Sixty years after he became the first person in space, there are few figures more universally admired in Russia today than cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
His smiling face adorns murals across the country. He stands, arms at his sides as if zooming into space, on a pedestal 42.5m above the traffic flowing on Moscow’s Leninsky Avenue.
He is even a favorite subject of tattoos.
The Soviet Union might be gone and Russia’s glory days in space long behind it, but Gagarin’s legend lives on, a symbol of Russian success and — for a Kremlin keen to inspire patriotic fervor — an important source of national pride.
“He is a figure who inspires an absolute consensus that unifies the country,” Gagarin’s biographer Lev Danilkin said. “This is a very rare case in which the vast majority of the population is unanimous.”
The anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961 — celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day — sees Russians of all ages lay flowers at monuments to his accomplishment.
The enduring fascination comes not only from his story of rising from humble origins to space pioneer, or even the mystery surrounding his death.
Gagarin was a figure who helped fuel the imagination, historian Alexander Zheleznyakov said. “He transformed us from a simple biological species to one that could imagine an entire universe beyond Earth.”
The son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer who lived through the Nazi occupation, Gagarin trained as a steel worker before becoming a military pilot and then, at age 27, spending 108 minutes in space as his Vostok 1 spacecraft completed one loop around the Earth.
He was lauded for his bravery and professionalism, an example of the perfect Soviet man, but his legend was also imbued with tales of camaraderie, courage and love for his two daughters and wife, Valentina Gagarina.
Like all great Russian heroes, Gagarin is a tragic figure.
His death during a training flight in 1968 at the age of 34 remains a mystery because authorities never released the full report of the investigation into the causes of the crash.
Partial records suggest that his MiG-15 fighter jet collided with a weather balloon, but in the absence of transparency, alternative theories abound.
One holds that Gagarin was drunk at the controls; another that he was eliminated by the Kremlin, which feared his popularity.
More than 40 years later, many Russians have yet to come to terms with his death.
“How could the top cosmonaut, such a young and kind man, die like that so suddenly?” Zheleznyakov asked. “People are still trying to get over it.”
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