Yuri Gagarin, human (50 years human space flight)

Our Road to Gagarin project was originally inspired by what we came to call ‘cosmonautic kitsch’ and the JFK-level of conspiracy theories around Gagarin, the myth. But recently we got to meet people who knew Yuri, the human. In tribute to the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s flight, I have put together some excerpts from these meetings with remarkable people. Cosmos Libre!

GagarinTown, House mum GagarinAs it turned out, the road to Gagarin was one of the better highways we ever drove down in Russia. In 2002, it was very new. Our driver Alexei, meanwhile, was very old school. He was a boy in Moscow when Yuri’s First Flight was announced. Like all his friends, Alexei skipped classes to be part of the masses that flowed to Red Square to celebrate. ‘But we were not punished because it was a great, great day. Our country had nothing, yet we were the first to enter the cosmos. From then on, every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut and every girl his wife.’ But times changed. Alexei doubts that his 15-year-old daughter has even heard of Gagarin. ‘She just wants dance and debt.’

Alexei’s views of the universe have only seemed to have darkened in the decades since the bright and glorious days of the First Flight. ‘By the time Gagarin died, everyone was tired of him. Within a year he was fat from vodka but still he became a general. The later cosmonauts were actually much cleverer since they were real scientists. Yuri was just an animal for an experiment.’ Alexei also claimed that Yuri wasn’t even first: that it was some Vladimir Ilyushin, son of a famous aircraft designer, who was the first to enter space. And in fact, most people now believe that Yuri himself was responsible for the still-mysterious training flight crash that killed him in 1968.

Suddenly our ambitions to make the ultimate coffee table book about Gagarin seemed a bit under-considered. Alexei tried to cheer us up. ‘But Gagarin will still always be remembered as the first. And he did still risk his life…’ To distract us, Alexei pointed out a wealthy residential area where government officials apparently managed to buy half-a-million dollar houses while only making five hundred dollars a month. When a Mercedes careened past us, Alexei started grumbling about how ‘traffic lights are only for the poor’.

Yuri was born in the tiny village of Klushino near the town of Gzhatsk, now called Gagarin. While most Russian towns named after Soviet figureheads have long reverted to their pre-Revolution names, it’s safe to assume Gagarin will never become Gzhatsk again.
After picking up Tanya, a local guide, we went off-highway in the direction of Klushino. When we passed a destroyed 19th-century estate, Tanya said: ‘No memories, no history’. When we passed the former location of the Pushkin Collective Farm, Alexei said: ‘I think it was Pushkin who said “I love Russia but it’s a very strange love”.’ Tanya and Alexei had only met 20 minutes earlier but these two comrades were already working in existential tandem.

We pull over and take pictures of the sign for Gagarin State Farm: it’s of a sci-fi Yuri rusting in his space helmet.

At Yuri’s first home, the ‘Gagarin Cabin’, we got introduced to the guys next door tinkering on what could possibly be cars. Alexei joked with them, ‘Don’t worry, they are journalists, not spies.’ They don’t look particularly worried as they shake our hands and ask us to buy them beer. Meanwhile, Alexei drives off in search of the caretaker who has the keys to the cabin. Apparently he’s milking cows somewhere.

Tanya told us that the original Gagarin Cabin was built in 1933 and was taken plank by plank and rebuilt in Gagarin soon after Gagarin’s death. The copied replica we were standing in front of was built in 1971 and had its reed roof replaced in 1994 because ‘the birds had stolen it for their own homes.’ Continuing the tour, we are taken out back to the underground turf house where Yuri lived during Nazi occupation. While his older brother and sister were sent to work camps in Germany, Yuri lived here for almost two years with three other children, his parents and his grandmother in six square metres of cold, cold dirt. In his ghost-written memoir, Road to the Stars, Gagarin described the mind games he played with the Nazis as a boy saboteur. And he wrote of the joy of seeing his first planes and meeting his first pilots.

