that were vital for the country’s defense.

The NKVD secret police arrested Korolev and tortured him into signing a false confession about his role in an “anti-Soviet enemy organization.” He retracted the confession at his trial and wrote letters to Stalin pleading for a reassessment of his case, but to no avail. The NKVD sent him to the Kolyma camp system in the Russian far east, where conditions were unrelentingly grim for everyone — and especially for a man like Korolev. He refused to grovel before the criminals who ran the camp on behalf of its guards, so they denied him access to the miserable food rations.

Malnourished, freezing, worked to the bone, Korolev was on a path to certain death when another victim of the purges, the manager of an aircraft factory, arrived in Kolyma. Not only was he as proud as Korolev — he was also a keen boxer. He took on the leader of the criminals and beat him to a pulp. Recognizing Korolev from his previous life as a valuable servant of the Soviet Union, he took him under his wing and saved his life.

That was the first piece of good luck for Korolev. The second came after when the Soviet authorities transferred him to a special prison where he worked on military projects alongside men like the aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev and the inventor Leon Theremin, father of the electronic instrument that bears his name. With regular meals and working hours, Korolev’s health began to improve, although he would never fully recover from his time in the gulag.

By the end of the Second World War, the Soviet leadership knew that rocket technology would be of vital importance in any future conflict. The Nazis had demonstrated its potential with their flying bombs that rained down on London in the latter stages of the war. Stalin and his officials had learned that Wernher von Braun, creator of the V-2 rocket, was now working for the Americans. They gave Korolev the job of learning from the German program and developing a Soviet one as quickly as possible.

In most respects, this was a welcome change of fortunes for Korolev, although he had yet to be fully exonerated and still had to work under the supervision of Stalin’s police chief Lavrenti Beria, who threatened him with dire consequences whenever there was a mechanical failure. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, Korolev’s team was well on their way toward developing a ballistic missile that could bring Soviet warheads to American cities.

Korolev had to prioritize the military side of rocket technology, but he never forgot his vision of space travel. When the R-7 rocket was complete, he persuaded Khrushchev that it would be a great boost to Soviet prestige if he used it to send the world’s first satellite into orbit. As Khrushchev later acknowledged, it was Korolev’s knowledge and powers of persuasion that sold the top Soviet leaders on a project whose details none of them could understand:

We gawked at what he had to show us, as if we were a bunch of sheep seeing a new gate for the first time. Korolev took us on a tour of the launching pad and tried to explain to us how the rocket worked. We didn’t believe it could fly. We were like peasants in a marketplace, walking around the rocket, touching it, tapping it to see if it was sturdy enough.

This Man of Renown

Korolev’s chief competitor was the very same man who had sent his V-2s to kill thousands of Londoners, now equipped with a US passport bestowed to him by his paymasters and a television contract from Walt Disney. Deborah Cadbury structures her excellent book Space Race as a dual biography of Korolev and Wernher von Braun. That approach is a fair reflection of their importance in the conquest of space, but it does von Braun no favors, since his only experience of forced-labor camps came from the other side of a barbed-wire fence.

Even without Korolev as a contrasting figure, it would be difficult to conjure up a sympathetic picture of von Braun. Not only did he work within the Nazi system to advance his scientific dreams, creating weapons that captured the imagination of Hitler. He also took full and conscious advantage of that system at its most criminal, using slave laborers from concentration camps in his research facilities.

Wernher von Braun with a rocket model, 1958. (Wikimedia Commons)

About one-third of the sixty thousand prisoners at von Braun’s underground rocket factory in the Harz mountains died after being forced to work in horrendous conditions to build more V-2s. More people were killed building the rocket than at the sites where it landed. Von Braun, a card-carrying member of the SS, even made a personal trip to Buchenwald to — in his own words — “seek out more qualified detainees.”

Operation Paperclip plucked men like von Braun from the rubble of postwar Germany and brought them across the Atlantic to work for the US government, burying the details of their wartime activity in classified files. By the time of the Sputnik launch, von Braun was already a familiar face from TV programs and glossy magazines — a handsome, photogenic figure with the build of a college football player. His accent was the only trace of his past in the Old World as he spoke enthusiastically about the practicalities of space stations and sending a man to the Moon.

The gods appear to have been angry with von Braun for escaping the shadows of Peenemünde and Mittelwerk so easily, because they sent not one but two great satirists to demolish his clean-cut public image. Peter Sellers took von Braun as the model for his German scientist of barely suppressed Nazi leanings, Doctor Strangelove, in Stanley Kubrick’s great movie. But Tom Lehrer probably did more damage to von Braun’s reputation with his eponymous song, delivered in a soft voice over a tinkling piano that made its lyrics all the more effective.

Lehrer portrayed von Braun as “a man whose allegiance / is ruled by expedience,” blissfully untroubled by the consequences of his actions: “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” With memories of the Blitz still fresh in people’s minds, Lehrer reminded them of his contribution to the carnage:

Some have harsh words for this man of renown.

But some think our attitude

Should be one of gratitude,

Like the widows and cripples in old London town

Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun

Chris Kraft, the founder of NASA’s Mission Control, worked closely with von Braun and grew to like him on a personal level. He still reckoned Tom Lehrer’s character sketch was entirely fair: “He didn’t give a shit about who he worked for or what he did.”

