Why you should care
Because a dog can be surprisingly political.
A very special diplomat arrived at the White House back in June 1961. She had her own Soviet passport, direct ties to the space race and came straight from Moscow. She was also just 6 months old and very furry.
Even in times of great conflict, everyone tends to agree that puppies are adorable. That may be what Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had in mind when he gave John F. Kennedy a puppy. The four-legged diplomat was named Pushinka and arrived with great fanfare to Washington, with The New York Times describing her as “a fluffy white puppy of distinguished parentage but undistinguished breed.”
In the age of Bo Obama, it’s easy to forget how politically controversial a dog can be.
At first glance, a puppy whose name literally meant “Fluffy” may sound like a cute but trite gift between heads of state — especially given that Kennedy had small, dog-loving children. But this tiny ball of fluff was more than met the eye. She was at the symbolic center of the tension surrounding the space race.
Everyone was looking at dogs a little differently in 1961. Just weeks before Pushinka’s arrival in Washington, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American astronaut Alan Shepard had become the first and second person, respectively, in space. But before that, the most notable creatures to survive in space were dogs.
By shooting dogs into space, the Soviet Union briefly made canines the frontline soldiers of the Cold War. The first pup to fly was Laika, a cock-eared Moscow street dog that died several hours into her time in orbit in the Sputnik 2 spacecraft on November 3, 1957. The next two were Belka and Strelka, small, hardy strays that successfully lived through their flight on August 19, 1960 — making it back to Earth as heroes. By returning as the world’s first cosmonauts in the middle of a space race, Belka and Strelka rocketed dogs into politics. Strelka later had pups, including Pushinka, who soon became living proof of dogs’ diplomatic street cred.
There was no denying that the dogs made great press. American newspapers dubbed Laika “muttnik,” animal rights protesters demonstrated in the U.S. and U.K., and Soviet dignitaries scrambled to be photographed with the adorable Belka and Strelka. But most people recognized the gravity behind these dogs’ flights. They were obviously intended to clear the way for humans, which could then have implications for using weapons in space.
The missions were also shrouded in secrecy, to the point that they remained controversial for decades. Revelations about the true nature of Laika’s death only came to light in 2002 — the early story was that she died of oxygen deprivation, but the truth is that she probably suffered a great deal more as she died from overheating. As much as people around the world were excited about spaceflight, the utopian future that would be shown in Star Trek a few years later was an escapist fantasy next to the tension and genuine danger of the early days of the space race.
“In the age of Bo Obama, it’s easy to forget how politically controversial a dog can be,” says Peter Schultz, a cartoonist and illustrator who’s recently completed a project on Belka and Strelka. “Laika and all the space dogs that followed after her represented something more than just another experiment.”
That fact wasn’t lost on Khrushchev when he gave Pushinka to JFK. This act of Cold War diplomacy though might not have been the Soviet premier’s idea in the first place. Searching for conversation topics at a state dinner a few months before the tiny pup arrived, Jackie Kennedy had asked Khrushchev about Belka and Strelka. World newspapers had seized on news that Strelka had given birth to puppies — or, according to ever-inventive American journalists, “pupniks.” Pushinka arrived stateside shortly after.
For a tiny mutt that resembled a Pomeranian, baby Pushinka caused a lot of fuss. The CIA X-rayed her and checked her for bugs before she could be allowed anywhere near the White House. She got along well with the Kennedy family’s other dogs, but apparently was tricky to train and sometimes growled at the Kennedy children.
At the height of the Cold War though, her symbolism didn’t go amiss. JFK wrote a thank-you note to Khrushchev for the dog just a few months before the Cuban missile crisis. As the pressure for space firsts eased, Pushinka remained a living reminder of the possibility of cooperation — and the power of a single puppy.