Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's death has been shrouded in mystery for over five decades. While new revelations have shed some light on the events leading to his 1968 demise, many conspiracy theorists have wildly differing beliefs regarding what happened to the Russian space hero. Gagarin died on Earth in a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, just outside of Moscow. A KGB investigation ruled that the expert flyer made a sudden maneuver, which caused the plane to stall and crash, but they offered little more information than that.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War. Part of the competition between the two countries focused on being the first to outer space. Gagarin led the Soviet space race in the Vostok 1 spacecraft in 1961, a month before the US sent a man into orbit. He became an international and much-beloved hero.
But he didn't live to see the US place a man on the moon in 1969. He died just a little more than a year earlier in a plane crash that the KGB didn't speak about for decades, which led to some pretty outlandish theories about how he died. Was he murdered by the KGB or did something far more routine bring him down? While we certainly have some answers in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is still a fairly secretive country, and—as with JFK's assassination—conspiracy theorists are still not convinced they know the whole truth.
The KGB said Gagarin swerved to avoid something during that fateful flight, but they didn't specify what. Most felt that the explanation was doubtful, as he and his co-pilot were top aviators. Theories circulated that Gagarin was possibly drunk when he got in the cockpit, although it has since been proven he was sober at the time of his death. Others believed he was playing a game of chicken with another plane, taking photos, or shooting at deer below.
The wildest rumors speculated that he was targeted by the KGB for criticizing the government a year earlier—his friend and colleague Vladimir Komarov died in a preventable accident. Theorists also postulated a collision with a UFO or suicide.
Conspiracy theorists also thought for a while—or hoped, anyway—Gagarin was still alive and possibly committed to an insane asylum for the drinking and depression he suffered years earlier.
But that was not the case, as fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov revealed in his memoir, Two Sides of the Moon. He heard the crash and later identified Gagarin’s body—or rather, what was left of it:
A few days before, I had accompanied Yuri to the barber to have his hair cut. I had stood behind Yuri talking while the barber worked. When he came to trim the hairs at the base of Yuri’s neck, he noticed a large, dark brown mole. Looking down at the fragments of flesh lying in that metal bowl [after the accident], I saw that one bore the mole.
Gagarin charmed the world as he traveled—he was sociable and enjoyed meeting various heads of state, royals, and actors who were all amazed by his journey.
But, as with everything, time marches on, and when his travels ended, he settled back into Soviet life. He eventually became depressed—he felt useless and somewhat lost. He began to drink heavily.
Cosmonaut training head General Nikolai Kamanin wrote of Gagarin's budding alcoholism in his diary, "It seems to me he's drinking a good deal. He's at the top of his glory, carrying a great moral burden, knowing that his every step is being watched. One or two years will pass, the situation will change drastically, and he will become dissatisfied."
On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man ever to orbit the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. He cemented the Soviet Union's lead in the space race, but the voyage was incredibly dangerous—after orbiting Earth for 89 minutes, Gagarin had to eject himself from the spacecraft at 20,000 feet, as there was no way at the time to slow the ship as it headed toward impact.
The flight was risky enough that Gagarin wrote a farewell letter to his wife in case of tragedy—she received it in 1968 when he died in a plane crash after a routine test flight.