WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE

Some blogs are more enjoyable to write than others. I really like writing about the people of Luga and my interactions with them. I’ve also gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers who enjoy those the most, so that makes it even better. I also like writing blogs which focus on questions readers have about life here in small town Russia. I guess these are also my favorite blogs because they usually involve positive interactions. The ones I’ve done on politics get some positive feedback, but they also get the negative as well. That is the nature of politics. Yet, given recent international events that are all over the news, I thought I needed to give one perspective from here. It is the first time Russians have actually asked me with a negative tone about the political situation in America.

Another factor is the impact these events have had on me. In my blog I’ve written several times about the reasons for our move to Russia. There were personal factors, e.g., I am an older father of two small children. I wanted to spend more time with them. Some reasons were philosophical or religious. I worried about what kind of education and socialization those two children would receive in America now that traditional morality has been exchanged for new ways of defining gender, sexual expression, and even the concept of truth itself. Further, there were financial concerns. Despite making well above the listed median income in America, we continued to struggle financially, especially with medical bills. I have discussed other factors along the way, but this blog entry aims toward understanding the results, not the cause, of our move. How has living here changed me? It is the toughest one I have written for reasons that I think will become clear.

The main result of recent events and my research and reflection on them is it made clearer than ever the sense of alienation I have toward my home country. We’ve been back in Russia for over three and a half years, but I in no way think of myself as Russian. I have never hesitated to let people know I am American. I study the Russian language, read the history, try to stay familiar with Russian politics. I also love the food and climate. Some Russian friends tell me I am “russified.” I guess I am to some degree, but I am not Russian. Now, however, I wonder in what sense I am still American.

I guess the good news is that the lead news reports have finally moved away from Russia. We moved here June 7, 2016 and “Russia, Russia, Russia” has been one of the stories, frequently the top story, on all the news feeds seemingly every day. I would groan at the lies I heard about what the Mueller report was going to show regarding the “Russian collusion,” but was gratified that the final report found nothing. Still, the networks and some politicians continue pretending that there was interference, collusion or at least some form of Russian malfeasance. The IG report, however, has caused some, e.g., James Comey, to back down a bit–although in a hypocritical and still arrogant manner. When John Durham announced his inquiry was being changed to a criminal investigation, things got even more quiet on the Russian collusion front. Yet, in the last couple of months stories have emerged that have hardly fueled my optimism. Here they are.

OPCW FRAUD. In my last blog I mentioned the fact that we last bombed Syria because Bashar al-Assad had supposedly (again) gassed his own people. I said the story was untrue, but no main stream media outlets were going to report that. I was wrong. Ironically, the day after I posted that blog I saw a report by Tucker Carlson that Wikileaks had released e-mails demonstrating the falsity of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons’ report. The e-mails showed that the findings of the OPCW team who had gone to Syria to investigate were altered and evidence indicating a chemical attack had not occurred was deleted. The folks at the OPCW who were higher up the food chain wanted to make it appear certain that an attack had occurred. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojItF6MGL-0&list=FLTWw7o6lq9KT2xzmvJt79_g&index=2&fbclid=IwAR0imuml4I4hXnGLsykcwJ2A79aRT3MJyL-H0_APAMkfOTZPNPXBPWRuH8c.

The U.S. has long wanted to do regime change in Syria. The line put forward is “Assad is such an evil guy he gasses his own people. The people of Syria hate him, but they live in fear of saying that.” I have stated on a number of occasions I have read and watched reports out of Syria showing the truth is actually the opposite. I have mentioned an independent researcher, Janice Kortkamp in several blogs. She has spent a lot of time in Syria, and has done a ton of research on Syria—unlike the reporters and politicians who appear on the MSM for American television. I trust her.

As best I can tell from polls Assad has about an 80% approval rating among the people. He is Muslim, but neither Sunni nor Shia, and he believes in religious freedom. I have gotten feeds from Christian organizations, especially Orthodox, who have been pleading with America to leave Assad alone. He is their protector. I have seen a number of videos with Assad and his wife visiting Christian monasteries and churches. Just this past week Putin met with Assad in Damascus, and on Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7) they attended a liturgy together. I know what the cynics will say: They are two evil men who are using religion to play politics. The truth is one would NEVER see any Sunni or Shia leader in a Christian Church to gain popularity. Attending a Christian liturgy is NOT the way Muslims win support in most Muslim countries. Syria is obviously different. As for Putin, I’ve given up trying to change the minds of those who know little about him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bETazEjALhw. The Syrian Christian leaders feel quite comfortable having Assad in their church. I trust them more than I do our political leaders who have a commitment to war that runs deeper than any religious affections.

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS. On December 9, 2019 The Washington Post published an article on what they called, “The Afghanistan Papers.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/ The article was based on research done by John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Sopko and his team began work in 2014 and worked until 2017. It took The Post 3 years of legal battles to get their article on the report published. Freedom of the Press is an ideal for some Americans, but in truth many in D.C. believe it means the freedom to report what we think the American people should know. They fought hard against this article.

The information from Sopko’s research is based on 2,000 pages of notes on interviews done with U.S. generals, diplomats, and other officials involved with our Afghan war effort—the longest war effort in American history. Obviously, I will need to summarize the major findings of the report. The main conclusions are not all the complicated, however. Remember, they concluded their work in 2017, so people are still dying and more money is still being spent in 2020.

1 There were about 2,300 American military personnel who died. Another 20,000 were injured.

2 The U.S. spent approximately one trillion dollars on the effort. Noted from interviews were these oddities: a) Salaries were paid to thousands of “ghost soldiers,” whose identities and locations could not be verified. b) Half a billion dollars was wasted on second hand aircraft that simply did not function acceptably. c) Twenty-eight million dollars was spent on uniforms that had the wrong camouflage for Afghanistan.

3 In the course of interviews with Gen. Douglas Lute, who was the “Afghanistan Czar” under Presidents Bush and Obama, he stated, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan…We didn’t know what we were doing.” This was from the general in charge of military operations.

Here is a short video (10:42) summarizing the results and questions with two “academics” who have studied the report and the war. I would like to call attention to the first two and a half minutes of this video especially. Note how Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump ALL lament the failure of Afghanistan and promise to end it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bp-zFxOE_14&fbclid=IwAR0k_-g7efC1YPdodZJUTwFp6KVW_faW-I6Ep5y_bsahevxJORl09-P_rz4. The personalities and political leanings of these three men are quite different, yet all three clearly stated the failure of our military efforts in Afghanistan. And after 18 years, we’re still there.

The last two commanders of our troops there have stated the mission is still unclear. What would “success” look like? No one seems sure—even the men and women in charge. I hear, “We’re fighting terrorists!” Really, which ones? Those who are there seem unclear about that. As a veteran I get on different feeds from sites on FB and other social media. Please listen to those who are there! They tell us it does not matter if we leave in 10 days or 10 years. The situation will not change. Stop listening to American politicians and listen to our troops. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6c6ADB6CwI

As I completed my “research” on Afghanistan, what I found most disconcerting was the fact The Washington Post report received very little attention. Many Americans didn’t even hear of it. The country was immersed in the House impeachment inquiry over President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. No one died as a result of that phone call, by the way. I felt significantly less American as I reflected on that point.

THE ASSASSINATION OF QASEM SOLEIMANI. Obviously the big story now is the assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The missiles were fired by a drone outside the international airport in Baghdad, Iraq. The kill was a direct order from President Donald Trump. Trump has openly said he ordered it. That is not under dispute.

Iraqi Prime Minster Abdul-Mahdi said Soleimani was arriving in Iraq from Lebanon. Abdul-Mahdi was working on negotiations between Iran, which is predominantly Shia, and Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni. His Iranian contact was Soleimani, who was a very influential leader in Iran. He was obviously more than a military leader. Abdul-Mahdi said he had received positive messages from the Saudis and had invited Soleimani to Iraq to discuss further negotiations. He also stated he had talked with President Trump by phone about how well the negotiations were going. He said President Trump thanked him for his efforts.

Then the Americans killed Soleimani and nine other individuals involved in security and diplomacy. Abdul-Mahdi has had a good relationship with the Americans, but he was extremely upset at the fact a leader he had invited to his country, with the full knowledge of the American president, was killed in cold blood by the Americans. The Iraqi parliament voted to tell America their troops must leave Iraq. PM Abdul-Mahdi agreed, and the request was sent. America still is deciding whether to obey international law or not.

The explanation for the murder was that Soleimani was responsible for the deaths and injuries of Americans and was planning more. The past deaths of the Americans was apparently in reference to his “proxy” efforts during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I had and still have my doubts about that, but I can’t say for sure about Soleimani’s actions. He was, according to the Americans who knew him at the time, very anti-Sunni. His goal was for Iraq to come under Shia control. He was not particularly concerned about Americans. We sent those Americans who died to Iraq based on a lie. Candidate Donald Trump seems very angry about our lies in this video of his debate exchange with Jeb Bush. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4ThZcq1oJQ&fbclid=IwAR0PWg4hSTBzE4AYVG4wctnRjkyROhWIrLUt4JZtyiGULAp_-EuhdOvP0iQ What happened to that anger? What happened to his claim he got along with everyone?

The Americans invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003. By May 1 President George Bush gave what was essentially a premature victory speech with the “Mission Accomplished” banner waving in the background. Most of the fighting had been in the north between the Americans and the Sunni led Iraqi fighters. It seems no one can say for sure whether Soleimani’s proxy troops were in the north or whether at any time he had given orders for the deaths of Americans. There are obviously those who claim that, but the man I trust more than any others on knowledge of Iraq and Soleimani himself is my fellow South Carolinian Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who declares it CERTAINLY was not the case that Soleimani did so. Wilkerson speaks from extensive personal knowledge of Iran and Soleimani. He also made it clear in a recent interview he does not believe anything the U.S. Government is saying about the event.

I will warn my easily offended readers that Wilkerson, while a Republican, is not afraid of calling out the lies he hears from D.C. Wilkerson was Chief of Staff under Secretary of State Colin Powell during the Bush administration. Powell is perhaps best known for his false testimony to the U.N. Security council that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. After we invaded Iraq it was clear there were no WMD. Powell later wrote in his book that his testimony would always be a “blot” on his record. He blamed false intelligence reports for his testimony. In the following video a tape of his testimony precedes the interview with Col. Wilkerson. Note how emphatic Powell’s claims are about the presence of the WMD. We had eyewitnesses that saw them, he testified. Col. Wilkerson would later say he also believed the false reports, but never tried to excuse himself from blame. https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/6/lawrence_wilkerson_iraq_iran

So was Soleimani responsible for those deaths of Americans? The government says yes, but there are other responsible voices that say no. Regardless, anywhere between 405,000 to almost one million Iraqi civilians lost their lives because of our invasion that was based on lies—either by Powell or by others working in American intelligence. But we killed Soleimani for his questionable role in the deaths of Americans. And now I see all these posts about “Americans Lives Matter” in support of his murder. What about Iraqi lives?

I have stated many times that I am an Orthodox Christian with a Protestant background. What I find especially disturbing is the posts from Christians who seem to think American lives matter more to God than those of other nations where we have killed thousands based on lies. There is no sense of even needing to apologize. I guess that seems weak and un-American. One pastor I know sent a circular video to me of a man speaking Arabic who is suddenly blown up. Then Trump appears on screen with a taunting “bye-bye.” The pastor included a profane, “LMFAO.” The deaths of Iraqis or Iranians is funny to some I guess. It’s American lives that matter.