The replica cabin is very pioneering. The front porch is a carpentry workshop and inside there are grain-milling devices, cotton looms and root cellars. A side room is a shed for pigs, cows and chickens. ‘But before the Bolsheviks, it was used for horses,’ Tanya told us. Before leaving, we stopped to drink from the Gagarin Well, an act which is said to ensure one’s safe return from the cosmos. The water was cold and refreshing but came with a few splinters.

On our way back to Gagarin, I started asking Tanya gentle questions around Alexei’s outrageous rewriting of space history and Gagarin’s role in it. She just brushed it aside as useless gossip: ‘For me, these are not questions.’ I gave up and concentrated on making her like me again.

There was plenty of Yuri to see in Gagarin. Seven museums and galleries are dedicated to the town’s favourite son. It is hoped that an improved infrastructure will motivate more pilgrims to take the 180-kilometre ride from Moscow than just cosmonauts and astronauts looking for luck, the countless buses of school children and the stray terrestrial space tourist. Gagarin Town was no Graceland. Yet. And at least Alexei approved: ‘Have you noticed that there are few Mercedes here? That means it’s an honest place.’ 


Victor PorohnyaVictor Porohnya and Yuri Gagarin became best friends in 1951 as first year students at the Industrial-Pedagogical College in Saratov, a once-closed military-industrial city located 800 kilometres south of Moscow down the Volga River. The two spent four years there together and remained close until Gagarin’s death 17 years later. Porohnya cherishes the memories of their friendship and also credits Gagarin — and his premature death — with influencing his life’s varied course. Not only did Yuri’s tutoring help him excel at school but his friend’s death made him realise he really wanted to do more with the Cosmos.

Porohnya now lives with his wife of 53 years, Valentina, and their cat Mussipussi in a Moscow apartment. Our first meeting with him had been postponed because he was ill, but now he felt better: ‘higher than a floor but still lower than a roof ’. When he picked us up at the metro station to lead us through a maze of alleys to get to his home, he pointed at a newspaper headline that evidently said that the government in our homeland of the Netherlands had fallen. This was news to us. ‘Now you also know what it feels like going to Leningrad only to discover that it is called St Petersburg again.’ Porohnya laughed when we gave him a present of cheese from ‘a country that may, unfortunately, no longer exist.’

Porohnya is an important man. His name googles like crazy in Cyrillic and a carpet with his image hangs on the wall of his living/dining room. He was a success story during Soviet times and remains a success story today. Almost 80, he is currently director of the Centre for History Education overseeing all technical universities across Russia and is head of the historical department of the Moscow Aviation Institute. He has countless titles and is author of more than 100 scientific papers about technology, history, metallurgy and aerospace. He also wrote a book about his friend, The Road to the Baykonur (1977), which was published in 20 countries. We hoped he could set us straight on the slanders against Yuri we had originally heard expressed many years earlier by our ‘man on the street’ driver Alexei.

Porohnya is obviously as nice and open as Yuri was reputed to be. Born in Voroshilovgrad of what was then Soviet Ukraine, Porohnya is a true ‘man of science’. He tells his stories by building up his facts, methodically and in chronological order, but then always returning to the big recurring theme of his life: football. He played it on his few off-hours as a child miner during WWII, as a student with Yuri in Saratov (though Yuri, short as he was, preferred basketball), as a factory worker in Leningrad, and as government bureaucrat organising the development of agricultural land in Kazakhstan. ‘But with all that wild nature there, it was very difficult…’ 

He was working as a football trainer in 1968 when a player ran up to tell him Gagarin had died. ‘You will never understand what I felt at that moment.’

As his wife spread food in front of us, Victor looked at her and her handiwork lovingly. ‘You know she’s the one who got the medal, not me, for when she was in charge of the Culture House.’ Valentina ignored her husband and claimed she was just doing what she has always done. ‘This house has always been very busy. During Soviet times, we’d have at least 150 people a year from all around the world. Many of them I think were just football fans of Victor.’ She was teasing her husband who responded with a feigned innocent who, me?-look. ‘But when we travel, we also always stay with friends. But the morning after, we never look as good as we did the night before.’ We all laughed, ate and felt very much at home.

