Published on : 07/04/2021 – 08:28Modified : 07/04/2021 – 08:26
Intact. The immense popularity of Yuri Gagarin, 60 years after his legendary space flight, remains a central symbol for the Kremlin and its policy of greatness in Russia.
Every April 12, the date of its successful flight, Russian schoolchildren celebrate the “Feast of Cosmonautics”, punctuated by readings and concerts. And every year, bouquets of flowers are placed in front of the many monuments to Gagarin’s glory, while the media tell his story.
“It is an absolutely consensual figure which unites the Nation, a very rare example of unanimity”, notes the writer Lev Danilkine, who devoted a biography to him.
A cult which is explained first of all by the technological leap embodied by the cosmonaut and his regular victory over the American rival. Gagarin is the destiny of a man who turned history upside down.
“He made the human being go from a simple living being to a form of intelligence going beyond the Earth”, summarizes the historian Alexander Jelezniakov.
This status goes hand in hand with his big smile and his optimism that continue to live on through countless photographs, posters, documentaries, clothing, tattoos and tourist souvenirs bearing his image.
Added to this are the stories about his human qualities: camaraderie, courage and love for his daughters and his wife, Valentina Gagarina, to whom he wrote a poignant farewell letter – long kept secret – in the event of death during his mission:
“If something goes wrong, I ask you, especially you, Valioucha, not to die of grief. For this is how life goes.”
In 2011, with AFP, cosmonaut Boris Volynov remembered a man who, enjoying all the privileges, spent hours on the phone to get medicine or a place in the hospital for a less well off loved one.
– Propaganda –
Upon his return to Earth, Yuri Gagarin logically found himself at the heart of an intense propaganda on the superiority of the Soviet model, capable of transforming a plebeian into a conqueror.
The writer Lev Danilkine underlines that as such part of the anti-Kremlin intelligentsia considers Gagarin as a “cog in the gigantic machine of violence” of the USSR.
Because his exploit served to “instill in the population” that the victims of Soviet repression and the Gulag “had not been in vain”, he notes.
According to him, the power of Vladimir Putin maintains this logic to make today’s Russia the heir to the triumphs of the past.
“The current power methodically appropriates popular cults: first that of victory during the Second World War, then that of the conquest of space and Gagarin”, maintains the writer, indicating that the state fights at the same time, all “alternative interpretations” of these events.
However, the Russians are aware that the Soviet Union ultimately lost the race to space after the Americans conquered the moon. But the veneration of Gagarin makes it possible to “neutralize” this bitterness, considers Lev Danilkine.
Like all great Russian heroes, especially his equal in terms of prestige, the poet Alexander Pushkin, Yuri Gagarin is also a tragic symbol.
His death at 34, during a flight aboard a trainer in 1968, remains a mystery because authorities have never published the full investigation report into the causes of the accident.
According to partial Kremlin records, the “probable” version of the drama is a collision of his device with a weather balloon.
But in the absence of transparency, many theories continue to circulate. The best known is that Yuri Gagarin was drunk at the controls. Others even claim that he was eliminated by the Kremlin which felt threatened by his popularity.
Regardless, his death remains a shock to many Russians.
“How could the first cosmonaut, such a young and kind man, die like that suddenly?” Asks historian Alexander Jelezniakov. “In fact, people are still trying to get over it.”
© 2021 AFP