Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to venture into space.

Less than four years before, on 5 October 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite, or Sputnik, into space, followed a month later, on 3 November, almost the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, with a second, this time with a cosmonaut of sorts on board – Laika, a dog. Animal lovers throughout the world protested but Laika proved the first of many canines launched into space by the Soviets.


The Americans were shocked by how far the Soviets had raced ahead, and more so when their own launch, on 6 December 1957, resulted in a humiliating failure when their rocket exploded on take-off. ‘Flopnik,’ teased the press. America felt it was fast becoming a ‘second-rate power’ in the Cold War behind the Soviet Union. In response, the US formed NASA and did finally succeed in launching its own rocket in January 1958.

But the ultimate humiliation came on 12 April 1961, when the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin (pictured), became the first person in space in a round-the-world flight lasting 108 minutes. Originally, the flight was intended to take place on the 13th, but Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, feeling superstitious, brought it forward a day.

Gagarin was the successful candidate from a list of 20 possible names. The fact that he came from humble origins certainly helped. Also, on a more practical level, his height, or lack of it, (5 ft, 2 inches / 1.57 metres) was considered a benefit within the claustophobic confines of the capsule.

The Motherland Hears

Although Gagarin was later to claim, “I was never nervous during the space flight – there were no grounds for it”, not all the canine cosmonauts returned alive, and it was certainly a very high-risk project.

Gagarin’s fully-automated rocket was launched from Kazakhstan soon after nine on the morning of 12 April. Although fully controlled from the ground, Gagarin had been given a sealed envelope containing the necessary codes in order to take control of his rocket – should the need have arisen. But for most of the 108 minutes, all was under control and Gagarin was able to report back, “The Earth is blue… how wonderful. It is amazing” and whistle a tune by Russian composer, Dmitry Shostakovich“The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows”.

Towards the end of the flight, however, the temperature within the capsule soared and Gagarin almost lost consciousness. But on time, Gagarin was able to eject and parachute down came to Earth, landing safely in the Volga River. Khrushchev repeatedly asked, “Is he alive? Is he alive?” When told that his cosmonaut had landed safely, the celebrations began.

With his dashing good looks and a radiant smile, 27-year-old Gagarin returned to Earth a hero. Khrushchev was delighted. He had long pumped money into the Soviet space programme, as had the Americans in theirs. Supremacy in space, so the superpowers believed, equated to control of the Earth.

Khrushchev and Gagarin toured around Moscow in an open-top car. Gagarin became feted wherever he went and was made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

Gagarin – the National Treasure

Afterwards, Gagarin was prohibited from going into space again – he had become too much of a national treasure. So he began training as a fighter pilot.

It was during a training flight, on 27 March 1968, that Gagarin’s MiG-15 plane crashed and 34-year-old Yuri Gagarin, together with his co-pilot, died. He was buried within the Kremlin walls.

Inquests were held and conspiracies abounded but no one could be sure of the exact circumstances that caused Gagarin’s death. But aviation specialists from Russia have recently, after almost a decade of investigations, concluded that an open air vent within Gagarin’s plane caused him to panic and crash.

Ultimately, it was a sad and premature end to a glorious life for the hero with the beguiling smile.



Ronald Reagan and The Cold War: an introduction

Born 6 February 1911, Ronald Reagan was only a few days short of his seventieth birthday when, on 20 January 1981, he became the fortieth and oldest president in US history.

The period of détente, the easing of East-West relations, particularly between the US and the Soviet Union, was drawing to a close amid increasing Cold War tension. Soviet forces had just invaded Afghanistan, resulting in the US, under President Jimmy Carter, boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

DA-SC-90-03096The End of Detente

Reagan, a fervent anti-communist, had campaigned on an anti-detente ticket. What was détente, asked Reagan rhetorically in 1978: “Isn’t that what a turkey has with his farmer until Thanksgiving Day?”

On coming to office, having easily beaten Carter in the 1980 presidential elections, Reagan went straight onto the offensive, increasing military spending, and calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Of course, such language did nothing to improve the already deteriorating situation. The Soviet Union accused the new US president of thinking “only in terms of confrontation”.

The ash-heap of history

Continue reading

Matyas Rakosi – brief biography

Matyas Rakosi was, from 1949 to 1953, Joseph Stalin’s man in Hungary. A Stalinist to his core, Rakosi secured and maintained power by methods of terror and oppression, but, soon after the death of his mentor, was removed from office.

Budapest, II. Weltfestspiele, Festumzug, EhrentribüneMatyas Rakosi was born one of eleven children to Jewish parents on 9 March 1892 in a village called Ada, now in Serbia but then part of the Austrian-Hungary empire. He would later renounce his Judaism and all forms of religion. A polyglot, Rakosi could speak eight languages. He served in the Austrian-Hungarian army during the First World War, being taken prisoner on the Eastern Front by the Russians and held for years in a prisoner of war camp during which time he converted to communism. Returning home in 1918 as a member of the Hungarian Communist Party, he was given command of the Red Guard during the 134-day Hungarian Soviet Republic formed by Bela Kun in 1919. Following the collapse of the republic, Rakosi fled to Austria, then onto Moscow.


