Book Review – The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin

The Cosmonaut who couldn't stop smiling

Title: The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin
PublisherNorthern Illinois University Press (May 15, 2012)
Author: Andrew L. Jenks
Hardback: 315 pages
ISBN: 9780875804477

Disclosure.  I contacted the author in mid 2011 just as I was finishing my book Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester. We exchanged some chapters prior to publication to learn from each other’s research.

In this compelling book the author untangles the complex and at times conflicting legacy of Gagarin’s epic spaceflight and its socio-political global aftermath. Drawing on his experience as a journalist and a historian of technology the Russian speaking American author, injects fresh life in to a story that started over half a century ago.

As the subtitle “The life and legend of Yuri Gagarin” suggests, the thrust of the book deals with the perceptions of the real man that existed and the myth that was created on his return not only in the Soviet Union but around the world.  Many vivid examples, some published for the first time, illustrate Gagarin’s greatest impact. His single orbit of the Earth served to finally shed  the inferiority complex that had hung over the Soviet Union for decades.

The author illustrates with personal accounts from the time, Gagarin’s commitment to assist members of the working class from which he had emerged whilst also exploiting his celebrity status to access privilege and favours for himself and friends.

One of the many surprises for me was to learn how much a polarising figure Gagarin has become within the Russian community. A figure of disdain in Moscow but continues to attract reverence in the provinces where he lived especially the Saratov region.  Despite gaining access to some archives, many remained inaccessible. The gatekeepers of some archives insisted on preserving the Soviet hero image they helped to create.

Gagarin’s duplicity is examined. His willingness to lie about landing in the spacecraft when he had actually ejected whilst he was still at 7km altitude or claiming that the injury to his forehead was the result of him protecting his daughter rather than jumping from a balcony of a bedroom he had no business being in. The author offers an explanation. The lies of the west were seen as immoral and blatant but those of the east were noble and just.  That smile, according to his wife, was a defense mechanism. With it Gagarin blurred the distinction between truth and a joke.

Gagarin had mastered the complexities of spaceflight but for a twenty seven year old who had never been outside Russia prior to orbiting the Earth a more demanding journey was yet to come. Navigating the global celebrity and politics of the Cold War was an infinitely greater challenge.

This is the most penetrating and insightful study, seven years in the making, of how Gagarin was transformed by his astonishing achievement and how it continues to shape society even today.

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