Enhanced Documents of a Past Future

Enhanced Documents of a Past Future

Reinterpretation of the Soviet History of Spaceflight in Contemporary Russian Blockbusters

Natalija Majsova
This article investigates the fictionalization of the space age in contemporary Russian spaceflight history blockbusters Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose / Gagarin: First in Space (2013), Vremia pervykh / Spacewalk (2017), and Saliut 7 (2017). This “second wave” of Russian films on spaceflight exhibits a greater affinity for the patriotic Soviet canon of portraying Soviet spaceflight history than their predecessors from the 2000s – Pervye na lune / First on the Moon (2004), Kosmos kak predchuvstvie / Dreaming of Space (2005), and Bumazhnyi soldat / Paper Soldier (2008) – which subverted the narrative conventions established by Soviet feature films on the history of spaceflight, i.e. their linearly progressive, normatively-optimistic plots, standard sets of historical characters, and common reliance on an authoritative third-person narrator. The article argues that blockbusters of the past decade, in contrast, reinvent the patriotic Soviet narrative in a particular, (no(w)stalgic) way. Drawing on the discussion on the chronotope (Bakhtin) of outer space in Soviet and Russian cinema, this article explores the productions in question through the lens of their constructions of literal and metaphorical diagonality, verticality and horizontality. In doing so, it argues that the examined films embed historical events into fictional narratives and audio-visual worlds that monumentalise and mythologise the Soviet space age through the use of these spatial vectors, creating a novel, yet eerily familiar fictional collage of a past.
Iurii Gagarin; outer space; Soviet space age; fiction; no(w)stalgia; chronotope; Russian cinema


Post-Soviet popular cultural references to the history of Soviet spaceflight have attracted a considerable amount of scholarly attention over the past decade. To a notable degree, these studies agree that the first wave of post-Soviet re-appropriations of the mythical history of the Soviet space programme includes many examples of postmodernist deconstruction, aiming to provide a critique of the previous political system and its foundational myths (cf. Strukov and Goscilo, eds. 2017). At the same time, many scholars have also pointed out the coexistent nostalgic element of these returns to various aspects of the space programme and the space race, such as the longing for a lost, communist vision of a future, the idealisation of the Khrushchevian Thaw, and certain structures of Soviet everyday life (cf. Boym 2001; Siddiqi 2011; Rogatchevski 2011).

Slava Gerovitch’s (2015) study on the Soviet space age remembrance proposes a slightly more nuanced approach, examining Soviet space myths beyond classical analyses that see them as longing for certain aspects of a documented past (cf. Boym 2001). For Gerovitch (2015: 164), these myths become “frames for entirely new meanings”, functioning in terms of Natalia Ivanova’s (1999: 25-32) “no(w)stalgia”: “neither condemnation nor idealisation of the past, but its actualisation as a set of appealing symbols for today’s discussions” (Gerovitch 2015: 164). The “no(w)stalgic” audience turns into “a collective participant and a collective interpreter; a creator of a myth, a part of the myth, and a debunker of the myth; the living past and a trial of the past at the same time.”” (ibid.). The concept of no(w)stalgia corresponds partly to Boym’s (1995: 79) characterisation of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and for the cult of cinema itself, typical of early post-Soviet cinema on Soviet myths, which exhibited “the desire to manipulate cultural myths, to aestheticise and to politicise against the grain”. Focusing on “elite cinema”, i. e. auteur films, such as Prorva / The Abyss (Ivan Dykhovichnyi, 1992, France, Germany, Russia), Boym also stipulates that this nostalgia gave birth to a number of “decadent fairy tales in spite of all moral and commercial odds” (ibid.); clearly, her analysis does not include action films, but the first part of her observation may certainly be applied to my case study. As it will be argued below, recent, post-Soviet Russian feature films on the space age play with myths, aestheticise them, and politicise them anew. However, in contrast to post-Soviet Russian cinema of the 1990s, these films are driven by anything but a decadent logic – hence my inclination to analyse them through a no(w)stalgic lens, posing the following questions: how does cinema fictionalise the history of Soviet spaceflight, and which relations do these fictions bear to the events themselves?

Over the past two decades, Russian production companies have, with the support of state agencies, such as the Russian Film Fund and the Ministry of Culture, released over a dozen fiction feature films on the history of the Soviet space programme. Even a superficial glance at these films will detect gradual shifts in the dominant themes, tropes, narratives and aesthetic preferences. Namely: productions from the 2000s (Pervye na lune / First on the Moon (Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2004, Russia)), Kosmos kak predchuvstvie / Dreaming of Space (Aleksei Uchitel’, 2005, Russia), and Bumazhnyi soldat / Paper Soldier (Aleksei German jr., 2008, Russia)) actively subvert the narrative conventions established by Soviet feature films on the history of spaceflight, such as their linearly progressive, normatively-optimistic plots, and standard sets of historical characters. Moreover, they use props, camera angles, and extradiegetic sound in order to turn their cinematic timespaces of the beginning of the space age into an estranged, fictional construction, in order to elaborate the underlying philosophical and socio-cultural assumptions of this timespace (cf. Majsova 2016; Høgetveit 2018).

