A RESPONSE TO JOSEPH BIDEN, JR. AND MICHAEL CARPENTER IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS, PART 2

I discussed the background of Russian-American election interference in part 1 of this section of my blog. Apparently wanting to appeal to the casual reader, the authors give the distinct impression that NATO, the EU, and, of course, the United States (although not specifically mentioned) wanted to help along our Eastern European neighbors after they had “seen the light” and wanted democracy. The enlightened guidance of the West would lead them to prosperous times ahead. I tried to show that their “history” is far from how things really were. Now I would like to address some other inaccuracies (that is a euphemism) in the article describing the present state of things in Russia. I will focus now primarily on the economy and demographics. I will address the issues of Georgia, Ukraine, and the mistreatment (or murder) of opponents to the current Kremlin leadership in another blog.

In contrast to the Soviet Union, however, contemporary Russia offers no clear ideological alternative to Western democracy. Russian leaders invoke nationalist, populist, and statist slogans or themes, but the Kremlin propaganda machine shies away from directly challenging the core precepts of Western democracy: competitive elections, accountability for those in power, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the  rule of law. Instead, the Kremlin carefully cultivates a democratic facade, paying lip service to those principles even as it subverts them.  Thus, it grants nominal opposition parties representation in the Russian parliament but thoroughly co-opts and controls them. It allows independent media to operate (although not in broadcast television), but journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes beaten or killed if they report on taboo subjects. It permits civil society groups to exist but brands them as “foreign agents” and crushes them if they demonstrate political independence. It oversees a vast repressive apparatus—recently augmented by the creation of a new National Guard force of around 350,000 members—to deter and respond to dissent. In short, Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content. 

The simple response is that for the authors to offer such a negative assesment of democracy in Russia they ought at least to provide some evidence. Of course, the presupposition is that the only ideal democracy is Western democracy, specifically American democracy. That is, if Russia does not set up its democracy just like America does, then it is not a true democracy. They assume that we should, without actual evidence, accept their simple assertions that Russia is corrupt and, behind the facade, violent and threatening. Surely no such corruption exist in American politics! Let me offer an alternative view based on what I have actually seen and heard here.

I live in Russia. I have spent almost five years of my life here. Last year, even though I could not vote, I went in the local polling station just to see what it was like. It was pretty much like what I would see in Greer, S.C. People having their documents and registration checked, finding the right (private) booths, voting in private, etc. There was no one there harrassing anyone and no one even carrying signs. I came with my in-laws; they voted, and we left. In the weeks prior to that I had watched various candidates appear on TV; I saw the billboards on the streets and the commercials on T.V. with each candidate vying for votes. I don’t know what Biden and Carpenter mean by their accusation that competitive elections here are being subverted since they content themselves with launching a general broadside. It is hard to discuss their evidence when they don’t present any. The impression, at least as I understand them, is that Putin silences all opposition. Western observers have been here many times for Russian elections. Polls are done repeatedly by such reputable organizations as Levada and Gallup. Election results, of course, always vary somewhat from polls, but nothing here as dramatic as the Trump victory—even as Rachel Maddow proclaimed all day on election day there was no way Trump could win. United Russia did a bit better than what most had predicted, but nothing like the drama that went on in the U.S.

Almost two years ago Putin nominated Ella Pamfilova as head of the Russian Electoral Commission. She has a long record of arguing for human rights and is a vocal critic of any abuses. The fact Putin supported her was widely seen as him choosing someone who people here know is not “in Putin’s pocket.” She was quite outspoken about whatever changes and improvements needed to be made. Also, let me give other differences from the American system, of which Biden and Carpenter seem unaware or at least choose not to mention.

First, the opposing candidates for president are not just seen around election time. A popular form of news cast here is to have several people of different perspectives discuss the news of the day, rather than one talking head reading from a teleprompter or interviewing one or two people at a time. Frequently I see Zhironovsky, the Liberal Democrat on these programs. Also, I’ve seen Zyuganov, the consistent Communist opponent as well. There are other Russian analysts with various areas of expertise. Then there are foreigners, like the American Michael Bohm, who usually gives the pro-American position on issues. His view is sometimes called the “CIA’s perspective.” Some say Russians “love to hate him,” but I have Russian friends who say they respect him. They told me that they would never hold it against an American for being pro-American. Also, Gilbert Doctorow sometimes appears to give a different “American” perspective than Bohm. In other words, you see Putin’s opponents on TV on a regular basis. Here you hear more in-depth analysis of events from different perspectives. It isn’t like Putin’s opponents show up on a billboard just when there is an election and are then quietly escorted away. The persistent idea that Putin is never criticized here is completely false. It rarely gets shrill, and I have not seen it devolve into personal attacks. Criticism here usually stays on the issues. Apparently some American observers think if there is no name calling, then it really isn’t criticism.

The other “candidates” appear in other venues than the news. This New Years night we were watching the holiday entertainment on Russian TV, and Zhironovsky came out and chatted for a bit. He was funny (rather than a bit wild as he can be), and ended by humorously telling people to vote for him, and he would make sure all their wishes came true in the new year.

Contrast that with the past presidential election in America. Debates turned into ad hominem attacks which often had little to do with the issues. In addition to attacking the personal life of the opponent, both candidates also attacked different media outlets for being unfair. I think it was in the last debate that Donald Trump even suggested that he did not trust the process and would have doubts about the election results. He was roundly condemned in the press and by his opponent for that remark. Yet, after he won, it was his opponent who has still to this day condemned the election because Trump allegedly colluded with the Russians. Her “fans” continue to insist the results were not valid, as does Joe Biden. And now we have been treated to a line of Washington politicians and well known celebrity figures we have learned have been living lives of consistent sexual harassment, abuse and even rape. And Biden and Carpenter condemn Russian democracy for not being like enlightened American democracy? Who in his or her right mind would want to emulate American politics? They say that Russia doesn’t have free and fair elections. That is what many Americans–both Democrats and Republicans–are saying about American elections! 

The Russian economy is utterly  dependent on hydrocarbon exports  [11], so its health is tied to the price of oil and gas; as those prices have plummeted in recent years, the state-owned gas giant Gazprom market capitalization has shrunk, from about $368 billion in 2008 to around $52 billion today.

Since Russia has some of the largest reserves of gas and oil in the world, then obviously its economy is affected by the price of energy. In the past it was true that it was almost solely dependent on those prices. Since the sanctions, however, the Russian economy has diversified. Much of that credit has to go to Putin’s leadership, although I personally think it has been the results of quite a team of sharp planners. The sanctions had the reverse impact from what the West planned. Russia had always been able to import agricultural products easily so the motivation for development was simply not there. Further, the collective farms of the Communist days never worked. I think the same could be said about a number of other kinds of products. The situation has changed, however, and Biden and Carpenter are being either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Due to government incentives last year Russia had the largest grain production in one hundred years. It exported more grain and wheat than any country in the world. (See this article in Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/422a8252-2443-11e7-8691-d5f7e0cd0a16). Financial Times is not some off beat publication. Are Biden, Carpenter and the “Team” at Foreign Affairs ignorant of what has been reported in numerous financial journals? Russian exports of “sugar beet sugar” also surpassed perennial leader France in exports as well. Agricultural production of dairy and meat, as well as fish, were all up. The sale of military weaponry was up this year for Russia. The sale of agricultural products, however, exceeded the sales of arms.

That doesn’t mean energy supply isn’t still in the economic mix in Russia, of course. They have just completed the Yamal project which will supply gas to China and other countries. The agreement with China is for $300 billion in energy over the next 20 years. Further, they will not be using the traditional petrodollar. They will trade in Yuan/ruble. Russia, not Saudi Arabia, is now China’s largest supplier of energy.

Imports, on the other hand, are down. Many see these as evidence of decline in Russia. They believe the sanctions are having the desired effect. It is not how many see things here, however. Putin wants Russia to be self-sufficient by 2020. He wants imports low. The last I checked, Russia is sixth from the bottom in the list of national imports. At 7.2% of the GDP it is the lowest of all major countries. There has been a “Buy Russian” campaign that has worked well. When I first came here in 2002, and even when I was here in 2005-2008, Russians tended to see the West as the producers of the best in products like clothes and personal commodities. That attitude is changing dramatically. The government convinced producers to focus on quality, and Russia does not need the West like it once did.

In trade BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) is making progress and trade between the countries appears to be very solid. Everyone knows China is a very big player in the global economy, and it is clear that China and Russia are much closer diplomatically and in terms of trade than they were in the old days of the USSR. Clearly Russia is much closer than the U.S. to China in terms of diplomacy and trade.

The Russian people were drawn together by the sanctions in a way the West did not anticipate. The plan was to divide Russia and make them unhappy with what they have. As Barack Obama said in 2014, “Russia doesn’t make anything.” John McCain said Russia was “a gas station masquerading as a country.” (See Forbes magazine response and rebuttal https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2017/07/06/sorry-senator-mccain-russia-no-longer-just-a-gas-station-masquerading-as-a-country/#b87fc5022f09) Clearly they were wrong. The economy (GDP) will probably grow around 2% for 2017. Russia has half the population of the United States, but it is the sixth largest economy in the world now in terms of exports. Its GDP will exceed four trillion for the first time ever.

While Russia’s economy may still look small to some in the U.S., it is clearly moving up and the statement it is “utterly dependent on hydrocarbons” is not accurate. Things are not perfect, to be sure. I think wages are still too low, just from my anecdotal knowledge. Also the purchasing power of the ruble is still extremely low. Inflation jumped when the sanctions were first imposed, but probably when the final figures are in, inflation for 2017 will be less than half of what it was in 2013-2014. Things are cheaper overall than in America, I can tell you that from living in both countries. As far as availability, I can buy pretty much any product I need at a reasonable price in the small city where we live. That was not true ten years ago.

Meanwhile, long-term demographic decline is sapping Russian society; the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration has projected a 20 percent decrease in the population by 2050. According to the CIA  World Factbook, life expectancy in Russia ranks 153rd in the world, far below the world’s developed democracies and lower even than developing countries such as Nicaragua and Uzbekistan.

Russia has struggled with low life-expectancy since the collapse of the 90s. Life expectancy fell off tremendously during that decade. The “de-modernization,” poverty, hopelessness, and terribly underfunded healthcare system led to the devastation of the health of many Russians. Of course, that was the decade America was making sure the man responsible for those conditions stayed in office. In other words, we did our best to manipulate Russian politics so a loser would stay in office, and now Biden and Carpenter seem proud of the consequences of our actions.

Further, the birth rate was low throughout the Communist period. Lenin wanted women working in factories, not home raising children. Biden, Carpenter and many others also fail to recognize the dramatic impact WW2 had on the Russian population. Over nineteen MILLION Russians died in that war. By comparison, the United States lost just under 500,000. I have stated before my purpose is not to demean the loss of those brave Americans. But when one is writing an article on the demographics of Russia a number of over 19 million lives lost in just one war should be at least mentioned.

I don’t know what year the ranking of Russia at 153 in life expectancy that they are using came from, but Russis has moved up to 110 now. The government is very conscious this is still a problem, however. Life expectancy is increasing here, as is the birth rate. Russia led all European countries in terms of birth rate last year at 1.8 million. The goal is 2 million. The birth rate has increased by 100,000 births annually in recent years. The government provides maternal capital to the families with a second child, which is very generous. We are taking advantage of that! I was surprised, however, to see polls that indicate that only 6% of parents list the maternal capital as a reason they wanted to have more than one child. They simply like the trend of life in Russia and believe it is a good place to raise children. Russians in general have a very high view of the traditional family. To maintain the population at the current level there needs to be 2 births per woman. Right now it is at 1.8. So there are demographic problems in Russia, but Biden and Carpenter take a “snapshot” (and an outdated one at that) and draw conclusions without looking at the trends over recent years.

I have to admit I hated all these statistics. I’m of the “figures don’t lie, but liars figure” mentality. There are enough statistics involved in studying Russia that anyone can twist them and make whatever point they would like. What bothers me most about the article by Biden and Carpenter is the heartless hubris of it. It paints Russia as evil, and nothing in the article seems to stem from a concern for its people, and, from my perspective as one who lives here, no concern for an accurate description of life here. If all I knew about Russia came from this article (and others like it) I would come away with a completely distorted picture of life here. I realize my tone has been quite strident and angry. I have grown tired of writers and pundits who do not live here telling me what life is like here. I will go further and say that if all I knew of Russia was what I got when I came here early in the first decade of this century (2002, 2003) then I would know little of what Russia is like now. Russia has changed a lot–for the better. Of course, it has more work to be done, but the trend is in the right direction.

I remember a Russian friend visiting me in America back in 2003. We were walking across the campus of the university where I taught and passed the flag pole. He commented on how many flags he saw flying in America—from storefronts to front yards. I told him that since 09/11 there had been a surge in patriotism in our country. He sadly lamented, “I wish so much this were true of my country. No one waves the Russian flag there. We don’t even know the words to our new national anthem.” Things are different now. I see a lot of Russian flags flying here now. They sing of their country with gusto. In America millionaire football players refuse even to stand for the national anthem. I spoke on the phone with an old friend in America this week. He is a financial advisor and had called to chat about my retirement funds. We got to talking about politics. I do not know who he voted for and did not ask. After we chatted a bit he simply sighed and said, “Hal, it has gotten so mean here. People no longer respect each other.”

My favorite author is G.K. Chesterton. This week, after the conversation I just mentioned, I was re-reading “Heretics” for the third time (I think). Chesterton referred to “Jingo” politics in the United Kingdom at that time. “Jingo politics” was an anti-Russian attitude from a line in a song from the supporters of the British belligerent policy toward Russia in their 1878 dispute. The line was, “We don’t want a fight, but by Jingo! if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and the money too!” Chesterton observed, “It is one of the deadly fallacies of Jingo politics that a nation is stronger for despising other nations.” He went on to advise his reader to follow the example of those nations who “sit at the feet of the foreigner and learn everything from him.” As I read the news from America I am deeply saddened and worried at the popularity of our own modern version of “Jingo politics.” I can only hope and pray that others will find what I have found. I have learned much from sitting at the feet of the foreigner.

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A RESPONSE TO JOSEPH BIDEN, JR. AND MICHAEL CARPENTER’S ARTICLE IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MAGAZINE, PART I

The first week in December I received an e-mail from Foreign Affairs magazine with a featured article attached, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” by Joseph Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter. “The Team” at Foreign Affairs [FA] told me to enjoy it and please share it. I began reading it, but pretty soon it looked a lot like a typical anti-Russian propaganda piece, and I lost interest. Then when I checked my Facebook page I was greeted with a post from a FB friend on my “wall” with this same article attached asking me to please write a blog in response. Since the “friend” was my wife, I decided to at least post back a brief response to a few of the “misleading” points in the article and gave a vague promise to perhaps respond at some point with a blog. A couple of other “friends” joined in with comments assuring me I needed to give a full response. I don’t really enjoy writing political blogs as much as I do the personal ones. For one thing it takes more work to dig up specific references. I often make notes on small cards to myself while reading such things, but I’m not very disciplined about where I keep these. So my “research” is actually searching every nook for where I put my notes. Second, as I have indicated before, my time in the academic world was not in contemporary politics or Russian history. It is my avocation, but my vocation as an academic was in another field. Then I received another e-mail from FA the next week, however, proclaiming how proud they were of this “breakout” piece. Furthermore, if I wanted to read more by their “brilliant writers” I could subscribe now at a reduced rate. I decided to respond to this breakout piece. (To read the article go to https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin?cid=nlc-emc-fa_paywall_free_joebiden_jf2017-20171206)

First, the article sets forth the transition from the Communism of the USSR in a very positive—even glowing—manner. I will give the full quote here:

After the Cold War, Western democracy became the model of choice for postcommunist countries in central and eastern Europe. Guided by the enlightened hands of  NATO  [5]  and the EU, many of those countries boldly embarked on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Remarkably, most succeeded. Post-Soviet Russia also had an opportunity to reinvent itself. Many in Europe and the United States hoped that by integrating Russia into international organizations (such as the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), they could help Russia become a responsible member of the rules-based international order and develop a domestic constituency for democratic reforms. Many Russians also dreamed of creating a democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia. But that dream is now more distant than at any time since the Cold War ended.

I understand wanting to be positive about the end of the Cold War, but I think if you look at the situation in many of these former Republics you discover the transition was not as rosy as the authors indicate. I will forego examining what this transition looked like “guided by the enlightened hands” of NATO and the EU in the other Republics, however, and focus on Russia.

When Biden and Carpenter claim the “dream” of an enlightened, stable, and prosperous democracy is more distant now than ever in Russia, the authors demonstrate that they are struck with the same willful historical amnesia that many other Neocons and Liberal Interventionists have concerning the first decade after the dissolution of the USSR. The first decade of democracy in Russia was not “enlightened, stable, or prosperous.” Post Soviet Russia’s economy collapsed when democracy was implemented. The economy, according to some, fell by 80%. Readers of my blog know that I read and follow Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton University and New York University. Cohen lived in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia for many years and was there during this time. He described it as, “The first nation ever to undergo actual de-modernization in peacetime.” Seventy-five percent of the population lived below the poverty line. There have been plenty of analyses done by economists who validate the points Cohen makes in his book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, although economists differ over the exact percentages . (See also, Failed Crusade by the same author.)

My sources are not just economists, however. I have often listened to my wife and Russian family and friends describe to me what life was like then. For them, as bad as the poverty was, it wasn’t the main battle. They simply could not get enough food or clothes. My wife tells of how they had a stash of money in a linen drawer. They would keep an eye out for a supply truck carrying any kind of goods—food, clothing, household wares—to any store in town. When such a truck appeared—day or night—a line quickly formed of people in desperate need of products and food. They were able to scrape up money, but even then there was just nothing on the shelves. For Biden and other wealthy westerners, this is simply a decade we need not mention or remember. For Russians, it can’t be forgotten.

Scholars and analysts—both from Russia and other countries—trace the blame for this economic horror to the first “democratically” elected president, Boris Yeltsin. (From the United States, for example, see the Congressional Research Service 98-725.) Yeltsin was a chronic alcoholic and also had other severe health problems, especially his heart condition. Thus, he was often absent from public view for extended periods of time.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton and the government of the United States really liked Yeltsin. Yeltsin did their bidding, and the Russian Federation was in a subservient position to the United States of America. The fortunes of the overwhelming majority of the Russian people did not matter to them. As one wag put it, Clinton believed a drunk Yeltsin was better for us than a sober anyone else. He did the bidding of the American government. For all Yeltsin’s past bravado in Russia, he “came to heel” for the Americans.

When it was time for Yeltsin to run for re-election in the summer of 1996, however, the Clinton Administration realized there was a severe problem. Polls across the board showed his approval ratings in the single digits. The best they saw was around 6%. This was not the time for the guiding hands of “enlightened” NATO or the EU. This was time for the heavy hand of American politics to take over. A well-known article in Time magazine (July 15, 1996) entitled, “Rescuing Boris,” describes how President Clinton sent a team of “advisors” to Russia to make sure Boris was re-elected. They were paid $250,000 plus expenses. They were provided a driver, bodyguards and an interpreter on call at all times. While they misrepresented themselves to the Russians in the street, posing as Americans selling American TV antennas, their identity was pretty clearly known to insiders. Cohen has said that he was there during that time and he and most everyone knew that they were there and why they were there. They stayed in the President Hotel in Moscow, which is far above what anyone could expect in Russia at the time. It was equipped with all the security and gadgetry needed. According to them, they had to teach the Russian advisors how to use public opinion research to craft speeches and other presentations. Find out what people “in the street” want and then write Yeltsin’s speeches to promise to address their problems and provide for their wants.

There was also another side to the plan. They had to teach the Russians the art of political misdirection, deceit and confusion. The primary advisor they directed was Tatiana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter who was in her mid-thirties at the time. It took quite a while for them to teach her and others the “dirty tricks” of politics. Tatiana seemed somewhat taken aback that this is how democracy is supposed to work. Eventually she and the others caught on. In addition to getting Yeltsin to craft his speeches to say what the people wanted to hear, they published false dates for opposition rallies and conferences, falsified documents supposedly from the Communist opponent Zyuganov, and most people here believe on election day they used bribery, false documentation of votes and good old ballot box stuffing. In addition to these efforts on the ground in Russia, President Bill Clinton had convinced the International Monetary Fund to grant Russia $10.2 million dollars for an “emergency infusion.” With the influx of the cash, Yeltsin could make it appear that financial problems were over.

Now, some Russians involved with the campaign disagree that it was the American leadership that tipped the election for Yeltsin. They believe the egotistical Americans claimed far more of the credit by a long shot than they deserved. The point here, however, is not who was most responsible for Yeltsin’s 13 point victory that year. What needs to be reiterated is the pride the Americans took in controlling and manipulating the Russian election. As Time concluded, “Democracy triumphed—and along with it came the tools of modern campaigns, including the trickery and slickery Americans know so well.” (See also the LA Times, “Americans Claim Role in Yeltsin Win,” July 09, 1996.) So when Americans of privilege and political contacts like Joseph Biden, Jr. cry foul and whine incessantly about the Russians and their president supposedly tampering with the American election, it rings hollow with many Russians and not a few Americans who remember how far our meddling went. Hypocrisy is alive and well in this piece of which Foreign Affairs is so proud.

