The Family He Left Behind
Fifty years ago, Yuri Gagarin left earth. When he came back, everything changed.
- By Allen Abel
- Air & Space magazine, May 2011
This month the heirs of Yuri Gagarin will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his flight into orbit. They are his daughters and his widow, his nieces and cousins, his space-going peers, his former rivals, millions of us who knew him only from black-and-white newsreels as the first man in space, and a dwindling few who remember first-hand how far he had to rise to reach the stars.
It was April 12, 1961, when a dreamy boy born to poverty and flames on the Eastern Front of the Second World War flew weightless for nearly two hours in a capsule called Vostok—“the East.” Barely seven years later, when he was 34 years old, the spacefaring hero with the famous, easy smile was killed in a crash of his own MiG-15UTI jet, his hand still on the joystick when he and his instructor copilot hit the trees. He is one of history’s bravest and most tragic adventurers.
I am searching for the father and husband and friend behind the chiseled face on a statue or gleaming idol on a coin. But his elder daughter seems more comfortable discussing his public persona, calling his flight “one of the main achievements that took place over the last 100 years, not only for this country but for mankind.”
She is telling me this in an office above one of the world’s great treasuries, the exhibition halls of the Moscow Kremlin, where czarist—and later, Communist—power presided over centuries of serfdom, socialism, and sacrifice. Elena Yurievna Gagarina was two years and two days old when her father lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and not quite 10 when he died. Today, she is the director of the Kremlin State Museum, where she is the guardian of imperial robes, royal carriages, and Fabergé eggs.
It is difficult to imagine a more elegant workplace, or a more elegant woman. When Barack and Michelle Obama visited Moscow in 2009, it was Elena who escorted the First Lady through the galleries. Fluent in English, she is the custodian not only of Russia’s royal jewels but also of every Yuri Gagarin statue, every postal tribute, and every published encomium. All must pass her personal inspection.
“There are good sculptures and bad sculptures, good stamps and bad stamps,” she says. “This is the role which is given to me by law: that all images of my father and stories of his life I should see.” Fine art, she says, is all that ever attracted her, even as her father was reaching for—and falling from—the heights of space exploration and fame. “Each of us in our family followed a different path,” she says. “My mother was a doctor, my sister an economist. Our parents wanted us to follow our own interests.”
Elena worked her way up to become the curator of 18th century English drawings and engravings at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. (Her only child, a daughter, works at the Kremlin with her.) It is natural to wonder whether someone named, say, Kuznetsova—the Russian “Smith”—would have risen as high as Yuri Gagarin’s daughter. But Elena waves off this petty conjecture. “I never used my name for my career,” she says. “My field of interest is very different from anything connected with space travel. I always wanted to be an art historian from the earliest age. But still, of course, people know my name. Everyone has a story about my father. Everyone has a story to tell about the 12th of April.”
Elena herself doesn’t remember much of that day. “When my father went into space, I don’t think that at that period I understood it quite well,” she says. “I was too young. All the people I encountered every day—our friends, our neighbors—were connected with the space project.”
No one at the time knew much about the engineering challenges of spaceflight. “The cosmonauts understood that it was 50-50 if the flight would be successful or not. The general consensus was that it was safe. But Father had complete trust in the chief designer [Sergei Korolev]. Korolev loved him very much.”
The second daughter, Galina Yurievna Gagarina, was 36 days old when her father flew. “When I was a child, I lived as every child does,” she says. “We hadn’t any special teacher or special school or special conditions of life. Our city—Star City—was a very special place. From the very beginning, I knew that. But for us, it was normal. At school, I studied with many different children. Not all were the children of cosmonauts.”
By the time Galina reached fourth grade, American astronauts were on the moon. If the Gagarina girls had been unique as infants, their celebrity no longer was so singular. A lot of the dads at Star City had gone into space.
We are in Galina’s office at Plekhanov University in Moscow, where she has been a professor of economics for 25 years. Galina, who is married to a pediatrician from the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s far east, has one child: a boy, now 17, named Yuri. Like her sister, she is fluent in English.