How space exploration replaced religion in the USSR

For most of the 20th century, the thirst for space exploration replaced religion in the Soviet Union, with the cult of science disseminated through propaganda, not sermons.

Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, was the God-like figurehead, a man of the people and a martyr who died too young in mysterious circumstances. The titanium Gagarin monument in Moscow, created by sculptor Pavel Bondarenko, features a 42m-tall column topped with a figure of the cosmonaut rocketing to the sky in a pose similar to Rio De Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer.

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Between the 1950s up until the 70s, space themes were woven into everyday life, into endless festivals and celebrations of interstellar exploration. Children’s playgrounds were designed like rockets, the walls of schools and kindergartens decorated with paper spacecraft and stars. Houses were built to look like spacecraft, lunar stations and flying saucers – to this day, experts refer to the 1960s-80s as the “cosmic period” in Soviet architecture.

Statues and images of revered icons where everywhere, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut in space, Alexei Leonov, the first astronaut to do a spacewalk, and rocket engineer Sergei Korolev.

Cosmic ideology

The space programme was presented as the result of the great work of the proletariat: The Moon, a 1965 film by Pavel Pavel Klushantsev, presents a future in which Soviet people live a life of peace and progress on the colonised moon, thanks to the technological advances capable under communism. Russia had made it to the stars and, as the saying went, and “there was no bearded old God there”, only science.

Legions of artists produced postcards and posters that were regularly released to commemorate anniversaries and new developments in the field of science. Their images came labelled with pompous captions like “Communists pave the way to the stars” and “Science and communism are inseparable”.

To further the propaganda drive, space exploration was also deeply embedded in popular culture. There were novels and short stories by authors like Kir Bylichev, Chinghiz Aitmatov and the Strugatsky brothers, and many of the books were made into films, including the Andrei Tarkovsky classics Stalker and Solaris. The 1985 TV miniseries Guest From the Future and the 1981 film Per Aspera Ad Astra, both based on Bylichev’s novels, enjoyed great success in the Soviet Union and are still frequently screened today.

Even the works of foreign authors who had no intention of promoting the regime were co-opted into service. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s short story Here Be Tygers was was made into a 10-minute cartoon for TV in 1989, and Isaac Asimov’s novel The End of Eternity was transformed into a surreal two-part cyberpunk saga in 1987.

Children were a key target of propaganda with space-themed films and cartoons cranked out for a younger audience. Films like The Mystery of the Third Planet, a 1981 animated feature about a space mission to purchase rare animals from other planets for the Moscow Zoo, were instant hits. Other cartoons such as Murzilka On a Sputnik (Murzilka Na Sputnike), In The Thirtieth Century (V Tridesyatom Veke) and Novels About Space (Novelli O Kosmose) took simple adventure plots and placed them in space, sometimes alongside a healthy dose of barely concealed ideology.

Extraterrestrial pop

Pop songs also followed suit. Perhaps the most famous cosmos-themed anthem is Trava U Doma (Grass By My Home), performed by a group appropriately called Zemlyane (Earthlings), which became the ultimate soundtrack for space-themed events and an enduring symbol of the Soviet craving for intergalactic travel.

Many of the records were written by Evgeniy Dolmatovskiy, one of the USSR’s most prolific musicians, writing songs like I, Earth, am Seeing off my Nurslings. His song The Motherland Listens was also said to be one of Yuri Gagarin’s favourites – legend has it that the cosmonaut sung it while circling Earth in Vostok-1.

Recent failings

But with the end of the empire, official enthusiasm for the extra-terrestrial withered. Today, despite occasional political nostalgia for the USSR, the cult of science is a thing of the past.

Russia’s recent problems with space technology only underscore its demise: this May, two Russian spacecraft, an unmanned cargo spaceship and a Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican satellite plunged to Earth within a week of each other, after they both experienced malfunctions. The Russian space programme is no longer in a position to brag.

This year, International Space Day fell on Russian Orthodox Easter Sunday, 12 April, and the conflation of scientific exploration and religious worship was once again made clear, but this time, with a sense of irony. A meme, “Easternautics Day” (Den Paskhonavtiki) went viral, in which Gagarin’s face was painted on a kulich, a round sweet Easter bread, and surrounded by eggs painted with pictures of the International Space Station, Vostok-1 and other spaceships.