By Andrea Rose

23 October 2015 - 10:27

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first cosmonaut to fly to space. Photo (c) Allan Lee, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first cosmonaut to fly to space. Photo ©

Allan Lee, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Yuri Gagarin's elder daughter, Elena Gagarina, speaks about the private life of her father. This interview, conducted by the British Council's then head of visual arts, Andrea Rose, in 2011 has been republished as a podcast and edited transcript.

Andrea Rose: Do you have any memories of April 12, 1961, the day your father was the first man to fly into space?

Elena Gagarina: No, I was too young, I was only two years old, and don’t have any recollections of the day itself.

AR: So when was the first time that you knew what your father had achieved?

EG: Well, it was just a part of my life and growing up. He was always the first cosmonaut of the world for me, and his whole life was connected with space and space exploration. There wasn’t a before and after for me.

AR: Did he talk to you as you grew up about taking that first flight?

EG: No. He talked it about it so often, and with so many people, that it seemed to me he was rather tired of talking about it. What he talked about to me was his childhood – about what it was like to grow up in Smolensk, and about the war. His family lived under German occupation for three years, and he talked to us a great deal about that.

AR: What did he tell you about growing up in Smolensk?

EG: That life was extremely difficult at the time. The family – a large family of two parents and four children – were thrown out of their house by the Germans. There was no food, and no possibility of studying for the children. In 1941, aged seven, he attended the first year of the local school, but when the Germans occupied the area, the school was closed, and there was no school for three years. Only after the area was re-taken by the Soviet army in 1944 was the school open again, but life was tremendously difficult. They had almost nothing: there was no paper for example, they had to hunt for bits of wood or scraps of paper from around the town to write on. But they seemed to have very dedicated teachers, who wanted to pass on as much as they could - perhaps because the war made the need greater than ever – and they had a good grounding in maths, chemistry and physics, as well as in literature and history.

My father was interested in literature and history all his life. His love of history was very actual: he knew it as if he were taking part in it himself. I remember his driving me and my sister to Borodino one day – the battleground where Napolean’s army met the Russian army in one of the major engagements of the Napoleonic Wars, during the French invasion of Russia – and it was as if he knew every detail of the battle, re-enacting the events, and showing us what happened where. He also recited the poetry about the battle to us, and I remember being impressed by his knowledge. It was the same when he was a student in Samara, then in St Petersburg and Moscow. He learned as much as he could about the history of the cities - he was curious and interested in everything. One of his friends told me that when he was in Moscow he went to lectures on art at the Pushkin Museum. He was part of a generation that had had so few opportunities open to them, and then, after the war, they were avid to know so many things.

AR: Do you remember other family trips with your father?

EG: At Borodino, there were just the three of us: my father, me and my sister. But he had many friends, and every weekend he would organise something interesting. Much of it was to do with sport, because he and his friends were great sportsmen – volleyball, hockey, football. We would prepare food and then go to the forest and spend the entire day there, women, children and a company of sports-playing men.

Very often, as he was working hard during the day and came back late at night, he would gather up some friends and they’d go to play hockey in the nearby stadium. They’d play through the night, and sometimes ended up sleeping only about three to four hours. But they still felt very good the next day. Every day, he would take us to the forest for physical exercises. As he was going down the stairwell, he would call on every flat in the block and get everyone out to come and join us. He thought it was very important to do exercise every day in the open air.

AR: What sort of place were you living in?

EG: I don’t remember the flat we lived in before my father’s flight. It was in Moscow, where he was in training with the first group of pilots selected for space flight. After the flight we moved to a large flat in a small city called Chkalovskaya. It’s near a military airport and we lived there for four years. Star City, the township specially designed for cosmonauts and people involved in the space business, hadn’t been built at the time. We moved there in 1966.

AR: What do you remember of life in Star City?