The other justification for the assassination of Soleimani was that he was planning on killing more Americans. Col. Wilkerson and others are not convinced to say the least. But I have no sure way of knowing. The U.S. refuses to release the evidence it has that Soleimani was going to kill Americans. At a January 3, 2020 State Department press briefing a reporter asked the State Department spokesman for the evidence they have that Soleimani was going to kill Americans. His angry response was, “Jesus! Do we have to explain why we do these things!?” End of conversation. Essentially, the U.S. Government tells us to trust them. Apparently, they think most Americans do.

I admit over time I have learned not to trust my government. I’ll explain. First, as I have mentioned on more than one occasion, I served in the United States Marine Corps and was on active duty from March 15, 1973-June 14, 1976. The war in Vietnam was from February 28, 1961-May 07, 1975. I was told I would be going to Vietnam after my MOS training. For some reason, I was never sent.

The country singer Brad Paisley has a song, “If I Could Write a Letter to Me.” It is a fantasy about his older self wanting to write a letter to his younger self. In the photo above you see me not long before I finished my recruit training at Parris Island, S.C. I was ready to take on the world. If I could write that young Marine I’d tell him to get out any way he could. The people of America were told we could whip North Vietnam easily. Look at the map! We’re huge compared to them. So we went and we stayed…and we stayed. We didn’t whip them. As the video I posted above said, Nixon gave us a “fig leaf” by saying we were pulling out just so we could turn things over to the local government. The truth is we couldn’t figure out a way to win. I would warn that young Marine of how he was going to feel when he learned in 1975 that the deaths and injuries to so many of his fellow Marines meant nothing.

I would also tell him the people at the top of his chain of command cared nothing for his life. That young Marine in the photo wanted to go. He was willing to die for his country. In fact, if that young stubborn Marine wrote me back I think he’d tell me he was staying. The motto was, “Ours is not to reason why…but simply to do or die.” Those dead Marines meant a lot to the people of America; they meant nothing to politicians who made money off the war.

The truth is we lost the war. A lot of American military personnel died and many more were injured. There is no way to estimate the number of innocent Vietnamese who lost their lives—at times at the hands of the Americans. We killed a lot of innocent people. That I know. The war changed nothing. South Vietnam eventually gave up to the North. Over time, the nation healed. It is Communist now, but the economy is much better than it was during the war. So my lack of trust in our government started in retrospect as I looked back on the experiences.

We went into Afghanistan with the same promise of a quick resolution. We are the most powerful military in the WORLD! Of course, we will defeat those terrorists. It’s been over 18 years and we keep hearing every president say that same thing: “Just a little longer…we’re almost there.” In the meantime, we learn our generals have had no clue about what kind of country they are in or what “victory” would look like. More U.S. military die. Way more innocent civilians die. We don’t know how to win.

Nevertheless, Donald Trump assures us we have the most powerful military in the world and if a battle with Iran results, it will be over fast. I’ve seen the FB posts. People believe we’ll crush them. First, Iran is not Iraq. It’s much bigger and much more powerful. And it controls 25% of the oil the planet produces. Think about how American will handle a strangled economy. Second, what war have we won lately? We didn’t win Korea; we didn’t win Vietnam; we are not winning in Afghanistan. How many deaths does it take?

I live in Russia. I have seen lies from our media and our politicians since I’ve been here. I don’t have to compare reports. I know when they are lying because I live here, I have friends here, and trusting “these people” in America is beyond my reach. I do not understand why President Donald Trump trusts advisers who have never supported him and intelligence agencies who have worked against his presidency. Maybe he thinks he’ll appease them somehow. The wars of my lifetimes have been Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They were all based on lies in one form or another.

I checked my news feed this morning. A clear majority of talking heads were saying what a great decision it has been to risk war in order to kill this evil man. We killed Osama bin Laden; we killed Saddam Hussein; we killed Muammar Gaddafi. Now we’ve killed Qaesem Soleimani. Gosh, at least we had all heard of the first three. How many Americans had heard of Soleimani before he died? And what was accomplished by the deaths of the other three evil men? Has the situation in the Middle East improved? Is our nation more secure? We released the dogs on Libya’s leader Gaddafi in 2011. They sodomized him with a sword and then killed him. Hillary Clinton giggled about it. A year later they sodomized and killed Christopher Stephens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. I’m quite sure he did not die thinking how secure we’d made things for Americans. I am not arguing those men weren’t evil. I am asking what place on earth is not an existential crisis for America. How many evil men do we have to kill to make the world right? And have we made it right thus far by our killing? Have we held the American intelligence experts responsible for the death of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens?

I looked at the business news quickly after the assassination. The price of oil went up. Bad for America, but good for Russia. The stocks went down. Well, except for the companies that produce military weaponry. They went way up. Do you really think that is a coincidence?

In his first public appearance after the assassination of Soleimani, President Trump told an audience of Florida Evangelicals that, “God is on our side.” My old mind keeps going back to the other wars—when God was on our side…

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’ My age it means less
The country I come from is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there The laws to abide
And that land that I live in Has God on its side

Oh, the history books tell it They tell it so well
The cavalries charged The Indians fell
The cavalries charged The Indians died
Oh, the country was young With God on its side

The Spanish-American War had its day
And the Civil War, too Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes I was made to memorize
With guns in their hands And God on their side

The First World War, boys It came and it went
The reason for fighting I never did get
But I learned to accept it Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead When God’s on your side

The Second World War Came to an end
We forgave the Germans And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million In the ovens they fried
The Germans now, too Have God on their side

I’ve learned to hate the Russians All through my whole life
If another war comes it’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely With God on my side

But now we got weapons of chemical dust
If fire them, we’re forced to Then fire them we must
One push of the button And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions When God’s on your side

Through many a dark hour I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’ I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’ Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war…” (Bob Dylan)

SO, DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVER MOVE BACK TO THE STATES?

It’s a question I have been asked several times, even going back to when we moved here in 2016. From time to time folks still ask me. Recently in one of our regular phone conversations my mother asked the question in a very serious tone. The next day another relative asked me. I guess they had been talking about it. I usually try to give an honest but generic answer: I don’t know the future. I’ve lived long enough to realize that life can change in an instant because of many different and unforeseen reasons. Nevertheless, I felt bad about evading my mom’s question. And it started me to thinking about the things that would be very problematic if we thought about returning to America. I’ll divide them into political and personal, although the division is a bit artificial for us.

POLITICAL. Not long after my conversation with mom, the House Impeachment Inquiry about Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president started. I feel when you are an American living in Russia, it is a good idea to keep up with international politics. Still, I had no intention of getting absorbed in it since I don’t live in Ukraine, and I honestly felt it was “much ado about nothing,” especially given the Biden family’s long and twisted history with Ukraine. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before I realized the telephone conversation was not actually the focus of the first witnesses’ testimonies, The fact is they did not even hear the conversation.

Suddenly Russia was the “front and center” topic of the so-called testimonies. George Kent and William Taylor were the first two witnesses I saw. I could not believe the bald faced lies in the first “testimony.” According to Kent Russia had invaded Ukraine, and the loss of 13,000 Ukrainian lives resulted from evil Russia’s aggression. No, thousands of Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine were killed by other Ukrainians armed with weapons they got from the U.S. I could go on, but I think a couple of paragraphs on Kent and Taylor from Robert Merry’s article in “The American Conservative” sum it up well.

>>But these men embrace a geopolitical outlook that is simplistic, foolhardy, and dangerous. Perhaps no serious blame should accrue to them, since it is the same geopolitical outlook embraced and enforced by pretty much the entire foreign policy establishment, of which these men are mere loyal apparatchiks. And yet they are playing their part in pushing a foreign policy that is directing America towards a very possible disaster.

Neither man manifested even an inkling of an understanding of what kind of game the United States is playing with Ukraine. Neither gave even a nod to the long, complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Neither seemed to understand either the substance or the intensity of Russia’s geopolitical interests along its own borders or the likely consequences of increasing U.S. meddling in what for centuries has been part of Russia’s sphere of influence.<<

As more “experts” were called the lies continued. I posted an article on Facebook from “Consortium News” by one of the “greybeards” left over from the Reagan years (and before), Ray McGovern. There are actually two recent articles by him I recommend. First, on the lying by Fiona Hill during the inquiry see, https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/22/ray-mcgovern-the-pitfalls-of-a-pit-bull-russophobe/?fbclid=IwAR1z1lxEXaTwX1td8qZ3TvIw4vKnoff_goL4DLUJZ1zFMVUToH20mrt1ctU. I have mentioned before understanding the history of Ukraine is very difficult. It’s not that Ukraine has a long history as a “state.” It doesn’t. The difficulty is sorting through the many and varied influences on its development over the years. I have read books on Ukrainian history, but I still get confused over the interplay between the different factions. McGovern, a long time REAL expert on that part of the world, wrote a very helpful and relatively brief article that summarized Ukraine and its history, including Crimea, that I hope many will read: It is aptly called “Ukraine for Dummies.” See https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/14/ray-mcgovern-ukraine-for-dummies/

I finally decided it was not in the interest of my emotional health to continue watching whatever this impeachment inquiry actually was. My main question was left unanswered. I realize a House Inquiry is not a trial as it will be if it goes to the Senate. Still, why did they start by calling as “witnesses” those who could not testify as to having any direct knowledge of the conversation which was ostensibly what motivated them to call for impeachment? Second, how did they go from the topic of Trump’s conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky to broad ranging (and deceptive) testimonies about Russia and Vladimir Putin? How was Russia even involved in this conversation let alone the subject of long rambling statements by these people who are considered experts but apparently have no knowledge of the dismantling of the USSR? Do they realize Ukraine was part of the USSR? The Democrats I saw beforehand talked of impeaching Trump because of the “quid pro quo” linkage of demanding Ukraine investigate the Biden family’s financial and political interests in Ukraine before we (the U.S.) would send weapons to them. The witnesses seemed to know nothing about that.

As far as allegiances for and against Putin and Russia, Ukrainians have been simplistically, albeit helpfully, divided between “left bank” and “right bank.” If you imagine yourself standing on the northern border of Ukraine and looking south down its longest river that winds roughly through the center of the country, the Dnieper River, you could do a generalized division of the cultures as they pertain to Russia. Those on the “left bank” (to the east) would probably speak Russian as their first language, would worship in the Russian Orthodox Church if they are religious, and would basically live life as most Russians do. They would also probably wish for good relations with Russia. On the other hand, those on the right bank (and to the western border) would probably speak Ukrainian or one of the other languages spoken there. They may have Ukrainian, German, Polish or other ancestry, but they would be less likely to have positive impressions of Russia.

For quite some time the U.S. has had positive relations with those in power in Ukraine who oppose “Russian aggression.” This is changing as it is becoming clear to many astute observers on this side of the Atlantic that while the U.S. may seem that it is trying to be helpful and wants to supply money, arms, etc., in order to spread democracy, it “ain’t necessarily so.” From Libya, Iraq and the fact Ukraine’s economy is now the lowest in Europe since American began “helping out,” many have learned America may have its own self-serving agenda. The United States supported a coup in Ukraine with the convoluted explanation that they were helping spread democracy. A country who helps overthrow a duly elected president is not trying to spread democracy, no matter how loud they proclaim said president is corrupt. Is there any politician more corrupt than Victor Poroshenko—or the United States’ all time favorite Russian leader Boris Yeltsin?

In an article that appeared in “The NY Times” (November 13, 2019), Ukrainian billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky, a long time supporter of the new president, Zelensky, and long time adversary of Vladimir Putin, announced he now advocates a Warsaw type pact between Russia and Ukraine. This guy has said really nasty things about Putin in the past and poured millions into opposing Russia, but now he wants a joint treaty with them. I had read an earlier interview with him just after the Ukrainian election of Zelensky wherein I was surprised Kolomoisky sounded so anti-American. Now, he openly states that it is in Ukraine’s best interest to work with Russia—not the United States. This guy is very rich and very influential. That interview was not mentioned in the Trump impeachment hearings.

On the other hand, while I think Trump is not nearly as pro-war and anti-diplomacy as the current leading Democratic candidates, I cannot in good conscience put on a MAGA hat. On Nov. 9 his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in Berlin. His speech was more of the same Russia-bashing one hears from the Democrats in the impeachment inquiry.

>>Today, Russia – led by a former KGB officer stationed in Dresden ‒ invades its neighbors and slays political opponents. It suppresses the independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Russian authorities, even as we speak, use police raids and torture against Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians who are working in opposition to Russian aggression. In Chechnya, anyone considered “undesirable” by the authorities simply disappears.<<

Remember: This is from the man who recently boasted of learning how to lie and teach others how to lie when he was in the CIA. So the fact that he is openly lying in Germany should not surprise. Nora Muller asked him after his speech about what she had been told in Syria—that many are saying it is better to seek good relations with Russia than the United States. Pompeo angrily dismissed this view as “irrational.” He was being as nasty as possible about Russia because the United States has tried in every possible way to stop Nord Stream 2. Nord Stream 2 is a pipeline that would double the amount of natural gas Russia could supply to Germany and then other EU countries. The U.S. fears good trade relationships between Western Europe and Russia will destroy the “narrative” about evil Russia, and these nations will be less dependent on America and more dependent on Russia. Pompeo’s anti-Russian rant fell on deaf ears. Nord Stream 2 is still on track to open in a few weeks.

Last month Denmark gave official permission for the last segment to be completed across their “territory” under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline should be completed by the end of the year. Now Western Europe will get high quality natural gas from Russia at affordable pricing. Further, Russia will not be forced to put up with Ukraine siphoning off its gas as it goes through Ukraine to Europe. Ukraine is now no longer necessary to move the gas. Ukraine will be obsolete and will have to deal honestly with Russia and pay its bills. So even anti-Russian oligarchs are saying Ukraine should link up with Russia. Rather than diplomacy, which seems beyond Pompeo’s intellectual grasp, he continues the fall back position of ranting about the evils of Russia. Europe is no longer falling for it, and it’s getting old.

My point is this: From both sides of the proverbial political aisle in America, powerful people continue to sow as much animosity toward Russia as possible. The Mueller report found nothing, despite what had been promised. Trump said he would drain the swamp, but there are some nasty swamp rats in his own circle of advisers. He replaced John Bolton with Robert O’Brien, who is a Bolton cut-out without the tacky mustache and idiotic grin. Trump said late in 2018 we were getting out of Syria. Bolton quickly jumped in and “corrected” this misinformation. This fall Trump again made it very clear we were pulling back and eventually getting out. But then the military establishment jumped in with both feet from both parties. Both Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham could not wait to condemn his “abandonment” of the Kurds. Most Americans have no idea who the Kurds are. They are hardly a monolithic group. They range from good people to barbaric terrorists. The way Graham described them as such long time faithful allies of America you would think the Kurds were paddling the boat when George Washington crossed the Delaware River. The Kurds are our “allies” as long as we give them uniforms and weapons. That is their “loyalty” to America.

Nevertheless, Trump backed down. Not only did he back down, he sent our troops to take over Syrian oil wells. He even said he wanted Exxon or another American oil company to come in and manage them. So America gets to take over another country’s oil fields because….oh yeah, we’re spreading democracy. Contrast the views expressed by candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Make sure you watch to the end and see how sweet the CBS folks are to him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C38toRT3_-0

The U.S. is in Syria against international law. We claim we are protecting the oil wells from ISIS. No, we’re not. Syria and their legally invited ally, Russia, are fully capable of that. Further, ISIS did not exist until Barack Obama sent our troops into Syria. Of course, the 30 day stay Obama promised has turned into 5 years, and now we have decided their oil fields belong in our care. Wonder why they have terrorists over there. Nevertheless, given the massive U.S. media campaign to demonize Assad, the majority of Americans believe we’re justified. There has been no evidence Assad ever tried to “gas” his own people, but the overwhelming majority of Americans will never be informed of that uncomfortable fact. Both political parties and the MSM from all the major networks keep it quiet.

I don’t get my information from Russian news outlets. Oh, I try to keep up with the news here, but that is not where I get my information. I follow reporters—professional and non-professional—who are actually in the countries I try to learn about. I’ve mentioned Janice Kortkamp and Tom Duggan in Syria before. Janice is American; Tom is British. Also, Eva Karene Bartlett has been there, as well as other “hot spots,” and she reports what she sees and hears. I trust Consortium News for analysis, which is basically retired intelligence professionals like Ray McGovern. I also read Philip Giraldi and Lawrence Wilkerson (also a South Carolinian—more reliable than Lindsey Graham for sure). Old politicians like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul also have good observations. These people, however, are not the people to whom most Americans look for information on international events. Sadly, most Americans do not even know who I am talking about. More unfortunately, the people they look to are lying. Thus, I really don’t fit in with any major political perspectives in America.

THE PERSONAL. The other dimension for our reluctance to ever return permanently to America is more immediate. Our major source of income is my Social Security check. We do a little part time teaching, but that is more to help out the English school than to rake in big bucks. Here we live comfortably. Our house is paid for. We still have some debt on our credit card from extra work we had done on the house, but that should be paid off in no more than a couple months. Living debt free for a family of five (with one son in college) on Social Security would not be possible in America. We don’t splurge much, but we don’t pinch pennies—or rubles—either.

I’ve written so much before about the traditional morals here in contrast to what is going on in America, that I will only mention that continues to be a factor in where we want our children educated and socialized. It has surprised me that when I read what traditional Americans like me are saying about the decline of morals in America, they do so in such a way that indicates the whole world is in moral decline or abdicating traditional morals. No, what is happening in America and Western Europe is not happening everywhere. It is not happening here in Russia. An excerpt from Putin’s speech at the Valdai International Conference a couple of years ago shows what I mean. Putin said:

We see that many Euro-Atlantic states have taken the way where they deny or reject their own roots, including their own Christian roots which form the basis of Western civilization. In these countries the moral basis and any traditional identity are being denied—national, religious, cultural, and even gender identities are being denied or relativised. There, politics treats a family with many children as juridically equal to a homosexual partnership; faith in God is equal to faith in Satan. The excesses and exaggerations of political correctness in these countries indeed lead to serious consideration for the legitimization of parties that promote the propaganda of pedophilia.

I realize there are those in America who applaud the changes that have been going on and the move away from traditional values and morals. They certainly have a right to their views and reasons to be joyful about the changes for what they see are better and more open standards. But those who lament the departure of America from traditional values should understand this is not a worldwide phenomenon. These individuals tend to hold on to the “America is the savior of the world” mentality that is not longer tenable. I am not sure how we would fit back into such a culture.

Health care and finances are another area I have mentioned. Gabriel and Marina Grace have been sick this past week. They came down with bronchitis, which was going around. Oksana took both Gabriel and Marina Grace to the pediatrician. The doctor charged her for Gabriel, but wouldn’t charge her for both of them. Then Oksana took them back for a re-check and to have further tests done because they were fearing pneumonia could have developed. The doctor charged for the tests, but not for the re-check. Her total charge for both office visits was $11.58. The x-rays were $15.00 and the blood tests were about $12.00. Two office visits for two kids, plus x-rays and blood tests for Gabriel would have been an economic disaster right before Christmas if we were living in America. I do not want to go back to the paralysis of living in perpetual debt.

CONCLUSION. I have a concern (fear?) of what life would be like for my Russian-American family in the States given the possible fall out from the political situation. Vladimir Putin is not waiting with bated breath to invade Ukraine or any other country. Why would he want to take over a country with the debt as huge as Ukraine, given Russia has just paid off the lingering “Soviet” debt? I watched the interview with Maria Butina, the Russian lady who was arrested in the United States and kept in solitary confinement for a year and a half. All she was guilty of was being a Russian and a gun rights supporter. https://yandex.ru/video/preview?filmId=1807381273084603644&text=Maria%20Butina%20speaks%20to%20RT&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1574679423112341-185110717466526656300124-sas1-1958&redircnt=1574679434.1 The political clash between Russia and America, a clash that America has initiated and maintains, is very personal and fearful for us.

My kids are becoming more comfortable speaking Russian than English. Sometimes little Marina Grace says things in such a way I know she’s thinking in Russian even when she’s speaking to me in English. She asked me in English last week, “Daddy, what time did I stand this morning?” The verb referring to getting out of bed in the morning is the same verb for “to stand” in Russian. What would she face back in America? We’re not even talking about the “trans” bathroom problems.

For many people the political debates can be put on the proverbial shelf. They either say they don’t know who or what to believe or, more commonly, that I don’t really understand how awful Russia is. They haven’t been here, have never studied it beyond what they see on TV, but they are sure that Rachel Maddow or Mike Pompeo must know so much more than I do about Russia. But their wife and kids don’t carry a Russian passport. And life is good here. There is no dictator. I don’t fear Russia squelching my free speech whether vocal or on the i-net. No one hates me because I’m American. I am not afraid of the Russian police grabbing me. I don’t know if life would go as well if we returned to America.

I’ve stated many times the worst part about living in Russia is missing family and friends. The climate does not bother me; the food is good; I’m getting better at speaking the language. I’m even reading Anna Karenina in Russian now! (Okay, it’s a simplified version with some of the big words translated. And I’m reading it as Oksana tutors me, but I think it still counts!) But Marina will ask if we can go see Mama Freeman today or “Can we go up to Uncle Eddie and Aunt Jean’s house?” (My brother and his wife.) She named her favorite doll, “Anna Kate” after my son’s daughter in America. So, yeah, we all miss America a lot. But not enough to risk a return.

Last week we observed the sad anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It has been 56 years. When he ran for president it created quite a stir in the American south. South Carolina, like most southern states at the time, had been solidly Democrat. Yet Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, came from very wealthy Massachusetts society. He was “upper crust,” and it was very different from where we lived in rural South Carolina. His accent was, well, different. More importantly than that, for my devoutly Baptist family, he was solidly Roman Catholic. My dad was an open-minded and open-hearted man in many ways. It was when segregation and racism reigned in much of South Carolina. Yet I never heard my dad utter a racial slur or tell a racist joke. I saw him treat black people with the same patience and kindness with which he treated everyone else. But he would not vote for a Catholic. He calmly told me Catholics must follow what the Pope says, and he didn’t think our president should be under the authority of the Pope. He supported Goldwater.

I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot. I was in the 4th grade at Keowee Elementary school. The principal, Miss Holloman, came and told our teacher, Mrs. Kelly, that Kennedy had been shot. We were getting our books packed to go home, and just before the final bell she told us he had died. When I got home my mom and dad were sitting squarely in front of the TV watching the news come in. Mom had tears running down her face. Dad looked like he had been kicked in the stomach. He just kept shaking his head in silence. I was confused. They didn’t vote for Kennedy, but you would have thought a family member had just died. I expressed my confusion to my dad. He said, “Son, he was our President. The President of the United States, our country, was shot down like a dog in the street. It’s just awful.”

