Space Invasion

How space exploration changed Russian and Soviet mass culture
The conquest of space was the embodiment of Soviet utopia and the most important element of the great Soviet myth of a brighter future and the victory of communism — not only on terra firma, but throughout the galaxy.

April 12 is the UN-declared International Day of Human Space Flight. This memorable date requires no explanation in Russia: the day when legendary Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok-1 spacecraft made mankind's first ever voyage into space. Not only is this emblematic event a landmark in science and technology, it also revolutionized the world of art.
Whereas previously Soviet artists, architects, designers, writers, directors and composers had drawn inspiration from works of science fiction and futurists, the new space age — which the Soviet Union had already opened up with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the spaceflight of the cosmo-dogs Belka and Strelka in 1960 — gave new impetus to the creative process. Henceforth, their muses and motivations were real heroes.



During the era of space discoveries in the USSR (late 50s - early 60s) the country saw new architectural trends in Soviet modernism. The trends replaced Stalinist classicism, riding the wave of scientific-technological breakthroughs that occurred during Khrushchev's thaw.

What is Soviet modernism? It is functionality. It is urbanism and futurism applied to buildings; an emphasized massiveness of forms and constructions; a complexity of composition that reflects, according to the architects, "the entire complexity of life." Life became even more multifaceted after Gagarin completed his first flight. Man's conquest of space could not but find reflection in architecture. Many structures from that time have truly cosmic forms and dimensions.

The Soviet modernist architects' favorite materials were reinforced concrete and glass. Artificial marble, sandstone and coquina, which were inexpensive and practical materials, were used as cladding. At the same time the structures were not lacking in decorative elements, such as large-scale mosaic panels.
Soviet modernism is the least studied architectural style that existed in the USSR. In the very beginning of Khrushchev's thaw modernist architects were considered brave experimenters, but in the 1970s critics began describing this architecture as alien.

There are still no precise criteria for defining Soviet modernist architecture, which can still be found in most Soviet-era cities. In the 1990s French photographer Frederic Chaubin was the first to try to catalogue this architecture. He published photographs of about one hundred of these structures in various ex-Soviet republics, ironically titling the book Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed.

The cover of Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed book
Credit: Taschen
The Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction, Tbilisi, Georgia
Credit: Taschen
Monument to partisans, Krusevo, Macedonia
Credit: Taschen
Soviet modernist constructions and architectural ensembles have been losing their initial look; preserving them for posterity is extremely difficult.


Planet of the Storms, 1961

One of the first Soviet films about space, Planet of the Storms was directed by Pavel Klushantsev based on the story of the same name. The premiere took place on April 14, 1962, two days after the first anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight. Eight people had already visited space by then.

In Planet of the Storms, Soviet cosmonauts land on Venus, together with an American colleague, Professor Corney, who is pragmatic, but very likeable. To maintain contact with Earth, female cosmonaut Maria remains in orbit. On Venus the cosmonauts lose each other, only to be reunited and come face to face with the inhabitants of the planet — dinosaurs.

For general release, Soviet Culture Minister Yekaterina Furtseva demanded that a scene must be cut in which Maria, alone in orbit, starts crying, believing the expedition to be doomed.

"A Soviet female cosmonaut cannot cry!"

Yekaterina Furtseva
Soviet Culture Minister from 1960 till 1974
The film was shot using transition techniques and underwater camerawork, which at the time surpassed foreign counterparts in terms of special effects. The film was a huge success and bought by 28 countries.
In the US, Planet of the Storms was used as "raw material" for new films. For instance, the studio American International, which mainly specialized in horror films, recut Planet of the Storms, removing all traces of its Soviet origin. The Soviet actors that remained in shot were assigned fictional American names (Georgy Zhzhenov, for example, became "Kurt Boden"). In the US the picture was released as an American film entitled Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965). Still, some elements betrayed its Soviet past — for example, the word "Sirius" in Russian script on the body of the tape recorder.
During one of his visits to Russia, Star Wars creator said that his dream was to meet the maestro Klushantsev. Film-industry functionaries just shrugged:
"Who's that?" "Klushantsev is the God Father of Star Wars," answered Lucas.
George Lucas
When Stanley Kubrick saw Klushantsev's movie Road to the Stars, he was very impressed and later admitted in an interview that "without Klushantsev there would have been no 2001: A Space Odyssey".
Stanley Kubrick

Solaris, 1972

Neil Armstrong's moonwalk in 1969 gave new impetus to the space race. His contemporaries believed that mankind would soon be exploring Mars and Venus. Perhaps that atmosphere (no pun intended) guaranteed a favorable reception for director Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Having financed the movie, the Soviet leadership had every right to expect ideological dividends in return. However, Tarkovsky could not betray himself even for "tactical" purposes. Filmed in 1972, Solaris was based on the novel by Polish science fictionist Stanislaw Lem and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Although the action takes place in space, the viewer sees almost nothing of the cosmos or the planet Solaris. Solaris in the hands of Tarkovsky morphs into a philosophical and religious parable about guilt, forgiveness and memory. The film explores ethical problems faced by humankind through the prism of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

The author of the literary Solaris, Stanislaw Lem, a confirmed materialist and atheist, could not accept Tarkovsky's religious allusions. Soviet film critics were also nonplussed about the excessive mysticism — the resurrection of the heroine Hari was construed as a "mystical event that does not belong to the genre of science fiction."

