Catherine the Great and the Oxfam 85

Submitted by John Stapleton on February 10, 2014 - 8:03am
Not so different 250 years later?

In the summer of 2012, I went back to tour Russia for the first time in 40 years. In the summer of 1972, the Canada-Russia Hockey tournament had yet to begin. Bobby Fischer was beating Boris Spassky in a highly iconic chess match that would deliver bragging rights to the US in the game of Chess. The weather was wicked hot.

Back then, I had the chance to tour the Hermitage and its impossibly exquisite art collection amassed by Catherine the Great and successive generations of Romanoffs. I wanted to refresh my memory and most of all, tour the palaces of Peter and Catherine the Great.

The summer palace of Catherine the Great spells opulence on the grandest possible scale. Stupendous parlours and hallways bedecked with gold furniture, the finest crystal and tapestries, hosted lavish events of unspeakable plenitude. Catherine’s summer lifestyle makes Downton Abbey’s the regimen of a pauper. 

For years on end, both Catherine and the members of her circle would prepare for royal events where excess knew no bounds. Sleeping late and preparing their dress and makeup filled their long afternoons; they partied into the nights only to repeat it again and again for decades. The percentage of state money spent on her court increased from 10.4% in 1767 to 11.4% in 1781 to 13.5% in 1795. Catherine gave away 66,000 serfs from 1762–72, 202,000 from 1773–93 and 100,000 in one day: 18 August 1795. (Source)

Catherine was perhaps the richest person in the world during her reign. Instructively, she annulled the proclamation of immediate predecessor Peter III, to free the serfs that formed Russia’s human majority.

For those ending the tour and enjoying the midnight nuits blanches return to St. Petersburg by motor coach, an ever present question dogged our tour guide: “How could the Russian people ever have allowed this to happen and let it go on for so long?”

I must admit to having the same question at the time. Why would millions of serfs living in poverty have allowed so few to live so lavishly while they worked long hard years at the edge of starvation?

The answer is to be found in an unlikely place. That place is a briefing paper by Oxfam dated Jan. 20, 2014 called Working for the Few. In that briefing paper, just one line caught the imagination of the world’s media where it noted on the bottom of page 2 that: “The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.”

The Oxfam 85 includes the world’s richest multi-billionaires. And although they hail from diverse countries from around the world, they have one characteristic in common: their wealth is increasing faster than those in all the other income classes.

Reflection on finishing the Oxfam report should not be so different than riding the coach back to St. Petersburg. Collectively, we should all be asking that one question asked over again to our nonplussed tour guide.

We should also note that governments are adopting policies that will increase inequality. Since 2006, our national government has gone out of its way to ensure that those with the lowest levels of income receive very little. With the implementation of the Universal Child Care Benefit in 2006, it has not been increased even once and erodes relentlessly to inflation. The same is true for refundable GST credits while Employment Insurance remains the only federal income security program which is not indexed. Payments to veterans have been mercilessly curtailed as their offices are shut down. 

In the meantime, people of some means (and I must count myself among them) have been handed the gift of pension income splitting that has already saved me and others thousands of dollars in taxes. With new plans to permit income splitting between spouses, the richest among us will accelerate our tax savings while those at the bottom of the scale get nothing or close to it.

So it’s not hard to see why those that ‘have’ continue to ‘get’ and continue to get more. We support policies that relentlessly create greater inequality and vote it in over and again. Perhaps we are distracted by other things. Maybe we want to join the OXFAM 85 ourselves as suggested by Dragon's Den's Kevin O’Leary. Perhaps we think we can’t change things.

On the way back from Russia in mid-August 1972, I travelled through Warsaw on the first days that Coca Cola was available for purchase in Poland. I watched a young man take half a month’s pay and buy two bottles which he opened, jumped on top of a van, and raised in an elaborate victory salute. He hoisted one bottle perpendicularly above his upstretched mouth and proceeded to guzzle down one whole bottle before the loud cheering of a small but appreciative crowd of young people.

Maybe that young man, now in his 60s, got just a bit distracted. I don’t recognize him as a possible member of the list of the Oxfam 85. Maybe we are not unlike him today thinking about how we can attain life’s baubles and icons while those who own them live (with the endless help of governments) truly impossibly opulent lives.

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