I came away believing that what united us as Americans was more important than political parties, votes or what you think of who is in office. Our little Southern Baptist church got together and prayed. Everyone did. It really didn’t matter who you voted for. No one even asked. As I watched the House Inquiry last week I started thinking about Kennedy’s death. As Adam Schiff maneuvered the inquiry, I saw a nation that has lost something. Something very important. It’s just not the same. I fear what has been lost cannot be recovered

NADEZHDA, THE FASCINATING GOAT LADY

One morning this summer shortly after we had moved into our new house I took a break from reading to go down and get another cup of coffee. I glanced out our upstairs window as I returned, and I saw a lady, a babushka (grandmother), walking outside our fence. As she passed by I could see she was leading four goats into the forest beside our house. It looked like a billy goat, a nanny goat and two kid goats. The goats were looking around for something to munch on as they walked, but they never got far from the old babushka. I called for my little daughter to come watch “the goat lady.”

[Caveat: Sometimes Russian readers whom I do not know will translate my blogs into Russian and post them on Russian sites. I realize “goat lady” does not translate easily (or prettily) into Russian. For my English readers this could be partly because the term for a male goat has a negative connotation in Russian—kind of like “jackass” in English.]

I saw this babushka walking with her goats on a regular basis after that. It was a fun distraction to watch the goats play as they walked through that pine forest. Eventually Oksana went out to meet her. She wanted to find out if “goat lady” sold milk. Oksana returned to tell me her name was Nadezhda, which means “hope,” and she did indeed sell raw goat milk. She does not process it in any way, but she assured Oksana that no one in her family or anyone who had purchased her milk had ever gotten sick from it. Since she lives just around the corner from us in an old house with her goats and two old dogs, it is convenient for us to get the milk which is quite tasty, not to mention nutritious.

I went with Oksana to meet her one day. She seemed very glad to meet an American. She was a little uncomfortable, however, because I have no patronymic name. I think I have covered this before, but Russians do not have a “middle” name like Americans or other Westerners. After their given name they have a name which is a form of the name of their father. For example, my wife’s name is “Oksana Ivanovna,” since her father’s name is Ivan. (If she had a brother his patronymic name would be Ivanovich.) Only her close friends call her simply Oksana. When Oksana explained Americans don’t have patronymic names Nadezhda still looked uncomfortable. I think it seemed impolite to her to call a man my age simply by his given name. So she avoided addressing me directly.

Over the next couple of weeks Nadezhda began to feel comfortable talking to Oksana. One day Oksana returned home and told me Nadezhda’s life story. She was born in Luga over 80 years ago. She came from an Orthodox family. Her grandfather had been a deacon in the Orthodox Church when the October Revolution occurred. After the Bolsheviks took over and established the Communist government, her grandfather announced that God had told him the Communists would rule Russia for only 70 years. Word of his prediction (or prophesy) reached the ears of the authorities. He was severely punished and warned never to say such things again. But he was not a cowardly man. In his mind, God had given him a message to be proclaimed. He would not keep quiet. After receiving more warnings, he was ultimately executed.

When Nadezhda was a little girl the Nazis captured and occupied Luga on their march toward St. Petersburg. The citizens of Luga, as I have mentioned before, formed militias to fight for their homeland. Eventually the superior numbers and firepower of the Germans were too much for them. Nevertheless, Luga was later declared a “Hero City” because the people here held off the Germans long enough for St. Petersburg to barricade itself against the coming siege. The Nazis besieged St. Petersburg from September 1941 until January 1944, but the city never fell into Nazi hands.

Here in Luga the Germans tore down street signs and other public announcement boards and replaced them with ones written in German. Administrative buildings downtown were taken over by Nazi leaders, and Nazi soldiers served to police the population here. This “policing” included taking any Russian citizens they desired into captivity to do whatever work the German authorities dictated. Some families were exported to Germany to take care of work there. Since many Germans were serving in the military there was a great need for slave labor in Germany. The Germans decided to use Russians as slaves.

Little Nadezhda, her sister, and parents were among the Russians sent to Germany as slaves. While her mother and father had to do whatever their German masters said, Nadezhda said that, oddly enough, it was a good time for her and her sister. They lived in a Russian settlement and, unlike many Russian kids their age that were taken to Germany, were not made to work. The best thing was they had three meals a day! So they could play and eat plenty of food. They really were so much better off than many during those times.

Eventually the Russians were able to push the Germans out of Russia. It seems to me it was a miraculous feat. The Nazi soldiers were forced out, and the Russians pursued them and eventually took control of Berlin. The allied troops were also coming from the other direction. Some wanted to get to Berlin before the Russians and get the glory of the certain victory. General Eisenhower was in charge of allied forces there at the time and stated that would not be the case. He said the Russians had sacrificed more lives by far than anyone in this war, and the victory in Berlin should belong to them.

The allies and the Russians subsequently joined together to liberate German cities. The troops who came to liberate the city where Nadezhda and her family were kept were Americans. She recalled her amazement at seeing real live American troops enter the city. They called out to the troops. Some ignored them, but some tried to say “hello” to them in mangled Russian. (The Russian word for a formal hello is «Здравствуйте» [Zdrahstvuyteh]. Most Americans wouldn’t even attempt to say that word.) Then the Russians saw that some of the American soldiers were black. None of them had ever seen a black person before! Nadezhda bashfully admitted they stared at them. It wasn’t racism. It was simply the first time they had seen black people up close and in person. Anyway, the Americans arranged for them to be sent back to their homeland.

The journey back home was far from joyous. Their train stopped in Poland, and the Polish people greeted them with bottles of vodka with which they could celebrate on the way home. Turns out it was a ruse. The vodka was laced with poison, and the men who drank it died shortly after leaving Poland. There had been a long standing animosity between the Soviet Union and Poland, but the Russians really did believe the Poles were glad they had defeated the Nazis. They were wrong.

The joy of arriving back home to Luga also quickly evaporated. The city was devastated by the Germans. There was nothing of value left. Worse, there was a food shortage. Nadezhda and her family went from having three square meals a day in Germany to reduced rations here in Russia. The rebuilding of Russia after “The Great Patriotic War” (as WW2 is called in Russia) would take many years.

Eventually Russia and the USSR would get back on its feet. Nadezhda went on to have a family and career. She worked for the City Planning Commission. She inspected construction projects within the city. She still keeps a sharp eye on construction. She explained to us everything about the construction of our home, so obviously as she was walking her goats by here she was still “the inspector.” I don’t mean she shared a few general tidbits. She gave the details on how this house was built and the elevation of the lot. Thus, her conclusion that it was a well-built house was great to hear.

Years later there was another tragedy in Nadezhda’s life. One Sunday morning she was going to Liturgy on St. Nicolas Day. It was a cold wintry day with snow and ice. As she got off the city bus she fell and slid under the bus. The driver did not see her and drove over her. The wheel of the bus crossed over her body from below one hip to over her opposite shoulder. She barely survived and spent many months in the hospital. She still bears the scars from that accident. She worked on for a while but eventually had to retire because of the injuries. But she never gave up or gave in. Today she says she walks her goats in part to keep them healthy and enjoy the natural feed, but also because if she sits and does not get out and move around she gets very sore in the places where the bus tire ran over her.

So now when I look out and see Nadezhda I see more than some old grandmother walking her goats. This lady survived being the daughter of slaves in Germany, a famine in her own country and being run over by a bus. She lived through the leadership of Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev. She saw Communist power rise after the war and saw it fall with Gorbachev. She somehow made it through the awful 90s when, with the help of America, Yeltsin and the oligarchs almost destroyed Russia again. There is some fascinating history inside the mind of that old woman with the goats.

There are several ways to learn about a foreign country in which you may want to live and/or work. The traditional and perhaps best way to learn about Russia is to go to a university and major in Russian studies. You study the language, history and culture under qualified professors. Then usually you go and spend a semester or even a year studying here.

When we decided to move back to Russia I was supporting a wife and three kids, so I hardly had the opportunity, time or money to go the traditional route. I tried to condense in a short time as much learning as I could about this country. Since I had already visited here three times and then lived here almost three years, I did have a head start.

I had already started the first task, to study the language, and I continue to study it—most every day. The progress is slow, but I’m getting to the point of actually talking one on one with Russians. This is why I plod away at the Russian language. I don’t study Russian in hopes that one day I can impress people with my linguistic skills or get a certificate showing I am fluent in Russian. Those goals are beyond my grasp anyway. I study Russian to know the people here better. I believe in order to understand a country or culture one must be familiar with the language. Our thoughts are expressed in our words, the words of our native language. We cannot disconnect thought from language. I don’t believe I can really get to know Russians and how they think unless I understand as much of the language as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever reach the point of complete understanding, but the more I know the better. Furthermore, when Russians see that I’m struggling to learn their complex language just so I can talk with them they seem very grateful and open up to me more.

Second, I had also already begun to familiarize myself with Russian history. Heck, as a kid, I thought everyone here had always been atheists and Communists. I really enjoyed learning that there are so many aspects of Russian history about which I was totally ignorant. And reading Russian history is more enjoyable than studying the Russian language in my opinion.

I have two shelves of books on every part of Russian history, but I especially love the more recent history of the last 100 years or so. The books I prefer are those based on research that included interaction with “the people of the land.” For example, I’ve read a number of analyses of Stalin’s gulags. My favorite is Stephen Cohen’s, “The Victims Return,” because 1) Cohen holds a Ph.D. in Russian studies from Columbia University and taught Russian studies at Princeton and New York Universities for many years. Thus, he has stellar academic credentials. 2) He also spent a lot of time in Russia over his academic career, and still comes here and interacts with former acquaintances both in and out of the Russian government. Thus, he has access to “inside” information not readily available to the public. He and Gorbachev have been friends for years, and he is still interviewed by Russian reporters when he is here.

“The Victims Return” is based on his personal interviews and interactions with people who either had been imprisoned in the gulags or had family members who were. His biography on Nicolai Bukharin was secretly translated into Russian, and many “zeks,” (prisoners of the gulags), including Bukharin’s widow, sought him out. Oh, I know the Soviet archives have been opened and many who have read those documents have reached different conclusions than Cohen. However, I still trust scholars like him who do research on the streets and in the apartments more than those whose research is limited to sitting at a desk with a computer. A couple of years ago I got a nasty response to a blog in which I had made a negative comment about Stalin. The irate reader insisted Stalin only imprisoned true criminals. I asked him, “And how many former prisoners have you discussed this with?” His language got so bad I blocked him. Of course, studying Russian history and drawing any hard conclusions should always be done with humility. There is a saying I’ve heard, although I can’t find the original source: “Россия—страна с непредсказуемым прошлым.” (“Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.”)

Listening to Nadezhda, however, is a way to hear the history of this land come alive. She lives in that old house on a dirt road in the small city of Luga. I suspect even many people living here still think of her as I did: the old lady with the goats. But hearing her life story, I realized how much I could learn from her and people like her who went through similar experiences. My life in America was so different. There is something about meeting people like her that jars my mind into thinking from a different perspective.

This is a land with a history rich in wonders and horrors. Since first coming here in 2002 I have seen it transformed for the better. Russians are durable folk. For over three years now I have read almost daily what the mainstream media wonks and the warmongering politicians say about “the Russians” on American TV. Sometimes I wonder what I would think of “the Russians” had I never lived here. Would I have been able to see through the distortions and lies? I must be honest and say–probably not. I would not have had the chance to participate in life here: to shop here; to send my kids to school here; to go to church or to birthday parties here. I would not have had the opportunity to meet Nadezhda, the goat lady. I am quite sure my understanding not only of Russia and Russians but of life itself would have been much more distorted and impoverished.

SCHOOL BEGINS: PUBLIC EDUCATION IN LUGA

September 1 is really the end of the summer in our part of Russia. One can be confident that the hot weather is gone. The temps have been consistently below 50 degrees (F) the last three weeks. Summer 2019 never really felt like summer to a South Carolinian like me anyway. We had maybe 10 days when the temps got up to 80 F (27 C) or a little above in Luga. I have enjoyed the many days we had with temps in the mid-60s to low 70s. After summers like this I’ve heard Russians say, “This summer we’ve had no summer.” I don’t think anyone in South Carolina has ever said that after any summer.