I and others, however, are not so willing to grant the presupposition of Biden and Carpenter (not to mention a HOST of others) that the evidence is clear that the Russians tampered with our election anyway. They still offer no concrete evidence of Trump “colluding” with the Russians or that there was any hacking done under the direction of Vladimir Putin. First, we still read in many publications of the “conclusions” of the Intelligence agencies which have been long used by the main stream media, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post. They state this as if it is fact, apparently believing the adage that if you tell a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth—in fact the one telling it may even begin to accept it as truth. The bases for such claims have been severely distorted. It was not 17 intelligence agencies as was reported for many months. James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, reluctantly admitted it was “hand picked analysts” from the FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency. In other words, it was only three agencies, but it really was not the full power of those agencies. The “investigators” were agents who already believed the Russians did it, and that is why they were picked. Yet even the conclusions of their report are also distorted in the MSM. The analysts do give reasons that it is possible the Russians did it and why they think they did, but they conclude, “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be fact.” The report itself states that they have nothing evidentiary. Further, William Binney, former National Security Agency Technical Director, did further research and gives technical reasons why he concludes with certainty it was not a Russian hack. His main reason is that the download speed was such that it had to be a USB download, not a “hack” from the outside. He actually investigates the specifics of what happened and states clearly from his research the Russians had nothing to do with it. As far as I can tell the bulk of the MSM did not report any of his findings.

Second, Biden’s whining about the Russians tampering with our elections is sheer hypocrisy given the bold claims of the United States in using every trick in the proverbial book to keep an unhealthy, alcoholic President in office in Russia even though everyone involved knew the devastation his leadership had brought and would continue to bring on the Russian people. The plight of the Russian people are of absolutely no concern to the authors, and they should drop the pretense of “enlightened” NATO. Foreign Affairs magazine is supposed to be an academically oriented and responsible publication. Yet they promote this wonderful article as a reason I should subscribe?

I started with the history and background which Biden and Carpenter omit because the history of international relations is important. American analysts trying to reach a certain level of popularity like to start at whatever historical point suits the conclusions they have already determined they will reach. So it is not uncommon to find omissions of the real background to how democracy came to Russia and how much effort and money we put into keeping the Russian people as far from prosperity and stability as possible. Now that I’ve given a brief historical review of what Biden and Carpenter chose to omit (and smooth over with that talk of the guidance of the “enlightened hands” of NATO and EU), in Part 2 of my blog I will point to factual errors made and misleading conclusions drawn by Biden and Carpenter in their description of the conditions in Russia at the present time. As one who lives here, and actually watches and reads what really does go on here, my evaluation is quite different.

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HOLIDAY REFLECTIONS FROM RUSSIA

BF6175A4-1B51-4D90-8EDB-D1F0A345695BToday is one of those days I am more aware of the practical differences in my two worlds than usual. I thought it may be interesting to some readers to learn more of the differences in the American and Russian cultures at this wonderful time of year. As I write this blog entry it is the day before Christmas Eve in my home country. Given that it is also a Saturday, I am quite sure when the day dawns over my world eight time zones away that there will be much busy-ness. Some cooking; some cleaning; some shopping—no, a LOT of shopping! No doubt folks are getting ready for the day that for many over there is the biggest day of the year. My unofficial, but highly scientific, research, i.e., looking at my friends’ Facebook posts, indicates that while some are glad for the relatively warm weather predicted, the majority of people in South Carolina are lamenting another non-white Christmas. I remember all those times growing up wherein it seemed every Christmas movie showed it magically snowing just in time for Christmas. Every year I kept looking. The Russians have a saying which would be an appropriate description of my annual scanning of the southern skies in my homeland for any indication of just a few falling flakes: “Надежда умирает последней” [“Hope dies last”].

Here in my other world the snow is already a reality. There is plenty on the ground and more significant snow predicted this evening. The chance of a white Christmas is very high—except Monday is not Christmas in this world. Come Monday (as Jimmy Buffett would say), I will be teaching a class. By the time most children in America will wake up Monday with great joy in the anticipation of what they will find under the tree, our nine year old Gabriel will have already completed a full day of classes at School #5.

One of my responsibilities as the “English Consultant” at our school is to give presentations to several classes on what Christmas is like in America. It is supposed to help them linguistically and also to enable them to be more “culturally aware” of life in the West. They already have some general ideas gained largely from movies they have seen from Hollywood. Of course, they’ve watched them in Russian so they don’t know the specific terms we use for some things. Further, their knowledge is fragmentary. So this week I’ve tried to bring together in some kind of meaningful narrative the elements of Christmas like baby Jesus, Santa Claus, gifts, shopping, reindeer, shepherds, and then explaining what a stable is because I couldn’t remember the Russian word. I also try to explain the extreme importance of decorations and lights to Americans, as parodied in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” It wasn’t easy. I decided not to bring up the fact that in our former neighborhood the leadership committee actually gives an award to the family with the official “Best Decorated Yard.”

I’m not sure my explanations were clear, partly because the kids didn’t speak much or ask questions at the end. Did they not ask questions because they understood everything or because they understood nothing? On the other hand, since I don’t teach these students regularly it could be the normal reluctance to risk speaking to a native English speaker. When I started the first class I asked them how they were, and a young lady in the front row said, “We’re scared!” But several thanked me when leaving and the regular teacher seemed pleased, so I’m hopeful they left more culturally and linguistically informed than when we started.

On the other hand, I want to communicate to my American readers the fact that Russia still has great holidays, and New Years Day is probably the biggest one. Seventy years of Communism took a toll on the celebration of Рождество [Christmas] in Russia. The transition was slow and mistakes were made, but the Communists were eventually largely successful in transferring many of the traditions of Christmas to New Years. So we have a New Years Tree here. We also have Santa’s “cousin,” Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). There is also the sharing of gifts of various sorts, although here in Luga the atmosphere in the streets is nothing like the madhouse the parking lot at a Mall in Greenville, S.C. could, and usually did, become.

New Years is also a time when families and close friends get together and share a meal. There are usually numerous salads and then several courses of foods. One difference in these special meals is that whereas in America everything is put on the table at once, in Russia the hostess usually brings in the separate courses as the meal progresses. More than once I just knew the meal was over, and then Oksana’s mom would bring out another meat and vegetable plate. Then at midnight we watch the President’s speech on TV. For Oksana’s family it is always an important time. It’s a bit like a “State of the Union” speech an American president gives from time to time, although I never remember an American president giving a speech on New Years night. Then there are fireworks and a general feeling of celebration just like in America. Further, schools are out and many folks have off from work until after January 9.

Russian Christmas is January 7. Before Communism Russia was on the Julian Calendar, which was observed at the time of Jesus. After Pope Gregory XIII introduced what became known as the Gregorian calendar in 1582 the process of changing over began all over the world. Russia did not adopt the “new calendar” until 1918, which was much later than Western countries. Even the Orthodox Church in America celebrates Christmas on December 25. The Russian Orthodox Church still observes the “old style” calendar, which is about 13 days “behind” the new style. Thus, since Christmas is a religious holiday, it is observed on what would be Christmas under the Julian calendar. New Years Eve would be January 13 according the old calendar, but since that is not a religious holiday it essentially makes no difference here. So by the time it is Christmas in Russia all the shopping has been done, and the gifts have been put away.

So what does our family do? Last year was our first Christmas away from America. Since it was on a Sunday, the boys did not have to go to school anyway, we observed it the best we could. This year Roman has classes in St. Petersburg and, as I said, Gabriel will have to go to school. Sadly, there comes a time to let go of the “old life.” We still sing a few Christmas carols, and we try to keep the memory of Christmas in America alive for the kids. The truth is, however, we really have little desire to try to “recreate” an American Christmas experience here. It just seems a bit hollow. We will participate in the festivities of New Years with our Russian family and friends. We’ll enjoy the meal with Oksana’s parents, and the fireworks. Then on the evening of January 6 we will go to our Russian Orthodox Church for the Vigil celebrating the Incarnation.

