THE EXPAT OPTION: A CONCLUSION

I am writing a conclusion to my last blog for two reasons. I wrote that blog as a response to the article by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, “Expatriates of the Heart.” Dreher addressed the fact that some of his readers have “given up on America” and are considering leaving or have left the country. He invited and received many comments. The first draft I wrote of my response blog was too long, and I deleted quite a bit. So now I want to summarize some points I deleted. The second reason I am writing about the same topic is Mr. Dreher was kind enough to follow up with an article on my blog. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/taking-the-expatriate-option-hal-freeman-russia/ That article got picked up by several outlets so I randomly selected a few comments to read from different sites. So I am working in responses to the comments to the sections I had previously deleted.

Before getting into the heart of my discussion, I’d like to address one point that was raised in the comments which neither Dreher nor I really discussed. A few responded (to paraphrase), “Either Freeman doesn’t really understand or does not care about the totalitarian nature of the Putin led Russian government under which he lives.” One comment referenced the pic of me that was posted with Dreher’s article about our decision to move to Russia. He said it was unintended irony that I was intently reading Pravda, a publication of the Communist Party. Actually I was not reading it. My wife got me to pose for the pic and posted it on Facebook as a joke not long after we moved to Russia. My friends got a big laugh out of it, as you can imagine.

The pic and comments reminded me that last fall Pravda ran a front page story essentially calling Putin a liar who does not care about his people. It quoted Putin from early 2005 when he said he would not raise the age of retirement. The “pension” age in Russia was 60 for men and 55 for women. When Putin indicated in 2018 that he would support a bill to raise it to 65 for men and 60 for women, Pravda and other publications sharply attacked him. (Note: Alterations were made to the bill.)

In Putin’s defense, when he originally promised to keep pensions at the same ages, he did not foresee the sharp rise in life expectancy in Russia over the next several years. (See http://www.unz.com/akarlin/russian-demographics-in-2019/?fbclid=IwAR0duI24PUez05-PQH5Rgx_dJfZj0pvlRNv5xFlwGYqWcN4poy-fgwX_MsA) A whole lot more people are collecting pension checks today, and the government is “feeling the pinch.”

The main point I want to make, however, is the Communist Party and many other outlets feel free to publish strong criticisms of Putin. He is criticized here on a number of other topics, especially what some see as his passive responses to Western aggression. That does not happen in a totalitarian society. If I did not see the news here in Russia, I would judge from Western sources I live in a closed society where no one feels free to criticize the leader. Putin is a strong leader to be sure, but he is no dictator. Dictators silence public criticisms. I would also wrongly conclude Putin enjoys a close relationship with the Communist Party in Russia—or is secretly sympathetic to a return to Communism. A leader wanting to return to Communism does not repeatedly say, as has Putin, that whoever wants Communism restored has no brain. Western publications claiming Putin does not allow dissent in Russia or is a “closet Communist” are not based on actual research of what is written and said here. They ignore or distort both what Putin has written and said and imply contrary views are not allowed. They focus on unproven and illogical accusations that Putin is responsible for the deaths of opposition reporters.

On a related point, overall I think the news shows here present different sides of most issues more fairly than their U.S. counterparts. I admit surpassing the fairness and objectivity of the American MSM is a very low bar to hurdle. In news talk shows here a number of perspectives are heard. They even have an American journalist, Michael Bohm, who usually takes the pro-American perspective on major international stories on one of the main news programs. Can you imagine a major news talk show in America allowing a knowledgeable Russian to explain freely the Russian “side” of the news?

I’ve been coming here since 2002. I have visited Russia many times and have lived here almost six years total. I have read a number of biographical works on Putin, have read as many of his speeches as possible, but I have no way of knowing what he is really like or whether he has huge amounts of money stashed away in off-shore accounts (or whatever the current “inside” information is on him in the West). I have, however, seen first-hand the improvements which have been made during his tenure as president, and they are quite impressive.

In the blog I stated I do not ever try to convince anyone to come to Russia. Rather, I try to provide the best possible responses to inquiries based on my experiences and research. In several comments to Dreher’s first article, some readers explained why they could not leave America. Some just did not believe they could learn a new language. I have repeatedly mentioned that is a problem here, since Russian is a tough language to learn. Probably the most frequently mentioned reason was financial. That is completely understandable. I realize the decision about our move was made easier because I was able to take early retirement and have enough pension to cover living expenses here. There are increasing avenues of work for expats coming to Russia because of changes in electronic communication, but each family has to decide whether or not they can make an acceptable income.

Among the comments I read on me and our move was the suggestion that finances, not cultural values, may have been the real reason we moved. Our “lifestyle” here is in some ways better than in America and in some ways not. We have lived in a very small apartment now for over two and a half years. Our three room apartment is about one-fourth the size of our home in America. It is cramped! Also, we have gone without a car during this time and are dependent on public transportation. Public transportation here is good and cheap so we don’t have to have a car, but obviously having our own car would provide us with more convenience for travel. On the other hand, having a mortgage, car payments, utility and medical bills in the U.S. meant we rarely could go out to a nice restaurant; vacations were few and far between. It is different for us here. We can go out to eat, travel a bit, and we have also been able to help other families in distress through help a fellow Orthodox believer organizes in the area. So we have less in terms of “material goods” here, but our cost of living is also much, much lower. Families have to determine for themselves what they can do given their financial responsibilities.

I worked for my brother in America, and he offered that I could retire but continue working my old job part-time. The total income from Social Security and part-time pay would’ve been about the same as my full-time salary, and I would have had more time with my family. I was concerned about how much time I would’ve been called back to the office, but the overriding issue was we were growing more concerned about the direction American culture was headed.

Another question that came up was what specifically were the things about American culture that motivated us to leave. The people who asked were not arguing the basic point Dreher (and I) made about America’s moral and spiritual decline. But “are those problems sufficiently different from the country to which you moved to warrant such a drastic step?” I believe they are. I did not write much about these concerns in my early blogs. As I have said, the blog was started in response to a request from some folks at our church who were simply interested in what life was like in Russia. Early on I stated that I would not avoid the political (or cultural) issues, but those were not the main purpose. Further, I really was reluctant to criticize my country. As the situation in America further declined, however, and I got more and more inquiries from people who were seriously thinking about moving here, the blog “evolved.” I think it is more important now to address specifics of what prompted us to consider a move.

When we moved from Russia to America in 2008 we decided that Roman, who was almost 8 at the time, would go to public school. We did it primarily so he could learn English, and it worked very well. Also, the school was in a rural area outside a small town in South Carolina. I believed public schools there were still solid academically, and I did not foresee any “worldview” conflicts. All went well as far as I knew, but I found out after he had completed one year of early high school that he had had one teacher who was openly gay. The teacher would sometimes describe places he and his partner had gone over the weekend or what activities they had enjoyed. My response was not one of an open-minded progressive. At the same time, had I known about it, I was informed there was nothing I could have done other than to remove our son from the school. That opened my eyes to other ways even my small town culture was changing.

The second event was related to “transgenderism.” While we were thinking about moving to Russia, a chain discount store, Target, announced that the restroom facilities would not be restricted to one’s biological gender. How one “identified” in terms of gender would be respected. Shortly after that there was a report of an incident in one of the Target stores located very close to us. A mother was waiting for her young daughter to use the restroom when she saw a person, who was obviously a biological male (dressed as a female), enter the restroom. She became concerned and when she entered she apparently saw this person trying to enter the stall where her daughter was. I said “apparently” because the press release was vague. The trans-gender person was told to leave, but no charges were filed. The mother was horrified. I feared this would not be an isolated event.

I have a daughter. I was 60 years old when, after four sons, she was born. I had a girl! I admit the rumors that I am a doting, overprotective aged father are true. I was enraged when I read the story. I thought even more deeply about the culture in which my little girl and her 7 year old brother would be raised. I learned early this week that near where we lived, there is a neighboring town in S.C. debating whether or not “drag queens” can present their “reading hour”program to small children in the public library. Permission was given to them to do so. It was halted, however, when the library officials realized the “Mom’s Liberal Happy Hour SC” group, who was sponsoring the event, had required tickets to attend, which was against the library’s policies. Nevertheless, the group dropped the ticket requirement and reapplied. Their request was approved. So little children got the opportunity to hear a drag queen who believes she can, in her words, “give them someone to look up to.”

Obviously, no one is forced to take their child to such an event. But I have learned over time you cannot fully insulate your child from the culture. I am no expert on parenting, but I do have a lot of parental experience extending over times of cultural change. I have 5 children. My oldest son is 36, my second son is 34, my stepson is 18, my youngest son is 10 and my daughter is now 4. Yes, that is quite a range. I have learned, as have many parents, that during adolescence children reach a point when parents are no longer the dominate influence in their lives. They are financially dependent, but you have to deal with the fact they are influenced by forces outside your control. We all struggle to prepare them for the big—and sometimes bad—world. Releasing them into a culture that is so blatant in its opposition to traditional values was a new and big concern for me. We are never able to keep out all the bad influences, but it is a new era in America. The drag queens aren’t just parading publicly in San Francisco. They’re in Simpsonville, S.C. – the buckle of the Bible Belt! As Dreher indicated, America is no longer a force for good in the minds of some of us.

It isn’t just the changing of values, however. It is the censure of open discussion and inquiry. Even when persons try to articulate their conservative social views in a clearly rational manner, they rarely get an honest hearing. The same old ad hominem attacks are used repeatedly. I see reports that on major college campuses honest political and social debate is being silenced. I recall my state supported university as a place devoted to healthy and rational debate. So if my children were to reach college age in America, it would not be just what university will provide a quality program for them; it would also be to what degree this university silences those who do not go along with the current spirit of the times. Is freedom of speech still a reality even in the hallowed halls of the academia in America?

The situation is very different here in Russia. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Russians, in general, still approve of traditional male/female roles, much as Americans did when I was growing up. Men hold the door for ladies and help with cumbersome or heavy bags. They also “watch their language” when ladies are present. Some American women find these things offensive. Others do not. It is difficult being a gentleman in America: you never know if you’re going to offend somebody by what you do or say. On more serious issues, Putin’s philosophy on matters of same sex relationships and gender identity are that such decisions should not be encouraged until the individual is of mature age. A strong majority of Russians agree. Thus, while gender reassignment surgery is legal in Russia for adults, as is the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, gay marriage is prohibited. Further, strict laws are in place prohibiting the display of affection by such individuals in a public place to which children have access. Thus, events like gay pride parades and similar activities are usually prohibited by local authorities, although they are sometimes allowed in certain locales. I am quite confident access to public restrooms will continue to be based strictly on biological gender, and no drag queens will be appearing at the local libraries or schools. In a broader sense, traditional Orthodox values are generally encouraged.

