I have never had a problem with the Russians. OK, so Vladimir Putin reminds me of an archetypal Bond villain but as a 1980s teenager, I found Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher a more frightening prospect than the USSR. I even wore a hammer and sickle badge on occasion.
But I’ve recently discovered something that has made me rather cross with Russia. It has nothing to do with poisoned spies, but rather a poor little dog that died 50 years ago. I was vaguely aware that the first living creature sent into Space from Earth was a Russian dog, and that the dog died. But I didn’t realise the dog was deliberately sent to her death with no intention of bringing her back.
I’ve missed the 50th anniversary of Laika becoming the first animal sent into Space – that happened at the start of November. In 1957, she was blasted off in Sputnik 2, around a month after Sputnik became the first satellite sent into orbit. That first satellite hadn’t even come down before they sent up another one with a living animal on board. And they seem to have done it so quickly to satisfy the vanity of Krushchev, who wanted a grand gesture to mark the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.
I can’t understand why the people who trained the space dogs – and there were a fair few canine cosmonauts - didn’t stop and think about what they were doing. How can you justify sending an animal to certain death when you have built a relationship with it? And they must have had a relationship with the little dog. Did no one step back and say: “Hang on a minute, this is inhumane?” Did no one say: “Hang on a minute, dogs’ bodies work differently to ours?”
As it was, Laika didn’t live for the four or so days the world was told; malfunctions in the equipment supposed to keep her alive meant the tiny cabin she was strapped into became hotter and hotter and she died within hours of stress and overheating.
Now, one of the scientists responsible for sending her to her death says: “The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” At least he had a choice; Laika didn't. I hope the guilt never leaves him.