There is a bizarre story involving the Soviet space program that originally circulated in the late 1980s, and still pops up here and there on the internet. Attributed to The Washington Post, the story spoke of six Soviet cosmonauts being witness to seven giant figures hanging in space, in the form of humans, with mist-like halos and wings the size of those on jumbo jets.
In other words, the classic depiction of angels.
This reputedly was witnessed by cosmonauts Vladimir Solevev, Oleg Atkov and Leonid Kizim in July of 1985, during their 155th day aboard the Salyut 7 space station, and was later sighted again by three other Soviet cosmonaut-scientists, including woman cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya. “They were smiling,” it is claimed she said, “as though they shared in a glorious secret.”
Afterwards, Vladimir Solevev, during a 1997 tour to schools in the United Kingdom, dismissed the story, and expressed puzzlement as to why the Post would print something so obviously absurd.
My sense is that this story expresses a metaphor that holds deep significance to at least the western world.
You know what a metaphor is, right?
Okay, fine …
1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles.”
2. One thing conceived as symbolic of another.
When I say “metaphor” here, I’m focusing more on the second definition of the two.
Outer space is a powerful metaphor.
This should come as no surprise to any of us — for millennia, we as a species would gaze upon the spectacle of the heavens, and for the Occidental world came to regard it as the home of the Classical gods, and later as the abode of, literally, the heavenly host. Even in the early years of the Space Race, for Americans who were uneducated (or uninterested) in the basics of astronomy and Newton’s physics, there were many who still carried the belief that the Judeo-Christian Heaven was just up there, on the other side of the sky.
While developing the theatrical feature 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick filmed a number of interviews with experts in several fields regarding the significance of space flight and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In one of these interviews, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at New Yorks’ Yeshiva University noted: “When the Bible speaks of God residing in Heaven, it is used as a metaphor — because when one looks upward, one is overwhelmed by the vastness of space.”
When an artistic work involving space flight has any ambition of reaching for a deeper resonance between its surface elements and any thematic underpinnings (as did 2001), this metaphor simply begs to be used.
In Red Moon, fellow author David S. Michaels and I happily (and inadvertently) backed into it, despite and because part of the story is set in a Socialist (read: dogmatically atheistic) nation.
Red Moon by David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton
A writer has to do a lot of homework to bring a well-rounded character to life. Dave hit upon the idea of giving our central character, Grigor Belinsky — the only Soviet cosmonaut destined to reach the moon — an ex-wife, Mirya, a woman of deep religious convictions. They were divorced, at her insistence, to minimize the impact of her views on his ambitions in the Soviet space program.
In researching the background for the character, I found a lot of what you would tend to expect from what we have been told about the Soviet system, in regards to the treatment of religious expression — religious convictions were considered a form of insanity and, if deemed a danger to the State, “warranted” psychological treatment. Oddly, churches were not outright disenfranchised, but were administered through the State by appointees who were, of course, atheists.
What I learned was cold, ugly, and gave me a context for the character, but frankly it wasn’t very interesting.
Then I stumbled across a book by Soviet dissident Josyp Terelya, Witness to Apparitions and Persecution in the USSR (Riehle Foundation, June 1991). Some of this book dealt specifically with torture, and because of this was very hard to read, but also in the book Terelya recounts his experience in witnessing an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary over a church in the city of Hrushiv, in the Ukraine.
The apparition began after nightfall with a celestial glow that surrounded the cupola of the Church of the Blessed Trinity, and within this glow a globe of light appears, and within the glow the form of Mary manifests (pp. 14-15):
My great dear Lord I saw her! … I can still picture the scene every time I close my eyes.
As the glow faded she became more distinct, like a living person above the church … what I saw was a woman in flaming robes. It was as if the robes were on fire and out of this only a face could be seen. These were not flames in our normal understanding of flames. I can only describe it as like putting alcohol on a shirt and setting it aflame. Holy God! Holy Mother! …
The Blessed Virgin said nothing. She stared directly into my eyes … everyone who saw her said she was staring into his or her eyes. They felt she was paying personal attention to them. They said she was looking at them individually. How can the atheistic psychologists explain so many people seeing and experiencing the same thing?
