THE PERFECT CANDIDATE?
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova’s parents provided the almost-perfect socialist background that Khrushchev wanted to present to the outside world. Her father, a
tractor driver, had fought in the Russian Army as a sergeant and tank commander, dying in the Finnish Winter War when Tereshkova was two years old. Following her historic mission, incidentally, she was asked about possible ways in which the Soviet Union could demonstrate its gratitude to her: she requested a search to be conducted for the exact location of her father’s death. This was duly done and a monument stands today in Lemetti, on the Russian side of the border with Finland, to commemorate Vladimir Tereshkov.
After her father’s death, her mother single-handedly raised three children whilst working at the Krasny Perekop cotton mill. The young Tereshkova, who had been born on 6 March 1937 in the village of Bolshoye Maslennikovo, on the Volga River in the Yaroslavl Oblast of the western Soviet Union, did not commence her formal schooling until she was ten years old. She worked variously making coats, serving as an apprentice in a tyre factory and finally joined her mother and sister in 1955 as a loom operator at the cotton mill. She continued her academic studies in tandem, taking correspondence courses and eventually graduating from the Light Industry Technical School.
Her interest in aviation crystallised with membership of the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club, in which she quickly proved herself to be a skilful amateur parachutist, completing her first jump aged just 22. By the time she was picked as a cosmonaut candidate in March 1962, she had no fewer than 126 jumps under her belt and it was this achievement, coupled with the need for Vostok fliers to parachute out of their capsules during descent, which aided her selection. Her family and friends knew nothing of her plans: even her mother was under the impression that Tereshkova would be undertaking ‘special studies’ for a women’s precision skydiving team. In fact, the first that Yelena Tereshkova knew about her daughter’s achievement was on the day of her launch, via Radio Moscow.
Tereshkova’s technical qualifications, admittedly, were lower than those of her male counterparts in the cosmonaut team, but her role as an active Party member – she had been the secretary of her local Young Communist League in 1961 – together with a war-hero father certainly brought her to the attention of the selection board and, finally, Khrushchev.
She was also well-liked by Kamanin as being ‘‘suitably feminine’’ and modest and, indeed, would demonstrate such attributes in an article entitled ‘Women in Space’, published by an American journal some years later. ‘‘I believe a woman should always remain a woman,’’ she wrote, ‘‘and nothing feminine should be alien to her. At the same time, I strongly feel that no work done by a woman in the field of science or culture. . . however vigorous or demanding, can enter into conflict with her ancient ‘wonderful mission’ to love and be loved and with her craving for the bliss of motherhood.’’ She was also doggedly determined in her efforts. Although she did not score the highest of the five candidates in her exams, her consistent effort prompted Yuri Gagarin to once comment that ‘‘she tackled the job stubbornly and devoted much of her own time to study, poring over books and notes in the evening’’. That was Tereshkova. Modest. Determined. Hard working. A good communist. To Khrushchev, she was ideal; the perfect candidate.