Story of the Windmill
Early in the summer of 1941, in the small Russian village of Klushino, a kind and generous veterinarian named Pavel Ivanovich led his two young nephews into the night on a spontaneous adventure.
Prior to their departure, the boys peppered their uncle with questions about the planets and the possibility of life among the stars. After briefly attempting to answer their questions with theory, Uncle Pavel decided he could better explain through example.
"Tell you what, boys. Since it looks as if we're not going to sleep anyway, come on down and we'll go for a walk."
The three adventurers descended the ladder from the hayloft in which they had planned to spend the night, and then crossed the dirt road to the meadow opposite the boys' home. The younger boy, Yura, clutched his brother's hand tightly as strange shapes seemed to emerge from the darkness. The older boy, Valya, wrote of the memorable evening several years later:
The dew-heavy grass bent soundlessly underfoot, covering us with cold drops. We soon passed the cowshed, but kept on, with only Uncle Pavel knowing our destination.
"There's the forest," I said.
"We're not going to the forest," Uncle Pavel replied.
"Where are we going?"
He did not answer. All I could see was his back. Now and then a branch would crack under his foot. This strange midnight venture took on an eerie charm.
Suddenly, the dark hulking mass of the windmill loomed ahead. The mill was sleeping its troubled, old-man's sleep, creaking, sighing, wheezing.
"Here we are," Uncle Pavel said as he pushed at the heavy gates that parted with a squeak.
We were overcome by the smell of flour, of the mill-stones that become overheated during the day and were now cooling slowly.
"Why'd we come to the mill?" I wanted to ask, but before I could open my mouth there was a loud, frightening peal of laughter. I started.
"Help!" Yura cried and pressed close to me.
"It's only an owl," Uncle Pavel said evenly. "It's trying to scare us, but we don't scare easily."
It was dark inside the mill, with only a faint, flickering beam of light coming in through the small, high window. I felt as if we were standing on the bottom of a deep, dried-up well.
"Let's go!" Uncle Pavel said. The stairs creaked under his feet.
"Come on, Yura." Pressing close together, we felt cautiously for each step, climbing higher and higher. The staircase moaned and swayed as visions of ghosts, witches and devils loomed large.
The owl hooted and cackled again. This time the sounds came from another direction. If not for Uncle Pavel in front of me and Yura hanging onto my hand, I would have been out of there and gone in a flash.
Uncle Pavel stopped at the small dormer window under the eaves. "Where are you?" he called and then gave us a hand up. A chill wind was blowing through the window.
"Throw back your heads and look at the sky," Uncle Pavel said. We moved closer and did as we were told. I think Yura was the first to guess why our uncle had brought us there.
"Look how big the stars are. As big as your fist!"
"Yes, Yura. See the Milky Way? Can you see it, Valya?"
"Yes. So what?" I was surprised by the young ring that had suddenly appeared in my uncle's voice.
"Well, boys, that's where all the other worlds are. There are many suns there, and many planets, and each one follows its own course. There are even planets like ours among them."
"Maybe someone's looking down on us right now," Yura said.
"Certainly they are," Uncle Pavel replied excitedly. "They're dying to know how things are down here on Earth and whether there are any people on it, after all."
I was chilled to the bone, having nothing on save my trousers and a cotton shirt. Yura was worse off for he was wearing shorts.
"Oh, Uncle Pavel," I chided. "We could have seen the Milky Way just as well from the hayloft. What did we have to drag all the way out here for?"
Uncle Pavel paused for a moment, and then spoke, thoughtfully. "We would have looked at it, talked a bit and forgotten all about it. But now it will stay in your mind forever."
He hugged us and we stood for a long while with his arms around our shoulders, gazing up through the window at the blue sky and the stars.
Later that week, both boys returned to the old windmill in an attempt to recapture some of the magic of that night. Valya, by his own admission, was unable to recreate the special feeling that he was "somehow linked to the mysteries of the Universe." Seven-year-old Yura, on the other hand, felt the magic increase with each new visit. He returned to the old mill several times, often alone, just to stare up at the stars.
So who exactly was this curious and adventurous young boy named Yura? Well, if you haven't guessed by now, it might be because you are not too familiar with Russian nicknames. You see, the name "Yura" is simply a genial form of the name Yuri. Twenty years after his midnight visit to the old windmill, Yuri Gagarin would become the first human being to cross the threshold between Earth and space.
Click here to view a short film documenting Yuri Gagarin's historic flight into space and the celebration that followed.
The photo above depicts a common Russian windmill, but is not the Klushino windmill that Yura, Valya and Uncle Pavel visited in the summer of 1941. Unfortunately, during the turbulent years of World War II, while Klushino was under German occupation, Yuri's windmill was destroyed by German soldiers who had correctly surmised that it served as a good reference point for Soviet planes and artillery.
* Story excerpted from "My Brother Yuri" by Valentin Gagarin.