Magazine

Posters of the golden age of Soviet cosmonauts

  • 19 September 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Iraklii Toidze, In the Name of Peace, 1959 Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Iraklii Toidze, In the Name of Peace, 1959 (detail)

Five decades ago the Space Race was being vigorously fought between the Soviet Union and the US. For a time the USSR seemed to be winning and it tried to make the most of the propaganda potential.

Here we take a close-up look at seven posters from a new exhibition - Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age - at the Science Museum in London.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, when space travel was in its infancy, the USSR closely guarded its technological secrets - keen not to let the Americans get the upper hand.

But, as Natalia Sidlina, one of the curators of the Science Museum's new exhibition, explains, Communist leaders also wanted Russians to celebrate the advances the country was making.

"How do you go about creating propaganda for an industry which is so heavily classified?" she says.

Posters were the answer.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Iraklii Toidze, In the Name of Peace, 1959

Sidlina says a famous World War Two poster, Mother Russia Calling, was the inspiration for this first space race poster - In the Name of Peace.

It features the same female figure, in the same red outfit and headscarf - and would have been recognisable and familiar to the Russian population.

And with the nuclear bomb drops on Japan at the end of WW2 little more than a decade before, Moscow was keen to stress - she adds - that as far as space exploration was concerned, everything was peaceful.

"There is not much space gear on the poster," she says. "Just rays from the Sun, a tiny rocket and a planet in the corner."

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Iraklii Toidze, In the Name of Peace, 1959 (detail)

The next poster focuses on two of the dogs - Belka and Strelka - sent into space by the Soviets ahead of the first human missions.

It was 1960, says Sidlina, and the Soviet Union had already launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made Earth satellite - and Laika had become the first dog in space in Sputnik 2.

Scientists were edging closer to manned space flight, but more animals would make the journey first.

"The launcher was classified, so was the spacecraft - all the poster designers had to go on were the dogs," she explains.

The poster features a stylised rocket, with clear Soviet symbols - a red star, plus hammer and sickle.

It is being held by a strong Slavic looking working class man, with big bare hands.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Konstantin Ivanov, The road is open for humans, 1960

The next poster, The Fairy Tale Became Truth, celebrates 12 April 1961 - the day when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

"Dogs - and then cosmonauts - were the equivalent of Hollywood stars in the Soviet Union," explains Sidlina.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption The Fairy Tale Became Truth, 1961

The poster artists were again limited with the detail they were allowed to show.

"Gagarin's space suit is more like that of a pilot of a fighter plane than a cosmonaut," says Sidlina.

She explains that he is depicted as a modern-day Prometheus - the Greek Titan who gave fire to man.

"It is the mythologisation of Gagarin as the first human in space."

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption The Fairy Tale Became Truth, 1961 (detail)

The fourth poster features a photo montage of cosmonauts' faces, and celebrates the Communist Party's role in the Soviet space programme.

From left to right in order of mission - Gagarin, Titov, Nikolayev and Popovich - the first four cosmonauts in space.

"It's patriotic and political," says Sidlina.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Boris Berezovsky, Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union! 1962

The fifth poster is a festive design for children.

It was created in 1963, just after Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space - travelling in Vostok 6.

The fact we can see a boy and a girl is significant, says Sidlina.

They are shown in space suit outfits and carrying a stylised Vostok launcher - "showing the way is open for every child to dream of going into space - with no boundaries."

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Nikolai Charukin, Happy New Year Kids! 1964

When Sweden's Nobel Committee decided to award a prize to the Soviet space programme's chief designer they asked to know his name.

Premier Khrushchev refused to name Sergei Korolev - whose identity was classified - and told the committee that the entire Soviet people deserved the award.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Boris Berezovsky, Glory of the Space Heroes - Glory of the Soviet People! 1963 (detail)

And the sixth poster tries to convey the same sentiment - and make all Russians proud with a sense of belonging.

"Behind male and female cosmonauts we have scientists, foundry workers, ground staff... it's everyone," says Sidlina.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Boris Berezovsky, Glory of the Space Heroes - Glory of the Soviet People! 1963

The final poster from 1965 displays new design aesthetics, says Sidlina - with the influence of Western films and commercial production.

The elongated triangle is a trail left by a rocket heading into space. It is being walked by a young man in a space suit, who is following the path to distant galaxies.

At the time the Americans and Soviets were competing to achieve the next milestone - get a man on the Moon - and the poster hints that further deep space exploration might be possible.

Image copyright Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Image caption Miron Lukianov and Vasily Ostrovsky, Through the Worlds and Centuries, July 1965

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age can be seen at the Science Museum, London, until 13 March 2016.

All images copyright Collection of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.

No reproduction without permission.

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