Religious life on ISS (part 2)

A short while ago, we published a blog post about the appearance of religious items on ISS, especially in the Russian command module Zvezda. We thought it would be worthwhile going beyond that anecdotal discussion, to see if we could quantify and analyze the appearance of cultural items in that location.

We created a database in Microsoft Access and catalogued 414 instances of items being displayed across 48 historic images from the NASA Flickr site dating between 2000-2014. The locations of the items in the aft space of Zvezda were also recorded, so that their appearance, disappearance, movement, and relationships to other items and the space could be assessed. Our preliminary results, which can fairly be called the first systematic study of the material culture of a human space habitat, reveal interesting and important patterns. First, the items appeared in waves, rather than simultaneously or at a steady pace. Particular periods of large numbers of items on display occurred in November 2002 and early 2008 through the end of 2009, while correspondingly few items appeared between 2004 and 2005, and again in 2011-2012.

The number of items on display in the aft end of Zvezda between 2000 and 2014.

As noted, we were particularly struck by the display of religious items in this space. Quantification shows that one-third of items that appeared were religious, compared to two-thirds that were secular (138 vs. 276). Religious items made up a notably larger proportion of items on display between late 2006 and late 2008, peaking in early 2008 with nine religious items compared to six secular ones.

Number of religious (red) and secular (blue) items on display in Zvezda between 2000 and 2014.

The most common object type was photographs (27% of all items on display), followed by icon paintings (20%), other kinds of pictures (17%), mission and agency patches (11%), flags (8%), and other religious items such as crosses, relics, and books (6%). The photographs primarily consisted of images of Soviet space heroes.

Distribution of item types on display in the aft end of Zvezda, 2000-2014.

Interesting patterns also appeared with regard to the locations of these types. We identified two particularly significant zones of display: in addition to the “niche,” the previously-mentioned set-back area of the aft wall directly over a portal leading to a Soyuz crew vehicle; and the “top area,” located over the niche, which was probably the most prominent zone for items to be placed.

Image of Zvezda aft end, showing the “top area” and the “niche area.” Photo credit: NASA.

Item types appeared as follows:

  • 74% of photographs appear in the niche
  • 48% of icons (a plurality) appear in the top area
  • 58% of other religious items (especially crosses) appear in the niche
  • 64% of flags appear in the top area
  • 73% of patches appear in the top area

These patterns seem to indicate different meanings associated with the two zones — a mostly secular shrine to space heroes below, and a more religious and nationalistic area up above.

Yuri Gagarin holds a dove presented to him by the Bulgarian Young Pioneers, 1961.
An example of the icon type known as the Mother of God of Kazan.

When we look at specific items, other facts emerge. The most common item was a famous photograph of Yuri Gagarin holding a dove. This image was first displayed in 2002, during Expedition 5, and it appeared in every single subsequent photograph taken of Zvezda’s interior from that point forward. All but one of those times, it appeared in the niche (the other time, it appeared in the top area in the center). By contrast, the second most common item was an icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which appeared 25 times following its first appearance during Expedition 2 in 2001. Half of these times, it was placed in the top center position. A small Russian flag appeared in 19 images (i.e., 40% of the time). This was three times as frequent as the next most common flag. Seventy-four percent of the time, this flag was in the top area, especially top center. These examples seem to underline the our previous conclusions about the unstated significance of the different display zones on Zvezda.

A Ukrainian Twitter feed posted a message mocking the appearance of religious items on ISS. The modified photo shows ISS crew in the fore end of Zvezda. Credit: @ShkvarkiUA.
An original image taken at the same time as the modified one tweeted by @ShkvarkiUA, showing cosmonauts holding small icons of St. Nicholas. At top right, a triptych of the Old Testament Trinity with Sergii of Radonezh (who founded the Trinity Lavra church, also frequently shown in paintings in Zvezda) on the left wing, and St. Serafim of Sarov (who was canonized in 1903 at behest of Nicholas II and his wife, and who is highly revered in the post-Soviet church) on the right wing. Photo credit: Roscosmos.

This preliminary study has already revealed previously unknown information. We intend to research more deeply into the context of these displays — the particular astronauts living in Zvezda, internal Russian cultural and political developments, relations between Russian and other crew members on ISS at the time, etc. — in order to explain why these patterns occurred. For example, a cursory investigation of Russian news reports and blog posts relating to the appearance of religious items on Zvezda at various times shows that public sentiment is divided with regard to the appropriateness of such displays in the ISS context. Some people approve of increasing the prominence of the Orthodox Church in Russian public life, while others feel that it is inappropriate or even mock it. It is easily imaginable that such contentiousness might also be present within the cosmonaut corps itself, and that disagreements might be visible in the patterns we have observed. Clearly, different crews have made very different decisions about what kinds of things to put on display. We will also make comparisons to other spaces (such as the US Destiny laboratory module, where we have noted that the items on display seem primarily to consist of pennants cheering on the Army and Navy football teams, respectively).

