‘Perhaps, Gagarin’s demise still has some political context’

Why Gagarin had chances of making it in big politics, existing versions of his demise and how his personality changed after the space flight

The first human — Yury Gagarin — went from Earth into space 60 years ago. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, writer, author of one of Gagarin’s biographies Lev Danilkin explains if we all know why the USSR didn’t continue the grandiose space exploration after the 60s and why today’s position of our country in space is horrifying.

“Korolyov was the motor of space exploration as much as Vladimir Lenin was the motor of the October Revolution in 1917”

Mr Danilkin, can we say that the man’s flight into space is the merit of Sergey Korolyov and Nikita Khrushchyov, who was the patron of the space programme?

It would be more correct to cite one of the greatest Soviet engineers Boris Chertok in the answer to your question. He once noticed that the success of the Soviet space programme was a consequence of three surprising mistakes. Chertok considered Germans who bet too much on V-2 to the detriment of other weapons but didn’t have the time to create this super-weapon during World War II made the first mistake. In the end, they lost the war, while other countries got their groundwork.

Americans who didn’t understand the advantage of rocket engineering from the beginning made the second mistake. They relied on aviation for too long and allowed the USSR to make a leap in space.

Soviet nuclear experts who didn’t calculate the weight of the nuclear warhead correctly made the third mistake. They ordered engineers to make it bigger, and as a result, Sergey Korolyov had to create a powerful rocket that would suit to carry Vostok spaceship.

I wouldn’t personally attribute everything only to two people you have named. Yes, there is Korolyov’s genius. There is Khrushchyov’s prudence who understood that it was impossible to win World War III only with aviation because the nuclear bomb had to be delivered faster. This is why Khrushchyov made a tough decision to bet on rocket engineering and rocket troops by starting to diminish aviation. At the same time, an order to develop rocket troops was one of Joseph Stalin’s last orders signed in 1953. Stalin was expecting World War III and he considered that the country that was to claim the title of superpower sooner or later would have to deal with rockets.

But shouldn’t we attach significance to Khrushchyov’s patronage of space? Those who were at the helm after him weren’t as big fans of this topic as Mr Khrushchyov was.

There was still patronage after Khrushchyov too. We cannot say that the enthusiasm for space took shape after 1964. But if we are talking about the role of personality in history, it would be more correct to talk about Korolyov here rather than politicians and even Korolyov’s colleagues. Engineers Glushko, Chelomey or same Chertok were unlikely worse than Korolyov from a perspective of engineering genius. But Korolyov was the motor of space exploration as much as Vladimir Lenin was the motor of the October Revolution in 1917. And the Soviet space initiative the USSR took for seven years was lost with his tragic death.

Yury Gagarin and Sergey Korolyov. Museum of Cosmonautics / mos.ru
If we are talking about the role of personality in history, it would be more correct to talk about Korolyov here rather than politicians and even Korolyov’s colleagues

What Korolyov’s qualities allowed him to achieve almost whatever he wanted?

Korolyov always used to have two coins in his pocket and he considered that if he lost them, the launch wouldn’t be successful. But to put it seriously, Sergey Korolyov was simply obsessive about his ideas since the moment he read Tsiolkovsky’s works. Yes, some people are keen on their work more than average people. And Korolyov was simply mad about rocket engineering — he wanted to launch rockets all his life, since the 30s. By the way, he regretted very much he didn’t have the time to go to space himself, he wanted this very much. This is why obsession is Korolyov’s key quality.

“This ‘surrender of the Moon’ was a part of a global historic shift”

There is an opinion that if Korolyov were alive while Khrushchyov kept ruling the USSR, the Soviet manned flight to the Moon would have taken place. Korolyov wasn’t alive in 1969 whereas Brezhnev was sitting in the Kremlin, and American astronauts were first to step on the Moon. Did Brezhnev roll the USSR Moon project back?

Space cannot be considered as some separate sphere in big politics or some enthusiasm of government officials. Of course, it is very strange and suspicious that the bad luck with the Moon led to a refusal of the USSR to participate in the Moon project because it is strange to end the game after the first ball scored in your goal. Meanwhile, Americans didn’t stop their space projects after Gagarin’s flight. It was absolutely natural that after the Americans’ flight to the Moon, it was important for the USSR to continue the Moon programme, since a lot of effort was put into it, a lot of money was pumped in too. And there were a lot of people obsessed with Moon exploration during those years. But the project was wound up.

Here is how I am inclined to explain to myself the reason why the Moon project closed not as an author of books about Gagarin anymore but as a layman. The power’s transition from the party to special services began in the USSR approximately since the late 60s. I think this transition has ended only in 2021. And some agreement with the rival, that’s to say, with the West envisaging that the USSR left the Moon race in exchange for something was one of its conditions. And to keep a good mine in a bad game, the same project Soyuz-Apollo emerges.

