Sometime during the summer of 1986 I went with my family to see a circus version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in an outdoor theatre in Kreuzberg, West Berlin. My only memory of the production is of Margarita herself on a trapeze, her laughter vampish and defiant, as she sliced the air above us. By then we were nearing the end of the Cold War though at the time no one knew it, and right there in a courtyard, metres away from the Wall, was this exultant and ephemeral expression of the conquest of space.
The conquest of space. The phrase comes up again and again as I sift through dozens of Soviet documents of the period. By 1986 the ardent years of the Space Age were of course over, its most notable vestiges a few space stations orbiting Earth, but the embers still retain a beguiling, and decidedly nostalgic, glow.
In East Berlin especially there has always been a great habitation of the sky: the television tower in Alexanderplatz, often beheaded by fog, the stately socialist buildings lining Karl Marx Allee, the less elegant prefabricated tower blocks farther east . . . That same summer of ’86 I crossed Checkpoint Charlie and in a bookstore on Friedrichstrasse, one of East Berlin’s most important arteries, I met my friend Stefan. Born in Moscow, where he lived until the age of eight, he spoke, among other things, about his Russian grandfather Ivan Ivanovich Bryanov, who in the late fifties and early sixties had been doctor to the Soviet cosmonauts, endeavouring to cure them of their more terrestrial ailments.
And it was Stefan who, twenty years later when I was writing my first novel, accompanied me to Marzahn, deep in East Berlin, to research the area. As we drove down the Allee der Kosmonauten, one of its main avenues (there’s a Cosmonauts Alley in Moscow too), I remember expecting to see the huge faces of the cosmonauts looming overhead, as if chiseled from rock like the faces of the American presidents in Mount Rushmore, heroes from another epoch who silently, inscrutably, watched over their citizens.
Around that time Stefan mentioned that his grandfather at age ninety-four had just finished writing his memoirs, which included his experience treating the cosmonauts. He promised to show them to me one day, once he had finished translating them from Russian into German.
As is often the case with the promise of a text one starts out by imagining, with no foothold on reality other than an intriguing description, the fantasies and secondary research it inspired proved to be more enthralling than the actual document. The longer I waited for Stefan to send me passages from the text, the more I dreamt of what it might contain, what strange, unsettling insights into the lives of these mythical cosmonauts would be granted.
Cosmonauts – who were required to become members of the Communist Party before being launched into space – were considered the heroes of the Soviet Union: quite literally, they inhabited the stratosphere and then transcended it. In those fervently atheist times, it wasn’t God or his angelic messengers who would come forth from the sky, but the cosmonaut.
Yet the pressures were great, and the bars at Star City, the covert compound outside Moscow where they lived and trained, were populated by mostly gloomy individuals, drinking to either attenuate the powerful psychological jolt of space travel or else to face the fact they weren’t chosen for any mission – the trauma of the experience or the trauma of a life unfulfilled. Despite years and years of training there was no guarantee one would be sent into space.
During the weeks I waited for Stefan to send me sections from his grandfather’s memoirs, I conducted research at the library, forging my own tentative routes into the subject. I read or skimmed detailed aerospace medicine manuals, reports about the vestibular (inner ear) training of cosmonauts, some with graphs depicting sway data post-mission, studies in postural equilibrium and accounts of the physiological effects of such voyages, including headaches and tinnitus.
The most fascinating books were those that set out to explore, openly or in more figurative language, the psychological responses to space travel. They cover themes such as the side effects of weightlessness (loss of body sense and coordination, terror, confusion), the difficulty of long periods of silence, the emotional impact of outer space. One tome suggests applying the four humours to the process of task selection: the choleric individual is quick to learn but, prone to impatience, makes mistakes – therefore best for special assignments rather than routine ones; sanguine types flourish under variety and constant excitement rather than repetition (Gagarin was apparently one of these); phlegmatic types, on the other hand, are recommended for systematic activity; and melancholic types . . . cannot become cosmonauts due to their nervous, fearful temperament, and are best suited to be scientific advisors on ground.
Initially, it was unclear how man in space would react, how he would endure weightlessness and ‘unknown nervous-emotional overloads’. In a pre-emptive move, a ‘logic lock’ was installed aboard the Vostoks – early Soviet spacecrafts – to prevent any ‘irrational intervention of the cosmonaut in the direction of the ship’. Gagarin, for instance, had no control over his voyage.
After all, in this world man and machine were one, incorporated into a single control system, its two main exponents poised to operate at highest potential and coherence. Yet despite all the preparation there were human variables, and the symbiotic relationship led to both real and imaginary ailments. One healthy cosmonaut, for instance, experienced cardiac arrhythmia after being exposed to sustained stressors related to onboard equipment failure.
During the first ninety-six-day Salyut mission in 1978, cosmonaut Yury Romanenko was apparently so mesmerized by the vastness of the cosmos that he stepped out to have a better look and forgot to attach himself with safety tethers to the space station. Fortunately his cohort noticed and quickly grabbed his foot as it floated out of the hatch. Even the most trained and disciplined individual could ignore all precautions and checklists and succumb to a greater urge.
