On Wednesday afternoon, Nadra Rahman ventured into the black hole that is the International Affairs Building, where she heard Olesya Turkina give a talk about her book Soviet Space Dogs. The talk involved cigarette packs, canonization, and deeply engrossed grad students.
Many of us associate the early days of the American space program with the restless, slightly ungainly monkeys that we shot into orbit—recalling the black and white photographs of them stuffed into their specially made space suits. But where we had monkeys, the Soviets had dogs, and these dogs, from pioneer Laika to the inseparable Strelka and Belka, were massively more loved in the Soviet Union than monkeys ever were in the U.S. Speaker Olesya Turkina, Senior Fellow at the Russian State Museum, while addressing a well-caffeinated crowd of grad students, went so far as to call them “techno-saints.”
She began by asking a question: “What was wrong with my childhood?”
While the possibilities were endless, the (given) answer was simple. Most of us would never send our own pets into space, but Turkina would have done it without hesitation. Shaped by Soviet ideology, she herself was ready to do what was needed of her by her nation—why not her dog as well? Clearly, ideology was powerful, and perhaps even sweet. After beaming a picture of a chocolate bar featuring the image of a space dog, she noted ideology rarely demands cruelty; at times, you are just encouraged to eat sweet chocolate until slowly, it begins to consume you too, in a “cannibalistic process.” After this lesson, she implored us to don ideological “sunglasses,” so that we could look beyond the iconography and the propaganda to analyze its construction and purpose.
The Soviet space dogs program began in secrecy, founded by Designer-In-Chief Sergey Korolev in the 1940s. The Cold War, of course, prevented any openness. Turkina mentioned two reasons that dogs might have been chosen for the program: (1) they were physically and psychically more tolerant of flight and (2) well, the U.S. took monkeys out of the question. The participant dogs were strays, selected because they had experienced adversity and were accustomed to surviving (Turkina was dismissive of dogs that need “restaurants”). They initially went on 15 minute long suborbital flights, and successes were enthusiastically celebrated by Korolev, who picked up dogs and twirled them around.
The first publically-known space dog was Kozyawka (“little bug”), who was followed by Linda and Malishka in 1957. The dogs were photographed, filmed, and even painted; artists were instructed to render them realistically, but to impart some human “feeling” or expression, making them more relatable. And yet, Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth through Sputnik 2, was the first one to become an icon. She died during her trip, a victim of the Cold War mentality (you always have to be the first, and do it the best), and was immortalized forever after. She was featured in newspapers and magazines, in scientific journals, in animated films, on cigarette packs, as a statue, and in children’s books.
Essentially, she was canonized, for she had been tortured to death in the name of the new religion: science. The government knew that her death had to be justified or risk outcry, so they made her a techno-saint, a state hero to be admired and emulated. Laika’s image thus became a form of propaganda and control. She was followed by Belka and Stelka, the first successful Soviet space travelers, who immediately became the USSR’s premier pop stars. Like Laika, their iconography was widespread, on everything from journals and postcards to photo-ops and films. Strelka even made the ultimate sacrifice in service of her country: her puppies were given as gifts to JFK’s family, a political gift laden with meaning. (In a similar vein, the Soviet program started using monkeys in the 1980s, and the government donated one of them to Fidel Castro, who immediately “saw him and loved him.”)
Turkina’s discussion of science replacing religion and the place of the space dogs as vehicles for ideology was compelling, especially since most people who first encounter space dogs might choose to focus on their handmade suits, or on the videos of them gracefully parachuting out of rockets. It takes donning the “sunglasses” mentioned by Turkina to look beyond. Referring to the voiceless dogs she said, “Those who have no voice can let ideology speak for them.” It’s a statement that still rings true.
Beyond her speech, the crackers were good, a 2010 movie depicting a romance between a space dog and a policeman’s dog was deemed “nasty,” and unless I misheard, two people in the audience had experienced “space marriage” in a museum devoted to space dogs. I’m not sure what that means either! But Laika (or rather, the early Soviet space program) would certainly approve.