The Road to Gagarin

[Below is  a digital version of an  exhibition  photographer Rene Nuijens and I  made for the European Space Agency which  then  went on to be exhibited in Yuri’s hometown of  Gagarin, Russia and have a version of it published in  McSweeney’s Quarterly, Volume 12. Got any nice Yuri stories? Then please do leave a comment below. For more recent writings about Yuri Gagarin go HERE.]


We first came to wintry Moscow in 2001 to put our Western fingers on the pulse of Russian Cosmonautics. Within two weeks the Mir Space Station, the last vestige of a purely Soviet/Russian manned space program, would plummet back to Earth after fifteen years of service. But shortly after this end there was another date that would represent the giddy beginning: April 12th would be the 40th anniversary of the historic 108-minute orbit of the Earth that made Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) the first man in space.

With more than enough space historians busying themselves with purely technical and political matters, we felt comfortable in focusing in more on the mythic aspects of Cosmonautics. This meant that we could indulge our fascination for such things as stuffed astro-dogs, space shuttles re-invented as fairground rides, and massive swoops of titanium depicting Flash Gordon types. Naturally we were also attracted to uncovering reflections of such now universal tales that depicted the Mir as a long-doomed space station held together by sheer will and duct-tape alone, and Yuri Gagarin as the most immortal of Soviet icons…

And indeed, it was the story of Yuri that struck us the deepest. No one can deny the sheer guts of someone who cheerfully had himself strapped into some tin can to be blasted off towards the centre of the universe and in the process achieving something that only a few dogs, that mostly died, tried. And in our small and modest way, we also paid our respect: by returning to Russia again and again – weakly armed with only two words of the local lingo (“Yuri” and “Gagarin”) – so we could be strapped into some tin can of an airplane or car towards yet another Great Unknown that had played a major role in Yuri’s dramatic and often surreal life. In the process, we hoped to capture (in our small and modest way) the essence of both the man who is dead and his myth that is very much alive.

Certainly few can compete with Yuri. He is a hero of the classical mould whose life story eerily resembles the universally familiar path followed by everyone from Ulysses to Luke Skywalker. Of course, Soviet propaganda did much to inflate this perception, but this alone does not explain Yuri’s enduring stature. While his tragically premature death also aided the myth-building process, Russians often like to point out that Yuri’s continued resonance is more about him having been a “really nice guy”. But he was also the very cute embodiment of the ancient Russian dream of conquering outer space that inspired a school of philosophy and science, Cosmism, a full century before Khrushchev started scaring the West with visions of Soviets pumping out “rockets like sausages”.

The story of Yuri, while it should never be told completely outside its totalitarian context, still tells a heartening tale of the power of positive dreaming. And we ourselves certainly learned a lot from a people – overly represented in the media with images of gulags and gangsters – whose language has no word for “corny”. In short, we are inspired to export the idea of Yuri as a worthy hero beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, and to present a certain Russian idealism that both preceded and outlasted the Communist Era. Stay tuned for the coffee table book…

Steve Korver (text)
Rene Nuijens (photography)




Once upon a time long before Cold War competition, the Russians dreamed of space being a place that not only stretched horizontally from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, but also vertically from “Moscow to the Moon, Kaluga to Mars”. Spurred by the vision that “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever”, a deaf and largely self-taught small town school teacher Konstatin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1937) used his spare time to come up with the formula that made rocket flight possible and eventually had it published in 1903, the same year as the Wright brothers flight. While living in a rustic log cabin, this son of a Polish lumberjack also managed to meditate intelligently on multi-stage rockets, orbital space stations, weightlessness, solar energy and the design considerations for space suits and gravity-free showers. However many years would pass before Yuri Gagarin would put a face to all this pragmatic dreaming by becoming our planet’s first cosmic emissary…



Nuijens_Gagarin_Square, gagarin_

Cosmonaut #1 was also a dreamer. He had dreamed since boyhood of strapping on some rocket-powered gossamer wings and flying towards the moon. But he was also a regular guy – albeit one with a monumental smile – who was born in 1934 in the backwoods of the Smolensk region near the town of Gzhatsk. While most Russian towns named after Soviet figureheads have long reverted to their pre-Revolution names, Gagarin Town will never become Gzhatsk again. Certainly, if Yuri’s many descendents who still live there have their way. Already there are seven different museums dedicated to this town’s favourite son. It is hoped that an improved infrastructure will bring more pilgrims than just buses of school children making the 180 km ride from Moscow. It’s a sad metaphor for the current state of Cosmonautics that the town’s one hotel – named Vostok after the technological wonder that blasted Yuri towards the stars – is in dire need of new plumbing. But the spirit is there…




