[FPSPACE] Book Review - The Cosmonaut Who Couldn't Stop Smiling

Michael Launer m.launer at att.net
Sat Oct 5 07:26:39 EDT 2013

Below is the text of a book review just
published in the Slavic & East European Journal (SEEJ), a publication of
the American Association of Teachers of Slavic & East European Languages
- the leading scholarly publication for North American teachers [in the
published version, the footnotes were interpolated into the text]. The editors
asked me to remind everyone that the AATSEEL copyright should be cited in the
event the review is distributed elsewhere. True to academic tradition, this
review was submitted in January for the Summer 2013 issue, which just came out
in October. 
Andrew L. Jenks, The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The
Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin, in Slavic and East European Jour­nal,
Summer 2013 [57:2], 332-334
Jenks, Andrew L. The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The
Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2012.
Illustrations. Index. 318 pp.
Your candle burned out long before your legend
ever did
Elton John & Bernie Taupin, 1973
The epigraph above, addressed first to Marilyn
Monroe (who died in 1962) and then, 25 years later, to Princess Diana, applies
equally well to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who perished in 1968 at
age 34. After his historic flight in 1961 Gagarin was the most admired and most
photographed person in the world; the Soviet Union had never experienced a
public relations phenomenon such as Gagarin – a boyish, photogenic, seemingly
outgoing, real-life hero at the start of the television age in Russia. News
reports of the flight constituted “arguably the first memorable mass-televised
event in Soviet history” (p. 160). Like American astronauts, Gagarin had the
“right stuff” for a Soviet era hero, but no astronaut – not even Neil Armstrong
– ever achieved the fame and public adoration that surrounded him. He was, and
he remains, one of a kind.
In my experience the only true analog in America was Mickey
Mantle, who shared much with Gagarin: a rural upbringing of extreme
deprivation, achievements that set him apart from “mere mortals,” an adoring
public (both male and female), and a dissolute private existence that image
makers did their best to hide from the world. Like many celebrities, Gagarin
grew weary of the demands imposed upon him by what Joni Mitchell termed the
“star maker machinery,” while enjoying -reveling in -the privileges
that were accorded him. 
Andrew Jenks, in this meticulously researched biography, succeeds
in portraying Cosmonaut #1 in all his public glory and all his personal
failings. Importantly, Jenks demonstrates the extent to which Soviet
authorities stage-managed Gagarin’s public image, what the author terms the
“cult of Yuri Gagarin” (p. 12), both during his lifetime and for decades after
his fatal crash on a training flight – much as Mantle’s image and reputation
were carefully managed, though for commercial, rather than political, purposes
The words used by Jane Leavy to characterize Mantle’s popular legacy – “a blend
of memory and distortion, fact and fiction, repetition and exaggeration” (p.
xiii) – also would be apt in reference to Gagarin.[1]
Jenks cites numerous Western scholars, including many who are well
known to readers of SEEJ or The Slavic Review. In addition, he draws
on the writings of specialists who have studied the Soviet space program,
including Boris Chertok (a rocket designer under Sergei Korolev, head of the
Soviet ICBM program), James Harford, James Oberg (who helped calculate the
launch trajectories for the International Space Station), and Asif Siddiqi.
More impressively, Jenks was granted access to personal memoirs and previously
classified archives (although not everything he sought was made available to
him), and he spent several months during 2007 interviewing everyone he could
find who knew anything about Gagarin the man, including living relatives, and
the curators of the many museums established to preserve, enhance, and protect
the memory of the cosmonaut.
This is not, however, a book about technology. Very little of the
text even deals with Gagarin’s historic mission, except for an analysis of the
deceptions fabricated to make the world believe that the flight was a complete
and total success: that the flight lasted 108 minutes (only a guess, probably
several minutes too long, but claimed as precisely recorded);[2]that the
cosmonaut landed inside his spacecraft (he ejected and parachuted to earth); in
exactly the planned location (which he missed by several hundred kilometers).
As Jenks notes, “truth never bore much of a relationship to the public face of
the Soviet space program” (p. 10).
Rather, Jenks has written a socio-political discursus that
provides the Western reader with a description of Soviet society in general,
using Gagarin’s life as the prism through which that society is viewed. Born in
a remote village about 150 kilometers west of Moscow, “Yura” and his family
survived under Nazi occupation for over a year in a makeshift hovel. As Jenks
describes it, “[l]ife in the impoverished Russian countryside often favored
complacency and drunkenness. But it also generated the kind of fanatical work
ethic that came from an intense desire to escape. Gagarin was the latter kind
of provincial.” (p. 45) Indeed, although Jenks is an openly sympathetic
observer of the Russian people, along the way he almost inadvertently provides
the reader with clues to sovetskaja
dejstvitel’nost’: many students “had a high threshold for pain and
punishment, cultivated by years of near-starvation and death during the war”
(p. 53); cosmonauts received apartments “without having to wait in any line”
(p. 97); “the possibility of being arrested and shot for failing to meet the
goals” (p. 120);[3]and the fact
that Gagarin’s hometown got its first paved road only in 1980 (p. 257). 
While still alive and long after his death, Gagarin -who throughout most of his 34 years enjoyed the
benefits of close cooperation with the KGB and the Komsomol -was deified by his mother and by nationalists
who sponsored groups of Gagarintsy,
youngsters who promised to live an active, chaste, sober, patriotic life in
service to the motherland. The movement, which grew to include nearly twenty
thousand teenagers and which received moral support from Vladimir Putin, almost
certainly served in 2001 as the model for Putin’s organization of youthful
supporters, the predecessor to the much reviled Nashi of the current day.
A few statements in the book will raise eyebrows among Slavists: VDNKh was hardly a “kind of Soviet
Disneyland” (p. 102); discussing Russia in the 1960s as “an emerging consumer
society” (p. 174) appears far-fetched; describing Soviet citizens in the 1960s
as a people “expecting imminent Utopia” (p. 253) is just wrong. Also, the
emphasis on Cosmism in the last chapter seems overwrought.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t
Stop Smiling for use in Russian
culture classes because it paints a vivid portrait of a true Soviet hero with
all his virtues and warts, while describing the reality of Soviet life as
experienced by privileged cosmonauts and ordinary citizens. 
Michael K. Launer
Professor Emeritus
The Florida State University

[1]See Leavy’s remarkable biography of the Yankee slugger, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of
America’s Childhood (HarperCollins, 2010).
[2]This information courtesy of Jim Oberg, personal communication
08 January 2013.
[3]Said about Korolev, who had spent years in the Gulag and
who later “died under the surgeon’s knife…during a seemingly routine operation
for hemorrhoids” (p. 241).
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