April 12, 2011 7:02 AM EDT

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.

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