60 years ago, Yuri Gagárin carved his place in history playing in the first manned space flight, then embarked on a worldwide pilgrimage to exalt the Soviet conquest. The Cold War was going through episodes of high tension in the early 1960s and, despite Western fears generated by Bolshevik advances, the cosmonaut with the aura of superheroes and the easy smile reinforced the idea of proximity and relaxation between the USSR and the United States.
In the world of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, as well as that of John Kennedy and Nikita Khruschov, a political initiative à la Gagarin appears as a crying need for world stability. The repetitive roadmap of crises between the Kremlin and the White House adds uncertainties to be avoided, or at least mitigated, in a historic moment full of medical, environmental and security challenges, on a global scale.
Americans and Russians today disagree over Ukraine’s geopolitical position, fight over spaces in the Middle East, and strive to show military musculature. Washington denounces the interference of Russian hackers in its electoral campaigns, criticizes the arrest of the opposition Alexei Navalni and the harassment of journalists, and imposes ardent economic sanctions.
The Kremlin accuses the White House of breaking the promises of an end to the Cold War by extending the presence of NATO, a Western military alliance, to the borders with Russia, in a strategy of isolation and containment of Moscow. He also complains that Washington is ignoring the signs of goodwill in bilateral relations issued by the Boris Yeltsin government and in the early days of the Putin era.
Disagreements also increased during Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961. Five days later, the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, backed by the US to overthrow Fidel Castro. That year the Soviets began building the Berlin Wall.
Amid tensions and in an initiative to break down ideological barriers, Gagárin embarked on a world tour. He exuded charisma and sympathy. It drew the crowds. The UK hesitated when issuing the visa. However, he gave in at the historic moment and Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan welcomed the cosmonaut.
With the ingenuity of a rock star, Gagárin landed at the UN in New York, visited some thirty countries, including France, India, Iceland, Canada and Afghanistan. In the Brazil of Jânio Quadros, he paraded in Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
In 1991, while I was working in Moscow as a correspondent for Folha, Galina Gagárin, daughter of the cosmonaut. I asked if his father’s mission symbolized the Kremlin’s claims to achieve world hegemony. “I don’t think of Gagarin as a symbol of the Soviet aspiration for world expansion,” he said. “I remember the time of the flight was a time of enthusiasm, of joy.”
I have another memory of visiting Galina’s apartment. At the entrance to the building, reserved mainly for the families of Soviet military personnel, a resident passed the foreign journalist and, remembering the Bolshevik restrictions, shouted “Foreigners cannot enter here!”
However, the Gorbachevist reforms had already broken down these barriers. I showed my credentials, and the harsh, accidental host left mumbling.
The Cold War mentality should also stop contaminating the current relationship between the United States and Russia. A charismatic Gagárin-style character could lead a thawing process, although the challenge of where and how to find it survives.
LINK PRESENT: Did you like this column? The subscriber can release five free accesses from any link per day. Just click on the blue F below.