The Tereshkova Moment: Self and Emotions in Soviet Women’s Letters

Daria Ganzenko 

Rereading Roshanna P. Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’ Emotions, Generation, and the Legacy of Revolution in Women’s Letters to Valentina Tereshkova,” The Russian Review 78, 3 (July 2019): 392-413.

The cultural history of the Soviet space program is largely the history of “cosmic enthusiasm.” Pride, joy, delight, hope, and optimism are feelings frequently mentioned in studies of Soviet space history.[1] In this regard, the enthusiasm of the Soviet people reflected the intentions of Soviet leaders, who were searching for effective symbols for a renewed utopian project after the Twentieth Party Congress. Slava Gerovitch has noted that instead of organizing a “spontaneous” expression of enthusiasm among people who were to meet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin after the first space flight on April 12, 1961, the authorities “faced the problem of containing the mass outpouring of emotions.”[2]

In “‘You Are Our Pride and Glory!’” Roshanna P. Sylvester analyzes official discourse and celebratory letters sent to Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first woman in space. In so doing, Sylvester presents the history of the formation of an emotionally charged and emphatically gendered image.[3] Of the correspondence that Tereshkova received after her flight on June 16, 1963, Sylvester examined some five hundred letters now preserved in the archives. Sylvester focuses on the letters written by women and demonstrates how the flight of the “Seagull” (Tereshkova’s call sign) made a deeply personal impression on them. The letters show that Soviet women’s reactions went beyond the mere expression of loyalty to the party-state or enthusiasm for technological advancement in space exploration. Instead, Sylvester reveals in these letters a deeply personal, intimate experience of the “Tereshkova moment.”

With her article, Sylvester offers a new perspective on the study of Soviet letters, which have long attracted the interest of researchers. It is also important to highlight that in this case, the recipient of the letters was a Soviet celebrity and not a high-ranking member of the party or an official. The letters that Sylvester analyzes have a personal tone to them; their authors were women from different social classes and different generations who wrote to Tereshkova from all over the Soviet Union to congratulate her. At the same time, these sources cannot be classified as purely personal correspondence. Although the letter writers personalized their texts by including details from their own lives and imbuing them with an emotional tone, they wrote using an officially sanctioned script, even as they creatively reinterpreted it. Thus, the reception of Tereshkova’s image was a result of the rhetorical efforts of the party leadership as well as the individual reinterpretation of Tereshkova’s accomplishment. In considering the case of the first female cosmonaut, Sylvester is able to examine the emotional regime of the Soviet state as well as the self-representation of Soviet women. 

In this essay, I examine Sylvester’s approach to analyzing the letters and the way she works within the broader history of emotions. At the same time, I propose a way in which the study of Soviet subjectivity might be enriched by the path taken by Sylvester. In my view, her observations on how Tereshkova's flight facilitated self-actualization among Soviet women offers us a way to look at new sources — letters to Soviet celebrities — in examining the Soviet self.

In keeping with one of the key themes of the article, I would like to start by considering how Sylvester uses the analytical framework of the history of emotions. It should be noted that attention to the emotional dimensions of Soviet history, and of the Thaw in particular, informs a significant number of scholarly works.[4] At the same time, few studies draw on the framework of the history of emotions in a sustained way.[5] Sylvester's article makes a significant contribution to this emerging subfield by illuminating the Soviet emotional regime surrounding the first female cosmonaut.

Sylvester’s focus is the emotional regime of the Khrushchev-era state. She identifies the characteristic features of the period and considers the ways in which the image of the first woman in space was instrumentalized. Her analysis is distinguished by its careful attention to the emotional vocabulary of official discourse and its reflection in the letters sent to Tereshkova. The framework of the history of emotions enables Sylvester not only to demonstrate how the image of the first female cosmonaut was emotionally charged, but also to examine the specific emotional repertoire used by officials to describe her flight. Sylvester emphasizes that Tereshkova’s image combined certain moral aspects significant for the sense of collective belonging. For instance, descriptions of Tereshkova’s flight in celebratory speeches and in the press referred to the ideals of the October Revolution (mainly the idea of women’s equality) and glorified the successes of the party-state, Soviet science, and the Soviet people.

