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

I don’t believe in God, but I believe he can punish us,” Alexei Leonov says with a wan smile. It has been 30 years since his friend and fellow cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin died in a MiG crash, and Leonov still can’t reconcile the loss. “We were all fighter pilots. Every fighter pilot has lost friends,” he says and shrugs. “Cosmonauts know they are at risk. But Yuri’s death is still felt keenly.”

We are driving through the Smol­­ensk region, several hours west of Moscow, on our way to Gagarin City for a symposium at which Leonov will speak. The occasion is the 30th anniversary of the day that Gagarin and pilot-instructor Vladimir Seryogin died on the last refresher flight Gagarin was to make before resuming solos in jet fighters. Leonov’s unresolved grief echoes that of millions of Russians: No explanation of the events that led to the First Cosmonaut’s death has ever been universally accepted.

The symposium is held in a converted Orthodox cathedral painted completely white inside and out. Under the vaulted arches of the high ceiling, the speakers on the ad hoc panel make no progress toward satisfying the unanswered questions. Eight aviation experts and academicians, including General Sergei Belotserkovsky, the octogenarian dean of the Zhukovsky Academy of Aeronautical Science, where Gagarin studied engineering, hash over their theories once again. A few in the audience—which consists of space professionals, journalists, amateur historians, and aficionados—interrupt the panel, hotly denouncing the system that they believe let Gagarin die.

But the panel also is there to lionize Hero of the Soviet Union Number 11,175—the number stamped on Gagarin’s medal (signifying, as he liked to say, that 11,174 people were at least as heroic as he had been). Belotserkovsky poignantly reminds everyone that Yuri’s personality still affects the cosmonauts, that they all try to emulate his smile, his positive energy.

The panel members listen to any and all comments from the floor with the patience of priests. They understand the audience’s frustration with questions surrounding Gagarin’s death; some on the panel have been seeking the truth themselves for 30 years. At day’s end, the dispirited consensus is that the untrustworthiness of governments past and present makes any official explanation suspect.

This much is certain: Within half an hour of takeoff from Chkalovskoye airbase outside Moscow on the morning of March 27, 1968, Gagarin lost control of his MiG-15 trainer. By 10:31 a.m., he and Seryogin were dead. The panel acknowledges that the pilots were given poor information on the altitude of the cloud cover. The meteorological report told them that the cloud ceiling was 2,300 to 3,000 feet high. In fact, the clouds were only 1,400 feet above the ground. When they broke out beneath the clouds at nearly 400 feet per second, the pilots had only a couple of seconds to see the dense forest rising toward them. Neither man attempted to eject. Seryogin—a World War II ace, test pilot, and hero of the Soviet Union—was in the back seat and would have had to eject first, abandoning Gagarin to his own devices.

Within a few days of the crash, the woods where the MiG broke up in waist-deep snow had been meticulously combed for the pilots’ remains and pieces of the airplane. Investigators claim to have compiled a 29-volume report on the fatal flight. That neither the material evidence nor the report has ever been released to the general public has fueled rumors on the cause of the crash. Some say the men hit a goose or a weather balloon. Some say the CIA poisoned them, others say Gagarin worked for the CIA. Some believe the cosmonaut’s immense popularity posed a threat to Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo accomplices, who had ousted Nikita Khrushchev a few years earlier and resented reminders of past triumphs.

Leonov and Belotserkovsky both subscribe to yet another theory, that another jet violated the MiG’s airspace and the vortex of its wake threw the MiG into a spin. In any case, as Leonov points out, Gagarin’s death is surrounded with as much mystery and controversy as John Kennedy’s.

On the return trip to Moscow, Leonov reflects on the landscape outside the window of his chauffeured Chevy Tahoe. “There used to be farms and villages everywhere around here,” he says. “All these berioza [birch] trees are growing where peasants used to cultivate flax. These trees all grew up here since World War II, when the Germans came through the Smolensk region and destroyed 600 villages.” He pauses. “Those were the formative years in Yuri’s life.”

Leonov was born in 1934, the same year as Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin. Both men were among the original 20 pilots chosen in 1960 for the Soviet cosmonaut corps, out of 2,200 candidates. Gagarin was the first to orbit Earth; Leonov, the first to walk in space.

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