His entire journey in the Vostock 1 Rocket lasted 108 minutes (less than 2 hours) during which time he took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Southern deserts of Kazakhstan, orbited once around the Earth and landed safely back on land in Northern Russia.
It was a huge political coup for the Russians, taking the Americans almost completely by surprise. Nikita Khrushchev proudly claimed the superiority of Russian technology over their arch rivals, and it was no coincidence that less than 6 weeks later on May 25th 1961, J F Kennedy gave his now famous “American on the moon by the end of the decade” speech to the US Congress.
Although both countries had been working on Space Programmes for a number of years, the Russians were in fact lucky to win the prize. The US Mercury Programme had originally been scheduled to take off from Earth in October 1960, but concerns over safety and which engine type to use, had caused several scheduled take off’s to be delayed, resulting in Alan Shepard being the first American to reach space on 5th May 1961, nealry fouyr weeks after Gagarin
Interestingly Shepard’s journey was only a sub-orbital flight (effectively straight up and down) and the Americans didn’t in fact get an astronaut to orbit the Earth until March 1965, almost 4 years after Gagarin’s heroic flight. And when you consider the levels of technology available in the early 1960’s, his achievement is made even more remarkable. There is a short, edited highlights film of the events on the BBC website here and you only have to see the quality of the first ever live broadcast from Moscow and listen to Richard Dimbleby’s commentary to realise what a monumental achievement getting a man into space and back must have been.
Once Gagarin got back to earth, celebrity and fame awaited. He visited Europe (including the UK) Japan, Brazil and Finland promoting both himself and the Soviet Union’s success. Sadly though his time in the limelight was short lived, as in March 1968 he died when a routine flight crashed on route between Russian airbases, and a whole world of Conspiracy Theories were imagined into life…
There is also a feature length film of the whole event here, if you have the time and inclination…