Yuri’s Day – is everything in the book true?

At the beginning of Yuri’s Day we wrote “Everything in this book is true.” That is a bold claim, and not a popular one to make in these post-modern times. Historians are only too aware that nobody has the complete truth about anything, and everyone tells the tale of the past from their own point of view.

So why stick our necks out that far? Because we wanted to make it clear that Yuri’s Day was not a Hollywood style re-writing of history to make it more exciting, but a tale in which the bare facts of the Vostok programme were thrilling enough without any need for exaggeration. It was also to signal that this telling of the story is based on careful research, and the best evidence we could find.

Early in the post Cold War period, when it first began to be possible for westerners to travel and work more freely in the former Soviet Union, the research was done on which Yuri’s Day is ultimately based. Skilled researchers went to Russia for extended trips. They gathered first-hand, eye-witness testimony, and studied official Soviet documents and records together with personal diaries of the time. Surviving members of both the Vostok project team, and of Gagarin’s own family were among those interviewed.

This material became a BBC documentary film: Starman, and a book: Starman, the Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. Both were written and produced by Piers Bizony, with Jamie Doran. A new, updated edition of the book Starman is due out in April 2011. Yuri’s Day is based on the same research, plus some additional material gathered from authoritative internet sources recently published by Russian space enthusiasts and professionals.

Even with high quality research however, there are many obstacles to telling a ‘true’ story.

The events themselves were very complex, involving many people. The format of Yuri’s Day meant that inevitably, many interesting parts of the story had to be left out to concentrate on the really key figures and events.

In editing the story, I chose events that would make the motivations of the main characters understandable to readers, and which would also show the extraordinary obstacles that some of them had to overcome. For example, a big part of the drama of the story comes from the fact that unlike the Americans, the Soviets in WW2 had had to fight off the Nazis on their own soil. This is why the story begins with the horrors of the Nazi invasion, and a glimpse of some of the effects it had on the lives of the characters.

There will always be many different ways to edit such a story. I hope I have chosen one which reflects some of the most important truths about the events behind Yuri Gagarin’s orbit.

However carefully the material is edited, a writer of history, especially of history set in another culture to his or her own, has to guard against stereotypes and unconscious prejudice. During the Cold War, both the Western and the Eastern sides saw each other through a distorting lens of secrecy, misinformation and propaganda. The legacy of those ideas and attitudes is still very much around, and it is difficult to be sure one is ever really free from all of them.

In shaping the story of Yuri’s Day I did not want to create a piece of either Soviet or western propaganda. The aim was to bring more attention to Soviet achievements that are still not fully understood in the west. I tried to counteract any effect of unconscious stereotypes by simply telling the story as I found it, without too much comment, and by trying to present the USSR in that period, not as a wildly exotic and strange place, but as somewhere where people acted as they did for reasons that make sense to the reader.

In response to some of our commenters who perhaps feared another wave of western propaganda stereotypes, I can guarantee, hand on heart, that no bears, and no balalaikas have been allowed into this story; that there are only two babies, and neither is eaten by Stalin, and that although there are a couple of KGB men, they are friendly, tactful and have a sense of humour; and finally that there are only two or three bottles of vodka in all 64 pages. This was Russia after all . . .

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