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Even After All These Years, Gagarin Has The Right Stuff

Yury Gagarin and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev a few days after Gagarin's historic flight
Yury Gagarin and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev a few days after Gagarin's historic flight
At first, I thought Viktor’s love of Yury Gagarin was unusual since he was the rare fellow student who appeared to swallow Soviet myths whole. That trait, of course, had much to do with his being my roommate. The solemn young man had been chosen for the duty because the powers prized ideological rectitude in the Russians who maintained contact with the relative handful of Americans who lived in Moscow during the depths of the Cold War.

Viktor kept a faithful eye on me and my movements. Actually older than most in our dormitory because he’d served in the Red Army, the proud veteran never failed in his example to remind how crushingly dull the Soviet concept of a good citizen was, a patriot so square that the often laughable sermons about the superiority of Marxism-Leninism ceaselessly preached by Radio Moscow, including daily instruction about what to think and how to behave, never prompted so much as a smile from him. In short, Viktor was an exceedingly straight Soviet arrow.

George Feifer in 1959
The time was January 1962, some nine months after Gagarin’s flight — mankind’s first into outer space — in the "Vostok" spacecraft in April 1961: the miracle, as some newspapers called it, that resulted in Gagarin being dubbed “The Columbus of the Cosmos.”

Modestly Triumphant

For other students, the propaganda from Radio Moscow and the other founts of Soviet wisdom was a source of steady satire. That was in the main building of Moscow State University, the Stalinist-style skyscraper that still looks down on the southwestern section of the city from its commanding position on what was then called Lenin Hills (now returned to its original name of Sparrow Hills). And smiling down on sturdy, stolid Viktor’s little desk from its commanding position on the wall above it was a Soviet pin-up: a large photograph of the boyishly handsome Gagarin looking modestly triumphant, as if a hack poster artist who specialized in idealized scenes from socialist factories and collective farms had painted it.

Viktor was the only communist -- meaning member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- that I knew on the 12th floor of my wing of the huge dormitory. From that fact, as well as from his correct — not to say rigid — attitudes and behavior, I assumed his devotion to Gagarin derived from his ideological righteousness and the other traits that separated him from the other students I knew.

But I was dead wrong.

Everyone loved Gagarin, even the dormitory wise guys who, during that time of Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw before he retreated from it when Francis Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down, made fun of everything they could think of, including Viktor. Jokes about Soviet slogans and their distance from reality were then the richest currency of popularity. But I heard none about Gagarin.

Khrushchev had chosen the first man in space carefully and well. It was a little like how Branch Rickey, the owner of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, chose Jackie Robinson in 1947 to be the first black player in America’s Major League Baseball. Although it goes without saying that Rickey and Khrushchev had different needs, both wanted pioneers with high intelligence, poise, and charisma, in addition to their professional skills.

Gagarin had those qualities in spades. More than that, he, with his identifiably Russian face, was an authentic poster boy of Soviet virtues, all the more because his parents worked on a collective farm some 180 kilometers west of Moscow. Like virtually all other families there, his suffered severely under the German occupation of 1941-43.

Perfect For The Role

In other ways, however, he was exceptional: studious, ambitious, meticulous, driven, and seemingly straight-laced, as well as very good looking and endowed with steely courage and a winning personality, at least as far as the public saw. The dedicated student turned photogenic fighter pilot turned cosmonaut was all but perfect for the heroic role he played. His spaceflight was on April 12; by April 13, he was already an immensely valuable asset for Soviet public relations.

Of course, the public didn’t know Gagarin’s duties on his surely terrifying first flight, which lasted less than two hours, were relatively minor, since instruments made almost all the decisions. It also wouldn’t know about his deterioration before his death in 1968 in a MIG-15 he was piloting on a training flight. Depressed by the fame that had ruled him out as a candidate for more space flights (because the Kremlin wouldn’t risk losing its asset in an accident), Gagarin began drinking heavily and, according to seemingly reliable stories about him, also womanizing. But as far as I could tell, those activities didn't diminish the Soviet public’s devotion to him then. And I’m all but certain they don't dent his reputation among his loving public now. In Russian hearts and minds, Gagarin is as Gagarin was: an authentic hero among an army of phony ones.

Blocking Out The Past

One of the first things that strikes me when I visit Russia now is the blocking out of its Soviet past, almost as if that era of fervent hope, incredible effort, and horrendous suffering had never been. It’s as if everyone but historians is totally determined to forget the 70 years of frantic activity and unholy pain. If Americans are the world’s least history-minded people partly because interest in what happened is seen as diversion from concentrating on what will happen to boost them toward their now often highly improbable dreams, Russians seem right up there with them. Or perhaps even ahead.

The massive grandstanding of devotion to Marxist principles and fawning over Soviet achievements have been wiped away as if it none of it happened — with two major exceptions. The first is abiding gratification in the feats of the Red Army in World War II. It seems to me that Russians still don’t quite believe their backward country accomplished its extraordinary defeat of the superb Wehrmacht after the Germans had beaten all Western armies. That the Soviets did, largely saving Europe from decades of hell — much worse than the later Soviet occupation of its Central European satellites — by making sacrifices of which maybe they alone were capable.

The second is Yury Gagarin. No, I heard no jokes about him during my year as a student in Moscow shortly after his flight, and I still hear only admiration and affection. For example, I’m reminded that when the 20 young candidates to become the first man in space, most of them extraordinary in mind and body, voted anonymously for which of them should get the honor, all but three chose Gagarin, a standout even in their rarefied company. He was a genuine man and a genuinely good one: decent, openhearted and truly likeable, in addition to his other splendid qualities. What a luxury in that age of Cold War hype and bombast, not only in the East! Come to think of it, what a luxury now, when hype and bombast carry ever on.

George Feifer is the author of many books about Russia, including "Moscow Farewell," "Justice In Moscow," "Our Motherland," and "The Girl From Petrovka." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL