In the Sign of the Red Star: On the Iconographic Coding of the Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin

Famler_2_468wFifty years ago, on April 12, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Walter Famler in Eurozine:

On 12 April 1961, a rocket weighing 287 tons rises from the launching pad. However only a few people know the secret of the name of the world's first cosmonaut. Not even the wife and parents of the 27 year-old pilot have been informed as the space ship, marked Vostok 1, ascends into the sky. When it has circled the earth and 108 minutes later has landed on a Russian field, Gagarin becomes world famous. Immediately after the launch, the Soviet news agency TASS cables the announcement of the first manned space journey around the globe. The fact that the mission narrowly escaped disaster because the capsule almost burnt up on re-entering the earth's atmosphere becomes known only decades later.

Two days after his flight, Gagarin is received in the Kremlin by Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet Premier. His journey of several kilometres through Moscow in an open car adorned with flowers turns into a triumphal procession; masses of cheering people form an honour guard from the airport to the Red Square. While still in orbit, Gagarin has been promoted to major, and now the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union are pinned to his chest. Half a century later, when you look at the old newsreels, the youthful officer with open shoelaces walking down the red carpet and leaping up the steps to the Lenin Mausoleum, saluting with a smile and announcing his return, looks more than ever as if he comes from a different universe.

At first, Gagarin enjoys his popularity. Soon, however, he experiences the greatest possible contradiction between collective and individual. From nowhere he becomes a “pop star” in a system that defines the individual only as the product of society and in the long term is unable to cope with the singularity of a phenomenon of this dimension.