Another valid question raised in the comments to Dreher’s article about me is, “Are we not as believers called on to be salt and light where we are?” What if everyone with our convictions leaves? Then what happens? Should we apply some sort of cultural “categorical imperative”? It is a fair and important question. So how does someone like me respond?

First, some personal history. When I was 18 years old I joined the U.S. Marines. I distinctly remember that after I had signed up I went down for the preliminary psychological and physical examinations. This was not when I was entering “boot camp,” but it was to make sure I was suitable. After I had finished the tests I went to “check out.” The sergeant spoke in a usual gruff manner: “Freeman!” I meekly responded, “Yes, Sir?” He said, “Our country is at war in a place called Vietnam. Will you hereby swear you are willing to take up arms to defend your country to the death?” I had never heard it expressed quite that way before, but I firmly responded: “Yes, Sir!” He nodded, “Very well, sign here and you are dismissed. You’ll be notified when to report to Parris Island.”

I served over three years active duty, but I was never sent to Vietnam. At the time I sincerely meant it when I said I had no qualms about fighting. Now, I think what a tragedy other young men like me were sent to fight in what was a meaningless war. As I said in my last blog, John Bolton wasn’t willing to do what I and thousands of young men were willing to do, but he and others in leadership are still sending young men and women to such places. I detest both the hypocrisy and the casual way leaders and politicians are eager to send Americans to risk their lives for what turns out to be political posturing and arms sales. Dying in Afghanistan or Syria will not ensure the security of the American borders or the American way of life. In my youthful naivete, I was willing to risk my life for my country. Knowing what I know now, I’m not willing to risk my children.

I am not called to save American culture from itself. Pat Buchanan wrote The Suicide of a Superpower: Will American Civilization Survive to 2025, in which he describes the descent and possible death of American civilization. For his negative appraisal of American culture he was terminated from his job at MSNBC. He takes the title from Arnold Toynbee: “Great civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” I will not sacrifice the future of my children on the altar of America’s suicidal tendencies. God did not call Lot to transform Sodom. He told him to leave.

Again, I am not trying to convince anyone to move to Russia. I do think if one decides to remain in America then you need to get very serious about The Benedict Option. And be ready to pay what may be a very high price for being counter-cultural. Whether or not a family decides to go “The Benedict Option on Steroids” route (as one wag called a move to Russia) is up to each family. Clearly, moving to Russia does not mean I’m more committed to my values or more spiritual than others. It was something we researched, about which we prayed, sought advice and came to believe was right for our family.

Emigrating clearly requires consideration of a number of factors and is not just about dissatisfaction with the decline of cultural values one sees in his or her home culture. Moving from America to Russia is not for everyone, but many families are seriously considering it. The clear majority are Orthodox. There is a spiritual connection to Russia among Orthodox churches and believers. These are not families acting on a whim. I’m impressed by their diligence in research. They somehow find and get in touch with people like us who are already here. Some have visited Russia, and others have plans to do so soon. The ones I have talked to are families who understand far more about Russia than those typically criticizing them. They are not under any delusions that Russia is perfect and free of problems or crime. These people are not to be compared with “starry-eyed” predecessors of past eras. They believe the U.S. Government will continue to intrude in the private lives of its citizens and seek to influence the next generation in ways that contradict the values they hold most dear. Life in Russia presents immigrants with challenges, problems and frustrations. It is not, however, interested in tearing down the faith and values of those parents who desire to pass them on to their next generation.

ROD DREHER, JOHN MEARSHEIMER AND THE EXPAT OPTION

Several days after I posted my last blog I noticed a sharp uptick in viewers. In 24 hours I got over 400 views. For a small time blogger like myself that is unusual when I have not posted anything new. Occasionally I get a larger than normal number of “hits” either when my blog is translated into Russian or when another site picks it up. Neither of those had happened. I discovered the blog had been mentioned in the comments to an article, “An Expatriate of the Heart,” by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/an-expatriate-of-the-heart/

Rod Dreher is widely known in Christian circles from his book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” The book was published in 2017, but his idea had been discussed in print long before then. While Dreher is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, his book was widely acclaimed not only in Orthodox circles but among Protestant Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics. The book extends some of the thought of Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and examines virtues in “post-Christian” America. Dreher contends the traditional Christian world-view has been all but excluded from both the pop-millennial culture and the halls of Western academia.

Dreher decided to take up MacIntyre’s challenge to pioneer a new way of following Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s counsel to live out the Christian tradition in Christian communities that are in many ways socially detached from the larger communities in which they are geographically located. (The idea goes back to Benedict of Nursia.) In his preface Dreher recalls how in 1999 at the birth of his first child his thoughts on American culture began to change. Before then he had thought of himself as a Christian and also a conservative. Dreher, like many new parents, began to think more about the future culture in which his son would grow up. He began to notice disturbing trends in American culture and wondered “what, exactly, it was that mainstream conservatism was conserving.” For Dreher, the days of depending on changing America’s moral and spiritual values through electing a new slate of politicians are over. Dreher’s call to arms is not about resurrecting the “Moral Majority” of Jerry Falwell. The ballot box is no longer an effective means of cultural transformation.

Dreher’s book both enlightens “orthodox” (little “o” is emphasized) believers about the current cultural and social trends and calls those believers to unite in “counter-cultural” communities. America’s education system, like its political system, can no longer be trusted. It is not so much a criticism of “dumbing down” educational expectations, as getting parents to recognize that the loss of classic educational principles in American school systems is often matched with a desire to “socialize” the students in ways that run counter to basic Christian values. I recall before we moved from America seeing the public education videos proudly showing trans-gender individuals being brought in early grade school classes to interact with the students and ostensibly lower their apprehensions about such individuals. Conservative Christianity is no longer part of mainstream America. Dreher follows Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore in saying the church must “lose its cultural respectability to become radically faithful.”

Others, not writing from a Christian perspective, have also noted major changes in American culture and the inability of much of “the public” to change those trends. In his recent book, “The Great Delusion,” noted political scientist John Mearsheimer discusses how difficult, nay impossible, it is for people in a liberal culture to agree on what “the good life” is. Mearsheimer is not using the word “liberal” in the way we often do to describe someone who holds to a certain set of political perspectives, e.g., women rights, gay rights, pro-choice, etc. He is using “liberal” to refer to belief in the importance of the individual and individual rights as opposed to, say, a monarchy or some other system that devalues the place of the individual in the political and economic destiny of a nation.

Despite the emphasis on individual rights, Mearsheimer contends we are profoundly communal in nature. We are born and raised “in community.” Society and culture are essential factors in our self-definition. He defines a major dilemma the liberal state faces: “For a society to hold together, there must be substantial overlap in how its members think about the good life, and they must respect each other when, inevitably, serious disagreements arise.” I doubt anyone reading or watching the debates about our cultural values in America would conclude there is a whole lot of respectful debate going on over our deep divisions in defining “the good life.”

In the sense that Mearsheimer defines “liberal,” the Constitution of the United States outlines a liberal nation. America was founded on individual rights, e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to engage in business without governmental controls. That would be what Mearsheimer calls “modus vivendi” freedom. That is the kind of “liberal” thinking that characterizes the views of more traditional, usually Republican, Americans.

Another major group in American culture which is also liberal is categorized by Mearsheimer as “progressive liberals.” They agree on the importance of individual freedoms. They point out, however, that we all are born with different opportunities to realize those freedoms. Most people would concur that certain factors about one’s birth–whether you are white or black; poor or rich; Protestant or Jewish—can and often has impacted the American experience of freedom. Progressive liberals today include such factors as sexual orientation and gender identity. “Racism” is extended in a number of ways which vivendi liberals find confusing. Thus, according to progressive liberals, the government must engage in social engineering to make sure those individuals who sometimes were denied their rights get full access. What this approach means is that the rights of those who have traditionally enjoyed “privilege” over others should be stripped of any possible advantages. Thus, preference may be given to others historically denied full access. The government must intervene to balance the scales. Currently, the progressives are in charge culturally and politically. Mearsheimer, like Dreher, believes the modus vivendi liberal adherents cannot win the cultural battle at the ballot box. He states:

“To understand how thoroughly progressivism has triumphed, consider how liberalism relates to the major political parties in the United States today. The Democratic Party’s ruling ideology is clearly progressive liberalism, and it acts accordingly when it controls the key levers of power in Washington. If you listen to Republicans, you might think they follow the dictates of modus vivendi liberalism. That is usually true of their rhetoric, but it is not how they govern. In office, Republicans act like Democrats” (p.69).

An example of this fact is that most Republican candidates campaigned as “anti-abortion.” Republicans held majorities in the House and Senate, as well as the White House, from 2016-2018, but absolutely nothing was done to reduce government funding of Planned Parenthood. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/report-government-funds-largest-source-of-planned-parenthood-revenue-66930. This funding continues even after videos showing members of Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parts were proven authentic. http://thefederalist.com/2019/01/18/court-rules-undercover-videos-planned-parenthood-selling-baby-body-parts-authentic/.

In Dreher’s article, “Expatriate of the Heart,” to which I referred in my first paragraph, he ventures a bit further than “counter cultural.” He gives a lengthy quote from a reader in Atlanta who had “played by the rules” of how to succeed in America. He was an Eagle Scout growing up, served in the military, sent his daughters to Christian colleges and worked hard. He ended up losing the business he helped build to hostile investors, his wife left him “for another woman,” and the court took his house. From his struggle he found his place in the Orthodox faith, but realized how American culture had changed in ways that contradicted his faith. He began to travel and came to see his homeland differently. He gave up on America. Dreher was obviously impacted by this man’s letter as well as other information he has been receiving from followers.

While the seed for “The Benedict Option” was the birth of his son, Dreher relates another parental “ah ha” moment. His 14 year old son mentioned his interest in someday joining the military. Dreher was surprised at his own response. He does not look down on the military, but he winced when he thought of how the U.S. forces are involved in perpetual wars all over the globe. He did not want his son to participate.

I don’t have space to treat Mearsheimer’s discussion of this issue thoroughly. Suffice to say he documents how fruitless and devastating our wars have been since WWII. My father’s generation was told Korea was important enough to fight over. After many lives were lost, little was accomplished. The next generation was told Vietnam was worth fighting for in order to stop the growth of Communism. It took many years before the U.S. admitted it was a lost cause and left the country in a far more decimated condition than when we arrived. Many lives—both American and Vietnamese—were lost. The North Vietnamese moved back in after the U.S. pulled out, and today a united Vietnam has one political party—which is Communist. The Vietnamese economy seems finally to have recovered from the American intervention.

From Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places Mearsheimer shows how ill-informed our attempts to export “liberal democracy” have been. We were told how awful Gaddafi was in Libya and felt no remorse when “we came, we saw, he died.” Now, Libya, which was once prosperous, is devastated by an ongoing civil war and human marketing. Our government lied to us. It has been lying to us a long time. The sad irony is, says Mearsheimer, liberals know very little about how to do the almost impossible job of regime change, but they refuse to stop trying. They were unable to accomplish the regime change they wanted in Syria, so now they want to try again in Venezuela. I don’t know much about Venezuela, but I have read enough to see the “Western info machine” is already producing plenty of false information. We have heavily and unfairly sanctioned the Venezuelan economy, fed lies to the American people about our activities, and now want to use Venezuelan poverty as an excuse to intervene. Leaders like John Bolton have evidenced no understanding of how to be authentic diplomats. Bolton wrote in his Yale “reunion” yearbook 25 years after the event how he had joined the National Guard as a young man to avoid going to Vietnam. His reason: “I didn’t want to die in some Southeast Asia rice paddy.” While Bolton himself was a coward when it came to going to battle, he thinks nothing of sending our military men and women to die in battles that are just as meaningless.

Dreher points out other examples that are deeply disturbing. He documents how the United States government has used tax dollars to spread pro-gay rights literature in other countries. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine marched in a gay rights rally in that country last year. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine ran the following statement from U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on its web-site, “The United States joins people around the world in celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Pride Month, and reaffirms its commitment to protecting and defending the human rights of all, including LGBTI persons.” This is now our mission around the world. Can one truly be “counter-culture” when our tax dollars are used to support everything from Planned Parenthood in America to gay rights in Ukraine?

Many of us resonate with Dreher’s words and feelings when he confesses that he had always thought of America as a force for good in the world, but, sadly, he can no longer say that. He concludes, “Personally, I don’t know what it would mean to ‘give up’ on America. That said, I find our country to be an increasingly hostile, alien place, in terms of the direction of the culture, and the lack of a sense that there is anything left to restrain its descent.”

He invited readers to respond with their own ideas on leaving America or the experiences of those who have left. There were many responses. You can access those on your own (see the link in the beginning), because I do not have the space to discuss them. I was surprised that there were few respondents who disagreed over the basic point about the lost virtues of America. The best a few could say was that it is no better anywhere else. I hear this kind of response frequently. The belief is still strong in America that since the West is imploding culturally and morally, the whole world is without hope.

It is not true. The fact that progressively liberal values and war-mongering are predominant in America and Western Europe does not mean it is like that everywhere. No country could have qualified as more “godless” than the USSR. Today, however, the traditional morals which Dreher and many others long for are alive and well in Russia. I know Americans are being told Russia is a terrible non-democratic aggressive nation run by a thug. I live here and have often wondered why these lies are passed on so casually. Mearsheimer points out that one way to keep a society intact is to “create a foreign bogeyman sufficiently fearful to motivate the society’s members to work together to defend against the threat” (p. 38). I firmly believe this is a major motive for the lies about Russia in the American political and media establishment. They need to direct the attention of Americans away from the real corruption and division within its own borders. If Vladimir Putin is the personification of evil in the world, then perhaps Americans will unite around a corrupt and corrupting circle of power within the beltway of Washington, D.C.

Further, Russia is not the world’s aggressor. A recent article appeared in Consortium News about U.S. military bases. https://consortiumnews.com/2019/01/16/bases-bases-everywhere-except-in-pentagons-report/. The Pentagon’s Base Structure Report reported there were 514 U.S. military bases outside its borders. Knowledgeable observers noticed that bases in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places were not in the report. Actually most experts put the number of bases outside American borders at about 800―but many are kept off the “official” list. Not even members of Congress know about some of them and certainly exercise no control over them. They are accountable to no one but the generals. The U.S. has not officially declared war since 1942, but we continue to send men and women in uniform to other countries to die if necessary “defending our freedom.” Mearsheimer stresses that we have two oceans on each coast which act as natural defenses. Neither Canada to our north nor Mexico to our south has the will or the economic and military means to challenge our hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. We have an arsenal of nuclear weapons and have declared the Western Hemisphere off limits to any hostile power. In what possible sense are American troops fighting for our national security in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria? We have been involved in wars all over the world and have pushed NATO up to Russia’s borders, but we insist that it is really Russia who is aggressive.

The traditional values, the loss of which many in America are lamenting, are largely the values of the Russian culture in which I live. I do not write as someone who has been told this. I live here. The Russian Orthodox Church has a strong influence on local life. There are also active Catholic and Protestant churches in my town. The Church and State work together at a national level. For example, both want to reduce the numbers of abortions which skyrocketed during the Communist era because abortion was commonly used for birth control. The Church has made a strong commitment to help women in “crisis pregnancies.” The laws are more restrictive now about when and for what reason abortions can be performed. Watching the news here after Gov. Cuomo signed the bill in New York permitting late term abortions, I was struck by the contrast between the agony of my Christian friends’ posts on Facebook and the smiles and celebrations of the governor and legislators in New York. Abortions are still performed in Russia, but the numbers are steadily declining and no one smiles, laughs or brags about them.

I realize many in America are very glad that the American government is intervening and the understanding of “morality” has changed radically. They applaud freedoms won for gay, lesbian, trans-gender and many other Americans who have been oppressed. They have the right to rejoice: They won. The Benedict Option is one way for those on the other “side” to adapt. Many have been and are living it out. Others, like me, decided it was not in our family’s best interest to risk the future of our children to stay. After the New York decision on abortion I received an e-mail from an American Orthodox mother asking questions about moving to Russia. She realized the struggles involved in such a move. She wrote, however, “We have to move. No matter how well we are doing in home schooling and church, we cannot keep the government out of the lives of our children.”

I never try to convince anyone to come to Russia. I do receive frequent inquiries. I try, as best I can based on my experiences and research, to give honest descriptions and answers. I will repeat what my regular readers have heard me say many times. Despite the bad political relations between the U.S. and Russia neither I nor my family have ever been treated in a bad way. Our children attend public schools. They have to study harder, but they have learned the language and are doing well. Sometimes we do not agree with what is taught in a science class (for example), but nothing is ever presented in such a way as to tear down what we teach at home. The views of the parents are respected. There is essentially no debate here over gender issues or traditional male/female roles. Some of my American friends will see this as horrible, while others will be envious. Life in Russia is certainly not without challenges and difficulties. I continue to struggle with the language and other aspects of life here. Nevertheless, I do not sense the deep seated alienation living in this culture as Dreher and many others sense living in America.

America has long regarded itself as a “shining city set on a hill.” We stood for freedom both within and outside our borders. In some ways I fit into two groups that bemoan the current conditions there. First, many respondents to Dreher’s article were baby boomers. I am one, too. We watched Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best on TV. We laughed at the humorous problems and felt moved by the love of “traditional families.” It was not an ideal world, however. There was ugliness and real racism, but we kept pushing until we improved the culture we thought worth saving. And it did improve. Now, the very culture we wanted to save is seen by many as a sad remnant of an immoral and nasty life. Second, I am also a member of the group with young children. I have a teenager, a 10 year old and a four year old here. Saying goodbye to my other world and knowing it was impossible for my children to have what I had had was traumatic. Embracing that far-away cold land of Russia was intimidating. We made the choice. We’re glad we did. Life here is far from perfect, but the trends are definitely positive. The future looks bright and refreshing. People have hope. Sadly I cannot say that about my native land.

BETWEEN TWO CHRISTMASES

dedmors snegurochkaMy wife usually wakes up in a pretty good mood. After that first cup of coffee she can be even cheerful and chatty. But December 25 she woke up grumbling and coffee didn’t help. “This living between two worlds is rough at Christmas,” she muttered. In Russia, December 25 is just a normal day. She had to wake Gabriel and get him ready for school, and then she had to prepare to teach her two English classes in the afternoon. When Gabriel got up, things did not improve. He was almost 8 years old when we moved from America, so he clearly remembers December 25 as a day when every law-abiding 10-year-old should be able to stay home and enjoy gifts and eat Christmas cookies. Thus began our tension between the holidays of Russia and America.

I wrote about it last year, but I still get questions on why Russians celebrate Christmas on a different day than Americans. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the calendar currently in use in most parts of the world. There were some slight differences in calculation which apparently made it more accurate. Jesus was born under the Julian calendar which had been put into effect in 45 B.C. While Russia, like most countries, eventually (1917) adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church is a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy that did not go along. December 25 under the Julian calendar is January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. Hence, our American family and friends celebrate Christmas on a different day than those of us here in Russia.

There are other differences, as well as some similarities, in the way the holidays are celebrated. You cannot really replicate the American Christmas experience in Russia. Christmas in America is something almost the whole culture celebrates. Most people know it is the observance of the birth of Jesus, but a lot of people who are not Christians still celebrate it as a winter holiday. It’s a time of gift-giving and office parties for a lot of people of any faith or no faith. It is the biggest holiday of the year. I loved Christmas even during my years as an atheist. New Years is also a holiday, of course, but it is mainly limited to New Year’s Eve, when there are often parties, and January 1, when there is traditionally a big meal and a lot of football. Some of my American friends have already taken the Christmas tree down by the time the New Year arrives.

In Russia there are also lights, trees, and the exchange of gifts. Most of those things center around New Years Day, however. That is the time when gifts from Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his grand-daughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) are opened. The tree is a “New Years Tree.” Most families and friends have a big party on New Years Eve night. It is the biggest holiday of the year as far as I can tell. The kids are out of school from then until January 9. Also, most adults do not have to go to work during this time so the festive spirit lingers on after January 1.

Christmas here in Russia is a holy day set aside by the Church. It is a day of worship and reflection. In the last week of the “nativity fast” Orthodox believers are encouraged to spend more time in reflection and study as they prepare for January 7. In America we may casually talk about the “Christmas holidays.” In Russia “Christmas” refers specifically to the observance of the birth of Christ. The Russian word for “Christmas” (Рождество) is probably better translated “Nativity.”

So, I have been asked: What is the good and bad of spending this particular holiday season in Russia? First, as an Orthodox believer, I like the fact that Christmas remains specifically Christian. Everyone has New Years to party and celebrate with their families and close friends. That night is for the gifts, the parties, the tree, etc. Then the next week those us who are believers can gather in worship on Christmas. There is less internal stress when the focus is on Christmas as a time for devotion and reflection. I don’t mean it is completely somber. I write this the Saturday before Russian Christmas, and the kids at church are going to decorate the Sunday School room and even a tree outside the church with nativity ornaments. Obviously the downside is I miss gathering with my family and friends in America. Missing those meals and celebrations does not get any easier with the passing of time. This year was our third Christmas here, and I think it was the toughest emotionally for me.