We will greatly miss our family and friends in South Carolina Monday. We’ll see photos and Facebook posts of so many getting together, and we will remember our years there and the big meals, the presents, and the good laughter of those times. Somehow, however, we all have become more accustomed to our life here. We will have opportunity to spend more time together as a family. I hope to have time to get some more reading and research done for a serious political blog I’m hoping to write. Our three children will get to spend more time with each other. And we hope to make a trip to St. Petersburg for at least a couple of days. We’ve celebrated these holidays in both of our “worlds,” and we are thankful for all the tradtions that have helped us become the family we are.

RUSSIFICATION: A CONCLUSION

In the previous post I dealt with “russification,” or the ways in which we as a family have become more a part of our Russian culture and surroundings. Unfortunately, I ran out of time and my own self-imposed space limitations for a conclusion. So I wanted to write a brief “wrap-up,” summarizing what russification looks like personally here in our world of small town Russia.

First, in the simple practical aspects of life it means watching my little boy’s eyes light up when he sees a big bowl of fresh fruit in the winter, and being truly grateful for it as he picks one variety and then another. It’s the simple pleasure of putting cold sour cream over a smoking hot plate of pelmeni. On the other hand, it is walking up five flights of stairs with two large containers of water with a backpack filled with four bottles of milk on your back, determined not to show weakness by stopping and resting. It is distracting yourself on the ascent by thinking and wondering about the person who built those steps. What was life like then? Did they believe that as they finished those steps they were helping build a better industrialized and communal life? Did they see the labor of their hands as contributing to the realization of Lenin’s dream? Or were they just trying to get through the day and get home safely?

In relationships and social settings russification is learning to talk about things that matter. It’s forgoing the small talk until you know a person well enough to talk about the things that are truly meaningful. It’s reading Russian history and of those who suffered in this country for “opening up” to the wrong person—and paying the price. Then when you want to chat casually with Russian people you do not really know, you understand the “history of their silence” and you are far less likely to dismiss them simply as “unfriendly.” And that makes you all the more appreciative of Russian friends who honor you—an AMERICAN—by telling you about their lives, their personal histories and aspirations. They have “verified,” and now they trust you.

You also find yourself both defending and cursing Russia. So many reports, articles, and news clips day after day portraying life here in such a negative way. And you know from the content the authors are completely ignorant of what life really is like here. The political reports on this place—the place you and your family live—demonize Putin, Russia, the whole society here in order to achieve a political goal in America. Russia is just a political football in their “more significant” Western world. They aren’t trying to understand Russia; their villification is from a darker place. Strangely, you feel offended by their lies, like they have attacked you and your family. One of “my worlds” wants to destroy the other. But then you have to walk to the market on a sheet of ice, and being from South Carolina, it is not your finest hour. You fear the shame of being the American whose feet went flying. You now feel Russia itself is against you, and “the Russians” are all waiting for your moment of humiliation. Reading of the experiences of Napoleon’s army or the Nazis I should’ve realized – Russia is not always hospitable to foreigners in winter. Foolhardy perhaps, but I continue to press—or slide—on.

In matters of faith russification is standing in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small village, which has a beauty that defies its drab, cold, grey surroundings outside. Standing there (never sitting!), listening to beautiful singing with no instruments to guide the melody. There is no hype, no drama, no performances. It is worship stripped bare of the barnacles of modernity. Then we say the “Symbol of Faith.” All the voices expressing the historic confession of faith from hundreds of years ago. All of those voices are in Church Slavonic—except yours. You quietly say the English, under your breath, while you are listening carefully to the Slavonic so you are speaking with them. You want to say what they are saying, but of necessity “in a foreign tongue.” It means a lot of pauses. Slavonic takes longer than English. In the “mystery of faith,” you realize what is going on here is not about me; and it’s not limited to any people or country or any language. It is worship. Russification means you don’t feel so much like an outsider in those moments.

tolmachevo

ARE YOU RUSSIFIED YET?

Sometimes close friends and my wife discuss the degree to which I (and our family) have become “russified.” We use the term in an informal, “loose” manner. In a more formal and academic sense it goes back to how those outside the boundaries of Russia (or Old Rus) changed—or were made to change—their manner of life and culture to be more “Russian.” In his latest book, The Romanovs: 1613-1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore stated that after the Romanovs came to power in 1613, the Russian Empire increased in size by 55 square miles (142 square km) per day. That is 20,000 square miles per year! By the end of the nineteenth century, when the era of the dynasty was drawing to a close, the Romanovs ruled over 1/6 of the earth’s surface. Obviously, a lot of “tribes, tongues, and people” had become Russian. Countries and cultures who were “russified” were less likely to rebel. Russification at that time focused on language and religion, but it included much more.

After the Romanov dynasty, Russia became the largest and most significant republic in the Soviet Union. In Autopsy of an Empire Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, states that in order to prevent the regions from cooperating with one another against Moscow, national groups—especially Russians and Ukrainians were “relocated” and scattered throughout the Republics. (Ukrainians were essentially regarded as Russian at that time.) This dispersion ensured a “Russian presence” throughout the USSR. It also helped in spreading Russian culture and language to the republics. While there was no law forcing the people of the other republics to learn the Russian language, at a practical level in order to advance professionally or educationally one had to know Russian. So both during the Romanov period and the Soviet period, one needed to be “russified,” i.e., adopt the ways of Russian culture—at least to some degree—for a more fulfilling life.

Now things are different. There is no Russian kingdom spreading further across Eurasia; there is no Soviet Empire forcing anyone to adopt Russian ways. So what about those of us who have willingly come here? How has our family life and how have I, an American living in Russia, consciously or subconsciously adopted to life here? What are factors in “russification” for a family like us who lives in a small Russian city? I emphasize that I am talking about life in a small town. This reflection is just one middle class family who moved from a small town in the US to a small town in Russia. I’m sure my counterparts in larger cities have different experiences.

Food. Of course, food is somewhat different in Russia than America, although not in an extreme way. Sometimes it is the same or similar food but prepared differently. This past week Oksana returned from shopping and had been able to purchase a variety of fruit. When Gabriel came in from school his face lit up when he saw the fruit. While eating it he commented about three times on how delicious it was. It is not that we never get fruit here in winter. But you cannot always get a big variety. While living in the warm climate of South Carolina Gabriel (and all of us) took fruit for granted. Then yesterday Oksana made a fresh salad and made homemade Italian dressing to go on it. We all thoroughly enjoyed it! Again, it is not that we seldom get fresh veggies here – just less variety in winter time. And, of course, anyone can make homemade Italian dressing in America just as easily as in Russia. (I’m aware there are many Americans who make their own dressing). But the motivation is not as strong when you have several shelves of all kinds of dressings at the local grocery store. Again our choices are more limited here. We have learned to appreciate these things in a way we did not appreciate in America. We took things for granted.

On the other hand, we live within easy walking distance of the open market, and we all love the fresh produce, dairy products, and meat we can buy there in the warmer months. Eating “all natural” or organic here is much easier (and cheaper!) during the warm months than in America. Further, Oksana is one of those people who can taste something and figure out how to prepare a dish of it. Her creativity flourishes here. The market is small, and I’ve gotten to know the vendors we buy from regularly. We had a farmers market in South Carolina, but it was large and most folks came in cars. Here most people walk to the market and buy from local folks and friends.

