The day of February 18, 1966, fifty-five years ago, saw the tragic death of cosmonaut Grigory Nelyubov. His demise never made the headlines of Soviet newspapers. It was much worse than that — for two decades, his name was banned from the media. When that ban was eventually lifted, journalists did their best to portray Nelyubov as an “anti-hero” of Soviet cosmonautics. Was it really what he deserved?
An exemplary cosmonaut
It is a known fact that twenty military pilots were picked for the first group of Soviet cosmonauts. Of them only twelve made spaceflights. For a long time the identities of those who were not “lucky” enough to go to the orbit were kept confidential. The veil was somewhat lifted by pilot cosmonaut Georgy Stepanovich Shonin in his book “The very first ones”, published in 1976. Having no authorization to disclose the second names and ranks of the non-flying members of the unit for censorship reasons, the author never went beyond names. Although his story was mostly limited to anecdotes, a few truly dramatic facts were revealed as well. Specifically, Shonin wrote:
“Grigory, the ‘navy guy’, did not fly into space, either. He came to the corps from the Black Sea Fleet. Grisha seamlessly got along with people, quickly gained their affection. He seemed the lucky one. Indeed, he had a perfect start: he was chosen as second backup for Gagarin. But a proverb goes ‘Had I known where I would fall I wouldn't have been there at all.’ It was a big surprise for all of us and especially for Grigory when he and a few other guys had to leave the unit. The work and resting time rules for the cosmonauts were severe and just as severe were the penalties for the slightest deviation.”
The story of some Grigory, who was the second backup for Yuri Gagarin, i.e. in fact the third man in the unit, and then left it unexpectedly, remained obscure for another decade. It was as late as the second half of the 1980s, thanks to declassification and the consistent work of well-known journalist Yaroslav Kirillovich Golovanov, that it become known that the Grisha from the book was in fact Grigory Grigorievich Nelyubov.
The future member of the Soviet cosmonaut team was born on March 31 (his documents indicated April 8), 1934 in the village of Porfirievka in the Saki district of the Crimean ASSR. His father served in the frontier forces in the Far East, and after the war his family relocated to Zaporozhye, where Grigory attended secondary school No. 50 for boys. An average student, he was appreciated by his friends for his wit, straight speaking and courage in judgment. His younger brother Vladimir recalled:
“Grisha was not inherently secretive, but rather restrained. He never shared all of his emotions and troubles to everyone he met. I would say he treated me with a lot of care. And if I was in any kind of trouble, he was always there for me. It was only because of him that I did not drown in the Dnieper. He rescued me when I was already at the bottom, several meters below the surface. This is how this happened. Grigory was sunbathing, while I was fooling around near the water and accidentally slipped down the concrete slope. Grigory reacted immediately. He never yelled at me. It appeared he was scared as hell for me.”
In the eighth grade, Grigory got lots of Fs and together with his buddies tried to erase his poor grades from the class register. They were caught in the act and given a full re-examination. The young man refused to take any more exams, and the teachers council made him repeat the year. That painful blow on his self-esteem compelled Grigory to get his act together — his grades improved, and he made new friends.
His diligence and discipline were promoted by his passion for aviation. In the spring of 1952, the city DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy) council announced enrollment in a pilot program. The new flying club building in Lenin Avenue was well equipped: in one of the classrooms, they had a real-life Yak-18, and Zaporozhye Motor Plant mechanics made the M-11FR aircraft engine sectioned in such a way that cadets were able to observe the main components and their interaction. Grigory got into the flying club and appeared to discover the meaning of life.
By the end of the summer of 1954, the entire training course had been completed, and the cadets were getting ready for enrolment in Yeysk Naval Aviation School, whose representatives arrived to arrange test flights and select thirty-six students. Nelyubov was one of them. Incidentally, the chief of the school ordered to include training at the flying club as their first year, so the newbies were all enrolled as second-year students.
