Friday, January 13, 2012

The Relativity of Economic Values

I'm currently reading Slavomir Rawicz's The Long Walk (Lyon's Press [1956] 2010), a supposedly* true tale of a young Polish calvaryman's escape from a Siberian gulag. I was struck by a scene in which prisoners and their guards, stranded by a blizzard in a Siberian forest on their way to the prison camp, are rescued by members of a local indigenous people, Ostyaks, with sleds pulled by teams of reindeer. Of their rescuers, Rawicz writes:
They coveted from the Army only the empty tins which, by order, were always carefully preserved. Their interest in metalware revealed their primitive background. Metal was scarce but skins and timber were plentiful. So there was a good deal of surreptitious bartering between them and the Army cooks of skins for tins. A sable for an empty meat tin was a bargain for both sides and a lesson for the rest of us in relative values. The tins, they told us, were for use as cooking utensils and would be highly prized by the women when they returned home. 
*Serious doubts persist about (a) whether the story is true and (b), if true, whether it is Rawicz's own story. Fiction or non-fiction, it is an absorbing read. I might add that my wife's grandfather, who was sent to Siberia (from Wilno, now Vilnius) because he refused to be conscripted into Soviet Russia's "Polish Army," did walk out of Siberia back to his home, where, at first, his wife was completely unable to recognize him.

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