In 1968, the provincial Russian town of Gzhatsk officially changed its name to Gagarin in commemoration of its famous native son, Yuri Gagarin, who was born on a Soviet collective farm outside the town and would go on to become the first man in space. Although he came from humble roots—his father was a carpenter—Gagarin’s 1961 solo space flight made him the most famous person in the U.S.S.R. He received the Order of Lenin, the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, and became a centerpiece of Soviet propaganda.
Like many Russians, photographer Daria Garnik grew up idolizing the cosmonaut. “It seems that I always knew about his life story,” she says. “This image of the smiling man in the helmet was imprinted on my memory.”
To learn more about her childhood hero, Garnik recently made a pilgrimage to Gagarin’s now-eponymous hometown, which lies 100 miles west of Moscow. The town, with a population of about 30,000, has transformed itself into a shrine to the Pilot Cosmonaut of the Soviet Union (another one of Gagarin’s honorary titles), featuring museums, archives, space memorabilia, and countless monuments.
Everything connected to Gagarin has been lovingly preserved, including the home given to his parents by the Soviet government in 1961 and the GAZ-21 Volga Gagarin drove, which is housed in a freestanding glass display case. The various museums contain mementos ranging from a stationary pressure chamber in which Gagarin trained to a notebook from a metallurgy class the future cosmonaut once took. The town “seems frozen in time in amber,” Garnik says.
While photographing the town, Garnik met with a few people who knew Gagarin, including his niece and a childhood neighbor, Maya Ivanovna Merkulova, who described him as a “simple, kind, and good person, attentive to the surrounding people and their needs, and to his hometown.”
Gagarin died in 1968 at the age of 34 when his MiG-15 training jet crashed, sending the Soviet Union into mourning and prompting Gzhatsk to rename itself in his honor. Although his legacy in the West is somewhat tainted by his participation in Soviet propaganda, Gagarin remains a hero to millions of Russians. April 12, the date of Gagarin’s space flight, is still a national holiday celebrated throughout the country as Cosmonauts Day.
“I think his life story will be woven into the fabric of the country forever—this ordinary man from an ordinary family who became of symbol of hope,” Garnik says. “Gagarin was the first person to go beyond the Earth. He became a symbol of the fact that it is possible.”