A Man Even Americans Should Know

Gagarin Circles the Earth

April 12, 2011

Allan Stevo

On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin went into space and circled Earth.  May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard did the first of those feats.  February 20, 1962, almost a year later, John Glenn accomplished both of those feats.

January 27, 1986, I learned about Americans John Glenn and Alan Shepard but someone, somehow neglected to mention Russian Yuri Gagarin.  This lesson took place the day before my class and I were shuttled into the “learning center,” as our school library was then called, and were all sat down to watch the space shuttle Challenger go 73 seconds into the air before doing what every kid in that room immediately understood to be blowing up.  The teachers were the ones who had a hard time acknowledging that fact.

The tragedy took place nearly 25 years after Gagarin became the first man to go into space, 29 after Lajka became the first dog sent into space on Sputnik 2 and also 29 years before Sputnik 1 became the first satellite in space.  The Challenger blew up 23 years before cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space (16 June 1963).  These were all Soviet accomplishments.

Americans are the Only Humans that Count

Somehow, during my studies, the American-ness of the space race was emphasized, but the accomplishment of a human going into space was missed.  This tells me that even as late as 1986, the Cold War battle of ideologies was intentionally being fought in the minds of American children.  Battles are all well and good, but it does raise the question of whether the purpose of education is to simply instill knowledge and an inquisitive desire to find truth, or is the purpose of education to devalue truth and to instill a view of the world and a lens for which a child evaluate which kinds of truths are friendly and therefore good and which kinds of truth arethreatening and therefore bad.

The 1950s in America, with its air raid drills at school and its wholesome depictions of home, seem, from my perspective, to be a time where home was wholesome, but school terrifying. Later in the decade, I imagine, as children started to increasingly sit in front of the television, home too became a potentially terrifying place, even for kids with great parents.  That’s my understanding of the times, an understanding which is poorly informed.

I feel qualified to state, though, that either knowingly or unknowingly, governments on both sides of the Cold War instilled a sense of terror in the public, a sense of terror that kids, with their especially pronounced need for a sense of security, were most susceptible to.

A Name Everyone Should Know

I learned about John Glenn, but his accomplishment is not really that meaningful of an accomplishment – Second Place.  The second pioneer.  Edmund Hillary we know.  Then there was some other guy.  Ferdinand Magellan.  Then some other guy. Marie Currie.  Then some guy.  Eli Whitney.  Then some other guy.  Christopher Columbus.  Then some other guy. Alexander Graham Bell.  Then some other guy. Thomas Edison.  Then some other guy.

In school, when we talked about space exploration, I learned about the other guy. Not until I was 22 years old and teaching in Slovakia did I learn about the first guy.  Yuri Gagarin, universally known in this part of the world and beyond.  He and his fantastic smile.  He was good for PR and the women loved him, despite the fact that he was but 5 feet 2 inches tall (making his fit in his spherical orbiter easier).  This was the pioneer of all pioneers – the first man to cross the line between our planet and the area beyond.  Yet I didn’t learn about him.

Even Last Place is More Interesting than Second Place

In fact, the most recent person to do something feels like a more important distinction than the second.  The most recent guy on the moon, incidentally was Eugene Cernan, a Slovak-American Astronaut.  He was there in 1972. Eugene Cernan is not to be confused for Anton Cermak, the Czech-born mayor of Chicago who was assassinated in 1933 while with president-elect FDR in Florida.  Wouldn’t the most recent be more important to have learned about that the second place guy, that other guy?

Instead of learning about Yuri Gagarin, I learned about some other guy.  Because, evidently, my teachers or maybe some committee that developed text books, felt they had good reason to include my mind as part of the battle field in the Cold War.

The Cold War Battlefield

A few years back, I walked into the school I was teaching at in Slovakia and the Skolnik was digging through a closet.  “Skolnik” simply translates to “janitor” in English, but the greater respect afforded to people involved with education does not translate.  Teachers seemed to be better regarded in Slovakia than in the U.S.  Correspondingly, school janitors too get a higher level of respect.  They are even called Pan Skolnik or “Mr. Janitor.”  Well, I stepped into the storage closet behind Pan Skolnik, because what I saw interested me.  Hanging on the walls of this room that I had never seen unlocked were hundreds of gas masks.  “One for every student,” he told me.

Shortly thereafter, I happened to see a Slovak film from the 1980’s that was meant to portray the day of a student.  In it a civil defense drill was conducted.  This seems to be the equivalent of having children crawl under desks in the U.S., because it brought them into the Cold War and made real the fear of annihilation.

In these drills, students would put on their gas masks and act out various scenarios of an attack from NATO.  Having not lived through the times and having the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy for me to criticize such drills.  Of course some amount of preparation is valuable.  I wonder if governments on both sides were guilty of instilling terror with their preparations.  At some point, the terror instilled in preparation became greater than any terror that the enemy had created.

What about Ilyushin?

It’s fair to add that it is believed by some in Slovakia that Yuri Gagarin did not come first.  Vladimir Ilyushin did.  This was also a name I was never taught.

