From the Top of the World to the Top of the Pops: the Soviet Sputniks and the GDR

During the first decades of the Cold War, space was one of the primary battle fields of the Cold War. When the Soviets managed to launch Sputnik 1, an artificial Earth satellite, on October 4, 1957, it caught the world by surprise (see CBS news report below). My mother-in-law, then in teacher’s training school in Quebec, Canada, tells me that the news was deeply unsettling and that it had an almost immediate impact on her studies: “We went from very little emphasis on science and math to much, much more almost immediately. If you couldn’t teach English or Social Studies, that wasn’t a huge problem, but from that point on, the instructors made sure that we were all up to snuff in Science and Math!” (Conversation with author, July 2018)

In the years that followed, the two super powers worked feverishly to eclipse one another in what become known as the “Space Race”. However when the Soviets were able to successfully to send the first man into space three and a half years later (Juri Gagarin on April 12, 1961), one would have been excused for thinking that the race had been run with the Reds taking the gold.

During these years, the race to space captivated the attention of people around the world and the GDR was no exception. As was the case elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet space program was used to underscore the validity of Communism’s science-based ideology and paeans to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Soviet cosmonauts and space engineers were ubiquitous in the GDR press and arts.

An example of the effect which the achievements of the Soviet space program had on East Germans in the early years of the socialist project is found in a passage in Divided Heaven, a 1963 novel by  Christa Wolf, one East Germany’s most important authors. In it, news of Gagarin’s flight compels the protagonist to wonder whether the world had not undergone a fundamental change: “Had the shadow of the flashing capsule not sliced open the earth’s crust to its boiling, glowing-red core, like a scalpel criss-crossing the meridian?” (“Fuhr nicht der Schatten der blitzenden Kapsel da oben wie ein Skalpell quer über die Meridiane und schlitzte die Erdkruste auf bis auf ihren kochenden rotglühenden Kern? (Der geteilte Himmel, München: DTV, 1973, pg. 143).

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Where the above quote from Wolf’s novel expresses some uncertainty about what man’s leap into space has wrought, the evaluation of the Soviets’ achievements was significantly less ambiguous. One illustration of the dominant, positive interpretation of the Soviet space program prevalent in East Germany of the time is found in a piece from my collection that was issued to mark Sputnik 1’s flight. This paperweight features the satellite, a hammer and sickle embossed on its nose and the word “Peace” (“MIP” in Cyrillic script) emerging out of the vapour trail being left in its wake. Given that I acquired this item from a dealer in Strausberg, a Berlin suburb which was home to the headquarters of the GDR’s National People’s Army, I think it’s likely that this item decorated the desk of some army officer or another.

Even after NASA managed to put Neil Armstrong on the moon marking the moment when the Americans managed to eclipse the Soviet space program, the “Red Cosmonaut” continued to exist as a meme for state socialism’s success within East German culture. When SIgmund Jähn became the GDR’s first (and only) man in space thanks to his participation in mission 31 of the Soviet’s Soyuz program in the summer of 1978, the event was treated as a major propaganda coup and saw Jähn labelled “the first German cosmonaut”.


Stamp from my collection which was issued by East German Postal Service to honour Sigmund Jähn, “the first German cosmonaut”, in September 1968 shortly after he returned from his mission.

The GDR was a participant in the Soviet-led Interkosmos space program and its auspices, East German scientists developed a multispectral camera which was used to photograph earth from space. One wonders what contribution East Germany might have made to a Soviet shuttle program had this not been scrapped. Reflecting on how Canada was able to provide the Canadarm to NASA’s space shuttle program, I was inspired to create the photo montage below which I hope provides a jumping off point for speculation on the possible form that an East German-designed element might have taken.

Artist's rendition of GDR-designed "Nourishment Kiosk" attached to manned-Soviet Sputnik craft (photo montage: JP Kleiner)

Artist’s rendition of a GDR-designed “Nourishment Pod” attached to manned-Soviet Sputnik craft (photo montage: JP Kleiner)

The Soviet Space Program as Found in East German Public Space

During my travels through the former-East, I have run into several examples of how the Soviet space program made its presence felt in the public realm in murals, art and buildings. You’ll find photos of some of these below.

The cultural legacy of Sputnik

Sputnik’s place in the popular consciousness extended well into the 1980s. For an example of this, check out this clip of English pop act Sigue Sigue Sputnik performing their hit “Love Missile F1-11 on Top of the Pops.

Monument to the Conquerors of Space (1964) near Moscow's Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (VDNKh) - (1996, author's photo)

“Monument to the Conquerors of Space” (1964) near Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (VDNKh) – (1996, author’s photo)

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