In 1961, the Soviet Union ushered in a new era in space exploration – the era of manned flights. At 9:07am on 12 April, Gagarin’s famous “Let’s go!” rang out. The cosmonaut took an hour and 48 minutes to circumnavigate the planet. At 10:55am, the capsule of his reentry module landed safely near the village of Smelovka near Saratov. The news of the “108 minutes that shook the world” instantly spread around the globe. Today we celebrate The International Day of Human Space Flight.
Until the last moment nobody knew who would be sent first: Yuri Gagarin or German Titov. The state commission made its decision only three days before the launch – Gagarin was to fly. Titov remained the backup, but by 6 August 1961, he had already become the first man to spend more than a day in space, making 17 flights around the Earth. On 14 June 1963, a new solo flight record was made – cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky remained in orbit for nearly five days. Only two days later, on 16 June, the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, was sent into space. On 18 March 1965, Alexey Leonov was the first to go into outer space. His report to the state commission was brief, “In outer space, both living and working is possible”. Leonov became famous as the first space artist. He was convinced that even the most sophisticated equipment could never capture what he had seen and that only the eye and brush of a painter are capable of conveying to people the beauty of the cosmos and Earth. The vivid, spectacular and authentic works created “first hand” painted an image of the cosmos as a romantic, friendly space in the minds of many Soviet citizens.
Spaceman became the idols of the generation. Their stories were backed up by numerous publications and screen adaptations, creating the illusion of a common aspiration for a bright future. Shortly after his first flight, Yuri Gagarin’s book “The Road to Space: Notes of the USSR Pilot and Cosmonaut” (Doroga v Kosmos: zapiski letchika-kosmonavta SSSR) was published, and it instantly became a bestseller. In the book, Gagarin sets forth in a simple and accessible language the feelings he experienced while being in orbit and after landing, “After making sure that the ship will reach Earth safely, I prepared for descent. Ten thousand meters… Nine thousand… Eight… Seven… The ribbon of the Volga flashed below. I immediately recognized the great Russian river and the banks over which Dmitry Pavlovich Martyanov taught me to fly. Everything was very familiar – the landscape, spring fields, groves, roads, and the town of Saratov with houses piled up in the distance like cubes… Stepping onto the hard ground, I saw a woman and a girl standing near a spotted calf and watching me with curiosity. I went towards them. They came to meet me. But their steps slowed as they drew near. I was still wearing my bright orange spacesuit, and its unusual appearance frightened them a little. They’d never seen anything like it. “Your own, comrades, your own,” I shouted as I removed my hermetic helmet, feeling a chill of excitement. It was the forester’s wife Anna Akimovna Takhtarova with her six-year-old granddaughter Rita. “Could you be from space?” asked the woman with some uncertainty. “Imagine that – yes!” I said. “Yuri Gagarin! Yuri Gagarin!” shouted workers running from the field. These were the first people I met on the Earth after my flight — ordinary Soviet people working the fields on a collective farm. We hugged and kissed like relatives.”
Schools, streets, districts and entire settlements were named in honor of the first space explorers. Portraits and sculptures of cosmonauts appeared in public spaces and museum exhibitions. A monument to Yuri Gagarin was erected in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics. A work of Pavel Bondarenko, it was made of titanium used during the construction of space ships. Together with the pedestal, the monument had a height of 42.5 meters and a total weight of 12 tons. By the foot of the monument was a replica of the Vostok spacecraft reentry capsule. The place for the monument – Gagarin Square on the intersection of Lenin Avenue, Kosygin Street and the 60th Anniversary of October Avenue in Moscow – was not chosen randomly. It was via Lenin Avenue namely that Yuri Gagarin would enter Moscow, heading from Vnukovo airport to the Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party to the report the results of his first flight to the space.
These interesting facts illustrated by Soviet space-race graphics can be found in the new book “Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR” by Alexandra Sankova written in collaboration with the Moscow Design Museum and just recently published by Phaidon.
“Created against a backdrop of geopolitical uncertainty, the extraordinary images featured, taken from the period’s hugely successful popular-science magazines, were a vital tool for the promotion of state ideology. Presenting more than 250 illustrations – depicting daring discoveries, scientific innovations, futuristic visions, and extraterrestrial encounters – Soviet Space Graphics unlocks the door to the creative inner workings of the USSR”, writes Phaidon about the book. Elena Shampanova met with Alexandra Sankova to talk about this new book.