BACK TO SCHOOL. September 1 is the “Day of Knowledge” when all students go back to school in Russia. This year September 1 was on Sunday so the schools started September 2. Since I hear from a number of people who are thinking about moving to Russia but are concerned about what that would mean for their children’s education, I’ll discuss this issue in some detail.

My primary intended audiences in this blog entry are 1)those parents with school age children who are thinking of moving to Russia and want more detailed information and 2)those who simply want to know what public education is like in small town Russia. Some of what I say will be repetitive from earlier blogs, but I will add some later reflections on those earlier experiences and update what we’ve learned since the earlier posts.

My purpose is to inform, not to convince any parents what they should do. I never tell other parents how they should handle the education of their children. I don’t think anyone who knows nothing of this city, its schools and teachers, or my kids can tell me what is best for my children, so I extend the same courtesy to others. Further, the blog is based on our experience. There are many things I have not researched, e.g., what are schools like in large cities or what materials are available for English speakers who homeschool in Russia. Still, I think Luga is fairly typical of most cities this size.

As I have said, we put Gabriel in a public school because we really had no other options at that point—at least that we knew of. There are no Orthodox schools in this small town, and we did not know of any homeschooling co-ops here at the time. It was not until a year later we learned of one that meets in the church we now attend.

CAVEAT (ON OUR BACKGROUND). My wife and I had rather different experiences as part of our primary and secondary education. I went to public school in America when the emphasis was on “reading, writing, and arithmetic” (our shortened summary of basic academics), but patriotism and even religion were a part of the experience. Every morning we pledged allegiance to the flag, and then a teacher or older student would come on the PA system and read a “devotional.” Usually it was a short reading from the Bible, followed by prayer. Football games and other school activities began with a local pastor “leading in prayer.” I don’t recall that it made many of us more religious or more patriotic, but these practices were considered a part of American education in small town USA. Since then the religious and even some patriotic elements have been removed from public school classrooms.

Oksana went to public school in the USSR. The references to god or religion were usually in a disparaging manner. In addition to the traditional academic courses just like we studied in America, she was taught allegiance to country and “the Party.” As an Octobrist and then Pioneer she was taught a healthy dose of Communist ideology. I was surprised to learn from her that, contrary to what we were told in America, the Soviet students and citizens were pretty good at spotting what was party propaganda and distortions. She said they used to joke about some things they were taught as part of the propaganda. I was told Soviet citizens were gullible and believed what their government said. Turns out I was the one deceived by my government on that point.

OUR EXPERIENCE HERE. Despite not knowing the language, Gabriel adapted easily to elementary school here. The school and his teacher worked very hard to make his transition as smooth as possible. While his teacher had a reputation of being tough, she was very good at working with Gabriel, as were his classmates. There was no bullying or aggression toward him because he was American. We recently learned from another teacher that when we moved here the faculty was told an American boy who had relatives in Luga would be attending. They were asked to assist if needed.

It has become clear to us that the public school teachers and administrators in Luga believe that the parents are primary, and the school’s role is not to instruct parents on how to raise a child or covertly teach things contrary to their stated educational purposes. I recently saw a video of parents confronting a school board in Rockland County, California because the school decided to teach the elementary students about being transgender without informing the parents. One mom told of her 9 year old daughter coming home crying because she was afraid she would turn into a boy.

George Packer recently wrote a lengthy article on his experience as a parent of two children educated in public schools in New York. Packer is a self-described liberal who does not like Donald Trump at all. Yet he has experienced the impact of progressivism on public education in New York City, and he now fears it. Serious study of traditional subjects like math and science have been largely abandoned for identity based opinions. Even his son complained because he wasn’t learning math and science. Packer describes the current educational philosophy as, “I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it true.”

(https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/10/when-the-culture-war-comes-for-the-kids/596668/)

I cannot imagine these kinds of situations happening in Russia. First, Putin has stated clearly that gender identity and related issues are something that each individual decides as an adult. Second, schools try not to go beyond the authority of the parent. For example, they vaccinate children in schools in Russia. Before they do, however, the school must receive written permission from the parents. If the child forgets the parent’s note, then no vaccination is given to the student. Parents must approve before the school will act. Third, school leaders here strongly believe that academic preparation, not social awareness, is the primary role of schools.

In elementary schools the teacher stays with the same group of students until they finish elementary. That is, Gabriel had the same teacher every year in elementary school. One can choose to be with a different teacher if there is a problem, but for us this system worked out great. Gabriel loved his teacher. He also moved up with the same classmates, so he became quite comfortable socially. The biggest benefit by far was how quickly he learned the Russian language. He went from knowing only the letters and sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet to speaking Russian by Christmas. He was comfortably bi-lingual by the end of his first year.

Gabriel is now in the fifth grade, and middle school in Russia starts in grade 5. In middle school they change teachers depending on the subject. He will have the same homeroom teacher every year, and the teachers will be the same in each subject each year. For example, his math teacher will remain his math teacher through high school. Nevertheless, I could tell he was anxious about having different teachers for each subject. After a couple of days he was satisfied. He came in my office, sat down and told me about each one of his teachers. He likes all of them.

The negative side of his changing to middle school has been the dramatic increase in the degree of difficulty in the subjects from elementary to middle school. Other parents are complaining as well. Oksana had a long discussion with Gabriel’s homeroom teacher, and she said the teachers all agree this is a problem. Ironically, while many parents in the U.S. agree with George Packer that there has been a “dumbing down” of educational standards in America, many Russian parents believe the subject matter is too complicated, and the tests are too difficult here. Clearly the math and science courses here are far more complex than what a fifth grader gets in a typical public school in America. Furthermore, Gabriel’s class is taking two courses on Russian language in addition to English and German. Gabriel already speaks Russian and English, so he’s excited about studying German. For the other students, it is very difficult to be studying two foreign languages at once—in the fifth grade. The standardized tests the children must pass to graduate are very rigorous, so the curriculum is designed to be difficult.

As far as we can tell there is healthy discipline in the classroom, which I think is conducive to learning. As I mentioned, there is also a lot of communication between parents and teachers on any potential problems. I think we have received more than the normal amount of attention, but we sense good relations between teachers and other parents. Also, schools require uniform dress. Gabriel wears navy dress pants, collared shirt and either a vest or sport jacket to school as do all the other boys. Girls wear uniform dresses, no pants.

Many of my readers are Orthodox Christians, so in addition to the quality of public education they are concerned about the tension between “faith and learning” in a public school. We have not sensed that that tension is as strained here as it is in America. The topic came up in our dinner time conversations this past week. Gabriel had studied “origins” in science class. I asked him how the teacher handled it. He said the teacher basically just covered what the book said, which I gathered was the typical evolutionary approach. I pressed him a bit more. He repeated that she goes over what the book says. He continued, “But she wears a cross, and she’s already talked to us about the birth of Jesus, and we had to say what year after Christ’ birth we were born. I don’t think she agreed with the book, on evolution, but she explained it.” He told his mom, in reference to pictures showing a monkey turning into a man, “Pretty sure it’s fake news.” (Has he been listening to Donald Trump?)

He is also taking a course called, “The Basics of Morals and Virtues.” He’s just started, but it looks like the course entails a look at how morals and virtues are defined by different religions. Then they will do an overview of how those characteristics and actions impact both society and the lives of individuals in a country like Russia which has several major religions. It looks like pretty heavy stuff for a fifth grader.

So in science class they study evolution. Apparently the teacher tries to be as objective as possible, but doesn’t hide her personal views. In another class they take an objective (to whatever degree possible) look at the area of religion, morals, virtues, and how these play out in a pluralistic society. There has been “blow back” from some atheists who do not believe religion should be discussed in public schools, at least not in this manner. They have not gained much support as far as I can tell.

As a former atheist I understand their concerns. My own hunch is that they know schools are not going to undermine the Orthodox Church teachings if they can avoid it. Also, many of the teachers are Orthodox. Nevertheless, Russia was Communist and “officially” atheist for 70 years, so there is a significant number of atheists in Russia. In addition to the heavy population of Christians, there are also about 21 million Muslims, and about a million Jews. It is a difficult balance for schools I’m sure. Russia is pluralistic. If you send your child to public school, that is the atmosphere in which they will learn.

On the other hand, angry public debates are far less common in Russia than America. People are still able to discuss differences in a civil manner. I have spoken with other American expats both personally and on-line, and we talk about how public debates and discussions in Russia seem to us so respectful in contrast to America. I realize that is not the way the U.S. media presents the situation in Russia. I think reasoned discussion is something valuable for children to learn. Nonetheless, parents are the ones who decide if their children should be a part of such an environment of learning.

I’ll add a couple of other considerations. First, if a student wants to go to university here, he or she must pass additional standard tests. The public schools prepare them for these tests as best they can, but those tests are also known to be quite difficult. If one chooses homeschooling, then much consideration should be devoted to preparing their children for these tests IF they are thinking about going to university in Russia. So it is not just a matter of the students learning the language; the parents or tutors must be able to prepare them for these tests. ( As an aside, what Americans call homeschooling is called “Family Education” in Russia. The term “homeschooling” here is used for situations when a public school sends its teachers to teach a disabled child in the comfort of his or her home.)

There are practical matters that also impact the decision. Primary considerations are obviously financial resources and the job demands of the parents. If a family decides to homeschool then clearly sufficient money must be available for private tutors if the parents are not fluent in Russian, as well as for securing the textbooks needed.

My own grandchildren back in America were homeschooled until this year when my son took a position as principal in a classical Christian school. They learned so much at home! So my purpose is not to discourage anyone from homeschooling. I have profound admiration for parents like my son and his wife who diligently followed through on their convictions about homeschooling and did it well. I am simply alerting parents to as many of the ramifications as possible if they are thinking of moving to Russia. Nevertheless, there are a growing number of people here who choose “Family Education.” If possible, talk with other English speaking parents in Russia who do so. Obviously there are factors about which I am ignorant since we do not homeschool. Also, since there is no Orthodox school here I can offer no details on that option either.

To sum up, the two biggest advantages of public schools for us were that Gabriel learned the language quickly, and he developed close friendships. Since he learned to communicate so quickly, he stayed around after school to play with the other kids. Then he met other children at church and enjoyed becoming an altar boy and then playing with friends during Trapeza. In the process he has learned this culture. If we had seen red flags in what or how he was taught in the public school we would have had to do something. As of yet we have not faced such a crisis.

I realize for some readers just the phrase “public schools” has a bad ring to it. Our experience in Russia has been very different from what some of our friends in America are facing. That is not to say we’re “starry eyed” in our view of Russian life in general or public education in this city. We know there are problems, and we won’t always be happy with everything. Important choices always involve examining the costs versus the benefits. At this point we believe our son is getting a good education, and the school does not try to undermine our parental authority or demean our values.

I still believe there are good teachers and good options for education in America. I have dear friends who teach in public school there, and they take their job with utmost seriousness. Some of them have told me they believe they are making a difference in children’s lives. Nevertheless, I am retirement age, and I have never seen the U.S. Government intrude in the lives of its citizens and decisions of families to the degree I am seeing now. And powerful people seem hell-bent on shaping the education of children in the way the education establishment deems best. I also have never seen the main stream media so cooperative with those efforts.

I know how the Russian government is portrayed in the Western press, and my regular readers know why I think those portrayals are so wrong so often. People in Russia can send their children to public schools, teach them at home, or send them to private Orthodox schools. The government does not dictate what they decide. I see no evidence it intends to do so in the future.

