With silent lifting mind I’ve trod the high, untrespassed sanctity of space – John Gillespie Magee
On a trip to Prague last year, we visited the Museum of Communism. Hardly sounds a bundle of fun, but somebody had recommended it and we wanted to know more about post-war Czechoslovakia.
It really should be called the Museum of Anti-Communism, so virulent and one-sided is its condemnation of everything that happened between 1948 – when a communist coup ushered in Stalinist Soviet control – and 1989, when the Velvet Revolution defied the dying regime to establish a parliamentary republic.
The text on the display boards – alongside images of demonstrations, protests, military hardware, imprisonment, torture and domestic privations – is unremittingly harsh in its total denunciation of all things official and institutional that existed during those 41 years of subjugation.
This extreme rejection of the past (not to say, in some instances, rewriting of history) is understandable and forgivable, unlike the murderous Soviet regime which controlled the country so ruthlessly.
I don’t remember the Hungarian Rising of 1956, crushed by an invasion of Soviet troops, with thousands killed. Its main effect in countries to the west was the mass resignation of communist sympathisers.
I do recall the 1968 Prague Spring, when Dubcek’s reforms and mass protests were smashed, again by invasion, from Warsaw Pact armies and tanks. I was just getting interested in politics, but here was every reason to have your socialist stirrings and hopes dashed by the only left-wing system in existence.
It took over 20 years before the Velvet Revolution led to the collapse of the communist state in Czechoslovakia.
Though the revolution won out, the velvet was red. I was shocked to see the Prague Museum videos of the 1989 protests. Riot police were frenziedly beating the shit out of demonstrators with batons. It could have gone the other way. It’s chilling to see the lengths a near-dead system will go to save itself.
So, it’s easy to understand the intensity of the denunciation of communism. Perhaps, even now, after 30 years of independence and the Velvet Divorce (when Slovakia peacefully seceded in 1993) perspective takes a little longer to arrive.
But amidst all the vitriol and dismissal of anything faintly positive during the Communist era, one aspect of Soviet achievement seems to evoke, begrudgingly, a sense of admiration, even pride.
A fair amount of the Prague exhibition features Yuri Gargarin, first man in space, with film of him being spun around in a centrifuge and kitted up for his big adventure.
There’s even a cameo exhibit of Laika, first dog in space. Surprisingly, the museum doesn’t make anything of how this stray mongrel suffocated within hours of the flight.
The section devoted to the Soviet space programme of the late 1950’s and early 60’s is quite positive, at odds with the rest of the presentations.
In the gift shop, among sarcastic T-shirts and ironic imagery – Lenin and Stalin candles; vicious-toothed nesting dolls and a cuddly Soviet bear, Kalashnikov in its paw – the beer mats, posters and badges celebrating Sputnik, Gargarin and the Soviet space programme stand out as genuinely celebratory icons from the otherwise heinous age of terror.
This recalled a visit we made to Moscow in 2013. There’s hardly a better story of Communism to tell there, at the heart of the whole system. The faded pavilions in the VDNKh – the vast park of former soviet states – bear pathetic witness to how the mighty USSR crumbled.
But it’s a different samovar of fish at the Space Museum in the Russian capital. Though almost as firmly consigned to the dustbin of history as the VDNKh’s exhibits – its full title is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics – an earnest sense of world-beating endeavour still shines through.
Our son was living in Moscow then – hence our visit – and, with bright-eyed enthusiasm, he showed us round the exhibits with which he was already familiar from previous visits.
Though born decades after the Sputniks, Vostoks and other space capsules were mothballed, he got it: the depth of the technical achievement, the height of the dream and the significance of it all.
Maybe that’s why he’s ended up studying Astrophysics at Glasgow Uni.
There is such pride in the achievements lovingly presented in the Moscow museum. Lots of Gargarin, of course, but also featured are the research pioneers, scientists and engineers of the Soviet space programme, as well as detailed replicas of satellites, spaceships and rockets.
And Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, (still alive at 82) is given a fulsome tribute.
And to top it all, there’s the soaring rocket-shaped tower of shining titanium, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. No hint of regret nor revision, just pride and the fulfilment of dreams.
The sense of achievement persists from that amazing, now almost unbelievable, period when it looked like the space race between the Soviets and the USA was being won by the former.
Inevitably, as the battle for supremacy between east and west raged ever more fiercely, it became more race than space, a token of political and military dominance. Yet that’s not the full, or only, story
Space represents, in every sense, the Soviets’ highest achievement. Not gulags, tanks and cold wars. A genuinely uplifting consummation of humanity’s greatest aspirations, combining the most advanced and meticulous application of science with the spiritual desire to break free from Earth and fulfil mankind’s yearning for the stars.
I think the Soviets believed in it, as did the people living under all those highly repressive regimes in Eastern Europe. Sure, it was exploited for its propaganda value, but space is still special.
It was an expression of peaceful struggle. It may be the only legacy that the Soviet era has to be proud, rather than ashamed, of. And no amount of opprobrium, however justified, can bury its brilliant, noble and ambitious reach for a better world.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow.
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