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
(Page 3 of 4)
Back at the wooden house, I ask Tatiana if she can imagine coming from this homely place and reaching the stars. “All Russians come from this,” she flatly replies.
When the war ended, the original izba was disassembled by Alexei Gagarin and moved to the heart of Gzhatsk. Having survived their German captivity, Valentin and Zoya returned home. Zoya later married a man named Dmitri and gave birth to a daughter named Tamara. The baby’s godfather was Yuri Gagarin, age 13. The entire extended family lived in the same little house.
In 1961, after Yuri went into space, the izba there also became a museum, and Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin, in his honor. Since the early 1970s, Gagarin’s godchild, Tamara Dmitrievna, has been the curator at the Gagarin house-museum. She’s never worked anywhere else.
We’re in the kitchen of the ancient farmhouse, the Space Age version of Lincoln’s log cabin. I ask her how the family changed when her godfather uncle went into space. “Life as it had been going pretty much carried on,” she replies. “What was there to expect? It was Yuri who went to the cosmos, not us. What could change?” Her uncle, she adds, didn’t seem much changed by the flight. “He grew in the political sense of his own importance. But as an individual, he was the same open person.”
If anything, she says, the town was changed more than the Gagarin family was. “A lot changed in the city. There was practically a rebirth. It was a small city without central heating, sewers, or running water. The infrastructure was greatly modernized. New housing projects were built: a new school, a hospital, a polyclinic [an outpatient clinic], a House of Culture.”
Today, those improvements show their age; no one would rank downtown Gagarin as a showplace of post-Soviet success. In the heart of what was Gzhatsk, I see no fitness centers, no Audi dealers, no McDonald’s. There is only the tired Hotel Vostok and a couple of dark, smoky restaurants. But then, on a gray, frigid, and snowy January day, few Russian towns invite a pleasant stroll.
Back in Moscow, I meet with one of Gagarin’s friends from the cosmonaut corps at the Association of Veterans of War and Military Service, where a large photograph of Josef Stalin hangs in the lobby. Lieutenant General Viktor Gorbatko, the 20th Soviet in space, is wearing the red ribbons and gold stars that identify him as a twice-honored Hero of the Soviet Union. Selected as a cosmonaut in 1960, he flew three Soyuz missions, spending nearly a month total aboard the Salyut 5 and 6 space stations in 1977 and 1980. Is he, at 76, ready to go back into space? “Only in my dreams,” he tells my interpreter.
I ask Gorbatko if he thought fame had changed his friend. “Nyet!” he says. “Proud as I am to have been his close acquaintance, and I could use the word ‘friend,’ Yuri remained absolutely like everyone else. When he became director of the [cosmonaut] research center he could be demanding, but he never changed as a person.”
Gagarin’s Soviet gold star was number 11,175. The cosmonaut liked to tell audiences that he was no more special than the 11,174 heroes who had come before him. But none, of course, had ridden a flaming rocket, or watched from orbit as the sun dropped below the horizon.
Now I am in the office of Marina Popovich at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, and she is showing me her medal. It is number 18,874. She is a former test pilot and retired Soviet air force colonel. Nicknamed “Madame MiG,” Popovich is one of Russia’s most accomplished woman pilots and the ex-wife of Pavel Popovich, the fourth Soviet in space. “All of the wives thought that their husband would go first,” she recalls. “You felt a hope, a fear, and a feeling of awe. It was an unbelievable sense of pride and wonder. It was glorious.... Gagarin acted quite properly. Despite all the cameras, all the telegrams, he just smiled as if going into space was what he did all the time. A person with a good upbringing wouldn’t be blinded by his own glory.”
Despite having set 101 aviation world records (28 as copilot), Marina Popovich never got a capsule of her own. I ask whether she would have surrendered 50 years of her life, as Gagarin did, to have been the first in space. “I would have made the trade without a second thought,” she replies.
The wife whose husband did go first has taken little part in public remembrance for more than 40 years, but may turn out for ceremonies at the Kremlin this year, her daughter Galina says. Still living in Star City, Valentina Gagarina is in her late 70s now, retired from the practice of medicine and tending—she tells her friends—to a fragile and perhaps still-broken heart. She turned down my requests for an interview (her last, with a Russian journalist, was in 1978). “It is very difficult for her to meet people,” explains Elena, her older daughter.