Archive for Sunday, January 26, 2003

Stayin’ alive in Russia

January 26, 2003


When I whined that I hated lima beans, mama brought out the heavy artillery: the starving people of India.

"Now, honey," she'd say, "remember the starving people of India. They'd be happy to have those beans on their plates."

I'm still not much of a lima bean guy. That is, I suffer recurring amnesia when it comes to my blessings. If I were transferred to paradise, I'd probably fuss about the per diem.

Two reasons I bring this up. The first was learning what a fix the Russians are in. The second was seeing the movie "About Schmidt."

I heard about the Russians from Eric Hanley, a Kansas University sociologist. He's visited the country, talked with fellow scholars about it and analyzed data on Russian families that were tracked by University of North Carolina researchers.

Hanley says that half of all urban families, whether they're full of college professors or truck drivers, farm. The average Russian family produces more than a ton of food a year, eating almost all it raises.

In the summer, the families drive their cars or take buses or trains out to their tiny plots of land. A shack with a wood stove awaits them. It might or might not have electricity.

According to Hanley, only 3 percent of Americans are involved in serious food production, compared with 60 percent of Russians.

Are they farming because their 401Ks have dipped? No, we're talking here about wage drops of 50 percent in 10 years.

How about going into business for yourself then? A friend of Hanley's started buying used cars in Eastern Europe to sell in Russia. A couple of months later, a rep from a crime family came around. He wanted 20 percent of the take. Hanley's friend quit. It's a story that gets told again and again.

The government's in your pocket, too, Hanley says. Subsistence farming, then, turns out to be a nifty way to dodge the greedballs. They want your folding money, not your soybeans.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." A Russian who works eight days a week might wonder what kind of God this is.

Things are much worse in Africa, of course, and many other places. But to be blunt, I seldom imagine in any depth, or for more than a moment, the harsh terms of life elsewhere. Do you?

I knew all these facts when I recently went to the brilliant film "About Schmidt." Jack Nicholson plays a Nebraskan to whom material comfort brings no joy. He lives oblivious to the more primal suffering of his African foster child, Ndugu.

After contemplating the Russian situation and this movie, I propose a moratorium on all whining about salaries, politicians, children, parents, bosses, employees, inlaws, outlaws, spouses present or former, abortionists or gun nuts, lobbyists or liberals.

The moratorium will open up hours and hours during which we can contemplate dead-tired Russian urbanites who grow potatoes that aren't worth extorting, as well as scenarios going down elsewhere that are even worse.

Why, heck, some of us might even eat our lima beans.

-- Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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