The skills you have, and the place you are born: they can shape your life utterly.
Once upon a time there were three Russian men, all born in the same year: 1906. And just over a decade after their birth, Mother Russia went through surely one of the most painful metamorphoses of her long, wild, arresting history.
The first man was Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov.
History is quiet about his early years and I cannot tell you where he was when the Revolution came, in his eleventh year. He was a skilled miner. Stakhanov began to work in a mine when he was 21. Five years later, he was trained to use a jack hammer. And two years after that he made rather a name for himself.
For the new God of Russia was productivity. Miners vied with each other to get the most output. And there were even instances when crimes of jealousy were committed against those who made great gains in the amount they were able to produce.
Alexey was a man with hands-on skills. One day, he was said to have mined 102 tonnes of coal in 5 hours and 45 minutes. Just a fortnight later it was claimed he mined 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift.
The press went wild. Here was a new kind of working hero: if Alexey Stakhanov could do it, then so, surely, could all the other workers at all the other mines and farms and factories in Mother Russia.
Alexey became a very important member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. He lived, by all accounts, both productively and happily every after, or at any rate until 1970.
The second man was a mystic, contemplative soul called Daniil Leonidovich Andreyev.
Daniil was a poetic man. Son of writer Leonid Andreyev, from an early age he was writing poetry. His mother died during childbirth and his father gave him to a deeply religious relative so that, when Leonid fled, come the revolution, Daniil stayed put.
He made it through school, but was forbidden to go to university. His provenance was far too suspect.
He had the wrong skills in the wrong place at the wrong time.
During the Siege of Leningrad he was a conscript in the Red Army. Alas, would that he had had mining skills! Daniil soon found himself charged with those old Soviet chestnuts, writing anti-Soviet propaganda, and plotting to assassinate Stalin.
Everything he had ever written was burnt; and he was clapped into prison for 25 years. It is said he had mystic visions while in prison. When he got out he wrote the strangest book: ‘Rose Of The World’
Its opening lines are moving, proof of triumph over adversity. “I am completing The Rose of the World out of prison, in a park turned golden with autumn,” he wrote.
“Yet I am still hiding the last pages of the manuscript as I hid the first ones. I dare not acquaint a single living soul with its contents, for, just as before, I cannot be certain that this book will not be destroyed, that the spiritual knowledge it contains will be transmitted to someone, anyone.”
Two men in Mother Russia: excellent in their fields. But how their aptitudes dictated their lives. Polar opposites under the cold Soviet eye.
And now for one who was in between. Neither a miner, nor a writer: but an erudite engineer who, it is said, harboured an inner artist and writer.
Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov had always loved planes, even when very few people knew what they were. His cousin told him about them one day, after his family moved to Saratov.
The knowledge quickly grew into an obsession. He cut out and pasted any pictures and information he could glean from newspapers and books. With his childhood friends, he founded a Society of Aviation Fans and produced a regular, hand written magazine. They would hang about at the local military airfield and root through old aeroplane parts.
His creative brilliance brought all this information to bear on a passion for gliders. He graduated from the Kalinin Polytechnic Institute, Leningrad, in 1930 and began to design beautiful, fluid, intelligent gliders as chief designer at the Moscow Gliding Factory.
Oleg might have been dispirited when an instructor used one of his gliders to defect to the West, and his factory was wound hastily up.
But no: he began to make planes. Sturdy planes which could handle true Russian distances, scale and logistics. The Antonovs were never anything but state-owned. The AN-26 – named ‘Curl’ by NATO- is just such an example: a twin-engined, turboprop military transport aircraft.
Antonov lived very happily under Mother Russia’s protective wing: he was a member of the Supreme Soviet. He died in 1984, but his factory lives on.
Three men, all born six years after the turn of the 20th century, each served differently by the kind of communism embraced by Russia.
We’re all born with skill-sets. Yet of the three, hard labour, engineering and writing, two brought glory and one imprisonment. All because of the great behemoth state in which they were born, and its singular preferences.