“We Are The First”: How does filming the first movie in space reflect Russian nationalism?

Written by: Polina Evtushenkova

Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova – the names of these Russian cosmonauts probably ring a bell for everyone because they are known to be the first man and woman to go to space – in 1961 and 1963 respectively. Since Gagarin went to space, Soviet national space propaganda occupied an important place in the Soviet nationalism and remains one of the central pillars of Russian nationalism today.

Indeed, Russia has been an influential and successful player in space exploration. Together with the US, it shares the International Space Station (ISS) project. Despite the involvement of other partners in the project, e.g., Japan’s JAXA and European Space Agency (ESA), the ISS consists of two main blocks: the Russian and the American. In addition, NASA and other ISS partners mostly rely on Russian space agency Roscosmos’ ‘Soyuz’ spacecraft to deliver astronauts to the ISS. NASA had relied on Soyuz for 20 years since the official start of the ISS until in 2020 it switched to the SpaceX ‘Crew Dragon’ spacecraft.

American actions aimed at becoming a more independent player in space exploration and other events, with Russia falling behind in the global space race and competition with the US and China. This led Roscosmos to the crisis – a decrease in international influence. In light of these developments, when Tom Cruise and the director Doug Liman decided to film the first movie in space at the beginning of 2020 and set the date of the launch in October 2021, Russia grabbed this opportunity in attempts to revive its former glory of a leading space nation and joined the race. In October 2020 it announced the plan to send to the ISS its director Klim Shipenko and an actress who was selected later. Already on October 5th, 2021, Shipenko and Yulia Peresild were delivered to the ISS – a remarkable yet controversial achievement. The name of the movie will be “The Challenge” and is coming out this year.

Yulia Peresild, Anton Shkaplerov, Klim Shipenko (Image by NASA Johnson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When Shipenko and Peresild returned on Earth on October 17th, Russian mass media was filled with the subheadings “We are the first again!”, “The first in the space”, “An actress who has reached the heights” and so on. Even some foreign sources such as The Guardian wrote articles in the spirit of “Russians beating US in race for first film shot in space”. Ultimately, Russia reached its goal and beat Cruise and the US in the race. However, for what purpose and at what cost?

The purpose is clear: to revive the strength of space propaganda and consequently the national spirit, to prove to its nation and international actors that Russia has always been the first in space, especially that Russia is better and faster than the US. It is so because firstly, there is widespread discourse in the country regarding a standoff between Russia and the ‘Decaying West’, particularly the US. The national TV political shows discuss topics either regarding Ukraine or the US. Secondly, there were no public talks regarding the mission of going to space to film a movie, but as soon as Tom Cruise announced his plan, Russia suddenly announced a similar one and did everything to accomplish it first. Thirdly, the mission is not economically nor socially beneficial. Economically, the operation was costly – the state had to pay for delivering the crew to the ISS and other logistical elements. The approximate sum of the project is estimated to be $96.7 million (7.5 billion rubles). Such high expenses reasonably caused a lot of dissatisfaction among Russians – an effect opposite to what the state was originally hoping for. As some Russian social media users sarcastically pointed out:

Tweet by @tvoi_partner: “They say, an actress has been sent to the space”
Tweet by @IsraelThreads:

“Everyone deals with a crisis in life differently.
When things go badly, my mother-in-law buys (sometimes with the last money) red caviar and the most expensive sausage.
I buy a gadget or some unnecessary crap
What do I mean by saying this?
Congratulations to Roscosmos on the successful launch of an actress & director into space”

Discontent among the people was caused not only by the material cost but also the moral. First, two ISS crew members who were supposed to return on Earth that October – astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov – will now stay on board until March 2022, making them spend in total almost a year in space. An important remark here is that not only the astronauts’ return was distorted but also their health is now at a greater risk. To cut a long story short – the combination of high levels of radiation in space and state of weightlessness (zero-gravity) inevitably harms human body. Radiation decreases immunity and can even hasten the onset of Alzheimer’s. Due to the weightlessness, astronauts lose about 1% of the bone mass per year – that is the same amount as osteoporosis patients lose in a year, and the recovery takes years.

Second, in order to go to the ISS, Peresild and Shipenko took the seats in Soyuz away from two cosmonauts who have been preparing for a flight for many years. This provoked a huge outcry among the public, and many scientists and cosmonauts publicly spoke out against it, because it interferes with scientific plans and research, which, unlike filming, contributes to the development of space exploration.

Evidently, Russia tried to use the project of filming the first movie in space to remind its people and the West that Russia has always been the first in space. This move was supposed to revive national spirit and invoke feelings of patriotism. Surely, if you hear that your country was the first to film a movie in space, you feel proud. However, the cost of the project, both material and moral, turned out to be too high and caused an effect opposite to national celebrations – frustration and criticism of the government.

Featured image by NASA Johnson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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