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Book Focuses On The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling

Published: October 17, 2011

Why did Yuri Gagarin smile?

Perhaps the Soviet cosmonaut who orbited the earth in his Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961, smiled about the lifelong celebrity he enjoyed until his death in 1968 when a MiG 15 training jet he was piloting crashed. Perhaps he smiled about an air of mystery that came from movement between secret military bases and main street parades. Those questions are receiving new light in a recent biography by History’s Andrew Jenks.

The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin is on its way to publication by Northern Illinois University, which also brought out his book, Russia in a Box: Art and Identity in an Age of Revolution. Jenks recently concluded his first semester sabbatical compiling research that took him from the spaceman’s home town to his landing site to the museums established in his memory.

“For Russians, what Gagarin is remembered for most is his smile,” explained Jenks, who joined the university in 2006. “Anyone who visits Russia knows that Russians don’t smile in public nearly as much as Americans. It isn’t because Russians are not nice. They just see the idea of smiling at people they don’t know as utterly ridiculous, which makes Gagarin’s iconic smile all the more significant. Gagarin replaced the cult of Stalin with a smile. He was the head of the Russian waterskiing society, an avid hunter and sports enthusiast. He was one part socialist realist icon, like the official heroes before him, but he was also one part Russian playboy. And that made him, and the Soviet system, seem more human.”

Jenks’s goal was to do more than tell Gagarin’s life story. “I wanted to write a biography about the cult of Gagarin,” he said. “I wanted to understand why Russia worshipped this man. I wanted to open a window not only onto his life but onto the perceptions and ideas of the people who constructed so many stories about him. I had a dual mission. On the one hand, I want to write a conventional biography. On the other hand, I want to write the story of a legend, both the official one and the one of urban myth, which reflected the fantasies, perversions, hopes and dreams of Gagarin’s acolytes.”

Jenks’s biography highlights the tension between the historical Gagarin—the one who actually existed—and the one celebrated in public. Legions of propagandists, along with Gagarin himself, constructed the public image of Gagarin.

Because Gagarin came from a super-secret place, the Soviet military industrial complex, no one knew what he was up to or who he was. Therefore, his landing created a conundrum for Soviet propagandists who had to tell the world all about Gagarin’s flight yet reveal none of its most important details.

“I remember a 64-page censorship guideline in small print I discovered in the Soviet archives,” Jenks recalled. “It listed all the things the Soviet media could not talk about, including nearly everything that concerned most of Gagarin’s life and flight. He could not divulge anything with any military application. He could not talk about any technology bound for space. When he landed in April 1961 at a collective farm not far from where he studied, he emerged like a woman from a cake, a surprise from the military industrial complex. The question the media asked was, how do we talk about it?”

The Soviet Union’s solution was simple. They lied.

“Everywhere Gagarin went, he and his handlers created distortions,” explained Jenks. “Anything he did was connected with national security so anything he did was classified. Here’s a guy who emerges from a super-secret world. He’s totally anonymous. He doesn’t even tell his family what he does. He thinks he might die in space. Even more astonishing than his successful landing is that he blows his cover. He not only transgresses the Earth-space boundary but the boundary between the open and closed worlds of the Cold War.”

The lies began at Gagarin’s first press conference “to protect the secret world from whence he came,” Jenks said. “There was a national security justification for everything. For every monument and museum created to honor his flight, a zone of distortion emerged. When you enter one of these zones, you get a license to fabulate. You can say anything you want provided you create positive spin. At the same time, people begin to fill the gaps in Gagarin’s biography with their own stories.”

Book Focuses On The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling

For instance, Jenks explained, the Soviet Union maintained the lie for decades that Gagarin landed in his craft. “He ejected 23,000 feet above the countryside,” Jenks said. “The capsule’s landing was too rough for the cosmonaut to risk. To get the International Astronomical Society award for being the first person in space, he had to land in the craft. He didn’t.”

When Jenks visited Gagarin’s landing site in 2007 near Engels, in the Saratov region, several Russians showed him photos taken by their families of the cosmonaut’s landing. They cherished those pictures of their hero like family keepsakes snapped on the sly despite KGB prohibitions of unapproved photographs. “People climbed all over the craft and picked off pieces for souvenirs,” he said. “They ‘privatized’ the tubes of space food they found in the craft. The KGB’s solution was to put a black tarp over the spacecraft.”

Jenks visited the places Gagarin studied, the city where he grew up (named after him in his honor), the numerous museums devoted to his memory, and Star City, Russia’s Cape Canaveral. What he discovered was an active cult dedicated to the smiling star man.

“According to Russians, as revealed in numerous surveys, his space trip is one of the Soviet Union’s greatest accomplishments right up there with defeating the Nazis,” Jenks explained. “His memory continues to resonate in Russian society. Yuri Gagarin is a palimpsest for Russian society, a kind of manuscript page that has been written on, scraped off and used again. Russians inscribe the ideal sense of themselves on him. They’ve done that ever since he went up in space.”

Jenks’ most recent book, Perils of Progress: Environmental Disasters in the 20th Century, arrived in 2010 with its account of four environmental disasters: India’s Bhopal, Russia’s Chernobyl, New York’s Love Canal and Japan’s Minamata. Jenks worked in the 1990s as a journalist and editor in Washington, D.C., where he covered NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, secret military high-tech programs and the emerging Internet. He studied the Russian language at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute in Moscow in the late 1980s and worked as a translator in the Moscow CNN office. He also spent six months aboard Soviet fishing boats in the Bering Sea. He received his B.A. from Bucknell University, his M.A. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in Russian History from Stanford in 2003.

Jenks hopes his new book will answer some of the questions inspired by Yuri Gagarin.

“Who was he?” asked Jenks. “There will be multiple and changing answers to that question every year for a good long time. Using Gagarin, modern Russians create their own idealized selves through his biography. My book thus offers a way for the readers to investigate not only who Gagarin was but also the people who idolized him.”

–Richard Manly