In my files, there is a photo of my grandfather, George Harold Burchett, with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. It was taken on 9 July 1961 in Moscow, in the reception room of the State Committee for Cultural Relations, three months after Gagarin’s historic flight into outer space.
The caption on the back of the photo says:
“Mr George Burchett presenting Yuri Gagarin with a boomerang on behalf of Australian peace workers, with the hope that he and his fellow compatriots in their journeys to the stars, will, like the boomerang, always return to earth safely and to a world at peace.”
On that day, my father, Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, then based in Moscow, had finished interviewing Yuri Gagarin – the first interview accorded to a foreign journalist after his historic flight. This is how he relates the meeting with my grandfather:
“Before he left our interview the young major collected another memento of his historic trip. [My] father, at 81 the oldest working journalist in Australia, was on holiday in Moscow at the time. In his luggage was a hunting boomerang, and he walked into the room with it just as Gagarin was leaving. “Please take this” he said, holding it out, “as a symbol of safe return. It always comes back and I hope you and your colleagues do too.” Gagarin, delighted, examined the precision-carved weapon closely, while one of the interpreters rapidly explained its use and how experts could actually catch it on its return. “I shall treasure it” said Gagarin, swishing it a few inches through the air. “It’s a nice sort of symbol to have.”
Unfortunately the talisman did not work. In March 1968 Colonel Yuri Gagarin was killed while testing out a new type of jet plane. His ashes were buried in the Kremlin wall and the country observed one minute of silence. Apart from all his other merits, he was a warm, lovable human being who never failed to greet myself and family members wherever our paths crossed.” (Wilfred Burchett, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist)
Now let’s imagine for a split second that Yuri Gagarin was to return to earth today – what would be his reaction?
I think it is safe to speculate that his first shock would be to learn that the mighty USSR that sent him into outer space no longer exists.
I’m also pretty certain that he would also be shocked that almost 60 years after man’s first flight into space, the world is far from being at peace and that the science that sent him on his historic “journey to the stars” is unable to stop a microscopic entity called ‘corona’ from spreading mayhem around the world.
He would be shocked to learn that science is able to blow up many times over the little blue planet that he orbited on 12 April 1961, but is struggling to cope with a virus.
I believe it is a terrible indictment of where humanity’s priorities seem to be: war and destruction rather than cooperation for the benefit of all.
If we carry on like that, the boomerang may well become the new symbol of human “progress”.
To quote Albert Einstein: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
I trust most people would agree that a world at peace – and free from deadly viruses – is a much preferable option.
I also like the idea of the boomerang of Australian Aborigines as a symbol of good will, hope and peace.
George Burchett is an artist who was born in Ha Noi and lives in Ha Noi.