EG: The place was wonderful. When we arrived, there were only a few buildings, and it was right in the middle of a forest. We went mushrooming and berry-picking most of the summer; and it was safe for children to play in because it was a protected area – a military zone. The people who lived there all worked incredibly hard, many of them were studying at the Zhukovsky Academy of Aeronautical Science, as well as working in Moscow, and very often they seemed to come home just to sleep. If they had any free time, they went in for different kinds of sport: everything was provided for.

AR: As soon as your father went into orbit, he became a worldwide celebrity. Was he much at home during the first years after his flight?

EG: No, not at all. But when he did have time, he liked to be at home and spend it with us. He was keen to see that we (his two daughters Elena and Galina) were studying hard. He liked to talk to us about books and literature, and he liked to recite poetry to us. He knew a lot of poetry by heart, and he liked to teach us to recite it too.

AR: What sort of poetry?

EG: Well, he knew Pushkin very well, and Tvardovsky and Isakovsky – poetry connected with the war. He liked a great deal of literature: Lermontov and Saint-Exupery, for example. He liked to read to us in a loud voice. It was too difficult for us to understand at the time, but he still liked doing it.

AR: Do you think he saw himself as the little prince?

EG: No. He thought of himself as a pilot. His favourite book wasn’t the Little Prince, it was Night Flight.

AR: Before your father boarded Vostok 1, did he tell your mother what he was about to do?

EG: She knew what he wanted to do, and when he was leaving for Baikonur, he told her what he was doing. But he didn’t tell her the actual date. He told her the flight would take place a few days after the real date, so she wouldn't be worried.

AR: Obviously it was an extraordinarily dangerous mission. Did he prepare the family in any way for the danger?

EG: No, no, he didn’t.

AR: And when he returned from orbit, do you have any recollection of what happened to you? Did your grandparents come to look after you?

EG: No, his mother came for a while, and then a nurse came to stay to look after us, as my father was working all the time, my sister was only a month old and my mother was very preoccupied with looking after a young baby and a small child.

AR: Your father became the most famous man in the world – almost instantly. How did his celebrity affect the family, and your mother in particular?

EG: My mother is a very private person, and she understood immediately that their life would change forever. And it really changed. It was only the first part of their married life, when they lived in the far north (Murmansk) shortly after getting married that they had much time to themselves. Even after his selection for the first cohort of cosmonauts and their move to Moscow, they couldn’t spend a great deal of time together. And after the flight, it was extremely difficult to have a private life at all. They had so little opportunity to be with one another in a private capacity.

AR: The selection of your father over Gherman Titov as the first man to go into space was made in the last few days before the flight. Do you think your father’s personality – so outward-going, so engaging – was a decisive factor in his selection?

EG: Yes.

AR: Can you describe his personality? In every news bulletin or photograph we see, your father has a winning smile: it made him instantly loveable. Do you think this played a part in choosing him over Titov?

EG: Sergei Pavlovich Korolyev, ‘Chief Designer’ of the Soviet space programme, chose him, but all the six pilots in the first group of cosmonauts were very well prepared. They were physically very fit. They were very well trained - even over-trained - because nobody knew what the effects of space would be on the human body. All the first cosmonauts were trained to take decisions very quickly and it was this above all that determined who would be on the first cosmonaut programme. My father was exceptionally physically fit. He didn’t even really understand what it meant to have any internal pain. He knew well enough when one of his hands or legs was hit, but he really never experienced any problems internally. He would say to us that he couldn’t actually imagine what it must feel like to have something wrong inside. And then, he was also phenomenally calm, and mentally disciplined. For example, if he came home during the day and said he was tired, he would say ‘I have 40 minutes to sleep, I am very tired.’ He then slept for 40 minutes and woke up on the dot, without needing an alarm clock or anyone to wake him.

AR: Was that to do with his training?

EG: No. It was his natural ability.

AR: Has he passed that onto you?

EG: No! [laughs]

AR: As you were growing up, did you meet many of the people involved in the Soviet space programme, men such as Korolev?

