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Gagarin: A Cosmic Success For Russian Public Diplomacy

At the opening of the UN photo exhibition in New York celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s groundbreaking flight in space, people could feel the pride and jubilation of Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin.

Churkin, who at the time of Gagarin’s flight was a pupil in the second grade, confessed with a whiff of nostalgia that young people in the 21st century could hardly imagine the joy and elation of the Soviet people when the news of Gagarin’s flight broke.

Gagarin’s flight turned out to be one of the undisputable achievements of Soviet public diplomacy and foreign policy at the time -- the first spaceman was honored around the world with the same awe and admiration that was bestowed upon him in his homeland. The peaceful mission of the flight especially stood in stark contrast to the prevailing nuclear arms race.

At the UN, space exploration was granted legitimacy with the establishment of the Committee of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959. The 70-member body, located in Vienna, has developed five principles and five treaties over the last five decades that govern the exploration of outer space. That includes a famous paragraph in a UN General Assembly resolution from 1966 declaring that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

And what about space aliens? Not to worry, says Churkin. When we encounter them, the Security Council will deal with them.

Fifty years after Gagarin’s flight the fascination with the model Soviet boy seems to have only grown. A coterie of excited visitors at the UN exhibition were trying to snap as many photos with ambassador Churkin and the visiting cosmonaut Oleg Kotov as their memory cards would allow.

At the end of the day the General Assembly proclaimed April 12 as the International Day of Human Space Flight. As part of the commemoration, the Russian mail service and the UN Postal Administration will issue souvenir stamps on April 12, featuring an iconic image of Gagarin and his orbit-carrier, "Vostok."

-- Nikola Krastev

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