Money, freedom, and what really sustains

“Money is freedom!” So said a close older relative when I was still a young man. In the years since, I’ve come to understand how those three words sum up the view of much of humanity. But recently, some genealogical research on my mother’s family presented me with a most unexpected lesson as to why this view is not necessarily true.

One branch of my mother’s crowd were Mennonites in Russia. As I understand the historical details, the pacifist Mennonites were enticed to settle undeveloped lands in various parts of Russia and were given exemption from military service as part of the deal. An important point about the pacifist Mennonites: They weren’t just subsistence farmers—they wanted to farm and make money! 

With the passage of years, politics in Russia changed, and among other things, exemptions from military service came under review. Many nervous Mennonites began to seek permission to leave Russia. By this time, the mid-19th century, the Mennonites were a critical part of Russia’s agricultural industry, and their departure threatened the country’s economic well-being. To put it simply, wealthier, land-owning Mennonites suddenly found that their money and success in business were barriers to their freedom to leave Russia. (The poorer, landless Mennonites had no such troubles getting permission to emigrate.) And Mennonite prosperity in Russia was to bring much grief to that community in years to come.

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December 9, 2013

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