THE BELARUS FACTOR

I am always glad to get requests to address a particular issue, topic or question. Usually these questions are about why or how to move to Russia. I recently received a request from a friend back in America, however, to write a blog fully explaining something I had posted on Facebook. It was a picture of our young friend Maxim from Belarus. Maxim is in military training and members of his unit were given dogs to train for use by the military. He named his new comrade-in-arms, a German Shepherd, “Halsi.” The dog was female, and he wanted to name the dog after me so he made up the feminine form of my name. I felt so honored by him for doing that! So this blog is in response to my friend’s request for more background on my contacts in Belarus. As I thought about it, our experience with Maxim did play a contributing role in our decision to move to Russia—although we didn’t think about it then.

There are a lot of apparent ironies or coincidences in life. One such coincidence was when we lived in America one of Oksana’s American friends introduced her to Anna, another Russian lady, who lived not far from us and who had married an American. Anna and Oksana became friends quickly. Then one day Oksana asked me if I knew Robert, who was Anna’s husband. When she said his last name I realized who she was talking about. Here was the irony: Robert had been one of my students several years back when I taught in the university in S.C. He had taken me for 5 semesters of Greek and several other courses. We began getting together with them frequently and even went to the beach with them on vacation one summer.

I think it was in the summer of 2012 that Anna brought over Nastya. She was about 7 years old. Anna explained that Nastya was from Belarus. She lived in the area that was hit hard by the radiation that the winds blew in from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The health officials said that if the children could get out of that radiated area for at least 6 weeks a year and have access to clean water and food, it would be extremely beneficial for their bodies. The church Anna and Robert attended started a “mission” for those children. Families volunteered to keep a child from Belarus for 6 weeks in their home during the summers. Several others in the church who were not able to host children donated to cover travel and other expenses. The host families also organized Bible studies and recreational activities for the children. They also received free medical examinations. Anna and Robert kept Nastya each summer.

I’ll never forget my first meeting with Nastya. Anna introduced us, and I told Nastya in Russian I was glad to meet her and glad she had come to our home. Nastya immediately started laughing loudly. I assumed I had really screwed up the Russian pronunciation. Both Oksana and Anna said, “No, your Russian was fine.” Anna quietly asked Nastya why she laughed. She responded that she had met many Americans, but she had never heard one speak Russian. It seemed weird to her, and it made her laugh.

Later Robert and Anna asked us to consider and pray about something. Nastya had an older brother Maxim. He was about 13 at the time. He had never been able to come to America. Most of the families participating in the program preferred to have girls in their homes. They currently had no one who volunteered to keep a young teenage boy. We responded we didn’t need to think or pray about it. Of course we would keep him.

Maxim was the same age as my step-son Roman. He immediately became a part of our family. He was well-mannered and seemed to feel comfortable with us. While it was Maxim’s first trip to America and he knew no English at all, we found out he told the other kids that he felt completely relaxed in our home. He said Oksana was his American-Russian mother. He could talk to her in Russian about anything. Oksana’s father was born in Belarus and her grandmother and other relatives still live there so there was also that connection. Maxim also told the kids that “Mr. Hal” had short conversations in Russian with him and told them how hard I tried to communicate with him. Roman and Maxim got along great as well and so did Gabriel. While the other kids loved their “sponsors,” the ones who did not know much English said it was sometimes awkward not being able to talk with them or watch TV with them because of the language barrier. Maxim enjoyed being able to talk with us freely. [Note: Russian is the first language for the majority of people in Belarus, although many speak both Belarussian and Russian.]

The second year Maxim and the other kids came was during a complicated and difficult period in our lives. Of course, I had a full time job, and Oksana was 7 months pregnant with Marina Grace. My dad had dementia which was making it harder for my mom to take care of him. Then he got pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital. During that time his dementia got very bad. He was hallucinating. The doctors told us his body was not able to fight the pneumonia; the end was in sight. Eventually he was moved from the hospital to hospice. At the same time our house had even more residents from Belarus. Robert and Anna had moved to another city in S.C. too far away to participate in the program, so we hosted both Maxim and Nastya. Then the family who was hosting Yulia, the group’s Belarussian interpreter, had some problems, so Yulia also came to stay with us. Somehow the visit went very well even though my dad passed away during their time with us. I was close to my dad and miss him, of course, but he was really suffering physically, mentally and emotionally, so I was relieved when his suffering was over.

Oksana took on the teaching responsibilities with the group that Anna had previously carried. She did a LOT of studying. Oksana was raised in an atheist society, and she knew how religion was sometimes portrayed in such a culture. She wanted to present the material carefully and coherently so the group would understand exactly what Christianity teaches. The young people responded very well to Oksana’s teaching. Her long hours of study paid off.

The other kids in the group started coming to our house more often. We had rented Russian TV through our satellite provider while they were there. It wasn’t that the kids wanted to get away from the other host families. They just liked to come over to our house so they could speak Russian and feel they were in “a home away from home.” I remember one night when quite a few of the teenagers were at our place. The TV was tuned in to Russian programming. No one was really watching it, but they liked having it on. The house was full of laughter. We were eating snacks, joking and having such a great time. It was so good to watch those young people from that devastated area of the world enjoying life and getting to laugh. Even little Gabriel thoroughly enjoyed the teenagers being in our home. All the Russian he knew at that point consisted of two phrases: “What are you doing?” and “I don’t understand.” He just kept repeating those phrases no matter what they said to him, smiling proudly as he said them. We all had good laughs over that.

We also went on other outings. My older son and his family came up for a party at a nearby public pool. They also joined us, my mother, and my brother and his family for a lunch at a nearby restaurant one Sunday. Our “backdoor” neighbors had a pool so we went over there with Maxim and Nastya at least a couple of times. Additionally, several of the host families would have everyone over to their homes for cookouts, pool parties, birthday parties, etc. We sensed a special bond with the other host families. We had a wonderful time, and we all were so sad when they had to leave.

That was the last year the church hosted the children. Our leader of the Belarus project was a wonderful, dedicated layman in the church. He spent countless hours on planning and paperwork. He had been to Belarus, and he and his wife even adopted a daughter from there. So we and the other host families were quite surprised and disappointed when he told us the Missions Pastor had informed him that was the last year the kids would come since the church mission would focus elsewhere. I had already begun attending the nearby Orthodox Church for Vespers on Saturdays, however, and we began going there. After Marina Grace was born we decided to become catechumens, and a year later we were fully accepted into Orthodoxy.

We have kept up with Maxim over the years since we last saw him. He tried to come visit us in Russia last summer, but his superiors at the military school did not permit it. I’m quite sure that the fact that all members of our family are American citizens had something to do with it. Maxim also lets us know how Nastya is doing. Yulia has continued interpreting and traveling to America through another church that continues the ministry.

Another coincidence is that Robert and Anna moved from South Carolina to her hometown of Arkhangelsk, Russia this past June. They came here for a very enjoyable three day visit last week. As I sat with my former student from that university half way around the world, thinking about how both of us are now living in Russia, I concluded this qualifies for what my priest in S.C. would call a “DIVINE coincidence.”

As I have already mentioned, one of the main questions I receive from my blog readers concerns how and why we came to Russia. I’ve already tried to address those questions as carefully and fully as possible in previous blogs so I won’t repeat them. Nevertheless, as I thought about Maxim and our two years as a host family, I don’t think until now I realized there was a “Belarus factor” in our eventual move.

When we moved from Russia to S.C. in 2008, both Oksana and I thought we’d settle down and live out our lives there like “average Americans.” She settled in very comfortably since she has an outgoing personality and speaks English so well. I was the one who had trouble readjusting. My home culture had changed. More significantly, I had changed. It was a very difficult experience for me since I now saw things in America differently after having lived 3 years in Russia.

It was during that last summer with those kids in our home that I realized that we were and will always be a “bi-cultural” family. We really do live “between two worlds” no matter where we reside. After they left I made some contacts about how we could perhaps get involved full time in a similar program. I contacted the American Belarussian Relief Organization in N.C., but I was never able to get any real responses to my questions and concerns. No doors were open for full time involvement. Eventually, I stopped trying.

Nevertheless, the seed was planted in my mind that maybe we were not destined to live life there in our small town in South Carolina. It was just a seed. I don’t mean I consciously thought about or reflected upon moving to Russia at that time. I just knew there was fulfillment in connecting with people outside my homeland. I can’t really explain it fully or with complete clarity. Don’t get me wrong: I know people with whom I went to high school who have lived their whole lives in that same small town, and many of them have had a tremendous impact for good in that community. I just began to sense that wasn’t the destiny for my family.

When we did decide to leave America it didn’t happen as I would have predicted back right after the Belarus kids left for home. As I said, I had already realized that my home culture was changing in ways I would not have thought possible. When Marina Grace was born that fall, I wondered what would be considered values and virtues in America as she grew up. I had discovered some things had never been as they seemed on the political front. I found out I had been deceived by elected leaders I had trusted. After coming back from living in Russia, I felt more and more a stranger in my own land. We still had wonderful American friends, and we loved our church. I had gotten much more comfortable at my job, and we were doing better financially. But America was changing, and I was changing. Thomas Wolfe kept whispering in my head, “You can’t go home again.”

I have written many times about these frustrations and how they impacted our decision to move to Russia. Now, however, I think our pilgrimage began with the joy we sensed as we watched those Belarus kids enjoy their American visits and their time in our home. I had lived in Russia for three years before, but I never felt a connection the way I did with those young people. I wasn’t their English teacher or “the American” as I had been in our years in St. Petersburg. I was, well, one of them to some degree. So later when we started to think we may need to move to Russia I believe my mind was open to what was best for our family in part because of what we had experienced during those two summers.

There is no perfect culture, no perfect world in this life. Life is, to some degree, a struggle no matter where you live. But as I stared at Maxim’s picture with his uniform on and his faithful dog “Halsi” at his side, I knew I had made a difference in that young man’s life. And now I realize he had made a difference in mine as well.

THE FACES OF LUGA

Delicious fruit from former southern republics and local potatoes

My life here in the small town of Luga is certainly at a slower pace than it was when I lived in the much, much larger city of St. Petersburg. The nature of a small town and the fact that I’m retired gives me the opportunity to observe people a bit more closely. Of course, since I’m the only American most of them have ever met, I wonder what impression I leave with them. It’s interesting not only observing and getting to know them but noticing their reactions to me as well. Here’s my “take” on five citizens of Luga. (I added a brief description of one more after my original draft.) I chose them primarily because they are fairly typical folks but also because my relationship with each of them is at a different level.

THE BUTCHER LADY. We buy a lot of our groceries at the open market. Adjacent to the open area where fruits, vegetables, dairy and other products are sold is a rather large building that looks like a warehouse. A number of vendors sell fresh meat inside. We found a lady there who consistently has very good meat.

We dropped in the other day to get some meat for grilling. She usually has a young man there helping her, but that day she was working her counter alone. When we approached, her back was to us. She had a huge meat cleaver and was working on a side of pork. You could hear the loud “whack” all over the building when her cleaver made contact. I was quite amazed at how she separated meat from bone and then divided huge chunks of meat into smaller portions so efficiently. She is a rather small, thin lady probably in her 50s, so that made it even more impressive.