And this “surrender of the Moon”, which is absolutely not characteristic of the 60s, seems to me as a part of something more global, a part of a historic shift, a political one, not very specific.

But do you brush off the version that space stopped being something important for the USSR management after the 60s?

But neither was Khrushchyov a space enthusiast all his life. The case is that circumstances forced him to pay attention to the sphere that could withstand competition with the West. It takes some money so that the USSR could keep controlling Eastern Berlin, Eastern Europe. It is impossible to compete with America in tanks, hence Khrushchyov’s interest in rockets. But when the USSR and USA already reached a nuclear agreement, the Soviet administration seemed to consider that’s it, the country’s rocket and nuclear shield was created. That meant that they could refuse some parts of the project that didn’t promise a big propagandist effect. Space projects were such. But the USSR didn’t have money soon to afford some follies. Perhaps, a fall in oil prices made an impact, perhaps, other projects in the late USSR were the case.

US Apollo 11 spacecraft crew on the Moon. Photo: wikipedia.org
It was absolutely natural that after the Americans’ flight to the Moon it was important for the USSR to continue the Moon programme, since a lot of effort was put into it, a lot of money was pumped in too. And there were a lot of people obsessed with Moon exploration during those years. But the project was wound up

“Gagarin’s demise is still a mystery”

I would like to ask you as an author of the biography of the first spaceman, do we know everything about Yury Gagarin’s personality 60 years later?

We don’t. Firstly, Gagarin’s demise is still a mystery, it isn’t revealed. And even Gagarin’s mother didn’t manage to receive all the information 10 years after his death. She was very unhappy about the explanation she was offered. It seemed it was a matter of the level of sensitivity that accompanied the investigation. But surprisingly, this information remains classified even today, in 2021, with that Gagarin’s cult existing in Russia.

So there isn’t consensus on the first cosmonaut’s demise in society. Go and ask people now about how Yury Gagarin died, why he crashed. People will offer you the most exotic versions. And this is, by the way, the reason for the neurosis related to the first cosmonaut. In our conscience, he is also a man who died in mysterious circumstances.

Secondly, in the Soviet version of Gagarin’s character, we saw he was an ordinary Soviet guy who did a feat on 12 April 1961 and then honestly performed his propagandist functions until he died. While I think that Gagarin is a unique person. He ended up in space not because Korolyov, Kamanin and Karpov chose him as the first cosmonaut but because Gagarin had been going towards such an occasion all his life. And as we see, his biography didn’t end on 12 April 1961. Gagarin developed as an individual. Though unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to him during the crisis years that began after Korolyov died on the operating table, Vladimir Komarov’s death in April 1967. But there is a document that could cast light on our capability of reconstruction what Gagarin had in his mind and what he was busy with during the last three years of his life. It is his diary that remains under lock and key— Mr Gagarin’s daughters have it, and they don’t show it to anybody.

These two factors — the death and individual evolution Gagarin made by 1965 but we are unaware of because we aren’t familiar with his diary — is the answer to your question if Gagarin is a mysterious figure.

Photo: russian7.ru
In the Soviet version of Gagarin’s character, we saw he was an ordinary Soviet guy who did a feat on 12 April 1961 and then honestly performed his propagandist functions until he died

“Gagarin wasn’t fine with the status of armchair cosmonaut”

You have said that Gagarin evolved as an individual after his flight. What do you mean?

It was often written after the Perestroika that Gagarin talked with people who loved him very much, drank regularly and was an armchair cosmonaut — all this has nothing to do with reality. Because, firstly, though he was protected in the USSR, Gagarin anyway managed to return to the flight and space programme, particularly the Moon programme. He was Komarov’s backup pilot during that tragic flight in the new Soyuz. So if Komarov hadn’t been able to fly, Gagarin would have crashed a hundred per cent.

Secondly, Gagarin didn’t stop making attempts to resume his work as a pilot. He was the vice director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre. But to preserve his own authority and for some inner calmness, he considered it correct to remain an operating pilot. And he insisted on becoming a pilot again. In the end, he started to fly again in 1967, while he was due to perform his first independent flight on 27 March 1968. In fact, Gagarin wasn’t as an experienced pilot as Vladimir Seryogin who accompanied him on the last flight. The case is that he wasn’t fine with the status of armchair cosmonaut.

Also, he was a practising, experienced diplomat who participated in various representative projects since 1961. It was the time when some institutions in which the USSR communicated with the West, particularly Europe closer were created. Some banks were created, something like the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. And the integration of the USSR was created if not with the West but with some of its countries. Hence, the contacts with Gagarin, for instance, with France, which was anti-American in the 60s. Such activity was tough, but Gagarin did it.

Also, he was a deputy of the Supreme Council. Yes, during those years, such activity was decorative, but this also was his practice in power, and probably his preparation for future active political activity.