Like Gagarin, Porohnya’s childhood was marked by WWII (otherwise known as the Great Patriotic War). In 1943, while Yuri was hunkered down in an underground turf house, 12-year-old Victor, after the death of his father and three brothers, started work with his mother in a grain mill and later in mining. Victor and Yuri were two very different people: ‘I am very emotional, but Yuri was always very ordered.’ They did not actually meet during their first weeks in the school’s iron casting department. ‘We were just 17 so at first we were both much more interested in the older students who were married with kids and had experienced the war. I remember one from Stalingrad who had been able to negotiate with both Russians and Germans for food. A very smart man.’

Porohnya only noticed Yuri — then just as ‘being like everyone else’ — when they were assigned to the same dorm. For the next two years, they would live two bunks apart, crammed together with 13 other people. ‘When we studied, some of us sat on the table and others on the floor. It was that small.’ Yuri ended up tutoring those, like Victor, who lagged academically due to interrupted schooling. ‘Yuri had a fresh mind and a good knowledge of math and chemistry from his time in Moscow at the Lubertsky Academy.’ By the end of the first year, the whole dorm had excellent marks. 

After school they did sports or worked. Ships docking along the Volga would hire students to help unload the boats. ‘With this first money we bought clothes, and me, Yuri and another friend would get them in a size that fit us all.’ This way they could exchange clothes and keep looking fresh and interesting when chasing girls. ‘At one point Yura and I even had girlfriends from the same region. This annoyed some local Tartar guys who began beating us up. But we took off our belts and fought back. The school heard about it but our director said we were good boys and just fighting out of self-defence.’ When I asked if it had perhaps been their innocent smiles that helped save them from punishment, Victor flashed a very convincing innocent smile.

‘Once we worked all night unloading a ship and only got to bed at six but had to get up at eight,’ Victor sighed deeply. ‘So of course we slept in. When none of us came to class, our head teacher came to find us. But instead of waking us she sat by the door and told those passing to be quiet. This very tough woman became the guardian of our dreams!’ The next day however, she gave a test based on the assigned lesson no one had done. ‘Everyone got a two out of five but Yuri due to his memory and attentiveness got a five.

‘He was always the first. Even at a very young age Yuri always knew what time it was.’

At the time of the First Flight, the Porohnyas were in an outlying republic where Victor’s football team was training. Suddenly, while they were taking a quiet walk around town, all the radios suddenly turned on to announce that ‘this is the day that the citizen of the USSR, Major Yuri Alexseievich Gagarin, went into space.’ The city’s men started to throw their hats in the air—‘as is the tradition there’. At first, Victor did not comprehend that this was his school friend. ‘Yuri was still very young and had just graduated from the flight academy.’ Before going to his football practice, Victor asked his wife to sit by the radio and write down all the details she heard. When he returned in the evening, Valentina greeted him by yelling:  ‘Yes! Yes! He is your Yuri!’

Victor felt compelled to rush out to the post office and send a telegram to Saratov College to tell them that this achievement belonged to a former student, and another to the Minister of Military Affairs in Moscow in an attempt to send his congratulations to his friend. This last telegram was probably the reason for the four men arriving the next day to ask Victor questions about Yuri and their college days in Saratov. These men likely were the true authors of Gagarin’s soon-to-be published memoir Road to the Stars.

A couple of months later, on 13 June 1961, the school chums were reunited in Kaluga as part of the official opening of the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics. Victor and Yuri only had a five- or ten- minute ‘public greeting’ where they talked about their recent world travels (Yuri as a space icon and Victor as a terrestrial footballer). Before being taken away by his official entourage, Gagarin managed to slip Victor his address and telephone number. They would begin to see each other again during their vacations.