She quickly finished cutting the meat and turned to face us with her usual kind smile. She removed her head covering, and her slightly tinted auburn hair was still somehow perfectly in place. As Oksana was describing to her what we needed I noticed her lovely pearl necklace and matching earrings. She removed her large gloves while they were talking so she could put on the thin clear ones needed to show us the various meats. Her finger nails were trimmed and polished to perfection. The color of the polish matched her auburn hair. After the lady secured and weighed the meat we needed, Oksana asked if she had some small chunks of meat we could purchase for the homeless cats around our new home. (Russians call such animals “homeless,” not “strays.”) The butcher lady immediately retrieved a small bag with small portions of meat. She handed the bag to Oksana and said, “Бесплатно,” (“It’s free”) with a smile. Oksana paid her for our meat, and we moved on.

I find Butcher Lady to be very interesting. I would not say she is typical, but she is certainly not unusual for the women of Luga. She is obviously quite strong physically and wields that cleaver in a way that I certainly could never match. Yet, she maintains a traditional feminine manner and dress. And she does it in a very casual manner. She did not strike me as trying to draw attention to herself. She smiles at me, but never speaks directly to me. I am quite sure I have never met a butcher like her in America.

THE DAIRY LADY. In the open section of the market is the lady who sells dairy products. Her driver brings them in from the dairy plant in Mezhozerny, a rural village not far from Luga. I feel very comfortable speaking with her on my own. I love her dairy. All her products have a fresh and rich taste. I drop by about twice a week and get pretty much the same thing: four bottles of milk, two kilograms of tvorog (farmer’s cheese), a large container of smetana (sour-cream), and maybe three or four bottles of yogurt. I love to freeze her yogurt and eat it like ice cream. Sometimes I get a half-kilo of cheese and butter. There is no comparison in taste to what I get here in the open market with what we got at the grocery store in the U.S. I can’t eat Kraft cheese or its other products after eating what I get from this lady. I mix fruit with my tvorog and smetana pretty much every day for breakfast. I never ate farmers cheese in America, but what she sells here is a favorite of mine.

I don’t know Dairy Lady’s name, but she is always friendly. I’d like to think the reason she smiles broadly at me when I come to the counter is because of my good looks and charming personality, but I suspect it is because I am a regular customer who tends to buy a lot. Nevertheless, it is always good to hear her greeting and see her face light up when she sees me. A couple of times I have not had the right amount of money, and she sent me on my way and told me to pay next time. She doesn’t have to ask me what “percent” of products I want (meaning fat content). She gets me what tastes good.

The Russian word for “thank you” is transliterated, “spacebo.” But Russians love to make diminutives out of names and words. After my purchase she says, “Spacebochki.” I had never heard that word before, but I knew immediately what it was. She was saying it to me the way she would say it to a friend. The first time she said it to me that way I came home and I told Oksana that Dairy Lady must like me. Now Oksana calls her my “girlfriend.” When you’re a foreigner in a small city you really appreciate being accepted as a “regular.”

VADIM THE FURNITURE GUY. When we moved in our apartment after arriving in Russia we bought some furniture from a local store. In Russia a lot of the furniture is delivered in boxes, unassembled. We met Vadim at the store and learned his specialty was assembling furniture, so we hired him to come after hours and put ours together. Last month, when we moved from that apartment to our new house, we took the furniture apart to transport it. Oksana happened to run into Vadim in town and asked if he would be willing to come over to our new place and reassemble the furniture for us. He agreed. He is building a new house for his family himself and the extra money helps.

Vadim looks to be in his mid-thirties. He is cordial when he comes over, but he never attempts to chat with me. He goes straight to work and is very efficient. I don’t know how he puts all the furniture together with absolutely no help. There are dozens of screws of different kinds, and the boards for certain pieces can be very awkward to handle. Yet he never asks anyone for help while he fastens everything together. He is obviously very proud of his work. When he finished the last day Oksana called me in to see everything. I bragged on his workmanship and told him what an amazing good job he did. He didn’t say anything, but for the first time he smiled broadly and just stood there basking in the praise. He had worked hard and was glad to have his skills appreciated. We paid him, and he parted with a hearty handshake and smile.

After he left I commented to Oksana on how he seldom spoke and how shy he was. She said, “He’s quiet with you, but when it’s just me he talks a lot. Before leaving he always shows me photos of his wife and children, the house he’s building and tells me all about what is going on in their lives. Sometimes I thought I would never get away.” Vadim chose not to ask me anything or strike up any conversation with me, although he was never rude or discourteous. I think the fact I am an American is just too odd for him.

SERGEY THE PLUMBER. Shortly after moving in our new home we noticed something was not right about the way our water heated. Despite having purchased a new water heater [boiler], our water did not get very hot. We assumed that something was wrong with the heater. The company we purchased it from said to drain it, bring it back, and they would check it. Oksana had already called a plumber she knew to come install our washing machine and dryer. We had placed them upstairs in a large bathroom, and there were no pipes to connect them. So we decided we would wait and get him to look about the water heater.

Sergey arrived on a Thursday evening and introduced himself. I spoke to him in Russian and said, “My name is Hal.” He immediately fixed his gaze on me and tried repeating “Hal” under his breath. Russians have a terribly difficult time trying to pronounce my name since the “a” sound in Russian is never pronounced like it is in “Hal.” Many Russians just can’t make that sound. They can pronounce long Russian names with numerous consonants and few vowels quite effortlessly, but the monosyllabic “Hal” leaves them confused. My wife told him just to call me either “Hel” (as most Russians do) or Maxim, which is my “Orthodox” name.

Sergey is 50 years old, but he walks like an older man, slightly bent over with his back a bit arched. He is quite thin and wears his trousers pulled up very high. We followed Sergey around explaining what we needed him to do. He was baffled at the clothes dryer. He had never seen one before. Eventually he figured out what was needed to get it hooked up. Also, it turned out the water heating problem was easily fixed.

I was the first American Sergey had ever met, and he began asking me questions immediately. Oksana would make sure I understood everything. He started with the general question of how I liked Russia and Luga, but moved on to more personal issues. He asked, “How has Russia changed your mentality?” Later, when Oksana was not present he asked, “How is your soul different after living in Russia?” We Americans talk of our inner feelings as being from “the heart.” Russians prefer to talk of one’s soul.

I told him that I had been treated well by the people in Luga. I also said I came here first in 2002, and I was very impressed with all the improvements in the city. To his question about my “soul,” I told him that living here had reminded me of how my small town in America used to be when I was young. The majority of people from where I was raised in America were like most people in Luga I have met: They valued honesty, hard work and being helpful. The pace of life was slower—like it still is in Luga. I said I had gotten back to appreciating the simple life and kind gestures from people. I repeated that no one here judged me by the political conflicts between our countries, and I thought this spoke well of the Russian people. I told him I live very peaceably here.

He was clearly quite pleased with what I said. To hear that an American has good things to say about his town and its people seemed to give him a sense of relief. He came back the next day. Over coffee, he started telling me about how Russia had been involved with America during the American Civil War. (I decided not to protest, “Yeah, but they sided with the Northerners!”) I said, “True, and America joined the ‘Whites’ in their battles against the Bolsheviks during Russia’s civil war.” His eyes lit up, and he said, “Yes!” and then named all the northern cities of Russia where Americans fought. He is a manual laborer, but he is well read and, like many Russians, again proud of the history of his country. He was obviously delighted I knew some Russian history.

As we concluded our conversation and his visit he told me that we had to talk more. When he gave us our bill I was quite surprised. He had been here on Thursday night and then spent most of the day Friday changing some pipes and other things and charged us the equivalent of $31 for labor. I don’t think I’d get off that cheap with an American plumber even for the Thursday night visit! It is not just Sergey, I have noticed the people like Vadim and Sergey we have hired to do various jobs for us in finishing up our house are remarkably cheaper, and yet are hard workers who are committed to doing a good job. We hired an I.T. worker to get us connected to mobile internet through a special antenna since we are not in the city “loop.” He stayed here over two hours and charged us 700 rubles ($11.00).

A couple of days later Sergey called Oksana and told her he had picked some mushrooms in the woods and wanted to bring some over for me. They were chanterelles–my favorite. Knowing how Russians prize their mushrooms it meant a lot to me that he brought them over. He clearly enjoyed telling me all the medicinal advantages of mushrooms when he brought them. I could tell he felt comfortable talking with me, although I could not understand everything he said. As I was writing the rough draft of this blog entry he brought over more mushrooms and some wild berries [“zemlyanika”] for Marina Grace.

What was interesting to me was the difference between Sergey and Vadim. Neither had ever met an American before me. Neither man speaks any English and both work hard with their hands. But whereas Sergey wanted to “pick my brain” about what I thought of Russia and life here in Luga, Vadim asked me no questions. Based on Oksana’s experience, Vadim was just as talkative and outgoing as Sergey. Yet he responded quite differently to me.

DR. SMOLA. I have mentioned before that when they gave me my physical after we moved to Russia they discovered I have a slight degeneration in a disc in my neck. It was causing some pain at that time. I began weekly treatments from the doctor there who specializes in joint problems. Such a doctor is called a “manual therapist,” because he treats the problem with hands-on realignment therapy. Since it cost less than $8.00 for a 40 minute session, and the treatments have completely relieved my pain, I have kept up my weekly treatments.

Dr. Smola is my manual therapist. After all these weekly treatments we have gotten to know each other quite well. He’s in his early 60s. He is a retired physician from the Soviet military. He was a surgeon at one time, but changed his specialty. He speaks a little English, so during my treatments we communicate pretty well. We speak in Russian, but when he uses words I don’t understand I stop him, and we try to figure things out together. It’s actually a great time of practicing my Russian. I’ve learned a lot! It is so much easier talking to persons who have studied other languages, even if they do not know English well. They do know what it is like to try to communicate in a language other than their native tongue. It’s not awkward for me to stop him and ask for explanations. He does the same with me. The last visit it was raining, and when I mentioned needing my “zontik,” he paused and then slapped his hand down on the desk in frustration because he could not remember the English word “umbrella.” It’s comfortable talking with someone like that.

Dr. Smola lives with his aging mother who is in poor health. He is very active physically, but his mother is very demanding of his time after work so he has little social life. He is always interested in how my family is doing and asks about Oksana and then goes down the list asking about each of my children here.

He is from Ukraine, but was stationed here in Luga while he was in the Soviet military and ended up staying. He says he can’t go back to Ukraine. He is a “left-bank” Ukrainian, meaning he is from the Russian speaking area in the east which has become a place of horrible conflict. Early on I mentioned to him a couple of books I had read on Ukraine, and he sensed that my perspective on the events in Ukraine were not those of a typical American who just watches the Western news outlets.

Last week when I was in for my appointment he opened up a lot. He can’t go back to Ukraine because of what the Nazi leaning Ukrainians in Kiev have done to the country. When I said I am sad that those violent people have been helped with money and weapons from the American government, he looked at me with a sense of gratitude for saying that. We have discussed the heart-breaking manner in which the U.S. handled the situation in Ukraine. Victoria Nuland placed her famous intercepted phone call declaring the U.S. “pick” of who would lead Ukraine. Then Senator John McCain appeared on stage supporting Ukrainian rebels widely known for their neo-Nazi associates and sympathies. After the people of Crimea overwhelmingly voted to return to Russia, President Obama declared sanctions against Russia. Although Crimea had been Russian for most of its history and voted to return to Russia for its own security, the U.S. declared it a Putin ordered “invasion,” and Obama launched the sanctions. Since then the Ukrainian political leaders have been heavily influenced by the United States, and it is now the poorest country in Europe and one of the poorest countries in the world.

I think we talked for about 15 minutes before Dr. Smola actually started working on my neck. We do that a lot. He likes bouncing his ideas and frustrations off an American he can trust I guess. I like hearing his perspective as one who knows people in Ukraine and knows first hand what is going on. He and I have developed a real friendship.

