While I can say that, for example, Shepard flew into space, I can say only that Gagarin was launched - indeed, "launch" may be an overstatement next to, say, "throw". The early cosmonauts didn't fly, they were thrown into space in the desperate rush to get something human out of the atmosphere before those running dogs of capitalism across the Pacific could.
While America is always fun to hate, it can't be denied that, in the 60s, it was far more open than the Soviet Union. If hundreds of cosmonauts were killed, it would be dust to be swept beneath the red carpet. If one astronaut died, he would be the subject of international headline whether NASA or the US government wanted it or not. The fact that NASA, due to this, could not simply throw people off the planet and see what happened is as much a part of why the US lost the initial race to space as the more-often-cited panic due to overstating the missile gap. The USSR, with its heavy-handed restriction of information, was free to chuck people upwards and watch closely. Against all odds, it worked.
I often wonder if Gagarin, at the time, knew how little had gone into safety arrangements, and how much of a risk anyone - communist or otherwise - was taking until very recently to go into space alone at all. If so, he was indeed an incredibly brave pioneer in a field which even today presents something of a mystery to us. If not, he was nonetheless an incredible pioneer.