Next: Observing the material culture of ISS first-hand

Once again, we thank Prof. Wendy Salmond for her help with background information relating to Russian religious items.

Religious life on ISS

If you’ve read our previous post, you know that one of ISSAP‘s strategies for studying the material culture of the International Space Station is to look at changes between the photographs taken on board. In this post, we’re going to discuss one example of cultural life on ISS: religious expression.

As we’ve studied photos of the Zvezda module, we’ve noticed that it has been used by crews to display all kinds of cultural items, such as paintings, photographs, flags, patches, and more. Zvezda is the Russian service module, and it was one of the original pieces of the space station to be installed, four months before habitation of ISS began in November 2000. Until 2008, Zvezda contained the only two permanent crew quarters on the space station. It also contains one of the two galleys on board (the other being in the US Node 1 module) and one of the two bathroom facilities (the other being in the US Node 3 module). A treadmill for exercise is located in Zvezda, and it is a primary location for the docking of Soyuz capsules that carry crew members to and from the station. So it makes sense that from the very beginning of the station’s history, Zvezda has been a hub for all kinds of activity.

Expedition 14, 21 April 2007. Above: two icons (Christ Pantocrator and the Mother of God of Kazan) and a painting (the Trinity Cathedral at the Troitse-Sergieva Lavra) with mission insignia and a Russian flag; in the niche: an Orthodox New Testament, miniature icon, portrait of Yuri Gagarin with a dove, gold Orthodox cross, and toy space shuttle.

As you can see in the image above, the aft end of Zvezda received all kinds of decoration, including images, symbols, objects, and even a book. In fact, the images collected by NASA (and helpfully posted on their public Flickr page) show that this phenomenon began as soon as habitation of the station began. In the slide show below, you will see that already in Expedition 1, an icon was placed at the highest point of the aft wall in the center, making it highly visible from the primary direction of approach. This location made its significance clear. Soon after, many more photographs and paintings can be seen in this area. These items appeared and disappeared over time; they were moved around and reorganized.

  • In November 2000, during Expedition 1, a small icon was placed over the portal leading to the Soyuz module.


The pictures posted at the aft end of Zvezda are extremely interesting, since so many of them are explicitly religious and all of those that are religious pertain specifically to Russian Orthodox beliefs. We haven’t spotted any explicitly religious items in the US, European, or Japanese modules yet (apart from some Christmas decorations), so the Zvezda objects are notable. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has re-asserted itself in Russian life and been supported by the Russian government. The icons and other religious paraphernalia may therefore represent an institutional effort to display a new Russian identity marked by Christianity. The presence in one of the photos in the slide show of a ribbon from Russia’s highest military award seems to indicate such a symbolic link. At the same time, it is also worth noting that at certain moments, the religious items are drastically reduced in number or vanish completely from our photographs (as appears to be the case currently), perhaps indicating that some crew members are less religious or even non-religious.

Images of Russian space heroes, on the other hand, appeared early on, and seem to have always been present since their first appearance. These include multiple images of the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin; the Russian theorist who described life in space, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; and the original director of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev. The placement of these iconic and heroic but secular images in the same area with the religious items imbues them with a kind of religious significance, too. They most frequently appear in a niche directly over a portal leading to a Soyuz capsule — in  a sense, they are located over the ISS front door. The Russian crew visually lay claim to a significant space heritage by their display of these portraits in such a prominent position. Since Zvezda has been one of the most frequent venues for video-conferences with Earth audiences, these images are placed in a location that will make them visible beyond ISS. As a result, it becomes clear that even if ISS is “international”  in many ways, distinctly national displays can and do happen.

We need to do more research not only into the specific items displayed here in Zvezda and elsewhere on ISS, but also into the relevant context: who are the crew members associated with changes in the display? What happens when non-Russians occupy one of the crew quarters in this area? Are there specific devotional acts that occur here? What historical events on the ground may be related to the appearance, disappearance, or placement of any of these items?  We’re busy building a database to track this information, and will write more on these topics in the future. Stay tuned!

Next: Religious life on ISS, part 2

Special thanks to Prof. Wendy Salmond for her help identifying the subjects represented in the icons on Zvezda.