Gagarin Town is already a Graceland for all the Russian cosmonauts who followed Yuri. They came to pay respects to Yuri’s mother, herself an icon of Soviet Motherhood, until her death in 1984. And they still come to drink the cold fresh water from the Gagarin family well beside the recreated log cabin where Yuri was born in the nearby village of Klushino. Downing a refreshing glass of this well water is said to ensure one’s safe return from the Cosmos. Many American astronauts, betraying a balanced view of Space History, have also visited. No one less than Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was once on hand to place a gold coin in the foundation of the largest museum dedicated to Yuri and declare: “Gagarin called us all to the Cosmos”.




Yuri was called to take the trajectory of any bright-eyed child of promise in the USSR. He went off to learn how to become a working class hero. But characteristically, he went further than most: 800 km south of Moscow down the Volga river to Saratov where he would learn steelwork at the city’s industrial training college. He would also learn how to fly at the local flight club. Whenever he would write home to tell his parents how he was excelling at both, his mother would always reply: “We are proud of you, my son… but don’t you get a swelled head”. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian-born Tsiolkovsky disciple Sergei Korolov (1906-66) had long returned from his Siberian imprisonment as a victim of Stalinist purges to invent the intercontinental ballistic and take charge of Soviet Space Program. As “Chief Designer” (his true name would remain a state secret until his death), he would oversee the launching of both Sputnik and his chosen cosmic ambassador, Yuri.




“For a space flight they looked for ardent spirits, a quick brain, strong nerves, inflexible will power, stability, vivacity and cheerfulness.” – Road to the Stars, Yuri Gagarin

Due to the cramped nature of the space capsule, Korolov was also looking for a short person to make that first big step into the Cosmos. As a 1.54 metre tall man who needed a pillow to properly see out from a plane’s cockpit, Yuri certainly fit the profile. And as captain of his basketball team, it was also obvious that Yuri was a very special kind of short person. But it is said that it was only after Yuri respectfully took off his shoes before entering the training capsule for the first time that Korolov made his decision and told Yuri “for you the stratosphere is not the limit”. Yuri regarded this as “the pleasantest words I had ever heard.”




On the 12th of April 1961, Yuri shouted with an unbridled enthusiasm “Let’s Go!” (Poyekhali!) as he was launched from the dusty steppes of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome to become the first human to see with their own eyes that the Earth was indeed round. In many ways these words defined the man: simple, direct and to the point. He was also unnaturally relaxed: sleeping soundly the night before, softly whistling a tune to his motherland while awaiting countdown, and keeping his heartbeat steady during blast-off. While careening around the planet at a speed of 28 000 km/h, he also reported back: “I am Eagle!” “I can see the clouds! I can see everything! It’s beautiful!” and “I am feeling great! Very great! Very great! Very great!” Meanwhile, Radio Moscow interrupted normal broadcasting to play the song “How Spacious is My Country”.




After one 108-minute circuit of the Earth, Yuri landed a short distance from where he first learned to fly in Saratov. It was said he was in the capsule when it landed (but in fact he had bailed by parachute). It was said he landed in a freshly ploughed field (but in fact he had landed too close to a secret missile division so the capsule was moved to a suitably ploughed field). It was said an old woman, a little girl and a cow were the first to greet him (but in fact he had to do some fast-talking in order to convince pitchfork-armed farmers that he was not a spy). But regardless, it remained an unparalleled moment in human history. While Yuri claimed that he saw no God during his flight through the Cosmos, two days later when Red Square filled beyond capacity to greet him, he himself would become One – One who worried about tripping over his untied shoelace as he made the long red-carpet walk towards the Soviet star-studded podium. The cult of the cosmonaut was born and “every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut and every girl his wife”.