In contrast, their successors, directors of spaceflight history films from the 2010s, reaffirm the history of the Soviet space programme as an absolutely excellent achievement. In doing so, these later films refer to their more ambiguous counterparts from the first decade of the 21st century, and reinvent both the apparently blindly patriotic, pro-Soviet narrative in a new, post-Soviet context. This article will discuss three cases in point: Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose / Gagarin: First in Space (Pavel Parkhomenko, 2013, Russia), Vremia pervykh / Spacewalk (Dmitrii Kiselev, 2017, Russia), and Saliut 7 (Klim Shipenko, 2017, Russia). In this article, I analyse how these productions respond to the narratives and questions set out by the above-mentioned early post-Soviet productions with their own attempts to reflect on the dawn of the space age. In doing so, they frame these new re-interpretations of the Soviet patriotic narrative in evident dialogue with the tradition of the Hollywood action film, heavily reliant on spectacular sequences and action-driven protagonists. However, as I will argue below, they reappropriate this canon in a unique and recognisable fashion, paving the way for a slightly different canon. By exploring the films’ chronotopes of outer space with a particular emphasis on their constructions of vectors (verticality, horizontality, and diagonals), this article argues that these particular cases of cinematic re-casting historical events as fictional worlds also do so within a specific fictional world.

How to Monumentalise a Document: The Specificities of Russian Spaceflight Action Films

It is tempting to interpret recent Russian features on the space age in terms of an evolutionary narrative. Namely, in 2013, the production company Kremlin Films released the first post-Soviet historical feature on Iurii Gagarin and his pioneering spaceflight of 12 April, 1961, tellingly titled Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose. The film, directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, enhances the main event, Gagarin’s spaceflight, with flashbacks to his childhood, Soviet victory in the second World War, and subtle glorification of certain stereotypes about Russian and Soviet culture. The indicated emphases of this film lay out a normative framework on cinematising the Soviet history of spaceflight, devoutly followed by later productions. Accordingly, in 2015, director Iurii Bykov, acclaimed for his films’ realism, was hired to direct Vremia pervykh (the title is commonly translated into English as Spacewalk, but the film is also known as The Age of Pioneers, which is closer to the Russian original), the first feature film about cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov’s pioneering 1965 spacewalk. The project was produced by acclaimed fantasy and action film director and producer Timur Bekmambetov and actor Evgenii Mironov. A year later, with the project well under way, the producers, allegedly disappointed by Bykov’s insufficiently spectacular footage, decided to replace him with Dmitrii Kiselev, a less experienced director but with a greater affinity to genre cinema (Sputniknews 2017). Kiselev re-shot over 60% of the film, and a new team of composers was hired to provide a different soundtrack. Vremia pervykh was finally released in 2017, premiering in early April, as a tribute to International Cosmonautics Day, celebrated on 12 April, commemorating Iurii Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight of 1961. 2017 was marked by another Russian historical spaceflight blockbuster, Saliut 7, directed by acclaimed romantic-comedy director Klim Shipenko, and produced by the CTB Film Company, Lemon Films Studio and Globus-film (Tasha Robinson, 2017). This film, based on arguably the most technologically complicated rescue mission in the history of space exploration, premiered in autumn 2017. It should be noted that the release of the two films in the same year is coincidental; Vremia pervykh was initially planned to come out a year earlier. Nevertheless, the canon that all of these recent productions set out regarding fictional depictions of the Soviet history of spaceflight is noteworthy for several reasons.

Firstly, big-budget spaceflight history action films present an innovative addition to fictionalisations of historical events in Russian cinema. The archive of contemporary Russian genre cinema is abundant in fiction feature films “based on real historical events”. These films, paradoxically ahistorical in their approaches to film format, typically refer to those episodes from Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian history that reinforce a patriotic narrative, which glorifies the spirit of the Russian nation, its superior moral values, bravery, selflessness, ingenuity, and humanism. At first glance, these films, officially classified as fiction films, but often featuring documentary footage, appear as Russian re-appropriations of a particular mix of Hollywood action-based narratives, such as the combat/war film, and the action hero film (cf. Langford 2005: 111-131). Particularly the influence of the latter, with its dynamic, action-driven montage, spectacular special effects, uncomplicated character-types, and unambiguous value dichotomies, proves influential in films about the history of the space age. At the same time, the commonplace practice to supplement fictional shots with documentary footage produces an ambiguous effect. Spectators’ feedback on the films, available on forums, such as Kinopoisk.ru, reveals that the viewer is often attracted and entertained by the fictional aesthetics, narratives, and special effects, but also intrigued by its documentary basis. A similar observation may be made about expert reviews, which frequently devote ample attention to the debate on historical accuracy and authenticity, usually to the detriment of the film’s overall score (cf. Belikov 2017; Shchipin 2017). Apart from the clear introductory statement that this is a fiction, rather than a non-fiction film, and the aforementioned factual inaccuracies, active fictionalisation is produced by means of a delicate balance between devices, such as point-of-view shots, which encourage identification (not only with the point of view, but also, by derivation, with the moral values of the protagonist), and a sense of estrangement, solicited by extraordinary situations, as well as the official historical coordinates granted to this fictional world.

The entertaining format of the historical thriller is intentionally harnessed to function as a myth-making mechanism, as well as laudatory evidence of the high quality of the Russian film industry of today. The use of historical fiction features to celebrate the achievements of the industry, entertain, and reinforce patriotic sentiment is certainly nothing new or particularly context-specific. It is noteworthy, however, that contemporary Russian directors tend to focus on just a few selected historical cases, Second World War (e.g. Leningrad / Leningrad (Aleksandr Buravskii, 2009, Russia), Brestskaia krepost’ / The Brest Fortress (Aleksandr Kott, 2010, Russia / Belarus), 28 panfilovtsev / Panfilov’s 28 Men (Andrei Shalopa and Kim Druzhinin, 2016, Russia)), sportive events (Legenda #17 / Legend #17 (Nikolai Lebedev, 2013, Russia), Dvizhenie vverkh / Going Vertical (Anton Megerdichev, 2017, Russia)), and our case in point, the history of spaceflight, doubtlessly at the top of this list. The latter is a somewhat more complicated subject-matter than the former two, simply because of the technical complexity of recreating events that take place in space. Therefore, while spaceflight history action films also focus on singular events, such as Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight, Leonov’s pioneering spacewalk, or the rescue mission to the Saliut 7 space station, they typically involve more extradiegetic references than war battles or sports matches. Namely, they incorporate the topics of the prehistory and history of rocket technology, the rationale behind the space race, the family histories and psychological profiles of the characters, etc. This prompts the directors to resort to more variegated editing solutions and highlights the chronotopicality of the outer-space trope.

