Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

I’m Proud the Communists Accused Me of Bringing Yuri Gagarin to Orthodoxy

Colonel Valentin Petrov, professor at the Gagarin Air Force Academy

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The history of relations between the Orthodox Church and Russian cosmonauts began when man first journeyed into space. These relations developed even when the Soviet state waged an intensive struggle with religion. In recent years, these relations have taken on a special and positive impetus. One of the principal eyewitnesses, Colonel Valentin Petrov, associate professor at the Gagarin Air Force Academy, relates some of the episodes in the cooperation between the Orthodox Church and Russian cosmonauts to Interfax-Religion.

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Interfax

Valentin Vasilyevich, you and Yuri Gagarin were close friends. We hear that some say the first cosmonaut was a believer, although he never made a show of it. Is it possible to say that your shared faith was a personal link in your friendship as young Soviet pilots in those difficult years of state-sponsored atheism?

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Colonel Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-68), the first man in space

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Valentin Petrov

Yuri Gagarin, just as every Russian is, was a baptised Orthodox Christian, and, as far as I can tell, he was a believer. What remains unforgettable for me is our trip together to the Trinity-St Sergei Lavra in 1964, on the day of his thirtieth birthday. Gagarin, a very lively man, asked me straightforwardly if I had ever been to the Lavra. I answered, “Yes”, so, he suggested that we go again, and we went straight away, the same evening, after changing into our civvies. We were perfect fools, because whatever Gagarin might change into… crowds in the Lavra immediately began flocking to him for his autograph. When the church service ended, everybody learnt of his coming and rushed to meet him. Such was the popular love for Yuri Alekseyevich, he couldn’t refuse anybody. He had a unique personality; he never boasted of his fame. If you came to him, he saw nobody else, and listened only to you. His children, too, were never pompous about being the children of the first cosmonaut.

This time, the father superior saved Gagarin and me from the crowds. He took us to his cell, and, as is the Russian custom, filled our glasses, and after the third jigger, he said, “Well, who will believe that Gagarin was in my cell?” Gagarin answered him with the same humour, “Well, this is for those who won’t believe”, took out his picture, and wrote on it, “To the Father Superior, from Gagarin, with best wishes”. The father superior said, “Well, we have to toast that!” 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 Aerodynamics Institute. It turned out later that he meant the Church Archaeology Museum at the Moscow Theological Academy. Of course, we went there, and something happened that absolutely amazed me. When we came to the model of the Church of Christ the Saviour, Yuri Alekseyevich looked at it, then, said to me, “Valentin, look what a lovely thing they destroyed!” He kept looking at it for a long time.

When we were coming back from the Lavra that time, what we saw impressed us so much that we drove as if we were in a hypnotic trance. Yuri Alekseyevich said suddenly, “Valentin, just think about the words ‘Who art in heaven’”. I glared at him, “Yuri, you know the prayer?!” He said, “You think you alone know it? Well, you know how to keep silent”. Indeed, it was 1964, a time when Khrushchyov promised “a show of the last priest”. For me, that trip had repercussions. I faced accusations of “drawing Gagarin into religion”. Gagarin saved me by stating, “How can a captain draw a colonel into religion? He didn’t take me there, but we went in my car”. As a result, the party reprimanded me for “drawing Yuri into Orthodoxy”, and, now, I’m proud of that accusation.

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Colonel Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), Hero of the Soviet Union, the first cosmonaut in the world

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Some time after our trip, Gagarin, speaking at a Central Committee plenary session on the education of the youth, suggested openly that we should restore the Church of Christ the Saviour as a memorial to our military victories, and as an outstanding example of Orthodox architecture. At the same time, he proposed that we should restore the Triumphal Arch, which lay in ruins at that time. Gagarin’s motive was very simple. You can’t promote patriotism without the knowledge of your roots. Since the Church of Christ the Saviour is a monument to our military glory, those who defend our Motherland should know of 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 Yuri Gagarin.

Interfax

What about the famous phrase ascribed to Gagarin, “I’ve been to space, but I didn’t see God?”

Valentin Petrov

In fact, it wasn’t Gagarin, but Khrushchyov, who said it. It happened during a Central Committee plenary meeting that considered anti-religious propaganda. Then, Khrushchyov gave all KPSS and Komsomol organisations the task of spreading such propaganda, and said, “Why should you clutch at God? Gagarin flew into space, but he saw no God there”. However, some time later, the communists began to present these words in a different form. They stated that the quote came not from Khrushchyov, but, from 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 Khrushchyov, but everybody would certainly believe Gagarin”. However, Gagarin never said that, he just couldn’t have said such.

