The Guardian 9 November, 2005
Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Revolution and wealth
As part of the Revolution that began in Petrograd on November 7th, 1917, the working people of Russia took over the palaces and other grand dwellings of the former ruling class.
They turned these great houses into museums, art galleries and other public buildings. The ordinary people, who had previously been chased away from the gates when they had the temerity to beg for kopeks from the high and mighty denizens of these mansions and palaces, were now the collective owners of those same fine estates.
There is a very different feel to viewing a publicly-owned palace and looking over a privately-owned one. I have previously written about the experience of visiting a crumbling but sprawling palace in Hyderabad, "one of the palaces" still owned by the former Maharajah of that State.
The palace was in the process of being refurbished to become a five-star hotel, despite being completely surrounded by the hovels of the local poor — who, of course, are very poor indeed.
In revolutionary Russia, the Soviet people were concerned to preserve and conserve these great buildings as part of the people's collective assets. I do not know to what extent they have been returned to their former owners or to new private owners since the overthrow of socialism. (If any reader has information on this subject I would grateful for the chance to see it. Thank you in anticipation.)
In the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel's "Velvet Revolution", lauded with such extravagant praise by the bourgeois media, saw the return to their former owners of almost all buildings — whether mansions or factories — that had been nationalised by those awful Communists.
Havel the great democrat was not going to leave mansions and palaces (let alone factories, mines and mills) in the hands of the common people. No sir!
They were returned to whoever owned them in 1948, when the Communists came to power. This led to the spectacle of Jewish citizens' former property, that had been seized by the Nazis during the war, being "returned" to the Czech fascists who had obtained from the Nazis and who therefore "owned" it in 1948 when it was nationalised!
The construction of great mansions continues today unabated. In many countries, the filthy rich still display their wealth through extravagant and ostentatious — and usually excessively large — dwellings.
And not just dwellings: office buildings: yachts, parties, weddings even gambling at the casino — in fact, anything that can demonstrate conspicuous consumption — can be used by these "jet setting high flyers" to set them apart from common people.
Earlier this year, Indian conglomerate head Subrata Roy flew 10,000 guests (yes, 10,000) to his corporate estate, a meagre plot comprising (in The Sydney Morning Herald's words) "120 hectares of mod-cons, luxury amenities and grandiose statues".
The occasion was apparently his daughter's wedding, and the term conspicuous consumption does not even come close to describing this tasteless squandering of wealth other people worked for.
According to the Herald, "the candles alone cost US$250,000".
But that shindig was tasteful and modest compared to the obscenely expensive wedding extravaganza thrown by Indian super-rich steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. His daughter's wedding bash cost US$60 million.
When I was a kid, it was the custom to admonish children who did not want to eat their vegetables, "Eat up, there are children starving in India!" There still are, and it's easy to see why.
In fact, the Herald article on the Mittal wedding pointed out that, at the same time as these super-rich weddings were taking place, the number of calories the poor in India consume "tells a terrible tale".
"Rural India, and the urban poor, are actually getting hungrier."
The article quotes an Indian economic commentator, P Sainath, who points out that "with well over 400 million hungry people, India alone has more undernourished human beings than all of sub- Saharan Africa combined".
The Herald article had some backhanded compliments for China: in discussing the plight of the Indian rural poor, it notes "India is not China, where low-cost manufacturing has sucked hundreds of millions of once destitute farmers and labourers off the land."
In India, by contrast, "the past five years have seen the most violent increase in urban-rural income inequalities since independence" (Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy).
As the editor of India's Financial Express puts it: "You can live behind a wall in a luxury high rise, you can afford servants to wipe your shoes, but you still have to drive through the beggars sleeping on cardboard at your gate to get out."