If Mikhail Bakhtin (1937-8/1981: 48) introduced and explored the implications of analysing chronotopes or the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature”, scholars such as Martin Flanagan (2009) and Bart Keunan (2010) have argued for and demonstrated the analytical value of the term for film analysis. Looking at film, and specifically at event-based films, in terms of chronotopes foregrounds the fictionalising capacities of the medium by pointing to the tacit expectations and assumptions that supplement the spectator’s perception of the audiovisual subject-matter.

The Soviet chronotope of outer space and space exploration was first described in Matthias Schwartz’s (2010) analysis of post-1957 Soviet literature. Here, the author points out that the early successes of the Soviet space programme, such as the launch of the Sputnik, which temporally coincided with the democratising tendencies characteristic of the Khrushchevian Thaw, justified both greater investments into basic science, sometimes quipped as “cybernetics instead of tractors”, and encouraged a bold step away from socialist realism in the arts. According to Schwartz, this contributed to greater diversity and – not always optimistic – philosophical reflections on the anticipated space future in the genre of scientific fantasy, most often exemplified by the literary works of Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii, and Andrei Tarkovskii’s Soliaris / Solaris (1972, USSR), an adaptation of Stanisław Łem’s novel.

The chronotope of outer space as a place, which gradually transforms from a symbol of imminent progress and Communist future into a space, into a potentially dangerous, unknown and ultimately unknowable place that questions the human in return for being interrogated by humanity, is generally reflected in Soviet space science fiction of the 1960s-1980s. At the same time, in an analysis of early post-Soviet films about the Soviet space age, I argued that this chronotope thoroughly destabilised in productions from 2004–2009. These films evidently refer to the bygone Soviet epoch and its space programme, but neither belong to the genre of science fiction nor allude to real historical events, significantly reinventing the history of Soviet spaceflight in terms of narratives, historical data, characters, and plots, in order to question its historical accuracy, as well as its philosophical, ethical, and moral presumptions (cf. Majsova 2016). One of the main cinematic devices that contributes to this destabilisation in these productions is the persistence of an uncanny, questioning gaze, directed towards the unknowable real, which shines through the destabilised images and narrative (cf. McGowan 2007: 3-14). The fictional worlds of films, such as First on the Moon, Dreaming of Space, and Paper Soldier are incomplete; their apparently fictional constructions reveal a gaping lack of coherence, which is directed to the complex, irrational real beyond the fictional world of the artwork, and the fictional world that the artwork is embedded into. This present article, which also relies on close readings of several selected films, will demonstrate how Russian spaceflight history blockbusters of the past decade resort to an entirely different strategy, ousting the possibility of a gaze.

In order to demonstrate the mechanisms at work, I will draw on a methodological tool introduced in Åsne Ø. Høgetveit’s (2017, 2018) work on Soviet and post-Soviet airspace and outer space-oriented cinema. Høgetveit expands the discussion on the outer space chronotope by pointing to its reliance on vectors, particularly the vector of verticality and the so-called moral vertical. Making references to both historical and science fiction feature films, Høgetveit argues that Soviet and post-Soviet films, which fictionalise spaceflight (and aviation) often draw on the Russian cultural symbolism of verticality as aligned with both transcendence, and hence to the idea of outer space as an abstractly transcendent realm, and with the idea of the existence of “natural” hierarchies (Høgetveit 2017: 79, 2019). In this contribution, I will investigate verticality alongside two other vectors: the diagonal and the horizontal. By pointing to imagery that either directly depicts or allegorically presents vertical, diagonal, and horizontal vectors, I will analyse how the examined films allow us to consider verticality in terms of its links to the supremacy of the imperative of scientific development, and certain historical narratives. Accordingly, the following paragraphs will analyze Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose, Vremia pervykh, and Saliut 7, focusing on their narratives, editing, and performativity, and highlighting these dimensions in the context of the vertical-diagonal-horizontal triad.

Pioneers and Guardians of the Planet as Observers: Korolev, Science and the Space-Earth Vertical

A common, easily recognisable feature of Soviet space films is the trope of the cosmonaut as “the chosen one”; the one selected by the Soviet authorities, the one who understands the language of technology, appreciates Soviet scientific achievements and is willing to sacrifice himself for further advances. In the opening scenes of Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose, Gagarin and Titov, the finalists of the cosmonaut selection process, are presented to us in their bedroom. We see them from a bird’s eye perspective, two lean, small men, stretched on their narrow, military beds the day before the historical event of man’s pioneering spaceflight. They look very much alike, almost difficult to tell apart. Yet, the plot provides numerous flashbacks to the training process, and presents a final discussion at the command centre. All of these gradually convince the spectator that Iurii is the better candidate for the job. He is selfless, comradely, emotionally stable, down-to-earth, and extremely rational. German Titov, on the other hand, is repeatedly portrayed as jealous of Gagarin, and unable to deal with his “defeat” in a non-emotional way (for example, when Gagarin attempts to reassure him that his time in space will come, he bitterly replies that “[the people]/ will only remember the first one, the rest will be forgotten.”)

