soviet history


April 12th 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space

On this day in 1961, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space. Gagarin, a fighter pilot, was the successful candidate for the mission, being selected by Russian space programme director Sergei Korolev. Russia already had a lead in the Space Race, having launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, which was the first satellite in space. On April 12th 1961, Gagarin left Earth aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft, famously declaring ‘Poyekhali!’ (which means ‘Let’s go!’ in Russian). He spent 108 minutes completing an orbit of the planet. Upon re-entering the atmosphere, Gagarin executed a successful ejection and landed by parachute in rural Russia, to the consternation of locals. Yuri Gagarin became famous worldwide and a Russian hero, being awarded the nation’s highest honour - Hero of the Soviet Union. Gagarin died in 1968 when the training plane he was piloting crashed; his ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin.

“Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
- Gagarin to some stunned farmers when he landed


A very furry story from the history of the space race! Khrushchev’s move strikes me as brilliant: half, “we may be engaged in a cold war, but we’re still human!” and half, “the dogs we sent to space are already having babies. How’s NASA coming along?”

Apparently, Pushinka (which means “fluffy" in Russian) was examined before arriving at the White House to check for listening devices.

Images: Daniel Mogford/Flickr, Ralphdj/Wikimedia Commons, The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library


March 27th 1958: Khrushchev becomes Soviet Premier

On this day in 1958, Nikita Khrushchev became head of the government of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev served as Premier of the world’s first Communist state from 1958 to 1964. He, along with Lenin and Stalin, are the only Premiers to also have been party leader simultaneously. Under Khrushchev, Russia was partially de-Stalinised, which was a core policy of the Premier who vociferously denounced his predecessor’s dangerous ‘cult of personality’. However, the accession of Khrushchev did not ease the tensions of the Cold War, and during his tenure Russia escalated its space program to compete with the United States in the ‘Space Race’. Russia had successfully launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, but now sought to put a man in space, which they did in 1961. It was also under Khrushchev that the Cold War came the closest to breaking out into fully fledged war, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. Khrushchev was deposed by party colleagues in 1964 and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as First Secretary of the Communist Party and by Alexei Kosygin as Premier.


October 3rd 1990: German reunification

On this day in 1990, Germany was officially reunited when the German Democratic Republic was abolished and incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany. The country had been split into East and West Germany following its defeat in World War Two, and subsequent occupation by the victorious Allied powers. The United States, Britain and France controlled the Western Federal Republic of Germany, and the Soviet Union the Eastern German Democratic Republic. The Cold War era ‘iron curtain’ marking the Communist bloc began to falter in 1989, when East Germans used the removal of the Hungarian border fence to flee the oppression of Soviet rule for the safety of West Germany. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which had divided the Western and Eastern sections of the German capital, calls for total reunification rose. Conservative pro-reunification parties won in the first free elections in Soviet-controlled East Germany, and worked to secure closer ties with the West. Economic union occurred in July 1990, followed by total political reunification in October under the government of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. While rightly celebrated as a momentous event in German history, reunification came at the price of the economic collapse of the former East Germany, which plunged Germany into recession. The reunification of Germany was one the major events leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, October 3rd, is celebrated in Germany as German Unity Day.