Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

The human face of Soviet space

Kosmos: A Portrait of the Russian Space Age

Photographs by Adam Bartos with <br>an essay by Svetlana Boym<br>Princeton Architectural Press, US$40<br>

Russians, as my mother-in-law never tires of telling me, have poetical souls. Space for them could never just be a plot of real estate to be staked out, or a herd of cattle to be rounded up, as it sometimes seemed to be for the Americans; it was a sublime and mystical quest. Just look at the science fiction inspired by the space programmes. They got Solaris; we got Star Wars.

Unfortunately, the Soviet Russian state was also corrupt, incompetent and rapacious. So just after Yuri Gagarin’s voyage in April 1961, Kruschev instructed his chief rocket designer, Sergei Korolev, to send another manned expedition into space that summer. The government would spare no effort laying on the circuses, even if bread was sometimes a problem. An early sequel to Gagarin’s heroic (if, to the old dears of his village, also heretical) flight would keep the minds of his people off their own materially impoverished lives, and those of the Western world off the small matter of the Berlin Wall.

Some of these ambiguities weave through Adam Bartos’s collection of photographs, mostly taken in the semi-secret ‘cosmodrome’ built by the Soviets at Baikonur on the Kazakh plain. As in his previous book, International Territory, about the UN’s New York headquarters, the pictures document the untidy relationship between big institutions and their human inhabitants. Bartos’s rhetoric is understated, rendering both epic and intimate subjects with the same cool eye.

As with the UN, there is an element of kitsch – in its strict meaning of cheapening or degradation – in the theme, as we know the Soviet space programme, and the political order that it symbolised, came to a sticky end. But Bartos doesn’t go overboard on the tackiness of Soviet heraldry or the patched-up stinginess of the cosmonauts’ quarters. What he wants you to notice – out of the corner of your eye, as he has – is to do with character. Books on bookshelves – Chekhov, Mark Twain, Rembrandt, The Art of Netsuke (skim through The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s account of the US manned space programme, and ask yourself what those guys were reading). Pin-ups and science-fiction posters on the lab wall – and a photocopy of a 0 bill. Family snapshots on desks. In the apartment of Andrei Sokolov, famous for painting space, two distinctly earthbound landscapes, doughy views of Mother Russia. A tiny bronze Buddha keeping numerous avatars of Lenin company on designer Sergei Kryukov’s sideboard.

This rich hoard of marginal detail forms a large part of the book, which also includes spectacular images of the transportation of rockets and the vast halls from which they were fired, as well as several portraits of dignified, medalled, threadbare pensioners – scientists and cosmonauts from the good old days.

Overall, the Soviet space programme emerges as a true and unblemished manifestation of revolutionary ideals; a romance of technology, progress and freedom. It was outside that everything went pear-shaped. Of course, few of us are in a position to challenge this reading. But an essay by Svetlana Boym gives an outline of the Soviet space project, from the pioneering researches of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (deaf, like Beethoven) to the avant-garde interlude of 1912-20 during which Malevich and Tatlin dreamed of a world beyond the sky, to the eventual blossoming of the space programme into a propaganda wheeze and a think-tank for the arms industry, to its unexpected rebirth as a key element in the iconography of 1990s Russia’s burgeoning club scene. History repeats itself, as Marx so nearly said: first as tragedy, then as an extended techno remix.