However, these descriptions are not unbiased. As the film progresses, it becomes ever clearer that their judgments on the cosmonauts’ capacity to perform are drawn out by the chief constructor, Sergei Korolev. Here, he is also the chief interpreter. He interprets data assembled by the conscientious doctors and nurses, who monitor the cosmonauts’ training, weighs it against his colleagues’ opinions, picks, and sends into space. Korolev is the infallible deic figure, the upright vertical which cannot be questioned. Nor can questioning apply to his chosen “little eagles”, oreliki, as he likes to call his cosmonauts. Shots of Korolev precede shots of the launch of the spaceship in both Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose and Vremia pervykh. In the latter film, Korolev provides Aleksei Leonov with step-by-step guidance during his brief excursion into outer space. Accordingly, as soon as these instructions are interrupted by a telephone call from Soviet Communist Party Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev, who wishes to congratulate Leonov, the scientific narrative of success breaks down, and the cosmonaut, briefly overcome with emotion, encounters very serious problems. This happens several times in the film, and each time, Korolev’s instructions prove to be infallible. The emphasis on the Soviet people’s extraordinary capacity for executing ground-breaking ideas conceived in the realms of politics and science set Vremia pervykh apart from more conventional space-themed adventure thrillers despite the fact that Leonov and pilot Pavel Beliaev’s space mission and their return to Earth are the events that take up over half of the film. The happy ending expected of the film is not grounded in the heroism of the cosmonauts or in the excellence of the command centre on Earth. Rather, it is guaranteed by the overarching idea that space and Earth are connected by the vertical of scientific excellence, embodied by the protagonists: Korolev and Leonov. Science, conceived as a fusion between the abstract (formulas), the collective (technology) and the personal (Korolev and the cosmonauts). Therefore, it cannot fail, even when the odds are not in its favour.

The part of the Vremia pervykh set in space is in rhythmic juxtaposition to the events “on Earth”. While being embedded into the context of 1960s Soviet politics and ideological narratives, this part of the film clearly responds to the expectations of spectators hoping for an action-filled breath-taking thriller. Carefully constructed with the help of a special CGI solution developed by Aleksandr Gorokhov’s computer studio CGF, and a team of dedicated stuntmen, Leonov’s spacewalk is a glorious attempt to let the spectator try on the spacesuit herself (cf. Belikov 2017). We see Leonov peek out from the space vessel, then carefully climb out of it, gain initial balance, take off the cap from the camera, establish video-connection with the command centre on Earth, and then, after instructions from his superiors, let go of the corpus of the shuttle, launching himself into the void. He sees Earth, and his spaceship, Voskhod-2, in its entirety, he seems to be in control, and then he suddenly loses it, allowing for a highly intense, dramatic sequence. In brief, the scenes in zero gravity are allusions to what have, over the past fifty years of space exploration and post-spaceflight cinema, become poetic, easily recognizable tropes of the spaceflight mise-en-scène.

At the same time, Belikov’s review of Vremia pervykh insightfully describes the zero-gravity scenes in Vremia pervykh as a “phantom-like nostalgia for the times of the space race, equally unfamiliar to the director and the spectator”. Indeed, the dramatism of the film arises from the unusual character of Leonov himself: in contrast to Gagarin, he is a rebellious, individualistic figure, prone to daydreaming and disobeying orders, and hence very ill-suited for the Soviet socio-political structures as these are drawn out in the film. Why such a character would be allowed into space, remains a mystery, which can only be explained by the role played by Chief Constructor Korolev. Clearly, his relationship with Leonov is drawn out in very different brushstrokes than the one with Gagarin in Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose. At the same time, in both instances, the link between the cosmonaut and the constructor guarantees the persistence of the scientific vertical, and reinforces the symbolism of outer space as a transcendent realm. In space, Gagarin’s lips form his iconic smile, and he remembers his wife and daughters. In space, Leonov closes his eyes and remembers his childhood fantasy of lifting off from the ground and standing up tall, facing the flourishing fields as if they were a wall.

Saliut 7, a unique film that addresses the period of Soviet space history, which was no longer dominated by Korolev, taking place almost two decades after his death, needs to rely on a slightly different formula. As if in solemn awareness of the fact that there will never be such a talented, erudite, and valuable man at the head of the Soviet space command centre, the film chooses to downplay the role of the Soviet authorities, re-inventing the cosmonaut as a fully autonomous superhero. This cosmonaut – undoubtedly male, undoubtedly superior to all the women (mothers, lovers, wives, a competent and eternally ignored healthcare professional) in the film – is elevated to the level of a proactive hero at the expense of the semiotic trivialisation of the theme of spaceflight. Notably, the opening shots of the film are bird’s eye-view shots filming two cosmonauts, a man and a woman, performing routine tasks on top of the Saliut 7 space station.

Structurally, Saliut 7 follows the formula laid out by many other films on space exploration. The scenes “in space” are, like in Vremia pervykh, in counterpoint with scenes “on Earth”. The scenes “on Earth” construct the lost world of the Soviet past, seen as the promised land by the cosmonauts. This promised land is haunted by the trope of quiet family life, and by the political Cold War division. The world of Saliut 7 emerges in stark opposition to an “American” world, which, just like in Vremia pervykh, Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose, and other Russian productions on the history of the Soviet space program, is inaccessible, even almost hermetically sealed. Its contours are only hinted at by passing remarks referring to current political events.

