The Soviets sent stray dogs to conquer space. This is what happened next

Updated 1:00 PM EDT, Mon June 29, 2015

Story highlights

A new book provides an insight into the bizarre world of Soviet space dogs

The first living creature to be sent into orbit was Laika, a stray dog from Moscow

The Russian dogs became propaganda icons, portrayed as sacrificing themselves for the good of the USSR

The Soviets switched to monkeys in the Eighties, but it is the iconography of the dogs that is the most enduring

(CNN) —  

She couldn’t read and she couldn’t write. She was remarkably bad at public speaking. Yet mention the name “Laika” to any Russian of a certain age, and their eyes will light up with patriotic fervor.

Laika was, of course, a dog. Or to be precise, the first dog to be sent into orbit.

“There was this whole propaganda industry built around Laika and her canine comrades,” says Damon Murray, editor of the new book Soviet Space Dogs.

“Pictures of the dogs appeared on children’s books, posters, toys, stamps, matchboxes, postcards, all over. It was a real cult thing.”

Read: Surprise designs behind the Iron Curtain

Dogs or monkeys?

Murray’s book draws together a collection of ephemera from the period, providing a window into the eccentric world of pop art from the USSR.

The Americans used monkeys for space exploration. In the early decades of the Russian space project, however, it was decided that dogs would be preferable.

“Initially they found it simply easier,” says Murray. “There were plenty of dogs around. Russian scientists took strays off the streets and trained them. It was found that monkeys were harder to train, even if they were closer to humans in their genetic make-up.

“Towards the end of the space program, the Russians moved over to monkeys as well. But it’s the dogs that are remembered as heroes.”

Read: Transnistria, a territory caught in a Soviet time warp

How a mongrel dog became a Soviet icon

The way that this came about owes as much to serendipity as it does to the Soviet propaganda machine. When Laika, a stray mongrel plucked from obscurity, was launched into space on 3 November 1957, the Russian scientists had given no thought to her re-entry. It was simply accepted that she would die in space.

This, however, provoked an unexpected outcry from the Europeans. “Dog lovers across the world were up in arms about it,” Murray says. “Western countries saw it as a dog being exploited. To get around this issue, the Soviets canonized her, making her a hero who had sacrificed herself for the greater good of her country.”

Read: The Cold War: A landmark CNN documentary series

The birth of a canine hero

The Soviet artists were drafted in, and soon depictions of the space-going dog gazing nobly towards the horizon were ubiquitous. The fact that she was from low-born origins only compounded the appeal of the myth: Laika might not have been human, but she was cast as a genuine proletarian hero.

To this day, the images of the Soviet space dogs have lost none of their aesthetic impact. “It’s a weird combination of ideology and dogs,” says Murray.

“The images have a very nostalgic quality. At the same time, there’s this tragic edge because the dogs came from nothing and were eaten up by the Soviet space machine.”

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