Written by Justin Monroe, undergraduate student at Indiana University.
The first thing that made me interested in Russian history was when learning about the Soviet perspective of the “Space Race” while coming across a film centered around the dogs that the Soviets sent before sending up Yuri Gagarin and other cosmonauts. It was from this point of reference that I found myself exploring the Soviet side of the space race, something that is not well known in the United States. Then this semester, when I came across a poster advertising an event cosponsored by Themester and The Russian Studies Workshop, and that centered on the Soviets’ use of dog launches, I knew that I had to attend.
The talk was entitled, “Hybrid Vigor: The Agency of Dogs in Space,” and was presented on October 19th by Dr. Amy Nelson, an associate professor from Virginia Tech and editor of the book Other Animals: Beyond the Human In Russian Culture and History. Dr. Nelson specializes in Russian History and Animal Studies and has been focusing her latest research on the Soviet space dogs. The talk focused on the agency of the animals in these circumstances, and how this was interpreted by the scientists who worked with them and helped prepare them for space flight. Dr. Nelson also addressed a small, and not often studied, aspect of the Soviet space program that had big effects on the rest of the space program, as well as on the space race as a whole.
Dr. Nelson began the talk with giving the audience background information on a couple of the dogs as well as mentioning a couple that had gotten a kind of celebrity status – like Laika, Belka, Strelka, and Zvezdochka. On her first slide she showed us a group of three pictures showing a few of the dogs; of those, the one that struck me the most was the the relief image of Laika carved into the side of a Moscow monument, which, Dr. Nelson pointed out, is one of only two named individuals on the monument (the other being Lenin). She also explained to us that the main reason dogs were picked for space travel was because their anatomy had been so well studied, so that scientists would know if any anatomical changes had occurred during the flight, changes which might prove harmful to future humans in flight. The number of dogs used, according to Dr. Nelson, was at least 70, although the real number is unknown due to a number of issues, such as classified files and the frequent changing of dog names. Of all of the dogs, Dr. Nelson spoke most about a lesser known dog, Lisichka, or “little fox.” This dog was, as Dr. Nelson described it, obedient and personable, a real favorite of the researchers. Lisichka died during what was meant to be the first orbital launch that would return a living creature to earth; unfortunately, though, the rocket exploded shortly after takeoff.
During the talk, Dr. Nelson mentioned how many of the scientists built their research on dogs off of the many studies done on dogs by Ivan Pavlov, the father of modern conditioning. The Soviet space scientists used a number of his ideas, including the use of dogs in experiments, the concept of animals having distinct personalities, and the need to balance scientists’ neutrality to the experiment with the emotional investment that went into it. However, Dr. Nelson also made it clear that the Soviet space scientists moved beyond Pavlov in that their goal was not to break the dogs with stress, which had been an effect of Pavlov’s experiments.
I thoroughly enjoyed this talk and felt it covered a lot of fascinating points that I did not know previous to attending. Some of these include the sheer number of dogs that were used as well as just how emotionally invested the scientists became. Nowhere is this shown more than when Dr. Nelson talked about Lisichka’s death. She mentioned that there are records that show that Sergei Korolev, the lead Soviet rocket engineer at the time, had whispered to the dog, “I want you to come back so much,” though sadly Lisichka never would.
I would like to end with a brief comment made by one of the members of the audience during the Q&A at the end of the lecture. It was this: these dogs paved the way for human exploration; it was because of these flights that we humans learned that space travel was in fact possible.