Everyman

It’s worth stressing at this point that the Soviet leaders would have been happy to enlist von Braun for their own program and did in fact recruit a batch of lesser-known German scientists. The story of Operation Paperclip reflects very badly on the US system; that doesn’t mean it reflects well on the Soviet one.

Even so, it’s quite satisfying to recall exactly who it was that snatched the cup from von Braun’s lips: Korolev’s young protégé Yuri Gagarin, who had seen Hitler’s army come to his village as a child. Sergei Korolev and Nikita Khrushchev both saw Gagarin as a kind of Soviet everyman, the son of workers on a collective farm. When it came to the crunch, this background ensured Gagarin’s priority over his fellow cosmonaut Gherman Titov, whose father was a teacher.

If Gagarin was typical of his generation, that merely underlined how extraordinary — and horrific — the experience of that generation had been. Born in a village located to the west of Moscow, he was seven years old when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. German troops occupied the village and ejected the Gagarins from their family home, forcing them to live in a shack. One day, he had to watch as a soldier strung up his younger brother from a tree with a makeshift noose; somehow he survived.

Gagarin’s first experience of military technology involved tampering with German tank batteries when the soldiers dropped their guard. As the Red Army began rolling back the German advance, the SS took his two older siblings with them to work in labor camps. It was only after the war that the rest of the family discovered they were still alive.

After this traumatic childhood, Gagarin went to a technical school and trained to become a fighter pilot, unwittingly joining the recruitment pool for the first batch of cosmonauts. The propaganda of the Soviet state was full of mythmaking, but in one respect at least, it didn’t exaggerate. Gagarin really did symbolize a remarkable period of social mobility, as the children and grandchildren of peasants became factory workers, technicians, party officials, pilots — even cosmonauts.

The Right Choice

Gagarin may have had the right background for his role, but he also had the right personality. When they were researching their biography Starman, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony spoke at length with Gherman Titov and grew to be very fond of him. He was understandably quite tender at having missed out on a unique achievement by such a fine margin, but he reckoned the choice had been the right one:

Not because of the government, but because Yura turned out to be the man that everyone loved. Me, they couldn’t love. I’m not loveable. They loved Yura. When I visited his mum and dad in the Smolensk region after he was dead, then I realized it. I’m telling you, they were right to choose Yura.

In fairness to Titov, while he may not have had Gagarin’s charisma, he was certainly able to coin a memorable phrase. On a visit to the United States in 1962, he delivered one of the great quips of the space age, often wrongly attributed to Gagarin himself:

I was looking around attentively all day, but I didn’t find anybody there. I saw neither angels nor God … no god was helping make the rocket. The rocket was made certainly by our people and the flight was carried out by man. So I don’t believe in God. I believe in man — in his strengths, his possibilities, and his reason.

Titov’s philosophy set him miles apart from John Glenn and the Mercury Seven, who liked to stress their religiosity (at least in public), conforming to a very different stereotype of what it meant to be an everyman.

The Soviet leadership cashed in on Gagarin’s natural charm after his world-shaking feat, sending him on trip after trip as a roving ambassador. The enthusiastic crowds that greeted him everywhere he went made for a welcome contrast with the stage-managed parades of Red Square. 1961 was also the year that Khrushchev and his German ally Walter Ulbricht put up the Berlin Wall, so it was a great propaganda boon to have a genuinely popular frontman for Soviet modernity whose appearances could counterbalance the less inspiring symbols of the eastern bloc.

The journalist Yaroslav Golovanov, who had an inside track on the Soviet space program, insisted that Gagarin remained quite humble despite suddenly becoming one of the most famous people in the world: “He never forgot that he was at the top of a huge pyramid of engineers and constructors who prepared him for his flight.” Whether Golovanov realized it or not, this neatly inverted Tom Wolfe’s fixation on the supermen who had climbed to the top of the ziggurat.

“Because They Are Hard”

Gagarin’s flight was the capstone of an extraordinary sequence — first satellite, first probe to reach the Moon, first woman to go into orbit, first spacewalk — that made it seem as if the USSR would never be equalled, in this field at least. Few people outside the Soviet inner circle appreciated how much this run of successes owed to Korolev’s personal dynamism, wringing every last drop out of what was available to him.

Of course, it also rested upon the Soviet Union’s technological base, built up since the 1920s through a crash industrialization drive. But that base wasn’t strong enough to compete with the full resources of the US economy when they were finally brought to bear on the space race.

Gagarin’s flight and the other humiliations that Korolev visited upon the United States were enough to provoke John F. Kennedy into announcing a full-scale Moon program. His administration picked the Earth’s satellite as a target specifically because it was going to be a vastly expensive, time-consuming mission. As he told an audience in Texas in 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” This wasn’t simply a generic Promethean sentiment, like George Mallory’s reason for wanting to climb Everest: “Because it is there.” There was also a sharp geopolitical edge to Kennedy’s remark.