And then there was the monotony of space, the long stretches of nothingness, whether experienced alone – certainly the deepest emptiness of all – or in a small group, when tensions nearly always arose. Despite the speed of the aircraft, inside there was often no sensation of movement and everything appeared fixed and motionless. Moments of sensory bombardment alternated with extended periods of sensory deprivation. The first few cosmonauts were given books; later ones, curiously, were instead handed knives, wood blocks, coloured pencils and paper with which to pass the time. Some individuals would apparently become so exasperated with the lack of stimuli that they’d wish for the equipment to break down simply to provide some variety.
Many cosmonauts claimed to suffer changes in spatial orientation, a lack of feeling of support, the loss of personality and, worst of all, a feeling of separation from Earth. Hard to imagine the experience of such severance, floating inside the capsule in sometimes foetal position, the closest return to an amniotic weightlessness, yet at the same time violently detached from our planet, their only umbilical cord the electromagnetic waves of the radio and video transmissions.
As for the psychological aftermath, difficulties returning to everyday life were not uncommon. For this the Soviets created the Psychological Support Group for Cosmonauts to deal with in-flight problems and, particularly, post-mission malaise. During the flight psychologists on the ground would closely monitor individuals via transmissions, analysing facial expressions, voices and behaviour, searching for telltale signs of stress. American astronauts, on the other hand, who had not been raised as atheists, often spoke of the experience as something profoundly religious and transcendent that transformed them forever, an altered state of consciousness leading to a spiritual awakening rather than existential crisis. Seeing no need, perhaps, NASA never set up an equivalent to the Soviets’ psychological support group.
Bryanov’s memoirs, or rather four sections from them, arrived just as I was reading about the decline of the Soviet space age. From its twilight, I was sent back to its dawn.
Chapter VIII focuses on his years working as a doctor at the air force’s central research clinic in Moscow, and describes how the launch of artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on 4 October, 1957 began a new era, ‘the cosmic’, fulfilling the prophecies of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the reputed father of Soviet space exploration, a notorious recluse with brilliant yet extravagant ideas, who by the late nineteenth century was already dreaming about interplanetary space travel.
In his memoirs Bryanov mentions the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the immense, secretive complex in the Kazakhstan steppe where the first test flights were launched, including Gagarin’s Vostok 1. It remains a central launch pad to this day, leased by the Kazakhs to Russia until 2050.
He also writes about the first living beings the Soviets sent into space: stray dogs, robust enough to deal with extreme situations. The ill-fated Laika was but one of many, though most of the others survived and were adopted by cosmonauts’ families. When the time came to select the first man in space, Byranov recounts, the criteria was broadened but remained essentially the same. Yury Gagarin fit the ideal psychological profile: emotionally balanced, persevering, good-natured, in possession of a large vocabulary, creative, not fearful, contact-and-decision-friendly.
Yet one week before his voyage, the twenty-seven year-old cosmonaut walked into Bryanov’s office and poured out his anxiety: his entire trip was in jeopardy, he said, for he had tremendous pain in his right cheek, the whole area was swollen, pus ran from his nose. ‘Something’s not right with me, please find out what it is.’ The obliging doctor ran a series of tests – urine, blood, X-rays – and traced the cosmonaut’s maxillary sinus inflammation to the ailing root of a tooth. A team of specialists debated what to do; treating the root would take too long. The tooth must be extracted, immediately. Other reports mention Gagarin was unusually laconic before his journey; behind all the bravado, one can imagine the fears.
As for Valentina Tereschkova, the first woman in space, she was personally selected by Khrushchev despite the team of doctors remaining unconvinced of her qualifications, for out of the five female candidates her ‘vestibular-vegetative system’ left the most to be desired. During her three days in space in June 1963 it was clear she was experiencing some hardship though she kept insisting in her radio transmissions that all was fine. She was even out of touch for a while, prompting discussion at ground control as to whether to abort the mission. Back on air, she again insisted everything was fine. When she landed, however, she seemed visibly ill and upset, yet delivered a cheerful account and blamed her small lapse on a stale pierogi. Only later did she confide to Bryanov, ‘How could I tell the whole group of superiors and the press, to whom I was expected to report, that I had a very hard time during the flight?’
The nautical suffix of cosmonaut evokes the romantic image of a sailor of the universe, standing at the helm, the ultimate pioneer hurtling through space aboard his ship, propelled by the massive waves of elation on Earth. Yet as much as Soviet space exploration fed the illusion of freedom, it remained inextricably bound to the laws of physics and officials, and, though to a far lesser degree, to the inner tides of human nature.
I returned to Berlin in 2003 and resided there until late 2008. Among my weekly rituals were visits to the handful of secondhand bookstores in my neighbourhood in the east. One of their many wonders was a slowly diminishing stock of publications from the USSR, including a variety of circus books. I found a collection of essays entitled The Soviet Circus. Printed in Moscow in 1967, its cover had a constructivist design depicting a faceless clown equipped with yellow cane and checkered hat, raising one arm in salute. Shaped from loosely fitted black, yellow and red geometrical forms, this two-dimensional cut-out had as much movement as anything fully rendered, a character assembled from colour and line.
