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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These are the Gagarins on the eve of half a century of human spaceflight: a shy, reclusive widow; one daughter working among the ghosts and grandeur of royalty; the other instructing tomorrow’s capitalists; scattered in-laws, nieces, and cousins.

One relative lives in Missouri. Anna Gagarina, 29, is the only descendant of the Klushino clan to have settled in the United States. The granddaughter of Yuri’s younger brother Boris, she has been in America since 2002, when she came to New York on student visa, met a man from her hometown of Minsk, and applied for permanent residency.

Nine years later, Anna is living in St. Louis, raising a three-year-old daughter, Paulina, and working with an international resettlement agency. Of her famous sur­name, she tells me over the phone, “I don’t like to brag about it. I am proud of the fact that Yuri Gagarin is my relative, but even if he were not part of my family, I would be proud of what he did for humanity.” I ask whether Americans recognize her last name. “No, only Russians,” she replies. “Americans don’t know the name. They only know Lady Gaga.”

Before I leave Russia, I ask Galina what she thought motivated her father to go into space. “I think the dream,” she says. “The dream to fly. From the modern position, it may seem very strange, very unusual. But I can understand how a small boy from a very poor family could have such a powerful dream.” (I’m reminded of a line in Le Petit Prince: “Only children know what they are looking for.”)

When her father died, Galina had just turned seven. I ask her if, as a child, she understood the importance of what he did. “I remember that I asked Father if he wanted to go to space once more,” she says, smiling. “He told me that he wanted to very much. Very much.”

That, of course, never happened. Gagarin went only once around the planet, but it was enough to change the world forever. Every orbit since has been a tribute to the first.

Allen Abel, who grew up in New York City at the height of the Space Race, is the Washington, D.C. columnist for Canada’s National Post newspaper.

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