Jan 232014


Royal Observatory, Greenwich

When, at 06:07 on the morning of 12th April 1961, Lieutenant Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin of the Soviet Air Force strapped himself into the capsule of Vostok 1 as it waited on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and inaugurated the history of manned space flight by uttering the words “let’s go”, it always seemed likely that on his return he would be fêted around the globe. And so it turned out: cheering crowds greeted him in Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Egypt and Finland and, when he visited Manchester, he won the hearts of those waiting in the Moss Side rain for a glimpse of their hero by refusing to use an umbrella as he passed them in his open-top Bentley. Rocket engineer Sergei Korolev later said that Gagarin possessed a smile that “lit up the Cold War”.

What was probably less expected was that Gagarin would then have an equally successful career in rhythmic gymnastics. His routine with the ball and ribbon was especially notable, and is commemorated in this statue erected behind Greenwich Observatory last March. The sculpture is actually a copy of a work which used to stand in Lyubertsy, the town where Gagarin trained as a steel foundry worker; somewhat controversially, as part of preparations for the Winter Olympics, the Lyubertsy tribute was taken down on the direct orders of Vladimir Putin, who said it gave the wrong impression. It was then replaced by specially commissioned bronze of the Russian president stripped to the waist and wrestling a giant space-bear.

Matt Haynes

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