Unlike the other two films, which show that spaceflight is impossible without a strong, stable link between science, technology, and individual heroism, linked in a steady vertical vector, Saliut 7 fully subordinates the post-1960s development of the Soviet space program to its militarist undertones and to the antagonisms of the Cold War – a blind upward diagonal, which will be discussed in detail in the following paragraphs. The film ends on a happy note, showing that the cosmonauts manage to single-handedly repair an unresponsive space station using a sledgehammer, while the head of the command centre could do nothing but helplessly try to attack the prototype of the station in his office, also using a sledgehammer. However, we do not see the cosmonauts return home. The scientific vertical, so characteristic of the films on Gagarin and Leonov, is broken. The cosmonauts, particularly Vladimir Fedorov, are unruly technicians. Sometimes, they hallucinate angels. As Fedorov notes upon offering his partner Viktor Aliokhin a shot of vodka, “I don’t see any police flying around outside to stop us”. And, indeed, the orders that they receive from Earth bear no heavier weight than their own decisions.

“The Race Is On!”: Political Essentialisation and the Diagonal Vector of Modernist Progress

All of the three productions in question are explicitly narrative-driven films. Moreover, in all three cases, the narrative is built into plots that provide numerous opportunities to remind the spectator of the greatness of the cosmonauts’ achievements, while anchoring them within a very specific historical context, and Zeitgeist. Stripping the plots down to their bare structural traits, we are left with a single narrative – an overarching metanarrative of Soviet modernity, constructed on the foundations of the victory in the Second World War, and aimed at beating the USA in the space race. If one examines the history of Soviet space exploration films and biopics on the actors of the Soviet space programme, it becomes evident that these choices are not necessarily the most obvious ones.

The slogan advertising Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose is, for instance, “The race is on!” rather than the more commonplace, almost proverbial “Poekhali!” or “Off we go!”, allegedly his words uttered during take-off. Paradoxically, Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose is not as explicitly concerned with “beating the Americans” as Vremia pervykh and Saliut 7, where decisions regarding sending cosmonauts on premature and thus extremely risky missions are made with the sole intention of overtaking the ideological adversary. Cosmonauts Aleksei Leonov and Pavel Beliaev, loosely based on their eponymous historical models, are apparently sent on the spacewalk mission two years ahead of sensibly, carefully calculated plans, only to prove a point to the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Likewise, in Saliut 7, Alyokhin and Fedorov, fictional avatars of historical figures, cosmonauts Viktor Savinykh and Vladimir Dzhanibekhov, are sent to contact the unresponsive Saliut 7 space station in a great hurry, against a tight deadline, determined by the Americans, who are setting up an empty Challenger shuttle, presumably to get to the station before the Soviets and steal their secrets. The year in question is 1985, and Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” threat is mentioned by the Soviet space command centre with great seriousness.

In these films, the road to space is therefore actually a race upwards, rooted in political ambitions, and marked by milestones that tend to be further and further away from Earth. In this context, it is not surprising that Brezhnev does not hesitate to telephone Leonov in the middle of the latter’s dangerous, unprecedented spacewalk, just to tell him he is proud of him and is counting on him to come back home alive. Korolev, otherwise very concerned about the well-being and safety of his cosmonauts, does not prevent this call, even though it possibly contributes to Leonov’s carelessness that almost sabotages the mission several minutes later. The scene is very clear in presenting a mandatory, even hereditary link between Soviet science and technology (Leonov contacts the command centre, and there is a sequence of shots jumping from these headquarters to the cosmonaut, and back), its political leadership (Brezhnev’s call), and the heroism of Soviet citizens (Leonov), but no links are made between the political and technological infrastructure and its failures. Setbacks are just plot-development devices, and are attributed to either undefined technological issues or individual carelessness.

At the same time, moments of despair, brought about by such problems, are often juxtaposed with very particular memories from Earth. In Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose, Iurii Gagarin often recoils into childhood memories in search of inspiration. The phantom of the Second World War looms over these memories, at once explaining Gagarin’s present calmness, resilience, as well as serving as a means to develop his psychological profile by nuancing it with certain traits, such as selflessness, loyalty to his family, and curiosity. For instance, we learn that he put himself in danger in order to save his younger brother Boris from the paws of a Nazi soldier during the War, when their home village was occupied by the Germans. We also learn that he was a wilful youth, who respected his father and chose not to follow in his footsteps as a carpenter and bricklayer, preferring to receive an education. During this flashback, we see him shot from below, emphasising that this teen is about to embark on a journey of ascent. In contrast, his father, mother and sister are mostly shot en face, emphasising the horizontal, stable and secure role they play in Iurii’s life.

Gagarin is constructed as a perfect Soviet specimen, brought up in an honest, poor peasant family, cool, calm and collected under pressure, aiming for an undefinable greater good, and unquestionably devoted to serving the State. When asked about his first association to the word “horror” during a psychological test, he replies: “famine”. When his mother asks how his pregnant wife is coping with his dangerous career, he calmly replies that she is “the wife of a soldier”, and that he had consciously sought a woman that would be able to handle anything. Gagarin’s spaceflight is hence depicted as a function of his trust in a certain historical narrative and current political structures, as well as a particular (calm, but daring) psychological disposition. In cinematic terms, this conundrum is emphasised by ascending diagonals within shots, for instance his memories of symbolic ascents (for example, we learn that Iurii took his wife hiking), and ascents that result from the montage, for instance, his flashbacks to childhood on Earth being shown in counterpoint with shots from outer space.

