Saint Yuri

The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?

A 10-story statue of Gagarin dominates the modern skyline over Moscow's Leninski Prospect. (--)
Air & Space Magazine

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“He was a peasant’s son, he really was, but he rose to the top of the cosmonaut corps because he was willing and worthy and he was a good man,” Irina Solovyova says of her friend. “He became a big boss but never became arrogant, never became self-conscious about his beginnings. After his flight the image of cosmonaut meant a lot.”

The day after the symposium at Gagarin City, on the 30th anniversary of Gagarin’s death, Leonov attends another memorial service some 40 miles northeast of Moscow, in the forest where his friend’s jet crashed. He points to a clump of birch trees: “See the broken tops, where the trees have grown bushy: that’s where they came down.”

Today a 30-foot polished granite obelisk with relief carvings of Seryogin and Gagarin marks the site. Some 4,000 people, bundled up against the lingering winter weather, show up to honor the memory of two Soviet heroes. Several hundred of them knew Gagarin: cosmonauts, scientists, instructors, technicians from Star City and other space centers. But many who come to pay their respects could not have known him personally. The newest generation of cosmonauts in attendance have only seen pictures of him. Scores of schoolchildren climb trees and stand on the raised berms of plowed snow at the edge of the ceremony so that they can get a better view.

In an era when the statues of Communist politicians, military figures, and other Soviet heroes have been torn down and piled like cordwood in Moscow’s Gorky Park, when more than 160 streets in Moscow that were named after cold war icons and other notable Soviets have reverted to their original names, every capital city from the old U.S.S.R. still displays at least one monument to Yuri Gagarin.

On this day his memory evokes passionate speeches, several poems, an original song by folksinger Josef Kobzon, and tears. As hundreds of people queue up to lay floral wreaths at the monument, an 11-year-old girl slides down from a pile of snow, looks me in the eye, and shakes my hand. Her name is Olga, and she tells me quietly, in English, that she studied Yuri Gagarin in her history class. “World history or Russian history?” I ask. “World,” she answers. “He belongs to world.”


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