Muttnik: Canine Rocketeers in the USSR

By Rory TolanOctober 17, 2014

Soviet Space Dogs by Olesya Turkina

THE MISSILE HURTLED to its mark, a wilderness somewhere between the Moon and Moscow. A minute earlier, it had engulfed the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a kerosene inferno. Now the awestruck apparatchiks, their hats pressed to their pounding hearts, saw little more than a lambent mote floating in the predawn sky. Hundreds of miles high, the rocket had scaled the eaves of the earth. As it made a final leap beyond the rim of the world, no space junk, no hail of slipped bolts and lost wrenches rattled the vessel's metal wings: this was November 3, 1957, an age of early, virgin voyages into the fathomless pitch between planets. The ship, suddenly a featherweight buoy in the thermosphere, loosed its sputtering boosters. Soviets reveled below in fountains of Stoli. They had sent the first Russian into space. They had settled space with the first earthling of any kind. With an eight-ton cone called Sputnik 2, they had unmoored the human race from the bonds of gravity and cast the limits of progress among the stars. The intrepid cosmonaut, this Columbus of New Worlds, was something of a prodigy: a 13-pound two-year-old with dewclaws on the wheel.

The satellite freighted a mongrel named Laika, a tawny stray netted in the Moscow slums. By morning, the dog was a household celebrity; within a week, Laika had attained the stature of myth. She became a star in her nation as well as in the sky.

p41 LaDomenicaDelCorriereLa Domenica del Corriere magazine, Italy (1957).
Illustration by Walter Molino.
© FUEL Publishing / Marianne Van den Lemmer

In “The March of the Aviators,” the ecstatic anthem of the Soviet Air Forces, aspiring moonwalkers fancied themselves “born to make fairy tales come true, / To overcome distance and space.” Laika, along with Belka and Strelka and all the other pilgrims who followed in her four footsteps, delivered on this dream, becoming totems of progress in a state where science had replaced religion and retained many of the trappings. “These dogs are the characters in a fairy tale that was created in the USSR: they are the martyrs and saints of communism,” writes Olesya Turkina in Soviet Space Dogs, a new history of canine rocketeers, released in English this September. “Their fate was the embodiment of a utopian consciousness, the ideal of a society that tried to turn a futuristic fairytale into reality.”

Turkina, a member of the Russian Space Federation, daylights as a research fellow at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg’s endless labyrinth of fine art. A connoisseur of the visual, she was in a unique position among chroniclers to recount this fairy tale through pictures, an end she and her team pursued with an obsessive passion. The book, an Aladdin’s cave of eye-batting oddments and kitsch curiosities, enchants the reader with some 350 archival photos and images of arcane ephemera. In her Technicolor tour of space-age propaganda and pop culture, Turkina shows just how deeply Laika dug herself into the Soviet imagination.


Matchbox label, USSR (1959).
© FUEL Publishing / Marianne Van den Lemmer

Illuminated matchboxes flare up on almost every page, no shock for a society that still supplies its troops with free smokes. On one of them, a dog, perched on a rocket, surfs to a crescent moon resembling a crimson sickle, as if Khrushchev’s tail-waggers are draping all the cosmos in the Red Banner. In the 1950s, a Soviet might have used these matches on his Laika cigarettes, a top-selling brand that imprinted her bust on a cream-and-lavender box, its wrapping redolent of a Cadbury bar. Children puffed on those as much as their babushkas did, I imagine, but sweets were admissible for revolutionaries of any age — the book unearths a 1959 candy tin with Laika in three-quarter profile, ringed by a star-studded nimbus. For years, commemorative stamps filled mailbags with their packs of barking pilots. Space-dog spinning tops littered nursery floors. No sphere of life eluded Laika’s orbit, a point Turkina proves again and again in her hoarder’s stash of quotidiana.

05_ZVEZDOCHKA TINConfectionery tin, USSR (1961).
© FUEL Publishing / Marianne Van den Lemmer

Mired in a dystopian present, Soviets dreamed of a utopian future, a fantasy the Kremlin made plausible with the pageantry of spaceships. Cinemas flickered with skyborne hounds in bulbous, glass diving helmets. On telescreens, they whizzed like comets, bound for planets men would soon call home. That was the thought, anyway: the fathers of the Soviet space program, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Friedrich Zander, claimed a colony on Mars was within reach — a red planet for a red civilization. A postcard from 1959 put Laika at the forefront of Russia’s new, materialist mythology. In it, Sputnik 2 races across the universe while Baba Yaga, riding her old broomstick, and other stars of Slavic fables fail to keep pace.