I will venture a broader observation on the differences in this holiday time. At least for now, I do not believe that materialism has as strong a grip on Russian culture—at least small town Russian culture—as it does in America. By materialism I mean equating the “stuff” that we own with ultimate value in life whether we actually need it or not. Average Russians had to endure really tough economic times not many years ago. Most people here are old enough to remember what it was like to go to the store and not be able to get basic necessities. To me, while there are clearly exceptions, the average Russian does not require as much to feel that life is good as the average American. Further, most Russians I know do not labor under the kind of debt most Americans carry. Comparing household debt in Russia and America is a bit like the proverbial apples and oranges comparison. The economies are very different. I rarely come across a study that actually takes in consideration all the various factors. The so-called “standard of living” in America is higher, but I don’t think most Russians worry about that as much as most Americans. Again, all generalities fail in some details, but I speak as someone who has lived in small towns in both countries. Most American analysts have never lived here and seem out of touch with how to evaluate Russian life and attitudes toward money.

The Russian economy is improving, however. I have read reports that by 2020 things could look much better. If so, I wonder what impact it will have on this culture. Times of economic prosperity can mean other, more lasting, treasures and relationships get neglected. I hope this will not be the case in Russia. Oddly, I’m one of those who hopes that Russia will not emulate the West.

In the meantime I continue learning how to adjust to the different culture. I stepped back at the end of the year to think on the battles and blessings. The main obstacle remains the language. Learning to speak Russian better is just a part of my life here as far as I’m concerned. I envy some of my western friends. There are some who don’t speak Russian well (if at all) and really don’t worry about it. They can communicate in English with those they need to. They tell me they would like to speak Russian better, but they are not going to worry over it or spend a lot of time on it. On the other hand, I would love to be like those who started studying Russian at a younger age and in a classroom setting. The cultural transition went much more smoothly for them in some ways. I take heart in the good things I hear, however. My mother-in-law says she can tell I understand a lot more. I ran into my friend Natasha at the market. We chatted in Russian briefly, and she later told Oksana that my Russian sounded like “natural Russian.” Then a lady at church heard me talking to our priest at Trapeza and told Oksana she was surprised at how well “Maxim” (my Russian Orthodox name) could speak Russian. So I choose to believe there is improvement despite how slow and frustrating the progress seems. I try to relax and remember I am making improvements and, more importantly, our kids have “picked up” the language much more easily than I have. That’s a good thing.

I am grateful that, despite my frustration with the language, our adjustment to Russian culture has been easier than I thought it would be. We have purchased our home, and the work on it is scheduled to be done by the end of this month. We were able to transfer money for the purchase of the home from my retirement account with no complications. We will have well over the twice the space. I’ll even have my own study!

The economic situation in Luga is still going well. I continue to hear sometimes on American news programs how awful things are in Russia, but, as with many things about Russia, there is no evidence actually offered. While we loved all the socials and gift-giving at Christmas in America, many families like us experience financial stress after it is over. It has been better in Russia, despite the fact my retirement income is not even close to what my salary was in America. This year Gabriel got a throat infection and cough early in December. It turned out to be a long-term ordeal. He had to go to the doctor three times over a two-week period. The first round of medicines did not work so the doctor changed his medication. If Gabriel had gotten sick like that in America at this time of year it would have been a financial disaster for us. Three doctor visits and buying all those meds! Our medical bills plus Christmas gifts would have put us in serious debt. In Russia the total cost for three doctor visits in a private clinic plus the medicines came to about $40.00. After that we still could afford to buy nice gifts for family and a few friends without the huge financial stress.

The social and political status remains relatively calm here. Maybe it just seems calm, because the tension and divisiveness in my American world continues on an upward trajectory. So maybe it’s just Russia seems mild by comparison. I guess the big political news for us watchers of the international scene was that Trump announced our troops would pull out of Syria and a significant number would be leaving Afghanistan. I was not surprised at the attacks that came at him from both Democrats and Republicans, and I wonder if he can pull off the withdrawal. Apparently there is no “anti-war” party within the Beltway of Washington, D.C. A significant number in both parties seem strongly committed to keeping America perpetually at war. The old plea from the Vietnam era to “give peace a chance” is not a chant heard from many voices in Washington or pop culture these days. I do not consider myself a Trump “fan.” As I’ve stated before, he makes some decisions I think are good—like trying to bring American troops home—and others that I don’t. What I found so distressing were the base and even very vulgar attacks made on him by other politicians. It’s not like that here. That does not mean Putin has no critics. Simply because those who disagree with Putin make their points in the proper context and without crass and profane language does not mean he has used fear and intimidation to silence his critics, as some uninformed Western observers declare. I like following politics, but it’s getting tough to stomach. I heard one news commentator, whose name I did not know, refer to the “draining of civility” in Washington. That struck me as apt phrase. Hence, many of my American friends hate talking politics. It sickens them, and it sickens me that the world watches and concludes this is “real” America. It isn’t the way most Americans live their lives, but that is not how some of our political leaders make it appear on international TV.

Then the “culture war” in America also seems to continue with no end in sight. I remember years ago “tolerance” was a word used frequently as a positive virtue. Maybe I’m missing something living halfway round the world, but the culture seems decidedly intolerant in my native land. It’s different here. I can’t describe it or quantify it unfortunately, but I have experienced it. In America I can “blend in.” Here, there is no hiding the fact I’m not Russian. No one here who knows me (even casually) mistakes me for a Russian. In this small town I’m an outsider, an oddity. As they said to the disciple Peter as he tried to blend in around the fire during Jesus’ trial, “Thy speech doth betray thee.” The minute I open my mouth, they know I’m not one of their own. I’m different, and I never try to pretend I’m Russian. They know I’m from that country whose leaders and media have nothing but bad things to say about them, their leader and their country. Still, no one treats me in an intolerant manner. Further, I have found the values and virtues I consider most important in life are those shared by many Russians. There is a bond there. I don’t try to be anything but an American, but there are essential aspects of who I am that are far more important to me than being an American. I think the Russians who get to know me understand that. It doesn’t mean I still don’t feel the tension of belonging in some sense to both America and to Russia. The two Christmases remind me of that struggle. Nevertheless, I will treasure the memories and lessons of the one world and continue seeking the positive new dimensions of the other.

CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!

HOLY DAYS, HOLIDAYS AND HISTORY IN RUSSIA

I find Russian history fascinating. During the 20th century the government collapsed twice. What emerged from the rubble both times was something very different from what preceded it. For most of its history Russia was a monarchy and a self-proclaimed Christian nation. The Tsar had complete authority and officially answered to no one. God had put him on the throne. Amid growing unrest in 1905 the Tsar finally agreed to having a constitution. Ultimately, however, the constitution was not enough to calm the troubled waters. In 1917 the followers of Vladimir Lenin drove the Tsar out of power and eventually murdered him and his family. What eventually developed was The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, which was officially atheist. Then in December of 1991 the USSR either collapsed or was dismantled, depending on your perspective. What emerged was a democracy (of sorts). I have written about the decade of the 1990s in Russia before, so I won’t go over that horrible decade again. In the 2018 elections Russians again went to the polls to vote on their leaders with teams of international observers on hand. In its long history, Russia has had only three men who were elected by the people as heads of state. Russia now has no officially state sponsored religion, although Orthodox Christianity clearly has the most adherents and the most influence on public policy.

This varied history has left holidays a difficult thing for some of us outsiders to understand. In fact, I think even some Russians are confused about their own holidays. It’s the interplay between national and religious observances that makes things confusing. In one sense it is similar to America where most holidays originated either as religious observances, e.g., Christmas, or from significant national events, e.g., July 4. It’s just in Russia things are way more complicated.

The first weekend in November demonstrated my difficulties. As we prepared to go to Liturgy on Nov. 4, my wife reminded me it was the day of observance for the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. This harks back to Russia’s Tsarist past when religion and politics were wrapped together. (I’ll address the basic issue of icons in Orthodoxy in my next blog.) Kazan had been conquered in 1552 by Ivan IV (aka Ivan the Terrible), but it was not culturally Russian. The Kazan Khanate was predominantly Muslim, and they were not happy about the Russian/Christian takeover, especially when the Church established a Diocese there the next year. Further, in 1559 there was a terrible fire in the city, and the Muslims blamed the Christians. When the Rurik dynasty came to an end in 1605, however, the “time of troubles” began in Rus. There was no Tsar, and the aristocratic families battled intensely with each other. It was practically a civil war. The Polish aristocrats thought this would be a good time for an invasion. Patriarch Hermogenes was taken into custody. He was able to send out messages to the Russian public, however. In those messages he told the Russian populace they must stop fighting each other and defend the land and the Orthodox faith.

A little girl in Kazan kept insisting she had visions from God, and the Icon of the Holy Theotokos (Virgin Mary) was in the ashes somewhere in the city. Church leaders dismissed the “dreams” as meaningless. The situation further deteriorated, however, so at the continued insistence of the little girl, a search was done and the icon was found. A copy of the icon was taken to Moscow where the Poles were inside the Kremlin. Upon its arrival, the soldiers, heeding the messages of the Patriarch, fasted and prayed for three days, after which the Poles were easily driven out. November 4 is the day when all the Russian Orthodox Churches join together to venerate this icon.

I’ll blame the fact that I’m American for forgetting just how important this day is in the Russian Orthodox Church. When we arrived for Liturgy on that Sunday, I was quickly “educated” on its importance, however. We did not arrive on time for the beginning of the Liturgy. When I opened the door to enter the church, I could not get in. It was packed. I don’t mean crowded; I mean there were so many people we could not get inside the door. In the Russian Orthodox Church we stand during the Liturgy. There are a couple of benches over by one wall for those who, because of age or infirmity, cannot stand, but everyone else stands. They were standing literally up to the door. We retreated to the Sunday School building until a few people left, and we were able to enter. (In the Russian Orthodox Church the Liturgy is formal, but there is an informality about people entering and leaving at various times. The Liturgy lasts about 3 hours.) We remained for the completion of the Liturgy and enjoyed a wonderful Trapeza (meal) afterwards.

It was interesting for me to be a part of that Liturgy. I noticed several young ladies who were wearing the traditional dress of ancient Rus. I find those bright long dresses and head coverings fascinating and beautiful. As we were leaving I heard them discussing a concert in the village that afternoon. Back in Luga, my father-in-law later told me when he drove through town there was a Procession of the Cross. He had to wait quite some time because the police had stopped traffic in the center of town for those participating in the long procession.

That evening we were invited to Oksana’s parents for the observance of “Unity Day,” another component of this complex holiday. After the Bolsheviks took over, they obviously could not allow a holy day commemorating an Icon of the Holy Theotokos, which supposedly brought victory to Russia. Yet people hate having a holiday taken from them. So in 1918 they made November 7 a national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution. It was actually October 25, but that was back when Russia was still on the Julian calendar. When the change was made to the Gregorian calendar, October 25 on the Julian calendar is Nov. 7 on the Gregorian calendar. (The Russian Orthodox Church is still on the Julian calendar since that was the calendar used at the time of Jesus.) So every year on November 7 there would be military parades and performances to commemorate the beginning of what became a Communist nation made up not only of Russia but of all the Republics. They were all now united as one—at least politically.

After Communism fell in 1991 there was again a problem. It didn’t seem appropriate to celebrate the beginning of what became Communism when Russia was neither any longer Communist nor joined to the other Republics. In 1995 Yeltsin renamed Nov. 7 “Moscow Liberation Day,” which recalled the liberation of Russia from the Polish invasion. Still he kept the date of the October Revolution and did not mention the name of the icon. It had both a military and quasi-religious dimension. The next year he changed the name once more, this time to “The Day of Concord and Reconciliation.” In 2004 Vladimir Putin announced the creation of two holidays. November 4 was named “Unity Day.” It commemorates the joining together of all Russia to drive out the invaders. Churches, of course, focus on the veneration of the Kazan icon. Others, like my in-laws, focus more on the unity of the Russian people–fortunately they included their American son-in-law! November 7 became an exclusively military holiday honoring all those serving in the military without reference to the Revolution. This year November 5 was the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the Intelligence Division of the military so the focus was more on that. So the five Oksana, the kids and I commemorated the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God in our morning worship service. Then we celebrated unity in Russia with my in-laws, sharing a family meal early that evening. On November 7 Gabriel went with his grandmother to the observances for the Military Intelligence here in Luga. A photographer snapped his photo, and he got his picture in the local paper with a Russian soldier instructing him on the proper use of a military rifle. Pretty heady stuff for a ten-year old boy.

Further, there are a few here who still honor the October (Bolshevik) Revolution on November 7. I saw a picture of a group in St. Petersburg and heard there was a closed party in Moscow. Yet the government and press pretty much ignore it. Neither Putin nor any of his spokespersons even mentioned it to my knowledge. I was surprised I didn’t get any fliers or announcements from members of the local Communist group who are usually outside our building on significant days for Communists. The folks who want to observe it are free to do so without anyone protesting. They don’t protest us going to church either.

As far as the developing political activities now, since being in Russia I’ve been inside the local polling station on election day and read articles by those outsiders from various countries who have been here as official “observers.” All I saw looked very normal, and I never read anything by the observers suggesting that the elections were fraudulent. Several of the actual observers expressed surprise at the order and efficiency of the events they saw. The only accusations I have heard are from American media members or politicians who were not here. This is not to say everyone in Russia is happy, and no one ever complains about the political system. Pensioners are still angry about proposed changes in the retirement, especially moving the age to 65 for males and 60 for females. The last Levada Poll I saw showed Putin’s approval rating had dropped to 67%. That’s far below the 80% he had been getting, but it is still significantly higher than any Western leader.

As I write this there are still strong protests going on in America over who really won in some of the “mid-term” elections. The Georgia’s governor race is still being reviewed, and Florida has become so confused I really can’t follow all that is going on. The Democratic Party regained a majority in the House of Representatives, and their leadership has announced more investigations into Trump, his tax returns, and, of course, the so-called Russian collusion from over two years ago. The Mueller-led investigation of the 2016 presidential election is supposedly going to end soon, but no official announcement has been made. There are those who still firmly believe that election was fraudulent, although I hear many reports saying Mueller has not come up with anything on Trump and the Russians. After the Trump White House recently banned a CNN reporter, the network filed suit against the President. It seems certain the “war” between him and much of the “main stream media” will continue. Neither group trust the other side, and the results will be contested no matter who is declared the winners.

That first Sunday in November is one that stands out because it illustrates one of the things I find so interesting and impressive about Russia. As I’ve admitted before in blogs, I can’t always stay focused during the Liturgy, because I cannot understand Church Slavonic. So sometimes I look around. I look at some of the old folks and have gotten to know a few of them a little better. They lived as believers in a Communist country. They tried to worship and pray and live the life of faith as best they could in a country which—to say the least—strongly disapproved of such things. They sneaked and had their children baptized; they worshiped wherever and whenever they could. They had little opportunity for the public expression of their faith. Some have said the Communist time was a time when their faith was purified and strengthened.

On the other hand, sitting with my in-laws at the meal afterwards I thought of those who, like them, were members of “The Party.” They believed what they had been taught. They worked hard and were loyal to their country. My father-in-law served his career in its Army with honor. Then it all fell apart. They learned about the underside of their history. They found out things of which they had never been aware. Yet they moved on and adjusted their thinking accordingly. They still value hard, honest work and a commitment to family and community. They don’t decry those who were on “the other side” of things. They get along fine with those from church. My father-in-law had no complaints about having to wait for the Procession of the Cross to pass. I think he respected it. In some strange way I sense a mutual appreciation of the others. They look for common ground. Despite the fringe movements (who claim far fewer adherents than the West pretends), I see this virtue being passed on in Russia. They accept the fact that not everyone saw or sees things the way they do. They don’t hold others accountable for what they did not or could not know. They do not spend their lives in regret or shouting and shifting the blame. A traumatic past here has forged this powerful virtue. I am in hopes it is one the citizens of my own country can still yet recover. Before it is too late.

SETTLING DEEPER INTO LIFE IN RUSSIA

ISAACWe have finally returned to our (somewhat) normal life in Russia after our trip to America this summer. The boys are back in school, Oksana is teaching two days a week, and I am reading, keeping up my Greek, studying my Russian and doting over Marina Grace. As I have said, we all really missed America and our family and friends there after we got back. What we did there, who we saw, and what we miss kept coming up in conversations. Over time, however, we realized nothing good could come from thinking that life back in America would be just like it was on our three week summer vacation. It would be back to school and work. So we refocused on our life here while still being thankful for our extended American vacation. We also made a couple of decisions.

Our first decision was a big one: We decided to buy a house. We knew our rental apartment was too small and had looked at a few houses both here in Luga and in the nearby village where we go to church. We never got very serious about any of them. After we got back to Russia Oksana found one on-line that had plenty of space and was at a very good price. It was not complete, however. The family had been living in it but had decided to build a second floor and were in the process of doing that when apparently the husband died. (The lady just said she was now alone. We didn’t know if that meant he left or died.) So the upstairs is “roughed in,” but no interior walls are up. They were adding a vinyl exterior so that is also not complete. It’s a little ways down a dirt street, but the houses in the area are nice, and it is surrounded on three sides by a forest. Oksana has a close friend whose husband is a builder. In fact, he specializes in remodeling and restoration. He is a very nice person and volunteered to go with us to inspect the structure. As I said, this one has plenty of room for us, a bit over 2,000 sq. ft. The rooms downstairs are quite large. Our builder friend carefully inspected everything and afterwards told us it is a well-built house, and also the biggest house for that price that he’s seen. He gave us an approximate estimate of how much it would take to complete the work, and since it was well within our budget, we decided to buy it.

I couldn’t take out a mortgage in Russia because I do not have any income here. Obviously, Oksana does not make enough teaching part-time to qualify for a loan either. This summer my “financial guy” in America, whose company has my IRA, told me that one part of my retirement account is invested in a manner his company is not able to continue managing since I no longer live in S.C. We knew there was a possibility that we might buy a home here so while we were in America I transferred that money to my Sberbank account here in Russia. Plus, the Russian government gives money to families who have children if they are making a significant purchase “to improve their living conditions” or will use the money to continue the education of their children. It is called “maternal capital.” So we signed the papers to purchase the home and then applied for the maternal capital to be transferred to the seller (it’s all electronic – you never see the money). The home is ours, but the present owner does not have to be out of the home until she gets our maternal capital deposited to her bank account, which usually takes anywhere from one to two months. Russia does not give “tax breaks” for children. Income tax in Russia is a flat 13%. Anybody can, however, apply for government funds if they have children. Russia’s population was decimated after WWII (“The Great Patriotic War” as it is called here). Then the birth rate fell again dramatically during the Yeltsin presidency since people simply could not afford children. Now the government is very “friendly” toward families with children, and help is available. The maternal capital is not a loan. It is money the government gives to support families with children.

Since it looks like we’ll be here for some time I also decided I need to work even harder on my Russian language skills. Everyone else in the family, even four year old Marina Grace, speaks Russian well. I have studied Russian on my own for several years, but I have never taken an actual classroom course in Russian. So I decided to take a one week “immersion” course offered by a school in St. Petersburg. I checked around and the school had a very good reputation. So I signed up for 30 lessons in one week. It was one-on-one with the teacher, a Russian lady named Anastasia who is from St. Petersburg. For six hours a day I studied and spoke in Russian. No English was used at all. I was not allowed to say anything in English, and she explained everything in Russian only. The bulk of the time was spent in a class room practicing speaking, listening to her and recorded dialogues, reading and doing some grammar. Three afternoons we ventured out into the streets. We went to the Russian Museum, the Hermitage, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. As in the classroom, during our visits we spoke only in Russian. That was particularly difficult. There were so many things to see, but she was constantly asking me questions and explaining things in Russian. So they were not just leisurely trips to important sites. I was seeing Russian history and practicing the Russian language all at the same time. I stayed in the apartment we rent for Roman. Oksana, Gabriel and Marina Grace were back in Luga. That was tough. I had to navigate around the big city all on my own. (More on that below.)

The week was probably my most difficult one since being here. I felt very out of place without the family, and I could actually feel my brain get tired from being forced to communicate in another language for hours. I do believe it was a productive week, however. It forced me to do things I would not otherwise do. As anyone who has ever tried to be proficient in communicating in any foreign language knows, it is a big move from short sentences in a workbook to actually understanding “native speakers.” The speed makes every word seem to run together. Second, fear of making mistakes is a constant enemy. I think this is the main reason children learn languages so much easier than adults. They simply do not mind making mistakes. They want to communicate. Gabriel never worried about it. Hence, he learned very easily. He just kept speaking it until he got it right. In this course, I didn’t have a choice. I spoke, and I made mistakes. I listened and often did not understand. The teacher was very patient. She knew what she was doing, and she would repeat whatever I asked her to repeat—as many times as I asked. She never seemed frustrated. Also, she had a very high quality sound system, and we listened to dialogues of different Russian speakers. I did not finish the course under any delusions that I am now fluent. I do, however, have a greater grasp of my weak points and how Oksana and I can work together in the home so that with practice I’ll keep improving. I asked Anastasia about any resources or programs of study that would help. She said I speak well, my vocabulary is pretty good and I have a basic understanding of Russian grammar. But, she said emphatically, “You need to practice, practice, practice!”

One evening while I was in St. Petersburg I met a fellow “cultural refugee” for supper at a restaurant near the school. We had met on-line in discussions of issues pertaining to the Russian and American relationship. I told him I had been looking forward to asking him questions I always get asked, e.g., “Why did you move to Russia?” and “What is it about life in Russia you like?” At one point in the conversation he said, “It’s just we don’t have the stress of living in America.” Strangely, I knew what he meant—and what he didn’t mean. I knew he didn’t mean that life in Russia is stress free. Of course, there is stress living here. Learning the language is stressful; living in an environment without the support of friends and family from America is stressful. Bad things happen, things break, etc.

