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Valentina Tereshkova: The Greta Garbo of space

In June 1963 a young Soviet worker became the first woman to travel into space. Valentina Tereshkova rarely talks about her mission, so to tell the story of how she became a national hero and an icon for gender equality, Lucy Ash visited her home town, starting at the textile factory where she worked.

I follow the factory boss up endless staircases and down long corridors. As the light filters through grimy windows and bounces off green paint, I feel trapped in a vast aquarium, or rather a tank of aspic.

Here is an impeccably preserved piece of the Soviet Union, right down to the browbeaten babushkas listlessly sweeping the floors and the hammers and sickles decorating the walls.

We stop by a metal loom, gathering dust. Pyotr Shelkoshwein, director of the Krasniy Perekop textile plant, strokes the machine reverentially “This”, he says, “is where Tereshkova worked.”

Shelkoshwein joined the factory in Yaroslavl, 150 miles north-east of Moscow, at the same time as Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman to be sent into space. He remembers her organising picnics for members of the Communist Youth League and spending her free time jumping out of aeroplanes.

Nothing unusual about that; by the 1960s almost every Soviet town had its own parachute club. But one lunch break, he heard the news about his workmate with dark eyes and plump cheeks.

“They mispronounced her name on the radio, so at first we thought it was a mistake,” he recalls. Tereshkova had not only concealed the forthcoming mission from her friends at the factory, she had also hidden it from her mother for more than a year.

The textile worker spent three days orbiting the earth then returned to her factory in an open-top car, laden with flowers. Treated like royalty, she was the perfect proletarian heroine. In the Cold War space race, she became an icon for gender equality.

Four other women trained alongside her – three of whom were graduates with technical expertise – but the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made the final choice. He liked Tereshkova’s fresh-faced looks and propaganda potential. She was the daughter of a tractor driver killed on the Finnish border in World War II.

Tereshkova was celebrated in songs and her face was put on postage stamps. Soon after her flight, she was married off to a fellow cosmonaut, Andriyan Nikolayev. Khrushchev gave the bride away at a wedding filled with the Soviet equivalent of Hello magazine photographers. When the couple eventually split, their divorce needed the personal approval of Leonid Brezhnev.

In short, Tereshkova’s life was hijacked by the Party. Over the years, her image has been carefully preserved. In the entrance of a new planetarium built in her home town of Yaroslavl, there’s a huge stained glass portrait in which she wears her helmet like a sci-fi halo.

Read full story on BBC News

Category: World News |

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Last updated October 26, 2016 at 10:54 PM
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