On the 12th of April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly to space. The Soviet cosmonaut made history, orbiting the earth aboard the Vostok 1 on a 108-minute adventure. A milestone in the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union, Gagarin became a cult figure and a shining personification of Soviet achievement. The famous figure’s life was tragically cut short when his plane crashed in 1968 during a routine training flight, but his legacy has passed through generations, and his memory continues to fiercely burn bright. Following his death, his hometown of Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin, and monuments, memorials—and even a museum—sprouted in his honor.
Shooting to fame from humble beginnings, Gagarin seemed to be living proof that everything was possible, no matter where you came from, and—like many children across different generations—he became one of Daria Garnik’s heroes growing up. Curious about the man behind the myth, she set off to photograph Gagarin and explore the town’s devotion to its namesake.
In this interview, Garnik speaks about her own relationship with Gagarin, his enduring image in post-Soviet collective memory, and encountering the oddities of Gagarin—a town frozen in nostalgia.
LensCulture: You previously studied Art Criticism. When did you first pick up a camera? Would you say your background shaped your photographic approach in any way?
Daria Garnik: I had a classical education, and it was a very good base for mastering photography. I reviewed thousands of images from ancient to modern times, and continue doing that today. I was completely fascinated by the magical realism of Edward Hopper, and it was through him that I discovered American photography. It is still one of my favorite periods of art. During my university studies, photography was a very undervalued medium, and that is what drew me to it. I wanted to understand this phenomenon, to realize it and to learn how to read a photograph—to think and express my ideas in a photographic language.
LC: How would you describe the main interests linking your different projects? And why do you choose photography as a medium to explore them?
DG: In my work, I would like to get closer to understanding the processes of memory and how it is formed, identity, cultural codes, and the contact between humans and nature. I am also interested in exploring my inner feelings. But my starting point is often other human beings. At the moment, I choose photography because it is the most understandable and accessible language and medium for me. Photography provides me with an opportunity to step away from the picture. I like to watch.
LC: Yuri Gagarin was the first human to journey into outer space in 1961, subsequently becoming an international superstar. How did you encounter his life and what drew you to the story?
DG: Yuri Gagarin has been my hero since childhood. I was born 25 years after his flight into space, but it feels like I knew about him before my birth. I think the image of a smiling man in an orange spacesuit was simply imprinted in the genetic code of people who were born in the USSR after 1961. All children at that time dreamed of becoming astronauts.
LC: Rapidly gaining global fame, Gagarin became an important figure in Soviet mythology. Can you give me a background of the narrative built around him? Why did his story strike such a strong chord in the Soviet imagination?
DG: Yuri Gagarin’s flight was a breakthrough for the USSR. It was the triumph of the space race. This ordinary man from an ordinary family became a hero, a symbol of hopes for the cosmic future. His subsequent death—at the early age of 34—seemed to conserve him in this state, thus mythologizing his personality. After his flight, every citizen of the USSR felt as if they knew him personally; his death became a national tragedy. Gagarin became a cult hero of Soviet mythology and a central figure of scientific and atheistic propaganda for the USSR. But, on the other hand, Gagarin became a victim of this propaganda. The life story of the first cosmonaut is really very dramatic—it is the story of constant challenges, which is why he remains a cult figure for a lot of people.
LC: Did you have personal memories of being told or encountering his story? What were you driven to discover in the face of what you knew already of the first man in space?
DG: I probably wanted to know Gagarin as a person, rather than as a media personality. I had some childhood memories about Soviet newsreels and his voice, and about his image. But he was not born in a spacesuit, and he did not immediately fly into space. He was a man who encountered war, poverty, hunger and devastation throughout his childhood. The hideout where his family lived in wartime, their village life—can all of this be associated with space technologies and achievements? This realization that his life was full of difficulties that he had to overcome makes Gagarin much more real and alive than the romanticized image kept alive in Soviet propaganda.
LC: Much of the series revolves around the traces of the cult figure of Gagarin and how his image lives on through the place named after him (formerly Gzhatsk). Can you describe what you were looking for there? What kind of people did you meet?
DG: It was very simple. I decided to visit the city where my childhood hero was born and grew up, and to see with my own eyes how locals kept the memory of him alive. I was in Gagarin for a very short time, but during that visit, I managed to get acquainted with both the witnesses of his life and ordinary citizens, museum staff and curators. For example, Gagarin’s niece, Tamara Filatova, lives there. Working in the museum complex, she cherishes the memory of him very carefully. I also met with an honorary resident of the town, Maya Merkulova. She is actually the same age as Yuri would be, and she was once a neighbor of the Gagarin family.
LC: What sorts of objects, spaces and people did you come across? How does the village keep him alive?
DG: In Gagarin there are several clustered museums in honor of the first cosmonaut. The newest and the most modern is the Museum of the First Flight, founded in 2011. One of the pictures shows the head of the museum, Lyudmila Dyomina. There is also a complex of conserved house museums with preserved interiors and some personal belongings of the family. A stunning exhibit included a gift from the government for the space flight: the Volga GAZ-21 car, in which Yuri Gagarin traveled for seven years until his death. There is a small school museum, which is more amateur and less accessible to the general public, but contains many interesting archival photos and objects. For example, there was a jar with preserved strawberries, which was the kind of food you’d find onboard a spacecraft in the ’80s.
There are a lot of images of Yuri Gagarin in the town—memorial tablets, portraits, photographs, posters. The central hotel is called ‘Vostok’—the name of Gagarin’s space capsule—and the cinema next door, which was closed this year, is called ‘Cosmos.’ The library and information center are also packed with literature devoted to Gagarin. People that I spoke to often mention Gagarin as a close or distant relative. It might sound strange, but I almost feel the same way about him.
LC: While the village’s memorials for the spaceman are celebratory, the images are drenched in nostalgia. What is it like to encounter the village now, over 50 years after his death?
DG: Nostalgia is a key component of this story. Gagarin is a very small town, with a population of about 29,000 people, and it is located 180 kilometers from Moscow. It is a typical provincial Russian town, and its economy is in decline, but it preserves the urban memories of the iconic figure. Thanks to this metaphorical environment and nostalgic touch, the town formed its own identity, almost like an atmosphere frozen in time.
LC: The era of Gagarin and the space race was one of optimism and progress. What does the nostalgia surrounding Gagarin and its monuments mean in present-day Russia?
DG: Gagarin was the first person to go beyond the Earth. He became a symbol of the fact that it is possible. His legacy is the memory of the space race, enthusiasm and success of a country that no longer exists. It is important to remember it.