"The act of probing the innermost secrets of nature must be inextricably linked to moral progress. In stepping onto a new level of cognition, the other foot must be placed on a new level of morality."
Andrei Tarkovsky
"Tarkovsky didn't shoot Solaris, but Crime and Punishment."
Stanislaw Lem

The Mystery of the Third Planet, 1981

The subject of space was most vividly illustrated in films for children and teenagers. The Soviet Union had to educate a new breed of "sons and daughters of Earth" and "space pioneers." The 1970-80s generation had grown up on Soviet sci-fi hits such as Guests from the Future, Moscow-Cassiopeia, Per Aspera Ad Astra and The Big Space Travel. Cartoons about space deserve special mention, in particular The Mystery of the Third Planet.

Based on a tale penned by science fiction writer Kir Bulychev, the cartoon was made in 1981 by Roman Kachanov, one of the most celebrated animators of the era and creator of the iconic Cheburashka stop-motion films. In the story, an expedition consisting of Captain Zeleny, Professor Seleznev and his daughter Alisa sets off from Earth to explore other worlds in search of new species for the Moscow Zoo.
The cartoon was dubbed twice and released in the US under the title Alice and the Mystery of the Third Planet. In the second version, which saw the light of day in 1998 (as part of Mikhail Baryshnikov's "Stories From My Childhood" series), Alice is voiced by a young Kirsten Dunst and the bird Govorun by James Belushi.
"This was a summer I prooved I wasn't a baby any more: I helped to capture Glot, a notorious space pirate!"
Alice voiced over by Kirsten Dunst
"The repeater bird is intelligent, brave, courageous, true and very-very humble!"
Piter Repeater voiced over by James Belushi


In the 1990s Russian cinema lacked funds to produce films about space. Only in the early 2000s did cosmic flicks make their way back into Russian movie theaters. The new films were not about intergalactic travel, encounters with aliens or the romance of discovering new planets. In them, space and the space age were historical fact that served as the backdrop for the lives of ordinary Soviet people.

They turned utopia into dystopia: Krushchev's "thaw" and the era of space triumphalism were gradually replaced by stagnation. The characters in Alexei Uchitel's Dreaming of Space and Alexei German Jr.'s Paper Soldier anticipate the post-space age.

Dreaming of Space, 2005

The story of a naive young man from the 1950s, nicknamed Konek, who dreams of space and wants to benefit mankind. A mysterious stranger called German enters his life, allegedly a candidate for the first cosmonaut program. In fact, German is preparing to flee the Soviet Union — either to space or by swimming across the border with Norway.

On the train to Moscow, Konek meets a smiling, bashful young officer named Yuri. At the finale it turns out to have been the first cosmonaut-to-be Yuri Gagarin. Later, when Gagarin is being lauded in Moscow, an ungainly Konek runs up to Gagarin's vehicle and hands him a bouquet. That is the last shot of the movie.

Paper Soldier, 2008

The film unfolds against a backdrop of historical events: preparations are underway for the first human spaceflight. In sharp contrast, the tragedy of the main character, physician Daniil Pokrovsky, who is working with the Soviet cosmonauts, is highly personal and unheroic. Racked by doubt and torn between two women who love him, Daniil dies just as Vostok-1 lifts off with Gagarin on board.

First on the Moon, 2005

Alexei Fedorchenko's space mockumentary about failed attempts to send a man into space and Soviet projects that literally didn't get off the ground. This ironic pseudo-documentary, filmed in the style of early cinema, presents a non-judgmental analysis of the meaning of the space era for Soviet and Russian art.


Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov was born in Siberia in 1934. Just like Yuri Gagarin, he was selected for the first Soviet cosmonaut program in 1960. His first flight to space was in 1965.

Leonov, together with his fellow fantasy artist Andrey Sokolov, created the first space-themed stamps in the Soviet Union. Their stamp-collecting debut was in March 1967, when the artists made the first series of stamps dedicated to Cosmonauts' Day.

Ever since early perestroika the depiction of space in modern art has been laced with irony.

Elena Churikova. "Trays and Nebulae". Photo project, group exhibition. "We-ll-timed" IX Moscow International Photo Festival, Fashion and Style in Photography, MMOMA, Moscow, 2015

Ilya Kabakov. "The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment". Installation. Moscow, 1984. Now hosted by Centre Pompidou, Paris.

According to the plot, a man launches himself into space through the ceiling of his communal flat. The viewer is taken inside the corridor, where he sees the text of a denunciation written by a neighbor. It says that the man is guilty of having made strange mathematical calculations relating to the energy of cosmic streams and an unknown construction to launch a physical body into orbit.

Zoya Sokol. Graduates of the K.E. Voroshilov First Military Aviation School. Class of 1959.
Photo collage. MMOMA, Moscow, 2012


If Soviet rock music and Soviet jazz contained protest meanings and implicit or explicit opposition to the existing regime, the electronic music in the Soviet Union broke away from reality and soared into the future – into a beautiful futuristic world with spaceships, robots and settlements on distant planets. It is electronic music that helped to present, most clearly, this wonderful world in science-fiction films of those times, such as "Solaris" and "The Mystery of the Third Planet".
Pictured: Leon Theremin, the creator of the theremin
The first electronic music emerged in the Soviet Union after the revolution, in the 1920s. Then it was composed not by musicians, but by scientists. One of them was Leon Theremin, who invented the theremin. Out of this instrument, you can extract unearthly sounds by moving hands in the air.

Avant-garde composer Arseny Avraamov (a.k.a. Revarsavr) had already worked in genres that only in the late 20th century were defined as noise and musique concrete, and devoted much time to synthesizing sound.

He even offered Joseph Stalin to record the Soviet anthem on not yet existing synthesizers. But Stalin's government did not support all experiments.

With Nikita Khrushchev coming to power in the 1950s, there came the "thaw," the first flight of Yuri Gagarin into space has opened up new horizons of development. Including for music. The first Soviet synthesizer developed as early as in 1936 became widely available. Musician Vyacheslav Meshcherin – who formed the Soviet Union's first Ensemble of Electro-Music Instruments (AEI) in 1956 – picked up this new free mood in his light, weightless music. The band was a huge success. Even Gagarin admitted that AEI's music haunted him in space. This music genre was later called Space Age Pop.
And so it happened that many Soviet musicians started creating futuristic electronic sounds, inspired by the blurring of the boundaries between Earth and outer space. A decade later, in the 1960s, an experimental electronic music studio set up shop in Moscow. It nurtured many prominent Soviet electronic composers, including Eduard Artemyev, whose name for many is synonymous with Soviet electronic music. The musician recorded soundtracks for dozens of films, including films about space – such as Solaris.
Outside the Soviet capital, the electronic music genre was especially active in the Baltic republics, where Western records and instruments were more readily available. One of the brightest electronic stars – a band called Zodiac – was born on Latvian soil. It is impossible to imagine the space age without their song "Space Music".
In the 1980s, electronic music spread throughout the USSR. It became even more accessible when bands started using vocals. However, the space theme faded into the background; instead of distant stars and planets, musicians drew inspiration from the new information age, computers and virtual space. Bands such as Technologiya and Biokonstruktor were the most popular.
Pop artists were also writing songs about unexplored space. Many traditional pop songs are devoted to space. The most popular Soviet song about space is "Earth Through the Porthole" by the band Zemlyane, who sang about what a spaceman feels being far away from his home planet.
Soviet singer Vladimir Troshin wrote a lot of songs about life on other planets. A good example is "Apple Trees Will Be Blossoming on Mars."
And naturally there were songs about the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The best known is "Do You Know What Kind of Guy He Was?" by Yuri Gulyaev.
Modern musicians still continue to compose songs about Gagarin — have a listen to "Gagarin, I Loved You" by Undervud.


In Soviet times design was called "technical aesthetics," and designers artist-constructors and artist-decorators. The word "design" entered the Russian lexicon in the 1970s thanks to Yuri Soloviev, director of the All-Union Institute of Technical Aesthetics.

" A designer is an extremely erudite dilettante. He must be acquainted with all the main innovations in the field of engineering and ergonomics."

Yuri Soloviev
Director of the All-Union Institute of Technical Aesthetics
During the period of Khrushchev's "thaw," Soviet design began to show signs of modernism: minimalism of forms, streamlining of silhouettes, shining surfacesand, a restrained design of fonts. Constructivist and avant-garde ideas from the 20s and 30s were revised.

The era of breakthroughs in space exploration also saw breakthroughs in the design of household items. Towards the end of the 1950s the conquest of space became the number one theme in the packaging of candy, cigarettes and perfume. Factories that had operated in the military and space industries began producing consumer goods based on developed technologies.

When food had to be packaged for cosmonauts, factories started using all kinds of tubes. The tubes contained various dishes (even borscht) in a paste form and could comfortably be used in zero gravity. Some of the packages were used in ordinary life (e.g. blister packs for pills and iodine in a marker pen).

An example of this trend is the "cosmic" design of the Raketa, Saturn and Chaika vacuum cleaners. The Saturn was distinct for its ideally round form with a space-age styled rim. It was based on the American Hoover Constellation vacuum cleaner (1955), but instead of an air cushion the Saturn had wheels.

The Petrodvortsovy watch factory in Leningrad has been producing Raketa watches with a unique mechanism. Standard models are created for mass consumption, while special models are produced for pilots, divers, polar explorers and cosmonauts.
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Texts by Daria Donina, Pavel Gazdyuk, Elena Potapova, Oleg Krasnov. Edited by Thomas Hodson.
Images credits: Taschen, MMOMA, Tekhnika Molodezhi magazine, Pavel Klushantsev, Alexey Leonov.
Design and layout by Elena Potapova with assistance of Daria Donina, Ksenia Isaeva, Vladimir Stakheev.

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