Grigory became a candidate member of the party and sought to become a straight-A student. His enthusiasm was not unnoticed, and when some cadets were dismissed in March 1956 due to another reduction in force, Nelyubov was kept to study a new aircraft, the MiG-15. In May, he wrote his girlfriend from the field camp near the village of Novominskaya:
“You were writing ‘you’ll graduate and become a mature pilot’. But that’s not what’s going to happen. We’re going to become weak eaglets with the first few feathers. You know, I have a strange opinion about that. When I went to the flying club, I thought, ‘I'll get in and fly. I'll be a pilot.’ And then I thought, ‘That's it! If I get into the school, I'll be a pilot.’ And now I'm not satisfied with that, either. I'll graduate, fly for a couple of years, then I'll say: ‘I'm a pilot!’ It's too early to think about it now. My graduation is coming up, and I already have plans for the future. I want to fly as much as I wish and then go to the academy. I’ve forgotten a lot from the ten-year school, but I will get into the academy: I will start again from the seven-year course, and I'll make it anyway.
We’ve just started flying. I can’t wait to share my impressions.
I sat through the first flight as dumb as a post. Before you know it, you’ve missed everything. The flight is so fast, you can’t think straight. So much work to do, and so little time. Here I learned that a fighter pilot must be extremely smart to be able to do everything knowingly and fast while in flight. You gradually become accustomed to the swiftness of flight and start to think about things in cold blood. <…>
A lot of guys take three or four attempts to pass. I passed on my second try.”
In January 1957, Nelyubov completed his training with flying colors and was able to choose his place of further service. He was offered the Black Sea Fleet, and after some deliberation agreed. In March, he started flying in the 639th Fighter Aviation Regiment (troops unit 59199) of the 49th Fighter Aviation Division of the Air Force of the Red Banner Black Sea Fleet deployed in Sevastopol. On May 9, Nelyubov lost his MiG-15 — after an engine failure, he was ordered to eject, landed in the stormy sea and remained afloat for almost a day, waiting for rescuers. Doctors were shocked to find no negative changes in Grigory’s body whatsoever. The accident did not affect his career, either — on the contrary, in June, he was appointed senior pilot, deputy flight leader.
In late August, the 639th regiment was relocated to Kerch and attached to the 966th Fighter Aviation Regiment of the 127th Air Force Division of the Black Sea Fleet (troops unit 99790). On March 4, 1959, Nelyubov was promoted to senior lieutenant. That same summer a small team of military medics arrived in his unit from Moscow. They summoned the pilots one by one for an interview and questioned them about their service. The interviews were followed by an offer to consider switching to advanced machinery that made it possible to fly around the Earth. Eight pilots of the regiment agreed to change their place of service, including three from Zaporozhye — Vladimir Demyanovsky, Leonid Goncharov and Grigory Nelyubov. In the fall, they were all summoned to Moscow, but only one of them passed the rigorous tests at the Central Military Aviation Research Hospital.
On March 7, 1960, twelve pilots from among those selected in different units were introduced to Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, Chief Marshal of Aviation Konstantin Vershinin. On the same day, they were enrolled as cosmonaut trainees at the Air Force Cosmonaut Training Centre (AF CTC) by order No. 267. Nelyubov was present at that meeting and took on the new job alongside the others. In his memoirs, Nikolai Nikolayevich Rybkin, a colonel of counterintelligence who eventually became mayor of Zvyozdny gorodok, characterized Nelyubov as follows:
“An outstanding guy, good pilot, athlete, Nelyubov stood out in the team of cosmonauts for his spacious mind, liveliness, quick reaction, and natural charm. They had considered him as a likely candidate for an exciting flight, and he could have become the fourth or fifth cosmonaut.
Although Academician Boris [Viktorovich] Raushenbakh even regarded him as a number one candidate. <…>
Grigory was as good as his word, was quick-witted and feisty. However, his universal leadership ambition was not always justified and he was, let’s say, not self-critical enough. Maybe it was his thirst for leadership that was overly conspicuous and prevented him from really becoming the first one. Their commander and “godfather” [Lieutenant General] Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin sensed some kind of challenge in Nelyubov. This daredevil, joker, prankster, people person, who loved “hanging out”, as they say now, always wanted to be in the limelight.”