Interfax

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

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Colonel General of Aviation German Stepanovich Titov (1935-2000), the second man in space

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Valentin Petrov

It did, after I went to the Lavra together with German Titov, who, incidentally, was also Orthodox. When we were in Piter together, he asked me, first of all, to take him to the St Aleksandr Nevsky Lavra. Moreover, later, impressed by his visit to the Lavra, German Stepanovich asked me to go with him to Zagorsk. Incidentally, Titov and I together visited Patriarch Aleksei Ridiger even before he was enthroned as patriarch, when His Holiness served as metropolitan in LeningradThere was another remarkable case when greetings came from space on the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia. Volodya Titov was to fly into space, and remain there for a year, I first took him to TsAG, and then to the Danilovsky Monastery. He was in space during the year of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia. The launch date was set for 21 December 1987, and the landing 12 months later, that is, he was in orbit throughout the year of the Millennium.

When he learned he was going on the mission, 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 Philaret Vakhromeyev {who later became Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk: editor}. We had a remarkable meeting. Volodya received a church calendar devoted to the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia and many icons. Volodya also liked the tea that Metropolitan Philaret served very much, so, the metropolitan ordered that several packets be set aside especially for him, and throughout that year, my friend enjoyed a hierarchical tea in orbit. When Volodya congratulated the whole of the USSR on the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia from orbit, everybody here were just stupefied. How did he know that? Well, he had a church calendar with him in orbit! To cut a long story short, I was bounced, sacked from every place, but, on the following day, Gorbachyov met with Patriarch Pimen Izvekov and other hierarchs to mark the Millennium, and, somehow, the accusations abated after that.

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Russian Orthodox priest blessing contemporary cosmonauts

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Once, I got the idea to take the Americans to the Lavra in 1975, the year of the Soyuz-Apollo mission. We, our first team of cosmonauts and American astronauts, went there before the launch. We gave the interpreter so much to drink that, in the end, one of the fathers had to replace him. We took an incredible picture of the visit, and hung it in the Moscow Patriarchate. When foreign delegations came, and said that we were an atheistic state, we answered, “How can you say that? Look, these are our cosmonauts, and these are the 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 Lavra and to the Danilovsky Monastery. The father superior of the Danilovsky Monastery was my friend. I was a catechist teaching kids, and I was learning too.

Interfax

However, in the atheistic period such trips couldn’t go unpunished for you as an air force pilot…

Valentin Petrov

The Party continually rebuked me. However, it couldn’t sack me, as, by that time, I’d become a well-known teacher, and the cosmonauts defended me with all their might. At another time, they wanted to bounce me, but, the cosmonauts said, “Remove anyone but him”. However, I nearly got the sack on several occasions. Often, the commander of the cosmonaut team would learn that I, such a cheeky fellow, took everybody to monasteries, and a small row would follow. This was because I taught a course on philosophy at the Air Force Academy at the time. It was a deadly trick to speak about Orthodoxy when atheism was the official ideology. Nevertheless, as a teacher of cosmonauts, I continued to take them to monasteries.

Interfax

Now, years later, you can freely speak about Orthodox culture with your students.

Valentin Petrov

Some time later, the Patriarch arranged with the Minister of Culture to have Orthodox culture taught in military academies. I was one of the first military officers admitted to the catechism department of St Tikhon Orthodox Humanities University (PSTGU). This year marks the tenth anniversary since I graduated from the course. His Holiness himself presented me with my graduation certificate. I believe that it’s impossible to study Russian history whilst, at the same time, you neglect the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia and the basics of the Orthodox faith. You can find many examples pointing to the need of such study. The Trinity-St Sergei Lavra withstood a Polish siege for 16 months. How can a military man be ignorant of that?

Interfax

As an air force colonel and teacher of 40-years’ experience, how can you explain the special need for religious belief felt by those who’re involved in military service?

Valentin Petrov

As a pilot constantly risks his life, he,nolens volens,comes to the Lord. We in the military think of a true faith in exactly this situation. I consider it my duty to educate my students in the Orthodox spirit. I don’t take them by the hand, and pull them to the baptismal font. Indeed, it’s impossible to force someone to believe, just as it’s impossible to force someone to love. However, many students of our academy do receive baptism whilst they’re here.

12 April 2006

Interfax-Religion

www.interfax.ru

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