Today, the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight, is an occasion of pride, but also ambivalence, for both Russians and for many around the world. Along with Sputnik, Gagarin’s manned spaceflight represented one of the great achievements of the Soviet space program, and, indeed, still represents one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
That this was achieved by a coercive, dictatorial regime, indifferent to human costs and obsessed with success (or more accurately with the appearance of success) is a point that many contemporary Russians prefer to gloss over. On the other hand, the contemporary western view of the Soviet state as an historical failure, doomed from the outset, doesn’t gel so neatly with recognition and celebration of the genuine historical breakthrough represented by Gagarin’s flight.
Both perspectives, then, are lucky that they can avoid many tricky questions by focusing on the personal story of Yuri Gagarin. Indeed, most of the reporting of the fiftieth anniversary of the Vostok 1 mission focuses on the handsome, charming, intelligent man at the centre of the story, pushing questions of history, politics, science and human achievement to the background.
This ambivalence is neatly summarised in the Google Doodle for April 12th, 2011. A mock-constructivist design shows Gagarin in his space suit, beside an animated rocket blasting into space from a stylised planet earth. The ‘CCCP’ on Gagarin’s helmet is partially obscured, giving at least a hint of the surrounding history and politics, but the focus is on the man. It would be interesting to know how much hand-wringing there was in Google about the ways of seeing this anniversary.