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Bitches in Space: Remembering Soviet Russia's Fleet of Female Dog Cosmonauts

Feb 19 2016 4:35 PM
Bitches in Space: Remembering Soviet Russia's Fleet of Female Dog Cosmonauts

A space dog postcard. Image courtesy of FUEL publishing

In her book "Soviet Space Dogs," feminist art historian Olesya Turkina revisits Soviet Russia's obsession with the dogs the government launched into orbit to test the safety of space travel.

In the aftermath of World War II, the USSR and the USA became locked in an ideological conflict between socialism and capitalism. Determined to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist way, the USSR launched a secret space program. Eventually a human cosmonaut would fly into outer space, but first came Laika—a dog.

Laika's launch was kept a secret until a few days before take-off. As Russian feminist art historian Olesya Turkina explains in her book, Soviet Space Dogs, "the secrecy of the space program was justified by the notion that socialism could not be seen to fail in any of its endeavors. In this sense, space travel was the most imperative achievement of such a society." According to the official Soviet story, the valiant little mutt launched into orbit, died a heroic death, and became the first icon of space exploration.

Read more: Photos from the Westminster Dog Show

Adorable photos of Laika and her doggy comrades wearing vests and space helmets were plastered on everything from cigarettes to children's toys. London-based publisher Damon Murray had been collecting this ephemera and was looking for someone to tell the dogs' story in a way that was different from the official accounts.

"I was specifically interested in the effect of these everyday items on the Soviet people—to try and understand their perspective of the dogs' role in the Space Race. I realized that this was something that could only be written by a Russian; it would be difficult (if not impossible) for a non-Russian to pick up the nuances and detail necessary to make this history different," Murray told Broadly in an email.

Murray approached Turkina, who seemed perfect for the job: Not only was she a senior research fellow at the State Russian Museum, but she had also been a member of the Russian Federation of Cosmonautics since 1999. She was thrilled at the prospect. "I grew up as a kid in the Soviet Union. Four-legged cosmonauts were represented everywhere. Sweets boxes, books, stamps, Christmas toys—they were our fairy-tale," Turkina told Broadly in an e-mail.

A space dogs-themed sweet tin. All images courtesy of FUEL publishing.

Turkina is well known in the Russian art world as a trailblazer for feminist art exhibitions. In 1989, she co-organized "Women in Art" in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), featuring the work of radical performance artist Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe. Afterwards, Turkina and her co-organizer were ripped apart in the media. At the event, the artist was chased into the street. "The word feminism caused confusion, horror and even disgust," Turkina told Broadly.

Feminism has a long and complicated history in Russia. During the Cold War, the socialist state propagated an ideal of a genderless society. There were no women, there were no men; there were comrades. "I grew up in the time when we did not know the word 'feminism,' yet women could choose any profession. A woman could be a cosmonaut or a representative in government and could earn equal pay with men," Turkina said.

Despite these ideals, Turkina says, the egalitarian Soviet state was extremely patriarchal in practice. "Instead of freedom, women now had two occupations. They were expected to be socially active, work hard in their jobs, and then come home, feed their husbands, take care of the kids and clean the house," she noted.

The cover of Soviet Space Dogs.

It may seem surprising, then, that only female dogs were selected for orbit. But there was a practical reason: The space capsules weren't spacious enough for male dogs to lift their legs to relieve their little bladders in their special canine space suits. Squatting was more conducive and came naturally to female dogs.

Due to the secrecy of the space program, the total number of dogs launched into space is unknown, but Turkina estimates it was at least fifty. When a dog managed to survive the journey back to Earth and became pregnant, her fertility was used as propaganda to affirm the Soviet way. The birth of her healthy puppies demonstrated the safety of space travel and the magnificence of Soviet science. Nikita Khrushchev even sent puppy Pushinka ("Fluffy" in Russian) as an in-your-face gift to John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline.

