Valentina Tereshkova: The Greta Garbo of space

In June 1963 a young Soviet worker became the first woman to travel into space. Valentina Tereshkova rarely talks about her mission, so to tell the story of how she became a national hero and an icon for gender equality, Lucy Ash visited her home town, starting at the textile factory where she worked.
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I follow the factory boss up endless staircases and down long corridors. As the light filters through grimy windows and bounces off green paint, I feel trapped in a vast aquarium, or rather a tank of aspic.

Here is an impeccably preserved piece of the Soviet Union, right down to the browbeaten babushkas listlessly sweeping the floors and the hammers and sickles decorating the walls.

We stop by a metal loom, gathering dust. Pyotr Shelkoshwein, director of the Krasniy Perekop textile plant, strokes the machine reverentially "This", he says, "is where Tereshkova worked."

Shelkoshwein joined the factory in Yaroslavl, 150 miles north-east of Moscow, at the same time as Valentina Tereshkova, the world's first woman to be sent into space. He remembers her organising picnics for members of the Communist Youth League and spending her free time jumping out of aeroplanes.

Tereshkova, third parachutist from left in a line-up of crew preparing for a jump, beside an aeroplane Tereshkova, third parachutist from left, displayed an early enthusiasm for flight

Nothing unusual about that; by the 1960s almost every Soviet town had its own parachute club. But one lunch break, he heard the news about his workmate with dark eyes and plump cheeks.

"They mispronounced her name on the radio, so at first we thought it was a mistake," he recalls. Tereshkova had not only concealed the forthcoming mission from her friends at the factory, she had also hidden it from her mother for more than a year.

The textile worker spent three days orbiting the earth then returned to her factory in an open-top car, laden with flowers. Treated like royalty, she was the perfect proletarian heroine. In the Cold War space race, she became an icon for gender equality.

Find out more

Elena Tereshkova in front of the stained glass portrait of her mother

Maiden Voyage: The First Woman in Space can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 1030 BST on Saturday 8 June 2013 - or you can listen again aftewards on iPlayer.

Four other women trained alongside her - three of whom were graduates with technical expertise - but the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made the final choice. He liked Tereshkova's fresh-faced looks and propaganda potential. She was the daughter of a tractor driver killed on the Finnish border in World War II.

Tereshkova was celebrated in songs and her face was put on postage stamps. Soon after her flight, she was married off to a fellow cosmonaut, Andriyan Nikolayev. Khrushchev gave the bride away at a wedding filled with the Soviet equivalent of Hello magazine photographers. When the couple eventually split, their divorce needed the personal approval of Leonid Brezhnev.

In short, Tereshkova's life was hijacked by the Party. Over the years, her image has been carefully preserved. In the entrance of a new planetarium built in her home town of Yaroslavl, there's a huge stained glass portrait in which she wears her helmet like a sci-fi halo.

Behind the propaganda, though, there were always lingering questions. Rumours have increasingly circulated about the success of the flight. Physicians at Star City - the Soviet space programme headquarters - were critical of her performance, implying perhaps a more hostile attitude to female cosmonauts than the trumpeting of sexual equality would suggest. The fact remains that two decades elapsed before the next Russian woman was sent on a mission.

Tereshkova has done little to quash speculation over the years. Today, as a member of the Duma - Russia's Parliament - and deputy chairman of its Foreign Affairs Commission, she remains guarded.

So I put my questions to Tereshkova's daughter Elena instead. "Was it true that your mother felt unwell and vomited in the capsule?" I ask her. "No, no, no, no," says Elena, widening her heavily made up eyes.

Valentina Tereshkova inside a spacecraft simulator

What about the accusations recorded in the diary of Nikolai Kamanin, Tereshkova's head of training, saying she overslept and failed to communicate with ground control during the re-entry phase? "I've read that stuff," says Elena. "Mum said some people were very jealous and it was a complicated time."

Start Quote

Valentina liked climbing cherry trees - she never cried when she scraped her knees”

End Quote Lydia Aksyonova Tereshkova's aunt

To find out more about her early life, I'd planned a trip to a little museum near the village where Tereshkova was born. Elena said it was closed for repairs but I decided to go anyway.

The wooden house is a surreal replica of the home where the cosmonaut was born, especially strange considering it is only a short drive away from the actual place. Everything inside is fabricated, from the felt boots to the dolls on the bed. The only genuine article is an accordion in the corner that had belonged to Tereshkova's father.

As the guide shows me around, Elena turns up with a bunch of local dignitaries. Her panda eyes widen in shock. "This place is not ready for visits," she hisses.

On the other side of the River Volga, I may have strayed off limits again. I'd heard all about Tereshkova's heroic father, Vladimir, who was burned inside his tank. Vladimir's 89-year-old sister is still alive today.

Lydia Aksyonova

I climb over chicken wire on to a muddy path leading to Lydia Aksyonova's run-down house. Bottles of pills are scattered on the floor around her bed and water drips through the cracked ceiling.

"Valentina liked climbing cherry trees. She never cried when she scraped her knees," she tells me. "She was tough, just like me." The old woman's voice quavers as she talks about being sent to the front as a teenager.

"I defended Leningrad, held a machine gun then, but now everyone's forgotten about that. My roof leaks and I can't afford to fix it. All my pension goes on medicines."

Surely her famous niece could do something to help, I suggest. She's one of the most influential women in Russia, isn't she?

"Oh I don't want to bother her. She's busy and she has her own family," says the aunt. "We're proud," cuts in Lydia's son, Alexei, a Chechen war veteran. "We don't ask favours."

In the centre of Yaroslavl, preparations are under way for the Victory Day parade. Young men and women are rehearsing dances on the main square, near Tereshkova's constituency office. A bossy woman on a loudhailer puts them through their paces.

As military marches boom from the speakers, I picture the city back in the 60s. From the moment the news of the spaceflight was announced on 16 June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was anointed as a political deity. This poor village girl descended from the skies to the highest echelons of the red aristocracy.

But while Tereshkova may have made a smooth transition from Khrushchev's USSR to Putin's Russia, I wonder how much life has changed for those she left behind.

Maiden Voyage: The First Woman in Space can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 1030 BST on Saturday 8 June 2013.

All images subject to copyright. Some images courtesy RIA Novosti and Getty Images.

Audio production by Cast Iron Radio & Recording.

Slideshow production by Paul Kerley. Publication date 8 June 2013.

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