Providing an overview of the creation of the normative script for a “familial and comradely pride” toward Tereshkova, Sylvester considers it as part of the prevailing Soviet emotional regime – a “male-centric party/state and its associated (and highly gendered) emotional regime.”[6] Nikita Khrushchev played a key role in the construction of this script by using a paternal tone in expressing pride in Tereshkova’s accomplishment. In a public address devoted to Tereshkova on June 16, 1963, Khrushchev spoke of their “father-daughter” connection. The Soviet leader thus symbolically shared in Tereshkova’s triumph, highlighting generational continuity and the Party’s authoritative position vis-a-vis his “glorious daughter.” At the same time, Sylvester notes, Khrushchev's speech marked Soviet women as a separate segment of the broader society. They were Khrushchev’s primary addressee; according to him, it was women above all who were happy and proud of “Seagull.” In the context of the Thaw-era “rehabilitation” of the women’s question, the emphasis on Soviet women as the main audience for Tereshkova’s achievement serves as rhetorical evidence “that equality between the sexes still mattered as a core revolutionary value.”[7]

Was it Khrushchev’s attention that created this distinct “emotional community,” or was the Soviet leader merely trying to harness the emotional resonance and emotive sense of community already present among Soviet women following Tereshkova’s flight? Analyzing the content and language of the letters, Sylvester considers how Soviet women were “tied together by fundamental assumptions, values, goals, feeling rules, and accepted modes of expression.”[8] Thanks to her source base, Sylvester gains analytical access to an “intimate sense of belonging as well as avenues for self-actualization that were otherwise sparsely available in Khrushchev’s male-centric party/state.”[9] Moreover, the focus on gender and generational issues allows Sylvester to identify the symbolic meaning of the revolutionary ideal of true equality for Soviet women.

While the prescribed tropes оf the normative script were reflected in the letters, the authors found ways to significantly individualize these official elements.[10] Many letters wove patriotic feelings together with dreams of self-actualization. Some intimately linked the personal biographies of letter-writers with Tereshkova’s accomplishment. For example, a representative of the older generation – party member A. D. Pisareva, who witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 – wrote on behalf of the community of revolutionary women she represented and inscribed Tereshkova’s feat in the longer-term history of Soviet women’s struggle for equality. Valentina Vladimirovna Zorkina, the same age as Tereshkova, wrote about her namesake’s flight and her own story in a different way. Sharing the same generational experience as Tereshkova, Zorkina likened Tereshkova’s successes to that of a close friend. Neither of the authors chose to enumerate the merits of Tereshkova’s flight for the state itself. Moreover, both attributed Tereshkova’s success to circumstances that were personally significant to them: the continuation of the revolutionary tradition of personal growth and “painstaking work” in the name of Soviet women’s self-realization.

This generational dimension adds an important nuance to the picture. Sylvester shows that women paid significant attention to the historical context of Tereshkova’s achievement, but interpreted it through their own experiences. Even while referring to events and processes that were essential for their own respective generations, they could share the success of the first female cosmonaut because of the polysemantic character of her image. Thus Sylvester reveals how Tereshkova able to embody a set of values that were significant for representatives of several different generations.

Emphasizing the discursive ambiguity of the letters and the Soviet culture of letter writing in general, Sylvester pays close attention to the interaction between official discourse and individual experience. While the letters could be seen as a “public performance of citizenship and self-reflection,” they also demonstrated how women engaged with available models of self-representation. In this regard, Sylvester’s conclusion that “personal writing and ‘emotion talk’ became vehicles for women’s self-expression and self-actualization” echoes other scholars’ observations concerning the specific model of “self” cultivated during the Thaw.[11] 

Women's aspiration to self-expression, together with attempts to establish a personal, even autobiographical connection with Tereshkova, demonstrate how effective the official discourse was in forming a normative subject position in the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that letter-writers chose to leave out mentions of the party-state's merits and interpreted Tereshkova's success in categories personally significant to them, the categories they used (the memory of the Revolution and the Great Patriotic War, the struggle for true equality, painstaking work, and self-realization) were encouraged and expected features of the Soviet subject.

Like Sylvester, other scholars also consider the creative interaction with culturally sanctioned models of identity as the foundation for self-fashioning during the Thaw. For instance, Anatoly Pinsky considers how the heterogeneous discourses and practices of the Thaw helped advance personal agency. In this period, freedom of reaction and comportment began to be conceptualized and promoted as a necessities for the Soviet citizen.[12] In this sense, the Thaw saw the evolution of the Stalin-era self-fashioning described by Jochen Hellbeck: “individuals, acting on their own, creatively move[d] themselves into a loose matrix of subjectivization produced by the Revolution, and…these individuals themselves supplied some of the core categories and mechanisms of self-realization in a Soviet vein.”[13]Anna Krylova’s observation that multiple “normative scripts” were present at any given time in Soviet history, mentioned by Sylvester, also encourages us to consider the general context of emotional self-expression during the Thaw.[14] In this regard, letters to Tereshkova or, more broadly, letters to Soviet celebrities, are an essential source for analyzing the strategies of self-representation available to Soviet citizens.

