In the context of the Russian Empire, the word “shtetl” historically meant a small town with large Jewish population in the “pale of settlement,” that is the empire’s Western provinces, where Jews were allowed to reside prior to the Russian Revolution.
Everything begins with the shtetl. The 20th century radical futuristic imagination and the Soviet space science have roots in the Jewish pale of settlement.
Yiddish Cosmos is a shtetl cosmos, a small-town cosmos, a mestechkovy cosmos. The qualifier “mestechkovy”, which is Russian for “from or of the shtetl,” and which has been so embarrassing to generations of assimilated Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet Jews, is being employed here proudly and openly as a signifier of naturalness, localness, and rootedness of Ashkenazi Jewry on the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Moldavian, Lithuanian, etc. soil.
In Russian culture, by the end of the 19th century, the word “mestechkovy” had become synonymous with laughingly provincial, patriarchal, non-modern. A snobbish native Russian might have used “mestechkovy” to refer to a Jewish migrant from the pale who had moved to St. Petersburg or Moscow, learned the Russian language, but still couldn’t quite blend in — their accent, mannerisms, fashion styles, etc. were giving them away.
A green Jewish newcomer to Russian capital cities could have been called “mestechkovy” not only by natives of St. Petersburg or Moscow, but also by her fellow Jew who had arrived there earlier and had already assimilated into the Russian culture in comparison to their “unpolished” co-religionists. On the one hand, the issue of being “mestechkovy” in the context of Russian culture was connected to the issue of state or social anti-Semitism and enforced Russification. On the other, the flight from one’s “inner shtetl” was also an expression of the deeply rooted self-hate and uncritical embrace of the dominant imperial culture.
However, ironically it was the patriarchal Jewish life in shtetles of the pale of settlement that proved to become the roots for radical futurist imagination and space science of the 20th century as personified by the Lithuanian rabbi’s son pan-anarchist cosmist Wolf Gordin (1889-unknown) or Soviet space scientist Ari Sternfeld (1905–1980), whose memoirs recall that the idea of space travel came to him while reading the Jewish prayer “Kiddush Levana” (“Consecration of the New Moon”) as a small boy in a Polish shtetl.
In 1919, in Moscow, Wolf Gordin, created the language of universal communication and gave it the name “AO”. According to Gordin, AO was designed to replace local, national, and international languages and become the interplanetary lingua franca when human societies would be radically transformed and space travel become a reality. Gordin presented AO at the First International Exhibition of Interplanetary Machines and Mechanisms in Moscow in 1927.
In 1934, it was Ari Sternfeld who pioneered modern astronautic and coined for the scientific literature the terms “cosmonautics” and “cosmodrome” in his groundbreaking book “Introduction to Cosmonautics”. Sternfeld’s main work was devoted to calculating the most energy-efficient flight paths of spacecraft. These trajectories which can significantly save fuel, are still called Sternfeld trajectories. In 1937, Sternfeld, however, was removed (as a Jew and a foreigner) from work on the Soviet space program but he could not leave the USSR. Until the end of his life, Sternfeld worked at home, making calculations and making models from found materials as some type of traditional shtetl artisan homeworker and making a meager living giving lectures and writing articles.
The beginning of Sternfeld’s (and only partial) recognition fell on Khrushchev’s era in the 1960s, following the devastating anti-Semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans’ (euphemism for Jews) under Stalin in the late 1940s-early 1950s.
The 1960s was the era of great achievements for the Soviet space program, which coincided with the movement for the emigration of Soviet Jews. Permission to emigrate for Soviet Jews starting in the late 1960s was the result of an activist campaign, conducted by Soviet and American Jewish activists. Known as Let my people go!, the campaign lasted until the collapse of the USSR and included demonstrations, pickets and lobbying of the agenda in Washington, Moscow and at international forums. A special focus was placed on the plight of refuseniks, usually Soviet Jewish individuals who were denied/refused permission to emigrate.
The Soviet space program has its own story of the “cosmonaut-refusenik.” The state anti-Semitism in the USSR led to the cancellation of several planned space flights of cosmonaut Boris Volynov (1935-present), a friend of the first man in space Yuri Gagarin, due to his Jewish origin. Born to a Jewish mother and a Russian father during the second decade of the Soviet experiment, Boris Volynov was no shtetl Jew, but rather a “Soviet new man” and at the same time a Halakhic Jew who wasn’t Jewish, at least according to his official Soviet-issued identification papers. However, Volynov’s tacit Jewish roots were still a problem. Anonymous letters sent by “concerned citizens” to the Soviet authorities advised them “not to send a Jew into space”. Only in 1969, and then in 1976, Volynov was finally able to go into space. Ironically, the “exodus” of Jews from the USSR at that time was already in full swing.
The story of Yiddish Cosmos begins in the shtetl with “Kiddush Levana” and ends in Baikonur (the Soviet space launch facility) or the Sheremetyevo airport, usually used by Soviet emigrant Jews catching flights to Israel or America.
As a young boy, Ari Sternfeld wanted to reach the Moon from his small Polish town. Shternfeld died in 1980 in Moscow and is buried in there. His younger daughter and her family moved to New York via Israel. His older daughter remained in Moscow.
The fate of the anarcho-cosmist Wolf Gordin is unknown – the last mention of him appears in a French magazine in the 1930s.
Boris Volynov went into space as a Cosmonaut of the USSR twice, returning each time. Today, he still lives in the Cosmonaut Village outside of Moscow and travels extensively, including to Israel and is comfortable enough now to open up about his Jewish origin, something that he was uncomfortable to share during the Soviet era. Being the perfect Soviet Cosmonaut and the perfect Soviet Man that he was, Volynov, however, remains an imperfect Soviet Jew – one who is only now finally ready to leave the shtetl behind or to return to it.