from From the Cradle to the Grave: Cosmonaut Nostalgia in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film
Cathleen S. Lewis

After the dissolution of the Soviet union in 1991, postmortem examination of the Soviet experience became a national pastime. Artists, writers, and filmmakers joined with journalists and common citizens to assess what the 75-year Bolshevik experiment had meant. There have been two recent Russian theatrical films, Aleksei Uchitel's Kosmos kak predchuvstviye (Dreaming of Space, 2005) and Aleksei Fedorchenko's Pervye na lune (First on the Moon 2005), that address the legacy of the golden years of Soviet spaceflight in their own unique manner. Each film places spaceflight into the context of a specific period. Uchitel's film is set in the early 1960s and Fyodorchenko's begins in the 1930s. Both dissect the origins of the culture of real spaceflight.

Aleksei Uchitel's film takes a nostalgic approach in which the early Soviet space program provides the background for a story about the illusion of nostalgic optimism. The film takes place between the time of the launch of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's flight. The protagonist of the story is a hapless young man, Konyok, whose naïveté has benefited him. Unaware of the injustices around him, he is able to wander through life unaffected by it. The main character is a cook whose real name is Victor, but he goes by the nickname "Konyok" ("Horsie"). The story focuses on Konyok's relationship with a former sailor and dockworker, Gherman. Gherman, who is also known as "Lefty," is a former sailor who is trying to defect to the West. His persona allures Konyok, a man who is haplessly living with his mother and indecisive about committing to his girlfriend, Lara. In contrast, Gherman is worldly and sophisticated. The men form bonds: both are war orphans and relish fights with sailors. To Konyok's mind, Gherman is exotic and mysterious, possessing superior skills and knowledge about the world, as well as material possessions including an East German radio that picks up BBC. In spite of his seeming sophistication, Gherman cannot articulate properly the English words to declare his intention to defect. Ironically, his new hapless friend demonstrates the ability to mimic the voices on BBC radio almost perfectly, although he has no ambitions for contact with the West and understands little of what he is saying.

Over the course of their relationship, Konyok begins to dress and act like Gherman. He goes as so far as to practice swimming in the harbor. Konyok assumes that this activity is to improve his athletic performance; he is clueless that his friend intends to defect by swimming out to a foreign ship. Sailors eventually beat him up for his attitude and for flagrantly walking around town with the forbidden radio. As their relationship develops, Gherman confesses that his mysterious secret assignment is to seek out the ten cosmonauts who are training for the first spaceflight in Kustanay in the Kazakh republic. For a while, Gherman insists to Konyok that soon men will travel to the Moon everyday, but, ultimately, he confesses again that he had been in prison in Kustanay, convicted for making wisecracks while in the Navy. Gherman is last seen swimming toward a shipping vessel marked Lake Michigan as the ship moves away. Victor (Konyok) marries Rimma, Lara's sister, and they take a train to Moscow.

In Kosmos kak predchuvstviye, space is metaphor for hope. In the movie, Lara asks Konyok as a plea for reassurance if he can see Sputnik after Gherman seduces her. A second use of the metaphor occurs during Konyok and Rimma's trip to Moscow. While on the train, Konyok crosses paths with an equally unassuming young pilot named Gagarin whom the hero and audience believe to be the Yuri Gagarin. When speaking to Gagarin in the train, Konyok asks him if he is going to fly rockets. Gagarin responds by asking if he was referring to the predictions of Tsiolkovsky. Konyok replies, "No, Gherman." Gagarin has not heard of that scientist, to which Konyok replies, "He is not a scientist, but he has already flown." When the pilot arrives at his stop, Konyok asks his name and notices that his shoelace is untied. Later Konyok recognizes Gagarin by this untied shoelace. By this time, Gagarin has made his flight and is walking down the red carpet to greet Khrushchev.

It is through this meeting that the director has tied the meaningless life of his hero to the equally unpurposeful mission of the space program. The experienced and knowledgeable character, Gherman, is determined to escape the Soviet Union, even if it costs him his life. The more meandering of the two, Konyok, identifies most closely with Gagarin. One film reviewer has described the time between Sputnik and Gagarin's mission "the two moments of Soviet triumph in space that, the contemporary audience knows, led nowhere and that provide the bookends of the film (the flights of Sputnik and of Gagarin)." These two moments of triumph represent a memorable period that benefited the nation through their naiveté but provided no objective improvement in its circumstances. ...

Both Uchitel and Fedorchenko drew on the traditions of realistic science fiction in their films. In each case, spaceflight is technically accurate and not metaphysical. These films refer to the traditions that Zhuravlev and Klushantsev had pioneered. the difference between these post-Soviet filmmakers and their predecessors is that they have portrayed Soviet cosmonauts stripped of the either implicit (Kosmicheskii reis) or explicit (Planeta Bur) ideological discipline. Uchitel's Gagarin lived in morally reprehensible system that only the hapless can ignore. Fedorchenko's Kharlamov returned to a country whose state apparatus is determined to remove all evidence of his existence.