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Death of a Spaceman: Narrativizing Gagarin and Komarov

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

Marred by space tragedies, hidden behind the Iron Curtain, and eventually overshadowed by America’s successful moon landing, the Soviet space program remains to this day a little understood phenomenon. While nearly every American can name Neil Armstrong as the first man on the moon, fewer can identify Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space. Most readily available information on Gagarin comes from the 1998 biography Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, written by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, which divulges not only the intimate details of Gagarin’s life, but also the gruesome death of comrade and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. The stories in this biography, and in particular the spectacular demise of Komarov, have been spread by such popular sources as NPR and Andrew Smith’s moonwalker memoir, Moondust; yet in recent years many of these especially terrible facts have come under fire for exaggeration, vague descriptions, untrusted sources, and outright fabrication. It is a common factor in Soviet cosmonaut historiography to either downplay the horrific accidents of the space race, as seen in the early years of Cold War era propaganda and deception, or greatly exaggerate the story of Komarov in order to add greater narrative depth to Gagarin’s own story. This issue of misrepresentation is, however, increasingly complicated by diverging and conflicting accounts that have arisen due to the secretive nature of the Soviet space program, the propaganda of the regime, the passing of time, and the barrier of the Iron Curtain.

Soviet secrecy did little to dispel rumors and clarify myths; if anything, USSR propaganda deliberately made the truth difficult to find, going so far as to airbrush military personnel out of photographs to diminish the program’s inherent militarism, and at times erasing disgraced cosmonauts entirely to hide from view any part of the space program that did not fit the intended image. In one example, a photographer infamously shouted at Vladimir Shatalov to get back into his spaceship so they could capture his glorious moment of arrival, and spread to the world that this was the exact moment of landing, when in fact Shatalov had actually reached land moments before.[i] Not even the original cosmonaut himself is immune: perhaps most famously, for years all involved claimed Gagarin landed comfortably with Vostok as planned, when in reality his descent was plagued with unprecedented errors and he was forced to eject early from the spacecraft and landed several miles away.[ii] Just as notable as these deletions, however, were the images the Soviets allowed to remain, such as the famous picture of Yuri Gagarin on his way to the Central Committee of the Communist Party with his shoe untied, an image that Gagarin persuaded his superiors to keep, as it would enhance the image of the cosmic hero as, simultaneously and paradoxically, the common man the USSR lauded. The purpose of the Soviet censorship was, thus, not simply to fool its citizens: instead, it functioned as a manifestation of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain, keeping vital information away from competing American programs so that NASA might not surpass them. At the same time, censorship acted as a machine through which a politically convenient mythology of the cosmonaut and Soviet space travel could be propagated.

It is worth noting that beyond the inherent period-specific secrecy, a great deal of information regarding the Soviet space program has only been released post-glasnost, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, meaning that the majority of the information used not only in this essay but by historians of the Soviet space program at large are thirty years removed from the source material. This discrepancy in time necessarily makes it all the more difficult to ascertain the truth of many aspects of the space program and the people involved. Even beyond these issues, notably neither Bizony nor Doran are Russian or appear to speak it; many of their sources for the most scandalous information are unnamed members of the space program or singular people whose reports cannot be corroborated. Furthermore, while Bizony has experience in the study of space flight history, Doran lacks the same history of intensive study. To examine the falsities in Starman as well as the complicated background that led to such a portrayal, this essay relies heavily on two of the leading historians in Soviet space history: Slava Gerovitch, who writes extensively about the propaganda, mythologies, and secrecy of the program, and Asif Siddiqi, whose portrayal of Komarov’s life and death relies on a variety of Russian sources and is used as the primary evidence against Doran and Bizony’s exaggerated version.

A greatly abbreviated description of Komarov is as follows: born in 1927, married 1950, briefly kept from space training due to a ruptured hernia, Komarov was one of the first group of cosmonauts selected for flight.[iii] Notably, this description does not exist in Starman; in fact, Komarov is mentioned only in passing lists of cosmonaut applicants before the penultimate chapter detailing his doom. A national hero among the likes of Gagarin and Gherman Titov—the second man to fly in space—Komarov today holds two claims to fame. First, after flying Volkshod into space in 1964 and Soyuz 1 in 1967, he became the first man to enter space twice. Second, he became the first person to die on a space mission when his parachute on the Soyuz 1 did not deploy, leaving him to crash into the ground at such high speeds his body obliterated on impact. In the years since his death, as interest in space travel has waned, Komarov has been reduced to a footnote in history, usually discussed within the contexts of dead astro- and cosmonauts and, notably, within the narrativizing of the world’s first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, in which he is used to reiterate the dangers of space travel, the competitive arrogance of the Soviet space program, and the turning point in Gagarin’s own relationship with the USSR.

More familiar is the story of Yuri Gagarin. As Starman describes, his is the classic story of a pilot turned cosmonaut: Gagarin was born into a family of peasant farmers terrorized by Nazis encroaching on Moscow and held a lifelong fascination with flight. While Doran and Bizony purport to have written Starman in order to lift the veil cast over Gagarin and portray a version of him uglier and more “real” than the Gagarin of Soviet propaganda and public imagination, noting in their introduction that “Yuri Gagarin was no superman; he was mortal and flawed,”[iv] the early chapters of Starman nonetheless follow Slava Gerovitch’s description (in brief: that one must adhere to every tenet of Soviet propaganda, love socialism, defend the motherland, remain optimistic, resist capitalism, maintain moral purity) of the typical hagiographic Soviet cosmonaut biography to the letter. Piers and Bizony admittedly attempt to challenge Gagarin’s “humble beginnings” by noting the literacy of his mother, yet the further points of a “childhood burdened by wartime hardship, encouragement by the family and teachers, […] a wise mentor, […] achieving the lifetime dream by carrying out [space flight]” fall directly in line with Gerovitch’s description.[v]

That said, criticisms of Doran and Bizony’s romanticized portrayal of Gagarin’s early life are complicated by Soviet adherence to the ideal Soviet man. There is considerable question to what extent Gagarin’s qualifications were based in already fitting the mold of the ideal cosmonaut and, later, symbol of the nation. Says Nikolai Kamanin, director of the space program, Gagarin was “the most normal of the normal”; even, “normal to the point of abnormality.”[vi] Indeed, by all accounts Gagarin fit the mold of the New Soviet Man, and many believe that it is for this reason he ultimately became the first cosmonaut, as not only did he have the technical and flight expertise, but he also passed the psychological tests with flying colors and exemplified the qualities the Soviet Union wanted to portray as the face of their nation.

Starman’s account of Komarov’s death is as follows. As part of a desperate ploy to best the American space program, which was rapidly catching up to the Soviets’, who had not reported any major achievements in years, the Soyuz plan was put into action. The Soyuz mission would attempt to dock two ships together in space for the first time in history; first, the Soyuz 1, piloted by Komarov, would launch into space, to be joined the next day by the Soyuz 2, piloted by several other cosmonauts. The two ships would then link together and all of the cosmonauts would return to Earth together.[vii] Already an ambitious plan, the logistics of this endeavor were thrown into question by many engineers and cosmonauts, who compiled a lengthy list of defects with the ship. Nonetheless the mission proceeded as planned, with Komarov the primary pilot and Gagarin his back up. Once in the air, however, the real drama began. First, as reported by NSA agent Perry Fellwock, everyone knew that Komarov was not going to return alive, and American agents in Istanbul supposedly overheard that “they knew they had problems for about two hours before Komarov died, and were fighting to correct them.”[viii] Fellwock goes on to detail Komarov’s emotional final conversation with his wife and statesman Alexei Kosygin, claiming that “towards the last few minutes, he was falling apart.”[ix] Then were the infamous final moments of Vladimir Komarov, in which he screamed and cursed at the Soviet space program and in particular his superiors. After this the story again matches other tellings: Komarov’s parachute does not deploy. He crashes and burns to death.

The fact of Komarov’s death alone is the seed for a vast number of narratives: the dangers of space flight, the perilous push for nationalist success, the beginnings of Soviet space program decay in the face of NASA triumph, the first widely known death in the Soviet space program—preceded by fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Bondarenko burning to death in a 1961 training exercise, and the 1960 space launch disaster that killed over a hundred workers, both of which were swept under the rug and not revealed until the1990s.[x] Instead, Starman chooses to focus on the more salient route of Komarov’s death as a breaking point in Gagarin’s narrative. According to Doran and Bizony, the harrowing story of Komarov’s death is truly a story of the corruption and hamartia of the Soviet space program. It is a story so powerful and tragic that both Moondust and NPR use it as a focal point in their respective pieces, the latter in going so far as to use one of the most contentious details for its title: “Cosmonaut Crashed to Earth ‘Crying in Rage.’” Yet, as uncovered in part from the backlash toward the NPR article, this story has more than a few discrepancies.