In the introduction the editor described the rigours of training for the Soviet circus, commenting that the exercises (trampoline, etc.) were similar to those in cosmonaut school yet in practice even more difficult, since cosmonauts had more reliable equipment while circus performances depended on human strength and skill rather than on any mechanical device.
The comparison immediately got me thinking about the parallels between Soviet cosmonauts and circus aerialists, the psychological fallout of both professions, the phenomena that would take place during and after a mission or performance, and the ways in which each embodied a collective dream, the reverie of everyday men, women and children projected onto these bodies in motion.
Like cosmonauts, aerial circus performers lead a kind of kinetic existence, almost entirely defined by motion, their identity bound up with spatial prospects and limitations. (Stray from your route – on spacecraft, tightrope or trapeze – and it may cost you your life. Stop moving – and you may die. Survival lies not in stillness, but in velocity).
The modern artist – Jarry, Baudelaire, Picasso, Rouault – has often professed a strong affinity with the clown or acrobat, with their hyperbolized solitude, nostalgia or alienation, their wearing of masks and enigmatic detachment from society; could parallels not be drawn, too, with the complex nature of the cosmonaut?
And what about vertigo, that very human affliction? In his essay On the Marionette Theatre, Heinrich von Kleist blames gravity and self-consciousness for impeding the graceful movement of the human body. I wondered about the psychological effects of weightlessness on circus performers. My friend Lara, a Russian writer in New York, put me in touch with two aerialists.
Vladimir Kekhaial performed in circuses in both the Soviet Union and Russia. When I asked him how much he distinguishes between outer and inner space, he replied, ‘If we take it as a measurement, then humanity is zero point – the middle. It’s called balance. We can go both ways but to a certain point only. Then the farther we go, the more unattainable points we will see on the horizon.’ As for outer space: ‘Now, the cosmos to me – that’s the intelligent energy. It stays alive by vibration and everything in this material world has its own vibration. The gravity is part of that vibration.’
Masha Terentieva, by contrast, spoke about the euphoria of flight, the main reason people became acrobats, aerialists, tumblers – to experience that ‘momentary conquest of gravity’, a tremendous sensation of freedom and abandon when a centrifugal force pulls the body away from ‘normal gravity’.
The collective dream of space travel, the individual dream of flying. Cosmonauts traversed regions that for the majority of humanity would remain at best imagined. Trapezists and funambulists inhabit a more accessible realm, yet one that also ultimately remains out of reach. They tower, soar or rush above us, populating the heights we can’t, marking the distance from dreamer to dream.
In 1919 Lenin nationalized the circus, which, like space travel, also served certain political means, and fostered patriotic spirit with folktales and lore. Performers of the state-run Moscow Circus School enjoyed great popularity, free childcare, retirement benefits and, best of all, the highly prized permission to travel.
In our interview Vladimir remarked on how after the fall of Communism both the Russian space programme and circus worlds suffered. Domestic focus, it seems, went from the vertical back to the mainly horizontal. They were indeed products of an age, and when compared to, say, American astronauts or circuses in the West, notions of flight and the overthrow of gravity were, inevitably, much more freighted with symbolism.
Looking back on his early years, writer Zinovy Zinik describes how the mere knowledge of Sputnik 1 orbiting the sky instilled a sense of triumphant flight (and, later in life, of tragic landing) – it was much easier to become a cosmonaut than to obtain an exit visa to travel abroad, and therefore all Soviet adolescent boys wanted to fly.
In Spanish, peak (cima) and abyss (sima) are distinguished by no more than a letter – is there such a difference between the heights and the abyss? After all, are not flight and fall both physically and metaphysically intertwined? Gravity is much more than a physical force pulling us to the centre of the earth; it holds our other systems in place as well, all that we have assumed as a given since birth. Remove it and you remove most existential certainty.
Free fall doesn’t only suggest the chaotic downward movement exerted by gravity, or the drift of a spacecraft when the engines have been switched off. Nor is it limited to the moments during reentry after the cosmonaut has been dropped from his aircraft and is parachuting back down to earth, or the plunge of circus performers between high wire or trapeze and the net below. Free fall signals a more interior event, a momentary release from the tethers of our human condition.
The universe, they say, was born out of an explosion – perhaps there is an atavistic urge to replicate this outward burst, give it internal resonance, a return to the most primitive sources of energy. During rocket launch cosmonauts paradoxically experience around three or four times the force of gravity; this tremendous pull is then followed by release, expanses of calm, a journey through dark matter, outside and within.
How to map this darkness? One might argue that in the end both outer space and inner space are destined to remain shrouded in mystery and ultimately unknowable – and unconquerable. We may undertake new voyages, assign coordinates, put names to the visible and the invisible, yet it is elusive territory to which we simply give form and measurement; wherever he finds himself, man’s impulse is to limn his own mortal routes.
Image by riotcinema