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The Soviet Union was a famously restrictive place when it came to news and ideological spin, and obviously their attitude toward the United States was less than supportive and warm. The Space Race saw a lot of competitiveness between the two countries, but when the United States landed a man on the moon, the language they used was very universal. They phrased it very much as a victory "for all mankind," and there was a lot of talk about all people on Earth being "one."

Of course, that's easy to say when you just won the race.

What was the internal Soviet response to the news? Did the Soviet citizens know it was happening at the time? Was it spun as a victory for humanity, or a victory for the United States, or a loss for the Soviet Union, or what? Was the story reported accurately, or were details changed in the retelling?

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3 Answers 3

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TL; DR: Landing on the moon was covered in the Soviet press, and was well known in the Soviet Union. It received much less attention than Soviet space missions, though.

Just to add something factual to previous answers.

NASA on U.S.S.R. reaction

NASA's Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1969 (15 MB PDF file) contains some useful information on press coverage of moon landing in USSR:

July 16 (p. 225) Worldwide audience focused on Apollo 11 launch:

U.S.S.R. radio and TV gave factual accounts on Apollo 11 launch but maintained third day of silence on Luna XV. Major Soviet news program at 8:30 pm Moscow time showed tape of Apollo 11 liftoff taken from live comsat coverage.

July 17 (p. 230): Izvestia gave the first U.S.S.R. report of President Nixon's July 17 announcement that medals of two dead Soviet cosmonauts would be placed on moon by Apollo 11 astronauts. Factual account of mission carried no comment (W Post, 7/19/69, A10)

July 20-21 (p. 233): Soviet Premier Alexsey Kosygin complimented U.S. on lunar landing and expressed interest in widening U.S.-U.S.S.R. space cooperation during July 21 Moscow discussion with former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who was ending Soviet visit. Soviet TV did not carry live coverage of Apollo 11 lunar landing July 20; Tass announcement was read by newscaster and carried in two-paragraph item on Pravda's front page. Evening paper, Izvestiya, accorded story more space and featured photo of astronauts on the moon. On TV, Cosmonaut Konstantin P. Feoktistov described landing as "major landmark" and said crew has coped "brilliantly" with mission. Georgy Petrov, Director of Soviet Institute for Cosmis Research, called Apollo 11 "outstanding achievement" but said more data per ruble could have been gathered by unmanned probes.

July 24 (p. 244): ... In U.S.S.R. TV viewers had live coverage for first time during mission at Moscow TV station hooked into Eastern Europe's Intervision network for live transmission of astronauts being deposited on carrier Hornet. Later, station devoted first two-thirds of final newscast to Apollo 11 and announced that Soviet President Nikolay V. Podgorny had sent telegram to President Nixon offering "our congratulations and best wishes to the space pilots."

Soviet Academy of Sciences president Mstislav V. Keldysh called voyage "a big contribution to space exploration and further progress of world science." Cosmonauts send message to Apollo 11 crew: "We... closely followed your flight. We wholeheartedly congratulate you on the completion of your wonderful journey to the moon and safe return to earth."

Soviet newspapers

Scanned imaged from Soviet newspaper available on this page from arhivtime.ru. It is claimed to be from "Pravda" issue of 22 July 1969.

Excerpts from an article:

Первая лунная экспедиция
комментирует академик А.П. Виноградов

  • Как вы оцениваете достижение экипажа "Аполлона-11"? Какие новые проблемы ему приходится решать по сравнению с предыдущими пилотируемыми полетами к Луне?

Полет американского космического корабля "Аполлон-11", в результате которого два человека - Нейл Армстронг и Эдвин Олдрин впервые ступили на поверхность Луны, мы оцениваем высоко. Серьезную проверку выдержал космический корабль и его многочисленные системы. Нельзя не восхищаться мужеством и выдержкой космонавтов, которые смело встретили неизвестность. Они впервые совершили посадку на поверхность нашего естественного спутника в лунном аппарате. Не менее сложная и новая проблема - подъем кабины с Луны и стыковка с кораблем, остававшимся на орбите.

Пользуясь случаем, хочу поздравить космонавтов с выдающимся успехом и пожелать им благополучного возвращения на Землю.

Rough translation:

The first lunar expedition
interview with academician A.P. Vinogradov

  • How do you rate the achievement of "Apollo 11" crew? What are the new problems they had to solve compared to previous manned flights to the Moon?

We highly appreciate the flight of the American spaceship "Apollo-11", in which two people - Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin first set foot on the lunar surface. Spaceship and its many systems withstood a serious challenge. One can do nothing but admire the courage and self-possession of cosmonauts, who bravely met the unknown. They first landed on the surface of our natural satellite in the moon unit. New challenges are no less complex - ascent from Moon surface and rendezvous with orbiting spaceship

I take this opportunity to congratulate the astronauts with outstanding success and wish them a safe return to Earth.

Neil Armstrong's visit to USSR in 1970

In May 1970, Armstrong traveled to the Soviet Union. He presented a talk at the 13th annual conference of the International Committee on Space Research. He met Premier Alexei Kosygin and was given a tour of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.

