6 April 2020

Cosmic Dreams

The 20th century Space Race produced a tectonic collision between two diametrically opposed superpowers that swallowed such gross amounts of money, energy and resources the figures are barely quantifiable, let alone conceivable. This new, cosmic frontier of the Cold War led the US to plough the equivalent of just under half a trillion dollars into its space program over the course of around twelve years, and while Soviet spending could never seriously contend with their ideological nemesis, it too topped well over $100 billion.


Beginning in 1955 and peaking with Apollo 11’s landing in 1969, the Space Race was propelled by suitably vast propaganda machines, designed to convince the country’s respective populations that their government’s vast expenditures on projects that brought no tangible benefit was justified. In the USSR in particular, popular science magazines became a key vehicle to spread the message of Soviet superiority, with over 200 different titles in circulation.

A new book from Phaidon chronicles the rich visual history surrounding the USSR’s national obsession with conquering space. Broken into four chapters, Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR reveals the fantastical escapism offered by space travel and how this collective ambition became an important vessel – not only for Communist ideology – but national hopes for prosperity and pride following decades of turmoil and suffering.


With hundred of posters, magazine covers and pamphlets, the transportive currency of these images is clear, less so is the pervasive cultural movement of which this kind of imagery formed just one part. As the world’s preeminent space power, with canonised space heroes like Yuri Gagarin (the first person to enter outer space) and iconic dogs Strelka and Belka (first animals to enter outer space), science and space travel garnered a religious following in the USSR which, for a period, replaced religion itself.


Gagarin was immortalised with a 42m statue in Moscow that matched Christ the Redeemer in Rio, houses and buildings began to look like spacecraft in what is referred to as the ‘cosmic age’ of Soviet architecture, films like The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev imagined space as a peaceful sanctuary made possible by Communist advances, novels on the cosmos by Bylichev, Aitmatov and the Strugatsky brothers were later adapted to film (including Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker) and space themed pop-songs like Trava U Doma (Grass By My Home) by Zemlyana (Earthlings) topped charts and became go-to anthems for state organised space events.

The idea of space travel offered a potent form of redemption for the USSR, a means of escaping their recent blood-stained history while portraying communism as a civilising power of the future, driven by the proletariat. Capitalism meanwhile was defunct, a corrupt vestige of the Old World that the USSR would leave behind as it blasted off for new world’s that demanded new governing ideologies. The real importance of the nation’s space program, sowing hope and healing in the hearts of millions, is nowhere more obvious than the pages of the book.