ES: Congratulations on your new book, Alexandra, it looks fascinating! As with all of your projects, there must be a story behind this book – please can you share it with us? How did it all start? What inspired you to create it?
Alexandra Sankova: The collection of the Moscow Design Museum contains many popular science publications of the period between 1920’s and 1980’s. We often show them at exhibitions on history of Russian design. My family and our friends, and their parents were subscribed to these magazines as children, these could be found in almost every Soviet family. Our museum received a large number of such magazines as a gift. For most Soviet people these magazines were part of their everyday life. As a rule, covers of the magazines presented the most interesting projects and ideas of the time, and articles covered the most recent achievements in science and technology, most of which were related to the field of design. In 2019 V&A Museum in London asked us to contribute to their “CARS” exhibition by lending Soviet time magazines with images of futuristic vehicles and postcards relating to their exhibition theme. Before that, in 2017, we supported “Into the Unknown” exhibition at the Barbican lending them a collection of Soviet books and magazines with covers depicting images of the space and future. Seeing that this topic is of great interest to Western audiences and creative people in Russia, I thought that it is good time to start a new project exploring Soviet graphic design in relation to space and futurology. I discussed the idea with Phaidon Press, a London-based publishing house, who have already collaborated with us before, and they agreed to publish the book with great enthusiasm.
ES: The book presents over 250 illustrations taken from popular science magazines covering the nation’s cosmic adventure during the Cold War-era Russia. Can you please tell us more about this collection of images, where they came from and how they were selected?
Alexandra Sankova: Most of the images are photos of the magazines covers from the collection of the Moscow Design Museum. We used covers, because inside images were usually in black and white. Very few Soviet magazines had color tabs, therefore, the most interesting visual material was placed on the covers to illustrate the highlight of the issue. These images were commissioned to highly professional artists. The covers were the face of the magazine – they reflected its individual style of illustrations together with the logo and title and made it stand out from the other magazines on the shelf. Magazines were widely spread throughout the USSR with millions of copies printed each year.
I have to say, we had many more images and magazine than could be included to the book, so it was a difficult choice. It’s just impossible to show every beautiful cover and illustration produced by 10 magazines featured in the book over the course of their existence.
We included materials from the following magazines in the book: Tekhnika Molodezhi (Technology for the Youth), Nauka i Zhizn (Science and Life), Yunyy Tekhnik (Young Technician), Znanie – Sila (Knowledge is Power), Yunost (Youth), Zemlya i Vselennaya (Earth and the Universe), Iskatel (Seeker), Krugozor (Outlook), Smena (Shift), and Radio. Images from different years are divided into 4 thematic sections:
- Space Exploration – images of space exploration and dreams people had before they started exploring space (e.g. images of aircrafts from the 1950-60s);
- Cosmic Pioneers – images of astronauts and human activities in space;
- Future Visions – images of future life in space and on Earth (e.g. futuristic floating cities, unusual cars driving down highways)
- Alternative Worlds – images depicting life on other planets, below the Earth’s surface, and in the ocean as imagined by people
ES: This is fascinating! The book is very visual – what about the text? Can you tell us more about it?
Alexandra Sankova: The introduction to the book talks about the development of space programs in the USSR and what role graphic design played in it, as well as how it was changing in relation to political and social contexts and public moods. Many images have extended captions that describe what is depicted in the image or translate captions of the illustrations.
Texts of the images are in Cyrillic, it impossible for English-speaking readers to understand what exactly they are about. The book’s editor, Tatyana Zborovskaya, collected many biographies of artists and illustrators, who unfortunately, like many other designers in the USSR, remained not vert well known. In the book we could only include biographies of key artists who collaborated with magazines constantly or were prominent illustrators of the time, however, all other biographies are now part of our museum archive.
ES: Would you say the images are ideological? Why? How different are they from the reality of those days?
