29 March 2018 Reviews

The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling

A number of books were published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight in 1961 – in fact you’d probably need another couple of shelves in your library to accommodate them. This one, written by a professor of history, tells both the official story of the legend and, according to the blurb, “the one of myth, which reflected the fantasies, perversions, hopes and dreams of Gagarin’s fellow Russians”.

Despite its historical provenance, backed up by the 30-odd pages of chapter notes (and a rather brief index), aspects from the title to the chapter sub-headings suggest that this is something more than a history text. Indeed, clearly by design, headings such as ‘The Birth of the Gagarin Cult’, ‘Dapper Cosmonauts and Homo-Social Bonding’, and ‘Soviet Sex Symbol’ make it difficult to suppress a natural inquisitiveness.

It was inevitable that the handsome 27-year-old who, let’s face it, was always pictured smiling, would be seen a sex symbol. Firstly, he had done an extremely macho thing in going where no man had ever gone before; secondly he appeared to live in the world of celebrity, having met everyone from Fidel Castro to Gina Lollobrigida. According to the author, following Yuri’s flight, Soviet hair salons started offering a new hairstyle called “Love me Gagarin”. At a press conference in Sweden, he was asked whether his wife was good looking and what kind of dress he liked to see her wear: he responded “she is very beautiful…there are none who compare [and] I prefer her without clothing”. You can feel the sexual tension rising!

Rumours of a “romp” with the gorgeous Lollobrigida were stoked, perhaps unwittingly, by the rocket manufacturer Energia, which pictured them together (smiling of course) with the caption “In the historic 1960s, Yuri Gagarin and Gina Lollobrigida personified peace and love”. We are left, through lack of hard evidence, to make up our own minds about Gagarin’s rumoured “dalliances”, as the author so quaintly puts it, but he does offer the observation that Gagarin-the-celebrity was exactly what the Soviet Union needed at the time.

This is an intelligent and entertaining read…and it may even make you smile.

Mark Williamson, Space Technology Consultant

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