We are a bit over halfway through the summer, so I thought I would offer an update on life here in Russia. I will focus mainly on personal experiences, but I will address a few issues surrounding the Ukrainian situation which are impacting our lives here. My plan is to cover the special military operation in Ukraine more in depth in my next blog entry.
TRAVEL: The big event of our summer thus far was our trip down to Tula, Russia. Tula is a city of about 500,000 people that is located a little over 100 miles (175 km) south of Moscow. My late wife was born in Tula, and her mother still has relatives there. Oksana’s mom and dad decided to go visit them and invited us to come along. We spent almost a week there. It was not my first trip to Tula. Oksana and I went there for several days when her cousin got married. I think that was in 2006.
Tula is a fascinating city. It is primarily known for the military weaponry that is made there. Coincidentally just after we returned I saw this recent article on-line in RussiaBeyond. https://www.russiabeyond.com/history/335234-tula-arms-capital?fbclid=IwAR2KZs-jhY3TFIlqBKq5UNwzov899M3qZI8kHEtOK0hnpisJzMUK5QCTm7c.
It refers to Tula as the “arms capital” of Russia. There is a huge weapons factory there. We could not visit the factory, but we did visit the nearby weapons museum. For an old Marine like myself it is a fascinating place to visit. We spent hours there when we visited in 2006, and I loved going back this time. I still don’t feel like I saw everything. The big guns (literally) are on display outside the museum. Inside, not only does it have all kinds of Russian weapons, the third floor has American and German armaments as well. Even on the first floor there was picture of Samuel Colt, who started the famous arms manufacturing company in America. There was an extensive collection of Colt firearms below his picture. Next to that display I saw an old M-1 rifle which I had not seen since my early days in the Marine Corps. There are also places where you can actually hold some of the weapons. I took pictures of Gabe with some well known Russian rifles.
There is also the Samovar Museum in Tula. A samovar (literally “self-brewer”) is “a metal container used to heat and boil water, usually for tea.” It is of Russian origin. To refer to them as metal containers, however, is simplistic to the point of being misleading. They are very elaborately made and beautifully decorated and painted. We did not go to the museum this time, but I have been there. Even though I grew up drinking sweetened iced tea in the hot south, I still love the beauty and complexity of the samovars. The craftmanship and art involved in making them is amazing.
On my earlier trip we also visited Lev Tolstoy’s farm, called Yasnaya Polyana (loosely translated “sunlit meadows”), which is located not far from Tula. It is where Tolstoy was born and where he wrote novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His grave is located near the home. Inside the house one can see the bed he slept in and the desk where he wrote his novels. I cannot comprehend how a man could write a novel as long as War and Peace by hand sitting at that simple wooden desk. I get tired writing long blogs on a computer with a word processor. Many famous Russian writers have been there to visit, but for this American the most interesting collection was his letters and correspondences with Thomas Edison. The two men were essentially “pen-pals” and sent gifts to each other. Edison sent Tolstoy a phonograph with which Tolstoy could record his messages on wax cylinders of some sort. This was early 1908. Before I visited there I had no idea Thomas Edison and Lev Tolstoy even knew of each other.
There are also other attractions in the city. Marina Grace had a wonderful time at the Central Park, which is mainly for children. They had various rides and forms of entertainment. One spinning ride was called (in Russian), “The American Slide.” She was a bit afraid at first, but ended up loving it. She was also able to ride a pony. We were exhausted at the end of the day.
It was a very enjoyable trip. It was good to see Oksana’s relatives again, although there was obvious sadness at her not being present this time. It was also frustrating. My Russian is simply not good enough to keep up with “tabletalk.” I think that may be true with people like me in any country who are not really fluent. The conversation around the table often involves more than one person talking at once, and it is usually interrupted with requests to pass this or that food item. I just can’t keep up.
The train ride there and back was very difficult. It was not the express train. It went quite slow and Marina Grace, Gabriel, Roman and I were in one small sleeping compartment called a coupe (rhymes with toupee). I was exhausted when we got back to Luga. But I highly recommend going to Tula if you come to Russia. It is interesting and you can learn a lot about Russian history and culture there.
