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Neither the USSR nor Russia has ever sent a cosmonaut beyond low Earth orbit. In the 1960's it would've been very challenging for them to land a cosmonaut on the Moon, and their attempts were aborted. But didn't they have the ability to send a cosmonaut around the Moon before NASA? Would it have been technologically doable for the Russians to do an Apollo 8 kind of mission before NASA did it in 1968?

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The Soviets had designed the Soyuz 7K-L1 as a part of the Zond program, with the aim of a manned flyby of the Moon.

Soyuz 7K-L1

Artists rendition of the Soyuz 7K-L1 en-route to the Moon (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Developed in the late 1960's, after political disputes regarding the expulsion of Nikita Khrushchev, it was originally designed to be assembled in-orbit. The final design was however of a traditional manned capsule, to be launched by the new Proton 7K-L1 launcher.

Proton Launcher

Proton 7K-L1, Soviet analogue to the Saturn V. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

After a year of proper development in 1967, and several critical failures resulting in three deaths, two unmanned versions of the Soyuz made two successful flybys of the Moon under the mission names Zond 5 and Zond 6. A final, manned launch was attempted on January 20 1969, which resulted in a launch failure with no casualties, since the launch escape systems worked nominally.

By this time, the Soviets had already been beaten by the Americans, with Apollo 8's launch in December 1968. Finally in August 1969 the Soviets succeeded in sending Zond 7 and Zond 8 to the Moon (still unmanned), flying past it and returning using the then-uncommon skip reentry method.

Alas, that leg of the Space Race had already been lost, and the Zond program was defunded and cancelled.

Further Reading:

http://www.astronautix.com/craft/soyz7kl1.htm

http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/masterCatalog.do?sc=1969-067A

http://mentallandscape.com/C_CatalogMoon.htm

http://history.nasa.gov/ap08fj/pdf/a08-missionreport.pdf

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    $\begingroup$ Perfect answer! It is as if you were there when it didn't happen. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Jun 11 '15 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ There are missing bits and pieces. The CIA was kind of instrumental in finding out the state of the Russian program and reporting back. Correspondingly, Apollo 8 launch schedule was re-juggled. Source: Chariots for Apollo. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Jun 11 '15 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ I read something about that, the launch was pulled back by two months. I didn't include it because it's irrelevant, even if the launch had happened as usual, the Americans would have won. The Soviet launch they tried to beat only just about left the pad! :D $\endgroup$ – Vedant Chandra Jun 11 '15 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @DeerHunter ^^^ $\endgroup$ – Vedant Chandra Jun 11 '15 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @DeerHunter That's the first time I've seen any mention of the CIA in regard to Apollo mission scheduling. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Jul 27 '16 at 2:06

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