Continue reading

Jan Palach – a brief biography

On 16 January 1969, a 20-year-old Czechoslovakian student, Jan Palach, staged a one-man protest on Prague’s Wenceslas Square by dousing himself in petrol then setting himself on fire. Three days later, on 19 January, he died of his injuries. Palach’s protest was against Czechoslovakia’s authoritarian rule, re-imposed after the brief but significant period of liberalization, the Prague Spring, of the previous year.

Prague Spring

Leonid BrezhnevThe Prague Spring had been led by Czechoslovakia’s new communist party chairman, Alexander Dubcek, appointed in January 1968. Although claiming to be loyal to his Soviet masters in Moscow, Dubcek ushered in a period of political and cultural freedom unheard of in the previous twenty years of Czechoslovakian communist rule. The Soviet leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev (pictured), became increasingly concerned with what they considered Dubcek’s treachery and Czechoslovakia’s counterrevolution and demanded he reversed the reforms.

While outwardly agreeing and promising to compromise, Dubcek did nothing to halt the growing movement of liberalisation. Dubcek had gone too far, and so Brezhnev decided to act. On 21 August 1968, Soviet troops appeared in Czechoslovakia and on the streets of Prague to quash the ‘Prague Spring’ and to reassert stricter communist rule. Dubcek was initially arrested, restored briefly to power, albeit heavily monitored, before being replaced by Gustav Husak, a hardline alternative, loyal to Brezhnev and the communist cause. The Prague Spring was over.

The country had had a taste of freedom and now, during the bleak days of communist rule, the loss of freedom was a bitter pill to swallow. It was in this atmosphere of hopelessness and demoralisation that Jan Palach made the ultimate sacrifice.

Jan Palach Continue reading

The Prague Spring – an introduction

On the night of 20-21 August 1968, Soviet troops appeared in Czechoslovakia and on the streets of Prague to quell the growing movement of liberalisation, a movement known as the ‘Prague Spring’. Here, we summarize the events of the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and its aftermath.

Socialism with a Human Face

On 5 January 1968, amongst growing discontent of economic failure, the Czechoslovakian communist party appointed Alexander Dubcek as its new chairman. Dubcek promised reform, democratisation and, using Nikita Khrushchev‘s phrase, ‘socialism with a human face’. He eased press censorship, allowed greater artistic and cultural freedom, pardoned victims of political purges, eased travel restrictions, promised to guarantee civil rights and liberties and permitted a degree of democratic reform.

Leonid BrezhnevBut while urging democratic communism, Dubcek remained loyal to Moscow and at no point was he advocating the dismissal of his or the country’s socialist principles. The Soviet leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev (pictured), saw it otherwise, becoming increasingly concerned with what they considered Dubcek’s treachery and Czechoslovakia’s counterrevolution.

Evidence of the transformation was immediately apparent – young men grew their hair, women wore mini skirts, anti-state newspapers appeared, films and plays long since banned by the regime reappeared, including the work of dissident playright, Vaclav Havel.

In July 1968, Brezhnev, fearing Czechoslovakian independence, met with Dubcek and demanded that he re-imposed strict communist control over his people and ordered Dubcek to reign in his ‘counter-revolutionary’ methods. Dubcek promised to compromise but over the coming weeks, it came clear to Moscow that nothing was being done. Brezhnev applied greater pressure, often ringing Dubcek and bellowing at him down the telephone.

Soviet Invasion

Continue reading

Richard Nixon – brief biography

The 37th president of the US, Richard Milhous Nixon remains the only US president to have resigned from office.

Born the second of five sons to Quaker parents in California on 9 January 1913, Richard Nixon practised law from 1937 to 1942 and then served in the US Navy in the Pacific during World War Two, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. As a Republican Congressman, Nixon showed great zealous and deep patriotism in unmasking ‘Un-American activities’ during the 1950s McCarthy era of communist witchhunts. He made his name in his rigorous prosecution of Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official accused of passing information to the Soviets.

The Vice-President

Richard Nixon was elected to the Senate in 1950, aged 36, where his dealing with political opponents earned him the nickname, ‘Tricky Dicky’. From 1953 to 1961 Nixon served as Dwight Eisenhower‘s vice-president. But allegations of financial irregularity almost finished his career and in 1952 Nixon had to defend himself on television – at the time a revolutionary use of this new medium. In answer to the charge that he had been accepting financial gifts, Nixon responded by saying the only gift he ever accepted was a puppy named Checkers for his daughter. The “Checkers” speech helped Nixon survive.