After discovering this account, I came across the story of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, who lived in the 1700s. Though not a saint in the 1960s, she was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church before the end of the century. She was what is know as an iurodivii, a fool for Christ’s sake, a person in whom Christ wears the guise of madness. Further, I discovered some mention of miracles associated with her, both before and after her death. Her grave has long been a place of of pilgrimage and prayer, which was a source of irritation of the officials of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the Soviet period.
After running across this, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to give Belinsky’s Mirya a religious experience in the form of an apparition of St. Xenia. In the novel, we introduced the saint, told some of her story, and described her effect on Mirya in the following passage:
Mirya’s room was decorated with her icon collection, which she’d started while they were students together, well before her religious conversion. She aimed to get one of every female saint, a manageable goal, since there weren’t that many in the Orthodox pantheon. Color postcards stood in for those icons she still lacked. Belinsky was surrounded by gold leaf, wood, gesso, soft faces, and soulful, sympathetic eyes.
“I see you’ve added three new faces.” Belinsky pointed them out. Two were variations of the Byzantine Theotokos, the Virgin with arms raised in prayer, probably 15th or 16th century. The third was entirely different, a small oval painting of a plain woman wearing a green 18th-century Russian officer’s waistcoat.
“These are Blaise, Pyatnitsa, and Xenia of Petersburg,” she explained, touching each one reverently.
“Xenia looks odd for a saint.”
“She’s not one, precisely. She has not been canonized yet, but she will be.”
Belinsky nodded. Mirya knew about things she had no right to know. He looked more closely at the small painting. It stirred a faint memory. “Isn’t Xenia the one you envisioned?”
Mirya smiled sadly. “I saw her, surely as I see you.”
Six years before, Mirya had gone to Leningrad for her abortion. The procedure had been quick, but it had scarred her psyche as surely as her womb. Wandering late on a white night, shattered by the loss of the child she had wanted, Mirya had come upon the unlocked doors of a tiny church in the Smolensk cemetery and fallen to her knees at the altar.
Then, like Saul on the road to Damascus, she was utterly changed. She actually believed she saw this 18th century woman, Xenia, transfigured, luminous. The experience healed her soul, filled her with a joy Belinsky could sense, but not fathom.
The State called it insanity.
“Why the military waistcoat?” Belinsky asked.
Her eyes burned into him like twin green torches. “It belonged to her husband, a soldier. He died without confession. She assumed his identity and would answer only to his name, in the hope that by living a godly life as her husband, God would grant mercy for his soul.”
She turned her gaze to the little painting. “If you die on the way to the Moon,” she said, almost to herself, “will I wear your uniform and answer only to your name?”
Belinsky felt his heart quiver, like a guttering flame. “I don’t understand you.”
“Of course not. I am beyond understanding.” She smiled again. “Here.” She lifted the painting gently from the wall and handed it to him. “It will protect you.”
Belinsky’s eye’s widened. “I couldn’t take it.”
“Please. For me.”
The painting eventually travels with Belinsky to the Moon, and it serves a role in the spiritual journey he takes there, alone in the heavens, on another world. In an early draft of the book, I had Belinsky experience an apparition of Xenia in the cabin of his moon lander, but the tone of the scene was so at odds with tone of the overall narrative (of what is essentially a space fiction thriller) that we dropped it.
(The sacrifices I make for my craft. I swear.)
Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of myth as metaphors that strive to convey universal truths in a language that speaks to not just our minds, but all the way down to our instincts.
Whatever the reality is to the Salyut 7 story, I feel the reason it continues to be repeated is that it represents a metaphor that resonates with meaning.
And the meaning?
That by scaling the heavens and entering them, the hero or heroine (and by proxy, we as a species) become worthy of the angels.
(I, for one, think messages of hope are a good thing.)
We see this metaphor plainly at work in the space art of Robert McCall, in his recurrent image of an astronaut in full spacesuit, propelled upward into space by a backpack rocket, and holding his arms outstretched, Christ-like.
I met McCall briefly at an exhibition that featured some of his work, and asked him if this repeated image was a metaphor for the human race being resurrected in the grand adventure of the journey into space.
He looked at me smiling the distant smile of a visionary, regarding me as if I was one of the few that had actually gotten it.
(We copy that five by five, Houston. Message received and understood.)
Copyright © 2007, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
This article was featured in Episode 83 of the Mysterious Universe podcast.
For more information on the David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton novel Red Moon, visit their site www.Luna15.com.