First Man in Space: Vintage Soviet Propaganda Glorifying Yuri Gagarin

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Excerpts from a collection of postcards commemorating the Soviet cosmonaut’s historic journey into outer space fifty years ago.

On April 12, 1961, a young Soviet pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. The trip lasted a little less than two hours, but its success had extraordinary significance for the Soviet Union, which at the time was engaged in the heated “space race” with the United States.

The cosmonaut’s heroic act was the cause of great celebration in the USSR, as the country’s state-controlled media churned out countless mementos celebrating his achievement. Not only handsome, Gagarin came complete with peasant origins, making him the ideal subject for a Soviet propaganda campaign.

Bearing the date of Gagarin's orbit, this card was published a few weeks after his triumph. Rykoff Collection
Drawn from a set exploring the young cosmonaut's origins, the photo claims to show the young man not long after he finished trade school.Rykoff Collection
An image playing up Gagarin's proletarian credentials shows the future cosmonaut at work in a foundry that manufactured agricultural machinery. But the way Gagarin's goggles rest on his forehead, instead of over his eyes, where they would surely be more effective protection, throws the veracity of the photo into doubt.Rykoff Collection
Rykoff Collection
Family Man: Gagarin is pictured with his daughters Lena and Galya. The postcards in this gallery are drawn from an album assembled during Gagarin's lifetime by an unknown admirer.
Drawn from the film First Trip to the Stars, Gagarin is shown being examined before his flightRykoff Collection
The caption reads, "Contemporaries will describe his achievement, poets and writers will glorify his bravery...For the people, the memory of his face in the cosmonaut's helmet, will remain."Rykoff Collection
An image said to have been taken moments before Gagarin entered his spacecraft.Rykoff Collection
After his triumphant return, Gagarin was hailed across the Soviet bloc nations with parades like this one in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Rykoff Collection
Among the many honors bestowed upon Gagarin was the title "Hero of the Soviet Union," the highest distinction awarded by the state. Rykoff Collection
Gagarin is congratulated by Italian movie star Gina Lollobrigida. The caption wonders: "A man who has been in space! What is he like? Hundreds of thousands of people rush to shake his hand, offer him good wishes."Rykoff Collection
Bearing the cosmonaut's signature, and published in a print run of 2 million this card was issued in May 1961, a little over a month after Gagarin's historic flightRykoff Collection
The swooping line symbolizing Gagarin's orbit notes the date of his flight and the name of his craft "Vostok" ("The East"), the leaves of the plant are marked with the dates of other milestones in the Soviet space program, while the motto at the bottom reads, "Glory!" Rykoff Collection
Symbols of the Soviet Union, a proletarian man raising a hammer and a peasant woman raising a sickle, are placed against the Moscow skyline at night. The motto reads, "Glory to the conquerors of the cosmos!" Rykoff Collection
This card commemorates Cosmonautics Day, a holiday established on April 12, 1962, exactly one year after Gagarin's historic flight. Rykoff Collection

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