The projection of Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961 was a global presentation of the success and achievements that could be attained in the Soviet Union, and ultimately, communism. Although the image of communism was weakened somewhat, in terms of social success, by the Berlin Wall’s erection in August 1961, there were clearly technological and scientific positives for the nation. Gagarin was an ideal candidate to promote the cause of communism in the USSR. He grew up on a collective farm, rose up through the ranks of education to become a pilot and then was selected to be the first man to ascend to space, becoming a national hero, from humble beginnings. He was awarded the highest honour in Soviet society by being titled ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ after his accomplishment.
The image above shows the public reaction to his successful flight. It contains many red flags, promoting that this was a communist success. The large audience appears to be made up of all ages, suggesting the whole nation took great pride in this momentous event. The appearance of Yuri himself is of a man in prestigious uniform and of important stature. His physical wellbeing and the aircraft suggest that the return to Earth all went smoothly, which was not quite the case.
The ‘cosmonaut’, after the flight was eagerly involved in Soviet propaganda and promoting the nation which had facilitated him in being able to do something no man had ever done before. In an interview with Yuri Gagarin, May 1962, by Tass Correspondent, A. Romanov, Yuri reveals his appreciation for the Soviets. The title of the article is: ‘Mankind will discover the secrets of space – Meeting With Yu. A. Gagarin, and to the question ‘What is the most important thing that happened to you in the past year and what are your plans?’ Yuri in part of his answer stated:
I have visited many countries. The peoples have a high appreciation for the achievements of Soviet science and technology, and they warmly welcome the Soviet government’s fight for peace and freedom. I am proud to be a son of the Soviet people, the people capable of the enormous job of building communism.
This attitude is very propagandist, it suggests that the Soviets are fighting for peace and freedom, while others are fighting against it, most likely meaning the USA. It was right however in the sense that it was far better the nation strived for success in its space program, rather than its nuclear one.
It was celebrated worldwide as a success for mankind as well as for the USSR. This all occurred in the context of the arms race in the Cold War, which had led to the space race between the USSR and the USA. The competitive nature which had emerged for superpower supremacy meant that the Americans were shocked and embarrassed by the Soviets gaining an advantage in this highly sophisticated field. The USA’s goal became to outdo the Soviets in space technology by being the first nation to successfully send a man to the moon, which was completed by 1969. This nevertheless did not belittle the success and superiority the USSR had gained for several years in between.
As was the nature of the Cold War relations, the Soviets felt there was a need to hide some of the details of the flight which may have discredited the achievement. In the official Soviet documents, the parachute ejection system included for Gagarin was not mentioned. The international rules for aviation records required the pilot to also land the aircraft, which Gagarin did not fulfill since he parachuted out of it in order to get back to Earth safely. The rubric stated that “The pilot remains in his craft from launch to landing”. Had the Soviets not hidden this fact, Gagarin’s space-flight would have been disqualified and it is likely that the USA would have tried to discredit the USSR in any way that it could since their superiority was slipping away.
The Soviets also ensured the global success of the trip by not giving Gagarin control of his craft during the flight of Vostok 1. This was because of the insecurity regarding reactions of the mind and physics in weightlessness. The Russians didn’t want to risk the cosmonaut losing control over himself while in space, and thus endangering the mission. The success of the mission was of great importance to their worldwide reputation arguably more so than internally, because of the Cold War context.