Laika's November 1957 trip to outer space was one of the major catalysts of the Space Race between the US and USSR. In 1955, the White House had announced their plans to launch a satellite in three years' time. Two years later, stunned Americans looked up to find the Soviet satellite Sputnik circling the Earth. Sputnik wasn't just a year ahead of the Americans' own planned satellite launch—it was also ten times the size of the craft they were in the process of constructing.

A Laika matchbox label. Text reads: "The First Sputnik Passenger – the dog 'Laika.'"

Sputnik 2 launched a miraculous month later with Laika inside, and it was even larger than its predecessor. Despite the national importance of the project, Laika was a humble stray from Moscow. "Strays were not chosen for ideological reasons of class, but because, having to fend for themselves, it was assumed that they were naturally hardier than purebred dogs," writes Turkina.

Envious Americans snidely referred to Laika as "Muttnik" and balked at the experiment. The official Soviet story proclaims that Laika died a heroic death in the name of scientific progress. A non-speaking canine, Laika didn't have the agency to volunteer for this mission to space, yet she was celebrated for her self-sacrifice. Laika's image proliferated on propaganda materials throughout the Soviet Union. As Turkina explains in Soviet Space Dogs:

This cliche notion that everyone must be ready to die for the Motherland was naturally projected onto Laika. Precisely because of this, it is conceivable that Soviet mass media found itself unprepared for the worldwide concern over the dog's fate, and the outrage resulting from her death. From the Soviet perspective, this was a straightforward act of heroism attributed to a dumb creature, whereas the West saw the event as a synonym for a pitiless and cruel ideology.

Soviet media spread the news that Laika lived for a week in her space capsule before undergoing painless remote euthanasia. In truth, Laika died an excruciating death within a few hours, burned alive by a wicked combination of overheating rocket engines and solar radiation. But the graphic details of her demise wouldn't be released until 2002, fourteen years after Perestroika relaxed censorship and freed the scientists to discuss their experiences. They had regrets.

"I learned so much while I was conducting my research," wrote Turkina via e-mail. "After Perestroika, scientists gave interviews and revealed hidden facts. I realized how warm the relations were between these scientists and the space dogs. It [added] a very human touch to the story."

A matchbox label showing a space dog flying to the moon.

After Laika came Belka and Strelka, the first canine cosmonauts to travel through space and live to bark about it. For their journey, which took place in 1960, cameras had been installed in the spacecraft; Earthlings were able to see real time images of the dogs transmitted from space. Dressed in charming matching red and green space suits, the dogs paddled around in zero gravity, orbiting Earth eighteen times. When they landed, they attained worldwide fame. Turkina describes them as "the first Soviet pop stars."

Pop culture was nonexistent in the USSR at this time: Socialist ideology dictated that every outstanding achievement belonged to all Soviet people and never to a single individual. The scientists and engineers behind the Russian space program remained anonymous, while Belka and Strelka got all of the glory.

"The extensive production of merchandise emblazoned with their image, their ubiquity across all media, the overwhelming desire of every Soviet citizen regardless of age or gender to meet the space dogs in person: these elements and many others traditionally associated with the cult of the pop star emerged during the mass-cultural phenomena of Belka and Strelka," writes Turkina in Soviet Space Dogs.

A postcard depicting Belka and Strelka in their rocket.

There would be at least six more dog flights and a crew of male monkeys before scientists were convinced space was safe enough for humans. Female monkeys were studied on the ground to determine "the optimum time to launch, in relation to a woman's biological cycle," writes Turkina. On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. She returned to earth after forty-eight orbits and seventy-one hours, having spent more time in space than all U.S. astronauts combined to that date.

Turkina dedicates her brilliant book to all the dogs who were crucial to the early success of the Soviet space program. When she's not writing and curating, she continues to work as an activist for the feminist cause in St. Petersburg. Much like the noble creatures she illustrates in Soviet Space Dogs, Turkina embodies courage, dedication, and the hope of a better world.

To learn more about the canine cosmonauts, check out FUEL Publishing's "Soviet Space Dogs" by Olesya Turkina, published by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell.

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