Fifty years ago this week, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin blasted off into space, becoming an overnight star. Thereafter, the Kremlin scripted most of what was written about him. Writer and filmmaker Jamie Doran, in a new biography co-authored with Piers Bizony and titled “Starman: The Truth Behind The Legend Of Yuri Gagarin,” explores the man behind the official facade. Doran spoke to RFE/RL’s chief Washington editor, Christian Caryl.
RFE/RL: Why is the world still so fascinated by Gagarin?
Jamie Doran: We’re fascinated by space itself. We’re very much a fledgling species probably preparing in the next hundred years to start properly going out to explore the cosmos. And he was the first. There’s no way of going back on that.
RFE/RL: What was the most compelling aspect, for you, about Gagarin and his story?
Doran: I think the most fascinating thing for me was to discover what a real true human being Gagarin was — an absolutely lovely fellow who was genuinely adored by almost everyone. We had great difficulty finding anyone who was opposed to him — even right down to his greatest rival, German Titov [the second human to orbit the Earth aboard “Vostok 2” in August 1961]. He eventually admitted to us that, you know, they were right to choose Yury, everyone loves Yury. And that was the big difference between the two: Yury, son of a peasant boy or peasant parents, and Titov, son of teachers.
RFE/RL: Are there any telling anecdotes that illustrate Gagarin’s character?
Doran: I love the stories of time after time when he was supposed to be one of the guests of honor at the Kremlin Palace, you know, at some of the big banquets. And, of course, Yury would go missing. And eventually they knew where to look. He would be out sharing a half bottle of vodka with some of the young cadets freezing on a bus outside the Kremlin. They’d been providing the guard of honor. And he’d just be chatting away to them. Those were his people. Not the people in the fancy seats at the Kremlin banquets.
Doran: He had his foibles like any human being…Drink followed by womanizing, I guess. He had his moments in that area. There are the famous times like one in Foros in the Crimea when his wife discovered him in a difficult situation with one of the maids in the hotel they were staying in. And, of course, Yury rushed to the window and jumped out, crashing two floors down, battering his eye and cutting it very badly. And, of course, the usual KGB nonsense afterwards was that Yury had fallen on the rocks while trying to save his daughter who had slipped, when in fact he’d jumped out of the window to avoid his wife.
RFE/RL: How did Gagarin cope with his sudden fame?
Doran: He enjoyed the fame to begin with, but it became too much. And, you know, the drink took over. He started getting involved in all kinds of ruckus behavior. But, you know, he eventually came out of that and went back to working very, very hard, especially in designing aerodynamics for planes and future space vehicles.
RFE/RL: What do we know about his political views?
Doran: He wasn’t a dissident or a rebel and appeared to genuinely believe in the ideals of the system but nonetheless didn’t fail to recognize its failings. And I think there’s one key factor here. When [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev was in power, Yury had direct access to the very top and was able to genuinely work on behalf of ordinary people and even his colleagues to try and change things, to try and better their lives.
But when Khrushchev was ousted and [Leonid] Brezhnev came to power, Brezhnev did not like Yury; there’s no doubt about that at all. There’s the famous story which has never quite been confirmed of Yury throwing champagne in Brezhnev’s face…Certainly that that story existed is indicative of the kind of relationship that they had.
RFE/RL: Why did so many conspiracies arise about Gagarin’s death?
Doran: I come down on the side very much of people being very frightened to get blamed for his death. And as a result of that, absolute nonsense was being written in official documentation.
I remember Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, saying that he’d seen a report on Yury’s death apparently penned by him — this was many years later — and it wasn’t his writing at all. Someone had actually written this report and put Leonov’s name and signature — which was not a very good copy, apparently — at the bottom of the page. So I think everyone was very frightened.
In reality, I don’t doubt for a single second, this was not murder. He was not killed. I think the conspiracy theorists should go and look in another place. I think it’s nonsense to suggest that. What I would say is a lot of people were running around trying to avoid taking the blame themselves.
RFE/RL: What is, to your mind, Gagarin’s enduring significance?
Doran: What I think is amazing about the Gagarin story is that he is, I think probably, the one and only great Soviet hero who easily crossed into the area of being a great Russian hero, as well. You don’t see too many figures of Soviet history being lauded by the Russians today. Gagarin was just this one guy who was able to cross both eras. …
Even though you had nonsense propaganda written at the time, the one thing that no one could avoid was that everyone loved this guy.