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The Soviet Union Leaps Forward: The 60th Anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's Space Flight

Date & Time

Apr. 13, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am ET




April 12 is the UN's International Day of Human Space Flight. Officially celebrated in Russia as the Cosmonautics Day, in 2021 it marked 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. This Soviet accomplishment came at the height of the Cold War and not only affected the bilateral relationship, but also inspired American and Soviet citizens alike. Despite their fierce competition, the United States and the Soviet Union also managed to identify opportunities for cooperation in the exploration of outer space, which culminated in the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. Today, when bilateral tensions are high again, space remains one of the few remaining areas of productive interaction between Russia and the U.S. In this panel, our experts considered the enduring legacy of Yuri Gagarin’s flight and its effects on popular culture and scientific innovation in the two countries, and discussed the dynamic of space competition and collaboration since that flight.

Selected Quotes

Slava Gerovitch

"There was really a genuine outpouring of emotions, of enthusiasm, of joy, of Soviet people seeing one of their own up in orbit. People would climb up to their roofs and watch [the parade] from there, people would make these kind of makeshift slogans, which were not kind of officially printed slogans, but something they would invent themselves, and here you can see one of those slogans, 'Kosmos Nash,' the cosmos is ours, which ironically echoed so ominously recently even in the slogan, 'Crimea is ours,' 'Krim Nash.'"

"The idea of Soviet leaders was to fit Gagarin and subsequent cosmonauts into the mold of ideological messages they are presented to the world, but you can see how Gagarin stylistically breaks out of that ideological mold of Soviet leaders on top of the mausoleum, he looks very different from other Soviet top brass and he had a personal human connection to people not based on the ideological pattern."

Asif Siddiqi

"The rhetoric that surrounded and promoted Soviet space exploits in the 60s undeniably communicated a fetish for the future as underscored in language that explicitly linked socialism with the space program. The former, socialism, made the latter, the space program, possible, while the latter, the space program, made the former, socialism, much stronger, and both would take the Soviet Union to a glorious future."

"Even at the time of the 60s, Soviet cosmic enthusiasm already had a kind of a small version of, what I call, looking at the past. This gaze backwards had an important function, it helped to create a kind of origins narrative, a pre-history or a childhood with appropriate father figures such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the founding theorist of Soviet and Russian space flight who lived in Kaluga. And this kind of early history had its own adolescent traumas such as the revolution and World War Two. It delivered a teleological story to the masses on the history of the Soviet space program, one that eliminated contingency from the story and gave Soviet cosmic enthusiasm a forward motion geared towards a singular goal that conflated the utopia of socialism with the utopia of spaceflight."

Cathleen Lewis

"Sixty years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. Gagarin’s first flight is what the Greek’s referred to as pyros, it was the proper opportune moment for action. April 12th can be celebrated as both a Soviet and a global accomplishment. A historical perspective anchored in the Cold War sees Gagarin’s flight as a monument to the Space Race competition. On the other hand, looking at the event from the perspective of centuries old folklore and dreams of spaceflight turns it into a global celebration."

"The usable past does not alter Gagarin’s moment but provides a reexamination of the context and perspective around him. Since the collapse of the USSR, there have been a series of six films that I’m going to talk about today that focus on human space flight and its immediate metaphor. These films, the filmmakers, have echoed the literary satire, reinterpretation, and farce that Russian and Soviet authors have used for nearly two centuries."

Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) serves as the bridge between technologists, policymakers, industry, and global stakeholders.  Read more

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