Valentin Vassilyevich Petrov, a retired colonel, a professor at the Center of Cosmonaut Training, and a friend of Yury Gagarin, recalls their trip to Holy Trinity St Sergius Lavra.
When Yury turned 30, he asked me whether I had been to Holy Trinity Saint Sergius Lavra. I said yes. He invited me to go there again. We drove to the Lavra on that very night. We wore civil clothes because it was an affront for military officers to visit a church wearing the uniform. Besides, we just hoped to remain unnoticed.
Of course, everyone spotted Gagarin immediately, even though he was wearing civil clothes. People crowded around him, asking him for his autograph, asking him questions, and attempting to touch him. I don’t know any other cosmonaut like Gagarin: he treated people very well and never turned anyone down. If you talk to him, it doesn’t matter if there’s the First Secretary of the Central Committee or the Chairman of the Government standing beside him – he is all yours.
The namestnik of the Lavra tried to rescue the cosmonaut from the crowd that had grown too big, so he invited us to go to his cell. Gagarin paused for a second, and then smiled as charming as he usually did, and replied, “Father, please let us kiss the relics of St. Sergius first, and then I’m ready to go wherever you lead me.”
Later, Yura asked me if I had felt anything special when kissing the relics. I said, “Yes, I did. It was, umm, grace, Yura.” He responded, “See? It means it wasn’t just me who felt it.”
The namestnik also invited us to visit Church Archaeology Chamber. Hardly anyone can say for sure what Gagarin’s attitude to religion was. When we entered the Chamber, his remarks convinced me that he knew a lot about Orthodoxy.
When Yura saw the model of Christ the Savior Cathedral, he was excited and asked the namestnik, “Where is that amazing church?” The namestnik replied, “Yury Alexeyevich, it used to be where Moscow Swimming Pool now stands!”
He was abashed by this information. Soon enough, there was a Plenum of the Central Committee devoted to patriotic upbringing of the youth. Yury Gagarin was a member of Komsomol, a member of the Supreme Council, the first cosmonaut, and a Hero of the Soviet Union, and he suggested to the audience that the government restore the Christ the Savior Cathedral and the Triumphal Arch, stressing that those objects were important memorials of military valor. It was a daring act!
It was in November of 1965; Khrushchev was already deposed. The Presidium was appalled and informed the Politburo that Gagarin was spreading subversive talk during the Plenum, Leonid Ilyitch Brezhnev said, “Stop criticizing Gagarin! He is a Russian man. He just brought up an idea. Explain to the Komsomol that we don’t have money to restore the church. We’ll rebuild the Triumphal Arch, though. Send Yury Alexeyevich my greetings!”
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds