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  • Remembering the Soviet Space Program
  • Julia Richers
Slava Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity. 232 pp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. ISBN-13 978-0822963639. $27.95.
Slava Gerovitch, Voices of the Soviet Space Program: Cosmonauts, Soldiers, and Engineers Who Took the USSR into Space. 305 pp. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. ISBN-13 978-1137481788. $95.00.

When Valentina Ponomareva, who served as backup for the first woman in space in 1963, was asked about the most important tasks for today's researchers of Soviet space history, she answered: "First, it is necessary to record the reminiscences of people who witnessed the early days" (Voices, 235). Indeed, firsthand accounts of the Soviet space age are still relatively scarce. Well known are the diaries of Nikolai Kamanin and the four-volume memoirs of the rocket designer Boris Chertok.1 Their revealing personal insights into a formerly closed world of secrecy and the opening of Russian archives in the 1990s led to a heightened interest of historians in the societal and cultural dimension of the Soviet space program. Within the last ten years, several conferences across the globe were held, exhibitions organized, and the list of scholarly publications dealing with the "cosmic enthusiasm" of Soviet society is constantly growing.2 [End Page 843]

However, few historians actually went and interviewed former members of the Soviet space program. Slava Gerovitch, a historian of science and technology teaching cultural history of mathematics at MIT, set out to bridge this gap. In a large-scale oral history project he interviewed no less than 13 men and women who worked in different fields within the space program. Their fascinating accounts are published in English translation in Voices of the Soviet Space Program. The volume contains the reminiscences of former cosmonauts such as Vladimir Shatalov and Ponomareva, of the stress psychiatrist Ada Ordianskaia, engine designer Anatolii Daron, display designer Iurii Tiapchenko, military construction engineer Sergei Safro, and many more less-known experts.

For decades, Russian as well as Western publications on Soviet space history have frequently centered around iconic heroes such as the "grandfather of cosmonautics" Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, his alleged heir Sergei Korolev, and cosmonauts such as Iurii Gagarin, German Titov, and (maybe) Valentina Tereshkova. They were the main ingredients needed for a "master narrative" of Soviet space conquest. This storyline, however, blurred the fact that a huge number of unknowns worked on a daily basis in the background to make the dream of cosmic exploration possible. Gerovitch's foremost aim was to record some of those unknown voices and, by so doing, to capture the multiple and often diverging perspectives on the Soviet space program. The interviews lay bare the fact that rocketry was not just an endeavor of peaceful civilian research but also part of the secret military complex. They also reveal how great were the tensions and rivalries between these institutions. In his introduction Gerovitch circumscribes the lives and conditions of the interviewed as follows: "Secrecy restrictions limited their knowledge, institutional allegiances shaped their perspectives, and professional cultures formed their distinct collective identities" (Voices, 1).

"Identity" also figures in the center of his second book, Soviet Space Mythologies, published a year later. The volume collects previously published articles (except chapter 4), however, in a substantially revised and updated form. The articles in some way echo the findings of Gerovitch's oral history project. They dissect the ample myths surrounding Soviet space history, for [End Page 844] example, the myth of the brave, autonomous, morally impeccable pilot-cosmonaut, the myth of the success story (with no failures) or the myth of the peaceful civilian outlook of the space program. Drawing from Voices of the Soviet Space Program, Gerovitch brings to light the parallel universe of secretive lives and countermemories. He argues that the space program brought about a specific professional collective identity that also had a strong impact on personal lives and private memories. In some cases, experts of the space program showed signs of a "split identity," since "the secretive world of postwar rocketry reinforced their affinity with the military, while working on cutting-edge technologies nurtured their sense of belonging to the...


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