Gagarin, Yuri (1934–1968)

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GAGARIN, YURI (1934–1968)


Soviet cosmonaut and national hero.

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin became the first human to leave Earth's atmosphere. While his feat triggered the most intense demonstrations of support for the regime since the end of World War II, it also transformed Gagarin into an iconic figure. Just twenty-seven years old when he made his historic flight, Gagarin was the "positive hero" of Soviet socialist realist fiction come to life: good looking, optimistic, and always able to flash his trademark smile. He was an uncomplicated man who believed the clichés and propagandistic claims of the regimes. Above all, he followed orders—even to his death in 1968, when his test flight of a new Soviet fighter jet ended in tragedy.

Gagarin's down-to-earth personality, combined with his above-earth heroics, made him ideal material for myth construction. Like the ideal new Soviet man he was a kind of palimpsest onto which a myriad of meanings and political agendas could be imprinted. "Gagarin was a servant of the cult," said one Russian journalist who covered his flight. "He was the guy who lived next door—but in reality he was one of the Gods.… [I]n the collective subconscious space was interpreted as a kind of replacement for the banned church" (Izvestiya, 3 March 2004).

Additionally, Gagarin's feat resonated with a population exhausted by the painful sacrifices of World War II and the ongoing burdens of socialist construction. Facing postwar reconstruction and global competition with a vastly richer enemy, Gagarin was seeming proof that Soviet culture could tackle the ideological and security challenges of the Cold War. Similar to John F. Kennedy in the United States, he suggested that Soviet society embodied youth, dynamism, technological progress, peaceful development, and the triumph of justice.

It was an image desperately sought by increasingly enfeebled Soviet leaders. The 1960s marked a kind of midlife crisis in the Soviet leadership, almost all of whom had begun their careers in the 1930s and 1940s. While Soviet leaders of the 1960s were tainted by their association with Joseph Stalin's terrifying purges, Gagarin had a morally unambiguous ascent into the rarified air of Soviet heroism. Through him leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev, as well as ordinary Soviet citizens, vicariously recaptured the romanticism and heroism of their revolutionary youth—minus the moral complexities brought about by Stalin's terror, since Gagarin was too young to be implicated in the purges of the 1930s.

Born on one of the new Soviet collective farms (in the village of Klushino, not far from the town of Gzhatsk, which was named after him following his death), Gagarin was the quintessential Soviet success story. He studied at a technical college, where he graduated with honors. Subsequently he enrolled in an aviation school in Orenburg, where he received a commission as a lieutenant in 1957. Noticed by Moscow higher-ups for his loyalty, common-man roots, and talents as a pilot, he was summoned to Moscow in 1959, and in March 1960 he was chosen as a member of the elite cosmonaut squad.

Gagarin's death continues to be shrouded in mystery. When the MiG-15 fighter jet he was testing flew too close to a nearby MiG-21 in March 1968, it went into a steep downward descent. Air traffic controllers then gave improper data to Gagarin, reporting that his altitude was higher than it actually was. When Gagarin pulled up the nose he was three seconds too late, and he crashed into the ground. The official investigation, unlike the Warren Commission report on Kennedy, was not released until 1988. But like John F. Kennedy's death, Gagarin's tragic flight spawned numerous conspiracy theories and dark rumors. They asserted that insiders jealous of his fame and concerned about his politics supposedly arranged it all and concealed the truth from the Soviet population. Even Gagarin's widow was skeptical. She refused to accept the official version, which is probably true, that his death was an accident. With Gagarin's tragic death at the age of thirty-four a symbol of youthful regeneration, idealism, and innocence also passed away.

Even though the Soviet Union has collapsed, the cult of Gagarin lives on. He continues to embody traits that many Russian citizens and leaders long to restore: optimism; an unflinching desire to serve the state and its cause; and an extreme tolerance for enduring trying situations with a sense of calm and good humor. A 2004 survey of Russians found that respondents ranked Gagarin's flight as the most significant event in Russia's modern history—second only to defeat of the Nazis in World War II. In 2001 the Russian Federation honored Gagarin's flight with a fortieth anniversary ten-ruble coin, making him the first Soviet figure to be officially celebrated on a post-Soviet coin.

See alsoSoviet Union; Space Programs; Sputnik.


Doran, Jamie. Starman: The Truth behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. London, 1998.

Rossoshanskii, Vladimir Ivanovich. Fenomen Gagarina. Saratov, Russia, 2001.

Soviet Man in Space. London, 1961.

Andrew L. Jenks