When asked whether he noticed if Gagarin had changed much with his new status, Victor behaved as if he could still tease his old friend. ‘In school we were exactly the same small size, but when he became a big man, he became a BIG man,’ referring to Gagarin’s later weight gain that was due to all the endless toasts he had to endure as a Soviet space superstar. But then Victor got serious. ‘Have you ever met his mother? No? She was a simple, good and straightforward woman. I will tell you this: Yuri absolutely didn’t change. He understood that he wasn’t special and that it was just a twist of fate that he had been selected to be first. That’s why he stayed normal without any pretensions. I’ve had the opportunity to observe many powerful people of the USSR who also came from poor families and became famous public figures. Compared to them, Yuri did not change – absolutely not.’ 

Victor paused. ‘Speaking of which, do you have Absolut Vodka in Holland? I like that brand very much.’ He got up to look for a bottle. His wife joined him, knowing she was going to have to help him find it.

‘The first toast is to Moscow because none of us are from Moscow, yet we are all here right now.’ Victor is reminded of a night when he was hosting a party and Yuri dropped by. ‘There was food and drink on the table, but not enough, and Yuri could tell I was unable to buy more. So he put his jacket on me and told me to go downstairs to the shop, while winking towards the right pocket. In it I found some money.

‘The second toast is to the health of our guests. And I wish you luck. There are not many people in the West who want to show Russia from a good side. It’s a good subject, especially now the Americans say they were the first ones in space after all and that it was them who won the war. In this way, no matter how much you deny it, your position is political.’ We all laughed. By now none of us were feeling the least bit political.

Valentina tells us of her first meeting with Yuri. It was 31 December 1965 at a New Year’s party in Moscow. ‘I was worrying about how to address him: as a friend or more formally. We were the same age but he was very famous so I didn’t know what to do. When we knocked on the door of his apartment, he opened and immediately began to hug me and throw me around. After that I stopped worrying.’

The only thing that bothered Valentina about Yuri’s life was that it was always being interrupted. ‘You would just have some fresh vodka in your glass and then at the door there’d be some journalist from some newspaper. This would happen again and again. But still he was a very normal person. You didn’t feel like you were with Yuri Alexeivich. You felt like you were with Yuri.’

Victor and Valentina were naturally upset by the stories around Yuri that later appeared in newspapers. ‘In Soviet times we did not have yellow newspapers. In the Soviet Union the hero was always the hero and it was told without any witnesses. It was ideology. All rumours about Gagarin only appeared after the breakdown of the USSR. And everything I read and heard in that time were lies…’

We stuck around for more stories and hospitality. Those old Russians knew how to party. Eventually we left, feeling as if we had just celebrated a New Year’s Eve in Moscow with friends at the dawn of the space age. Yuri’s ghost was close…


To be a cosmonaut, one must be able to deal with both excruciating pain and excruciating boredom—and be smart. And even if you make it through the insanely rigorous selection process and training programme, there’s a good chance you will never make it into space. You must therefore be ready to live out the rest of your life ‘unfulfilled’. But then again, if you do make it into space you can end up suffocating alone in the void or getting pancaked upon re-entry.

TheDOCTORFor the past 48 years, Dr Rostislav Bogdashevsky has been the doctor/psychologist to all the cosmonauts, astronauts and space tourists trained at Star City’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. He readies space travellers for the psychic hardships of space as well as for the weirdness that awaits them upon their return to spaceship Earth. And not only does he have a goatee, penetrating eyes and a devilish sense of humour, he was also a close friend of Yuri Gagarin.

Dr Bogdashevsky has loved his job since arriving here as a young doctor in 1962 less than a year after Gagarin’s flight and just as the second division of cosmonauts was being selected. He had originally specialised as a surgeon, but since he’d ‘always been interested in human souls’, he decided to qualify as a psychologist. Star City proved to be his perfect human laboratory. ‘It is filled with my favourite working material: people. And I can confidently say that I know the characters of all the cosmonauts.

