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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A few yards away is the earthen dugout where Alexei and Anna Gagarin and their sons Yuri and Boris were forced to live like prairie dogs when the Nazis “borrowed” their house. The oldest son, Valentin, and a daughter, Zoya, already had been shanghaied to Berlin as laborers in service of the Thousand-Year Reich.

Tatiana Vladimirovna Igorevich has spent more than a decade as a guide at the reconstructed house-museum. The Russian spirit, she tells my interpreter, is accustomed to privation. “Struggle for everything,” she says. “Work hard every moment. Get used to hardship. Love the nation. Hate the enemy. That is the Russian soul.”

A few yards down the street, I find a man named Yevgeni Yakovlevich Derbenkov in the house he has lived in for nearly all of his 78 years. Fur hat, felt boots, gold teeth. “I’m proud and happy that my old childhood friend who used to run around this village barefoot with me, despite all the hardships, he went to space,” Derbenkov tells my interpreter. (Had Gagarin lived, he would be 77.)

Derbenkov still recalls that day. “It really was amazing. When we heard that the one who returned from space was our Yuri, we asked each other ‘Our Yuri went to space?’ And we said ‘Of course! Who else from Klushino would go?’ ”

Back at the wooden house, I ask Tatiana if she can imagine coming from this homely place and reaching the stars. “All Russians come from this,” she flatly replies.

When the war ended, the original izba was disassembled by Alexei Gagarin and moved to the heart of Gzhatsk. Having survived their German captivity, Valentin and Zoya returned home. Zoya later married a man named Dmitri and gave birth to a daughter named Tamara. The baby’s godfather was Yuri Gagarin, age 13. The entire extended family lived in the same little house.

In 1961, after Yuri went into space, the izba there also became a museum, and Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin, in his honor. Since the early 1970s, Gagarin’s godchild, Tamara Dmitrievna, has been the curator at the Gagarin house-museum. She’s never worked anywhere else.

We’re in the kitchen of the ancient farmhouse, the Space Age version of Lincoln’s log cabin. I ask her how the family changed when her godfather uncle went into space. “Life as it had been going pretty much carried on,” she replies. “What was there to expect? It was Yuri who went to the cosmos, not us. What could change?” Her uncle, she adds, didn’t seem much changed by the flight. “He grew in the political sense of his own importance. But as an individual, he was the same open person.”

If anything, she says, the town was changed more than the Gagarin family was. “A lot changed in the city. There was practically a rebirth. It was a small city without central heating, sewers, or running water. The infrastructure was greatly modernized. New housing projects were built: a new school, a hospital, a polyclinic [an outpatient clinic], a House of Culture.”

Today, those improvements show their age; no one would rank downtown Gagarin as a showplace of post-Soviet success. In the heart of what was Gzhatsk, I see no fitness centers, no Audi dealers, no McDonald’s. There is only the tired Hotel Vostok and a couple of dark, smoky restaurants. But then, on a gray, frigid, and snowy January day, few Russian towns invite a pleasant stroll.

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