The last comrade

The spaceman who went up a Soviet and came back a Russian ... and lived to star in the film. By Robin Buss
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The Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev joined the Mir space station in May 1991. When, after 310 days, he returned to Earth at the end of March 1992, he did so as a Russian. While he had been away, his country had undergone the attempted coup of August 1991, the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev, the end of the USSR, and the birth of the Commonwealth of Independent States under President Boris Yeltsin. The launching pad at Baikonur from which he had blasted off was now in the new Republic of Kazakhstan. There were rumours that his homeland might have trouble finding the money to bring him back.

Even before he returned, the story of the "Last Soviet Citizen" had started to fascinate a film-maker called Andrei Ujica, who gave up his job as a university professor in Germany to make a documentary about Krikalev's experiences. He obtained many hours of footage from the mission and spent the whole of 1994 in Moscow working on the project.

"I had a lot of luck," Ujica says now. A year earlier, it would not have been possible to obtain the film from the Soviet space authorities for reasons of security; a year later, the price would have been too high. Through this window of opportunity, he managed to drag the raw materials for Out of the Present, the most magical documentary ever made about man in space.

As his narrator, Ujica chose Anatoli Artsebarski, the commander who accompanied Krikalev (and the British cosmonaut Helen Sharman) in the early part of his mission. According to the director - who has not yet succumbed to the tendency to see space flight as either routine or banal - Artsebarski "plays Patroclus to Krikalev's Achilles". His epic account of the flight lasts exactly 92 minutes, the time of one of Mir's orbits around the globe. It recounts the hero's 310 days in space as a succession of arrivals and departures (when new crews join Mir bringing supplies, to be greeted by gifts of bread and salt) interspersed with lyrical, almost abstract evocations of the seasons on the Earth below: parched brown landscapes for summer; cloud formations for autumn; ice and snow for winter; and green woodlands and pastures for spring.

Space, Ujica says, "is the last place where mankind can still be a little like Columbus or Magellan". And space travel has given us for the first time "the divine perspective on the world. It is enough to go 400 kilometres from Earth to see that Nature is above History - when for the past two centuries we have believed that we can overcome Nature."

Ujica is delighted by Krikalev's answer to a journalist in a ground-to- Mir interview during the flight. Krikalev had been asked what he thought of the political changes in his country. He had difficulty in hearing the question and finally answered: "Just now it was night, now it's light and the seasons rush past ..." The divine perspective?

So, though this film does celebrate the beauty of the technology and the ungainly majesty of Mir itself, it leaves us more with a feeling of lightness, a sense of having witnessed the demigods at play, as the cosmonauts glory in their freedom from the gravity of Earth, cutting their hair, experimenting with burning matches and candles that hover in the air, or bubbles of cola suspended in front of their mouths. Krikalev, Ujica says, has told him about the "very special feeling of happiness" that one gets from weightlessness, like a regression to childhood - tempered by the occasional realisation that only a few centimetres of aluminium separate the comfortable environment of Mir from the deadly emptiness of space.

I telephoned Sergei Krikalev in Moscow. He has been on two missions since the one recorded in the film, including one with the Americans, and he is preparing for another mission at the end of this year. The long mission recorded in Out of the Present was his second time in space. Is space flight boring? I asked him. "It's a very frequent question," he said. "The answer is no. Most of our time is consumed with our duties, station maintenance, experiments. Even when I saw my own footage, I was surprised that it did not reflect this.

"I would say that in a real flight, 90 to 95 per cent of the time we are busy. Of course, we were only able to take our cameras in hand when we did have free time. And Andrei Ujica's selection showed what he was interested in. Everyone has his own viewpoint. His interest was probably in showing the rapid changes on the ground and the cosmic changes in space."

As for the dangers, cosmonauts are always aware of them, but they are trained to respond to emergencies. "We are so dependent on an artificial environment and often testing new equipment. And some of the experiments we have to do are very valuable. If I were to make any mistake ... You have a load of responsibilities pressing on you all the time."

He agrees that there are amusing moments: he mentions the haircutting scene in the film, and the lighted matches, though "we had several wet towels around, just in case". People no longer regard cosmonauts with the same awe as they did in the early years. "Space is space," he says. "People were very excited in the beginning of space exploration, but right now they are more interested in everyday life."

One is tempted to say that this demigod has his feet firmly on the ground; for the divine perspective, go to Ujica's film. After all, where would Achilles and Patroclus be, were it not for Homer?

`Out of the Present' opens on April 23.