And still it was his yearning for leadership that enabled Nelyubov to have a series of promotions in the Navy and become one of the candidates for the first ever spaceflight. For example, in September, Colonel of the Medical Service Evgeny Anatolievich Karpov, chief of the CTC of the Air Force, was set a task to pick six cosmonaut trainees for first-priority training on the simulator. He put Anatoly Kartashov on the list, but the new candidate dropped out due to poor G tolerance, and was replaced by Nelyubov. Grigory stayed in the limelight and after passing the “finals” on January 17 and 18, 1961, he was recommended for flight as candidate number three — right after Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin and Gherman Stepanovich Titov.
Waiting for the launch
There is a popular legend that it was head of state Nikita Khrushchev who unilaterally decided which of the three candidates would be the first man in space, based entirely on their bios and photos. Rumors had it that he rejected Gherman Titov for his “non-Russian” first name and Nelyubov for his second name (meaning ‘the one who is not liked’): supposedly, everyone was supposed to love the first one. In reality, it was Lieutenant General Nikolay Kamanin’s call, the supervisor of the team from the Air Force. In his diary he wrote: “There is nothing to say about Gagarin, Titov, and Nelyubov — they have no deviations from the perfect cosmonaut.” Therefore, the only thing he had to rely on was to follow the recommendations of the examination board.
Since January, the cosmonaut trio had become virtually inseparable. They underwent further training together, enjoying priority when working with simulators, gear and spacesuits. However, Grigory was perfectly well aware that neither Gagarin, nor Titov would ever miss their chances to be the first ones, so the only thing he had to count on was that his spaceflight would be something unprecedented. However, he never ceased his attempt to take the lead, as evidenced by the testimonies of his teammates. For example, non-flying cosmonaut Anatoly Kartashov said in an interview:
“One Sunday, the guys and I went out to have some fun. Some of our families had not yet arrived, and others were bachelors. We went to the village of Solntsevo. There was a diner there, where they sold snacks and alcohol. And patrols were less likely to visit. We took a bottle each, found a sunny spot under the pines behind some barn. We sat down, had a shot or two. And then Grisha Nelyubov got up: ‘That's enough, guys. We’ve got work tomorrow.’ Jesus, we’re young, we’re strong. What’ll a couple of shots do to a pilot? I had just met the team. And somehow it immediately leapt to my eye that Grishka kept trying to be in charge. He and Zhora Shonin graduated from the Naval Aviation Fighter Pilot School. Shonin was a normal guy, whereas Nelyubov kept boasting: he was a naval aviator, hence a head taller than a land aviator, and he treated us with arrogance. So I decided to tell him where to get off: ‘What kind of political officer are you? Who d’you think you are?’ Everybody, including Gagarin, laughed and breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently, they’d been fed up with Grishka’s urge to command. And we kept on drinking.”
Nelyubov went through all preparatory stages — just as Gagarin and Titov. On April 3, 1961, they all had their pre-launch speeches recorded on tape. On April 4, the Air Force commander issued them flight cards: Gagarin got card number one, Titov number two, and Nelyubov number three. Once again, the order of flights to orbit was thus fixed at the top decision-making level.
On April 12, the day of the first spaceflight, Nelyubov accompanied Gagarin and Titov to the launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome — incidentally, Grigory’s presence in the shot is what distinguishes the original from the staged photo.
There seemed to be nothing to amend the plans, and Nelyubov was to become Titov’s “backup”, but all of a sudden that role was assigned to Andriyan Grigoryevich Nikolayev. The official version of the replacement was Nelyubov’s health problems following a centrifuge training session. However, Leonid Aleksandrovich Kitaev-Smyk, a distinguished space technology tester, believes that the real reason was Grigory’s minor AWOL in January 1961: having no permission and unaccompanied, he briefly visited a store in Kratovo settlement, leaving the Aviation and Space Medicine Center of the Flight Research Institute, where all of the cosmonauts stayed at the time. Such acts were strictly forbidden, someone filed a report, and Nelyubov’s superiors’ attitude to the trainee changed from favorable to suspicious.
