Sputnik in Russian Cultural History

On June 22, 2011 by admin

Ethan Pollock

Sputnik sent shockwaves through the United States and around the world, but it did not have to be that way. Rocket scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain had hoped to launch an artificial satellite at some point during 1957 or 1958 as part of an internationally coordinated programme to study the earth and upper atmosphere. They also knew that the Soviet Union was capable of being the first. When the President of the US National Academy of Sciences sent a congratulatory letter to the head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, calling Sputnik “a brilliant contribution to the furtherance of science for which scientists everywhere will be grateful”, he was reflecting enthusiasm for what many saw as an international breakthrough, not a particular nation’s chance to gloat. Even the Soviet propaganda machine seems to have played down its significance. Pravda’s announcement of the launch was relatively mild, below the fold, and emphasized basic technical facts. Above the fold? An article titled “Preparation for Winter is an Urgent Task”.

These even-handed assessments of Sputnik’s significance did not take into account the symbolic benefits to the Soviet Union of having beaten the US to the punch. Those who saw Sputnik in the context of Cold War competition, and who played up the military threat posed by the Soviet breakthrough, found a storyline with much greater staying power. The nuclear physicist and weapons designer Edward Teller warned on national television that “The US has lost a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor”. Newsweek added that “man’s greatest technological triumph since the atom bomb [has been accomplished by] the controlled scientists of a despotic state”. The Soviet press soon caught the wave. Almost a week after the launch, Pravda declared Sputnik “A Great Victory in the Global Competition with Capitalism”. As the first draft of history, such accounts established a number of claims about Sputnik that have gone practically unchallenged since 1957. Almost all analysts have accepted that Sputnik was an accomplishment of centralized science, of Marxism-Leninism’s technological utopianism, and of an educational system that stressed applied science and practical knowledge in service to the state. Until now.

Asif A. Siddiqi, the foremost scholar of the Soviet space programme writing in English, has set out to revise this history. Taking full advantage of the copious archival and published material made accessible since the 1990s, he argues, in The Red Rockets’ Glare, that Sputnik’s origins must be understood in the context of Russian cultural history and the informal networks of space enthusiasts formed long before 1917. The Cold War was the setting for Sputnik’s launch, but it does little to illuminate its origins. In Siddiqi’s interpretation, fantasy is intertwined with technology, while mysticism and public fascination with space are more central than Marxism. The result is a book that forces a reconsideration not just of Sputnik, but of the broader categories of Soviet science and socialist science that dominated professional scholarship on both sides of the Iron Curtain during much of the Cold War and beyond.

Siddiqi begins by showing the ways in which popular science, science fiction, scientific societies and independent publishers contributed to a large, decentralized preoccupation with space travel and to some key technological breakthroughs. The space fad continued through the 1920s, even though the Soviet state showed no particular interest in the topic. Yakov Perelman and Nikolai Rynin, for instance, published hundreds of easily accessible books and articles on space travel before and after 1917. Their enthusiasm shaped popular interest in the cosmos more than any official ideological endorsement. Siddiqi is particularly strong when untangling the various legends surrounding Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the “patriarch” of Soviet cosmonautics, who in 1903 mathematically showed that space flight was possible using liquid propellants. According to almost all previous accounts, Tsiolkovsky was ignored until 1917, when the Bolsheviks recognized the importance of his work, honoured him with membership in the Socialist Academy, and then offered him a lifetime pension in 1921. He has stood at the heart of attempts to show that the Soviet state had a far-sighted understanding and natural ideological affinity for space research. But Siddiqi painstakingly and convincingly reveals that despite the outward appearance of official interest, Tsiolkovsky struggled for recognition, received little or no financial support from the State, and even suffered from physical deprivation in the 1920s. In essence, his fanciful and mystical musings made him persona non grata to the established Soviet scientific community; instead, he emerged as a hero in unofficial circles.

For Siddiqi, the significance of what happened in the 1920s – and the importance of Tsiolkovsky for the Soviet space programme – has less to do with technological advance or the establishment of state priorities than with the deep public interest in space reflected and amplified by artists, writers and filmmakers. Siddiqi shows, for example, how Yakov Protazanov’s film Aelita (1924), based on Alexei Tolstoy’s science-fiction novel of the same name, about a trip to Mars, gained great popularity in part for its depiction of the technologies of space travel. At the time, most scientists – and the State – dismissed space flight as the naive fantasies of the uninformed, leaving the field to marginal scientific actors and those with no formal education in the natural sciences. Only in the 1930s, when the Cultural Revolution ushered in official anti-elitism and the search for home-grown Russian heroes, did Tsiolkovsky’s outsider status and autodidactic background make him an ideal candidate for Soviet hagiography. Even then, his scientific contributions were publicly praised but privately denigrated – none of his countless designs for airships was ever built. His more utopian ideas were even more out of step with the Party’s renewed emphasis on practical work and the immediate construction of socialism. Tsiolkovsky became a national hero just as the enthusiasm for space he had helped create fell victim to an expanding state and party. This shift has obscured a point that Siddiqi does not want us to miss: “the modern rocket with its new Communist cosmonaut was conceived as much in a leap of faith as in a reach for reason”.

In the 1930s, space enthusiasts turned their attention to developing rockets using limited funds from a voluntary society. One engineer recalled that when faced with a lack of silver for soldering a rocket combustion chamber, workers brought silver from home – a teaspoon, a thimble, a crucifix – which they melted down for their experiments: a fine example of the construction of socialism through the destruction of the remnants of capitalism. Finally, Sergei Korolev helped convince the State of the potential military applications of their work. At this point, Siddiqi’s attention shifts from popular interest in space to state-supported rocket research, though he maintains his commitment to telling the story from the bottom up. He gives rocket researchers considerable agency, even describing the effect of the Great Terror on this community as “less an act of outside intervention than a self-immolation”. Technical disagreements among researchers did sometimes spill over into political recriminations, but more evidence is required before we can demote the NKVD to a secondary role.

Siddiqi is more convincing in his evaluation of the importance of German rocket expertise, recovered by the USSR after the war, in jump-starting the Soviet rocket programme. He shows that informal networks, set up by Soviet scientists in Germany on their own initiative, were crucial in gaining a firm commitment of support from the highest echelons of the state and party apparatus. By this point, space travel all but disappears from The Red Rockets’ Glare, but Siddiqi assures us that it maintained a “ghostly presence” for researchers. Many of the scientists and engineers, like Korolev and Valentin Glushko, who developed the Soviet ICBM in the post-war period, had been space enthusiasts in the earlier era and had begun their research into rockets with space exploration in mind. The ICBM was developed to deliver atomic weapons, not to launch a satellite. Indeed, in spite of post-facto claims to the contrary, the Soviet state remained uninterested in space exploration until 1954. The breakthrough came when Korolev, Glushko, and Mikhail Tikhonravov lobbied behind the scenes, cultivated renewed popular enthusiasm for space exploration and manipulated international press coverage in order to convince party, military and state officials to allow a satellite programme to coexist with the development of ICBMs. Far from leading the way, the Soviet state emerges from this study as reluctant and lethargically responsive.

At times, Asif Siddiqi tries too hard to place popular enthusiasm for space flight at the centre of the story, asserting rather than demonstrating its direct connection with post-war technical accomplishments. The remarkably innovative and convincing cultural history of the first part of the book gives way to a more traditional history of technology and politics in the second. This is in part because popular organizations and publications had some semblance of independence in the 1920s, but almost none in the 1940s and early 1950s. It is hard to write the State and Party out of the picture when they were practically everywhere.

Ethan Pollock is Associate Professor of History and Slavic Languages, Brown University.

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