"God, that was fun," Selene said as she pushed open the front door of the Women's Co-op. Three other girls crowded in behind her. It was a blustery Spring afternoon in Chicago, and all four of them were heavily bundled up against the cold. All of them carried signs demanding the government take some action. "Did you see his expression when you hit him with the pie?"
"And that cop was like totally out of line," Brianna said. "He actually tried to lay hands on us."
"Shut the door," Anna said from where she was sitting. "Heating bills are bad enough." She ran the Co-op on a day-to-day basis and was trying to balance their accounts.
"See, that's the thing," Selene said. "Everyone needs warmth, so the government should provide it."
"Everyone needs love in their life," Kalliste Periakes said with a glance at Carlyn, who was using a distaff to spin up some thread. "I suppose you want the government to play matchmaker, too." Kalliste was a slender woman of indeterminate age. She had large eyes, a generous mouth and a luxurious mane of black hair that today she was keeping back with a pair of silver clasps.
"Nonsense," Selene said. She tossed her sign under the coat rack, peeled away her coat and hung it neatly in the corner. "That would be stupid. Everyone has different emotional needs."
Kalliste gave her a smile. "Everyone has different needs for heat, too. You're wrapped up against the cold, but I don't find it that bad. I've been in places that are much colder than Chicago."
"I didn't think it got that cold in Greece," Anna said. She was irritated with Selene and trying not to show it. When she'd joined the Women's Co-op the place had been rife with politics. Politics had almost destroyed the Co-op and the whole idea of women helping women. There had been too many divisions, too many political fights, and almost everyone had left. She had inherited the running of the Co-op simply because there was nobody left who was interested. She had rebuilt the place, seeing the Co-op reborn from the ashes of political strife. Since then she had insisted that all discussions of politics be left on the sidewalk outside.
She'd known Selene would be a problem when the girl had shown up four months before. Selene was young and full of fire, ready to charge out and change the world, but she had not found a receptive audience in the other members of the Co-op. A lot of the women who came to the Co-op had been bruised badly by the world Selene wanted to change. Anna suspected that one of those who had been bruised was the woman who was humming to herself as she ran their loom: Kalliste Periakes.
Kalliste was one of the foreign students Northwestern University attracted by the hundreds. Anna admitted she didn't know much about the woman. Oh, there were a few things: she was in the Archaeology Department's Ph.D. program, she read or spoke more languages than anyone knew, she was from Greece, and, someone had said, was heir to a shipping company. None of that told her anything about who the woman really was.
Kalliste was well-read; that had been obvious the first day she had told one of her 'stories'. These were always of life in ancient times. The stories sounded plausible until you heard her casually mention ancient Gods, ancient Heroes, curses and other things that were just too fantastic to believe. From what little anyone could weasel out of her it was obvious she'd had access to libraries that most people didn't even know existed.
Through the two years she had been coming to the Co-op Kalliste had never mentioned politics or argued with any of the women who expressed a political opinion. Until now.
"You're rich," Selene said, barely glancing at Kalliste. "You wouldn't understand."
Kalliste laughed, a merry sounding trilling of the scales that had a slight edge to it. "I'm rich only when my grandmother passes away," she replied. "Until then I make my living the old-fashioned way, I work for it." She studied Selene's designer clothes. "I don't have a trust supporting me, not like you do."
Selene's face colored. "That's not fair. I didn't choose to have that trust fund. You could have..."
"Chosen another grandmother?" Kalliste asked gently. Carlyn and several other girls had heard that tone before. They all stopped what they were doing to watch. "In 1950 my family had nothing. My grandmother was widowed; my grandfather had been killed by the Communists because he was 'too rich', which meant he owned a fishing boat and did a little trading. Perhaps you don't understand what that means. Grandmother had no family to help her, she had no relatives in influential positions, and she had no one to help tide her over if she ran out of money.
"That was 42 years ago. It's true, she owns a shipping company, three of them as a matter of fact, one of which does business here in Chicago. She's not as rich as some, but every drachma she has she made through taking chances and hard work. She didn't have a government to do the work for her, she didn't have tax breaks, friendly labor unions or insider trading—"
"That was never proved!"
"Sorry," Kalliste held up her hand. "I forgot that your father plea-bargained down to a lesser charge." She looked at the others in the room, ignoring Selene's red face. "I am not what you call a child of privilege." She clearly implied that Selene was.
"Do you believe in helping the poor at all?" Carlyn asked. She picked up the distaff and resumed trying to make thread.
"Oh, sure, help them all you want, just don't make everyone else help them, too." Kalliste gave them all a much harder smile. "I think that the ones who insist that we all help the poor, regardless of whether we want to or not, aren't really interested in helping the poor, they're only interested in how it will benefit themselves."
"Nonsense," Selene said. "We have nothing to gain from helping them except the satisfaction of helping those down-trodden and—"
"Now it is my turn to disagree," Kalliste said. "You parade and you demonstrate and all of these other things, even though you know it is useless."