My own eating habits have changed since I’ve been living in Russia. I never ate sour cream much before Russia. I would put it on baked potato. That was it. Now, I eat it in soups, on pelmeni (pasta with meat inside), and various and sundry other foods. I eat it more than Oksana, who says I eat it on things most Russians don’t. (Russians do not put it in fish soup, but I do.) I also love kolbasa, a kind of Russian sausage, on a slice of Russian bread with cheese. The cheeses we get at the market are fresh, and I eat a lot more cheese than I ever have. Cheeses and breads are different from what I ate in America. Again, I’m not saying you can’t get really fresh and natural cheeses or fresh baked bread in America. I just didn’t have the motivation to search them out, and they always cost more. Here fresh cheeses and breads are “the norm.” I could not go back to eating Sunbeam or any of those processed breads now. And there is no way I could go back to Campbell’s canned soup. Salty and flavorless. My palate has become Russified.

Buying food is also different. Since we walk to and from the open market and grocery stores, we’ve become accustomed to carrying our groceries home. I never go to the grocery store or market without my backpack. In America we tried to carry as many of those plastic bags of groceries from the car into our house without having to return the 40 feet for a second trip. If we filled up the back of our Kia with food, then we had to sacrifice and make more than one trip from the driveway to the kitchen. Here we keep an eye on how much we buy because we must carry it home and walk up five flights of stairs to our apartment. Our refridgerator is smaller here, too, so we’ve just adjusted to more trips to the store during the week.

Space. Our storage space is also more limited. We do not have an attic or huge walk-in closet to store “off season” clothing, décor, etc. So we have fewer clothes and “stuff” in general. I think it is just a part of American life to accumulate a bunch of clothes and other things you don’t need. For us russification means we don’t live like that. You can’t. When winter was coming Oksana asked me what new clothes I needed. I said I didn’t NEED anything so we aren’t buying anything. You buy what you need. Nothing more.

Another impact of living in a small apartment is that not everyone has their own “space.” The boys do not have separate bedrooms. They adjusted with no problems. That was a surprise. You don’t get the space for “alone” time. Family life is—to say it in a good way–”togetherness.” Really together. All the time! I miss the small study I had in America. I could close that door and read in quiet. Now, I get up really early and go read in our living room. With a nine year old and a three year old, if I don’t read before they get up it will be very difficult to read at all. I have adapted. I read very early. Then I do things that don’t require total quiet, like practicing my Russian, later in the day.

Social. Social relationships are also different. As I have indicated before, I take long brisk walks around town. Last week I had to stop at the crosswalk for the light to change. I was standing next to a gentlemen about my age. We had just had a nice snow. My Russian is good enough for small talk, so I had this strong urge to say something about the weather or the traffic or anything! We stood there and said nothing while waiting for the long light to change. That would not happen in small town America. Americans chat. We can chat for quite a while about nothing significant. That’s how we get to know each other. Russians are comfortable with quiet. Even when we are with people we know, we don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes Americans visiting Russia think Russians are unfriendly. That is not it. It is a simple cultural difference. If there’s a need to say something, then they do. Otherwise, enjoy the quiet.

Holidays and Holy Days. As we approach Christmas we are aware of other cultural and religious differences. The main difference is that we are Russian Orthodox so our Christmas Eve is January 6. Russian Orthodox Christians follow the Julian, not Gregorian, calendar, since it was the calendar used at the time of Christ. On December 25 I’ll be teaching a class. But the difference in date is not the biggest difference. We shop for gifts for close friends here just like in America. (I’m using “we” in the traditional male “collective” sense. I am one of those men who has to wait till my friends open their presents to know what “I” bought them. Oksana enjoys shopping, and I enjoy not shoppng. It works out.) There are socials and parties, but in Russia New Years is the really, really big holiday. The giving of gifts, etc., is about New Years. Christmas is specifically Christian. It is not a cultural holiday like in America. We loved our parties and friends at Christmas in America. Nothing like it! But every American knows you have to fight to keep your focus on what Christmas is about. In another sense, I like the Russian holiday better. The “secular” stuff is for New Years. Christmas is about faith and the celebration of the Incarnation.

So we have more time for family readings and activities that focus on that. As Orthodox, we observe the “ascetic fast” for 40 days leading up to it. We change our diet; we change our daily schedule. We don’t sit in front of the TV in the evenings. Oksana belongs to a group of Orthodox women who do a “nativity marathon,” which gives ideas for families to focus on in preparation for the holy day. It has nothing to do with entertaining.

Language and History. In addition to these necessary changes, our language is changing of course. I study Russian almost every day. As I’ve mentioned before I’ve never had a class in Russian, so I’ve had to study it on my own. I still have a long way to go, but now that both boys can speak Russian we are speaking Russian in the home more. That is helping my listening skills. I don’ t think one can become “Russified” without at least being in the process of learning the language. It’s more than learning what this or that word means. It is the process of thinking and communicating in this country’s language. If one wants to learn a culture you have to study the language of that culture. When I taught in the University about the writings of the period around the New Testament I knew I had to learn the Koine Greek language as well as I could. Whether it is an ancient culture or a modern one, language is essential.

In addition to the language I continue to study Russian history and contemporary politics. Fortunately, I like reading about such things. I realized a few years ago that much of what I knew about Russian history was what I had been told by American TV and movies. So I have kept reading about Russia’s past and present. I finished the book on the Romanovs I mentioned above and am now almost through with yet another biography of Vladimir Putin. Russification is not just something that happens in daily life. Understanding the history and the bigger political developments helps one to know how things and people are the way they are. In this era with so much misinformation about Russia being spread in the West, I feel an even greater responsibility to familiarize myself as much as possible with the truth about Russia (past and present) and pass on what I have come to understand through living and learning here.

So do Russians think I’m “russified”? It probably varies depending on who you ask. The Director at our school and my doctor seem to think so. Oddly enough, they were both in the Soviet Navy for many years. So the two people who praise my “russification” the most were part of the Soviet military against whom I was told as a young man we might have to make war one day. Part of their positive appraisal is because I try to speak Russian with them, and the other part seems to be their amazement at and even professed admiration for an American who would come and live in Russia because he wanted to. My perspective on life seems to have convinced them I’m russified. I’m glad for that. Of course, I can see ways my own process of russification has become clear to me. But I do not think of myself in any sense as Russian. I’m an American, and I don’t try to be one of those people who “identifies” as anything other than who I am. Life here has changed me for sure. There are perspectives and ideas about things that are very different from what I once thought. I have learned to appreciate the positive things about this country and culture and endure those things I find terribly inconvenient and or just plain crazy. It’s Russia. Russification means you don’t try to make it like your own country. When I lived in America I believed learning and accepting our culture and language ought to be a part of anyone’s experience who immigrated to America. I was amazed at people who came to America and then constantly ranted about how great life was where they came from. We’re here. We have our times of missing our family, friends and aspects of our lives in America. But then we move on again with an appreciation for our lives here.

CAN WE HANDLE THE TRUTH?

Last week I was invited to speak to two classes of Russian students (teenagers) on basically the same topic I wrote about in my last blog—differences in secondary education in Russia and America. Obviously the talk went in the opposite direction of the blog because I was explaining the American system to Russians. When I began the class I asked them how many had ever communicated with an American before. None of them, except one daughter of a personal friend, had. These students have been studying English in this small Russian town for years but have never talked to anyone whose native language was English. I didn’t know whether to feel honored or worried!

