On This Day in History: The First Woman in Space

Fifty years ago today, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman into space, having been selected from more than 400 applicants and 5 finalists to pilot the Vostok 6, the last mission of the Vostok program. Although Tereshkova experienced nausea and physical discomfort for much of the flight, she orbited the earth 48 times and spent almost 3 days in space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date.

She was also the first civilian into space; whereas most astronauts and cosmonauts had military backgrounds, Tereshkova, who had humble origins, was employed as a textile worker. She chosen only for her skill and enthusiasm for skydiving, which she pursued as a hobby (she was made an honorary member of the Soviet Air Force after her mission). Talk about a career seque.

Even though there were plans for further flights by women, it took 19 years until the second woman on Earth, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew into space. Tereshkova now lives a quiet and low-key life in Russia, although she is a staple in many science conferences and political functions.

Learn more about her and the history of women in space here.


The Boldness and Ugly-Beauty of Communist Architecture.

For all the ills of their totalitarian brand of communism, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites engaged in some remarkable experimentation in architecture, producing some of the most fascinating and controversial buildings around. Depending on your perspective, they’re either something out of a science-fiction story, or an Orwellian, dystopian nightmare (perhaps a bit of both?). You decide.

In case it’s unclear, that’s the former headquarters of the Soviet Georgian Ministry of Highways. Charming.

While you’re at it, check out a selection of similarly strange buildings done in the aptly named “Brutalist” style. I find their ugliness to be rather charming for some reason, although I can’t imagine what a whole city built in such a manner would look like. Apparently, the only thing saving this bizarre displays of creative boldness (or madness, depending on your perspective) are practical concerns about money and urban planning.

Trellick Tower, London. At least it’s functional.


A Veteran’s Unlikely Find

A Russian World War II veteran finds the very tank he fought in during the entire war. It turned out, unbeknownst to him, that it was made into a monument for a small Russian town. He became so emotional – and eventually quite animated – that people worried his heart wouldn’t cope. Remarkable.

Victory Day

Today is Victory Day, also known simply as the 9th of May, in which Nazi Germany capitulated to Soviet forces, bringing an end to the war in Europe. Known to many Russians as the “Great Patriotic War,” the conflict was won at a tremendous cost: the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II, and the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people (half or more being civilians).

Soviet Russia lost at least 9 million soldiers, a third of them in Axis captivity, and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives. By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another 1 to 2 million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of World War II victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The Siege of a single city, Leningrad, alone cost 1.2 million lives. That fight over another city,Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives and by some accounts became the single largest battle in history (not to mention a turning point in the entire war).

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85% of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would’ve had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would’ve been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

“By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.”

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans could remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded.* We didn’t need to use heartless and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I’m in no way denigrating our contribution to the war effort, especially considering that we did provide many useful supplies to the beleaguered USSR (at least until they got their own industry back on line). And we pretty much fought the Japanese single handedly (although the Russians and Chinese played a much underrated role in that effort as well). I’m simply noting the obvious fact that World War II couldn’t have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself wasn’t horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there’s a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They’ll keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

Salyut 1

On this day in 1971, Soviet Russia launched the world’s first space station, the Salyut 1. Unfortunately, it was followed shortly after by one of space exploration’s worst tragedies: the three cosmonauts pictured above died during re-entry, after having completed the first successful space docking. Salyut I was scrapped shortly after, though it would be followed by many others.

Read more about it here. I would’ve put a picture of the station, but there weren’t any good ones worth posting.

Slideshow of the Former USSR

Just one day after my post about Soviet Propaganda, and the confession of my innate Russophilia, I find myself once again drawn to the country – and this time it’s former domains too (I wasn’t kidding about my strange fascination with the region). Foreign Policy is once again the culprit, with an excellent photo essay of slice-of-life images from across the former Soviet Republics (minus Azerbaijan and Moldova, which are oddly omitted without explanation).

Most of these pictures also include an introduction to the country, and various facts, figures, and updates concerning their former and present status. It’s definitely recommended for those of you not familiar with the region but nonetheless interested.

Russia’s Big Backyard

This is one of my favorite photos (it’s #4 from Tajikistan), as it captures the plight of impoverished but persistent denizens from one of the world’s most obscure countries. I also like the simplicity but humanity of it.

A child of migrant laborers looks out the door of her family home on Oct. 1, 2007 in the town of Gharm. Thousands of Tajik men leave their homes each year to find work abroad with the hope of sending remittances home to their families. Many of these workers find new partners overseas, however, and leave their wives as sole providers back home in Tajikistan. Migrant workers’ wives are also among the highest risk group for contracting HIV/AIDS due to the levels of infidelity among the workers.

The tremendous amount of history, diversity, and culture yielded by Russia and it’s near-abroad is as stunning as it’s geographical and natural beauty. An area of the world that is generally neglected as corrupt, impoverished, and decadent – largely forgotten since the collapse of the Soviet Union –  is vibrant with rich traditions and customs; complex political dynamics; and the untold human drama of millions of hard-working, proud, and savvy individuals spanning a myriad of languages, cultures, ethnic groups, and faiths. Perhaps I’m guilty of overly romanticizing the region and it’s people, but I can’t help but be awed by the larger world world around me. I have a feeling I’d be saying this about pretty much every other part of this large, beautiful world of ours.

Despite all the associations with instability, ethnic tensions, and tyranny, most of the countries in the region – even in spite of their dire circumstances – have come a long way. As the caption from the very last image in the essay rightly noted:

While Russia and the other former Soviet states face environmental disasters, political upheaval, ethnic tensions, and economic distress, as David Hoffman wrote in the July/August 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, when it comes to the fall of the Soviet Union, “It’s also worth remembering what didn’t go wrong. After the Soviet implosion, it could have been so much worse.”

In any case, I hope you all enjoy all this as much I did. I’ve always dreamed of traveling through this part of the world, even if much of it is sadly mired in political corruption and authoritarianism. I still think it’d  be a rewarding experience, if not a not a challenging one.