The Irish Crimean: October 4th, 1957 – Sputnik changed everything

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October 4 , 2017 – Fort Russ News – 

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Op-ed by Padraig Joseph McGrath – “The Irish Crimean”

October 4th, 1957 was a date that changed and nearly transcended everything. The adjective “transcendental” may at first appear to be a categorical term rather than a relative one. But we can still talk of a concept being “transcendental” to a greater or lesser degree. For example, the deity of Judaism is usually conceptualized as “transcendental,” but he is not quite as transcendental as he might at first appear. Yes, he is thought to “transcend” natural processes, existing prior to the universe rather than merely embedded within it.

But the deity of Judaism remains a national deity. And certain parables in the Babylonian Talmud still imply that, if this deity’s revelations contradict the letter of the Jewish law, then the law must take precedence. So, even though “the voice of God” was conceptualized as the source of law, nonetheless, it could not change the law. This seems to suggest that, while the Jews conceptualized their deity as transcendental, they still saw certain aspects of him as historico-existential. The deity of Judaism is not quite as transcendental as we might at first imagine him to be. It’s a relative term, not a categorical one.

Why do I bring this up in a piece about the 1957 Sputnik 1 launch, you might ask….

I do so for the following reason:
The concept of “the almost transcendental” or “the not quite transcendental” was a very important ideological category in Soviet society.

I have often lamented that the advocates of “god-building” (“богостроительство”) within the Bolsheviks did not win their debate with the more dogmatically anti-clerical and atheistic Bolsheviks, led by Lenin. The “god-builders” (including Anatoly Lunacharsky, Alexander Bogdanov and Maksim Gorky) had argued for the need to replace Orthodox Christianity with a cult of humanism, explicitly rendering humanism in itself into a state-sponsored religious cult, complete with its own array of edifying rituals, etc….. That debate was largely over by 1920 – Lenin was simply immovable on the issue.

Well, actually, maybe the “god-builders” did win that debate in a more discrete way. A certain kind of humanism was adopted in very recognizably religious ways in Soviet ideology – not through doctrine, but through symbols.
Think about the ideological and symbolic significance of the Soviet space-program.
Think about the ideological and symbolic significance of the red star.

Through his reaching out into the cosmos, man reached, not for “the transcendental” (that is beyond man’s grasp), but for the “almost transcendental,” thereby asserting a certain claim to universality.

At the Cosmodrome at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Soviet cosmonauts developed a ritual of urinating against the wheel of the bus which carried them to the launch-pad (perhaps a semi-ironic preparatory “cleansing-ritual,” which nonetheless held subconscious religious significance).

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Crimean Fiction-Writer’s Cooperative, I met an elderly gentleman named Vladimir, himself a science-fiction writer. He tried to explain the mood of October 1957 to me:

“Before Sputnik,” he said, “people were just so busy trying to rebuild everything after the war, just trying to restore normalcy to the material conditions of life. People’s concerns were prosaic. If somebody managed to get a pair of trousers with good quality material which didn’t wear out, then he was happy. Sputnik changed everything – it made people believe that they could collectively aspire to something greater than themselves…..”

“Sputnik….made people believe that they could collectively aspire to something greater than themselves…..” – when Vladimir said those words, that was when the Lunacharsky-lightbulb switched on inside my head….. Maybe the god-builders had won that debate with Lenin after all – not on the level of doctrine, or even on the level of ritual, but on the level of symbols.

And we might analyze the ideological and symbolic significance of the red star in a similar way. The star is an extra-terrestrial natural phenomenon – it represents the “almost transcendental” or the “not quite transcendental.” As the star is red, it denotes a certain ideological orientation. The red star, ultimately, symbolizes the transcendentalization of politics.

Padraig McGrath was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1973. He has lived in Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, and has published journalism and commentary on social and philosophical issues for a number of media for 15 years. He moved to Simferopol, Crimea in December 2013, 3 months before Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, and still lives there.

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