Nevertheless, the cosmonaut kept showing his high professionalism, and in September he was included in the training program again — this time for an anticipated three-day flight. Those plans changed soon, though, and the long solo flight was replaced with a joint flight of two Vostok spacecraft. Nelyubov became a backup for Nikolayev and continued to wait patiently for his turn.
When he introduced the general public to the inglorious story of Nelyubov, journalist Yaroslav Golovanov sought to shed light on the real reason why the trainee was expelled from the group:
“It was just his devil-may-careness that let Grigory down. It happened after Titov’s flight. The wrangle with the military patrol that detained Nelyubov, [Ivan Nikolaevich] Anikeyev and [Valentin Ignatyevich] Filatiev on a railway platform and his insolent arrogance at the commandant’s service could have resulted in a report to his command. The chief officials at the [cosmonaut training] center begged the officer on duty not to file a report. He reluctantly agreed, but wanted Nelyubov to apologize. Nelyubov refused. The report was filed. Kamanin was enraged and ordered all the three of them to be expelled. The cosmonauts believe that Anikeyev and Filatiev suffered solely because of Nelyubov’s fault. Those quiet, level-headed guys were far from dare-devilry and bravado. As they say, they went down just because they happened to be there together.”
Whether he wanted this or not, Golovanov thus shared with his audience the image of an arrogant, aggressive and irresponsible person, which was later replicated in many publications, with an array of fake details about some drunken spree and a brawl. However, a close study of Kamanin’s diaries shows an entirely different picture.
In January 1963, Major General Mikhail Odintsov was appointed chief of the Cosmonaut Training Center, and his management style caused a sharp rejection of the new subordinates. First of all, as he took up his duty, he never wished to consult with the cosmonauts who had already made their flights and appeared to have a better understanding of the real life at the CTC and had every right to be included in decision-making. The new approach naturally injured their pride. But they were even more hurt by the new rules established by the major-general. Odintsov did not want to see that the cosmonauts were any different from regular army officers and demanded that they observe the daily routine, including bimonthly duties, and cancelled all privileges. He disallowed the team members to go home to Chkalovskaya station after the day’s program and ordered them to stay in Zvyozdny gorodok for self-training.
As a result, a “mutiny” broke out at the CTC a month later: on February 21, a Communist Party meeting was held, were Gagarin read a report entitled “The role of communists in maintaining the cosmonauts’ work-rest schedule”. Alexei Leonov and Boris Volynov also spoke at the meeting and scorched Odintsov’s policy. He pointed out, though, that no criticism coming from juniors would be tolerated, but even after his statement, the meeting decided to address the Chief of the Air Force and the Main Political Department of the Army seeking to curb the ambition of the newly appointed chief. The brass were divided in their assessment of the “mutiny” — someone even proposed an exemplary punishment of Gagarin. Nikolai Kamanin opted for a peaceful settlement and advised Odintsov to moderate his response to criticism. It was clear though, that the major-general would take revenge.
On March 27, Nelyubov saw his wife, Zinaida Ivanovna (a student of Moscow State University), to the station. He was on sick leave and dressed in plain clothes. On his way back from the platform of Chkalovskaya station he went into the cafeteria to buy a bottle of beer and met two of his squad mates, Anikeyev and Filatiev, both tipsy, who were arm wrestling and accidentally shoved a salt shaker off their table. The barmaid bawled at them and called the patrol. Nelyubov interfered, trying to prevent the scandal, although he needn’t have, because in fact he was an accidental passer-by. When talking to the patrol, Grigory insulted its chief, an officer of the test pilot squadron, who took the cosmonauts to the commandant’s service and filed a report on the following day. Kamanin’s diary reads:
“April 4 . <…>
Gherman Titov also stopped by. I asked him how he felt about the “case” of Nelyubov, Anikeyev, and Filatiev. Gherman answered that he felt sorry for Nelyubov and that too many unnecessary things were said about the guys. Then I told Titov that the very fact of their going to the diner and drinking was incompatible with the title of the cosmonaut. He hesitated for a moment, then said firmly: “The guys were aware that there were instructions in place and even prohibitions to visit such establishments. They knew they were forbidden to drink — they had already been punished for that — so let them be responsible for their stupidity.”
