Yury Gagarin: a symbol of modernization

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“Let’s go!” With these words Yury Gagarin blasted off on a flight that would shock the world. How could a country still emerging from the devastation wrought by WWII accomplish such an incredible feat of scientific, engineering and industrial progress? You would be hard-pressed to find a comparable achievement in human history. Gagarin realized one of humanity’s oldest ambitions, and his flight on the Vostok rocket marked a unique technological breakthrough. It was the embodiment of the spirit of modernization. In this sense, Gagarin is a symbol of Russia and deserves our unconditional and unwavering pride. 

Yury Gagarin [Credit: RIA Novosti]

While the two superpowers were locked in a fierce global competition in the 1960s, Gagarin was equally respected in the Soviet Union and in the West. He was an object of fascination in Europe and America, and enjoyed the respect of his rival space explorers in the West. That being said, when he made the cover of TIME magazine, “USSR” was conspicuously absent from his helmet. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, Gagarin was gradually overshadowed in the popular imagination by the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, owing in part to America’s aggressive PR efforts. The moon landing was featured prominently in planetaria across the Western world, while Gagarin’s flight was given a passing mention at best. 

But let’s not judge our old Cold War rival. The Soviet Union’s victory in the space race no doubt struck a powerful blow to Washington’s self-esteem, as American leadership in research and technology was a cornerstone of its Cold War ideology. Gagarin’s flight called that assumption into question, and so the United States naturally began working to retake the lead. But they never flung mud at Gagarin, who remained a hero in the West. 

Yet, Gagarin never became a state symbol of the Soviet Union, as he deserved. He was certainly given a lot of attention. But his flight was always treated as yet another testament to the superiority of communism, albeit a powerful testament. In the popular imagination, however, Gagarin the man was a more powerful symbol than communism itself. In a more general, humanistic sense, he proved more important than any political ideology or economic system. 

That is what makes Gagarin such a unique and universal figure. He remains to this day a popular hero, but he is much more than that. He is probably the only symbol that puts a human face on the Soviet Union’s technological achievements. It is for this reason that Gagarin proved a more enduring symbol while other Soviet symbols and values were ruthlessly ridiculed in the 1990s. 

And yet, in today’s Russia, Gagarin seems to endure as a symbol as if by inertia. Politicians mention him occasionally, while ordinary Russians still feel sincere love and respect for him – at least those Russians who know who the first man in space was. 

In fact, in the past ten to fifteen years, the greater threat to Gagarin’s image has been “glamorization,” not oblivion. There is a danger that the true meaning of the Soviet symbol might be lost, or that his image will become an object of popular culture or a consumer brand, not only in Russia but in former Soviet republics and other countries as well. 

His picture can now be found on cars and in entertainment centers. There is a danger that Gagarin’s image will be reformatted, devalued and degraded to the level of tedious trademark. 

Gagarin is not a major symbol in modern Russia, and yet he is the perfect embodiment of modernization and scientific progress, which remain national priorities to this day. He could also serve as the ideal link between the country’s past and future as well as between Russia and the rest of the world. This is all the more important because, twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country is still struggling to find a coherent national identity. 

But no symbol can unite a nation if its meaning is ambiguous. People can only be united by clear and comprehensible symbols. Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961 could be one such symbol. 

Authors: Alexei Pilko and Pavel Rodkin | Source: RIA Novosti [April 12, 2011]

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