A very similar process is at work in Kiselev’s film on Leonov’s spacewalk, even if the psychological profile of the cosmonaut is markedly different from Gagarin’s. Leonov is explicitly labelled as “out of his mind” by his superiors, after he exhibits unparalleled individualism and unconventionality in thought in order to help his colleague, acclaimed Second World War pilot Beliaev during a dangerous landing. Nevertheless, his recklessness – an element of the film that is not grounded in historical evidence – is always justified by his relentless devotion to a greater cause. It is unclear whether, for him, this cause is spaceflight as such or its significance for the Soviet State. For instance, he exclaims to his wife: “I don’t see the ceiling, all I see are stars.” At the same time, he appears deeply moved by the State’s insistence that a spacewalk should be executed two years earlier than initially planned. “We will fly in shackles, if need be,” insists Leonov, enthusiastic about the spacewalk project, and convinced in its feasibility, attempting to reassure the concerned, responsible and careful Korolev, and highlighting the active, action-hero nature of his character in this film.

In carefully coupling the nation-building myth of Soviet victory in Second World War with its moral predestination to win the ongoing Cold War, Vremia pervykh pays a significant amount of attention to the relationship between the Chief Constructor responsible for most of the Soviet achievements in this domain, the political establishment of the time, and the cosmonauts. This is a common triad in Soviet and post-Soviet space-themed cinema, and Vremia pervykh is clearly conscious of and affirmative in regard to this tradition. On the most schematic level of narrative and visual aesthetics, Korolev is a corpulent, remarkably serious, meticulous, and daring man, who invariantly addresses the cosmonauts as ‘oreliki’, just as he does in films such as Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose and the two films dedicated specifically to his own character and role in the Soviet space programme, Glavnyi / The Chief Constructor (2015), and Korolev (2007), both directed by Iurii Kara. In a slight contrast to these films, the Korolev of Vremia pervykh also appears to be very well aware of the particularities of Russian history and cultural milieu. “What if the shackles are removed? We will crash into oblivion,” he responds to Leonov, acknowledging that the Soviet people “have always flown in shackles”. Korolev’s quote can be seen as the main nexus of the relationship between the constructor, the Soviet power structures, and Soviet cosmonauts. Having downed a glass of an unidentifiable alcoholic beverage, Korolev is finally convinced by Leonov’s willingness to execute the dangerous experiment. Nevertheless, the film is very clear about the hierarchy: individual zeal and adventurism is of no use when a delicate element of the spaceship needs repair, or when the cosmonauts land in the freezing cold taiga; political approval and the collective effort of a team of scientists are the ones that account for the mission’s final success.

The premise of granting the cosmonaut more decision-making power, advanced in Vremia pervykh, is even more prominent in Saliut 7, the most action-oriented contemporary Russian space exploration feature film, and also the first film on the post-Korolev history of the Soviet space programme. Saliut 7 foregrounds the topic of the heroism of Soviet cosmonauts, doing so in a markedly different way from Vremia pervykh. Along with other Russian films on spaceflight Vremia pervykh links the heroism of highly trained individuals to what appears to be a nationally-specific trait. The cosmonauts’ ability to withstand enormous amounts of stress, to deal with hopeless situations, is cinematically aligned with Russian history, which, according to Korolev in Vremia pervykh, enabled the people to develop the capacity to withstand numerous diverse horrors.

Just like Korolev, Leonov, whose figure was constructed in conversations with the real historical reference of the protagonist of Vremia pervykh, cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov, bases his own patriotism and sense of duty on the intellectual and historical heritage of the Soviet state. In the first part of the film, his character is clearly carved out from his cosmonaut training and references to his simple childhood in the Soviet countryside. When confronted with unexpected obstacles during his pioneering spacewalk, Leonov remembers the Soviet victory in the Second World War, positing the wartime struggle as the ultimate battle, even graver than his own battle against malfunctioning technology and the prospects of not returning from his space mission alive. Saliut 7 does not articulate this historical premise as explicitly; rather, it employs its central characters, the heroic cosmonauts, as ahistorical embodiments of the remarkable national characteristic.

The protagonists of the Saliut 7, cosmonauts Fedorov and Aliokhin, are perfectly at ease with all kinds of unexpected obstacles and unbelievable complications. They are embodied Communist new men, fully committed to their mission, and fully capable of completing it regardless of the equipment at hand. Aware of the necessity to reach Saliut 7 first, before the U.S. rival shuttle threatening to find out the secrets of the Soviet space programme under the guise of a rescue mission, Vladimir and Viktor do not even require guidance from the command centre on Earth. In fact, they consciously and deliberately disregard certain commands from Earth, when they feel they have better solutions, like taking a sledgehammer out into space, attempting to crack the carcass of the unresponsive Saliut 7.

This utopian image of the cosmonaut as a fully autonomous space-worker, a technician and a strategist in one, is a relatively novel development in post-Soviet Russian cinematic depictions of the history of Soviet spaceflight. Saliut 7 is the first film in this tradition that emphasises the figure of the cosmonaut, very much at the expense of the command centre, which appears amoebic, somewhat incompetent, and out of touch with the action that takes place in the celestial realm. At the same time, one should point out that once technical competences are fully transferred to the cosmonaut, the command centre assumes the role of the moral compass, attempting to elaborate the most sensible solutions to critical situations. Nevertheless, in this film, the cosmonauts are visually depicted as superior to the command centre, looking down on Earth during their mission, rather than being looked up to by the command and control centre, as is the case in Vremia pervykh and Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose. However, their superiority is somewhat helpless. Tellingly, at the end of the film, the visors on their space helmets persistently reflect the moon, sitting above them, as if haunting them. The moon is never shown as the direct object of their gaze, yet, it is there, unavoidable and inaccessible, a proverbial elephant in the room.

