Kristine L Ming

Alexei Stakhanov: The USSR’s superstar miner

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In December 1935, Time magazine’s cover photo featured the celebrated Soviet worker Alexei Stakhanov. The US was still in the grip of the Great Depression and Stakhanov was a poster boy for communism – the figurehead of a new workers’ movement dedicated to increasing production. But the good times for Stakhanov did not last forever.

“He loved his job, and everything he achieved was through his own hard work, his own talent and perseverance,” says Violetta Stakhanova, the daughter of Alexei Stakhanov.

Stakhanov was a miner in Donbass, a coal-producing region in Soviet Ukraine. Under the communist system, all mines were run by the state and had monthly production targets. If they missed the targets, local managers and Communist Party officials were in trouble. The mine where Stakhanov worked was one of the worst-performing in the region.

“He was incredibly competitive. He kept thinking how to increase the productivity of his mine – and eventually he came up with a brilliant solution,” says Violetta.

In the 1930s, miners used picks to work the coal, which was then loaded on carts and pulled out of the shaft by pit ponies. Lying on his side or his back, a miner would hack into the coal. He also had a set of pit props – logs cut to different lengths – and from time to time, he would prop up the roof of the tunnel where he worked.

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Alexei Stakhanov instructing young miners in 1935

Stakhanov came up with the idea of having one miner constantly picking coal, while another loaded the coal on the cart, a third miner propped the roof with pit props, and a fourth led the pony in and out. And instead of the traditional pick, Stakhanov was keen to use a mining drill, which was a novelty and required specialist training. Drills were extremely heavy, weighing more than 15kg.

“He went on a course, and he learned to use that drill,” says Violetta. “He had no education beyond primary school – but when it came to his job, he was determined.”

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