On a Real Estate Deal

Bill’s neighbor had dangled the deal several years before. The property offered wasn’t quite next door to where Bill lived, but it was close. The land, from what Bill could tell, offered great views and had some ocean views. But Bill had other business that kept him from pursing the offer for some years. Finally, the other business settled, Bill turned again to the neighbor to see if the offer still stood.

Sure enough, the representative for the seller, one Mr. Stoeckl, said that, yes, the offer still stood. In fact, the price had come down because the neighbor was eager to sell. The neighbor was cash-strapped due to some other issues, and needed to get rid of the property as soon as possible. Bill, smelling a deal, moved to purchase the land.

Bill reached an agreement with Stoeckl, and the real estate deal was approved in April. By late May, the funds were made available and the paperwork was signed. Although the actual deed wasn’t returned until October, Bill was extremely happy with the purchase. But that’s when other people started to ridicule the purchase that Bill had worked.

People who heard about the real estate deal Bill had made began by saying that the land was actually unusable, even if it were pretty. They asked Bill if he had done his due diligence before the deal was struck. He had to answer that, no, he made the sale sight unseen. That made Bill’s enemies–and many of his friends–roll their eyes. Why would he buy land that had no value and that he had never laid eyes on? What would the land be used for, they asked. Bill answered with the answer most people have when buying land: They ain’t making any more of it. Still, he was laughed at and belittled for striking this real estate deal.

You might be wondering why Bill’s acquaintances would have any business minding his business. Why would they care? Well, you see, Bill actually used their money to make the buy. And when you spend over $7,000,000 of other people’s money on land that seemed to have no value, then, yeah; people would naturally be upset. It’s why they ridiculed Bill’s deal as “Seward’s Folly.” You see, William Seward, the United States Secretary of State, thought that buying the land from Russia in 1867 was actually a wise investment.

You know the land as Alaska.

On the End of an Empire

Empires come and go. They have done so since the beginning of history. It is the way of the world, isn’t it? The mighty Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Mongol, Turk, Spanish, French, and English empires all saw the sun set on them. Those who feel that this fate could not possibly happen to their empire are in for a rude historical awakening.

Such a fate befell the empire of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest at the time. As I write this, we have passed the 30 year anniversary of the dissolution of that empire. The story began in August of 1991…well, it actually began much earlier when Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in the USSR and introduced openness and restructuring to Soviet society. The communist party structure that held power was shaken to its core as Gorby’s reforms began to rumble through the 16 republics that made up the empire. The leader wanted to bring true democracy (or, at least, a semblance of it) to the people and those lands. Opposing the communist bureaucratic power structure were grass-roots calls for reform and a desire on the part of many of the republics (specifically the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) for independence from the Soviet state.

In August, 1991, as most Europeans did, Gorbachev went on vacation. That’s when the coup plotters decided to act. The problem was that both sides seemed to choose that moment when the leader was out of town to make their moves. The hard-core communists sought to overthrow Gorbachev and roll back his progressive agenda. The change agents and anti-Soviet groups also decided that it was the perfect time to declare their independence from the USSR. A third party, Moscow Mayor Boris Yeltsin, also stepped in when both of these opposite parties struck.

Meanwhile, Vassily* continued his job at the Kremlin, the Soviet government building complex, because no one told him not to do so. Every day, he made sure that the task he was assigned was carried out. His salary was still paid, so, he really didn’t care what the government was. He had one job, he took it seriously, and he did it well, day in and day out. Oh, when he arrived home during that hot, tumultuous August, he watched the official government news channel as everyone did, but, again, none of that affected his job. Common people like Vassily and his family are often only pawns in the rises and falls of empires, and this case was no exception.

And no one told him to stop what he was doing. Throughout that autumn, when the republics began to leave the Soviet Union, no one advised Vassily to not come to work or to change his job in any way. No one seemed to know what to tell him to do differently. When Yeltsin climbed on the tanks and spoke to the people of Moscow, he kept on with his work. Day in, day out. When Gorbachev returned to the capital and to a crumbling empire, Vassily still did his job.

Finally, in December, 1991, Gorbachev realized that he was the leader of an empire that no longer existed, and he resigned as the last leader of the once-mighty Soviet Union–a gesture that seemed completely empty in one sense. That is when Vassily’s job changed in one major aspect.

That night, December 25, 1991, as the Moscow church bells tolled the end of the Soviet Union, Vassily Pavlichenko climbed the stairs, as he did every day, to the rooftop of the Kremlin, and, for the last time, he lowered the red flag of the Soviet Union that had flown there since 1917.

In its place, he raised the white, blue, and red flag of the nation of Russia.

*Not his real name

On an Influential Minister

Greg took his role seriously. His country’s power brokers listened to him, hung on his every word, made major decisions based on his wise advice and sage counsel. Greg’s time in the halls of power saw his nation suffer the agony of political, economic, and even military upheaval. So, his inputs and opinions about the major issues of the day were invaluable to those who ruled his land.

Today, Americans do not think it odd that religious leaders such as Greg would be considered as an important advisor to those who hold political power. We are used to such things as a National Day of Prayer and presidents speaking before religious groups. Often, minsters, rabbis, and pastors are called to the Oval Office to discuss the issues of the day and how morality applies to them.

That’s the type of role Greg filled for his nation. The major difference was that Greg’s voice became the only one the leaders listened to. His influence was seen in some circles of government as being too large, his power over the decisions of government too great. Yet, Greg continued to have the ear of those who held the reins of power.

Those who knew Greg marveled at his rise to such a position. Born to a poor farming family in a rural part of the country, his mother had seven other children, but only Greg lived to adulthood. His youth was misspent and saw him get in trouble with the local constabulary for such misdemeanors as petty thefts and drunkenness. His schooling was spotty at best. He finally settled down somewhat and married a farmer’s daughter and began a family, taking on the farmer life for himself.

Stories about his entry into the ministry vary. For whatever reason, he decided to become a pastor. After some training in a seminary, Greg returned from his training a changed man. He had sworn off alcohol, became strict in a vegetarian diet, and began preaching a message of personal responsibility and strict abstinence from all worldly passions. The message resonated in part because of Greg’s personality.

Those who heard him speak became taken with his passion, his drive. It was said that Greg could cast a spell over his church audience. His local congregation of followers grew and grew. He began to be someone people (and many rich people) came to for advice and counsel. And Greg’s sessions proved to be fruitful to those who came to him. It was only a matter of time before those holding  political power sought him out for not only his advice but also for the reputation he had garnered in his growing ministerial work.

One day, the leader of the government asked Greg for a favor. Would the minister please pray for his youngest child, his son, who had a congenital disease? Absolutely, Greg said. The prayer seemed to provide the young man some relief. The family, especially the young man’s mother, ever so grateful, brought Greg into their inner circle as a healer, a holy person, and someone in whom the powerful family placed their entire—and, it turns out, misplaced—trust.  

You know how this story ends. That powerful family—the family of Russian Czar Nicholas II—relied on the peasant preacher Gregori Rasputin more than any other advisor. And they did so as their empire and eventually their own lives crumbled around them.