[August 15, 1961] SEVEN DAYS OF CHANGE (August’s UK report)

by Ashley Pollard

The month of August started with cool weather after a warm spring, which is disappointing for those of us who love to get out in the summer sun and lie on the beach. It is the time when the British newspapers are full of light-weight, fun stories in what is known over here as the ‘silly season.’

Such fripperies were ended quite suddenly with an array of news from behind the iron curtain, starting with the announcement of Russia’s second manned spaceflight on Monday the 7th of August.

While America has launched two sub-orbital flights in response to Yuri Gagarin’s conquest of space, they have yet to orbit the Earth. Now the Russians surge ahead, upping the excitement in the race to the moon by launching their second cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov. His call sign was Eagle, I imagine to emphasize his soaring over the world. But perhaps it’s also a poke at the Americans, who have failed to orbit the world with their Mercury capsule.

So, after staying in space for a just over a day, Pilot Cosmonaut Titov is now a Hero of the Soviet Union. During his flight he orbited the world seventeen times, during which time he slept, shot ten minutes of film, and completed various other tasks he had been assigned — proving that men can work in space. Not only that, but at age twenty-six he’s the youngest man in space, too.

For me, Titov’s mission was not just a success for the Russians but the furthering of the dream of travel in space for all mankind. But, I have to ask, how long will it be until the Russians send a woman into space? Perhaps this is a chance for the Americans to get one step ahead of their rivals.

Sadly, Titov’s flight was the only good piece of news inspired by the Communists this month. Seven days after Titov’s flight, the Russians upped the ante in the Cold War when Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced the Russians were going to build a wall around Berlin. This rather puts a dampener on things, taking us back to the unpleasantness that started in 1948 when they cut-off access to Berlin by land.

The first signs of action after the announcement was the erection of a barbed wire fence. But this is now being followed by workers building a wall, which seems to me to be a physical manifestation of the cultural divide between free-market capitalism and Russian state controlled centralized planned economy.

Beyond the very real fear I share with everyone regarding the threat of atomic destruction, I must also say that I find Premier Khrushchev’s escalation of tensions between East and West a tantrum tedious beyond belief. I truly doubt that human nature allows for nation states to function as communes that share resources for the good of all. If this act shows us anything it serves only to illuminate the cracks in the Russian Cold War polemic against the West. It’s not as if the new Wall has been erected to keep West Germans from fleeing into East Germany.

More to the point, doesn’t Khrushchev know this is the silly season? There is only so much heaviness we can stand during the summer!  As for now, despite the disappointingly cool weather, at least we still have a beach to look-visit, ice-cream to eat (we British eat ice-cream even during our cold summers), and once Khruschev has had his fun, hopefully we can return to reading stories of cats stuck up trees being rescued by the nice men from the fire brigade.

And accounts of space shots: as a science fiction fan, I find those an acceptable break from the fluff of the silly season…

4 thoughts on “[August 15, 1961] SEVEN DAYS OF CHANGE (August’s UK report)”

  1. A fine article!

    There’s something almost admirable about how Krushev has managed to make the USSR look so bad just after Titov’s journey.

    May your summer warm up. And I hope you have a good autumn to compensate.

  2. The space news, regardless of its nation, is of course wonderful. But I do not like Comrade Khrushchev.

    I did not like Comrade Stalin either, of course – Uncle Joe was a monster. But Uncle Joe was a clever monster, in his blunt-instrument way, and Comrade Khrushchev only _thinks_ he is clever.

    If Khrushchev does build this wall, it will be a crushing self-inflicted propaganda defeat for the entire Communist cause, one that Stalin would have _never_ allowed. And I worry about what they might do in order to try to re-balance those scales.

    I wonder how they’re dressing it up for domestic consumption, behind the curtain. Whatever it is, it must make people ill to have to pretend to believe it.

  3. Khrushchev has a problem. He’s not terribly well-liked by large sections of the party. He grew up a peasant on the Ukrainian border and it’s apparent in his accent and the way he speaks. As a result, a lot of better educated Russians look down on him. (No society is more concerned with the trappings of class than one that is classless.) His “destalinization” didn’t endear him to Stalin-loyalists, and his other liberalizations did not endear him to other hardliners. He’s trying to act tough to appease various factions. It remains to be seen how successful he’ll be, or if he’ll suddenly find himself taking a Siberian vacation (if he’s lucky).

    On top of that, the GDR has always been as much of an annoyance to the Soviets as it has been a useful propaganda tool. Look at the workers’ uprising back in ’53.

    This mess will settle down. Neither side thinks Berlin is important enough to start a shooting war and annexing West Berlin would not only look bad on the world stage, it would mean tens of thousands of very unhappy new citizens. West Berlin will become more of an exclave than it already was and the Russians will eventually yank Ulbrecht’s leash to bring him back to heel. (The man’s an idiot. That “nobody intends to build a wall” was a response to a question nobody was asking and basically alerted the West to what was going to happen.)

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