To whom, besides the Soviet cosmonauts, did people write? If space flight created the impulse to express a certain set of emotions, then how did people write, for example, to film actors or popular singers? Were there autobiographical elements in these letters? How were they constructed and intertwined with official discourse? Sylvester's subjects demonstrated a desire to overcome hierarchies and affirm a personal connection with the first female cosmonaut. Can we find such strategies of self-representation in letters to other celebrities? One wonders whether the impulse to self-actualization was a significant part of the public image of every Soviet celebrity, since their images were meant to be both emotionally charged and politically symbolic.

Sylvester's fascinating piece raises many possibilities for further research into the relationship between emotions and prevailing models of Thaw-era selfhood. With her article, she not only contributes to the subfield of the history of emotions, but also demonstrates the productive possibilities of placing a symbolically significant figure at the center of analysis.

Daria Ganzenko received her M.A. in History from European University of Saint-Petersburg in 2020. She currently teaches history at a high school in St. Petersburg.

[1] See James T. Andrews and Asif Siddiqi, eds., Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture in the Post-Stalin Era (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Eva Maurer et al, eds., Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Andrew L. Jenks, The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014).

[2] Slava Gerovitch, “The Human inside a Propaganda Machine: The Public Image and Professional Identity of Soviet Cosmonauts” in Into the Cosmos, ed. Andrews and Siddiqi, 77-106. 78.

[3] Roshanna P. Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’ Emotions, Generation, and the Legacy of Revolution in Women’s Letters to Valentina Tereshkova,” The Russian Review 78, 3 (July 2019): 392-413. The article considered in my review is one of Sylvester’s series of works devoted to the reception of the image of Valentina Tereshkova among Soviet girls and women. See also Sylvester, “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier: Soviet Girls and the Tereshkova Moment,” in Into the Cosmos, ed. Andrews and Siddiqi, 195-213; and Sylvester, “‘Let’s Find Out Where the Cosmonaut School Is’: Soviet Girls and Cosmic Enthusiasm in the Aftermath of Tereshkova,” in Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies, 121-139.

[4] The literature is large. For select titles, see Anatoly Pinsky, “Soviet Modernity Post-Stalin: The State, Emotions, and Subjectivities,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 16, 2 (Spring 2015): 396-398.

[5] See, for example, Polly Jones, “Breaking the Silence: Iurii Bondarev’s Quietness between ‘Sincerity’ and ‘Civic Emotion’ of the Thaw,” in Interpreting Emotions Interpreting in Russia and Eastern Europe, ed. Mark D. Steinberg and Valeria Sobol (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011): 152-76; Simon Huxtable, “The Problem of Personality on Soviet Television, 1950s-1960s,” VIEW Journal of European Television History and Culture 3 (2014): 119–130; and Christine Evans, “The ‘Soviet Way of Life’ as a Way of Feeling: Emotion and Influence on Soviet Central Television in the 1970s,” Cahiers du monde russe 56, 2/3 (2015): 543-569.

[6] Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’” 394.

[7] Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’” 393.

[8] Sylvester refers to the concept of Barbara Rosenwein in the latter’s Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 2.

[9] Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’” 393-394.

[10] Sylvester wrote that the archives preserved about five hundred letters addressed to Valentina Tereshkova. In the article she dwells in detail on two of them, and briefly characterizes other unpublished letters. Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’” 402-405.

[11] Sylvester, “‘You Are Our Pride and Our Glory!’” 397.

[12] Anatoly Pinsky, “Predislovie” in Posle Stalina: Pozdnesovetskaia sub”ektivnost΄, 1953–1985, ed. Anatolii Pinskii. (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Evropeiskogo universiteta, 2018), 9-39, 24.

[13]Jochen Hellbeck, “Working, Struggling, Becoming: Stalin-Era Autobiographical Texts,” The Russian Review 60, 3 (July 2001): 340-359, esp. 344.

[14] Anna Krylova, “Imagining Socialism in the Soviet Century,” Social History 42, 3 (2017): 315-341, 340.