Reading this story, one finds it hard to shake off the feeling that there was some kind of fate in the stories of both Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev. Both were energetic, brilliant space visionaries, with the clout and charisma to see their dreams through, both should have died young, in the conflagrations of Stalin purge and war respectively, yet they didn't ... and was it a coincidence that both ended up on each side of the Cold War superpower divide, so both had both the political and monetary backing necessary to achieve their hugely expensive dreams? It was as if Something had decreed that it was necessary for humankind to get into space, and therefore Korolev and von Braun were selected by it to lead the way.
Cadbury's book is a captivating and clear-eyed account of this extraordinary tale. It is so good to see, at long last, a book that is not exclusively concerned with the American side of things, we are all getting a bit bored with that. Wonderful as it was, the American venture was not the only one, and it was, in any case, nowhere near as interesting as the Russian story. Due to the hardships the Russians endured, their tale has a depth and poignancy lacking in that of their rivals, not least because of the fact that Sergei Korolev was so much more attractive a personality than von Braun. Cadbury describes Korolev's suffering at the hands of Stalin's minions with great sensitivity, and her account of his early death is quite heartbreaking.
However, there are some caveats. For example, Cadbury makes several careless mistakes in quoting her sources - for example, when Korolev, knowing he was about to die, chose to relate his experiences in the Gulag to his two favourite cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov, Cadbury states that he started to talk at four a. m, while Leonov, who was there, said he started talking at midnight and went on till four. This may seem a minor nit-pick, but it does seem to show that Cadbury did not pay proper attention to her primary sources.
Also, extraordinarily, Cadbury makes no connection between the agonizing heart condition (among other health problems) that Korolev suffered as a result of his gruesome ordeal in the worst of the Gulag camps - Kolyma. The implication given in the book is that they came out of nowhere. Korolev's illness and early death was a direct result of his cruel imprisonment, a fact that Cadbury does nothing to clarify. One would think that she is trying to excuse the evil, anti-human political philosophy that allowed such monstrous crimes to not only flourish but go unpunished. She does not make clear that Korolev's successes were in spite of the Communist society in which he lived, not because of it.
She also fails to relate another fascinating tale - the way in which Wernher von Braun was forced out of NASA once the moon race was won and he was no longer of any use to them. Whatever you may think of von Braun, this was out of order. And, while she goes into poignant detail about Korolev's last days, von Braun's own terrible death, from cancer, is only vaguely touched upon.
Yet the Americans richly deserved to win the space race - they did not cruelly abuse their scientists, or allow petty jealousies to sabotage their efforts, as the Soviets did. But it is good to hear of the other side of the story at last; and, despite some minor quibbles, it is difficult to imagine a more well-written and captivating account than this.