Articles From the April 1995 Unification News


The Question: Reflections on My Russia Days

by Jonatha A. Johnson-Hyattsville, MD

"And what do you think about rich people?"

"Uh . . . mmm . . . Huh?" I replied, while my mind zeroed in on this unexpected question, which popped up seemingly from nowhere. Natasha stepped closer as I turned to make eye contact with her. And she said again, "We want to know what you think about rich people."

"What rich people?" Had I dropped in on a discussion already in progress? Her words now ricocheted slowly like the ping pong ball in the cabin with the astronauts seeking a direction to go in.

"All rich men . . . Any . . ." Lyuba, our other translator, came closer and they breathlessly awaited my reply--whatever it might be--I stood there defenseless as an actress without a script as the curtain goes up.

We three, Natasha, Lyuba and I, were working in the office together at Camp Blue Wave, a modern resort hotel on the Black Sea. We were administrative support staff for the educational seminars for high schoolers on Spring Break. These two Russian translators were both teachers of English at their regular jobs in Crimean schools. However, before joining our seminar staff, they had never previously met a person who spoke English as their native tongue . . . Never. I was impressed.

"So how did you learn to speak English?"

"From Russians who learned English from other Russians."

"And how did those Russians learn English?"

"From books."

Yes, I was impressed. From day two I had noticed both women listening closely to my words, with Natasha scribbling little notes while I spoke.

"What!? What are you writing? What did I say?"

"Prepositions," she said. "We need to understand how a native speaker uses prepositions in conversation."

Gosh. Uh. Well . . . I had a lot of ins, ons, overs, unders, bys towardses, and throughs to give them.

Whew! What a relief! I'll be their native speaker! On this basis of mutual understanding, it seemed right to speak slower, more carefully, with less grammatical complication. And we put together a makeshift bridge of trust. It was the natural consequence of this trust that a few days later they could ask me such a pivotal question. And really, this question did not know where to land, and it seemed like it was going to hit me right smack on the funnybone. I felt so awkward, and asked myself if this was some kind of joke?--What did I think about rich people--some kind of trick question? But the sincere look on their faces vaporized any tendency I had to laugh.

"I . . . don't know any."

My answer caught them as their question caught me: in a post-Wall moment of truth. This was not a formal "exchange of views" but a heartfelt sharing among women. As women we would transcend the suspicions and doubts superimposed upon our minds by men--which is to say--the "Us versus Them" mentality.

But a shadow of doubt had crept over my mind and I wondered if Natasha's question was a sly inversion of a frontal attack often made on American soil. In America it is considered to be a justifiable moral position to attack the wealth of religious institutions, their founders and adherents. It fits conveniently into the historical framework of Protestant reform. It emerges from a Bible verse, "Consider the lilies of the field . . ." This Franciscan ideal of poverty as virtue can be fired wickedly at others. It's often fired successfully at those others who never ascribed to this ideal, and it's a giant cannonball in the arsenal of Atheists who don't even have any religious principles. I'd heard this genre of argument so many times . . . could this be what Natasha was coming to?

Just then the phone rang and our conversation, like lyrics in a song, was left do dangle promisingly. But Natasha had been able to clarify her meaning by saying, "No. Not anyone in particular. Rich people in general--what do you think of them?"

During our final day together, I mustered up the courage to ask the one big question I had brought with me from America: "But why did your country, the Soviet Union, ever think that we were the Enemy?"

Natasha gave me the kindly-est smile, saying "Oh, that was only the government saying United States is the Enemy. Not the people."

Three months later the exact same question about the rich people emerged, this time in Lithuania, from a completely different person. This time it felt like an old ghost stalking me. My own father had died before making his peace with the world. He had served his time patching up the wounded when possible. Naples, Okinawa, back when the Soviets were sort of on our side. And there were all those fragrant promises of throwing off the shackles of the oppressed. My father returned home regarded as "a pinko," aligning himself with the poor, hating the rich. This didn't surface often, but it was there, collecting dust like stuff in the attic that you forgot you had. A trip to the attic brings forth a flood of memories, and maybe that is the necessary and sufficient reason we store the stuff in the first place. And likewise, the unresolved conflicts that gripped the parent, sometimes make it to the surface at a later time, for the son or daughter to clarify and to clear.

