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Smart, 'Cheerful,' And Easy On The Eyes: Russia Publishes Soviet Documents On Pioneering Cosmonaut Gagarin

Yury Gagarin (right) and fellow soviet cosmonaut Herman Titov visit Artek Pioneer Camp in Crimea in 1961.
Yury Gagarin (right) and fellow soviet cosmonaut Herman Titov visit Artek Pioneer Camp in Crimea in 1961.

Smart, disciplined, optimistic, sociable, a good sense of humor, and loyal to the "socialist homeland": These are some of the traits Soviet officials attributed to cosmonaut Yury Gagarin ahead of his landmark journey into space in 1961.

This assessment is contained in one of a handful of previously classified Soviet documents about Gagarin, the first human in space, published by the Russian Defense Ministry on April 12 -- the 57th anniversary of the cosmonaut's orbit of the Earth aboard the Vostok-1 spaceship.

The evaluation, based on Gagarin's time at the Soviet Cosmonaut Training Center that now bears his name, was declassified in 2009 and has previously been cited in at least one academic work. But the Defense Ministry's publishing of the document appears to be the first time it has been released to a broad audience.

Other documents released by the ministry on April 12 include Gagarin's military-service-record card, and the Soviet military orders giving him the rank of lieutenant, and, on the day of his pioneering flight, the rank of major.

Two other documents show the head of his military unit signing off -- based on the decision of the Soviet and Communist Party leadership -- on Gagarin's travels later in 1961 to Eastern and Western Europe, Cuba, Canada, and Brazil.

PHOTO GALLERY: Let's Go, Yury! Celebrating Cosmonautics Day In Russia

The performance evaluation compiled during Gagarin's cosmonaut training states that he was healthy and in good physical shape, noting that he was a basketball player who demonstrated excellent coordination and did not fall ill a single time in 1960.

It also notes that Gagarin was an ethnic Russian with peasant roots, and describes him as a strong-willed, disciplined individual with an excellent intellect and sense of humor who took his service seriously.

"[He has a] good military bearing and appearance. [He] is sociable with comrades, and polite in conversation," the evaluation states.

It adds that Gagarin was "calm, cheerful," accepting of criticism, and "ideologically sound."

"[He is] devoted to the work of the party and the socialist homeland," the evaluation states, praising Gagarin as one of the "best prepared" potential cosmonauts at the training center.

Press Clippings

These are not groundbreaking revelations. The evaluation is consistent with what is already known about Gagarin, who was 27 years old when he completed the trip into orbit and back that ratcheted up the Cold War space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"Gagarin was a very clever young man. He was head and shoulders above all the other cosmonauts," the late Reg Turnill, who served as the aerospace correspondent for the BBC from 1958-1975, recalled in a 2011 BBC profile of Gagarin.

"He was so quick to learn and had such an easy personality that he was very popular among the top brass, because he could be relied on to play ball and not to give away any secrets," added Turnill, who covered Gagarin's first international press conference in Moscow following his flight -- an event he called carefully staged and designed to "humiliate the West."

The documents published by the Russian Defense Ministry on April 12 include scans of English-language newspaper clippings from Pakistan in the days after Gagarin's flight.

The ministry highlighted specific excerpts from these clippings for readers, including a quote from a Norwegian space expert who called Gagarin's space trip "a new Soviet triumph" and a piece from the Pakistan Times saying that "all mankind will take pride in the Soviet feat of launching a man into space and then bringing him back alive."

One clipping included in the ministry's release was a short report from the U.S. news agency UPI stating that the spokesman for U.S. astronauts was less than thrilled with a reporter's attempt to get a comment about Gagarin's flight in the early hours of April 12, 1961.

"It's three in the morning, jerk," the spokesman, John Powers, was quoted as saying.

Gagarin was killed in a practice-flight accident outside Moscow on March 27, 1968, less than seven years after becoming the first human to travel to space.

He topped a nationwide survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM in January asking respondents whom they consider to be "Russia's idols of the 20th century."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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