Excerpt from Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1970:

June 2 (p. 190): Apollo 11 Astrounaut Neil A. Armstrong, on goodwill trip to U.S.S.R., watched TV broadcast of Soyuz IX launch during party in his honor in Moscow and was told by Cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy that mission was "especially in honor of your trip here."

Armstrong later presented moon fragment and small Soviet flag carried on Apollo 11 mission to Soviet Premier Aleksey N. Kosygin. Kosygin said he would "always cherish this gift as a symbol of a great achievement." He told Armstrong, "The Soviet peoples are second to none in admiring your courage and knowledge."

Q&A

DISCLAIMER: The rest of this answer contains personal opinion and partly based on the experience of communication with the people, who lived in the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

What was the internal Soviet response to the news?

Soviet officials and media praised astronauts and first moon landing was recognized as an exceptional achievement.

At the same time, Moon landing received significantly less attention than Soviet space program achievements (sputnik, first human into space, lunokhod). There was much more information published on Soviet missions, like Luna 15.

Did the Soviet citizens know it was happening at the time?

Soviet people were surely informed about it. Newspapers published articles on Moon landing, reports were broadcasted on TV and radio. Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin were widely known in Soviet Union.

Was it spun as a victory for humanity, or a victory for the United States, or a loss for the Soviet Union, or what?

As an achievement of the US space program and a victory for humanity. Certainly, it wasn't described as a victory for the United States/loss for the Soviet Union.

Soviet publications on space were largely centered around Soviet space program and its achievements. Sputnik, Gagarin's flight, first walk in space, various unmanned probes were largely praised as landmark achievements. In comparison, Moon landing was rarely mentioned and was never presented as a political victory for US.

Was the story reported accurately, or were details changed in the retelling?

The story was reported accurately. Soviet Union never tried to dispute the veracity of the moon landings. Again, highly-detailed reports on the event probably were never published in USSR.

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Well, the USSR did not conceal the event from the public. The official position can be described as follows:

  • The landing once more time confirms the materialistic worldview.

  • The landing shows the extent which a human can reach with labor and technological progress, it shows that people can not only visit but also work on the other space bodies.

  • The landings became possible only after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin paved the road to space.

  • The USSR did not do the landing because it is not that scientifically important, we could do what we wanted with automatic means.

  • The exchange of the moon soil and other scientific results proves importance of peaceful international cooperation in science etc.

  • But (someone in) the US possibly bulds plans of militaristic expansion in space (there are experiments on space weapons etc) which the USSR opposes.

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3  
Interesting points. Any sources you could point me to? –  Nerrolken Aug 23 at 2:26
1  
@AlexanderWinn I've read all that before as the official propaganda from the USSR. In reality of course they were lying through their teeth, they had a manned moon program that failed, they had advanced plans to put weapons into space, etc. etc. –  jwenting Aug 25 at 7:43

Propaganda

It was indeed reported, but as a non-event, buried in the middle of the newspaper. One had to pay close attention to learn about it and realize the importance of the event.

Just like in this joke:

Napoleon is reading "Pravda", while, say, Ney is watching the TV report from the November 7th military parade in Moscow.

  • Ney: "Look, Your Majesty - these guns! If we had such guns, we would have never lost the Waterloo battle!"
  • Napoleon: "shut up..."
  • Ney: "Look, Your Majesty - these tanks! If we had such tanks, we would have never lost the Waterloo battle!"
  • Napoleon: "shut up..."
  • Ney: "Look, Your Majesty - these missiles! If we had such missiles, we would have never lost the Waterloo battle!"
  • Napoleon: "shut up Ney, read this newspaper! If we had such newspapers, no one would know that we lost the Waterloo battle to this day!"

More to the point, the Lunar Landings were compared with the Soviet programs, e.g., Lunohods, as

  1. trivial (false - it required much more powerful engines which SU failed to produce)
  2. risky to human life (true)
  3. scientifically equivalent (false - Americans brought back much more soil samples and these samples were much more interesting because they were non-random).

People

Those "in the know" (i.e., those who could see though the propaganda and/or had inside information) were impressed (see Черток "Ракеты и люди" - Chertok "Rockets and People") and, depending on personal inclinations, happy, jealous, envious, etc. But these were a small minority.

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You failed tio mention that the landings to a large part were used to advance Soviet philisophical values as well. To support atheism, importance of labor and scientific progress, importance of peaceful space exploration and so on. My point is based not only on what Pravda wrote but also on a body post-factum publicistics sci-pop literature. I think this part was much greter than the efforts do downplay these events. –  Anixx Aug 26 at 14:39
    
@Anixx: I disagree. The landings were mentioned only when it was impossible not to mention them. The Soviet space program was perfectly sufficient for all the atheist propaganda. –  sds Aug 26 at 14:48
    
You are wrong, they were very often mentioned in sci-pop literature. Regarding atheist propaganda, it worked as a "proof by independent party". Look, not only we, but also the Americans did not see angels there. –  Anixx Aug 26 at 14:53

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