When Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft on 12 April 1961, his life would never be the same again. As the first human to travel into outer space, marking a triumphant victory in the Soviet’s ‘space race’ with the United States, Gagarin was transformed overnight into an international celebrity.
The cosmonaut’s likeness would soon appear in numerous works of art and design, while statues shot up in his hometown (renamed Gagarin), Smolensk, Monino, Saratov, Star City and Irkutsk. Yet it would not be until 1980, long after Gagarin’s early death during a routine training flight in 1968, that the Russian capital would get its own Gagarin statue.
The reason behind this appears to have been due to mixed reactions to the cult of personality that sprung up around Gagarin. Just when the Soviet government was in the process of trying to stamp out the pervasive cult of Stalin, its citizens – brought up in a tradition of idolatry – had begun to glorify this new, young Hero of the USSR.
Created by the veteran Soviet sculptor Pavel Bondarenko, with help from architect Yakov Belopolsky (the man behind the vast Soviet War Memorial in Berlin), Moscow’s statue was placed in Yuri Gagarin Square on Leninsky Prospekt, a location Gagarin had passed on his way home after his flight. The massive titanium sculpture is in the classic tradition of heroic Soviet statuary, standing 40 foot high atop a towering 90 foot plinth. But unlike earlier effigies, the figure of Gagarin is cast in the iconography of a comic book superhero, in a nod to the Western visual culture which had by 1980 crossed behind the Iron Curtain. With his youthful complexion and courageous gaze, his arms astride as if he is flying, his taut abdominals visible through a tight-fitting metal suit and his lower body morphing into a missile, Gagarin is cast as the Soviet Superman of the Cold War, perhaps not inappropriate for a man who quite literally changed the world.
Pavel Bondarenko and Yakov Belopolsky, Statue of Yuri Gagarin, Yuri Gagarin Square, Leninsky Prospekt, Moscow, 1980