SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - Samara, once the secretive heart of the Soviet Union’s space program, is opening up as a World Cup host venue.
The city, known as Kuybyshev until 1991, was the primary manufacturing hub that made the rocket that took Yuri Gagarin on his journey to become the first human into outer space in 1961.
During that time, the city was closed off to the outside world, with very few foreign visitors and a culture of secrecy amongst the inhabitants of Kuybyshev, many of whom did not even know what program they were working on.
Boats passing along the River Volga, which runs past the city, were only allowed through at night so that the city could not be seen by those on the water.
“Almost every family in Samara is somehow involved in the process of the rocket-making industry,” explained Director of Samara’s Space Museum, Elena Kuzina, on Friday.
“It was a ‘classified’ city and closed for foreign visitors. It was impossible to get inside the city or get out, even for locals,” she said.
Thousands of soccer fans are descending on Samara, which hosts six games during the tournament at the Samara Arena that is shaped, not-coincidently, like a UFO.
Many of them are also taking time out to visit Kuzina’s museum and learn about the previously protected space program.
At a special exhibition at the museum, the story of the space race is told through Russian Matryoshka dolls, detailing various landmark events and the stories of pioneers such as Gagarin and Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.
The dolls are an imaginative and beautiful explanation of the space race and illustrate many previously unknown stories.
“There was this one dog, ‘Brave’, who understood he was going up in space and the night before the launch he disappeared,” laughed Kuzina, explaining the various Matryoshka dolls showing dogs in space suits.
“Of course, the soldiers who were taking care of the dog got scared and found another one on the street and sent that one to space instead.”
With thousands of foreign fans now arriving, people in Samara are embracing the chance to meet new people.
“The World Cup was a good push to clean up town and to understand that we can make great things happen,” said Kuzina.
“I think it is a very good thing, a great unifying factor for all of us.”
This doesn’t mean the city’s past has been completely forgotten.
“I think this culture of keeping secrets still exists among the people of Samara and even today we can see the same thing,” she said.
“They are not telling all the secrets that they know.”
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; additional reporting by Elena Glydenkerne, editing by Neil Robinson