Step inside the hometown of the first human in space

West of Moscow, the small provincial town of Gagarin is a shrine to beloved Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

photographs by Daria Garnik
Published 14 Apr 2019, 08:58 BST
Space-themed graffiti decorates a concrete fence on Gagarin Street in the Russian town of Gagarin.
Space-themed graffiti decorates a concrete fence on Gagarin Street in the Russian town of Gagarin.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

On April 12, space fans around the world party like it’s 1961.

Since 2001, the evening of April 12 has been celebrated every year as Yuri’s Night—a global event to honor one of space exploration’s most beloved figures, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was the first human to blast into space. Fans will dance, hoist drinks, attend lectures, and generally gather to pay tribute to a hero and revel in all things cosmic.

A life-size cardboard model of Gagarin's training spacesuit—with a hole where the face would be—makes a perfect photo prop for fans.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

Though he never set foot outside his Vostok 1 spacecraft as it made a complete orbit around Earth, Gagarin’s journey was a major milestone in the space exploration timeline. He was the first person to see space from beyond the confines of the atmosphere, and the first person to witness the dazzling view of our planet from so far away.

The head of a local school, Gagarin resident Natalia Tabac stands inside a museum created to honour Yuri Gagarin after his famous flight.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

Among Gagarin’s many admirers is Russian photographer Daria Garnik. Now in her 30s, Garnik became obsessed with space and science fiction as a teenager, when she was introduced to the American television series, The X-Files.

Children sit in a classroom at a town school named after Yuri Gagarin.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

“Yuri Gagarin was a hero of mine when I was a kid,” she says, even though she was born years after Gagarin’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1968. “He was handsome, kind, down-to-earth and everyone could relate to him.”

As an adult, Garnik wanted to learn more about the cosmonaut, so she began documenting the small provincial town west of Moscow where Gagarin grew up. Once called Gzhatsk, the town was officially renamed Gagarin to honor him when he died, and it has since become a shrine of sorts, with several historic homes, memorials, and museums that commemorate his achievements. (Learn why we need to change the way we talk about space exploration.)

Archival photographs of Yuri Gagarin hang in the school where Gagarin studied for two years.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

“I came to Gagarin to shoot a story about memory, time, nostalgia for the first cosmonaut, and the cult that formed around him,” says Garnik, who grew up in the city of Ekaterinburg in Russia’s Ural Mountains. “I think I wanted to get to know Gagarin as a person who had a difficult life, and not just the media image from Soviet posters.”

Now based in Minsk, Belarus, Garnik has traveled to the town of Gagarin twice so far for her photo project. Full of Soviet-era artifacts and posters celebrating the cosmonaut, the town has a timeless feel to it, she says.

A mural featuring Yuri Gagarin brightens up the wall of a local school.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

“Gagarin hypnotised me with its atmosphere of being lost in time and preserved; I liked its slow pace of life,” she says.

Though it caters to mere Earthlings, a local cafe looks a bit like the interior of a space capsule.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

Through this project, Garnik got to know many of Gagarin’s residents, some of whom remember him from when he was alive. After his pioneering spaceflight, Gagarin came back to his home town to visit his family; some of his relatives even still live there.

Lyudmila Demina, who is the head of the Museum of the First Flight, sits in the museum's main exhibit area.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

For Garnik, April 12 is an important day: “I think Yuri would want that on this day, we also remembered Korolyov, Yazdovsky, Titov, and other wonderful scientists and enthusiasts who made his flight possible,” she says, referring to Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov, space medicine researcher Vladimir Yazdovsky, and cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who was the second person in space. (Read about the modern-day cosmonaut who has spent more time in orbit than any person, ever.)

A sculpture of Yuri Gagarin sits on display at a local school.
Photograph by Daria Garnik

“He would want to popularise astronomy, space, and aviation so we could celebrate new scientific breakthroughs of mankind. He’d want us to look up more often, to dream, and to see further every time.”

Space-themed graffiti decorates a concrete fence on Gagarin Street in the Russian town of Gagarin.
Photograph by Daria Garnik
Daria Garnik was born in 1986 in Ekaterinburg, Russia. A student at Docdocdoc, a school of contemporary photography in Saint Petersburg, Garnik is interested in the phenomenon of human memory and changes in the surrounding landscape. She is currently based in Minsk, Belarus.
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