I was amazed at how attentive they were. There were about 20 present, and they showed a lot of interest in how the experiences of young people in America are similar to and different from their own experiences. I talked for over an hour and a half to each class, and no one whispered, wrote notes, or fell asleep. When I finished I thanked them for being so attentive. Three young ladies seated directly in front of me all looked surprised. The older one said, “Thank you! We’ve never heard any of this before!”

The next day I noticed on my blog feed that the number of views had gone up dramatically. This was about three days after I posted it, and the number of people viewing it more than doubled. WordPress allows me to see what country the people are from who read it. The increase was due to a far larger than normal readership in Russia. In fact, there were more Russians who read it than Americans. I have explained that I started this blog for friends in America who asked me to write about life here. Now I have discovered that not only is my blog being viewed by people I don’t even know in America, but it also has been translated by someone into Russian. I am not saying that my blog is a blockbuster nor that I am even close to being almost nearly famous. I am saying that there is far more interest on the part of both Americans and Russians in how life is viewed here by an American than I thought. Americans seem interested in what life—normal and political—is really like here, and Russians are interested in how an Amerian perceives life in their country.

There were some negative comments on the Russian blog, particularly on a place where there was a mistranslation. Now, I’m not critisizing whoever translated my blog. He or she did a far better job than I could ever have done! There were, however, criticisms of my logic at the point where the mistranslation occurred. K-5 “kindergarten” in English was translated as детский сад (“children’s garden”) in Russian, which is really “daycare” in America. The English term kindergarten, however, refers to an actual public school class for 5 year olds in a public elementary school. Both the Russian and English are based on the German, which does mean “children’s garden,” so the mistake was completely understandable. Again, I’m not critisizing the translator or the people who thought my statement was “illogical” at that point. What I am impressed with is that the people reading it were reading it so carefully. They realized something was wrong. I think it is important to let American readers know that someone believed it was important for other Russians to read about educational differences in Russia and America. Then they went on to go to the trouble of translating other blog entries on my site. I am thankful to whomever translated it; I am also thankful for people who read, analyze and think through what I write—even those who disagree.

What frustrates me is presently we are also seeing a “crackdown” on the information available to Americans about or from the people of Russia. My wife’s Twitter account was taken down by the folks at Twitter. Acting General Counsel of Twitter, Sean Edgett, recently testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee that they look into anyone who logs on from Russia or has a Russian IP address. If anyone has a Russian phone number or e-mail address they are also suspect. Then last week the Russian news outlet RT had to file as a foreign agent in America since it is supported by the Russian government. It also lost its Capitol Hill press credentials. Other government supported news outlets from China to London do not have to register or suffer any restrictions. Further, no one from RT was allowed to appear before any representatives to answer questions or complaints, nor was there any mention of false reports coming from RT. Their affiliation with Russia was sufficient reason to restrict them. Google has introduced algorithms that reduce the possibility that information retrieved will come from Russian sites. In the area of politics it was widely reported that President Donald Trump did not meet privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin while both were in Vietnam because the U.S. press would have immediately turned it into a news story that Trump was caving in to Putin.

The major news right now is focused on the fact Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election has led to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, admitting he lied to the FBI about his communications with Russia before Trump took office. According to information recently released, in December of 2016 Flynn apparently had two conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In the first conversation he was responding to a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block a vote in the U.N Security Council to censure Israel. Obama had decided to abstain, rather than veto, the vote. So Flynn tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Russians not to support a censure of Israel. So if there was any “collusion” going on, he was colluding with the Israeli’s to convince the Russians to back off. On Dec. 29, not long before Trump would be sworn in as President, Flynn spoke with the Russian Ambassador about a second matter. Obama had placed more sanctions on Russia because of the claim Russia had interfered in the election. Obama was a lame-duck president with no hard evidence that Russia interfered, but he was determined to impose more sanctions anyway. While on vacation Flynn called Kislyak and in the course of the conversation he requested that Russia not escalate tensions between the countries as a result of the sanctions. When Flynn reported the conversation he did not mention that request. The NSA had provided the FBI with transcripts of the conversation, so they already knew what Flynn said before they questioned him. Thus, they concluded he was being dishonest with the FBI. Two issues are not addressed. First, Flynn was charged under the Logan Act of 1799 which prohibited private citizens from interfering with U.S. foreign policy. Flynn was the National Security Advisor designate. Treating him as a “private citizen” in the sense the act intended seems disingenuous at best. When you are the designated Natural Security Advisor scheduled to take over in three weeks, the “private” part of your citizenship has been nullified. Interestingly, until now no one has ever been charged with anything under the Logan Act of 1799.

Second, what did any of this have to do with what Mueller was appointed to do, that is, investigate Russian interference in the election? The election was over before either conversation took place. I find the most likely explanation to be Mueller knows there is nothing to be found on Russian interference, so he has chosen to “keep fishing” to justify his appointment. There was a time you could depend on liberal Democrats to raise a furor of such exploitative violations of the judicial system, but their animus toward Donald Trump goes far beyond their concern for juridical integrity. When it comes to Russian relations right now, the rules are being made up as we go along.

I have mentioned on several occasions that I grew up right in the middle of the Cold War. One of the main criticisms of the USSR was that it did not allow freedom of the press. Those poor people over there could not really get access to different sources of information so as to make informed decisions for themselves. The criticisms were justified. I have learned since moving to Russia that people over here complained about “no truth in Pravda [The Truth] and no news in Izvestia [The News]” back then as well. They were not being duped by their government. Now I live in Russia, and I access news from a variety of nations and a variety of sources. The pretense that the mainstream media in America is open, free, and objective is ridiculous—and most Americans agree. I would contend a majority of Americans no longer trust their press or their “government agencies.” Trump’s bald claims of his intent to “drain the swamp” in reference to the powers in Washington would not have rung true with so many if it were otherwise. The recent decisions that any news coming from Russia must be censored only exacerbates the mockery.

Why are the politicians in Washington so afraid of anything that hints at Russian influence? Do they believe my wife’s tweets about Russian recipes are really coded information that will crumple the government in Washington or, God forbid, cause some American to form a deeper friendship with a Russian? Is our government really afraid of lies coming from RT or are they afraid that if Americans hear reports from RT, those reports are going to have the ring of truth that is lacking in the MSM in America? Why is the American government so afraid of information? Does Col. Jessup’s (Jack Nicholson) line, “You can’t handle the truth!” describe how our own government thinks of us Americans today?

Writing blogs can become an exercise in self-absorption. You write about yourself and hope you get a whole lot of people interested in you. I pray to God I do not succumb to that approach. I have no delusions of grandeur. I know I am an unknown person living in a small, somewhat obscure, Russian town. I do believe, however, that there are powers way beyond me who put forth every effort to make sure my two worlds never come together in a relationship that is mutually beneficial. That seems to be the only issue right now that both Republicans and Democrats agree on. I am far from having a big enough platform to stop them, but I refuse to yield. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, someone’s listening.

SCHOOLS IN RUSSIA

I am sometimes asked about schools here in Russia. How do public schools in Russia compare to schools in America? How are they different? I have mentioned various aspects of how our kids have done in school all along. I have not, however, given much of an overview of how public secondary schools in Russia differ from their American counterparts. I have also said that we have been basically pleased, but I have not given too many details about the school system itself and how things differ here from my “other world” in South Carolina. Of course, I have to summarize without getting into too many details. I apologize to my Russian readers.