EG: I never met Korolev - who was regarded as a state secret - but I knew all the cosmonauts and all the engineers who lived at Star City very well: all the people who are preparing pilots for their work in space. We lived in the same place, and went to school with their children. It was a special kind of life, because we knew very well that all the men were involved in dangerous work. Many of those who worked at Star City were very good military pilots, and continued to work as such. The work wasn't always particularly safe.

AR: Did you ever ask your father about what it was like on his flight?

EG: Well, we now know how very dangerous it was. And during the flight there were a number of very dangerous situations, but he never told us in detail about these. We now know the full extent, because the documents have been published, but at the time they were secret. So I can imagine how dangerous it was, but it wasn’t something he would talk about. But after his first flight, he wanted to fly again in space. He wanted to continue his work as a pilot and as a cosmonaut. He was also very interested in the engineering aspects of space flight and the construction of spaceships. He went on to study at the Zhukovsy Academy and proposed a fixed-wing spaceship for his diploma – rather like the space shuttle the Americans went on to design. He graduated in February 1968. But he was unhappy that he wasn’t selected for another space flight. Korolev, with whom he remained good friends, thought he would have been one of the leading scientists in that field.

AR: So he enjoyed his first flight, despite the tremendous danger?

EG: Yes, but it wasn't enough for him, it was too quick! And he liked it very much and he wanted to continue flying.

AR: He famously visited a great number of overseas countries after his flight - which do you think he liked best?

EG: Well, I know that he liked Britain very much! The Queen gave him some rather beautiful dolls to bring back for me and Galina. He was in France a number of times, always in connections with the Paris airshows, and that’s what he enjoyed, seeing the new technological aspects of flight. And he liked Cuba a lot. Castro was a good friend. But he would have liked to have been able to travel by himself sometimes, not with the official mission, and to be able to see more and to know more. But it wasn’t possible, because even if he planned something for himself, he was mobbed by people wanting to see him and talk to him. He realised it was part of his job, and he couldn’t refuse.

AR: Did his unprecedented fame cause you difficulties growing up?

EG: Well, I never had any other kind of life, so I can’t compare. I always belonged to a very famous family and it’s part of my life: I don’t remember the time when the situation with my family was different. I can’t say whether it’s good or bad, difficult or otherwise, it’s just the reality.

AR: And as part of this very famous family, do you still receive communications from around the world, letters asking you about your father?

EG: Yes, I get very many photos and reminiscences from different people who met him, and if I meet someone who remembers 12 April or remembers meeting him, they always tell me about it. It is always a pleasure.

AR: Do you keep these reminiscences?

EG: Yes, we keep everything at my mother’s house.

AR: And do you reply to everyone?

EG: Yes, I do reply. Sometimes I call people who want me to reply; sometimes people just send photos because they know we have an archive and they want their photos to belong to the family archive. There are also school projects about space, and I get students writing to me and I always answer their questions.

AR: On 12 April, when the newspapers reported the event, there was speculation that Russia would be the first country to send a man to the moon. It didn’t happen. What do you think your father would have felt if he had known that it was going to be the Americans who put a man on the moon?

EG: Well, it was down to the political situation, not because Russia wasn't ready for it. We know that many things take place as a result of political decisions, and I am sure that he wouldn't have been happy, nor would Korolev, who had been preparing a moon programme for some time. There's a documentary called 'Red Space'. It's devoted to the catastrophes that took place in space and how many of these were the result of politicians wanting flights to take place before all the safety and technical features had been fully tested.

AR: And do you get correspondence from the US about your father?

EG: Yes, tomorrow someone from the Space Museum, Washington, is coming to speak to me.

AR: Is that the first time you'll be talking to an American interviewer?

EG: It's the first time that a writer has ever come specially to Russia to talk to me; of course it's because of the 50th anniversary. When I'm in the US, though, I do get asked about my father.