Despite the program’s many false starts — canines returned to the earth like hot dogs in flaming hibachis — the propaganda mill kept the public in a fervor. In 1964’s Belka and Strelka, and Their Journey, a popular children’s book, a page says of two quadruped fliers: “Swimmers swimming without water / Oh, what joy their lives have brought them!” “Joy” is a curious word for these living missiles, 15 of whom died over the course of 30 suborbital flights alone. For a time the sky rained literal dogs, if not cats.

Turkina handles the departed sensitively enough, though she seems to regard them as martyrs rather than victims, as if they chose to be strapped to space-bound bombs speeding at half a mile per second. A book so cluttered with propaganda, so loud with celebration, does not lend itself to subtleties. At times, one hears the notes of “The Internationale” sounding in the space between words. When the United States accused the Soviet Union of animal cruelty, Turkina observes, the Russians countered by attacking the human cruelty of segregation. “The USSR’s official anti-racism policy was a strong weapon in the Cold War against the USA,” she writes, without any mincing. A rebuke of American apartheid is as moral a criticism as any, but exalting the Soviet Union as a paragon of human rights suggests a blinkered view, a grasp of Kremlinism more in theory than in practice. The lack of science also disappoints, limited, as it is, to a roundup of long-faded highlights. No technical surprises in these pages, only a regurgitated soup of ABCs. That makes the magnitude of these discoveries hard to weigh — and impossible to isolate from the bluster of the Cold War grandstand. Crucial facts get lost in the hagiography, forcing us to call off the dogs.

Americans mocked the campaign as “Muttnik,” unable to understand why the Russians would test the possibility of human space flight with anything other than monkeys. The States wanted an avatar truer to form: an ape, not an ankle biter. (NASA recruited chimps for a time but retired them after an uproar.) Among the Soviets, dogs were like all citizens: workers, beasts of burden. The pompadoured poodle was a “relic of the bourgeois treatment of dogs as useless toys,” Turkina writes. Scientists also found them easier to train, calmer, and altogether more docile than primates subjected to dizzying G-forces and apocalyptic flashes of heat. Yet that alone cannot explain the deployment of man’s best friend rather than his closest relation.

I wonder whether Russia drew inspiration from the star charts. Sirius, the brightest spark in the evening sky, has kindled man’s sense of wonder, awe, and ambition since he first shuffled onto two legs and turned his face to the heavens. In A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Geoffrey Chaucer likens Sirius to the head of a dog. He shared this whimsy with the Greeks, who imagined Sirius, the crown jewel of Canis Major, as Orion’s hound: the Dog Star. As the Russians emptied their kennels into the darkness of space, they stippled the Earth’s orbit with so many glinting Dog Stars.

Then again, I suspect the Soviets could just as easily have plumbed their own ancient past, trading one myth for another. In the pagan steppes of ancient Russia, the Slavs worshiped Simargl, a winged dog. Laika the flying cur was no less an idol a thousand years later.


Postcard, USSR (1960).
By the photomontage artist Sveshnikov.
© FUEL Publishing

Turkina offers a clever theory on the Soviets’ love of dogs. She suggests that the scientists in the program worshiped the experiments of Pavlov, who showed that dogs, with enough conditioning, could devolve into witless, reflex-bound machines. The Soviet imagineers were “fond of Pavlov,” she writes,

not only because of the materialistic nature of his research, but also because they were hoping to develop the conditional and unconditional reflexes of a new type of Soviet human, raised for the benefit of progress. A human capable of self-sacrifice.

Moscow’s soaring Pavlovian dog, the pack leader of its earthbound Pavlovian people, was a myth in the most basic sense: a lie. On April 14, 1958, almost 50 years to the day the Titanic hit the iceberg, Sputnik 2 sank through the atmosphere in a flurry of ash. Laika had perished earlier — a week after liftoff, as expected, Moscow told the workers of the world — but she had martyred herself to progress, to the state religion and the utopian dream, achieving key insights into the prospect of manned probes of the unknown. Her seven waking days in orbit — spent in an electric straitjacket reporting her vitals — had been such a boon of heuristics and statistics that a human successor was imminent. In 2002, the Russians admitted the truth: she had croaked almost instantly. Rigged with a faulty cooling system, Sputnik 2 was a lemon and killed the dog in three hours, frying her like Icarus. Laika’s trainer, Oleg Gazenko, said the flight taught the cosmonauts next to nothing. The science was bogus. Though the Kremlin knew the cabin would break down, they pressed the launch button anyway. It would be a worthless experiment but a spectacular pageant. Like so many Russians, Laika died for an illusion. It was the punch line to a shaggy dog story.


Rory Tolan is an editor at Vice and a writer for Salon and other publications.

LARB Contributor

Rory Tolan is an editor at Vice and a writer for Salon and other publications. He lives in New York.


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