Continue reading

Blood in the Water – Cold War Olympics

6 December 1956 saw one of the most violent and politically-charged sporting clashes in history, an event that came to be known as ‘ Blood in the Water ’. The occasion was the Olympic water polo semi-final between Hungary and the USSR. Played against the backdrop of Cold War politics, the game was, from start to finish, fraught with tension.
Water Polo
Hungary was the undoubted superpower of 1950s water polo. They had won gold at three of the four previous Olympic Games, and silver at the London Olympics of 1948; and were firm favourites to triumph again at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the first Olympics to be held in the southern hemisphere. The Soviets, jealous of Hungary’s success in the water, had been training in Hungary in the months leading up to the Olympics, trying to learn what made the Hungarians so good at their game. Since 1949, Hungary had been a Soviet satellite and thus the Soviet team arrived, uninvited, and made use of Hungary’s pool facilities and expertise. A ‘friendly’ match in Moscow earlier in the year had erupted in violence; the Russians having won thanks to some dubious partisan referring.
Hungarian Revolution
Then, in October 1956, came the Hungarian Revolution. The people of Hungary stood up to the oppression of a tyrannical and foreign ruler. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent in the tanks to quell the uprising and restore order. The tanks, having failed, were withdrawn. Khrushchev replaced Hungary’s hard-line communist rulers with the more populist Imre Nagy. Nagy announced his decision to withdraw Hungary from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, introduce much-needed reform and, most alarmingly for Khrushchev, spoke of independence.
A week later, the Soviet tanks re-appeared and, this time, with brutal efficiency, crushed the revolution. Some 3,000 Hungarian citizens were killed. Nagy took sanctuary in the Yugoslav embassy but, a year later, having been lured out, was arrested by the new pro-Soviet regime in Budapest, tried and executed.
Meanwhile, while the Hungarian Revolution played out, the national Olympic water-polo team had been holed up with Russian minders in a hillside hotel in Budapest within earshot of the gun battles raging below. On 1 November they started on their three-week journey to Melbourne not knowing the outcome of the uprising. It was only when they arrived in Australia, they learnt that their oppressive rulers were back in charge (and would remain so for another 33 years). It was at this point that many of the players decided that, once the Olympics were over, they would not be returning to their homeland.
They won their first four games of the tournament against Great Britain, the USA, Italy and Germany. And so they reached the semi-final to face the team that represented their oppressors. The scene was set for a tumultuous confrontation – blood in the water.
Blood in the Water
The game took place on 6 December. The Hungarian team had decided from the off to conduct a psychological battle by needling their opponents. Having been forced to learn the Russian language two hours a day throughout their school years, the Hungarian players could easily make themselves understood as they mocked their opponents’ illegitimacy. Within the first minute of the heavily-charged grudge match, the referee had consigned a Russian player to the penalty box.
Fights continued throughout the game, both above and below the water line. Together with their method of zonal marking, a revolutionary tactic for the time, the Hungarians had the Soviets quickly ruffled.
The Australian crowd’s sympathy clearly lay with the Hungarians, chanting ‘Go Hungary’ throughout the game and waving the Hungarian flag with the Soviet emblem ripped from its centre. (The Australian team had been beaten by the USSR earlier in the tournament).
With the match drawing to its close, the score was 4-0 to Hungary. In the last couple of minutes, Hungary’s star player, the 21-year-old Ervin Zador, was assigned by his captain to mark the Soviet forward, Valentin Prokopov. Zador had already scored two of Hungary’s goals. On hearing the referee blow his whistle, Zador made what he called a ‘horrible mistake’, and momentarily took his eye of the Soviet. He looked back to see Prokopov’s arm windmilling before being thumped a mighty blow that caught him in the eye and cheek. There was, indeed, blood in the water.
The Australian crowd went berserk and surged forward. The police, who had been told to expect trouble, hence their presence at the game, stepped in. The referee blew full time a minute early while the police escorted the Soviet team away from the baying crowd. Ervin Zador was led from the pool with blood pouring from his face. A photograph of the bloodied player has become an iconic image of Cold War-era Olympics.
Thus, having won, the Hungarian team advanced to the final against Yugoslavia. Zedor, although desperate the play, was unable to – his eye was too swollen. He nervously watched the game from the stands as his teammates triumphed, winning the final 2-1. He received his gold medal on the podium dressed in a suit. (The Soviets won their play-off match, beating Germany 6 -4, and hence earned the bronze medal).
San Francisco
Following the Olympics, Zador, along with half his teammates, sought asylum. It was, he said years later, a difficult decision – he was at the peak of his career and could look forward to a bright sporting future in Hungary. But the Soviet oppression was too much. Thus, he moved to the US and settled in San Francisco. Water polo in the US was not the sport it was in Hungary and, reluctantly, Zedor gave it up. Instead, he took up a job as a swimming instructor and trained a young Mark Spitz, who, at the Munich Olympics of 1972, won seven gold medals.
2006, the fiftieth anniversary of the Blood in the Water game, saw two cinematic releases based on the event – a documentary, Freedom’s Fury, executively produced by Quentin Tarantino, no less, and narrated by Zedor’s former protégé, Mark Spitz; and a Hungarian feature film, Children of Glory.
Ervin Zador died 28 April 2012.
The Torn FlagRupert Colley
Rupert’s page-turning novel, The Torn Flag, set during the chaotic days of the 1956 the Hungarian Revolution, is now available.