As the grisliest details are based largely on the testimonies of KGB agent Venyamin Russayev, there is no one with whom to corroborate his story. What we have instead are transcripts that may or may not exist. In his book Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race (1945-1975), Asif Siddiq produces a transcript from the Soyuz 1 flight in which there is no evidence of any screaming or cursing; instead, Komarov says “I feel well. The parameters of the cabin are normal,” and even once the communication began to fray, he reportedly remained calm and confident.[xi] While one may assume something as tangible as a transcript would definitively settle the exact events that transpired on the Soyuz 1, the secrecy of the Soviet Union necessarily complicates any assumption of archival validity. If the Soviet Union systematically erased military personnel from space program pictures in order to give the entire program a more civilian feel, and if similarly failed cosmonauts were deleted from history, then why would a transcript detailing the horrific death of one of their own not be doctored as well? In an NPR interview, Bizony states disdainfully that “an official Soviet transcript of anything, from the death of a cosmonaut to the birth of a healthy baby boy, isn't worth the paper it's written on. [...] Given that we at least broadly trust Russayev's recollection of events, we are entitled to believe that Komarov, for all his discipline as a cosmonaut, would have been entitled to some spitting madness and frustration.”[xii] Bizony and Doran clearly trust the testimony of KGB agent Russayev above all else, yet subsequent researchers and space historians do not afford the word of one man greater weight than the many facts stacked against him. Instead, the general assumption by space historians is that Russayev either bent the truth or lied outright in order to immortalize himself in a particularly grotesque moment of Soviet space history.

That said, the addition of such titillating details and sensationalized horror is hardly unique to Doran and Bizony, but rather a rite of passage when narrating Soviet space history. From the earliest days of the space program, there were rumors of “ghost cosmonauts,” early unknown cosmonauts erased from history for their failure to provide an appropriately triumphant narrative of Soviet space supremacy. Yet while these examples are easily disproved—as in the case of Alexei Belokonov, a parachuter who was reported to have died secretly in space but instead was tracked down, alive and well, by journalist Yaroslav Golovano—several of the disputed details from Starman are not so easy to disregard.[xiii] To start with, Perry Fellwock’s depiction of Komarov’s final moments is patently false. As Colin Burgess makes clear, Komarov’s wife Valentina would not have been anywhere near the space station and could not have spoken to her husband; mission control would not have had the kind of intricate communication capabilities Starman’s narrative would necessitate; and in general Fellwock’s description is accepted as a nasty rumor meant to add spectacle and shame to both the cosmonaut program and the cosmonaut himself.

In some ways this sensational attempt is only a natural backlash to the repressive and secretive nature of the Soviet regime, which “knew full well the real hazards of [the cosmonauts’] flights but could not talk about them.”[xiv] Notably, while NASA is generally purported to be a civilian organization—the accuracy of this notwithstanding—the Soviet space program lacked a similar grouping. The Soviet program was funded and run by the Party Central Committee and the Council of Ministers, and, starting in 1964, the Ministry of General Machine building, meaning that the inherently political nature of the program could not be compromised by deaths and failures. If anything, the space program was intended by its funders to become a well oiled propaganda machine, in which the successes of the technology and faces of the cosmonauts existed largely to prove Soviet superiority and the success of socialism.[xv]

The urge to exaggerate Gagarin’s story and gloss over diverging accounts in order to present a particular narrative is natural: any biographer would be caught between Gagarin’s inescapable and inherently paradoxical reputation as both a Soviet and international hero, and an attempt to expose the grittier, uglier aspects of his life in the space program. It’s understandable that attempts to reconcile the conflicting requirements of biography would result in an appeal to the easy rhythm and structure of a novel or a movie. Komarov, then, acts as the turning point for Gagarin in the narrative of Starman. According to Doran and Bizony, Komarov’s needless death came at the hands of an overly ambitious and callous space program that ignored Gagarin’s warnings and sent his friend to his death; Komarov’s death thus marks an integral turning point near the end of Gagarin’s life. In the eyes of Starman’s authors, Komarov’s demise is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Says Kamanin, “since Komarov’s death, Gagarin has been dismissed from all space flights. He has undergone a new, more stormy process of personality disintegration.”[xvi] Komarov is dead. Gagarin is grounded. Its portrayal is almost romantic: each attempts to sacrifice himself to save the other, and the inevitable death of Komarov both forbids Gagarin from further spaceflight and spurs him to criticize the space program at large.

