(Story contributed by Jim H. Smith)
Its official name was the Century 21 Exhibition, but it was better known as the Seattle World Fair, and it seemed to be an unambiguous statement about America’s aspirations for its future. Boasting a futuristic monorail and an iconic Space Needle whose elevators were piloted by female attendants wearing excessive blue eye shadow and costumes out of a Hollywood sci-fi feature, it came to hold totemic significance for a nation whose philosophical differences with the Soviet Union were being sorted out against the majestic backdrop of outer space.
One of the first visitors to the 1962 fair was Soviet cosmonaut German Titov, the second Soviet man in space after Yuri Gagarin, the youngest spaceman (a record that stands to this day), and the first to orbit the Earth repeatedly. In his homeland Titov was nothing less than a demi-God.
During a news conference in Seattle, Titov was asked whether his adventures in the cosmos had altered his worldview. “Up to our first orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin no God helped build our rocket,” said the cosmonaut, who perceived the subtext of the question. “The rocket was made by our people. I don’t believe in God. I believe in man, his strength, his possibilities and his reason.”
It was, says Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, a statement that bespoke the essence of the Soviet Union’s long, strange struggle to supplant traditional religions throughout the empire with “scientific atheism.” If it provoked an outcry across America, well, that was Titov’s intent.
During the 1960s, as Smolkin-Rothrock notes, Titov and his fellow cosmonauts “were the public face of Communism on the world stage, and their triumphs and charisma put forward a confident image of a Communist state that could solve all problems and answer all questions, material and spiritual.”
On Oct. 18, Smolkin-Rothrock delivered this year’s prestigious Sherman Emerging Scholar Lecture at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Her address, which began with the Titov story, offered an analysis of Communism’s little-known efforts to manage the collective spiritual life of the Soviet people.