"It isn't useless," Selene said, her voice growing louder. "We speak truth to power, and—"
"Speak it to a dictator," Kalliste said. "A politician in this country is restrained by laws. A dictator could have you shot out of hand. That's power."
She shook her head. "You demonstrate and protest so you can feel better about yourselves, not out of any hope of success." She waved her arms expansively. "In one year this Co-op does more to help women in need than all of your demonstrating ever will. And to bring the government into it..." She shook her head. "Clearly that is worse than stupid. That is willful blindness. You have to know what the end result of that always is."
"I suppose you know," Selene said. "And I suppose it's another one of your stories."
"Why, yes it is," Kalliste replied.
I was living in a suburb of Zurich. My passport said I was a Greek national. Though I had enough money to live comfortably for several years, the authorities found discreet ways to let me know I should find "productive" work. I did not know whether they suspected me of spying, or of prostitution. Although I was guilty of neither, being deported would be annoying. I most definitely did not want to go back to Crete. The excavations had been stopped by the war, as they had been across Greece and the rest of the world. Travel was difficult, and paranoia was rampant, even in Switzerland. I fell back on the one thing other than trade I could do in any place and at any time, I taught Greek.
It was a pleasant enough existence. I tutored the children of the rich on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and taught a course in the Classics, Euripides, Homer and some Hesiod for variety, on Thursday afternoons at the gymnasium for women. That left me free the rest of the week to read and to socialize.
Socializing was the most important thing in the lives of those of us in Zurich's foreign community. It was 1916 and we had no radio and only a little film. Theater, opera, dinner parties and tea parties were how we kept in touch with family, loved ones, and the outside world, even as the machines of war were tearing apart that world.
Even in the foreign community in Zurich I was alone. The Greek community in Switzerland was virtually non-existent except for the occasional government official, so I could mingle with nearly everyone from every country without hindrance; it was even possible for me to converse with a Turkish friend in public. This was a quiet, nostalgic time for most of us, gathering at this restaurant for late breakfast, and at that coffee shop for late lunch. The war was far distant from our discussions although, like that ever-present rumbling beyond the horizon, it colored every meeting with wistful shades of gray. We all knew the world we had grown up in was ending.
I would sometimes stay out late in the evening for supper with some Swiss friends who were beyond reproach. For a foreign lady alone in a country it was important to have the right friends, and to be seen with them. Officials must associate me with that class of people whom they did not bother with suspicions and investigations. The effort absorbed another portion of my time and attention, but still left me with opportunities for many an afternoon's stroll or shopping expedition that was concluded with a pleasant trolley trip home to my upstairs apartment. There I would update my journals or otherwise occupy my evenings, alone.
I had been doing this for more than two years when I encountered an acquaintance I had not seen since before Arthur died. He was one of those expatriate Russians who, having made themselves notorious at home, were eking out an existence abroad, living on charity, writing a little, accepting the small sums they received from their families, and "investing" money collected by them for whatever political organization they'd founded. Sergei offered to invest some of my money in his Cause, but I had my doubts.
"So what is the purpose of this organization?" I asked one morning over tea and scones.
"We seek to lift up the masses," he said. "We want to raise the workers and the peasants to the level of the nobility and the rich."
"And how will you accomplish this lofty goal?" I asked. I was more concerned over the quality of the tea being served. Was the war affecting even this? Switzerland was not blockaded, but apparently the blockade had begun to affect the Swiss anyhow.
"We will seize power from the corrupt rulers and liberate the workers and peasants," he said, his voice bright with enthusiasm. "It is really very simple."
I looked at him and then looked down the road at Herr Pfeiffer. Herr Pfeiffer was driving his cattle to market. He was a fat man with a small farm. He had an equally fat wife, three chubby daughters, and two stocky sons. Unlike many people I knew around the Mediterranean, he looked as if he had never missed a meal.
I added a touch of cream to my tea and stirred it gently. The Swiss had no feudal overlords demanding taxes for "protection", just as they had no inherited aristocracy or peasantry. Each man was free to tell the government what he thought it should be doing, and often did. Across the ocean America was pursuing the same course, and farms that were fat with produce dotted their countryside. But the Americans and Swiss had traditions of such freedom.
I had traveled through Russia several times before, but my one visit to modern Russia had been when Arthur was still alive. In 1894 we had journeyed to St. Petersburg for the coronation of the Tsar. After the coronation we traveled overland to Moscow, and then south along the Volga to the Black Sea. After docking in Istanbul we took the railroad back to Paris.
On our journey down the Volga I had been struck by how little things had changed since my last trip over 400 years before: the soil was rich, the sky was emptiness incarnate, and the people working the land were still sunk in poverty. They were serfs, a fancy word for slaves without even the illusion of freedom. I recalled a time, I think it was toward the end of the Roman Empire, many years ago in any case, when I had seen farm slaves suddenly given their freedom. Within a year they had fallen farther into poverty while banditry and disease stalked the land. It had taken strong action by the government to restore order and stability. The army had fought the bandits for years before things finally settled down and order was restored. Many of the "freed" slaves did not survive. Would the serfs of modern Russia follow this same course? I knew of no reason not to expect otherwise.
