by Nathan Roi
Seventy-seven year-old cosmonaut Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov was the first person to walk in space. He was born on 30 May 1934 in Listvyanka, USSR, and his sparkling and piercingly blue eyes, his warm disposition to people and his outgoing nature, have evidently not changed since his historic space walk in March 1965.
Together with another Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Korienko, and accompanied by his daughter Oksana, Maj-Gen. Leonov was visiting Israel for the first time, to attend the Limmud FSU Festival for Russian-speaking Jews in Beersheba. He explained, “My daughter has visited here several times and was most impressed by the country and I decided that I too would like to come.” He was here under the auspices of the Embassy of the Russian Federation and the Russian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, as part of the Russian government’s recognition this year of the “Russian Space Odyssey,” marking 50 years since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight on April 12, 1961.
The co-founders of Limmud FSU, Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn, asked the Russian-born satirist, humorist and magazine editor, Mark Galesnik, to accompany Leonov, as Leonov, in audition to being a cosmonaut, is also an acclaimed artist who was the caricaturist for the Russian cosmonauts’ house magazine, “Apogee.” Galesnik took the two Russians, together with the American-Jewish astronaut, Garrett Reisman, on a tour of the holy places in Jerusalem. They also visited President Shimon Peres and the Knesset, where they were received by the Speaker, MK Reuven Rivlin.
Facing the wall tapestries of the celebrated Russian-French-Jewish artist Marc Chagall in the Knesset, which depict Jewish history, its present and future, Leonov, an intellectual and a proud Russian but also a man of the soil, commented, “A people needs to cleave to the footsteps of their historical pathfinders; Moses and David are the pathfinders of this people.”
In front of a packed audience at the opening of Limmud FSU Beersheba, which was devoted to space, science and technology, Yelena Lagutina of Israel Television’s Russian-language Channel Nine, warmly hugged a surprised Leonov, “I am embracing one of my childhood heroes” she explained excitedly.
At a reception hosted by the Mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich, Leonov, speaking from the heart, told his audience, “I had imagined your country as an arid desert. I was stunned to see how everything grows here; how everything is flourishing and green so that this small country can even feed my Russia! I want to bring over here Russian agronomists who can see for themselves how you are accomplishing this wonder. As I see it, there are two elements involved – non-stop investment and the endless love of your people for their country and their soil.”
photo courtesy Nathan Roi