Life is simpler here for us, however. There is no way we could live on my salary in America. The house we bought would be at least three times the cost in South Carolina. (And more than that in other parts of the country.) The stresses of work, fatigue and time pressure are nowhere near what they were there. If we get sick, we don’t stress over medical bills. If something needs to be repaired it doesn’t cost the proverbial “arm and leg.” Clearly, the political debates are nowhere near as intense and divisive. I realize that the Western press presents this as evidence Putin is a dictator and everyone is afraid to criticize him. The truth is, as I have said many times before, issues are discussed here without the blather. My friend and I talked about how we have been involved in discussions and debates with people we know here in Russia about politics and other matters. Neither of us had ever had the experience of people getting angry at us or anyone else involved in the debates. People toast friendship and get back to the meal or whatever they were doing.

I would like to reiterate something else I have mentioned in passing before. The fact that Russia and America have been in a tense relationship now for quite some time does not mean those of us who live here worry about that impacting our relationship with Russian friends or even strangers. After Anastasia and I had visited the Russian Museum the other day we had a long walk through a park with which I was unfamiliar. She continued her “teacher” role even in our conversation in the park, so I had to focus on that. After a while our time was up. She pointed me to where I needed to go to get back to the school and on to my metro station. Unfortunately along the way there was construction, and I was sent on side streets and could not find a way to get back to the area I knew. I headed in the general direction I thought I needed to go. Two things were against me. I’m a small town guy and any big city confuses me. I’m pretty good finding my way through fields and forests, but buildings look the same to me. Second, it was very cloudy and without the sun I have trouble figuring out my directions. Soon, I was lost!

I continued walking and stopped one lady and explained I needed to get to a Metro Station. She told me to continue the direction in which I was going and what street I needed to look for. When I got to that street I couldn’t figure out which direction I should go. I asked a young man (late teens, early twenties maybe) who said he didn’t know. I thanked him anyway and continued my walk. A couple of minutes later he came running up from behind me to tell me that he remembered the general location of the station. He pointed me in the right direction and named the building I should start toward. He tried to speak English, but I understood his Russian better than his English. When I got there the entrance to that Metro was closed! No one was allowed in that station for some reason. I was worried now. I walked a bit further and then stopped a middle aged man about to cross the street. I explained my situation, and I asked him to speak slowly because my Russian was not very good. He pointed and said in English, “Go that way. See blue building. Left.” I found the station and made it home!

When I was meeting my friend for supper the next evening I could not find the restaurant. (Turns out I had walked past it, but it was a small place with no sign out front.) After crossing the street and going on further, I didn’t know what to do. I asked a young lady who had stepped outside for a smoke if she knew where it was. She said she had never heard of it, so I started to move on. She spoke to me (in Russian of course) and said, “Wait. Let me look it up on my phone.” I paused while she put out her cigarette and looked up the place on the phone and showed me on the map. All these encounters took place on a busy crowded street. I openly told them I was a foreigner, and I think all of them figured I was American since two of them used a couple of English words. Yet all of them stopped and took time to help me the best they could. Of the four people I asked for help not one of them was rude and all helped me the best they could. This is not some folksy small town. This is a city of about 6 million people. You will understand when I hear the the U.S. Department of State issue a warning that Russia is not a safe place for Americans to travel, I insist that they are motivated purely by political posturing which has nothing to do with actual knowledge of Russia. If it were so dangerous then this chronically lost meandering American would have had much more to fear and a whole lot more time would’ve been spent trying to get home.

When I got back to Luga Friday night, my father-in-law picked me up at the station. On the short ride through town to our apartment I was very thankful to be back in Luga. I realized how much I like living here. Places and people are now familiar to me. The calmness of this little provincial town reminds me of how calm it used to be in the small towns and the culture in which I was raised back in America many years ago. I know it sounds weird to sound nostalgic about America long ago when talking about life in Russia now, but I sometimes feel that way. I know there were problems, stresses and disagreements back then in America, just as there are in Russia now. There is a difference, however, between cultural stress and constant division and agitation. Whatever one hears on the news, please know that from my experience here and my “worm’s eye” view of things, Russians are not looking for fights and conflicts with Americans. Their political leaders are not trying to stir up feelings of animosity toward Americans within the people here. If they were, I’d perhaps still be wandering around the streets of the big city!

“WHAT WILL THEY SAY IF WE MOVE TO RUSSIA?”

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I have mentioned before that when I started writing this blog it was for my friends in America who wanted to know what life in Russia was really like. I have since discovered there are quite a number of people interested in Russia and some of them are considering moving here as well. I tried to answer several common questions I have received about the practical aspects of moving to Russia in my last blog. Other than the logistical, linguistic and vocational issues I discussed, the possibility of moving to Russia can also create tension or misunderstandings with family members and friends. Why is that so? How will family and friends respond to their leaving? How does one establish new relationships in another culture?

It isn’t hard to understand those who transfer here because of work. It doesn’t happen often since the sanctions, but some companies still do business here. Some of us have married a Russian. That doesn’t make it likely we’ll live in Russia, however. I’m fairly certain there are more Russian/American families who choose to stay in America rather than settle in Russia. Having a Russian wife made me more interested in Russia, but it was far from being a factor that led us to move here. But what about those who just “pick up and move”?

The first thing anyone who starts talking openly about it will notice are the reactions they get when they tell people that they are thinking of moving to RUSSIA. If you suddenly inherit a large sum of money or win the Lottery, and you tell everyone your family is moving to the Caribbean or the Bahamas or to France, people understand that. (They’ll likely be envious!) If you tell friends you are moving to Canada because you’ve had it with Donald Trump and the political craziness in America, they may not agree, but they’ll understand. But when you say, “We’re thinking about moving to Russia,” they usually don’t understand—at all.

I mentioned in my last blog that one of the things that irritates me most is the wrong information being spread about Russia. Almost all you hear about Russia is negative, whether it comes from the news, politicians or movies. Much of it is also wrong. I still have friends and relatives who are absolutely convinced I am either lying or have been brainwashed when I tell them Russia is a nice place to live. They have never read one speech by Vladimir Putin or listened to any of his press conferences, but they are absolutely sure that he is an evil dictator. They’ve heard it on the news many times. How did we get to this point? Most people who follow closely know the Military Industrial Complex has its agenda. They know painting Russia as a threat helps get the defense budget high enough to buy and sell more weapons. They have lots of money and influence which they can use to demonize Russia. Most also understand that some politicians try to paint Russia as evil to generate votes or blame an election loss on. I’d like to do a brief background going back further, however. Why is there such a disconnect between what people hear daily about Russia and what people like me who live here say about it?

First, there is, of course, the history of the Cold War. Everything I heard growing up about the USSR (or just “Russia”) was about how awful it was. The leaders were dictators who didn’t care about their people. There was no free press because those despots censored the news to fit how they wanted the people to think. In my home region back in the “Bible Belt” we heard a lot about how “the godless Communists” excluded God and religion from public life. I still hear from people who carry this image of Russia in their minds today.

After the “fall” (or “dismantling”) of the USSR things changed for a time. Boris Yeltsin was elected, and American leaders declared brighter days were ahead for Russia. During the decade of the 90s (about which I have written), the U.S. stepped in to show the Russians how to do democracy. President Bill Clinton convinced the IMF to pour a lot of money into Russia, and he sent American experts and advisers of all sorts into Yeltsin’s Russia to “help” the country become a democracy—just like America. The reports from people who were supposed to know were glowing. The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, David Remnick, said in 1997, “The Russian prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before in history.” The economist, Richard Ericson, said in 1998, “The guarded optimism of the economists….seems justified; the ‘holistic’ transformation of Russia will continue.” In March of the same year, Vice-President Al Gore said, “Optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia.” (The quotes are all from Failed Crusade, by Stephen F. Cohen. The first part of this book is a thorough discussion of these wrong evaluations.)

The quotes above come from less than a year before the Russian economy completely collapsed in 1998. A lot of Russians were literally starving. Despite Clinton having convinced the IMF to send $10 millions to Russia in the mid-90s when “my friend Boris” (as Clinton called him) was running for re-election, over 50% of the Russian population lived below the poverty line, which was $45/month in 1998. The majority of American journalists, politicians, economists, and scholars were completely wrong about Russia. When confronted with the truth of how bad it was going they indicated it was temporary and were dismissive of the awful suffering of the Russian population, repeating and old saying from Joseph Stalin: “You have to crack eggs to make an omelette.” It didn’t seem like “cracking an egg” to Russians living here; it was “the collapse of modern life for us,” as one Russian writer put it. I’ve talked to many Russians personally. Their experience of the Americans “helping” Russia was awful.

President Boris Yeltsin had done everything the Americans asked, but American democracy did not work in Russia for a lot of reasons. First, most of the money received went into the pockets of a whole new generation of “oligarchs,” not to meet the needs of the Russian people. Another factor was the “experts” often lacked knowledge of Russian history, traditions, and character. Russia could not “jump out its history” and be like America. Cohen points out that many journalists who came here then to report on what was supposedly happening didn’t even know the language, let alone the history of the country. They saw rich people in Moscow doing well and thought the whole country was like that. Authentic investigative reporting on Russia was a rarity.

Vladimir Putin was initially praised by Clinton when he became president. With the passing of time, however, Putin came to trust American leaders less and less. He would not follow their dictates. He moved the country in a different direction, especially after George W. Bush deceived him and pulled out of the IMF treaty. To make a long story short, Russia did much better in every way when it stopped doing the bidding of the Americans. Better days for Russia did lie ahead, but that was because Putin pulled the plug on American paternalism. Those experts, journalists, and politicians either had to admit they were wrong OR they could make “Putin’s Russia” and even the Russian people look as bad as possible. Most chose the latter option, and they still stick with it. The campaign to demonize Russia was and is a coordinated effort.

There is also the issue of nationalism. I have just finished reading, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated Edition), by the eminent political scientist John Mearsheimer. He is a proponent of “offensive realism” in understanding international relations. One subject he devotes a lot of space to is nationalism. We are social creatures by nature. We tend to think in terms of “our group.” At an international level many of us who live in powerful countries tend to think our country is powerful because, well, its government and perhaps its people are better. Many citizens in the United States have come to believe that, despite our problems, we are “exceptional.” Meirsheimer points out that by exceptional we really mean “superior.” Our belief in individual freedoms and unfettered capitalism sets us apart in the minds of many Americans. If we go to war, it is for a good cause. We “won” the Cold War because our capitalism was superior to their Communism or socialism (unfortunately many use those terms interchangeably). We were also more virtuous than the amoral Communists.

