Cosmonautics Day: What Yuri Gagarin Meant Then and Now


April 12, 2018 – Fort Russ News –

By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –

Today, April 12th, the inhabitants of our planet are celebrating perhaps the most unique holiday: Cosmonautics Day. The point of this holiday is not necessarily to glorify the technological achievements of the Cold War-era superpowers who first stepped into space, but to remind us all that the planet Earth is our common home.

Since its inception, mankind has been accustomed to thinking in terms of antagonism, of dividing the whole world into “ours” and “others.” Ethnic, racial, religious, and social differences and contradictions are often raised to the level of absolutes. Only in the exploration of the cosmos does the common prevail over the individual. Such ideas of cosmic unity were profoundly elaborated in the works of the philosophers of Russian Cosmism, and were later developed in the books of the great American school of science fiction.

Unfortunately, this philosophical school increasingly seems irrelevant and politically naive today…

I have rather closely studied the history of Soviet rocketry and even interviewed people who worked in this industry in the 1970’s and ’80’s. With great interest I have read the extensive memoir literature of the Soviet space pioneers. One of the main conclusions I’ve drawn from such boils down to the following: the space industry was initially a by-product of the military rocket industry. The very Sergey Korolev who founded Russian (Soviet) cosmonautics entered the civilian space industry (or rather created it) out of the military sphere.

The same applies to the founding of American astronautics by the German emigrant and former SS officer, Wernher von Braun. Competing with one another, Soviet and American rocket scientists, scientists, and engineers first created weapons for killing. The USSR initially managed to stay half a step ahead of the Americans, creating the first intercontinental ballistic missile carrying an R-5 nuclear charge. But then the Americans took a big leap forward and established quantitative and qualitative superiority, which was especially evident during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Only in the 1970’s did Soviet military rocket scientists succeed in establishing approximate parity. This parity has been preserved to our day, thanks to which the Soviet Union and now Russia have not been subject to nuclear bombardment by the United States and suffered the fate of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One of the strongest impressions one gets from the works of the Soviet rocket industry’s pioneers (especially the memoirs of Boris Chertok, who was Korolev’s deputy) is that the “space race” was not merely a continuation of the rivalry in military rocket building and a fight between two ideologies, but an example of sincere and deep respect, and sometime even admiration by each side for each other’s successes. In line with the law of dialectics, the rivalry between the two superpowers to conquer the cosmos turned into collaboration, and hatred and disgust for geopolitical opponents was transformed into respect for the talent and courage of the other team. The apotheosis of this cooperation, of course, was the joint Soyuz-Apollo project, the 1975 “handshake in space.”

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This competition-cum-cooperation in space had a role to play in the political rapprochement between the two countries and led to the emergence of nuclear deterrence in the 1970’s. In my opinion, the obvious achievements and talent shown by each side’s space industry contributed to the creation of a psychological atmosphere and certain level of trust that made the detente policy possible despite ideological differences.

Today, humanity lacks such unifying mega-projects. Compared to the 1970’s, we have experienced a clear regress. We need new unifying projects, whether environmental programs, or space exploration ventures, that can show the purpose of united efforts.

Over the past few days, the world has been literally half a step away from nuclear war. The threat that has hung over humanity’s head over these past several days is perhaps no less than that during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In some kind of strange coincidence, or perhaps courtesy of a joke of Providence, this threat subsided today, April 12th, on the anniversary of the first manned flight into space by Yuri Gagarin. Is there some secret meaning to this coincidence? At any rate, this anniversary is a great occasion to think about the present situation and the future.

Happy Global Cosmonautics Day!


Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation. 

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