‘Cosmonauts are really the elite of all the human beings. They are very unlike politicians, who are too busy with attaining worldly power to fully understand how to take advantage of all the talents and skills of cosmonauts,’ opined Dr Bogdashevsky. I liked the doctor’s vision: that the world was no longer divided between East and West, but between savvy cosmonauts and peckerwood politicians…

‘Back in those early days, cosmonauts were overprotected and everything was a secret. One of the big things I realised back then was that there are two different persons in each human: one formal, the other informal. And a person’s behaviour will be absolutely different in these different situations. If you feel free, you behave absolutely differently than when you don’t.’

After his flight, Gagarin had a very formal role to play with the rest of the world, and that was where, according to Dr Bogdashevsky, his problems started. ‘There were political problems, ideological problems and big problems between civilian and military elements. And Yuri was in the middle of it all. He was a very smart person and he knew a lot. But he was also young and it was difficult to survive in this informational stream. But by nature he was a very direct and truthful man with a good sense of humour. Thanks to this basic character, he was able to stay human. When you see those films of how people interacted with him and celebrated the event and by looking at his face, you realise he was really a very good person. And to be good is a natural thing—it’s like coming from God. You were born with it. It’s nature.’

But of course the many pressures must have had an effect on his essential goodness? ‘Yes, of course, we are all weak. As Stalin said: “If there is a human, there is a problem. No human, no problem’’.’  Dr Bogdashevsky paused to enjoy my Stalin-said-what?! -reaction before continuing. ‘Unfortunately, we did not have time to get more details about his character, because he died very young. And since he disappeared, he’s become a legend. I certainly cannot imagine my friend as old as I am [laughs]. I will always remember him as young and handsome.’

But wasn’t Gagarin also a victim of the State? Didn’t he just want to fly again? ‘Of course he always dreamt of returning to space. He did everything to fly again. And he was absolutely prepared for it. But the politicians and chiefs understood the worth of his phenomenon and kept him away from all dangerous situations.’

Gagarin’s frustration is a common feature in the lives of cosmonauts that followed him. Describing it as the ‘tragedy of being a non-fulfilled person,’ Dr Bogdashevsky said that there are many cosmonauts in Star City who have been here for 25 years but have never made it to space. ‘They just want to realise their goal of flying into space. So of course sometimes they try to cover up their true psychological condition…’


KRIKILOVSergei Konstantinovich Krikalyov (1958) is a cosmonaut and rocket scientist. He would happily hop on the first rocket out of here. He is open about not being totally fulfilled with his current job as director of Star City’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. He has lived the life of a science fiction character. And it must be said: ears aside, Krikalyov’s physical resemblance to Spock is downright eerie.

As a cosmonaut, Krikalyov has spent more time in space than any other human being on the planet: 803 days, 9 hours, 39 minutes. He is perhaps most famous as ‘the last citizen of the USSR’, because in 1991/92, he spent almost a year maintaining the MIR space station after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As seen in the documentary Out of the Present, he wondered ‘if anyone down there remembered I was up here,’ while making 16 orbits a day alone in the void.

After his return to Earth, he went on to break many records and receive many medals. He flew on the American space shuttle and was the first resident of the International Space Station. While action man is now administration man, he remains precise. When I asked what he remembered from his first 108 minutes in space, in order to get a feel for Gagarin’s orbit around the earth, he began with a correction.Actually, the actual orbit took 90 minutes. Gagarin’s 108 minutes was the time from take-off to landing.’

‘Your first space flight is something you will remember for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been to space. First there’s the long-term weightlessness. On Earth, you can only  recreate weightlessness for about 25-30 seconds in flying laboratories. And second, there’s the opportunity to see the earth through the window and witness the horizon’s ellipse…’

And how different is being a cosmonaut today and in Gagarin’s time? ‘Well, Gagarin was the first. And at that time, people had no idea if we could survive in space or even breathe out there. It was all completely new. His flight was the first step. And in this way, even though his flight was quite short, it was very heroic.’ Krikalyov then agreed that cosmic fame comes at a price. ‘Some stories about your life can start living a life of their own. You can no longer influence them…’


Gagarin Town, Yuri LaughingToday, if you drive to Gagarin’s landing location near the village of Smelovka, coincidentally just a few kilometres from his old college in Saratov, the route is lined with space-themed flags and endless children’s murals depicting spacey alien visions. After turning down a road lined with tree trunks painted white, it quickly becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter much where exactly Gagarin landed. If you’ve seen one field here, you’ve seen them all. If you wanted to interview a potential witness, you would have to learn cow. There is only the whistling of birds and the rustling of garbage left behind from a recent Cosmonautics Day celebration.