There are others space does not allow me to describe in depth. The market is an interesting mixture of folks from different cultures. Quite a number of the vendors there are from the countries around the Caucasus mountain areas. (Hence the word “Caucasian” in Russian refers to people from these areas.) We buy fruit from one lady there from Azerbaijan named Sveta. Her father is Armenian and her mother Azerbaijani. She laughs that she is the only person in her family with a Russian name.

Her family, like many others at the market, spends the winters in their home country down south, then come live in Russia and sell their produce here in the growing seasons. The funniest incident (to me anyway) was when Sveta asked Oksana, “What kind of accent is that you have?” Apparently Oksana picked up a bit of an American accent after 8 years in America. She loves Sveta but was upset that someone with a thick Caucasian accent would ask such a question of her–a native born Russian!

We love buying fruit and vegetables there. Russia forbids GMOs. That means that if you leave the fruit out a long time, it turns brown and rots. But, like with the dairy, you can discern a more natural flavor. I love South Carolina tomatoes, but I thought the tomatoes we bought from Sveta last week were the best I have ever eaten.

We noticed that Sveta’s prices were clearly lower for the same fruit than other market vendors’, who, in addition, have a reputation for using weighted scales. Sveta emphatically told us several times, “My prices are lower, because I want you to keep coming back to me! Also I could never cheat and put weights on my scales! God forbids that! He would punish me!” Lower prices and delicious fruits and vegetables—we like Sveta even if she does talk about Oksana’s accent.

Living outside my own home country I treasure the friendships I have. Little things that make me feel a part of life here mean a lot to me. The other day after my appointment with Dr. Smola I paid my bill and was getting my coat and umbrella out of the locker when I heard someone call, “Maxim!” I knew immediately it was my priest, Batyushka Nicolai. He was dressed in street clothes, but we greeted each other in the traditional Orthodox manner right there in the waiting room. He was bringing his son in for a physical for school. Later he called and asked Oksana if he could come over and see our house while he was in town. He apologized for inviting himself over, but was dying to see our new home. He came and we showed him the house and had a cup of tea together. It was a good day. I hope my readers can sense from this blog entry why it is I see Russia and Russians so differently from how they are usually presented to the West–and how relationships really could be different between my two worlds.

MOVING DAY AND FATHER’S DAY

Today is Father’s Day in America. Russia does not have such a holiday. For me, like many, there is some sadness. I went on Facebook and the “memory” was from 2014–my last Father’s Day with my dad. He was in hospice, and my oldest son and his family were there with us. Dad tried to hug his granddaughter but didn’t have the strength. Of course, being separated from my two sons in America makes it more difficult still. Holidays can be joyous, but they can also be quite painful—especially as one gets older. I am grateful, however, for my dad and for our relationship. He was not one to say, “I love you,” but he was the anchor in our family. I am glad I was there with him when he departed this life. I got to lean over and tell him goodbye before he left us.

There are other mixed emotions. We moved into our new house this week! It is probably less than two miles from our apartment so it was not like moving here from America. On the other hand, I have used my worn out phrase a lot this past week: “I’ve moved many times in my life, and the best one was still awful.” In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “good move.” I am not referring to the purpose for moving. I mean the actual move itself. This one was in some ways more difficult than our move to Russia. We didn’t move any furniture here to Russia, and we were limited in the amount of clothes and other items we could pack. Not so simple with this move.

In America most people usually call a professional moving company to transport everything. They’ll even pack everything for you if you can afford it. There aren’t any moving companies here in small town Russia. You can find guys who move people, but they usually have other jobs as well. We used the men who have been working on our house. We packed everything ourselves. Another difference here is that most of the furniture we bought here, e.g., wardrobes, the boys’ bunk beds, chest of drawers, etc., has to be taken apart to move. Then we wrapped everything in saran wrap. They sell big rolls of it here specifically for that purpose. Taking it apart is not near as bad as putting it back together, so we hired our friend Vadim who does that professionally. He’s amazing. We still have more furniture on order, but at least we’re in our house.

We now have what most Russians consider a large house. It is about 2,700 sq. ft. The downstairs was completed, and a family was living in it. They started the second floor, but then the husband and wife split up. So we bought the house when the second floor had only been “roughed in.” We were able to do the floor plan the way we wanted. Also, we have a rather large yard with a picnic shelter that includes a large, sturdy table and benches, fireplace, and a sink with running water.

Last night my wife’s parents, sister, brother-in-law and their two little girls came over for our house-warming party. Oksana’s sister and her family live in Germany, so it worked out well with them being here on vacation. Oksana’s sister is fluent in English and her husband speaks some English, so that makes it easier for me. It is so good to be in a home with plenty of room and a yard for our children to play in. We are further from “downtown,” but there are a couple of small grocery stores nearby that have the basics.

While we had a great time, I think Oksana’s dad asked me three times, “Now, you are going to stay here, right? You are settling down here?” I assured him that we are. Later, however, Oksana’s mom told her privately that she sensed a sadness in my eyes. Most Russians, whatever their profession, tend to be psychologists. They read every expression carefully.

Her mom was right. While I am glad we have moved and believe coming here was the right decision, buying a home did add a note of finality to our move to Russia. We have several friends, as I have often noted, who are considering moving to Russia. Most of them say it is a “no return” decision for them. For various reasons, they know once they move they cannot pick up and move back to America. It was not that way for us. We moved with the intention of staying, but we also knew that we had family in America who we could call on to help us get back. My brother told me when we left my old job would be waiting. Deep down I know buying this house makes the move final. We are now owners of a home in Russia. Before we could have just called the owner of the apartment and turned in a one month notice and left. We can’t do that now.

It is not that we harbor desires of returning to America. I have stated several times how much we miss our family and friends there, but we don’t miss life there. The political situation is poisonous. As I indicated in a recent blog, I have now seen how the world covers the news, and there is so much main stream Western news outlets do not cover. Americans are not given the whole story on international events unless they really search alternative news sites. Just this week I was reminded of this fact by three reports. First, back in July, 2014 the U.S. said Russia shot down a Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine. In a documentary just released the Prime Minister of Malaysia said there was no evidence that Russia did it. He also said they (the Malaysians) were not allowed to be involved in the official investigation. He concluded based on their government’s research that blaming the Russians was a narrative cooked up immediately by Americans.

Second, the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking a Japanese tanker last week, but the Japanese officials say the U.S. has gotten the story all wrong. Their people who were actually on the ship tell a different story. I didn’t see either what the Malaysian P.M. said or interviews with any of the Japanese crew get much play on the MSM in America. The third article is one I just saw today and have not had time to study carefully. It is about the media blackout on a report of Arab journalists and civilians who were beheaded by the “moderate rebels” America supported in Syria. https://bsnews.info/media-black-out-on-arab-journalists-and-civilians-beheaded-in-syria-by-western-backed-mercenaries/?fbclid=IwAR3x6tt6d9sh9vHZL27IIi_UodUi2zMgczNhqhVQeHrOmKZuBicIClazmus

Even after the lies were revealed years ago about the Gulf of Tonkin, which led to a war and the deaths of so many American military as well as Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, our government still fabricates stories that have the potential to provoke war. For them, war is good. Even a short war can generate a lot more income for some people than a long peace. The hardest truth for me to confront about my own country was the realization that there are people in powerful places in the U.S. Government who will knowingly send our men and women to die in meaningless wars if it means financial or political rewards for them and their circle of contributors. That was a tough, but unavoidable, truth I had to face. My patriotism took a big hit.

I have also recounted the cultural changes that have occurred which also run counter to what we as Orthodox Christians believe. Patrick J. Buchanan recently wrote a very perceptive article on abortion and gay rights in America. The article went beyond those two issues themselves, however. Buchanan analyzed how the phrase “American values” is being used by the candidates for presidency. They don’t just disagree over how to preserve and protect those values. Their understandings of American values are mutually exclusive. Even during the War between the States the division over values was not as deep. Furthermore, there seems to be no way to solve the issue. So many different “groups” differ so widely, and there are no grounds for compromise. Diplomacy, both domestic and foreign, is dead in America. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/political_commentary/commentary_by_pat_buchanan/are_abortion_gay_rights_american_values

I have not said and am not saying now that everyone who agrees with me should move to Russia or to any country. There were a variety of factors that went into our decision. As I mentioned in my last blog, I frequently get psychoanalyzed by readers who think they have figured out THE motive. I was at the age I could start taking Social Security, and the cost of living is low enough for us to live on it comfortably here. We still could have moved without SS, but we would have had to teach full time or make money in some other way. And I have been interested in Russia since I lived here the first time. I started studying the language, reading the history, and attending an Orthodox church years before we even thought about moving here. All these and other factors came together, and we concluded this move was right.

That does not mean I still don’t think about what life back in America would be like. We look at old pictures or see a Facebook memory of our life in America, and both Oksana and I get tears in the eyes. So what do sentimental ex-pats like myself do? Sometimes I think of the downside of life in America. The photos and memories we look at are of loved ones or good times of course! We didn’t take pictures of mortgage and car payments, credit card notices, taxes, and medical bills. America is, in general, a country that lives on debt. The national debt is bigger than the country’s budget. The most recent poll I could find on personal debt in the U.S. was sponsored by CNBC in 2018. They concluded:

“Credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car loans, personal loans: Most Americans have a combination of these sources of debt. And despite their best intentions, Americans are digging themselves deeper into a hole each year. The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages.”

Excluding home mortgages is excluding a lot of debt for most Americans. I have already been asked how much we paid for our house here more than once. Of course, that is a private issue for most people, but a part of the purpose of this blog is information. First, I can’t give an exact figure because Stepan, our friend whose small company did our expansion, would just use my credit card to buy supplies. He wanted it that way. We would know when he bought something and how much he paid for it. I am not going to go through all those receipts to get an exact figure. Oksana and I both estimated the total cost at just under $75,000. We have, as I said, a 2,700 sq. ft. home on a good size lot (0.4 acres). We live at the end of the road (literally), so it is not paved all way to our house. We have a neighbor on one side and one behind us. There is a forest on the other side, and the house across the street is a “dacha” type house which is empty. It is very peaceful and quiet here.

I miss Father’s Day in America. Getting together with all my kids and grand kids for a big meal and enduring the humor which usually had me as the intended target leaves an empty spot in my heart. But life is seldom exactly as we would arrange it in this world. Last night we grilled shashlik [kebabs] and bratwursts. The shelter, as I said, has a built-in fireplace. It was built up high, so that it is easy to put in charcoal and grill over it. Svetlana made a delicious olivier salad, and we had other veggies and fruits. The adults ate, drank, chatted and watched the girls play. Roman and Gabriel went for a long walk to explore the new territory. I don’t believe Oksana’s parents could have looked more contented.

We now have a perfect spot where we can all gather. I have my own study with built-in sturdy shelves for books—lots of shelves which provide the convenient excuse for buying more books! And people here treat me well. I don’t know how I could go back to living in an America that seems to blame Russia for almost every problem and division. I am sure I could not keep quiet while others are lying about “the Russians.”

People here still debate politics, religion, and the economy. They don’t all share the same personal values and morals. Nevertheless, there are basic cultural values which a clear majority of Russians share. After 70 years of Communism, Russians have rediscovered their history and what they consider to be “the good life.” It is not the uniformity that the Communists insisted on, but there is real unity.

I agree with Mr. Buchanan that America has lost its cultural consensus and presently has no means for recovery. There are not just divisions, there are chasms between what different groups of Americans call virtues. And no one seems to know how to build bridges across the chasms. Oksana’s mom was right. There is a certain sadness in my eyes sometimes. Despite the sadness in my eyes, however, there is a genuine and deeper sense of contentment in my soul.