The Cultural Horizontal and the Orbit as a Site of Post-memory

Saliut 7 is clearly a continuation and extrapolation of the myth of Soviet supremacy in outer space, mainly created around the figure of the first cosmonaut, Iurii Gagarin. In terms of space-related Soviet and post-Soviet Russian genre cinematography, this myth is created and fully developed in a static, ahistorical world. Films on the Khrushchevian period of the history of the Soviet space program establish a system of symbolic coordinates that integrates the Soviet space age into a network of values and aspirations that supposedly played a formative role in the early history of spaceflight. Saliut 7, situated over two decades later, merely exploits this coordinate system, without adding anything new. At the beginning of the film, cosmonaut Fedorov’s romantic partner, the mother of his child, asks how he would describe his life in the USSR to the people of Madagascar, had he accidentally landed on their island. “My daughter, football, and building communism,” he responds, stipulating that these are the matters he loves, and referring to loosely the same world that characterizes Vremia pervykh and Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose. This fictionalised history of the Soviet space program, “based on real events”, operates in a world abundant in (now compellingly stylish retro) symbols of the 1960s USSR: hairstyles and dresses, television sets and space control rooms, as well as interiors of Soviet apartments, where the cosmonauts’ families wait hopefully to hear the final verdict about the success of the mission.

At the same time, the overlap between the three fictional worlds is not entirely complete. Saliut 7 works with an uncomplicated world, following just one, contemporaneous, political logic of a race, situated within a “cold, but nonetheless serious” war, to paraphrase a heated discussion at the command centre on Earth in the film. In this world, the cosmonauts are free to choose their values. While they have families, they feel an almost greater responsibility before one another, and the drive to space outweighs the concerns of their loved ones. Fedorov’s partner Lilia, for example, repeatedly confronts him about his priorities – for choosing “space over [their daughter] Olia and I”. She is the complete opposite of Leonov’s silent wife Svetlana or Gagarin’s spouse Valentina, who refuses to attempt to prevent her husband, a young father, from embarking on his dangerous, life-changing task.

While it is possible to argue that these variations in reactions reflect the women’s personalities and psychological dispositions, the films provide abundant evidence for an interpretation that places a greater emphasis on the given cultural contexts. Namely, both Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose and Vremia pervykh go to considerable lengths to create four-dimensional worlds, where centuries of history manifest themselves as cultural phenomena. For instance, the vast plains of rural Russia reinforce the characters’ patience and resilience. Gagarin and Leonov might be peasants’ sons, but the frequent flashbacks that they have to their childhoods in the countryside suggest that this experience gives them the stamina required to conquer space. Moreover, the recent Second World War serves as a constant reminder of the greatness, resilience, and moral superiority of the Soviet people, for both the cosmonauts and the chief constructor Korolev. There can be no space exploration without the “shackles” referred to by Leonov and Korolev: deprivation, subordination, and discipline are the necessary conditions for great achievements.

This belief is reflected by the men and the women of the space programme. On the one hand, the women are stereotypically represented as the cosmonauts’ wives, mothers and nurses, who frequently worry about their husbands, sons, and patients, and are also frequently disregarded by Korolev, who wishes to push his ‘little eagles’ as far as possible. On the other hand, they also embody a quiet, loving and stabilising collectivity (cf. Navailh 2003: 210). Accordingly, when Gagarin’s sister Zoia informs their mother Anna that “Iurii is flying around in space”, Anna runs out of the house in her slippers, determined to make her way to Moscow, to help Valentina with her two little children. Valentina, like Leonov’s wife Svetlana, embodies the silent ideal of “a soldier’s wife”, coupled with the sense of a gentle, kind and conservative femininity of a child-rearing homemaker. This is much less true of Lilia, Vladimir Fedorov’s wife from Saliut 7, who allows herself question the supremacy of the space programme over her family. Nina, the pregnant wife of Vladimir’s mission partner Vitalii, is less temperamental, but insists on her husband taking two woollen skiing hats along into space. Her intuition proves correct: the cosmonauts need to survive in very cold conditions, and the hats are more than useful.

Blue skiing hats with recognisable Soviet design are one of the many cultural symbols that embellish the somewhat atemporal universe of Saliut 7. Vodka and cheap cigarettes are the next on the list, both officially forbidden on the spaceship, yet both allowing the cosmonauts to find hope in times of despair. In instances of dramatic climax, when Gagarin and Leonov think about home and their homeland, Fedorov and Aliokhin calm themselves down with a shot of vodka or a drag of a cigarette. To take the argument even further: Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose includes a brief flashback to Gagarin’s youth at flight school. In order to pass his exam for his pilot’s license, he was instructed by his superior to sit on his little briefcase. This helped short Gagarin land the plane with greater accuracy. Gagarin, absorbed by the task, forgot to empty his briefcase of the mandatory cigarettes, intended as a treat for his examiners, a symbol of celebration in case he passed the exam. Consequently, the cigarettes that he could offer the examiners in the end, were flattened and useless. Relying on such details, Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose creates the cultural space of the USSR of the early 1960s as a space of hopes, dreams and historically-grounded values, rather than easily recognisable material symbols, such as the cigarettes, vodka, and other trivialities, abundant in the universe of Saliut 7.

