Friday, April 14, 2006

Interfax: Yury Gagarin was an Orthodox Christian

I am proud to be accused of having introduced Yury Gagarin to Orthodoxy

The history of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian cosmonauts began at the moment when a human being was first launched into space. These relations developed even when the Soviet state waged an intensive struggle with religion. In recent years these relations have been given a special positive impulse. Some episodes in the cooperation between the Orthodox Church and Russian cosmonauts have been related to Interfax-Religion by one of its principal eyewitnesses, Colonel Valentin Petrov, associate professor at the Gagarin Air Force Academy.

- Valentin Vasilyevich, you and Yury Gagarin were close friends. The first cosmonaut is reported by some to have been a believer, though he never made a show of it. Is it possible to say that faith was another private go-between in your friendship as young Soviet pilots in those difficult years of state atheism?

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in Space

- Yury Gagarin, just as every Russian, was baptized, and, as far as I can know, was a believer. What remains unforgettable for me is our trip together to St. Sergius Laura of the Trinity in 1964, just on the day when Gagarin marked his 30th birthday. He, a very lively man, once asked me straightforwardly if I had ever been to the Laura. Answered in the affirmative, he suggested that we go once again, and we went straight away, the same evening, after changing our clothes into ‘civilian’ ones. Perfect fools we were, because whatever Gagarin might change into... Crowds of people in the Laura would immediately begin flocking to him for autograph. Hardly the church service ended as everybody, having learnt about his coming, hastened to meet him. Such was people’s love of Yury, and he could not refuse anybody.

Yury was a unique personality. He never boasted of his fame. If you came to him, he saw nobody else and listened only to you. And his children, too, were never pompous about their being the children of the first ever cosmonaut.

At that time in the Laura, we, Gagarin in the first place, were saved by the father superior. He took us to his cell and, and as is Russian custom filled glasses and after the third jigger said, “Well, who will believe Gagarin was in my cell?” And Gagarin answered him with the same humor, “Well, this is for those who will not believe”, and took out his picture and wrote on it, “To Father Superior from Gagarin with best wishes”. The father superior said, “Well, we have to toast it!” And we toasted it, of course!

Then the father superior suggested that we should visit TsAG. We answered, wondering, “Why, father? We have been to TsAGI!”, meaning our Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute. It turned out later that he meant the Church Archeology Museum at the Moscow Theological Academy. Of course, we went there and something happened there that amazed me absolutely. When we came to look at the model of Church of Christ the Saviour, Yury looked inside it, then said to me, “Valentin, look what a lovely thing they have destroyed!” He kept looking at it for a long time.

When we were coming back from the Laura that time, we were so impressed by what we saw that we drove like in a hypnotic trance. Yury said suddenly, “Valentin, just think about the words ‘who art in heaven’. I glared at him, “Yury, don’t you know the prayer?!” He said, “You think you alone know it? Well, you know how to keep silent”. Indeed, it was 1964, the time when Khruschev promised “a show of the last parson”.

For me that trip had repercussions. I was accused of “drawing Gagarin into religion”. It was Gagarin himself who saved me by stating, “How come a captain draws a colonel into religion? He did not take me there, but we went on my car”. As a result, the party reprimanded me for “drawing Yury into Orthodoxy”, and now I am proud of it.

Some time after our trip, Yury Gagarin, speaking at the Central Committee plenary session on education of the youth, suggested openly that the Church of Christ the Saviour should be restored as a monument of military glory and an outstanding Orthodox work. At the same time, he proposed to restore the Triumphal Arch, which lay in ruins at that time. Gagarin’s motive was very simple: patriotism cannot be promoted without the knowledge of one’s roots. Since the Church of Christ the Saviour is a monument of military glory, those who go to defend their Motherland should know it.

Nobody at the meeting expected such a statement from the first cosmonaut. The response was incredible, a storm of applause. The presidium was seriously scared, of course, but certainly they could do nothing against Yury Gagarin.

- And what about the famous phrase ascribed to Gagarin: “I have been to space but have not seen God”?

