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.
“She was more of the home type,” Viktor Gorbatko tells me. “I wouldn’t say that the flight changed her. She didn’t stand out then, and she doesn’t really stand out even now.”
Valentina had met and married a dashing young pilot only to find herself tethered to the most famous man in the world. After Yuri’s death, the Gagarin family received government support: a lifetime pension for his widow and separate pensions for the daughters until adulthood. Widowed in her 30s, Valentina raised two girls to be successful, educated women. Meanwhile, the coming of glasnost led to rumors of Gagarin’s debauchery and conspiracy: that post-flight, he had become a boozy womanizer; that Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, who was not enamored of Gagarin the way his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev was, had ordered the cosmonaut’s MiG shot down. The rumors remain sensitive subjects that neither daughter will discuss.
As Valentina saw it, “freedom of speech turned into a state where there were no limitations,” says Tamara, her niece. “She just closed herself.”
“She is a very good and very honest woman,” says Marina Popovich, her neighbor. “I wouldn’t say that about all the [cosmonauts’] wives.”