The Family He Left Behind

Fifty years ago, Yuri Gagarin left earth. When he came back, everything changed.

After World War II, Yuri’s father Alexei disassembled the family home and moved it to Gzhatsk (now Gagarin), where it is a museum. (Allen Abel)
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By the time Galina reached fourth grade, American astronauts were on the moon. If the Gagarina girls had been unique as infants, their celebrity no longer was so singular. A lot of the dads at Star City had gone into space.

We are in Galina’s office at Plekhanov University in Moscow, where she has been a professor of economics for 25 years. Galina, who is married to a pediatrician from the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s far east, has one child: a boy, now 17, named Yuri. Like her sister, she is fluent in English.

Galina’s professional life has been steadfastly and unromantically Earth-based. When we meet, she’s wearing a sweater and clunky beads. At Plekhanov, she teaches courses in Russian political economy and “Allocation of Productive Forces.” Unlike her sister, she has never been to the United States. But 30-plus years ago, she did meet Fidel Castro.

Her office, on the third floor of the college’s main building, is cramped and unadorned, save for a large map of the Russian Federation and a calendar that features another famous celestial traveler: Le Petit Prince, the creation of French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. On the calendar is a quotation from that wonderful book: “All men have the stars.”

In April 1961, of course, only one man had them.

“For the Soviet Union, it was a victory of engineering that this was accomplished only 15 years after victory in the war,” Galina says. “And of course, there was the philosophic aspect as well, because mankind understood the possibilities, the great possibilities of the future.” Like Elena, she hears daily from older Russians who want to share memories of her father and of his flight, memories of a mission far beyond her recollection.

“Of course, our family was very famous,” she says. “People always treated us with special attention and curiosity, which had its impact on our behavior in public, as we always had to, and still have to, control practically every step and every word.”

After his flight, she says, her father “had a huge circle of additional responsibilities.” Promoted to deputy director of the cosmonaut corps, he was also made a member of the Supreme Soviet, appointed chairman of the Soviet-Cuban Friendship Society, and named head of the Federation of Water Sports, among other duties. With all his travels, both domestic and foreign, “he didn’t have much time to spend with the family,” says Galina. “But we always spent every vacation together, and every Sunday, when he could, we would go to the countryside or visit someone.”

Three hours west of Moscow stands the unpronounceable city of Gzhatsk. Here on the flatlands of the Russian empire, invaders from Genghis Khan to Napoleon to Hitler unfurled their flags and met their fate. Now there is a four-lane highway that crawls through Moscow’s exploding, modern, high-rise suburbs—with fitness centers, Audi dealers, McDonald’s with McCafés—then flies as straight as an arrow toward Smo­lensk, Minsk, Warsaw, and Berlin.

Buffeted by the ambitions of emperors, the peasants here worked the fields and dug wells. They work them still. I am drinking now from one of those wells, behind a wooden farmhouse called an izba, a few miles outside Gzhatsk in a hamlet called Klushino. This is the re-created birthplace and childhood home of Yuri Gagarin, and visitors see his father’s carpentry tools, an old pendulum clock, irons for the fire, a spinning wheel, a butter churn, a samovar, and Orthodox icons in the rafters.

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