Cosmonaut's Day in Moscow: Notes from Yuri Gagarin gala inside the Kremlin


annachapman.jpgGreetings from the Moscow airport. I've been in Russia for the past few days, accompanying space journalist Miles O'Brien and crew, who are here working on a space-related documentary project. Last night, April 12, 2011, we attended a gala state celebration inside the Kremlin walls honoring the 50th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight. Gagarin was the first person on earth to go into space.

President Dmitry Medvedev opened the evening with a speech about the importance of Russia's space program. Under his leadership, Russia has increased its space budget and is planning to build a new cosmodrome in Russia, cheaper and closer for Russia than the current facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. During the Soviet era, Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union; now, Russia must lease the Baikonur facility at 115 million dollars a year. "Russia must preserve its preeminence in space," Medvedev said. "We were the first to fly in space and have had a great number of achievements and must not lose our advantage."

Following the president's speech, a glitzy, space-themed, three-hour patriotic show of talent: a Cirque-de-Soleil-style acrobatics number and laser light show; Russian pop stars (and foreign acts with big Russian followings) performing odes to fallen cosmonauts, in front of video montages of midcentury space footage and golden wheat fields. The evening ended with a military choir and breakdancing children dressed in spacesuits.

The crowd included a wide array of space luminaries, ex-cosmonauts, state officials, and top military brass. In attendance: the first man to walk in space, cosmonaut Alexey Leonov; scientist and cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev (who has spent more time in space than any other human); famed ex-spy Anna Chapman (snapshot at left); and six of the seven private citizens who paid to travel in space.

A live update from Miles for the PBS NewsHour is below [direct YouTube link], with more photos from the event. A note on the PBS shoot: we ended up becoming very well acquainted with plainclothes KGB agents during the course of this quick shoot.

Related Boing Boing post: "Video: Cosmonaut's Day and Yuri Gagarin gala at the Kremlin."





More on the evening's news and festivities at the Moscow Times.

(Photos: Xeni Jardin. Text: Miles O'Brien and Xeni Jardin).


  1. Even the Russians are photoshopping the big red CCCP letters on Gagarin’s helmet now (in the first picture)? Though I might be wrong – perhaps they made pictures with an all-white helmet, too.

    1. Yet, they sure do still know how to throw a Soviet-style official State shindig.

      I must say, the Kremlin theatre is far overdue for a facelift. It looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since Brezhnev first ascended to premier.

      Xeni – can you name any of these “foreign” musical acts?

      1. As far as I can see, it’s always the same two pictures in which he doesn’t have CCCP on his helmet. It definitely looks like the producers of this show used one of these pictures (probably downloaded from the internet), so they probably didn’t do the photoshopping themselves like I suggested earlier.

        So my guess now is that these were photoshopped by some Western news agency at the time, OR the Soviets had a glamour photo-shoot in which Gagarin wore a helmet without letters. If we could find the source material we’d know for sure (there must be an online archive, surely? The NASA image archive is pretty awesome in this respect).

        1. Okay, that was pretty easy. In the archive of ITAR-TASS you can find the picture of the white helmet easily by following the link to the ’50 year anniversary’ collection at the bottom of the page. It’s a still from a movie called ‘The first flight to the stars’. In part 5 of the movie, at 3:52, he’s seen wearing the white helmet. Then, when he walks into the bus at 4:22, the CCCP have magically appeared.

          So the mystery is solved – he did wear a white helmet at some point.

  2. Gee, the only parts of Russia as far South (important for orbital reasons) as Kazakstan aren’t exactly the the most stable areas. I’m not sure you’d want to put that much expensive and vulnerable infrastructure in an area that is seething on the edge of armed revolution.

  3. “Lenin and Marx discredited” – not according to many of the Russians I meet living in England. They seem to prefer the “old ways” over the Mafia-state that exists now. Just sayin. Leave it to an American reporter to throw such a dig in whenever possible.

    1. Right… let’s do the “friend of a friend has an opinion” style of reporting instead.

  4. We were the first to fly in space and have had a great number of achievements and must not lose our advantage.—-not me.

  5. That photo of Anna Chapman looks like she is a chair, with her head stuck on the top and a guy sitting on her.

  6. Whenever I hear about cosmonauts I can’t help but think of this funny (and enjoyable) East German propaganda song about the space race which ruthlessly mocks the US program. The lyrics start out (approximately, I’ve changed a couple things to make it more understandable) “America stuffs apes in satellites/rockets, and fires them half-dead into space / Such treatment is, today, only fit for an ape, when man [imposes? himself] [into space?]* // For Pete’s sake, leave the poor chimps alone [USA] // and furthermore you need to learn one thing: In the space race, USSR is the victor.”

    listen here for some sweet ass vibraphone action:–Die_Partei_hat_immer_Recht__Eine_Dokumentation_in__Liedern/16–Karl-Heinz_Weichert_und_Rhythmusgruppe___Affenschande_(Amerika_stop_ft_Affen_in_die_Satelliten).mp3

    *not sure here, “imponiert das Raum” or something

    1. That song was more afwul than I expected! Auch! :)

      “So etwas kann man heute nur noch Affen bieten,
      Denn einem Menschen imponiert das kaum.”,
      which could be translated as
      “One can only offer this to monkeys now,
      because humans are hardly impressed by it”.

  7. I have always felt a duality of adoration and pity for Yuri Gagarin. His success made him the brand-name of Soviet Space-exploration and thus made him an untouchable for anything that would put his life at risk.
    He was a truly warm and caring person, who had no other desire than to push the frontier into the Cosmos.
    When deprived of the opportunities to further than cause by the ‘Nomenklatura’, he descended into depression and collapsed upon himself by means of alcohol.
    Personally, I think that his death in a simple training mission in 1968 was his personal final answer to his own misgivings.
    I still mourn the loss of this lovely and vibrant man and the promise that he had for all of us.

  8. I recognize that Russia still has plenty of problems, but I can’t help but think that they’re awesome almost every time I see something from there. You’d never see something this cool (yes, it’s kitschy and cheesy) in the US for something like space travel. Russia has its priorities straight, for the most part, and still idolizes science and engineering.

    Considering how far the US is headed down the tubes, every time I see something like this I feel like perhaps Russia “won” the cold war after all. Assuming Russia doesn’t slip too far back into soviet ways (they do already assassinate journalists and spy on everyone) I have no doubt they will re-emerge as the second biggest superpower, behind China of course, both of whom will be leaving the US in the dust.

    1. Russia still hasn’t put a man on the moon though…

      If Russia does re-emerge as a competing global superpower (as opposed to a merely regional one) it wouldn’t be because they “respect” scientists and engineers more then the US, it would be purely on the back of Europe’s demand for cheap oil and gas. Any drastic change in demand for these could spell disaster for the Russian economy so dependent on flogging these.

  9. For a country with so many billionaires, the Russians are remarkably good at making everything look cheap.

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