Yet even these romantic depictions have been called into question. According to Doran and Bizony, at the moment of Komarov’s departure, Gagarin demanded he also be suited up, and, according again to Russayev, attempted to wrestle Komarov from the spaceship to save him from certain death. However, if Gagarin were Komarov’s back up, then by the point at which Komarov would be boarding, there would be no need for Gagarin to be in a bulky space suit. The authors have interpreted this as Gagarin attempting to postpone the inevitable or cause a scene that would delay the flight, possibly indefinitely. While this may be true, considering that this detail has not come under quite as much scrutiny as the others we have discussed, the underlying issue of Starman’s greater inaccuracies and infamous reputation for contorting facts to create a greater and more violent narrative calls into question the veracity of the entire book. Of particular interest is, naturally, the depiction of Komarov’s death; tragically, even the accurate information regarding this must be doubted and taken with a grain of salt because so many vital details were so blatantly twisted.

In a sense this dramatic portrayal of Komarov’s death epitomizes all of Gagarin’s issues with the Soviet space program: the grueling efforts to keep up with propaganda and celebrity, the ceaseless political and militaristic drive to beat the American space program, the callous treatment of human lives, the endless bureaucracy, and the insult of forbidding Gagarin further flight time. Yet while each of these are considered factors in Gagarin’s eventual frustration with the program, it is generally deemed more likely that these concerns acted as separate factors, and that rather than Komarov’s gruesome death being Gagarin’s breaking point, it appears it may instead have been the space program’s final straw.

Despite knowledge of previous issues with the spacecraft, the grisly end of the Soyuz 1 flight still came as a great shock to the world, exemplifying the extreme dangers faced by cosmonauts. It seems much more likely that Gagarin was grounded not because he was so deeply affected by Komarov’s death as to become a flight risk, but because as the first man in space, his status as an international hero and exemplary “New Soviet Man” ought not be threatened by sending him to his possible doom in further space flight. Furthermore, as Gerovitch notes, Gagarin chafing under the authority of his Soviet superiors did not originate post Komarov’s death. As early as 1963, Gagarin led his fellow cosmonauts in “a Party meeting, at which they complained about the [publicity centric] workload,” among other things.[xvii] Although Komarov’s death was likely a factor in Gagarin openly criticizing the space program, it was only one in a long line of complaints. In defense of Doran and Bizony’s portrayal, Komarov’s death was admittedly a strain on Gagarin; on one notable occasion after a Komsomal (political Communist youth organization) activist said to Gagarin that “space technology had already been perfected, and that it was not difficult to become a Hero,” Gagarin grew emotional and asked, “What about Komarov who burned up? What do you say about that?”[xviii] That said, to portray this as the singular impetus for Gagarin’s criticisms of the space program diminishes Gagarin’s earlier protests and the myriad additional problems the Soviet space program presented.

Although perhaps less scintillating than the exaggeration of a gruesome death, of even greater importance are the ways in which Doran and Bizony’s narrativizing of Gagarin and subsequent diminishing of Komarov call into question the knowledge of the Soviet space program at large. In the narrative of Starman, Komarov’s crash is inevitable: the craft has 203 problems, all meticulously detailed by engineers and cosmonauts as esteemed as Gagarin himself, yet fear of invoking the ire of Leonid Brezhnev kept anyone from submitting it; Komarov supposedly was aware in advance of his doom, even going so far as to heroically sacrifice himself for both science and the state, saying, “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the back-up pilot instead. That’s Yura [Gagarin], and he’ll die instead of me. We have to take care of him.”[xix] Gagarin then attempts to manhandle Komarov away from the spacecraft so that he could fly and die instead, though of course he is thwarted and has to watch as Komarov “plunged to his death, cursing for ever the people who had put him inside a botch spaceship.”[xx]

Several of these details are rooted in truth. Soyuz 1 was indeed rushed into production for fear of American advancement, and Kamanin’s diary does indicate political pressure to launch the flight by the fiftieth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, which is in line with the attempts of the Soviet state to carefully craft the narrative of the space program to glorify communism and the USSR as a whole. That said, the implication here that Komarov was being entirely self-sacrificing, or that everyone involved knew about the imminent destruction of the Soyuz 1 destabilizes Starman’s portrayal of Gagarin as Komarov’s backup. It is true that Gagarin was meant to fly were Komarov unable, but rather than indicate that Komarov was sacrificing himself for the sake of his friend, Gagarin’s status as an international hero too important to his country to lose means that the Soyuz 1 was not universally deemed a death trap. At the very least, Gagarin as Komarov’s backup suggests that the mission truly was intended to go as planned, and the criticisms which later proved valid were not taken so seriously as to assume piloting the Soyuz 1 was a death sentence.

