Gagarin’s March: 60th Anniversary of the First Human in Space – National Air and Space Museum

Posted: April 15, 2021 at 6:30 am

In the context of the global climate in the 1960s, Yuri Gagarin emerged as a new ideal of a Cold Warrior. As the first human in space and the first human to orbit the Earth, Gagarin served as the exclamation point on Soviet space achievements in their competition with the United States. He was the human embodiment of Sputnik: a walking and talking demonstration of the superiority of Soviet mastery of space technology. Yet, there is another role that Gagarin played that historians frequently ignore. He was a domestic hero who was leading the way for post-World War II generations of Soviet youth to a future that attempted to recapture the optimism of pre-World War I and Early Soviet revolutionary artistry. There is no better example of the expression of this re-discovered optimism than in the song, Gagarins March (Gagarinskii marsh).

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin waves to crowds lining the street as he rides in an open car during a parade; circa 1961. (NASM 00159149)

Every year in Russia during the week of April 12, the anniversary of Yuri Gagarins flight in space, also known as Cosmonautics Day, one hears Gagarins March replayed on radio and websites. The 1961 musical piece has music and lyrics by composer and science fiction poet Oleg Aleksandrovich Sokolov-Tobolsky. Popular baritone Eduard Labkovskii sings the song with the backing of the civilian Soviet Song orchestra. When listening to it for the first time, one can recognize that the title is a misnomer as it is a musical break from the traditional celebratory songs that retell heroic battles of previous generations. The March differs from previous patriotic songs dedicated to aviation. It has neither a civil defense nor a military theme. Gagarins March does not speak of wartime but paints a picture of a bright and enthusiastic trek into the Soviet future with Yuri Gagarin at the lead. In this case, Gagarin is leading the homeland to a new optimistic world.

The lyrics are as follows:

We're leaving for space to work,

Seated in orbiting ships

And everything starts from the first flight,

Gagarin's first turn around the Earth.

Commander of the ship, as clear-eyed Russian guy,

He gave his whole universe a smile,

No, it was not for nothing that Gagarin first visited space,

He opened new roads for us.

Space miracle machines

Explore Venus and the Moon,

And it will be necessary, and we take off guys,

We will life up any virgin land in the far space.

Commander of the ship, a battle brave guy,

With the crew will go to Mercury and Mars,

No, it was not for nothing that Gagarin first visited the space,

He opened new roads for us.

The Earth is sweeping the expanses of the Universe,

Around the Sun its habitual way keeps,

And we live, earthlings, dreaming of daring

Throughout the Solar System, walk one day.

The ships commander, the son of the Earth, is a great guy,

Cosmonauts, scientists will deliver to Pluto.

No, it was not for nothing that Gagarin first visited the space,

For the future to come the feat is accomplished.

The ships commander, the son of the Earth, is a great guy,

Cosmonauts, scientists will deliver to Pluto.

No, it was not for nothing that Gagarin first visited the space,

For the future to come the feat is accomplished.

The songs first three lines echo a poem written by Russian futurist avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1925. The Flying Proletariat was a utopian science fiction-themed long poem set two centuries into the future in the year 2125. Just as Mayakovsky began his poem, Gargarins March anticipates a utopian technological future in space, free of long hours of backbreaking, dirty work. The difference between the poem and the march is tone of immediacy. The song gives the impression that the technological utopia will follow quickly with the occasion of the Yuri Gagarins first spaceflight around the Earth. As the story unfolds, Gagarins importance to the future unfolding is repeated throughout in three ways. First Gagarin is described repeatedly as a Russian guy. This is a reference to him personifying the ideal of an overall good guy, a friend to everyone. Throughout the song, his good-guy image is modified as being clear-eyed, brave, and great as the crescendo of the song builds.

The second way that Sokolov-Tobolsky reinforces the importance of Gagarins flight to the future of the USSR is the repetition of the refrain, No, it was not for nothing that Gagarin first visited space. Although grammatically awkward in English, this is a classic Russia language expression. It translates to mean that his flight is the launch vehicle on which the future is mounted. His flight leads to opening the new road to spacea phrase used by early Bolshevik space futurist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. With him, Gagarin leads the Soviet people to the future, including exploration of the solar system and the creation of a Soviet economic and agricultural ideal on other planets.

And finally, the composer focuses on Gagarins most favored physical attributehis smile. This is the ubiquitous smile that everyone recognized and for Russians it indicated an open and honest character.

Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin surrounded by a crowd of children, circa 1961. (NASM 00159145)

I encourage you to take the opportunity to listen to the Gagarin March this week. It is widely available on YouTube and other websites.

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Gagarin's March: 60th Anniversary of the First Human in Space - National Air and Space Museum

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