“April 5 <…. >
Yesterday I received official documents from Odintsov about the drunken spree of three cosmonauts at Chkalovskaya station on March 27, 1963. This is not the first time Nelyubov, Anikeyev and Filatiev were spotted drinking. The latter two are of no value as cosmonauts (drinking sessions, weak will and poor academic achievements), and this case is a chance for us to let them go. Nelyubov was one of the first “Gagarin” six and at one time was a candidate for the 3rd or 4th flight, but then he showed poor results on the centrifuge and had to step aside. He was less responsible for this accident than the others (he was in plain clothes and tried to persuade his comrades to leave early). Vershinin, Rudenko, Rytov and Odintsov are in favor of firing all three cosmonauts. Gagarin believes that only Filatiev should be dismissed, whereas Nelyubov and Anikeyev should be severely punished, but kept at the Center. It would be the right thing to fire all the three of them, even though they make up 25 percent of the total number of cosmonauts trained for flights. I am in favor of dismissing Filatiev and Anikeyev from the Center and trying to test Nelyubov one last time, as he was quite recently one of the best cosmonauts in the first unit.”
In the end, the Military Council of the Air Force decided to expel the three of them as an exemplary decision. Commander Vershinin ordered Kamanin to inform the expelled cosmonauts. The latter later wrote:
Spent the entire day at the CTC. During the call of the CTC officers, the commander’s order to expel Filatiev, Anikeyev and Nelyubov was announced. After the announcement, I talked to the guys. They were stunned by such a blow, but remain steadfast. They asked me only one thing: before sending them to the regiments to give them a chance to be trained in flying planes in one of the schools or retraining centers.”
Although Kamanin promised in a personal conversation with Nelyubov that he would call him in 12 to 18 months and reinstate him at the CTC, he did nothing of the kind: he had enough on his hands.
Nelyubov honestly served in the 224th Fighter Aviation Regiment of the 303rd Fighter Aviation Division of the 1st Separate Far Eastern Air Army, which was deployed near the village of Kremovo of Mikhailovsky District in Primorsky Krai; he served as head of the paraborne service of the regiment. He never came to terms with his dismissal from the regiment, though: on a few occasions he went to Moscow, tried to have a meeting with Kamanin and the chief rocket engineer and spacecraft designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, but to no avail.
When the country learnt about Korolev’s death in January 1966, Nelyubov sank into a depression, probably realizing that his already slight chance of returning to the CTC was now gone, and began to drink heavily. On February 17, his wife locked him in their apartment, but when she returned, she found that Grigory had escaped by jumping from the third floor. She was told at the officers hotel that Nelyubov had stopped by, but for some strange reason he had rummaged through the books of the tiny local library. A note was found there later: “Zinok! You have always been the best. You are a rare woman. I'm sorry.”
The following day, Nelyubov’s body was found near the railroad. The cause of death was presented as “crippling damage to the head.” The likeliest version was that he committed suicide by jumping under the train. He was thrown dozens of meters away by the impact.
Nelyubov was buried on February 21 at the cemetery of the village of Kremovo. His widow collected dried blood from the scene of his death and buried it at the Kapustyanoe cemetery in Zaporozhye (where the local authorities provided a plot), together with her husband’s personal belongings. Later an obelisk was placed there.
Unfortunately, the tragic story of Grigory Nelyubov is often used for media speculations. Rumors are spread that he was a cynical place hunter, bully, brawler, or even a KGB informant. It seems that someone wants to shift, at least partially, the responsibility for the reluctance to declassify any names and for lies, which still hamper peaceful in-depth study of Soviet cosmonautics, to non-flying cosmonauts.
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