Is Gagarin’s disillusionment with the Soviet Union post Soyuz 1 disaster the result of frustration with callous bureaucracy and nationalism, as Starman suggests, or anger at being forced into the role of a national hero and forbidden to fly? Similarly, was Gagarin forbidden to fly because the Soyuz 1 itself was known to be flawed, or because the unexpected dangers of space travel would put a national hero in jeopardy? Starman implies the former in both cases while evidence points instead to the latter. Space flight was always an immensely dangerous undertaking, despite attempts on both Soviet and American sides to suggest otherwise; says Gagarin himself, “overly stormy applause led to the perception of spaceflight as a predictably easy and happy road to fame.”[xxi] As previously mentioned, there were multiple casualties and many close calls prior to the death of Komarov. If his demise had any great effect on Gagarin’s grounding, it was less likely due to Gagarin’s emotional response and more likely because Gagarin’s Soviet superiors finally realized the exact dangers their men, and particularly their New Soviet Man, were embarking on. To unilaterally declare that the various and complicated reasons that may have led Gagarin to openly criticizing the Soviet space program were wholly the result of one man’s death not only diminishes the varied aspects of life in the Soviet space program, but also simultaneously cheapens the life and death of Komarov himself. By relegating an entire life into a footnote or a catalyst in another man’s life, Starman diminishes the accomplishments of Komarov as the first man to go into space twice, and the exaggerated and inaccurate portrayal of his death makes a brave attempt by an experienced cosmonaut to land the Soyuz 1 into a dramatic and embarrassing historical spectacle.

In the middle of the documentary The Red Stuff, the narrator quotes Victor Pelevin’s novel Omon Ra. “Man doesn’t have a soul,” he says, “but every soul is the universe. […] As long as our work lives on in one soul, it shall not be lost. And there will be a whole universe of which this is the center.”[xxii] In the documentary this quote is meant to represent the Soviet space program and the feelings of the cosmonauts as a whole; and indeed, the optimistic view of the space program is that cosmonauts such as Komarov and Gagarin are heroes, stitches in the thread of this greater narrative. The work of both men cannot be easily condensed or relegated to a footnote, or to a turning point in someone else’s history. In the cultural and historical mindset Gagarin has “lost [his] individuality; [he has] become a ceremonial symbol of an important program.” [xxiii] Starman attempts to rectify this by emphasizing Gagarin as an individual. Yet still Doran and Bizony fall prey to the urge to glorify their subject, and in their historicizing both exaggerate and sensationalize the death of Komarov to add greater gravitas to Gagarin’s own growing disillusionment with the space program.

[i] Slava Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), 3. [ii] Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. (New York: Walker & Company, 1998), 117. [iii] Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan, and Bert Vis, “By the Light of the Soviet Moon: Russia’s Cosmonauts,” in Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 239-240. [iv] Doran and Bizony, Starman, 8. [v] Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies, 13. [vi] Ibid., 139. [vii] Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Space Union and the Space Race, 1945-1975. (Washington: Nasa History Series, 2000), 365. [viii] Doran and Bizony, Starman, 199. [ix] Ibid., 200. [x] Anna Smolchenko, “Russia marks 50 years since horrific space launch disaster,” Phys Org, October 24, 2010, accessed April 19, 2017. [xi]Asif Siddiq, Challenge to Apollo, 599. [xii] Robert Krulwich, “A Cosmonaut’s Fiery Death Retold,” National Public Radio, May 3, 2011, accessed April 19, 2017. [xiii] Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan, and Bert Vis, Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, 225. [xiv] Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies, 130. [xv] Ibid., 31-33. [xvi] Doran and Bizony, Starman, 203-204. [xvii] Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies, 149. [xviii] Ibid., 152. [xix] Doran and Bizony, Starman, 196. [xx] Ibid., 200. [xxi] Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies, 151. [xxii] The Red Stuff, Documentary, directed by Leo De Boer (2003 Moscow: White Star), DVD. [xxiii] Doran and Bizony, Starman, 19.


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