It turned out to be Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go out into space and see what Earth looked like from out there.
He’d peered down from his tiny space capsule during his one orbit of the planet and radioed back, "The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It's amazing!" Then he managed to eject from his malfunctioning craft, seven kilometres up (talk about terrifying!), and parachuted into south-west Russia near a town called Saratov. Dropping to Earth three hundred kilometers from his planned landing spot, he was seen only by the startled farm workers.
Reports say they were frightened, which is hardly surprising. Just imagine those bewildered peasants gaping at the bizarre being who'd swooped into their empty field. Those women no doubt worked that land in much the same way as their ancestors had always done. This man came from a different world, almost another time. He had just changed history.
He later told an interviewer, “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don't be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space. I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
Yuri, just 27, had film-star looks with dark eyes and a winning smile. He was good at PR, according to people who met him on subsequent publicity trips. No doubt he soon won them over.
As good Communists the ladies might have hesitated to make religious comparisons but Gagarin’s line, ‘don’t be afraid’, is especially apt this week, because we hear it often at Christmas. Being hazy on Bible knowledge, I had to google the part about the shepherds scared witless by a passing angel. Here it is, from Luke 2:9:
"And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.…"
Gagarin in his flaming orange suit must have seemed like some sort of other-worldly being to those women in their dirt-caked boots. And while he had no news of holy babies, he would soon tell the world something it surely needed to hear.
“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship,” he wrote, “I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”
Fifty-two years later, with another Christmas rolling round and the handsome Yuri long dead (in the crash of a fighter jet in 1968), it’s amazing how loudly his message still needs to be trumpeted.