I think if Gagarin had lived to see the breakdown of eras, until the middle of the 80s, he could have occupied a serious political position without doubt. Of course, it is my personal opinion. But let’s be objective, in the late 80s, the USSR had a vacancy for a charismatic politician who, on the one hand, would have electoral support and, on the other hand, would be competent enough. I think Gagarin would have been beyond competition even among the figures of those times we know about. With his various experience, he would have been certainly propelled into politics.

I am ready to agree. When I watched records with Gagarin’s speeches abroad, I saw how interestingly, prudently, competently and diplomatically he could talk. Where does this stem from?

The case is that Gagarin changed his professional identity several times — he hit the ceiling in every profession. When he turned out a foundry worker in his youth, he did it so that he was sent to Saratov Industrial College to continue his studies. When Gagarin became a pilot, he soon ended up in a place where cosmonauts were recruited and shortly became a number one cosmonaut. And when he hit the ceiling, he never enjoyed the status he achieved but made up something else. And this suggested that if not the tragic demise in 1968, we wouldn’t have considered Gagarin only as a cosmonaut. He would have been somebody else for us.

I think no cosmonaut could be compared to Gagarin with his charisma. Even his energetic, creative and enterprising Leonov.

I also think so. Look, when we see on the screen Gagarin delivering a speech in programmes next to Titov, other colleagues, no offence, but precisely his speech is considered as an urge for an emotional mobilisation of those people he is addressing. I will repeat that this is not only a natural charm, of course. There is a natural charm, but we see conscious actions too.

Premier Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru welcoming first cosmonaut Yury Gagarin. Photo: P.Krechnev / onetwotrip.com
I think if Gagarin had lived to see the breakdown of eras, until the middle of the 80s, he could have occupied a serious political position without doubt

“Gagarin in the late 60s wasn’t probably very convenient for the power’s transition”

Same Alexey Leonov’s version had lately been heard in the mass media. According to him, a plane flying above Gagarin and Seryogin’s plane was the cause of the tragedy on 27 March 1968. How convincing is the version?

As a biographer, this version is ideal for me. And I explain it in my book in detail and with all references because it is topical. Yes, Leonov considered that another pilot who took off from another airport was in the sky on that day and turned Gagarin and Seryogin’s plane over because of a thick flow of air. He said then that the pilot was alive, those who carried out the investigation knew who it was but for some reason didn’t make his name public. It seems there is nothing convincing, but it is strange that Leonov persistently refused to pronounce the last name of this person.

For me, there is another, generally convincing version provided by Coronel Sergeyev. He printed a book several years ago in co-authorship with German biographer of Gagarin Gerhard Kowalski. The reconstruction of the first cosmonaut’s death is that on 27 March 1968, Gagarin and Seryogin accidentally piloted that MIG-15, the aircraft that was designed only to train to catapult. And due to this, the coach’s seat didn’t have leverage. Yury Gagarin wasn’t a top-class pilot, and it was a training flight. And when the plane turned out in cloudiness, he allegedly didn’t manage to find his bearings, while Seryogin as a coach who was to control the plane himself could do nothing because the aircraft didn’t envisage it. And Sergeyev thinks that the evidence related to Gagarin’s death isn’t shown to the public for this reason, like everything will anyway be clear, who is responsible for this story.

Perhaps, don’t Gagarin’s relatives anymore insist that the real cause of his death be made public?

No, his daughters, both his deceased mother and widow Mrs Valentina Gagarin who died a year ago want to know why their father died very much. Seemingly, there is some hidden plot we don’t fully understand.

Perhaps, Gagarin’s demise still has some political context or even subtext. The death might be accidental, and concealing circumstances of this accident may imply that it has some other rationale. Gagarin in the late 60s wasn’t probably very convenient for the power’s transition that was taking place. But I will repeat that it is my personal opinion.

Photo: 22-91.ru
Gagarin in the late 60s wasn’t probably very convenient for the power’s transition that was taking place

In the end, I want to ask you how today’s Russia is doing in space. Americans successfully landed their rover on Mars, Chinese are now dealing with the Moon, while Russia is not going beyond the ISS. What’s the problem?

What can I see? I can see that the head of Roscosmos doesn’t resemble same Sergey Korolyov from a perspective of both psychological make-up and success. It feels like he looks for holes in the coating of the ISS more, jokes on Twitter much and does it badly. It doesn’t feel that Roscosmos needs space as spare air. One doesn’t have to be Greta Thunberg here to understand that the time of unlimited use of land resources ends and something else should be looked for at a moment. But does Roscosmos do it?

I don’t see that people working on space are concerned about serious tasks — it feels like Rogozin’s agency performs only technical tasks, and nothing else.

It is horrifying to see all this in the country that recklessly went into space. Or have I crossed the line when I have said “horrifying”?

Judging by what other countries are generating for space now, especially China and the USA, such a word doesn’t sound too much and out of place.

By Sergey Kochnev