50 years ago today, Moscow state radio announced that Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the first man to journey into outer space. But his odyssey didn’t end when he returned from space. On earth, Soviet authorities turned him into a potent propaganda symbol.
Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth was incorporated as the third pillar of Soviet propaganda alongside the October Revolution and the defeat of fascist Germany. His voyage was especially useful for Nikita Khrushchev who had initiated the “de-Stalinization” process in a secret speech back in 1956. Gagarin’s accomplishment gave new impetus to Khrushchev’s revamp of the Soviet Union, which had been marked by terror, world wars, a messianic personality cult and was unsure of its future.
Gagarin’s flight also enabled Moscow to fill the spiritual vacuum which the suppression of Christian orthodoxy had opened up. Gagarin’s journey was treated as mysterious, surreal, yet also inspiring. Khrushchev boasted that Gagarin’s exploration of space made “mankind’s greatest wish” come true.
Apart from the personality cult built around Gagarin, the Soviet intelligentsia also used the event to make claims of Soviet technical dominance. To help spread this message of supposed technological superiority, Gagarin and his fellow cosmonaut Gherman Titov were named envoys of “Soviet society” and sent to spread a message of “mir” (peace) and “drushba” (friendship) abroad.
Back home, the authorities made much of Gagarin’s modest background: highlighting the fact that his father was a simple kolkhoznik (a member of a state-owned collective farm) who had survived the Nazi invasion.
Gagarin was seen to represent the thousands of technical students across the Soviet Union, who aspired to work in the aeronautical industry. The state used him as an iconic hero of the Soviet generation, who as Nikolai Kamanin (head of the committee which handpicked Gagarin to be first in space) noted “must accomplish superhuman tasks yet be able to identify with the common folk.”
Yuri Gagarin’s legacy lives to this day and is further fuelled by the conspiracy theories which arose after his sudden and mysterious death in 1968. He’s still seen by many Russians as the man who beat the Americans to space. And over time, his popularity hasn’t diminished, often manifesting itself in ridiculous ways. In 1998, the Russian duma prohibited the screening of the blockbuster Hollywood flick Armageddon for allegedly demeaning Gagarin’s image.