Had I not worked 16 hours straight yesterday, I may have remembered that it was the 52nd anniversary of the first manned space flight - Yuri Gagarin, 4/12/1961.Reposting this review in belated celebration of humanity's wildest dream.----------------------"After his flight he was always saying how special the world is, and how we had to be very careful not to break it.""A place that no one else in all human history can occupy. Number One. The First Man in Space."Yuri Gagarin has had a place on my list of personal heroes since I was a kid. The first human in space, the first one to see our planet as "a tiny blue ball drifting through the infinite cosmic darkness." I remember once, as a kid, trying to imagine that all we are, all our problems, our hopes, our aspirations, everything we cared about - all that was confined to a tiny little planet that was located on the outskirts of one tiny galaxy, a speck of nothing on the cosmic scale. Even in that rare existential moment of childhood, I was scared and humbled. How must it have felt, then, for Gagarin to be the first one to escape the confines of our atmosphere, the first one to see Earth from space? He was the first one to experience something larger than life, something that until then humanity only dared to dream about. He was the first to do it, in a tiny Vostok space capsule, on April 12, 1961."Young or old, privileged or poor, most Russians still smile with pride at the merest mention of his name. They recall with the genuine affection a peasant boy with a winning smile, who stunned the entire world with his achievement. Russians don't hesitate to remind us Westerners, "He was the first, you know."The first man in space: Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin."It's easy to idolize a man who achieved what Gagarin did. As a matter of fact, that was done for decades. It was desirable to present him as what the Party needed him to be - a simple farmboy with a winning smile, who took the Soviet Union to the stars. This book, in a dry journalistic non-yellow-press style tries to give us a more objective portrait of this extraordinary man. It succeeds at that, I think. And the message I get out of it is that Gagarin did not need the Party to construct an image of him as an extraordinary man - he already had all the qualities that made him amazing, no embellishment necessary."This apt metaphor of a pyramid helps illustrate that Gagarin's life was full of contradictions. He was an ambitious and competitive individual, acutely aware that the central achievement of his life was based on the efforts of many others who were not even permitted to reveal their names, let alone share in his public glory. He was a peasant boy at ease with complex engineering equations; a programmed technician who could think for himself; a loyal member of a conformist society who rebelled against the system. He was impetuous, occasionally thoughtless, yet highly disciplined in his work and responsible towards others, often at great risk to himself. He knew little of politics, while displaying a remarkable knack for diplomacy, both at home and abroad. He was an adulterer who never really betrayed his wife and family. As all these conflicting elements of his life intermingle, the story that emerges is one of an essentially decent and brave man giving his best in extraordinary circumstances. He was a hero, in the best and most honest sense of the word."This book gives us a detailed account of Gagarin's short life. His childhood, marred by living in the occupied territories during the World War II, witnessing near-death of his little brother at the hands of the Nazis. His youth as a steel foundryman apprentice who discovered a passion for flying and joined a pilot school. His selection as a member of the select few future Cosmonauts and months and months of grueling physical training and quite merciless medical experiments (little was known about the potential dangers of space for human body, and so future cosmonauts were expected to be able to survive everything). His orbiting of Earth - for the first time. The following years of him being the best ambassador that the Soviet Union could have hoped for. His ascent to and fall from grace of the Soviet leadership. His failed attempts to get back into the space program. His last flight from which he did not return."He had no particular knack for getting things right the first time. He had to work quite hard at his tasks, practising them repeatedly."Left - Gagarin and Khruschev, the leader of the Soviet Union and Gagarin's fervent supporter (a fellow farmboy, after all!) - and the reason for Gagarin's fall from grace as Brezhnev came to replace Khruschev.Right - Gagarin and Korolev, the man behind the space program in the USSR, who was forced to really stay behind the scenes due to the overwhelming secrecy of those times.And more - besides just a look at this man's amazing life, this book gives us a glimpse of what the Soviet space program was like, of what the other cosmonauts were like, of the people behind the scenes, of the political and power struggles involved. It broadens its scope beyond just Yuri Gagarin, and does an excellent job at conveying the spirit of that time from the 20-20 vision of hindsight. "He made many enemies because he behaved with more charm, and could talk more wisely and honestly, than the official Soviet heads of foreign delegations. Superiors never forgive you for something like that.""In all, the First Cosmonaut was turning out to be an extraordinary asset to Soviet diplomacy, but, as he confessed to Golovanov in a quiet moment, the strain of playing the perfect ambassador was beginning to wear him down.""I think his personality began to split. On one side he was the welcome guest of kings, presidents and even the Queen of England, but on the other side he never lost his ties with the ordinary people. I think he began to sense the lower classes' lack of rights, their hardship, and he saw the corruption of the top layers of society. He saw our drunken leaders dancing on the table and behaving badly, and that can't have left his honest soul unwounded."Yuri Gagarin can be easily dismissed by the cynics of the new generation as the man manufactured by the Soviet government to serve the purpose they wanted him to serve. But it is not so. He was loved for who he was - not an icon of the time but a true friend with the personality that made people want to die to save him. I'm not exaggerating - one of his closest friends, a fellow cosmonaut Komarov, chose not to turn down a clearly flawed space mission, the one that ultimately cost him his life, because Yuri had been his back-up and would have forced to undertake the doomed mission had Komarov refused. Yes, Gagarin apparently was a man worth dying for:"As I knew the state of affairs, I asked him, "If you're so convinced you're going to die, then why don't you refuse the mission?" He [Komarov] answered, "If I don't make this flight, they'll send the back-up pilot instead. That's Yura, and he'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him."It is a very well-written book about an extraordinary man and the environment in which this extraordinarity was achieved. I highly recommend it to the post-Soviet and Western readers alike. 4.5 stars - for the Starman. And a cheeky quote to end this review:"The West quickly developed an obsession with the Space Race, much to the bemusement of cosmonaut Gherman Titov and his friends. "What kind of race were they thinking about? There wasn't a race, because we Russians were already ahead of the entire planet."