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Picturing the Cosmos

A Visual History of Early Soviet Space Endeavor

Space is the ultimate canvas for the imagination, and in the 1950s and ’60s, as part of the space race with the United States, the solar system was the blank page upon which the Soviet Union etched a narrative of exploration and conquest. In Picturing the Cosmos, drawing on a comprehensive corpus of rarely seen photographs and other visual phenomena, Iina Kohonen maps the complex relationship between visual propaganda and censorship during the Cold War.

Kohonen ably examines each image, elucidating how visual media helped to anchor otherwise abstract political and intellectual concepts of the future and modernization within the Soviet Union. The USSR mapped and named the cosmos, using new media to stake a claim to this new territory and incorporating it into the daily lives of its citizens. Soviet cosmonauts, meanwhile, were depicted as prototypes of the perfect Communist man, representing modernity, good taste, and the aesthetics of the everyday. Across five heavily illustrated chapters, Picturing the Cosmos navigates and critically examines these utopian narratives, highlighting the rhetorical tension between propaganda, censorship, art, and politics.

132 pages | 128 color plates | 7 x 9 | © 2017

Art: Photography

Culture Studies

History: European History

Media Studies

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"An interesting and insightful book about Soviet culture in the early Space Age of the late 1950s and 1960s. . . . Pictures do matter, and the contradictions of Soviet politics and ideology are made clear in Picturing the Cosmos. It is a good book, offering a different look at Soviet policy in the USSR’s Golden Age of space achievement."

Isis: a Journal of the History of Science Society

"The radical political and even metaphysical ambitions of the Soviet space effort generated contentious debates in Soviet visual culture between the 1950s and 80s, as is documented by Iina Kohonen in close and loving detail."

Times Literary Supplement

"The book examines how visual media served to construct an overarching heroic mythos of the conquering Soviet man, bravely exploring the depths of space, for the glory of the USSR and all mankind, and how that narrative was crafted to emphasize the values that Soviet leaders wanted to instill in their citizenry — while hiding uncomfortable realities and preventing attitudes at odds with the official line."


"A fascinating journey into the visual history of the early years of Soviet space travel. Based on a thorough analysis of illustrated stories published in the popular magazine Ogonek, paintings by cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov and other artists, films as well as archival material, the book examines in detail the various visualization strategies of the kosmicheskaya era."

Slavic Review

"This beautifully illustrated book provides compelling insight into the construction of the cosmonauts as idealised heroes of the Soviet Union...and shows the role that cosmic images played in the making of modernity." 

LSE Review of Books

"One of the first comprehensive studies of the imagery produced on the space exploration and its coverage in Soviet media. . . . An important visual-historical study of the representation of space in the Soviet Union, and significant in its attempt to decipher political messages of conquering nature with science and technology tools, designed and operated by Soviet citizens. . . . Picturing the Cosmos provides a useful introduction to understanding the media representations of space exploration in the Soviet Union and is an important staging-post on the route for understanding the highly relevant topic of ‘out of sight’ experiences entering the material world and every day life of common citizens. The book is an easy read and visual-historical approach allows for some fascinating insights."

Visual Studies

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
“The Current Generation of Soviet People Will Live Under Communism”
Secrecy and Spotlight
Material Used in the Book
The Structure of the Book
2 A Slash Across the Heavens
Racing into Space
To Conquer- or to Explore?
The System of Secrecy
Scouts of the Heavenly Depths
To the Moon and Around
A Map of the Moon
3 Travelers in the Void
The Gaze of Apollo
Cosmic Landscapes
Alexei Leonov, an Artist on a Journey
Horro Vacui: On Infinity and Congestion
Photograph Versus Painting
4 Story of the Heroic Conquest of Space
Cosmonauts and the Regime of Secrecy
Visual Narratives of Space Heroes
The Hero’s Homecoming
The Tomb
The Jubilant Crowd
A Call from the Secretary General
5 A Completely Ordinary Hero
Devil in the Detail?
The Hero as an Everyman
6 The Housebroken Hero
Mothers and Sons
A Modern Space Heroine- and a Cosmic Love Story
Fathers and Husbands
Modern Homes for Ideal Citizens
7 The Tormented Hero
Hero on the Threshold
Man- Machine
The Death of the Hero
8 Conclusions
The Tamed Infinity
Cosmonauts as Examples of the Good Life
Imagery as a Modern Space Narrative
The Last Journeying Men
The Descended Hero
Sources and Literature
List of Figures

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