So this time in Lithuania I had begun to find within me a response? "Why do you ask me? Is there something I am expected to say? I mean, am I supposed to think about them?

My Russian inquisitor replied, "I mean to say, don't you hate them?"

"Well, um . . . I don't either like them or hate them. But if we were to ask this, we would say `How do you feel about rich people?' not `What do you think . . .?' But as for me, I don't think about them at all. I'm just busy living my life. But yes, I'm sure you can find someone who says they hate the rich!"

Nearly a year passed before the Question came up again. This time the scene was St. Petersburg. Irina was translating as we toured the city n Valery's car. How beautiful the old city looked beneath her coverlet of snow. Not too much snow, but this was February, when the night arrives early and lingers long. The city fathers had appropriately installed electric lights almost everywhere, especially on bridges, in city parks, at cathedrals and museum grounds. Late at night like this we had the city to ourselves, and drove past the massive gates at Winter Palace, past the ancient cemetery where Pushkin lies, past the channel where Lenin's grey battleship used to overturn Holy Mother Russia floats in silence.

Lenin isn't the father here, Peter is. Valery, Irina and I walked up to the tiny log cabin Peter built, where he announced his intention to build a great fortress city here in the swamps. Here facing Europe for the wars to come. Here, only 90 miles from Finland, Irina brought out the Question and we dusted it off.

"And what do you think about rich people?"

By now I knew my audience: the hearts and minds and wounded spirits of all who suffered and died for the "Workers of the World, Unite" ideal. Those for, those against and those descendants not a part of the process of history at all. But who has the tools to express the monumental pain that sustains the Question, breathes life into it from generation to generation, from the Black Sea, to Pushkin's grave, to who knows where beyond. Standing there under the lamp by Peter's cabin, my audience waited.

"Well, that's a little question with a big answer. We all enjoy the results of what rich people do! Here we are, riding around a lighted up city in the comfort of your car!"

Such a simple point, but I had found my voice. This wasn't about economic theory or the dialectic of class warfare or global geopolitics or historical determinism--this little conversation was about us!

"As little kids we all read about famous Americans like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, just as you read about famous Russians. I'm just using these two as examples of rich Americans, you know? because each one built up huge fortunes from something he made. And also because I'm inspired by the beauty of these old timey lamps, here!"

My friends agreed it was a good example because they had heard the names of both men already.

"To get that first bulb that worked, Edison had to try many times. Oxygen made the little wire burn out. So they tried a vacuum, but vacuums don't stick around very long. So they had to find another gas to put in there. So Old Mr. Edison had to pay the workers every day, for something like 16 years. Because if you don't pay the workers, they won't stick around either! He kept all those bulbs, some three thousand of them, and you can see them--schools kids take trips to go see all those bulbs that didn't work! In New Jersey!"

"And old Mr. Ford was really a crazy fox. Nobody took him serious for a long time. When you have a really big new idea, you have to believe in it all by yourself, and work on it like a fool. Those guys weren't so rich to begin with, but they married rich women. But those women must have been really special, to stay married to a man who spends all his time and all the family money in the backyard working on "ideas." They ended up millionaires because they came up with one good idea that worked and benefited millions of people.

"Oh, a lot of people think wealth stinks, and the rich get richer by taking something away from somebody else, but if you need money and want a job you go to the company built by a rich man. You don't go to the poor man in the street. Bad things happen--on your side, on my side, and in the middle, and people hated Henry Ford to. But we can't let that poison us, you know?"

Now it was very late. It was time to go. "If we were in America, we could stop off at a 24-hour market for an ice cream. Just think! Somebody somewhere is making a ton of money selling ice cream. When one guy makes ice cream, it exists. When two guys make ice cream, the price goes down. When three guys make ice cream, we get more flavors. It just works that way. When a hundred guys are all making a ton of money selling ice cream . . . we just print more money. That's how it works." The End.

. . . and about those prepositions, I must write and tell Natasha that in the book they're called prepositions, but when we talk, they're adverbs. Because that's the way it works.


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