sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

April 12, 2011

Soviet Space Nostalgia

Filed under: Russia — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 6:22 pm

In late 70s and 80s Space Explorers Day, celebrated on April 12 in the Soviet Union, was a minor affair.  Our school teachers talked about it, TV stations, all three of them, aired some sort of documentary about Yuri Gagarin, our first man in space.  These documentaries typically explained how there is no point of going to the moon — other then for the show.  I don’t recall what they said about space shuttles, which Soviets didn’t know how to make, but I’m pretty sure these were only for the show too.  My parents, of course, remember the feeling of astonishment and exuberance when in 1961 out of nowhere came the news of Gagarin’s flight.  In years to come Gagarin, who died in 1968 in a test plane crash, was still remembered fondly, but there were no parades, no flags or flowers, no special rituals to commemorate the first human space flight.  Neither a lavish state celebration nor an authentic grass roots movement baring Gagarin’s name existed at the time.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians retained some of the communist holidays.  Soviet Army Day, for instance, became the Day of Defender of Fatherland, International Women’s Day is still International Women’s Day, and a few decades down the road Space Explorers’ Day is transformed into Yuri’s Night, a celebration of conquest of the final frontier and, more generally, human achievement.  This year, on the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, the holiday is celebrated worldwide — with bad music and designer drugs that make one want to do great, daring things, like cuddle all night.  OK, enough about raves, what are we celebrating and why?

Gagarin is important to Russians today because he embodies something positive that came out of the Soviet era. To be sure, Soviet subjects achieved quite a bit in the period between 1917 and 1991 in areas such as literature.  There were Solzhenitsin, Akhmatova, Trifonov and Bulgakov, to name a few.  Lately in our house we’ve been playing lots and lots of Russian popular songs from the early to mid-20th century.  We especially like Utesov and Shainsky.

I like to describe Utesov as Soviet Klezmer. His “Mishka from Odessa” (1941) is a song about a sailor who first leaves Odessa when she is surrendered to the Nazis in WW2, and later battles to liberate her.  Incidentally, Odessa was liberated from the Nazis two days and 67 years ago Something to celebrate.

Shainsky’s “Blue Wagon” (c. 1972) is a masterpiece of Soviet children’s song.

The best of Russian literature of the Soviet era was created in opposition to the regime, and writers payed dearly.  Jazzy musicians like Utesov were merely tolerated, even though they often performed patriotic shanties.  And Shainsky was apolitical at the time when being apolitical was a statement in and of itself, a statement of refusing to engage with the political culture created by the regime. The launch of the first cosmonaut, by contrast, is not simply “something good” that came out of communist era, not something created in opposition to the regime or in parallel, but a grand achievement of the ruling class.

Russians today often overestimate the significance the first space flight in the minds of the Soviet people during the Brezhnev period.  Recent Russian film called The Vanished Empire set in the early 70s Moscow is a case in point.  (Thanks to Vicki Boykis for the recommendation.)  The film conjugates a fairly authentic picture of the Soviet life, with a keen eye for detail.  Except that Sergei, the protagonist of this drama, adorns his room with a picture of Gagarin.  That’s contemporary Russians projecting their own nostalgia into the early 70s.  It seems dubious that with American moonwalk fresh on everyone’s minds, a Moscow hipster who buys smuggled rock albums, would make Gagarin his hero.  I don’t recall anyone decorating their house with space memorabilia before the Soviet Union dissolved.  A college professor of mine once quipped that in the post-Soviet days Russians hang Soviet nostalgia trinkets in their rooms, but in the Soviet days we had world maps.  It’s true, we were so into geography!  Here we were, sitting behind the iron curtain and staring at the exotic names of faraway towns.  That’s what Sergei was suppose to have on his wall: the world map.  And yet…

Three years before the first man flew to the stars and came back in one piece Vasili Aksenov (click on this link, it’s a fascinating story!) wrote A Ticket to the Stars, which quickly became a bestseller in the Soviet Union.  The book, which describes adventures of young Moscow stilyagi (hipsters), brilliantly captures the hopeful spirit of Khrushchev’s Thaw, when exciting arty subculture emerged in USSR following the death of Stalin.  Stilyagi were especially fond of avant-garde art, jazz and the West, especially the United States.  This is not to say that Khrushchev approved of any of it. Aksenov, for instance, was criticized for the use of slang in his book.  A Ticket to the Stars ends with the death of the main character’s brother in what is presumed to be a spacecraft accident.  His brother was supposed to be the first man in space!  The country knew it was in the space race, and for the men in charge launching the first human into the orbit was more important then the lives of those involved in the program. Aksenov, who grew up in an orphanage because his parents were sent to the Gulag certainly knew that.

Vasili Aksenov

In 1981, during his visit to the United States, Vasili Aksenov was stripped of  Soviet citizenship.  He taught at George Mason University until 2004, and returned to Russia a few years before his death in 2009.  So what are we celebrating on April 12: the spirit of achievement and discovery symbolized by the reach to the stars, very much in line with American ragged individualism, or clumsy Behemoth that crashes the individual and sends its subjects in mal-designed spacecraft on secret missions intended to intimidate the world?



  1. “Gagarin is important to Russians today because he embodies something positive that came out of the Soviet era.”

    This is the truth I have been thinking about but haven’t been able to articulate to myself all day.

    Comment by Vicki — April 12, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

  2. […] and grew indifferent to further conquests of the final frontier.  Russians, on the other hand, are nostalgic for the fleeting former glory. Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post.Leave a […]

    Pingback by How Many Undies for a Cosmonaut? « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — April 13, 2011 @ 5:22 am

  3. Huh. When I was a kid, my first introduction to space exploration was watching the Challenger explosion live on TV while at school.

    The whole importance of the space race didn’t come up til much later. But having missed the era of the moon landing, I don’t think I have ever grasped the significance.

    I really liked that Blue Wagon song. Thanks. I’ll have to google the lyrics.


    Comment by nooneofanyimport — April 13, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

    • I remember the Challenger. There was certainly a lot of gloating on national TV on account of the explosion. A the time somebody at the top was still pushing the whole “our achievement in space” meme, and how oh wow! we are now sending two cosmonauts in a single rocket, and even thinking about three.
      And then comes the news about Challenger, and the official narrative was American failure. I remember thinking “What, you mean, Americans are sending six (or was it seven?) people in orbit, and then the spacecraft returns, and they use it again?” It was probably a fairly common reaction.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — April 13, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

  4. ooh, I found it with English subtitles

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — April 13, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    • I’m glad you liked the song. It’s a fairly good translation, except that it’s not “Everybody should believe and hope for the best” but “Everybody believes in the best” which is a different thing. It’s a slightly melancholy pensive song, which, I suppose is suggested by the melody. It really is a great song. Kids love it, adults love it.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — April 13, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

  5. What a great post. I have always had a passion for the Russian culture, I have no idea why. It was very interesting to read about a time I hold dear in my own heart, I am a huge fan of NASA and the Apollo project was the most amazing adventure in human history. Its cool to see how “the other side” viewed the events of the space race.

    Comment by fleeceme — April 14, 2011 @ 1:18 am

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I’m a big fan of NASA too. I hope they keep on going.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — April 14, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

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