I nodded towards Herr Pfeiffer. "Sergei, you are requiring people to learn the ways of freedom overnight. This will not happen. Freedom is not such an easy thing to learn."
He waved his hand in dismissal. "We have already thought of that. We will seize power in the name of the peasants and workers and we will educate them. As they gain in education the state will be needed less and less and will gradually wither away. Then we will all live together in richness and plenty."
I must have let my doubts show. "Rochelle," he said, placing his hand on mine, "I assure you, a great many brilliant men have spent a long time studying this whole problem. It is as inevitable as... as..." He looked around. "It is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow."
"You will do this."
"For their own good."
"And, in the end, there will be no distinction between rich and poor."
"Of course not. There will be no Classes, there will be total equality. Maybe we won't even need money. Isn't that freedom?"
"And all you need now to do this is money."
"That is all we need."
I looked at his hand covering mine and then looked him in the eye. Hastily he snatched his hand back to his side of the table. I didn't inquire whether these peasants had been asked if they wanted this species of freedom that would be thrust upon them. It was my experience that the intellectuals, of whom Sergei was one, had never met any peasants, or even had the desire to do so. For all their passionate siding with "the workers", these intellectuals would have found real peasants and workers to be a strange and alien race. I did not think the intellectuals and the peasants would find a common understanding when brought face to face. Quite rightly the peasants did not trust the intellectuals. They considered most of them crazy, seeking to upset a system that generations of peasants before them had learned how to work, however imperfectly.
I did not say this aloud, of course. I merely shook my head. "I am afraid I cannot help you, today. My money is all tied up in other investments."
"But we are offering a good return, Rochelle, better than the banks." I shook my head. Sergei was not so easily discouraged. "I know, I will let you talk to Vladimir Illyitch. He'll explain it all to you. Then you'll see." He pulled out a small notepad. "Are you free Monday afternoon?"
"I am teaching on Monday afternoon."
He looked at his notepad again. "He is speaking on Tuesday evening at the Tiergarten. You could listen to him, and we could talk afterwards."
"What would I learn from listening to your leader?"
"Please, Rochelle, he is not my leader, he is my comrade. He merely occupies a different place in the party, and has different duties than I do, but we are both equal."
Thought it was against my better judgment, I said yes. I made a few inquiries in the next few days that prepared me for what I was about to hear. That evening, dressed as the middle-aged woman of modest means I was "known" to be in Zurich, I sat next to Sergei in the back row of a poorly lit and smoke-filled room.
The speaker, a balding man with a pointed beard and dark intense eyes spoke for an hour without once referring to his notes. He spoke of the plight of the working man, of the intolerance of the rich towards those who made their wealth possible; he spoke of the inevitability of the coming revolution, a time when all the "enemies of the people", those who were not absolutely and unconditionally in agreement with what he believed, would have to be "sacrificed for the greater good". He spoke with the envy of wealth that one learns to expect in a man who has no idea how wealth is created. He did not care who would be hurt in achieving his ends, though I suspect self-sacrifice was not in his program. He preached envy and hatred for anyone better off. Without saying so specifically, he alluded to the absolute necessity of dragging those people more fortunate or more successful than he down below his level so he could play the feudal lord over them.
I had heard his type before many times; I was better acquainted with his message than I wanted to be. Here, in front of me, was the true-believing fanatic. He believed absolutely in his message, and absolutely in himself. Other people were things to be manipulated. There was no concern for them as people. The concept of civilization, what They and I had been trying to drive into people's heads my entire life, appeared nowhere in his thoughts. Everything was to be sacrificed to a "higher" goal. He promised utopia, but called for the utmost barbarism to achieve it.
After his speech, and a series of self-congratulatory remarks by several others extolling his "brilliance", I was introduced to him. We had words, a few, but when I told him that I could not spare a single franc for his cause, he turned away from me as abruptly as if I had shut a door in his face. Which, of course, I had. We understood each other too well.
"But why won't you contribute to our cause?" Sergei asked me afterwards as we stood outside the Tiergarten.
I thought of Johann Pfeiffer; he was the enemy of everything this man Ulyanov was preaching. Nobody had stolen money from the rich to give to him. He might have inherited something from his parents, but possibly not. I was quite certain his present wealth had been created by his own hard work. I tried to explain this, in French, which Sergei spoke better than his native Russian. I used very simple words, but to no avail. Sergei understood the words, it was the concepts he could not.
"But, don't you see, Rochelle? You're conditioned by this corrupt society to think that way. You have to cast off the shackles of the past. When you do, you'll see we're right. Everyone will be free, women as well as men."
"No doubt a tempting thought, but I am free enough by anyone's standards, including my own."
"But you have no man to protect you."