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Cosmonauts and Soviet Space Diplomacy: Lectures

On 28 October, InsSciDE Space organized a lecture on the first Soviet cosmonauts with Prof Slava Gerovitch, professor of History of Mathematics and of Cybernetics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) together with the University of Padua.

The lecture, The Human Inside a Propaganda Machine: The Public Image and
Professional Identity of Soviet Cosmonauts
, illuminated the pressures, rules and challenges imposed on the cosmonauts before and after the first human space flights by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The professor also raised peculiarities of the space sector in the USSR, drew parallels with the American aerospace industry during the Cold War and painted a vivid picture of cosmonauts’ role in Soviet political agendas.

For many people around the world, the cosmonauts – young, energetic, good-looking commanders of cutting-edge technology – were living embodiments of a bright promising future. The Communist Party leadership wanted to make the cosmonauts into very specific symbols, instrumentalizing them as emblems of the ‘communist dream’ come true, while the Soviet media gradually shaped a canon of visual representation of cosmonauts. They were not supermen; they symbolized the progress of all Soviet people toward the New Soviet Man, the dedicated builder of communism.

Space propaganda thus had a dual function. It conveyed political and ideological messages to the masses and at the same time boosted the legitimacy of spaceflight as an indispensable component in the construction of communism. The cosmonauts had to comply with their prescribed image around the clock and a strict set of rules regulated their daily lives. They were required to uphold a high standard of appearance, comply with routines such as bedtimes and, while living at the Cosmonaut Training Centre, they had to inform their superiors about their whereabouts every time they left.

On 12th April 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to fly to outer space. On his return, the former Air Forces pilot became a national hero and a highly scrutinized public figure. Despite his efforts to resist, Gagurin’s whole life became dedicated to a single goal: to fulfil the functions of his new symbolic role well.

Among the public duties assigned to the first cosmonauts after their widely publicized flights was service as members of the USSR Supreme Soviet or regional legislatures, usually representing their hometown and the surrounding district. In fact, before the flight, the cosmonauts’ training was mostly technical, but postflight their activities were to a large extent political. Cosmonauts’ private lives became subjugated to the demands of the propaganda machine. When asked in an interview about his most difficult challenge, Gagarin unhesitatingly replied, “It is to carry the burden of fame”.

The popular image of the cosmonauts was full of internal contradictions. Their flights were praised as daring feats, while official reports of perfectly functioning onboard automatics did not seem to leave much room for human action. Soviet space technology was hailed as infallible, thus seemingly eliminating any perception of danger from spaceflight.

Of particular interest during the lecture was a digression on the formation of collective and cultural memory. A number of myths have been formed in the field of astronautics that are linked by various professional and public groups. The audience showed particular interest in the participation of scientists in the political opposition in the USSR, the propaganda aspect of astronautics, the national style of the space industry, as well as the influence of Soviet achievements in space on modern Russia, as exemplified by the new Covid-19 vaccine called Sputnik.


Other lectures in this series, organized by David Burigana and Olga Dubrovina of InsSciDE Space:

The Human Inside a Propaganda Machine: The Public Image and
Professional Identity of Soviet Cosmonauts

Slava Gerovitch

International aspects
of the Soviet Space Myth

Olga Dubrovina
11 November | 16:30

Che senso hanno i voli
spaziali?
In Italian.
Yuri Baturin
16 Novembre |14:30
Link meeting Zoom:
https://unipd.zoom.us/j/3695067641

Nuclear power and economic development:
the case of Karachi Nuclear Power Plant
(KANUPP)

Mauro Elli
17th November|16:30
Link meeting Zoom:
https://unipd.zoom.us/j/84787769456


Published: 13 November 2020

Lectures in this series, organized by InsSciDE Space and University of Padua:

The Human Inside a Propaganda Machine: The Public Image and
Professional Identity of Soviet Cosmonauts

Slava Gerovitch

International aspects
of the Soviet Space Myth

Olga Dubrovina

Che senso hanno i voli
spaziali?
In Italian.
Yuri Baturin

Nuclear power and economic development:
the case of Karachi Nuclear Power Plant
(KANUPP)

Mauro Elli

Details and access at the bottom of this page.