Growing up in the American public school system, I distinctly remember learning several times about the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. We were taught about Apollo 11, the American flag they placed on the surface, and of course, Armstrong’s famous “giant leap” quote. The name Iurii Gagarin, however, was merely brushed over, despite the fact that he is indeed a Space Race hero in his own right.
Gagarin ventured into space in April 1961, the first human being to ever succeed at such a feat. As Seventeen Moments explains, “his flight was the culmination of many years of experimentation by the Soviet space program.” From Sputnik I to Laika the dog’s orbit, the Soviet Union worked hard to develop a competitive space program that could prove its place on the world scene.
Upon his return to earth, Khrushchev called Gagarin to congratulate him. Khrushchev stated, “Through your exploit you have brought glory to our homeland; you showed courage and heroism in carrying out so important a task. By your exploit you have made yourself immortal as the first person to penetrate into space” (“N. S. KHRUSHCHEV’S TALK WITH FIRST COSMONAUT YU. A. GAGARIN“). Gagarin certainly did become “immortal” to the Soviet people after his famous flight. For example, the theme song of the Soviet cosmonauts was named the Gagarin March and is still played every April 12 on Cosmonauts’ Day. There is also a monument to him in Moscow (see image below).
Most importantly though, he (and the Soviet space program in general) demonstrated the great opportunities available to the Soviet people. Gagarin grew up in the countryside and was chosen by the space program to be a trainee (Seventeen Moments). He was not a famous party member or the legacy of a past hero of any sort. He was an average citizen who made it far because he worked hard and put the state’s goals before himself. Gagarin embodied socialist values – and perhaps this is the most significant reason he is such a celebrated Soviet hero.
von Geldern, James. “First Cosmonaut.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1961gagarin&Year=1961.
“N. S. KHRUSHCHEV’S TALK WITH FIRST COSMONAUT YU. A. GAGARIN.” 13 April 1961. Pravda. http://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13793186.
Monument image retrieved from: Seventeen Moments. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&show=images&SubjectID=1961gagarin&Year=1961&navi=byYear.
“Greeting the First Cosmonaut Back to Earth” image retrieved from: Seventeen Moments. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&show=images&SubjectID=1961gagarin&Year=1961&navi=byYear.
Yuri Gagarin image retrieved from: http://www.inyourpocket.com/gallery/item_7137.jpg.