- In fact, it was not Gagarin but Khruschev who said it. It happened during the Central Committee plenary meeting that considered anti-religious propaganda. Khruschev then gave all the Party and Komsomol organizations the task to engage in this propaganda and said: Why should you clutch at God? Here is Gagarin who flew to space but saw no God there. But some time later these words began to be presented in a different aspect. References were made not to Khruschev but to Gagarin who, indeed, was the people’s favourite and such a statement from his lips could be of tremendous importance. They said, few would believe Khruschev but everybody would certainly believe Gagarin. But Gagarin never said that, he just couldn’t utter such words.

- That trip together with Gagarin, did it begin your tradition of taking your students at the Air Force Academy to holy places?

- Generally speaking, it did, after I went to the Laura together with German Titov, who, incidentally, was also Orthodox. When we were in St. Pete together, he asked me in the first place to take him to St. Alexander Nevsky’s Laura. And later, under the impression of his visit to the Laura, German asked me to go with him to Zagorsk. Incidentally, Titov and I together visited Patriarch Alexy II even before he was enthroned as patriarch, when His Holiness served as metropolitan in Leningrad.

The Baptism of Rus', 988 A.D.

There was another remarkable case when a message of greetings came from space on the occasion of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia. When Volodya Titov was to fly into space to stay there for a year, I first of all took him to TsAK and then to Danilov monastery. He flew in the year of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia. The launching was planned for December 21, 1987, and the landing 12 months later, that is, he was in orbit throughout the year of the Millennium. When he was approved, he wanted to receive a blessing upon his flight. I took him late at night to the then chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, His Eminence Filaret. We had a striking meeting. Volodya was given a church calendar devoted to the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia and many icons. Volodya also liked very much the tea we took, so the metropolitan ordered that several sets be packed especially for him, and through the year my friend enjoyed a hierarchal tea in orbit.

When Volodya congratulated from orbit the whole of the Soviet Union on the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia, everybody here were just stupefied: where did he know that from? Well, did not he have a church calendar in orbit? I was well bounced, sacked from every place, but on the following day Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen and other hierarchs on the occasion of the Millennium, and the accusations somewhat abated ever since.

Once I got an idea to take the Americans to the Laura, the more so that it was in 1975, the year of the Soyuz-Appolo. We, our first team of cosmonauts and American astronauts, went there before the launch. We gave the interpreter to drink so much that ultimately he had to be replaced by one of the fathers. We took an incredible picture of the trip and hung it in the Moscow Patriarchate. When foreign delegations came and said we were an atheistic state, we answered, “How can you say so? Look, these are our cosmonauts and these are American astronauts!” They had nothing to say to that.

Generally, this tradition began as far back as the 1960s as I took all the crews I trained to St. Sergius’s Laura of the Trinity and to St. Daniel’s Monastery. The father superior of the Danilov Monastery was my friend. I was a catechizer teaching kids and myself learning.

- But in the atheistic period such trips could not go unpunished for you as a military pilot...

- The party continually rebuked me. But it could not sack me as by that time had become a well-known teacher and cosmonauts defended me with all their might. Just another time I was to be budged, they would say: remove anyone but him. Though I was nearly bounced on several occasions. Once the commander of the cosmonaut team would learn that I, such a cheeky fellow, took everybody to monasteries, a small row would follow. The more so that I read a course on philosophy at the Air Force Academy at that time. It was a deadly trick to speak about Orthodoxy under atheism as official ideology. Still I as a teacher of cosmonauts continued to take them to monasteries.

- But now, years after, you can freely speak about Orthodox culture with your students.

Some time later, our patriarch arranged with the minister of culture for teaching Orthodox culture in military academies. I am the only representative of the military who was among the first to be admitted to the catechism department of St. Tikhon’s Institute. This year will mark the tenth anniversary since I graduated from the catechism course. His Holiness himself presented me with a graduation certificate.

I believe generally that it is impossible to study Russian history while neglecting the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and the basics of Orthodox faith. You can find as many examples as you want pointing to the need of such study. The same St. Sergius’s Laura of the Trinity withstood a Polish siege for 16 months. How can a military man be ignorant of that?

- As an aviation colonel and teacher with a 40-year experience, how can you explain the special need for religious belief felt by those who are involved in the military service?

- As a pilot constantly risks his life he nolens volens comes to the Lord. The military conceive a true faith in exactly this situation. I consider it my duty to educate my students in the Orthodox spirit. I do not take them by hand and pull to the baptismal font. Indeed, it is impossible to force one to believe, just as to love. But many students of our academy themselves undergo baptism while studying.