Korolev ran himself into the ground trying to compete with the Apollo program, which ended up costing well over $150 billion in today’s money and employing more than four hundred thousand people at its peak. In the process, he strained his already fragile health through overwork.

Shortly before his death in January 1966, Korolev kept Gagarin and Alexei Leonov back after a party and told them for the first time about his experience in the gulag, which by Leonov’s account made a huge impression on both men: “On our way home, Yuri couldn’t stop questioning: how could it be that such unique people like Korolev had been subjected to repression?”

The founder of the Soviet space program died while undergoing an operation at the age of fifty-nine. One detail would seem like far too much if a writer included it in a fictional story: the doctors couldn’t insert a tube into Korolev’s lungs to help him breathe while he was under anesthetic, because of long-term damage to his jaw sustained while he was in Kolyma. It was a poignant symbol of a much wider problem. Despite the hopes of the early 1960s, the Soviet system was still weighed down by the dark legacy of Stalinism and could never fully overcome it.

Alexei Leonov during an Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, 1975. (Picryl / Public Domain)

With Korolev’s hand no longer on the tiller, the Soviet Union lost whatever small chance it had of besting the Americans. The experimental N-1 rocket that was supposed to bring cosmonauts to the Moon blew up on the launchpad a few weeks before Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated fear of sleeping “by the light of a Red Moon” never came to pass.

Gagarin didn’t live to see the Moon landings either: in March 1968, he died in a plane crash at the age of thirty-four. Some of his friends speculated that the Soviet elite had engineered the fatal plunge, although — as Doran and Bizony firmly insist — there was “no real evidence to suggest that Gagarin’s crash was anything other than an accident.”

Alexei Leonov was convinced that a supersonic plane flying much too low had sent Gagarin’s MiG into a catastrophic spin, making him the victim of negligence rather than malice. There were also more outlandish theories that Gagarin had faked his own death and lived out the rest of his life in obscurity, testifying to his iconic status as the Elvis of space travel.

New Worlds

It was the Saturn V rocket designed by von Braun and his team that powered the Apollo mission. But it wasn’t really von Braun, or Neil Armstrong, or any individual who had bested the Soviets. It was a huge collective project underpinned by taxpayer dollars from the richest country on Earth that overcame a rival team still much more reliant on the brilliance of individuals. In that sense, Tom Wolfe had it precisely wrong: the Moon landings were a victory for collectivism over individualism, Big Government over the frontier spirit.

More than half a century later, what really stands out is how much the rivalry between the two superpowers drove them to accomplish. The Cold War was a paradoxical time for the world. It brought humanity to the very brink of nuclear conflict on at least two occasions, and there were countless hot wars and episodes of domestic repression justified in its name. But it also drove the United States and the Soviet Union to compete with one another in a more constructive way, by raising the prestige of their systems and improving the living standards of their citizens.

The space race embodied this paradox. The same technology that could have vaporized every major city between Moscow and Seattle made it possible to conquer the heavens, and we are still reaping the benefits today. The program founded by Korolev didn’t fizzle out after Neil Armstrong’s triumph: it reoriented toward new projects, from the space stations that demonstrated how humans could live outside the Earth’s atmosphere for long periods of time, to the Venera probes that beamed back images of Venus and helped us understand the dynamics of global warming. NASA’s budget may be smaller than it was in the days of Kennedy and Nixon, but it can still send spacecraft to strange worlds like Titan and Pluto, broadening our knowledge of the solar system and perhaps the entire universe.

The fact that Yuri Gagarin had his name linked to public housing projects is rather fitting. Nowadays governments prefer to leave the task of housing their citizens to the private sector, just as they leave the task of planning a Mars colony to Elon Musk. Musk naturally finds it easier to imagine terraforming a planet than transforming our social relations, and wants his Martian project to rely on debt-shackled indentured labor. If that’s the best our society can offer by way of a futurist utopia, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and recover the spirit of collective ambition that drove the exploration of space from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

At the end of 1961, Sergei Korolev composed a triumphant article for Pravda under the pseudonym “K. Sergeev”:

One of the most fascinating problems to have excited humanity for centuries is the question of flight to the other planets and the distant regions of the universe; at first to regions nearest to Earth, such as the Moon, the Earth’s eternal companion, which now bears the symbol of the USSR on its surface, and then to the planets of the solar system nearest to the Earth — Mercury, the thickly cloud-enshrouded Venus, mysterious Mars, distant Jupiter and the four other planets. These are the probable interplanetary routes for Soviet explorers. And after that: the massive suns and the worlds of the other galaxies. 1961 has come to an end. This year has seen great leaps forward for the Soviet people. It was the year of the 22nd Party Congress, which established the program for building Communism; a year of triumphal achievements in Soviet science and outstanding displays of bravery by our pilots, who have paved the first road into space.

From today’s vantage point, Korolev’s modernist belief in scientific progress seems almost as misplaced as his confidence in a glorious Soviet future which unbeknownst to him had only three more decades to run. Most people would offer better odds on the self-destruction of human civilization than on its spread across intergalactic space. But if we do learn to master both our technology and our social systems and embark on those great journeys, it’ll be Korolev and Gagarin who deserve recognition as the ones who took the first step.