AR: Can I just take you back to the time of the flight. Your father must have prepared your mother or your family for the possibility that he wouldn't return.

EG: Yes.

AR: Did he leave any messages for her?

EG: Well, he wrote a letter for my mother saying that it was likely he wouldn't return, because the flight was very dangerous, and that he wanted her not to remain alone in that case. But he didn't give her the letter. She found it by chance among his things when he came back. He hadn't wanted her to find it, and told her that she should throw it away. But of course, she kept it.

AR: And are there many letters from your father to your mother that you have kept?

EG: A few, but they date from when I was just born, when my mother continued to study and my father was training as a military pilot in the far north, on the border with Norway. She wasn't able to join him, so that's when they wrote letters to one another. But after that they always lived together,so there wasn't a need for letters.

AR: Were you ever interested in going into the space or aviation industries yourself?

EG: No. No, never. I am absolutely sure the work is not good for women, I know how the people are trained, and the kind of training is really very hard and sometimes awful.

AR: What in particular?

EG: It’s difficult to talk about it in English, because I don't know the terms for the training techniques, but, for example, there's the isolation chamber, where cosmonauts go into a small sealed chamber not knowing how long they'll be in there for - sometimes it could last for over 21 days. And the temperatures in there were extreme: sometimes over 50 degrees celsius; sometimes freezing. They had no watch to tell the time by, nor any contact with the outside world. The training of the first cosmonauts was extremely harsh and tested them beyond the limits of many men. But later on cosmonauts didn't have to endure this sort of training because they knew what happened to bodies in space, and could adapt the training accordingly. As we lived surrounded by cosmonauts, and many of them are friends of our family, we know some of the horrendous things they had to go through, and the fact that every flight is connected with so many dangers. I think only someone with very good health, very well educated, and a person whose brain works very quickly can deal with this work.

AR: When you went out as a family to the forest with other cosmonauts, did they talk about some of those difficulties or their experiences?

EG: No, never. They were joking, they were playing around, they were hunting or fishing or they liked water-skiing very much, and they never spoke about that.

AR: It was a very secret life, I suppose.

EG: It wasn’t a secret life, but as military men, they never speak about their work at home and they never want their wives or children to know what’s happening, because they don’t want them to worry.

AR: The image of you and your parents given out to the press suggests that you were a devoted family. Is that how you recall your growing up? Given your father was away so much, could you say he was really a family man?

EG: Yes, he was certainly a family man. But he had a huge amount of friends, and he enjoyed spending time with them and liked having guests at home. Very often, he would bring people home after meetings, and he'd create a friendly, convivial atmosphere.They spent their time in a very good way, because they were always busy, they were always trying to know something new, to meet new people, and I remember that our house was always full of different kind of people who came with my father.

AR: At the beginning of this interview, you said that your father’s childhood was extremely hard. Do you think his ability to function in extremely dangerous and difficult situations can be attributed to his ability to survive and overcome those early deprivations?

EG: Yes, it seems to me that must have shaped him. Smolensk, the region he grew up in, is the poorest region of our country and life there was always very difficult. It’s the westernmost region of Russia, and all the battles, all the invasions came from the west through that field of Smolensk. That’s why the history of the region is very rich but also very dark. But it wasn't only that: he was a curious and interested individual. He loved reading, he had a very good memory, and he spent 20 hours a day working throughout his adult life. This wasn't because of his impoverished childhood. He was just interested in everything.

In July 2011, Elena Gagarina came to London to unveil a statue of her father outside the British Council offices. The statue was a gift from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to the British Council and stood near the statue of Captain James Cook. As director of the Kremlin Museum, Elena Gagarina worked with the Henry Moore Foundation and the British Council on an exhibition of Henry Moore’s work at the Kremlin Museum in 2012.

The Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition at the Science Museum in London is running until 13 March 2016. 

You may also be interested in: