A Brief Guide to Russian Space Movies
In the 60 years since Gagarin, the world’s first spacefaring nation has produced its own equivalents of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.
Russians are proud of their space history. On any given month in Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are anniversaries, retrospectives, and commemorations featuring veterans ready to talk about yet another memoir, exhibition, or “definitive” history book. One part of this growing nostalgia industry is the expanding number of motion pictures based on the nation’s space program. In the Soviet era, there was a long and distinguished tradition of thought-provoking (and occasionally mind-blowing) science fiction movies set in outer space. That lineage traces its roots back to the classic silent movie Aelita (1924) from director Yakov Protazanov, about a proletarian revolution that takes place on Mars. Later notable movies included Andrei Tarkovsky’s influential and meditative classic Solaris (1972) and The Sky Beckons (1959), also known as Battle Beyond the Sun, a movie said to have influenced Western directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick.
In the post-Cold War era and particularly in the past decade or so, the Russian film industry has favored another genre of space-themed moviemaking—docudramas in the style of American blockbusters like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995). These new films are semi-fictionalized accounts of key moments in Soviet space history, and like their American counterparts, they traffic in nostalgia for the halcyon days of the space race. Some have very high production values comparable to those of big-budget American releases such as First Man (2018). And they share a similar theme: triumph over adversity.
Not surprisingly, the first big space movie in post-Soviet times was about legendary Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev. Made by a well-known Russian director, Yuri Kara, Korolev (2007) covers the early life of the designer, focusing particularly on his arrest and incarceration in the Stalinist Gulag in the late 1930s. As one would expect from a movie blessed by Korolev’s daughter Natalya Sergeyevna, this is more of a hagiography than a critical take. But the aesthetic is firmly in the mode of dramatic realism, with graphic and often violent depictions of Korolev’s life in the Gulag.
The acting, especially of the larger ensemble, is high-level, and the scenery is breathtaking—the scenes of Korolev leaving the Gulag camp on foot are spectacular. But the 130-minute film is weighed down by predictability and presentiment. We learn little about Korolev’s real motivations beyond a rote “must conquer space!” And there is almost no nuance in the depiction of an unusual man possessed of a deeply conflicted and complex personality. Kara directed a sequel called Chief (2015) covering Korolev’s years as Chief Designer—the period in which he presided over the successes of Sputnik and the pioneering spaceflights of Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov. But this movie, clearly made with a smaller budget, comes off even worse, more like a made-for-TV special than a theatrical release.
A 2013 biopic about Gagarin, First in Space, is no better. Directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, the movie chronicles the first cosmonaut’s historic flight with flashbacks to his childhood and early life, but suffers from clunky special effects and an odd conclusion: The movie ends abruptly with Gagarin’s return to Earth. The director plays up the tension between Gagarin and his backup Gherman Titov, but even that bit of drama fails to tell us anything of value about Gagarin the person, beyond a kind of surface-level heroism, modesty, and patriotism.
For much better movies based on Soviet space history, I recommend two recent entries, Yuri Bykov and Dmitry Kiselov’s Age of Pioneers (also known as The Spacewalker) and Klim Shipenko’s Salyut-7, both released in 2017. Both make use of expensive special effects and dramatic tension to portray two of the most fraught episodes in Soviet space history—the first spacewalk by Leonov in 1965 and the dangerous rescue of the derelict Salyut-7 space station twenty years later. Leonov himself consulted on the Age of Pioneers, and his involvement ensures a certain historical accuracy, even if the story has been embellished. Recently declassified documents on the Voskhod-2 flight show that some of Leonov’s accounts of that mission, such as the difficulty in getting back into his spaceship from the airlock, were exaggerated. Despite these revelations, there’s no doubt that the Voskhod-2 mission was one of the riskiest in the early history of space exploration. The nail-biting second half of Age of Pioneers makes you wonder how the crew ever made it back alive.
I wouldn’t recommend either Age of Pioneers or Salyut-7 for strict adherence to historical fact, but the latter movie does convey beautifully the grandeur, dangers, and terror of space travel. Although not wellknown in the West, the Salyut-7 rescue is unequivocally worthy of motion picture treatment. After a series of successful long-duration missions, Soviet controllers completely lost contact with the station in early 1985. They sent two of the most experienced cosmonauts in the corps, Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh, to rescue and revive the station. As the movie shows, this was neither easy nor safe. Viewers should be cautioned that many aspects of the mission are fictionalized, including the names of the cosmonauts themselves and a rather absurd plot involving the NASA space shuttle. But in communicating an overall sense of the late-Soviet period space program, this movie does a superb job. We see Soviet space hardware in a way rarely seen on celluloid, and more importantly, we see cosmonauts as fallible human beings. The movie has a similar feel to Alfonso Cuarón’s blockbuster movie Gravity (2013) in that it stretches credibility to tell a moving story. And the direction and acting are so good that you might forgive some of its more egregious deviations from truth.
These recent docudramas are only part of a broader surge of Russian movies dealing with space travel. As Natalija Majsova, a professor of cultural and religious studies at the University of Ljubljana, has noted, this fascination with the cosmos in the past 20 years appears to be due to a “renewed political interest in the achievements of the Soviet era and its nation-building myths, increased resources for film production…[and an] updated marketing and branding strategy of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.” Some of these films, such as Paper Soldier (2008) and Dreaming of Space (2005), have tended to appeal to arthouse audiences.
By far the sharpest and most compelling of these is the mockumentary First on the Moon (2005), which pretends to be a modern look back at a long-forgotten (and entirely fake) program initiated by Josef Stalin to send cosmonauts to the moon in the 1930s. Director Aleksei Fedorchenko took great care to recreate the feel of a real documentary, complete with a sober narration and recovered bits of 1930s-era film.
More clever and biting than anything produced in the West, First on the Moon operates as a critique not only of Stalinist culture, but of a slew of real Soviet space documentaries that were heavy on heroism and socialist triumphalism. In leaving open the “mystery” of what happened to Stalin’s moon program, it flips the usual conventions of science fiction by asking us to imagine not an alternate future but an alternate past. In a post-Soviet Russia often gripped by nostalgia for Soviet times, such alternative histories play powerfully to those disaffected and cynical Russians for whom optimistic views of the future might seem naïve. It’s the kind of work that’s impossible to imagine being produced at the time of Gagarin’s flight 60 years ago, when the Soviet space program was full of hope.