Mearsheimer reminds us that before all the current Russia bashing we had joined with the Communist leader, Joseph Stalin, during WW2. Roosevelt started calling him “Uncle Joe,” so it would be acceptable to the American people for him to work with Stalin. FDR admitted he actually gave in to several of Stalin’s wishes to get what he wanted from Stalin. That frequently is the nature of political diplomacy. Russia is no longer Communist, and Vladimir Putin is nothing like Joseph Stalin, but many politicians and members of the press must convince the American people otherwise. Roosevelt got along quite well with Uncle Joe and met with him on several occasions. FDR was elected four times as president of the United States, and his popularity was still in good standing after meeting with Stalin on several significant occasions. Donald Trump recently had one summit with Vladimir Putin, and he was roundly condemned by the press and even called “treasonous” by the former CIA director. Ideology has nothing to do with the way Russia is portrayed in the American press or political circles. It’s a different agenda altogether. If one considers it appropriate to join hands with Stalin and totally impermissible even to talk with Putin, then ideology isn’t the key ingredient.

Many Americans want to feel a sense of pride in our country. That is not uncommon or necessarily wrong. Yet, in my opinion, there is a lot of “cognitive dissonance” among Americans right now. We have trouble finding consistency between what we have always believed about our country and the reality we are experiencing. I think that Donald Trump was elected, in part, because many Americans found “traditional” politicians out of touch and unresponsive when it came to what they cared about. Further, there is little doubt that many now distrust the mainstream media. There is no longer a Walter Cronkite who can convince us “and that’s the way it is” at the completion of a newscast. Liberals decry Fox News as “unbalanced and unfair,” and conservatives cry “fake news” at other MSM outlets. Both groups believe censorship and distortion are alive and well in the American media.

I know many religious people in America who are fearful that one can no longer talk openly about matters of faith in “the public square.”A high school football coach near Seattle, Wa. was fired for refusing to stop taking a private moment for a quick personal prayer on the football field after games. They aren’t asking Congress to establish their religion; they just sense “the free exercise thereof” is being taken away. The Soviet Union believed it was the responsibility of the State, not the parents, to decide the values children were taught. One of the reasons homeschooling is becoming more popular in America is because some parents see this philosophy at work in America. In short, many fear what was so wrong with the USSR has invaded their American experience. Thus, the “powers that be” have to work harder to make Russia even more evil. Russia is a convenient distraction from the domestic divisions. It has proved to be one topic that unites most Republican and Democrats.

In an age with the communication capacities like we now have, it is hard to keep intellectually curious people living in the dark, however. The people I know who are interested in Russia, whether they want to move here or not, are doing their own research. They seek out and find sources that they believe are providing trustworthy information. They’ve concluded that most of what is said about Russia is wrong, and they’re not afraid to face the situation in America as it really is.

So what does all this information mean to people who want to move to Russia or who are open to learning more? It probably means that some friends, co-workers or even members of your extended family will look at you differently. There are also some Russian ex-pats who left Russia many years ago who will tell you how bad it is. Clearly many won’t agree with or like your conclusions. Some simply will not understand your possible move or your views no matter what you say, and some of those will express their disapproval strongly. Others will understand to some degree, but still can’t grasp how a family just leaves what they have in America. I have had people who have never lived anywhere else but America tell me emphatically that America is the greatest place on earth to live. Families and friends vary, of course. Nevertheless, most I talk to who are seriously considering moving here have had “blow back” from some of the people they care about. So be ready. Furthermore, know that if you do move, the longer you’re gone, the more distant you probably will feel. The pulse of everyday life in Russia is not the same. It will be hard to convey that to some good friends back in America.

On the other end of the move be prepared that friendship with Russians won’t happen overnight. Again, there are exceptions, but “friendship” to Russians describes a very close relationship. They do not use the term casually like we Americans do. Becoming friends among Russians takes time and trust. If you are not fluent in Russian, it may take even longer. I also mentioned at the end of my last blog that one of the things I miss the most is having long comfortable conversations with my old American friends. While we were home for those three weeks in August I got to meet up with several of them. I indicated I didn’t get as many questions about Russia as I had expected, but we chatted for long periods about a variety of subjects. When we got back here, I realized how much I have missed that. Here is the quandary: I can’t talk to Russians about college football or a number of my favorite subjects. My alma mater Clemson is undefeated and among the top teams in the country right now! That means absolutely nothing to my Russian friends. On the other hand, there are a number of my American friends that I really can’t talk to about Russia and my life here. Living outside the United States is simply not something they can imagine or about which they have any interest in learning. My point here: be prepared to feel something of an “outsider” in both places.

The good news is things do improve here with time. As I said in the last blog, Russians will be interested in you. It is not that they, as a group, simply do not want to get to know you. They will want to ask you questions about America. They are very interested in learning your thoughts. Eventually they will want to “pick your brain” about what you think of Russia and other topics. These conversations can be quite fun and often lead to a lot of laughter. And Russian friends are very dependable and will want to help you in any way they can. Most are honored that you’re here. Just be prepared that it may take a while. Also, you can find friends from the “homeland” here. We communicate on-line and many get together as they discover those living nearby. Don’t try to set up an American “commune,” but don’t be afraid to reach out to other Americans for advice and friendship.

There is another kind of problem with moving here. When you live here you see news reports unlike what one gets from most American news outlets. I’ve mentioned how my own understanding of Syria and Bashar al-Assad has totally changed by seeing reports from other Westerners actually on the ground there. I have also seen how America’s friend Saudi Arabia is doing its best to slaughter the people of Yemen with American weapons, while we paint Iran as evil. Iran has nothing like the history of the Saudis when it comes to violence and oppression. I want my Russian friends to believe the best about America, but the more I learn the more difficult that gets.

The truth is, however, most who are seriously considering moving here already know of most of these potential pitfalls and problems. I rarely hear from anyone wearing “rose colored glasses.” They know there will be difficulties. Many are cautious and even afraid. But they are more afraid of the soaring debt and tumbling ethical and educational standards in America. They have to think through how to make a living and how to form networks here. Yet they also sense something shocking: they sense freedom when they think about moving to Russia. So they’ve started studying the Russian language and learning about life here. Those who can make trips to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what it is like in Russia. It’s not for the faint of heart to be sure. Nevertheless, they are people who are willing to take risks. If Russia is what many of us who live here claim it is, then it may be worth the sacrifice to live in such a place and raise families in such an atmosphere.

Clearly, huge numbers of Americans are not interested in moving to Russia. We think no less of those who choose to stay. That is what sometimes gets missed. Many Americans are aware of the problems there but want to stay and work for change. They want to build on those great aspects of America, some of which I have written about in previous blogs. I admire that, although I admit my pessimism. My wife and I concluded that staying and working for change was not where we believed our efforts were best spent. A family will have to sacrifice in order to come to Russia, but other sacrifices will be demanded of you if you stay. I honestly believe a significant number of people are going to be making the same decision we did. For those who will never come, however, I am hoping that you will still have an appreciation for this country, this culture, and these people.

Life in Small Town Russia: Q&A

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Periodically I take a break from the heavier topics and write a blog in response to questions I have been asked about life here or details on moving to Russia. The questions usually come from folks who are either interested in moving here or others who are very interested for other personal reasons. So I try to think about the most frequently asked questions and respond. Of course, I am repeating some things I’ve already written. I hate doing that, but my readership sharply increased in January of this year for some reason, and many are Americans interested in details about a move to Russia. I can’t just tell new readers, “Oh, go back and read some of my old blogs—I’ve answered that question at some point.” Please forgive the repetition. I remind you (again) that my life in Russia is small town Russia. Things are different in cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow. Some of my friends here in big cities may want to inform us of some differences.

What do Russians think of you?” I obviously have to generalize. When I say “Russians,” clearly I don’t mean every single Russian. I am only describing in general what I have noticed as trends. Russians tend to be what I call “quietly inquisitive.” That is, rarely if ever do Russians start asking questions when they first meet me. They like to look, listen and get to know me first. Even then most want very much to avoid being pushy or forward with a foreigner. It would be impolite. But they are incurably curious. Something happened a couple of weeks ago that illustrates my point.

We were taking a taxi back from church. Often we try to speak in Russian, but we were tired and we’d just been in America so we were speaking in English. I was sitting beside the driver, whose expression never changed, and Oksana and the kids were in the backseat. When we arrived at our apartment building Oksana got the credit card out to pay while I took the kids and headed for the door. In a couple of minutes Oksana came and told me to take the kids on up. She’d be there in a few minutes. Sometimes the credit card machine has trouble reading the card in certain locations, so I thought that was it. We were in the apartment some time before she finally came up. I asked why it had taken so long. She told me the driver wanted to talk. He had questions.

He asked why we were speaking English. Oksana told him I was American and we had lived in America 8 years. He said, “Is your husband, uh…is he…” Oksana interrupted and said, “Yes, my husband is a good bit older than I am.” He replied, “No, I don’t care about that. Is your husband a REAL American?” She told him that yes I was born and raised in America. Driver: “Where did his people originally come from to America?” Oksana said, “Well, Great Britain, but that was many, many years ago.” He paused before continuing: “How did you convince him to come live in Russia?” She said, “Well, it was his idea. He brought it up first. We lived in St. Petersburg before we moved to America, so he’s been here.” She said the he had a look of stark confusion for a moment. The idea that an American with no Russian ancestry wanted to live in Luga was a bit much for him. He still wanted to know why. She said, “A number of things. It is very expensive to live in America; health care costs are way beyond what Russians can imagine; the political situation is always stormy, and the kind of values and morals being pushed on kids now by the system is not what we wanted for our children. You know, like all the LGBT stuff.” Then he seemed to understand. He smiled and thanked her profusely for talking with him. It seemed to have made the driver’s day to find out some American guy wanted to move his family to his hometown!

That doesn’t happen every day, but it is not atypical in a small town. Russians, to me anyway, seem torn between the need to be polite and even distant and, on the other hand, they want to know the details about our family. If at all possible, they will usually try to go around me and question Oksana, to make sure they won’t offend “the foreigner” with their curiosity. In our experience this questioning has never been with negative intent or with bad feelings toward us. When they find out I’m an American who wanted to move to Russia, who studies the Russian language and who is Russian Orthodox, they’re very interested.

Your wife is Russian. What about those of us who don’t have a Russian spouse?” I think it would be harder in some ways, of course. The “bureaucracy” would be the main problem. I mentioned I’ve applied for Temporary Residency since my three-year visa runs out next year, and I’m tired of having to go outside the country every six months anyway. The application process was a pain. Russians love documents, stamps, and anything that looks official. And God forbid you make a mistake and correct it on the form! And the lines you have to wait in to get them to look at your application are awful. Obama once said no one wants to emigrate to Russia, but then Barack Obama never had to wait in line at Immigration Services in St. Petersburg! According to the UN in 2013-15 Russia ranked 3rd in number of immigrants.

On the other hand, there is help. There are plenty of agencies that will assist you with filling in your forms and translating and notarizing your documents, although there are reasonable costs involved. A notary here is quite different from America. Here they are legally trained, and the one we go to worked as a lawyer for some time. They know how to write up any kind of document and secure the proper stamps.