The ‘official’ landing spot is marked by a refreshingly low-tech statue of Yuri happily strutting with his headset in his left hand and waving an eternal greeting with his right. Instead of the prerequisite titanium used in all the over-the-top space monuments in Moscow, his figure has been fashioned out of concrete. The celestial swoop behind him is of aluminum. Still, when his mother saw it, it is said she said ‘He looks so alive!’


VOLOVICHVitaly Georgievich Volovich is a famous Soviet doctor/paratrooper and specialist of human survival in extreme natural conditions. As the first doctor to give Gagarin a medical examination after his flight, he is perhaps one of the few living people who can rate as an eyewitness of sorts to the landing.

In many ways, Volovich resembles Gagarin if he had lived: an amiable, tiny-statured and retired Hero of the Soviet Union living in a cramped apartment in Moscow, surrounded by countless artefacts from world travels — and armed with incredible stories. On 9 May 1949, Volovich achieved his own dramatic ‘first’ when together with his friend AP Medvedev, he became the first to parachute jump into the North Pole. 

After spending several years working on the science stations North Pole 2 and the drifting North Pole 3, Volovich joined the Defence Department’s Institute of Aviation Medicine in 1952 to specialise in the survival of air, and later, space crews after a crash or wayward landing. As head of its Survival Lab, he led countless expeditions to jungles, tropics, the arctic, forests, taigas and deserts. He also spent a lot of time in India’s tropical zone, which is where he learned to speak English. As he warmed up his Russian-Hindi accent, he summarised a typical field trip from that time: ‘Near equator on rafts. Floating seven days with no help. Little breakfast. Little lunch. Little water. Much sun.’

Did he ever feel fear out in all these strange places? ‘I’ve only felt something like fear twice. But I would more describe it as difficult situations. There was once when I was a child, when I was separated from my parents and spent a night thinking they were dead. Yes, then I had much fear. The second time was when a parachute did not open during a night jump…’

What happened?! ‘I don’t know. But I survived!’

Volovich originally met Gagarin when Gagarin was still an air force pilot in training in the far north. ‘I gave him a medical examination when they were searching for cosmonaut candidates. It was top secret. I met him many times in the process. He was very interesting and had a sympathetic face. And like all the first cosmonauts, he could enjoy life, drink and women. They were all normal males.’

Volovich went on to create his own job: heading a group of doctor-paratroopers that were part of the search and rescue of cosmonauts, and as such, he was often on hand to examine the first cosmonauts after their landing. On the day of Yuri’s First Flight, Volovich was meant to parachute in to the landing site but for some unknown reason that was cancelled. He only got to examine Gagarin on a plane being flown the 30 kilometres to Kuibyshev where government officials, correspondents and the Head Designer were waiting to congratulate Yuri. ‘When I saw Gagarin, he was very good. Talking. Smiling. He spoke of his space flight and some of the details: the blue of the water, how a pencil floated in the cabin of the space capsule. When I checked him, all was good: blood, pulse and the rest. I made a joke: “Yura, maybe you did not fly at all!” Yura answered laughing: “Maybe you are right!”.’

In the years that followed, Volovich continued to bump into Gagarin around Star City and at clubs and theatres in Moscow. He didn’t observe any major changes.It was very interesting. He was Yura before and after his flight. Whoever chose Yura to be first made the right decision.’

He then poured us a bit more cognac and offered his service as fact checker for any future Gagarin book. ‘Truth is crucial. Mistakes not good.’


© Steve Korver. Thanks to Sarah Gehrke and her editing skills.

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Posted in Uncategorized 13 years, 2 months ago at 12:19 pm.

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