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SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Valentina Tereshkova, the first female Soviet cosmonaut — indeed, the first woman to go into space — recently celebrated her 70th birthday. In an interview, she stated her only wish: to fly to Mars, even with a one-way ticket. It was an implicit wish for a spectacular form of suicide, for a spectacularly prosaic reason: the loss, experienced by thousands of Russian women of her generation, of her life’s existential foundation.

Tereshkova’s generation, though it encompassed almost the entire era of Soviet rule, had been raised in the tradition of Russian womanhood. Much older than the Soviet regime, this tradition emphasizes a spirit of sacrifice — not just for loved ones, but also for great causes such as revolution, state, science or art — that is deeply hostile to accumulation of money and material goods as the goal of life.

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