The story goes that the first guy up in space crashed back to the earth and was badly injured.  The Soviets, with their obsessive control of information, were not going to publicize that the first man in space returned such a mess, so they gave it another try and when the 27 year old Gagarin was successful at returning in one piece, they plastered his face everywhere.  For the sake of keeping on point, I will ignore this suspicion that Gagarin was not the first one in space.

The USSR Deserves some Credit

Sputnik, Laika, and Gagarin are the three great accomplishments of the Soviet space program in the 1950s and are “household accomplishments” in Slovakia, recognized by nearly everyone.  At the same time, Neil Armstrong is also a recognized name.  Aside from Sputnik, it seems like Soviet space milestones were disregarded in my education.

If my education is indicative of the education of other Americans my age, my experience makes it seem that America was capable of being just as shady with the truth as the Soviet Union was capable of being.

In my next article, which you’ll see in the next few days, I’ve written about how Slovakia seems to be stuck in the 1950s.  I hope those who lived in the 1950s or have some expert knowledge of times past would be so kind as to enlighten me about where I went wrong or where I went right in the comparison when I post that piece.  But for now…

I’m curious to hear if every other person in America knew of Yuri Gagarin or if it was just my schools that depicted outer space as the sole domain of the American government?  Did people in other, non-communist, parts of the world know Gagarin?  And in the “East,” in Slovakia and beyond, did the name John Glenn mean anything to anyone?  Or Alan Shepard?More importantly, were names like Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong known?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gagarin going into space, followed by Shepard a month later.  I wonder if the unofficial propaganda wars will continue.  Will Shepard be more praised and celebrated in the U.S. on May 5 than Gagarin was on April 12?

Allan Stevo is a writer living in Bratislava, Slovakia. His work can be found at www.52inSk.com and www.AllanStevo.com.

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  • In fact, I do distinctly remember learning about Lajkaand Gagarin. I believe it was in 6th grade but I can’t be certain.I don’t know if it was my science teacher being a completist; I honestly remember it more as a sort of trivia-style trick question, that the Russians were firstin space and orbit.

    As to you national anthem reference, I remember this only: “Na tatron, sa bliska romy biyu…” Likely that is a garbled mess, but its my garbled mess.

  • Joel,
    Thanks for the note. When I read “Lajkaand Gagarin,” I thought – “Wow, that name looks Finnish or something, is it possible that Joel is throwing out this impressive trivia about Gagarin originally being named “Lajkaand.” Well, when I googled Lajkaand Gagarin I was disappointed to see that you had trouble with the space bar and I had trouble being creative while reading Lajkaand. The fact that the good people of Iowa see to it that Gagarin is brought up in class makes me wonder if Illinois is just lacking. I will need to investigate this issue further.

  • Edward R. Knuckles

    Apr 16th, 2011

    I grew up through the late 50s through the 60s learning of all these (Soviet & American) accomplishments from the newspapers and television. It is a sense of awe that I remember the Soviet Union’s first photos of the far side of the Moon and it has always stuck with me because it was something no man had ever seen before. The stories were never digested and simplified for you in those days. It’s too bad that someone else is deciding what you’re going or not going to know these days. It’s always good to peer behind the curtains and see the wizard for the shabby old quackster that he really is.

  • Edward R. Knuckles,
    What a cool comment. With the ease that we can do a google search to almost instantly get results for virtually any kind of photo, I don’t think that I can totally understand the awe of some photos in a newspaper. Do you ever do a good job putting me there though. Thank you for that. It’s also interesting that Soviet photos were shown in the paper just like American photos might be. I too appreciate your comment about stories not being digested then. I didn’t know it, but it makes sense. Even when I watch old movies, I’m left with the idea that life was expected to be more intellectually challenging in the U.S. in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s than it is today. Your statement of news not being digested seems to fit with that idea. Thank you again, Edward.

  • Gail Cordes Vachon

    Apr 16th, 2011

    Much of the US heard about Yuri Gagarin, Allan. Sorry you and your classmates didn’t. All of us have huge gaps in our history studies, so not to worry.

  • Gail,
    Thank you for the comforting words : ) A few American friends my age have told me so far that they had not heard of Gagarin, while Joel and a few others have told me that they did know about Gagarin. I really am a fan of trivia and I’m surprised (and maybe a little disappointed) with myself for having read through so many reference books like almanacs and encyclopedias without gathering the idea that a Russian made it into space first.
    Thank you again, Gail.

  • Michael Charnego (Cernega)

    Apr 17th, 2011

    I graduated high school in 1961 and I remember well the flight of Yuri Gagarin. I also new this answer when you posed the question at the beginning of your article. Because of the competitive nature of the US and USSR space programs, his achievement was a disappointment for the US, but it was still notable. Alan Shepard and John Glenn followed and the US was vindicated, although in second place at that point. Both the US and USSR have points of national pride in space accomplishments.

