Sputnik Launch Turns 50, Russia Yawns

Sputnik Launch Turns 50, Russia Yawns

Poor little 183-pound Sputnik 1 has never received much attention from the Russian press. (Photo courtesy of the NASA History web page)

Andrew L. Jenks, an assistant professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, explains that the Sputnik moment was a moment for Americans, not Russians (who also had Yuri Gagarin). And the moment could repeat itself.

Gagarin, in short, put a human face on the space race in a way that the beach-ball sized Sputnik never could.

Imagine the U.S. response if Iran successfully tested a nuclear weapon. U.S. citizens experienced a similar feeling of dread and panic 50 years ago, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. American politicians, editors, and journalists immediately pointed fingers and wondered why Ivan was a rocket scientist while little Johnny from Podunk couldn't do his ABCs. The humiliation lingers like a vodka hangover. One measure of Sputnik's influence on the American psyche is the spate of remembrances in 2007 leading up to Sputnik's 50th anniversary this Oct. 4. "One Giant Leap," proclaimed the Oct. 1 Wall Street Journal. "The Fallout from Sputnik," screamed The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 30. On National Public Radio, the nonogenerian Daniel Shore waxed nostalgic about his Sputnik days in Moscow. In 2007, it seems, many Americans remembered Sputnik as if it happened yesterday.

Curiously, however, the Sputnik anniversary has barely registered a "beep" in the Russian media (the sound picked up from space 50 years ago by shortwave radios). The Russian press this week focused instead on Vladimir Putin's ongoing efforts to remake Russia as a world player, on his schemes to stay in power after his second presidential terms ends, on Russia's growing stash of petro and gas dollars. The online edition of the Oct. 4 Izvestiia—one of Russia's major daily newspapers—featured a long remembrance not of Sputnik, but of Boris Yeltsin's bombing of his own parliament on Oct. 3, 1993.

Although it's hard to conclude that Sputnik, for Russians, is just not that big a deal, it certainly is a minor source of pride. A 2004 survey in one Russian academic journal asked citizens to rank in order of importance 12 events in 20th-century Russian history. Surely, Sputnik would have made the list? Wrong. The survey offered up a menu of choices that included Chernobyl, Soviet collectivization, World War II, the Chechen war, the Soviet repressions of the 1930s, World War I, the October Revolution, the flight of Yuri Gagarin into space, the Afghan war, and Gorbachev's perestroika, but not poor little, 183-pound Sputnik.

Clearly, Russians remember the space race much differently than Americans. For Russians the most important moment in the space race was not Sputnik but the launch of first man into orbit—Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. That triumph generated far more press coverage in the Soviet Union than Sputnik ever did. Gagarin's image immediately attained iconic status. His million-ruble smile appeared on stamps, coins, propaganda posters, even in pop-music lyrics. Before his mysterious and untimely death in a routine training flight in March 1968, Gagarin's smile enchanted and seduced the Russian public. He charmed crowds of Russians with his populist style, charisma, and quick wit. Gagarin, in short, put a human face on the space race in a way that the beach-ball sized Sputnik never could. As a result, when Russians remember the triumphs of space they remember Gagarin first and perhaps the Russian space dog Laika ("mutnik") second. Of the 12 Russian historical events in the 2004 survey, respondents ranked the "victory in the Great Patriotic War" (World War II) number one and "Yuri Gagarin's flight into space" number two—as in the second most important event in twentieth-century Russian history. Sputnik doesn't even come close.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Russians celebrate their Aviation and Space Day on April 12 and not Oct. 4. It's also for April 12, not Oct. 4, that Russian journalists and editors dutifully prepare anniversary editions to celebrate the glories of Soviet space triumphs, in which Sputnik is mentioned, if at all, as a promising beginning.

Other factors have caused Russians to forget little Sputnik. The primary logic of Sputnik was military, not scientific: to show that a payload more or less the size of a nuclear bomb could sit atop a rocket and reach the Soviet Union's enemies anywhere on the globe. Since Sputnik's creation was driven by the arms race, it was, in the Soviet view, a "secret" and therefore something that should be discussed only vaguely, and in a way that would not reveal sensitive details. The obsession with secrecy reached absurd lengths. Soviet authorities declared that the identity of the creator of Sputnik, Sergei Korolev, was a state secret. They did not reveal his name to the public until his untimely death from a botched hemorrhoid operation in 1966 (the hemorrhoid part, of course, remained a state secret). Before that, he was simply called the "Chief Engineer."

According to Soviet censorship guidelines for editors in the 1950s and 1960s, which I found in a Russian archive this summer, it was forbidden to publish any information that had any conceivable relationship to national security. That included information about epidemics, toxic waste management, environmental disasters, floods, fires, nuclear power, plane crashes, the development of new military technology, pictures from the air, intelligence activities, the space program, military maneuvers, radiation, the location of military personnel and bases—nearly anything most people would consider news. And so it was with the entire enterprise surrounding Sputnik, which, according to Soviet censorship guidelines, was a military enterprise and therefore subject to a total news blackout. Looking at these guidelines, it seems a minor miracle that the Soviets said anything about Sputnik. Not surprisingly, then, Soviet media coverage of Sputnik was fleeting, superficial, and far from introspective and soul-searching, in contrast to the extensive and prolonged coverage in the U.S. press. It's no wonder Russians have little memory of Sputnik. They were hardly allowed to talk about it.

Finally, the Soviets, like the Americans, came to expect scientific and technological achievement. Unless the media hyped a technological triumph as extraordinarily big—as the Soviets did with Gagarin but not with Sputnik—people were likely to forget it in the good old, bad days of the Cold War. Potentially, therefore, the most shocking news was not technological success, but technological failure, which perhaps explains why Sputnik was such a big deal in America. For Americans the beep-beep of Sputnik signaled the failure of American civilization. It challenged what one scholar has referred to as America's "victory culture," a society that feels that victory in war, politics, and economics is America's birthright, the core of its national identity.

The Soviets had a version of that victory culture, too. But against the backdrop of Sputnik, other triumphs loomed much larger in Russian historical memory: victory over the Nazis, the Soviet H-Bomb, and Yuri Gagarin's trip into space in 1961. Moreover, spectacular failures have further crowded out the memory of Sputnik in Russian historical consciousness; they include Chernobyl, the Afghan war, and the most spectacular failure of them all: the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the meantime, the lingering American obsession with Sputnik perhaps says less about Russia in the 1950s than it does about current neuroses in U.S. society, politics, and culture. As in October 1957, America's victory culture seems threatened, eroded this time by the debacle of the Iraq war and a looming housing crisis. And as in 1957, Russia may again be on the rise—joined by India, China, and quite possibly, in the near future, a nuclear Iran. Thanks, Sputnik. You spoiled another fine Oct. 4 in the American Heartland.

Jenks is the author of Russia in a Box: Art and Identity in an Age of Revolution (2005) and a forthcoming book on Yuri Gagarin.

Published: Wednesday, October 03, 2007