Naturally, a lot is related to how well you and your spouse speak the language, but there is help if you are not fluent. I have an account with Sberbank, the main Russian bank. The local branch called the other day because Oksana had tried to pay her phone bill directly from my account. I had to verify it. They had someone in the office who was fluent in English speak with me. If you don’t speak any Russian at all, it will be a big problem, of course. But they will work with you even if you struggle and converse at a very basic level. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t speak Russian well. In some circumstances I start by explaining I am a foreigner and sometimes have trouble with my Russian. It works. The Russians go into “help the poor foreigner” mode, and it usually ends well. I personally have never had anyone act frustrated because I am not fluent in Russian. Just the fact that I can express myself and what I need in Russian impresses them actually. They don’t expect an American to be able to say ANYTHING in Russian. But the principle remains: the better you know Russian, the easier it will be. This is especially true if neither husband or wife is Russian. You MUST be involved in studying the language, but you do not have to wait until you’re fluent.

If you are not comfortable with your Russian I would say do not move to a town where you don’t know any English speakers. If you move to a large city, it might be easier for you in terms of language. I had no trouble when we lived in St. Petersburg because there was usually someone around who spoke English. I frequently was out in the city going to different businesses to teach, and Oksana was never with me. I only knew very basic Russian and did fine.

I think if husband and wife are both learning Russian together that is an advantage. You struggle together and correct each each others mistakes. I have mentioned before I am very comfortable speaking Russian with my doctor because his English is so bad. I don’t mind making mistakes so I speak freely in Russian. When Oksana’s parents were here the other night I understood what was being said, but I held back from speaking because I knew it would slow down the conversation and Oksana can easily translate. So it does help having a spouse who is Russian and is fluent in both languages. Yet it has probably caused me to use her as a crutch and not get more practice.

How have you adjusted to the climate?” Since I’m from South Carolina both Russians and Americans ask me this question. Actually it is the easiest to answer: It hasn’t bothered me. I sometimes think people don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true. I told my wife last week Sept. 22 always feels different for me in Russia. It is the first day of Autumn, and it actually feels like Autumn. It was mid-50s (F), kind of gray, and the leaves are changing colors. When it turned Fall in S.C., it never felt like Fall. Summer doesn’t let go that easy! As far as the winter in Russia, I prepare myself emotionally. It’s Russia, and it’s winter—therefore it is cold. They have nice warm winter clothes here, so it’s no big deal. I loved the climate in S.C. I used to water ski, swim, stay on the lake or at the beach as much as possible. But I always got excited those few times it did snow. And even after all these years in Russia, I’m still like a kid at the first snowfall. I love walking in the snow, playing with the kids in the snow, and then coming in to a nice warm apartment and watching it snow more.

If we move, should I try to move furniture, car, etc., or just buy when I get there?” Shipping things can be expensive and difficult. The difficult part is finding a company in America that actually knows Russian laws and regulations. When we were flying here, for instance, we could have declared “unaccompanied baggage” at customs and saved a load of money. (We’d shipped a pallet of stuff here a couple of weeks before our move, mostly books and some household items.) But nobody told us to declare and we had no way of knowing, so we ended up paying through the nose. Also if the paperwork on the American side is wrong, you’ll end paying a bundle in customs charges when your cargo arrives to Russia. So if you do ship, ask the company if they have ever shipped to Russia. It doesn’t matter how many other countries they’ve shipped to. Ask tough questions, and it will save you money. Also, we did not ship our car, but I was told by a friend who did that he could’ve bought a car the same make and model here for less than he he paid to ship his from America. The truth is Russia wants you to buy a car here, so custom fees are such that you may come out better buying here. We have not purchased a car because taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. Furthermore, Russian drivers tend not drive defensively. If you do choose to buy a car the options are numerous, but the prices are no lower than in America. My general suggestion is that unless it is something you really have a strong emotional attachment to or something you know you cannot get anywhere else, then don’t ship. As I said, we live in a small town, but there was nothing we needed that we could not get here. It took some time on a couple of pieces of furniture because we had them built, but we got what we wanted.

What are the hardships of living in a small town in Russia?” I can’t really think of any hardships when it comes to living here. I mentioned the bureaucracy. That is my biggest problem, but I don’t call it a hardship because it isn’t like I have to do major paperwork all the time. Russia has changed in that we have plenty of grocery stores that have all you need at affordable prices; I love going to the open market for food and clothes; there are plenty of regular clothing stores as well. I know the Western media say sanctions are choking Russia and people are struggling. I’ve read several polls here and read a couple of fuller treatments that were carefully researched. In general about 2/3 of Russians say sanctions have not impacted them at all. Some in the lower poverty group (pensioners) say they have been negatively affected, as well as some who are very wealthy (foreign investors, etc.). Russian farmers love the sanctions. Farming is booming in Russia, and prices on produce remain low.

What are the best things about living in a small town in Russia?” There are several things that come to mind. First, I like the pace of living in a small town. We walk to the market or store or to meet friends. We enjoy our small church. We decided to put our children in public school. There are no Orthodox or private schools here, and we did not know at the time that you can homeschool in Russia. We do not regret it putting them in a public school, however. We have found the school does not try to take over our role as parents. There is a LOT of communication between Gabriel’s teacher and Oksana. Oksana can call her literally anytime she has a question. Gabriel can call us from school if he has a problem. The teacher keeps us well informed. For example, last week he had been sick, but he needed to take a test so we sent him back after missing a day. He did well on the test, but his teacher called Oksana and kindly said, “Gabriel still looks weak to me. I don’t think he needs to be here until he really feels better. I’ll get with you on all missed assignments.” Maybe he would get that attention in a big city school, but I know here he is watched over. He gets home no later than 1:30 (12:30 if there is no P.E.), so he isn’t gone all day. The big payoff was he learned the language so quickly! We also personally know two families here who homeschool. That is becoming more popular here in Russia and is possible in a small town.

Second, the medical care is high quality and low cost. I’ve written praising medical care here several times in my blogs and have answered a lot of private e-mails. We don’t have health insurance because we don’t think we need it. We pay about $7.50 for a regular appointment. Appointments are scheduled for 40 minutes. I have never had to wait in line more than 5 minutes. I’m in an on-line group of Americans living in Russia. I have known one American who had cancer surgery, another one who had major surgery, and both said they couldn’t believe how inexpensive their surgeries and treatments were—not even in the same ballpark as what it would’ve been in America. They were completely pleased with their care. I recently talked on-line with an American in St. Petersburg. We were trying to get together at some point and meet personally. He was recovering from a kidney transplant. It cost him NOTHING! I thought when he said it was free he meant the attending physician or surgeon. No, everything was free. He was applying for citizenship, but it hadn’t come through when his treatments began. I told him in America it took me forever to get the emergency room visits paid for when I had birthed two kidney stones. He got a TRANSPLANT and paid nothing. Also, emergency medical care is free for everyone. The quality and cost of medical care here is a huge benefit.

The other advantage of small town life is the low cost of living in general. We checked on an apartment in St. Petersburg when we moved here because we thought we might want to live there. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was about four times what we were paying for the same square meters here. The “dachniki” are the people from the big city who come here on the weekends (mostly in the summer). They frequent our grocery stores and market and buy all they can. We have heard them comment on how much cheaper it is here to buy groceries.

I think the adjustment has gone better for us here in a small town. We visit St. Petersburg on business sometimes. I loved living there when it was just Oksana, Roman and me. But with two small children we found it tougher getting around there. Maybe it is just that both Oksana and I were raised in a small town. I’d have trouble in a big city in America! Internet, medicines, and housing are much, much cheaper here than in America.

How much does it cost to live in your small town?” We live in a two bedroom apartment. It cost about $300 for the apartment and utilities. It is too small (about 60 square meters), but we’re OK for now since Roman our oldest son has an apartment in St. Petersburg. Since we don’t have a car we don’t really have any other major expenses. It is hard to give a figure on how much it would cost a family per month, because different families have different kinds of expenses. For instance, we know a family of six (husband and wife, a grandma and three kids) who live on $700 a month here (they own their property, so they have no mortgage or rent payments, no car payments either). It’s very tight and they have to be very wise about how they spend their money, but they’re managing. A decent house in Luga for a family our size cost about $50,000. Remember: Homes here tend to be smaller than in America. A new house about 1,500 square feet would probably be no more than $60,000. They told me since I am not a citizen I can’t get a loan, however. I took out part of my IRA for when we find the right house.

What kind of job could I get in Russia to support my family?” Since I don’t actually have an official job here, I’ll preface my remarks with saying my response is based on people I’ve talked to here. The two main areas that seem the most “convenient” is either teaching or some area of information technology. Native speakers of English find it easy to get students here. Here in Luga I could teach several classes at the private English school if I wanted to, and I could get as many private students as I wanted. The downside is the pay is sometimes not all that great, although if you build up your clientele of private students it can be pretty good. Also the i-net has opened up many more opportunities for teaching. Some people in Russia teach students in other countries in addition to their Russian students. I have a couple of friends in IT who moved here from America and still kept their overseas clients. They seem to do fine financially. Those are the two areas I know of in which you don’t really need to be fluent in Russian. Obviously, if your Russian is very good then you have more options with companies.

Does Putin or the Russian government in general make life hard on Americans there?” No. Some Russian laws are tough as far as immigration goes. Getting residency is aggravating, as I said. If I get my Temporary Residency I’ll be good for 3 years. Then I’ll apply for Permanent Residency, which is good for 5 years. After those 5 years I’d be eligible to apply for citizenship if I’m interested. If one wants to work here, then you have to get a work visa to start with and you have to pass your Russian exam! (There are agencies that help you do that). You’ll also have to live in the oblast (region) where you work. I didn’t bother with a work visa, since I’m retired, so I do not know all the issues involved. I’d think you’d have to have a Russian employer who takes care of things on this end. In general, however, the Russian government does not try to interfere with people’s lives nearly as much as the American government does.

What is irritating about life in Russia?” The lies told by Western journalists, reporters, and politicians about life in Russia, its government and its people.

What’s the worst thing about living in Russia?” Missing our family and friends. I have two grown sons living in America. Saying goodbye to them and their families when we came back here after our visit was very painful. I use to work for my brother, so we saw each other a lot. I don’t miss having to go to work, but I do miss our times together. He and his wife were so great to us on our recent visit back home. I miss being able to sit down with old friends and chat in English about everything from college football to the meaning of life.

Nevertheless, we enjoy living in this town and in a culture wherein the values and beliefs we teach our children are not berated by the larger society. Despite what they say, the political situation here is far more stable than in America, and despite what you hear it isn’t run by a dictator. I sincerely grieve over the political and societal fragmentation in America. Mostly I think it is good for me to be here at home for my two younger children. I can do that on my Social Security without all the financial struggles we had in America.