Alexandra Sankova: I can’t say that the images are ideological. No doubt space programs were a powerful part of the state propaganda. However, in many ways, space and futurological illustrations were also a breath of freedom for artists and designers. What inspired artists was often not related to reality, but rather the opposite.
I could say that two key factors served as an inspiration for illustrations of magazines and books: first, high speed developments in science and technology and second, never-ending interest of designers and artists in new discoveries. Many of these artists had technical education. Another important factor that influenced the visuals was the upsurge of publications, books, novels, short stories, and the production of science fiction films in the 1920s and the 1950-60s.
Publishing houses working throughout the country collaborated with individual artists and collectives that were part of the Union of Artists the USSR. Science magazines and design research institutes often provided sanctuary and official employment to nonconformist, underground artists. Working for magazines, they embodied unusual fantastic concepts, reflected on the essence of things, made conceptual designs for cover pages, and drew a new reality that had nothing to do with their real environment.
Artists working for magazines and newspapers were able to visualise their most unusual fantasies about new worlds. Pictures of space were always positive, usually painted using bright colours, predominantly of the violet-purple range. When creating images of living beings, flying machines and architectural structures on other planets, they used bionic and zoomorphic forms. The legendary art editor and chief artist of the journal Nauka i zhizn’ (“Science and life”), Boris Dashkov, also worked a lot for Yunyy tekhnik (“Young technician”) and Tekhnika Molodezhi (“Technology for the youth”). He was able to depict in detail what a science laboratory on the moon, the command post at a science station, space communications equipment, an astronomical observatory might look like, or even how researchers move across the surface of the moon in spacesuits and on electric vehicles.  Tekhnika – molodezhi regularly held international competitions for writers and artists on the themes of grand transformations on Earth and life on other planets. These unusual works of art became known thanks to the fact that they were published not only on the pages of magazines, but also in the form of postcards. In order to portray space ships and other planets’ landscapes, artists studied scientific literature and consulted with academics. Thanks to this collaboration, the illustrations were full of plausible details, and thanks to pens, brushes and paints, distant worlds became as realistic as possible to imagine.
ES: What about the role of space in everyday life?
Alexandra Sankova: With time space became one of the leading motif in design and architecture. Starting from the 1960s textile factories produced fabrics printed with stars and rockets, furniture industry produced satellite-shaped three-legged stools, tables and lamps, children played with all-terrain vehicles, moon rovers, and astronaut dolls.
Many boys and girls dreamed of becoming cosmonauts. They played pilots in the courtyards and kindergartens, performing “heroic feats”. Children’s hats resembling helmets even became fashionable. Those preparing to become engineers attended the young technicians’ workshops and mastered construction even before entering university. In the USSR there existed a unique system of extracurricular work, unequalled in the world; the young technicians remained after class to study their favourite subjects, and in these after-school clubs they got to learn the fundamentals of radio electronics, automation, biochemistry, genetics and astronautics.
These after-school clubs served as an excellent launching pad for many famous inventors, innovators and designers – aeronautical designers Sergey Ilyushin and Aleksandr Yakovlev and Oleg Antonov, cosmonauts German Titov and Anatoly Filipchenko, a scientist Boris Platon.
Interstellar pioneers became Soviet superheroes. They personified the best qualities people should have. In total between 1961 and 1991, 72 cosmonauts were in space, and 68 men and 2 woman obtained the honorary title of pilot-cosmonaut of the USSR. Images from my book “Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR” take you on a visual journey through those times.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Alexandra Sankova is the director and founder of the Moscow Design Museum, which was established in 2012 with the mission to record, preserve, and promote the design heritage of Russia. She has curated and co-curated a number of exhibitions at the museum that have toured internationally, including Soviet Design 1950–1980 (2013), Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design (2016), and History of Russian Design 1917–2017 (2017). Sankova is the author of 23 (2010), co-author of Designed in the USSR: 1950–1989 (Phaidon, 2018) and VNIITE: Discovering Utopia – Lost Archives of Soviet Design (2018).
The Moscow Design Museum was founded in 2012 and is the first cultural institution in Russia specifically dedicated to design. The museum’s main objective is to preserve and popularise Russian design heritage at home and abroad. The museum held an exhibition entitled “Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design”, which received the Utopia Medal at the innaugural London Design Biennale in 2016.