  • Michael Charnego,
    Thanks for the comment. If I’m reading this right, it’s sounds like Gagarin was a household name and that the disappointment was felt on a national level while joy for the event was felt on a human level. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • I remember Yuri Gagarin after I read your article. However, I think I only learnt about him through my Russian studies, after upper grade school. When you asked who the first man on the moon was, I thought of Neil Armstrong because he was the first American on the moon, but I knew that that wasn’t the answer you were looking for. I couldn’t recall a Slovakian astronaut. So yes, I would say that my education indoctrinated me with certain historical facts. I think that it’s a common trait among many countries to be egocentric in what they teach.

  • Cynthia,
    Your statement “I think that it’s a common trait among many countries to be egocentric in what they teach.” sounds about right in my experience. Regarding Slovak astronauts, a few friends have explained to me over the last few days that the only Slovak born Slovak to go up into space was Ivan Bella who went up 20 February 1999. Russia was financially in debt to Czechoslovakia when 1989 came and one of the suggested ways that Russia was offered to help pay off this debt was to put the first Slovak into space. Thank you for your comment, Cynthia.

  • I too never remember learning about Lajka or Gagarin.

  • Josh,
    Thank you for your empathetic words about Lajka and Gagarin.

  • Michal Zajacek

    Apr 19th, 2011

    Very good essay summarizing significant accomplishments of Soviet astronautics. Since early childhood I have been interested in cosmonautics and therefore I know about John Glenn and Alan Shepard and I distinctly remember that these names were written in history textbooks I studied from at elementary school and high school. But since I do not belong to the generation brought up during communism I cannot say if it was so then. There is no doubt that there was some information “filter”, or rather control and censorhip. But my father told me that he remembers how they watched first men walking on the Moon and this was probably broadcast by the state television, so from that I judge that the information flow and its accessibility to people was not so profoundly controlled. It is also important to note that there were some phases when censorship was not so intense (mainly before 1968 during Alexander Dubcek’s regime of “human” communism) and on the contrary very profound (the period of normalization).
    It is also quite significant to distinguish between Glenn’s and Shepard’s accomplishment. Shepard’s flight was only ballistic, which means that the first cosmic speed was not reached and therefore the flight trajectory was closed, while Glenn orbited the Earth three times. I also don’t think that we should just say “some other guys” to those we came after the first. The first ones are important, of course, but we should also consider the circumstances of their first achievement in history. It has often happened in history that people invented or discovered something independently from each other (Benjamin Franklin-Prokop Divis: lightning rod, Galileo-Marius: moons of Jupiter…) and just due to some historical, political or economic reasons one name prevailed. We should not divide people into the first ones (and say that only those are worth remembering) and “some other guys”, but we should actually take in consideration what everyone really did and what were the circumstances of their achievements and the actual impact on humankind.

  • Michal,
    Thank you for the message. I think you make meaningful and valid points here. It is interesting to me, first of all, that anyone outside of the U.S. would worry about studying the second place finishers. You, however, make a good argument that second place is more than just second place, because many issues cloud the situation of who is first and who is second and how important the difference between the two are.

    My use of the “some other guys” line was meant to be largely rhetorical as opposed to factual, because I understand that inventors often improve on the design that came before. However, I did not take the time to study how Glenn or Shepard may have built on the accomplishment of Gagarin. I was jumping to the conclusion that the reason the two of them were studied in the U.S. was simply because they were the first Americans. So, Michal, I have a question for you that I hope you might be able to answer to further enlighten my understanding of this situation. From your studies to date, do you believe that Glenn or Shepard can be weighed against Gagarin? If so, do Glenn and Shepard deserve praise that Gagarin doesn’t deserve? From your point above, it is clear to me that Glenn accomplished a more advanced step than Shepard. Without Shepard’s flight, perhaps Glenn’s flight would not have happened. Did those two men accomplish something that was not accomplished in Gagarin’s flight? And now a big hypothetical question that I am very curious about – If the USSR and USA space programs had shared all information with each other from the very beginning, would Glenn and Shepard’s flights be important flights that advanced space travel?

    I imagine the two space programs did not openly share information, which, to me, means that Glenn’s and Shepard’s flights were foundations that were used to build the rest of the U.S. space program. Gagarin’s was an accomplishment used to build the rest of the Russian space program. That means the two accomplishments are worth cheering individually, but I do still believe that an injustice is done to a kid who learns about Glenn and Shepard, but not Gagarin.

    Moving away from the issue of science, I find it fascinating that your father watched the Apollo footage from the moon, and even more fascinating that it was on state TV. You are graying the distinction I had in my head that all American things were automatically considered bad. You raise a good point though as well that the landing on the moon – July 1969 – was perhaps still in a period before “normalisation” returned Czechoslovakia to a heightened level of state censorship. Thank you for helping me arrive at a more sophisticated and accurate version of the truth, Michal.


  • Mary Ann Novak

    Oct 8th, 2011

    I know I am months late in responding — must have missed reading this one — but Yuri Gagarin’s success was a major impetus for US efforts, and yes, I was taught about it quite clearly as something we had to keep up with as part of the Cold War.

  • Mary Ann,
    Thank you for you input on this. I like how you phrased it. It sort of sounds like knowledge of the Soviet space program was just something that a responsible American kept tabs on. Thank you.

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