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Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok 1 command capsule on April 12, 1961. File photo: AFP

First person in space: 60 years later, legend of Yuri Gagarin lives on in Russia

  • Sixty years ago Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, securing victory for Moscow over the US
  • The legend of the man who rose from humble beginnings to become a Soviet hero lives on today

Sixty years after he became the first person in space, there are few figures more universally admired in Russia today than Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

His smiling face adorns murals across the country. He stands, arms at his sides as if zooming into space, on a pedestal 42.5 metres (140 feet) above the traffic flowing on Moscow’s Leninsky Avenue. He is even a favourite subject of tattoos.

The Soviet Union may be gone and Russia’s glory days in space long behind it, but Gagarin’s legend lives on, a symbol of Russian success and - for a Kremlin keen to inspire patriotic fervour - an important source of national pride.

“He is a figure who inspires an absolute consensus that unifies the country,” says Gagarin’s biographer Lev Danilkin.

“This is a very rare case in which the vast majority of the population is unanimous.”


The monument of Yuri Gagarin in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP

The anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961 - celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day - sees Russians of all ages lay flowers at monuments to his accomplishment across the country.

The enduring fascination comes not only from his story of rising from humble origins to space pioneer, or even the mystery surrounding his death.

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Gagarin, says historian Alexander Zheleznyakov, was a figure who helped fuel the imagination.

“He transformed us from a simple biological species to one that could imagine an entire universe beyond Earth.”


A Vostok rocket in Moscow, similar to the one that carried Yuri Gagarin on his flight to space. Photo: AP

The son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer who lived through the Nazi occupation, Gagarin trained as a steel worker before becoming a military pilot and then, at age 27, spending 108 minutes in space as his Vostok spacecraft completed one loop around the Earth.

Four years before Gagarin, the USSR had already become the first country to send into orbit a satellite, called Sputnik.

He was lauded for his bravery and professionalism, an example of the perfect Soviet man, but his legend was also imbued with tales of camaraderie, courage and love for his two daughters and wife Valentina Gagarina.

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Long a secret, Gagarin wrote his wife a poignant farewell letter in the event that he died during his mission.

“If something goes wrong, I ask you - especially you - Valyusha, not to die of grief. For this is how life goes,” he wrote, using a diminutive for Valentina.


Yuri Gagarin runs during a test in Star City, Russia in 1959. File photo: AP

In an interview in 2011, cosmonaut Boris Volynov recalled a man who, despite sharing privileges of the Soviet elite, spent hours on the phone to procure medicine or a spot in a hospital for his less well-off friends.

On his return to Earth, Gagarin found himself at the centre of a propaganda campaign on the superiority of the Soviet model.

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Biographer Danilkin says Gagarin was used by authorities as an example to the rest of the world, but also to convince Soviet citizens, who had endured World War II and Stalin-era repressions, “that the sacrifices of the previous decades were not in vain”.

President Vladimir Putin, he said, has co-opted that legacy to cement his own hold on power, promoting Soviet victories to encourage support for his 20-year rule.


Yuri Gagarin waves to spectators as he leaves the Soviet embassy in London, on July 15, 1961. File photo: AP

“The current authorities methodically appropriate popular cults: first that of victory during World War II, then the conquest of space,” Danilkin says.

Like all great Russian heroes, Gagarin is a tragic figure.

His death during a training flight in 1968 at the age of 34 remains a mystery because authorities never released the full report of the investigation into the causes of the accident.

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Partial records suggest his MiG-15 fighter jet collided with a weather balloon, but in the absence of transparency, alternative theories abound.

One holds that Gagarin was drunk at the controls; another that he was eliminated by the Kremlin which feared his popularity.


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Sixty years on, Russia continues to frequently send its cosmonauts to the International Space Station (ISS). On Friday, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, honouring the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome with two Russians and a US astronaut on board.

But the anniversary also comes at a difficult time for Russia’s space industry, which has suffered a number of setbacks recently, from corruption scandals to an aborted take-off endangering a manned mission in 2018.

Russia’s ageing Soyuz rockets are reliable and allow Moscow to remain relevant in the modern space industry, but the country is struggling to innovate and keep up with other key players.

In a major blow, Russia last year lost its monopoly for manned ISS launches after reusable rockets from Elon Musk’s Space X, carrying Nasa astronauts, successfully docked at the space station.

Together with reduced funding, this could mean hard times for Russia’s space agency Roscosmos even though its chief Dmitry Rogozin continues to promise ambitious projects, including a mission to Venus and a station on the moon.