Articles From the June 1995 Unification News


The Question - Reflections on My Russia Days

by Jonatha A. Johnson

"And what do you think about rich people?"

"Uh...umm...Huh?" I replied, while my mind zeroed in on this unexpected question. Natasha stepped closer as I turned to make eye contact, and she said again, "We want to know what you think about rich people."

"What rich people?" Had I dropped in on a conversation already in progress? Her words now ricocheted s l o w l y between my ears, seeking a place to land.

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

We three-Natasha, Lyuba and I-were working in the office together at a modern resort hotel at the Black Sea in Crimea. We served as administrative support staff for the educational seminars for high schoolers on their spring break. These two Russian translators were both English teachers for children in Crimean schools. However, before joining our seminar staff, they had never met a person who spoke English as a native tongue-never! They had learned to speak English from other Russians.

"And how did those other Russians learn English?"

"From books!"

Yes. I was impressed. From day two I had noticed how both women listened closely to my sentences, scribbling little notes while I spoke.

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

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

Gosh. Uh, well.... I had a lot of in's, on's, over's, under's, towards's, by's and through's to give them! Yes! I'll be their native speaker! On this basis of mutual understanding I spoke more carefully, with less grammatical complication. And we put together a makeshift bridge of trust.

It was a few days later, the natural consequence of this trust, that 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. Was this some kind of joke-what did I think of rich people-some kind of trick question? But the sincere look on their faces vaporized my tendency to laugh.

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

The texture of the moment told me this was not some formal "exchange of views," but rather a heartfelt sharing among women. As women we would transcend the suspicions and doubts superimposed upon our minds by the political world of men-which is to say, the "Us versus Them" mentality.

But a shadow of a doubt had crept over me. In America, it is considered to be a justifiable moral position to attack the wealth of religious institutions and their founders. This fits conveniently into the historical framework of Protestant reform. It emerges from the Bible verses: "Consider the lilies of the field...." This idea of liberating carefree simplicity becomes the ideal of poverty as virtue- which then becomes convoluted into wealth as evidence of evil. This dubious street logic can then be fired successfully and wickedly at others. It is a giant cannonball in the arsenal of atheists who don't even have any religious principles to draw from. Could this be what Natasha was coming to?

Just then the phone rang and our conversation was left to 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?"

Three months later the exact same Question confronted me in Lithuania, from a completely different person. This time it felt like an old ghost stalking me. My father had died before making his peace with the world. He had served his wartime as a medic, patching up the wounded when possible. Sending them back to fight or home to die. Naples. Okinawa. Wherever. 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: an ideological stuffing giving form to frustration. It was there, collecting dust like stuff in the attic that you forget you have. A trip to the attic brings forth a flood of memories, which may be the necessary and sufficient reason we store the stuff in the first place.

Likewise, the unresolved contradictions that gripped the parent may reappear for the son or daughter to clarify and to clear.

By now a response stirred within, making its way to the surface: "Why do you ask me this question? 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?'!"

"Oh! Well, if we were to ask this question, 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. Why should I bother to like them or hate them? I'm just busy living my life. But, yes, I'm sure you can find someone who hates the rich. Some people do."

Nearly a year passed before The Question came up again. Irina was translating as we toured St. Petersburg in Valery's car. How beautiful the old city looked beneath her coverlet of snow! Not too much snow, but this was February when night arrives early and lingers long. The city fathers had appropriately installed electric lighting to replace the gas lamps all over town. Bridges, city parks, the grounds of museums, cathedrals and historic sites were all gently lit.

Late at night like this, we had the city all to ourselves, and we drove past the massive gates protecting the Winter Palace, past the ancient cemetery where Pushkin lies, past the channel where Lenin's grey battleship used to overturn Holy Russia floats in silence. But Lenin isn't the father here; Peter is.

Valery, Irina and I walk up to the tiny log cabin Peter built, where he proclaimed his intention to build a great fortress city here in the swamp. Here, facing Europe for the wars to come. Here, only ninety 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. My audience was those for, those against, and all those descendants not a part of that 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; goodness knows there's an audience waiting for the key to unlock the great contradictions. The paralyzing thoughts that bind men to their hatreds imprison their hearts, and bring stagnation to families, villages, nations. Standing there beneath 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! Just look, here we are riding around St. Petersburg at night in the comfort of your car."

In this simple point I had found my voice. This wasn't about the dialectic of class warfare, or Marxist economic theory, or global geopolitical historical determination gobbledygook-this little conversation was about us.

"As little kids we read about famous Americans, just as you read books about famous Russians. We learn about Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, so I want to use there two as examples, because they each built huge fortunes from something they made. Or maybe because I'm so happy riding around with you. And I'm truly inspired by the beauty of these old-time lamps!

"To get that first electric light bulb to work, Edison had to try many times. Oxygen made the little wire inside burn out too quickly. They tried using a vacuum, but it isn't easy to keep a vacuum going. So, they had to find another gas to put in there. Old Mr. Edison had to keep paying the workers all this time-something like 16 years-whether or not the bulbs worked.

"If you don't pay the workers, the workers will run away. Well, Edison kept all those bulbs-some three thousand of them-and you can go see them. Schoolchildren take trips to go see all those bulbs that didn't work!

"And old Mr. Ford was really a crazy old fox. How could anybody take him seriously? 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 men weren't so rich to begin with, but they married rich women.

"But those women must have been very special to stay married to a man who spends all his time and all the family money in the back yard working on "ideas". They ended up millionaires because they came up with ideas that worked and benefited millions of people. These men changed the world they lived in, and the world rewarded them; that's how it works.

"Oh, a lot of people think wealth stinks, and the rich get richer by taking something away from somebody else who had it first. Sometimes it happens. Bad things happen on your side of history, on our side, and in the middle. Lots of people hated Henry Ford, too, but we cannot let that poison us, you know?

"We have the advantage of knowing our American history, with many examples of rich people who did good things with their money. Libraries and universities are named for them. And also, our society has this big middle class, where people have some education and some money, and everybody has freedom of choice. We can choose where we live, what work we do, and we call this `the Pursuit of Happiness.' It is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. This doesn't mean that everybody is happy-but it means we can keep trying. The middle class is like a big sponge that soaks up people's anger and frustration.

"How can I explain? The middle class encourages ambition, and when you work hard, you can do well. We have the incentive to set our own goals and follow our own dreams."

Now it was very, very late. In the States, we could have stopped for an ice cream. Just think, somebody somewhere is making a fortune selling ice cream. If one guy makes ice cream-it exists. When two guys make and sell ice cream-the price goes down. When three guys compete selling ice cream-we get more flavors. When a hundred guys each make a ton of money selling ice cream-we just print more money! That's how it works.


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