A Glimpse Inside Russia’s Secret Cosmonaut Training Centers

London-based photographer Maria Gruzdeva documents the cosmonaut facilities, which are like relics from the Space Age.

During the height of the Space Race in the 1960s, the Soviet Union built two entire cities around cosmonaut training centers, where Russian cosmonauts lived with their families while preparing to go to outer space. But unless you were a resident there or a member of the military, you wouldn’t have known where these cosmonaut cities were–or that they even existed. Because for decades, Star City, just two hours out from Moscow, and the town of Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, were kept such carefully guarded government secrets that they weren’t even put on the country’s maps.


After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, the towns became known to the general public; these days, field trips visit the museum in Star City, and astronauts all over the world come to train at the facilities. But as Russian photographer Maria Gruzdeva discovered when she went to shoot Star City and Baikonur last year, the towns themselves have changed very little since the 1960s. Her Direction-Space! series captures the every day lives of today’s cosmonaut residents and their families, set against a backdrop of retro-futuristic facilities that look frozen in time.

“They change things but only what’s necessary–if it operates and works fine, they keep it,” Gruzdeva says of the training facilities at Star City, where she traveled periodically from Moscow over the course of a year. The settings of her photographs look like time capsules: Clunky monitors and large dials fill the control rooms, and murals on the wall recall the glory of the Space Age. In one particularly surreal image, two cosmonauts in space suits and diving gear float beside a spacecraft submerged underwater, where they simulate weightlessness to prepare for zero-gravity.

Gruzdeva shot everything with a Hasselblad, the camera that the Apollo astronauts famously took to the moon, which helped her initially connect with the people she met through the series. “Everybody in Star City knows what a Hasselblad is,” she says. “Even the younger generation that photographs with digital cameras knows it was used to take the first photos of outer space.” After visiting Star City off and on for a year, Gruzdeva later took a trip to the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, where she ran into the same crew as they were getting ready for take off.

Gruzdeva says she’s always been fascinated by outer space, but what she was most intent on documenting was the community of residents on the ground. Because the facilities have stayed the same for so long, Star City and Baikonur have preserved the legacy of the Russian cosmonauts before them. “Being surrounded by previous generation, it’s like touching history,” she says. “They use the same simulators as they did in the 1960s, and people live and work there generation after generation. It’s an experience they pass on from one generation to another, not just by being there but also by preserving the space.”

All Photos: Maria Gruzdeva

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.