We Can’t Live Without Cosmos: how the Soviet space race transformed Russian cities forever

Away from the grand, official monuments to the first manned space flight, thousands of cosmic-themed shopping centres, playgrounds, and apartment blocks still live on in Russia today — an everyday ode to the space race that permeated an entire culture.

12 April 2021

On 12 April 1961 — 60 years ago today — 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin launched from the Central Asian steppe aboard Vostok 1 and successfully orbited the Earth. He was in space for one hour and 48 minutes before landing in Russia’s Saratov region, parachuting down near the Volga River. The historic mission made Gagarin an international hero. If you’d asked any schoolchild across the Soviet Union what they wanted to be when they grew up, then the answer would often be a cosmonaut. The son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer, Gagarin was selected from some 3,000 applicants for cosmonaut training, and his rise from humble origins to the history books made him the model Soviet citizen — inspiring confidence in the socialist state.

Portrait of the Soviet cosmonaut at Yuri Gagarin’s family home, now a museum, in Smolensk region.

During the Cold War era, space exploration was deeply embedded in Soviet popular culture. To this day, Gagarin’s legacy lives on in mosaics, statues, and public art across the former USSR. Besides official monuments and museums, the fervour of the space race made its presence felt on even the most mundane spaces: concrete-panelled tower blocks, playgrounds, and shopping centres. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, a photo story by Svetlana Troitskaya, shows just how the Soviet space programme permeated the urban fabric of cities in Russia. Interested in the way that “cosmic mythology grew into national and group identity”, the photographer turned her lens onto its visual legacy. “I decided to focus on architecture, streets, and monuments to study the role that monumental propaganda played in the story of Soviet space conquest,” she explains.

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The project includes tributes to notable landmarks and personalities, including Gagarin’s statue on Moscow’s Leninsky Avenue, and the stuffed body of Belka, perhaps Russia’s most-celebrated canine-cosmonaut, mounted at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. While some images, such as the Gagarin shopping centre, are not exactly space-themed tourist attractions, Troitskaya included it in the project to show the space race’s eventual commercialisation. “Over time, Gagarin has appeared on cheap decorations, adverts for air conditioning units, billboards,” she explains. Nonetheless, Trotskaya argues: “the image [of the cosmonaut] has not at all lost its beauty or monumentality.” Yuri Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1968, at 38-years-old. Yet while he was the focus of intense Soviet mythologising and propaganda, the photographer says that the cult of Gagarin, like most celebrity cults, still gives little sense of “the kind of person he really was”.

Monument to Gagarin erected in 1980 for the Olympic Games, Moscow.
Gagarinsky shopping centre, Kaluga.
Stuffed Belka at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, Moscow.
Bas-relief from the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Moscow.
Monument to the Creators of the first Earth satellite at Rizhskaya metro station, Moscow.
Planetarium on the territory of a children’s sanatorium. St. Petersburg.
To the Stars, Moscow. The statue went on display in 1958 a month before the launch of the first artificial earth satellite.
Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Moscow.
 State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics named after K.E. Tsiolkovsky, Kaluga.
Yuri Gagarin Museum in Gagarin (Smolensk region).
The first artificial satellite of the Earth, Moscow.
Children’s playground, St. Petersburg.
Cosmonaut at the Museum of Cosmnautics, Moscow.
Soviet mosaic on the main square of Korolev (Moscow region).
From an exposition at the Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, Kaluga.
Vostok: the backup rocket for Gagarin’s flight was stationed in April 1961 at the Baikonur launch site, prepared in case of an emergency. Here pictured in Kaluga.
Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory, St. Petersburg
Graffiti, Moscow region.

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