Yuri was on hand to lend guidance to Gherman Titov, the second man in space (and whose 24-hour flight made him the first man in space to sleep, eat, etc…); Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space; and Vladimir Komarov, the first man to die in space. They and every other cosmonaut that followed him took Yuri’s national respect to truly obsessive lengths. To this day before any launch, a cosmonaut will  visit his recreated office at Star City’s cosmonaut training centre to ‘meditate’ and sign a log, pay their respects at Red Square by laying a wreath under his resting place in the Kremlin Wall, and then finally urinate – just like Yuri did – on the back tire of the bus that had brought them to the launch pad. Though it is likely that Ms. Tereshkova came up with alternative ritual to this last on.




Yuri adapted remarkably well in his new role as the most pleasant of peasant icons. He charmed both the masses and the elite with the easy manner he exhibited during endless world tours. But it was not easy. Being the first man in space seemed to attract many female admirers that led to stress on his marriage. There were also many male admirers who wanted to be his friend. And hence, his face soon began showing the fattening effects of that certain brand of Slavic hospitality that required the regular communal downing of vodka shots. It almost seemed as if an Elvis-like fate was awaiting him. But he rose above and accepted the fact that he was now too valuable as a symbol to ever see Space again. He returned to school to study engineering, reaffirmed his family commitments, and took the job as the deputy head of the cosmonaut training facility at Star City that would soon bear his name. But he still felt the strain: “I still can’t understand who I am: ‘the first man’ or the ‘last dog’.”




But he needed to fly… So he returned to his first love of flying jets. At 10.41am on the 27nd of March 1968 during a training flight with another Hero of the Soviet Union, the flying ace Vladimir Serugin, Yuri crashed in a quiet forest known only to bears and mushroom hunters near the town of Novoselovo, 100 km from Moscow. His life was over and now myth – as true as it often was – would completely take over. The cause of the crash was ruled accidental but since it occurred at a time when everything was hushed up, it was only natural that whole other schools of speculation arose: that in fact Yuri was abducted by aliens, or that Brezchnev driven by a jealousy of Yuri’s close relationship with Khrushchev had him killed, or that Yuri had finally gone mad from something he had seen in outer space. The most ridiculous scenario had Yuri drunk, flying low, and trying to shoot a moose with a rifle. Of course, the most likely story is that Yuri was indeed pulverised when the jet flew out of control after hitting a weather balloon. His best friend, the space walker Leonov, identified the remains by recognising a mole on a piece of neck that was familiar to him from the many times they had gotten haircuts together. But an air of mystery remains…




A nation mourned and the myth grew. Few people have been honoured with 40-meter swoops of titanium casting them as a Flash Gordonov of sorts. Fewer still have their names still gracing streets, schools, towns, cocktails, fashion labels and casinos, or have their faces – echoing the gilded icons of the Russian Orthodox Church – plastered on candy cases, lamps, bronzes, glass, porcelain, cookie tins, cigarette cases, buttons, clocks, books, pen sets, Christmas ornaments, vodka flasks, toys, cards, postcards and matchbox sets. Certainly none but one is regularly referred to as the “Russian Elvis” or the “Soviet JFK”. But it’s the personal stories of Yuri’s generosity, humour and warmth that still seem to circulate the most. Korolov said, “Yuri personified the eternal youth of our people. He combined within himself in a most happy blend the attributes of courage, and analytical mind and exceptional industry”.




Today, Yuri is the only figure from Soviet times still regarded by Russians with absolute awe and respect. But slowly the passage of time is taking its toll: a niece of Yuri noted that now even the youngest generation of Gagarins are betraying a preference for “Coca Cola over the Cosmos”. But Yuri and the dream that he came to represent will never completely fade away. In 1991, when the ultimately Western phenomena of house parties arrived in Moscow, the first post-Soviet generation chose to call them not raves but ‘Gagarins’. In similar tribute, the many rusting monuments to Cosmonauts found throughout the former Soviet Union are still often brightened with fresh and youthful graffiti expressing such lofty sentiments as “Yuri, we are with you”…

Why? Because space is the place… because Yuri was like the bungee jumper before the invention of the bungee… because Yuri was a really nice guy who became the people’s icon of a really nice guy… because Yuri’s name will be associated with the highest aspirations of our species for millennia to come… because Yuri represented what it is like – as he described it – to live life “as one big moment”. But mostly because nations need their heroes.  Just like  people…  

Thanks to Troy Selvaratnum, Piet Smolders and Lava Design.

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