Russia's Long Love Affair with Space
It started with Utopian dreams and rocketeers.
- By Asif Siddiqi
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
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The show was a hit with the Russian public. In two months, nearly 12,000 people, including schoolchildren, workers, service employees, artists, scientists, and policemen, bought tickets, and some recorded their impressions in a guest book. One artist from a state cinematographic studio wrote that “it would be desirable that our inventors achieve the first landing on the moon.” One of the more captivated visitors was S.G. Vortkin, a reporter for the workers’ news daily Working Moscow, who wrote: “I am going to accompany you on the first flight. I am quite serious about this. Please do not refuse my request.”
The space fad infused the arts. From literature and movies to painting, poetry, and architecture, Soviet artists produced works that reflected their belief that cosmic travel was an inevitable part of their future. Science fiction was a growing genre in the Soviet Union, and space travel was a major theme. Novels such as Alexei Tolstoy’s Aelita: Sunset of Mars and Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star were immensely popular among space enthusiasts because the stories were grounded in plausible scientific and technical ideas. The movie version of Aelita, released with great fanfare in late 1924 under the direction of famed Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov, successfully blended science with art. Probably the most famous space movie of the Soviet era, the film was about a proletariat revolution that takes place on Mars under the watchful gaze of Aelita, the planet’s queen. The movie established a new standard for Soviet cinema, if not in quality, then certainly in popularity and hype. Weeks of intense advertising campaigns preceded its release, with airplanes dropping thousands of promotional fliers over major Russian cities. Tickets for the early shows sold out, and the size of the crowd on opening night in Moscow prevented even Protazanov from attending. The movie, which featured fantastic modern sets, romantic intrigue, and provocatively dressed women, made a deep impression on many young people. Forty-five years later, Soviet rocket designer Vladimir Chelomei, who was 10 when the movie came out, named his proposed mission to send cosmonauts to Mars “Aelita.”
One of the most important Soviet avant garde art movements of the period, Suprematism, also reflected a deep interest in space. Although it originally emerged as a variant of Cubism, Suprematism went much further in its experimentation, dispensing with representations of conventional space and perspective. Such an approach led many Suprematists, including the movement’s leader Kazimir Malevich, to eulogize first aviation and then the cosmos. In one artistic manifesto, Malevich proudly proclaimed that “between the Earth and the Moon, a new Suprematist satellite can be constructed …. Follow me, comrade aviators! Swim into the abyss.” Many of Malevich’s protégés were technological utopians, captivated by the potential power of science to emancipate society from its ills. Some artists even made the pilgrimage to Kaluga to visit with Tsiolkovsky, who was only too happy to share his ideas.
The Soviet space fad began to recede once Joseph Stalin tightened his grip on Soviet society. Some enthusiasts perished in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. In 1939, the Soviet security services shot and killed Morris Leiteizen, who nearly two decades before had served as one of the leaders of the Society for the Study of Interplanetary Communications. Similarly, Mikhail Lapirov-Skoblo, one of the earliest promoters of spaceflight, ended up in the Gulag and died in confinement after World War II.
Most space activists, however, were brought down to Earth by the economic realities of the day as the Soviet government invested heavily in brute force industrialization and military rocket development. Space had no purpose in this vision. Many enthusiasts also lost interest once they realized that space travel was years, if not decades, away. Society chief Grigory Kramarov later recalled that the most common question from the audience after each lecture would be “How quickly would flight to the planets be accomplished?” When it became clear that there was no good answer, many members dropped out, leaving only a handful of the truly dedicated to pursue the cause. Like many utopians, society members were unable to sustain a vision beyond the short-term.
Yet, ultimately, the space fad left a powerful legacy. It convinced young Soviet citizens that spaceflight was not only possible but inevitable, and that conviction has been handed down generation by generation from the 1920s to today, a point that Samburov reminded me as our train pulled into Kaluga and we took a cramped minivan to the cosmonautics museum named after his great-grandfather. While the rest of the world was shocked by the successes of Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin in 1961, most Soviet citizens fully expected and anticipated that their country would be first in space. After all, they had started their space education long before Sputnik’s launch. Even Korolev, the Soviet space program’s chief designer, invoked Goddard’s fabled moon rocket of the 1920s in his request in 1958 for government funds to send a probe to the moon. Korolev got his wish, and in September 1959 the Soviet Luna 2 probe hit the moon—one of the great firsts of the Space Age.
At Tsiolkovsky’s former home, now preserved as a museum, Samburov lovingly showed me some of his great-grandfather’s space materials, amassed over the four decades Tsiolkovksy lived in Kaluga, until his death in 1935 at age 78. Samburov, born long after that, grew up in the house and recalls being thrilled as a little boy when Gagarin paid a visit to Samburov’s family in the early 1960s. It had a lasting effect: Besides his work promoting his great-grandfather’s legacy, Samburov works for RKK Energia, helping to train cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station in radio communications. “We take our space history very seriously,” he said.
Later, Samburov showed me an array of Tsiolkovsky memorabilia: information pamphlets on the cosmos, mathematical monographs, drawings of objects in zero gravity, science journals depicting futuristic rockets, and letters from admirers. Looking at the materials felt strange, even surreal. In Western books and articles, one sees the usual iconic pictures of the early Soviet space program, in second- and third-generation reproductions. But as a historian of the Russian space program, I found it both thrilling and humbling to hold these documents—some nearly a century old—in my hands. Samburov invited me to sit at Tsiolkovsky’s desk, in the same chair he used when he wrote his groundbreaking works on cosmonautics. Strewn on the desk were journals, pamphlets, and sketchings from a bygone era. Looking at these futuristic renditions of rockets and spaceships, it was easy to imagine how an old Russian schoolteacher might have let his imagination run free.