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Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture ed. by James T. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
pp. 419-420 | 10.1353/tech.2013.0078

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Before Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk in July of 1969, the Soviet Union dominated the exploration of space, to the chagrin of Americans and the delight of Soviet citizens. Between 1957 and 1963, the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit and the first satellite with a live passenger (a dog named Laika). It boasted the first human spaceflight and sent the first woman into space. Into the Cosmos is a cultural history of the first generation of Soviet space exploration that reveals that space program to have been a crucial cultural touchstone for Soviet citizens throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This edited volume provides examples of how the first generation of Soviet space exploration affected cosmonauts, ordinary citizens, and everyday life in the former Soviet Union.

Because the Soviet space program was run by the military, much of it was secretive and details about spacecraft, plans for future launches, rocket designers, and even the location of the launch site in rural Kazakhstan were classified information. Rockets that could propel humans into outer space could also carry bombs across oceans and continents, and while this early chapter of the U.S.-Soviet space race was couched in terms of friendly competition, it had potentially bellicose ulterior motives. Many documents about the space program remain classified and the contributors to this volume have relied primarily on published sources including memoirs, Russian-language newspapers, scientific volumes, and other journals. Only James Andrews's chapter on Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, a rocket scientist and space enthusiast from the early twentieth century, contains a significant number of original archival materials.

The first section of the book gives an overview of the topic. Alexei Kojevnikov describes the Soviet space program in the broader cultural context of the 1950s and 1960s and James Andrews traces the longer history of Russian and early Soviet fascination with space travel. The second section explores the distance between the myth of space exploration as presented by the Soviet Union's powerful propaganda machine and the reality as its cosmonauts experienced it. As if Siddiqi addresses a central contradiction: the widespread publicity about Soviet achievements and the deep secrecy of the program. Slava Gerovitch writes about the first cosmonauts' reactions and adaptations to the fame that space travel brought them. Andrew Jenks writes about the struggle of Yuri Gagarin to remain an authentic and credible figure, governed as he was by a restrictive and often deceptive Soviet state. Amy Nelson explores the experience of the space dogs that went into orbit before their human counterparts.

The third section of the book consists of case studies that explore the ways in which the Soviet space program affected Soviet culture. Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock argues that space enthusiasm was closely related to state-sponsored efforts to encourage atheism and create new sacred spaces within Soviet society. Roshanna P. Sylvester writes about how Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, inspired a generation of Soviet girls to excel in math and science, and Cathleen Lewis describes how the program was experienced by everyday citizens who collected postage stamps and pins (znachki) commemorating space flight. Finally, Heather Gumbert discusses how one Soviet cosmonaut, German Titov, was received in East Germany just as the Berlin Wall was erected in September of 1961.

There are two absolute gems in this volume. Slava Gerovitch's essay about cosmonauts as public envoys of the Soviet state reveals the high price they paid for their fame and fortune. Both during and after space flight, the lives of cosmonauts were tightly circumscribed, especially by their stern official minder, aviation hero Nikolai Kamanin. Soviet cosmonauts unexpectedly found their careers as aviators and engineers completely subordinated by their new roles as spokespeople for the Soviet state, an adjustment that almost all of them found difficult. Taking a very different tack, Cathleen Lewis's chapter on Soviet stamp and pin collectors provides a delightful case study into the history of cultural artifacts. In this case, hobby collections had previously been discouraged by the Soviet regime as bourgeois pursuits. Spaceflight, the Khrushchev thaw, and the rise of a new style of Soviet material culture coincided in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and subsequently a market in space...



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