Traditionally, children have begun school at the age of seven in Russia. Fairly recently that regulation was changed to six and a half. Still children here start public school at an older age than kids in America, where most begin with five year kindergarten. Russian school goes through the eleventh, not the twelfth grade. Elementary school extends from grades 1-4; middle school is grades 5-9, and high school is 10-11. Usually the elementary, middle and high schools are at the same physical location, whereas in America they can be miles from each other. The schools are also normally designated by numbers. Gabriel goes to School #5. Occasionally you will see a school named for someone famous, e.g., “Imeni Pushkina” is named for the famous Russian poet. In South Carolina we had Chandler Creek, Skyland, Blue Ridge, etc. They keep things more basic here in Russia. The numbers go up into the hundreds in large cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow.

All schools start in Russia the same day: September 1st is the “Day of Knowledge” throughout the country. Children dress up and take flowers to the teacher. There is a big presentation at the school. Everyones meets outside in the school yard and children gather by classes. There is the formal commencement of the school year as we parents look on. It is pretty impressive. I cannot fathom how much money is spent on flowers for the Day of Knowledge all over Russia! Of course, that is just my Western capitalistic curiosity. Here they cannot fathom why it is that American schools in even the same state start on different days. I really do not have an answer to that question. Also, here transportation is up to the families. In South Carolina there was always the option of the school bus. Kids here usually walk or take a city bus. And now you even see a number of cars outside the schools as parents drop their kids off at school. When I first came here years ago, you rarely saw that. Since Gabriel does not attend the closest school he walks to the bus stop every morning and takes a city bus. Usually his grandfather picks him up and brings him home. If that is not possible either Oksana or I walk to the school so he’ll have someone to walk home with. If we’re in a bind she sends a taxi. The cost is a little under $2.00.

Elementary school children have the same teacher for all the years they are at a school. Gabriel’s teacher, when he started last year, was Galina Mihailovna. She will be his teacher until he leaves elementary school. In our case that worked out well. He really came to love his teacher last year. She taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! She knew our situation and was very good for Gabriel. So when he started this year there was very little anxiety. He knew he was going to have the same teacher and basically the same classmates as last year. I suppose there are advantages and disadvantages compared to changing teachers and classmates every year, but for us there were clearly more advantages.

Students keep the same group of teachers for the different subjects in middle school and high school. That is, they have a different teacher for math, science, history, etc., but the set of teachers does not change. They will have the same teacher for math from the time they start middle school all the way through high school. It is the same for all courses. Now, if there is a severe problem then the parents can ask that their class have a different teacher. The “norm,” however is for them to keep the same set of teachers.

The program of study is pretty much a “lock-step” program. There are no electives. Everyone takes the same courses. The major courses and the grades they are taught are: History (5th-11th); Social Studies (6th -11th) ; Russian Grammar (2-11); Russian Literature (5-11); Foreign Language, usually English or German (2-11) Home Economics (1-11); P.E. (1-11); Art (1-7) and Music (1-7). There are also reading and penmanship courses for the younger children, of course. Math is also taught every year, and geography, biology, physics and chemistry start during middle school and must be taken every year in high school. There is also one course wherein the students are taught survival skills, military training, and First Aid (7-11). Since Roman’s classmates had already had courses he had not, we had to use tutors to “catch him up” last year.

Overall, I think most Americans would see this as a pretty rigorous course of study. Also, I would add that schools here are about academics. There is no equivalent really to the “Friday night football,” like in America. Also, the “social issues” of sexuality and gender identity are simply not considered the task of the school system in Russia. In America Roman had an openly gay teacher in the ninth grade. That is not allowed in Russia; President Putin is often critisized for this law in the West, but I do not see it being changed.

Another difference is that in elementary school students are allowed to have their cell phones with them. Students are allowed to call home when they need to. Again, I can see why American schools do not allow this practice. For us, the Russian way was a big help. When Gabriel was struggling last year with understanding a word or assignment, he could just call us. Sometimes his teacher would get on the phone and talk to Oksana to get the confusion cleared up. Also, Galina Mihailovna keeps her cell phone on her desk at all times. Oksana does not hesitate to call her if there is something she needs to pass on to her. She also promptly answers her phone and never seems distracted by the call. We don’t abuse it, but it helps to be able to do so when needed. She told Oksana she does that because it is always possible that parents need her promptly. Last week Gabriel had had some stomach problems, and Oksana called after school started to tell his teacher that he may have to excuse himself or even come home. Also, while we try not to take advantage of her kindness, Oksana has to call her sometimes in the evening to clear up confusion over an assignment. There is a very close “working” relationship between parents and teachers here.

Unlike in America, Gabriel does not get out of school the same time every day. We are given a schedule. He usually has four or five classes, depending on whether he has P.E., which he has three times a week. It is more structured than his physical education class in America. Students change into their exercise clothes and go through some fairly rigorous exercise routines. Still, even on his longer days, Gabriel gets home sooner than he did in South Carolina. Schools start about the same time in Russia and America, but Gabriel is usually home either at 12:30 or 1:30. While he gets home earlier, he has comparitively more homework here than he did in America. Further, even if it were not for the language issue with us, parents here almost have to work with their kids on homework. There is a lot of it, and it can be complicated. Oksana says it is like a combination of public school and home schooling here! She’s joking, but it is a fairly accurate description.

Finally, at the end of both, middle and high school, students in Russia have to take a rigorous set of standardized tests. They may have passed all their courses, but that does not mean they will pass these final standardized tests with flying colors. It is a big hurdle and an important one for getting into university. This created another problem when Roman started to school here. In Russia, you actually receive a certificate when you finish middle school. They will not accept you to high school if you don’t have the official certificate. Roman had finished the ninth grade in America, but naturally, had no certificate or diploma to show for it. Therefore, he had to repeat the ninth grade. Now, this was not a significant problem because we realized he really did not have the math and science courses which the other students had had. Finishing middle school here is obviously more significant here than in America. They even have a prom at the end of the year!

One reason for the certificate and prom is because college is an option after middle school. If a student qualifies by passing the college’s entrance exam and gets accepted into a college, he or she can forego the last two years of high school. A college in Russia is not the same as a university education. A college education continues your general education courses you would have taken in high school, but also provides the student with courses in his or her chosen vocation. So to go to college, you must qualify academically, but you also must be sure of your chosen profession—at least in general. Roman has known for some time he wanted to go into some sort of design, architecture or construction science. He shadowed my second born son in America who was a Construction Science major at Clemson and now is a project manager for a company that builds multi-housing units. Roman’s career aspirations were confirmed after seeing this work up close. So he will go to college for four years. At the end of that time he will have completed the same general education requirements that any high school student would take, but he will have already been taking courses pertaining to his career choice as well. The college is an architecture and civil engineering college. After completing his degree requirements there, he will have the option of going into the work force if he finds suitable employment in his field or he can continue with getting a higher education in a university setting.

The “switch” from the American school system has presented us with a few challenges, yet we are pleased. In addition to getting what we believe is a good education, Gabriel now communicates easily in Russian. Roman’s courses at college have been quite rigorous, and he has had to study hard. His classes go from 9am to 5pm every day Monday through Friday, and then he goes for half a day on Saturday. Yet both boys are happy with their schools. Certainly you will find parents and students here who are not happy. Some here believe it is too rigorous, and many believe the standardized tests are becoming more “Western.” For example, they have multiple choice answers now, which they did not have before. One had to write out one’s answers with no options listed. From our experience so far, however, we have been pleased.