Review: Cosmonaut: A Cultural History
by Jeff Foust
|While interest in cosmonauts ebbed over the subsequent decades, it has also evaded more critical reevaluations of other aspects of Soviet life, like World War II.
The origins, and early apex, of The Red Stuff took place in the early 1960s, as Gagarin, Tereshkova, and others entered the history books with a series of spaceflight firsts that offered an image of Soviet superiority in the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev embraced this, following what Lewis calls a Stalinist approach to highlighting and ritualizing space just as Stalin did a generation earlier with Soviet aviators, even as Khrushchev was denouncing Stalin himself. This took forms ranging from giant monuments to stamps and small enameled pins known as znachki.
However, The Red Stuff started to crumble within years of Gagarin’s spaceflight. Lewis says a combination of Khrushchev’s removal from office and the deaths of chief designer Sergei Korolev, Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, and Gagarin himself, showed the limits of Soviet capabilities and prestige in space. By the end of the decade, Americans were walking on the Moon and the prominence of cosmonauts in Soviet life faded.
Lewis examines various facets of Russian culture in the book, including film and literature as well as collectibles, to see how cosmonauts and spaceflight were portrayed. While interest in cosmonauts ebbed over the subsequent decades, it has also evaded more critical reevaluations of other aspects of Soviet life, like World War II. Even under the rule of Vladmir Putin, Russia has not reembraced The Red Stuff with anywhere near the same fervor as the 1960s: Lewis describes one example of renovations of a space museum as a sign that the regime has emphasized hardware over cosmonauts, “a deliberate decision to promote economic development over celebration of a Russian ideal of a hero.” That ideal, though, is not gone, even if it is greatly diminished, she concluded: “it persists as part of the Russian identity.”
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