The Explosive (But Now Forgotten) Rumor About Yuri Gagarin

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In the day after Yuri Gagarin's momentous ride into space, a strange story cropped in newspapers across the world. Sergei Bouterline, an MIT instructor, made the explosive claim that Gagarin -- standard-bearer for the Soviet proletariat -- was actually his nephew and a descendant of nobles. Despite no evidence that Bouterline was Gagarin's uncle, the story was too juicy not to print. "If Gagarin were a relative [of Bouterline], it would mean the Communists selected a descendant of the aristocracy they hated so much to carry out their finest achievement in space," UPI chuckled.

But it was no laughing matter to Gagarin or the Soviets. The story became such a big deal that Gagarin's very first public speech about the flight begins with him addressing the rumors of his origins.

Many people are interested in my biography. I have read in the newspapers that some irresponsible persons in the United States of America, who are distant relatives of the Gagarin nobility, consider that I am one of their offsprings. I will have to disillusion them. They have acted very stupidly. I am a simple Soviet man... The older generation of my family, my grandfather and grandmother, were also poor peasants, and there were no princes or counts in our family. Therefore, I will be forced to disillusion my self-appointed relatives in America.

There is one obvious reason the story had the power to spread around the world so quickly: Americans would have liked nothing better than if the Communists looked stupid in their selection of an inauthentic proletarian. We could just stop with the Cold War explanation, but there are a couple of more interesting ways to look at the power of this particular story.

First, our own Yoni Applebaum emailed me a short story about our own American astronauts. Apparently, they had code words for profanity and while most of the spacemen had lame stand-ins for bad words like "shoot," Gene Cernan would say, "Manischewitz!" Here's an example from NASA's Apollo 17 transcript:

[Gene tries to turn the drill but it takes quite a bit of force before it suddenly releases.] 119:45:10 Cernan: Oh, Manischewitz! (Putting the drill on the ground) I don't know where I picked that word up (Jack chuckles), but it's better than some (pause), I guess. Now if I can use my little lean-tool here. (Pause)

Applebaum's analysis of the Cernan story was characteristically insightful:

I found it an interesting window into just how tightly controlled their lives were - and a poignant reminder that, in many ways, the early astronauts were pioneering reality tv stars, the first among us to have their lives recorded, transmitted, and broadcast.

I think that's part of what we see with Gagarin. As soon as the accomplishment was complete, he became a celebrity, a star in the film that was his life. And as such, it wasn't enough that he *be* an authentic Soviet peasant, he had to act the part of the Soviet peasant turned spaceman, even giving voice to his own backstory.

But there's one other interpretation of this Gagarin ancestry confusion that I like the best. It comes from psychiatrist Mortimer Ostow's Judaism and Psychoanalysis. Ostow contended that it was only appropriate -- mythopoetic justice, if you will -- that the first hero of the space age would immediately be ascribed noble origins just like the heroes of prehistory.

"It comes to pass that the hero of the myth wins the kingship or some other victory in his own right and then learns of his true, his noble origin. The story has been told about Moses, Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Lohengrin, Sargon, and a host of other figures from the mythology of all nations. In the popular mind, because the family romance fantasy is so universal, the image of the hero is inevitably associated with the notion of secret noble lineage. For example, within hours after the first cosmonaut completed his epochal flight into space in his carefully sealed capsule, a rumor raced around the world, a rumor subsequently proven false, that Yuri Gagarin, this first hero of the space age, was not really the son of a humble Soviet carpenter, as he was known to be, but actually the son of a czarist aristocrat, a member of the nobility living incognito since the Revolution. It seems that, given the opportunity, mankind awaits only the appropriate occasion to set in motion the process of mythopoesis, of creating myth, so that it can find in the real world actualized projections of its inner daydreams."

Image: NASA.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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