Yuri Gagarin: to Prague via the stratosphere

Yuri Gagarin in Prague, photo: CTK

Even after the death of Stalin in the Soviet Union and Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia the 1950s remained a period of high political tension between East and West. The Cold War was at its height; with it came the arms race and the space race. Here is Czechoslovakia’s president Antonín Novotný, in a New Year radio address on January 1 1958:

Yuri Gagarin in Prague, photo: CTK
“Last year saw historic successes in Soviet science and technology. In the form of artificial satellites, mankind took a first step into space. The Soviet Union achieved supremacy in rocket technology, and further developed its supremacy in the peaceful use of atomic energy. All these successes are not directed towards military goals, but aim to make man richer and happier.”

Three years later, on April 12 1961, the 27-year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and, of course, Czechoslovak Radio reported on the moment:

“For the first time, a man is speaking from the heavens, Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin….”

Gagarin’s voice may have been all but incomprehensible, but history had been made, and the Soviets had won a major battle in the space race. Following his historic flight, Gagarin embarked on a world tour and the very first city he visited, just two weeks after his return to the earth’s atmosphere, was Prague. Czechoslovak Radio asked him if he had a message for listeners:

Photo: CTK
“Greetings to all the working people of Czechoslovakia. I wish you the best for the coming summer: in your work, in your private life and in building socialism and peace in the whole world.”

Two children, Saša Málková and Pavel Šolc, both members of the Czechoslovak Radio children’s ensemble, were given the special honour of presenting Comrade Gagarin with a recording of songs composed by Czechoslovak composers in honour of his flight. They had even prepared a few words in Russian.

Gagarin replied by thanking the children

“I wish your choir much success. I hope that you will become truly great artists, and I wish happiness to all children in the Czechoslovak Republic.”

Yuri Gagarin went on to retrain as a fighter pilot, and died tragically in a crash during a training flight just seven years later. He is buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Moscow’s Red Square.