Soviets in Space: The People of the USSR and the Race to the Moon
© 2021 Colin Turbett
In 1959, Soviet Russia shocked the world, and especially its rival the United States, by launching an artificial satellite into orbit. Sputnik-I’s monotone beeping was the starting gun of the space race, a competition the United States would begin to take far more seriously – as it would the threat of its rival across the oceans. But while the powers in DC viewed the Soviet Union’s space program as an obvious military threat, Turbett argues that the Soviet Union longed for peace and pursued the space program to demonstrate what men united under a common ideal, working together, could accomplish. Although Turbett gives the Soviet Union in general, and both Stalin and Kruschev in particular, more pacific intentions than their records suggest, Soviets in Space is a rare look into the Russian space program that offers extensive cultural background info which connects the drive to the cosmos with Soviet aspirations closer to Earth.
The book begins by attempting to channel the mindset of the average Russian, molded by a generation of Soviet culture – their exhaustion by war, their pride in having beaten back the Wehrmacht, their optimism in creating a new society despite its bloody flaws. (The author does not dismiss the gulags, the purges, etc – but they aren’t dwelt upon, and the best of intentions is often assumed, even when acknowledging Stalin’s effective annexation of eastern Europe.) Following a history of the entire Cold War, which Turbett posits owed entirely to western inflation of the Soviet threat, forcing Stalin and his successors to focus on defensive & counter-offensive capabilities, we shift back to the fifties, and the efforts of Soviet and American authorities to put German rocketery to work. The Russians had more experience with weaponizing rocketry during World War, having tinkered with rocket-propelled explosives and exploring the possibilities of rocket-driven aircraft. Despite this, Turbett argues that the Russians saw the space rivalry not as a military competition, but a cultural one – one that could prove the peaceful aims and superior methods of the Soviet command economy. Turbett connects the public promotion of the drive for the Moon with similarly grand programs that unfolded in the fifties and sixties, the Virgin Lands attempt to double Soviet agricultural production and the Baikal-Amur Mainline, a transcontinental railroad running across permafrost and near the Chinese border. (The BAM would not be completed and fully open until…..1991, just in time for the Communist party to be declared illegal and the Soviet Union dissolve into history.) Although these projects were all financially problematic given their massive scope and marginal returns, the three together tell a story, Turbett writes: the Russian people honestly believed they were building the future.
I’ve only encountered the Russian program in bits and pieces (Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov’s memoir co-written with David Scott, being the only substantial Soviet account I’ve tried), so this is my first time encountering a lot of this content. I suspect, however, that even if I read other volumes focused on the Soviet space program, this one will stand out for its tone, which is as charitable but not blind to faults, and its welcome study of how the space program shaped Soviet culture, from consumer collectibles to music. My meeting the figures in the Soviet program — not just Gagarin and Koralev, but those who died, like Komarov — was long overdue, and I’m grateful to Turbetts for having provided this tribute to their memory.