Vremia pervykh also relies on a cultural horizontal, structured around values and relations, adding another layer to the monumentality of the Soviet space programme. Due to failures of key mechanisms, Beliaev and Leonov need to land their spaceship manually, which results in them descending in a remote and poetically cold and snowed-in area in the Perm region. The cosmonauts spend hours waiting for the rescue team, risking their lives to the same extent they had in space, and are only discovered thanks to the daring, illegal and comradely efforts of an amateur radio operator located on the equally cold and remote island on Sakhalin. Risking his freedom, this side character informs the Kremlin of the whereabouts of the space vessel, after the official Soviet radio channel had already circulated news of the cosmonauts’ probable death.

As Sasha Shchipin’s (2017) review points out, this second instance of the trope of being lost in space, this time the hostile space of the Soviet north in the winter, reinforces the mythical dimension of Vremia pervykh. In their white spacesuits, the stranded cosmonauts appear both heroic and absurd, as if referring to the many parodic takes on the Soviet space programme, such as Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon . A miner’s son and a Second World War-pilot, who were hurried off onto a premature mission in order to prove Soviet supremacy in outer space to the USA, somehow, against all odds, make it back to Earth on a spaceship prone to malfunctions. Alienated in their heroism, they can only finally be saved after a series of transcontinental collective efforts.

Conclusion: Cameras for Intrigue and Historical Footage for an Epic Ending

All three films, based on real events that had marked the history of the Soviet space programme, are evidently no(w)stalgic accounts of “what could have been” – alternative narratives of factually documented events. Leonov and Beliaiev’s signal could have been picked up by an amateur from Sakhalin, but it was actually deciphered by an operator in the warmer (and closer) Altai region. Fedorov and Aliokhin probably would not have saved the unresponsive Saliut 7 space station by banging onto the broken protective shield around a battery sensor with a sledgehammer, and then waving to the American Challenger shuttle, leaning onto the re-activated station. However, this moment of artistic freedom reinforces the impression about the productive insanity at the core of Soviet technological achievements. Finally, it is unlikely that the final argument for why Gagarin, and not Titov, was to become the first man in space, was that “Khrushchev liked him on the photograph”. Yet, such provocative details inspire the audience to dig further into the archives and sustain discussions about the films.

All the films end on a particularly suggestive note: documentary footage reassures us of the veracity of the events, and reaffirms their happy endings. All three endings show their films’ cosmonauts’ successful returns to Moscow, the crowds’ joyful greetings, and the tight embraces they give their wives and children. While the documentary footage used in Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose and Vremia pervykh refers to the events that are explored in the film, the images accompanying the closing credits of Saliut 7 are a chronologically organised collage, intended to provide a brief summary of the feats of the Soviet space programme.

It is intriguing to read these images in terms of another, symbolist ascent. All three films frequently demonstrate the mediatised aspect of the Soviet space programme. Cameras are depicted as direct proof that “all of this really happened”. In Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose, one of the officials witnessing Gagarin’s take-off comments: “Oh, look, they are shooting it all!”, to which his colleague responds: “Let them shoot. American heroes are recorded all the time, why would ours be any worse?”. This reference responds quite directly to First on the Moon, where the honesty of Soviet cameras is openly mocked, as the trope of constant documentation is used to construct a mockumentary about a fictional Soviet space programme. In Vremia pervykh, Leonov takes great care to ensure that his spacewalk is covered by a camera and shown live to Soviet film viewers. Likewise, Korolev immediately orders that the live transmission be cut, when Leonov encounters problems. Intriguingly, no cameras feature in Saliut 7, as if to highlight the film’s even looser reliance on historical evidence than the other two productions. This also explains the logic behind a transhistorical space exploration history collage at the end of the film. This provides an exemplary case of the coherent fictional world of contemporary Russian spaceflight history films. Within this world, the actual history of the Soviet space programme is monumentalised in a fictional time capsule, and schematically organised within a right-angled triangle, pointing upwards: the triangle linking an essentialised image of Soviet (Russian) culture with the vector of progress and the mythical belief in Soviet cosmic predestination. In my view, such schematisation produces an estranging effect, rather than one of identification; in the process of monumentalisation the possibility of a destabilising gaze is actively, intentionally barred, which closes up the fictional worlds of the examined productions. Thereby, the monumental fictional integrity of the films, such as Gagarin: Pervyi v kosmose, Vremia pervykh, and Saliut 7 is secured, positioning them as eternal monuments cast in marble and, at the same time, producing an uncanny relationship of these films with extra-filmic accounts of the same historical events. Indeed, many critics tellingly tend to align such fictional productions with the genre of science fiction, rather than historical drama.

Natalija Majsova

Université catholique de Louvain



Natalija Majsova is a postdoctoral researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain and adjunct assistant professor of cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana. She is a member of the B-magic consortium, which researches the magic lantern and visual culture in Belgium (1830-1940). Her own contribution focuses on the narratological, semiotic and iconographic specificities of lantern slides and their participation in the formation of transnational popular-cultural iconographies of the world. She holds a PhD (2015) in cultural studies from the University of Ljubljana. Her first monograph, Konstruktor, estetika in kozmonavt: vesolje v sodobni ruski kinematografiji (2001-2017), on the aesthetics and narratives of the space age in contemporary Russian cinema was published by University of Ljubljana/FDV Press in 2017.


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Suggested Citation

Majsova, Natalija. 2019. “Enhanced Documents of a Past Future: Re-interpretation of the Soviet History of Spaceflight in Contemporary Russian Blockbusters.” Fiction in Central and Eastern European Film Theory and Practice (ed. by J. Alexander Bareis and Mario Slugan). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 8. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2019.0008.159

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