DAILY LIFE. Otherwise I suppose our summer has been rather typical, whether one is in America or Russia. Gabriel still has his friends he “hangs out” with and frequently has them over here to visit or go swimming in the nearby lake. Marina Grace spends time with her friends, although her close friend (our neighbor) has been away on vacation. Like many Europeans, Russians take long vacations in the summer. Marina also spends the night with her grandparents about once a week. Since the kids are home most of the time I bribe them to go get groceries and run other errands with me. It is much more enjoyable when they go with me, so I willingly buy the chips and candy needed for the bribe. Overall my children are quite happy. That is the most important thing for any parent, but after all they’ve been through this past year without mom it has done me so much good to see their joy.
I am learning to enjoy life again as best I can. I get together with my two buddies as often as possible to hike the trails through the forests near our home. According to Map My Walk, our hikes have ranged from 4.5 miles (7.2 km) to almost 7 miles (11 km). We have had some very warm days (mid-80s F), but we’ve also had many very pleasant—even cool—days which have been really good for walking.
It has been almost a year since Oksana passed away. As I was told from the beginning, grief is a process. The sharp and paralyzing pains are mostly gone now. Of course, every now and then something will trigger the hurt. A couple of days ago I went on Facebook and the memory that flashed up was of my mom and Oksana sitting together in a cafe we sometimes visited not far from our home. Marina Grace was still a toddler and was sitting between them amusing them both. That picture was taken not long before we moved from South Carolina. That both Oksana and mom are gone now hit me again. At least now, however, I can move on emotionally whereas earlier I would be unable to recover for some time after seeing a sweet memory like that.
IMPACT OF SANCTIONS. In general the Russian sanctions still have not had a big impact on life here for most people. I started keeping up with prices on groceries and there was clearly an increase since February, although not nearly as dramatic as what my friends in America have experienced there. Nevertheless, a couple of articles I read last week show inflation in Russia is now starting to decrease. The ruble is stronger than before the sanctions; gas prices are the same, and the central bank just dropped interest rates to below pre-sanction levels.
Mr. Putin and others have said the impact of the sanctions could be more severe if they continue for another six months or so. Neither he nor others whom I have heard were very specific other than to say the supply chain would be impacted in such a way as to cause another price increase. Still, my grocery bill here is a fraction of what it was when we left South Carolina in 2016.
A little background on my grocery shopping: I shop at Lenta, the most expensive chain grocery store in Luga. I go there for several reasons. First, it is within walking distance of our home; second, I like the wide aisles. I do not like shopping, and I hate being crowded when I do shop. Furthermore, since I go there often I know where most products are located. I pay full price because my discount card expired, and I foolishly have not renewed it. I am missing significant discounts. I say that to let you know that I could get my groceries much cheaper if I were a diligent and smart shopper. But I’m not. This past week I stocked up on more groceries than I have ever purchased at one time. Gabriel was with me so I knew I had help carrying the groceries home. We had two huge bags which we packed full, plus my large backpack was stuffed so full we almost could not get it zipped up. The cost was the equivalent of $125. Most weeks the bill is much lower than that. This does not count meat and dairy, however, which I get at the open market.
As I indicated in an earlier blog the people here getting hurt the worst are us ex-pats. Transferring money remains a big problem since Russia was removed from SWIFT. As I indicated before I have been saving up money because President Putin warned this could happen. Nevertheless, if the sanctions continue for several months I will have to take the losses involved in transferring money.
Russia is building its own system similar to SWIFT with other countries, such as China, Brazil, India, and even Saudi Arabia. While this makes things difficult for folks like me, I think it is good for Russia in order to protect the country from the economic tyranny of America. The U.S. wants to determine who is “in” and who is “out” economically based on submission to U.S. directives. Russia is not going to be held captive by the West, and other countries are willingly joining in with Russia. I saw a recent video of 22 representatives from Arab countries standing in line to shake Sergei Lavrov’s hand at the Arab League in Cairo.
From reading and corresponding with my American friends, it is obvious people in the Western countries are getting hurt by these sanctions far more than those of us in Russia. I think it was Ray McGovern who referred to the massive sanctions as a “double-edged failure” for America. They have not had the big impact on the Russian economy that was promised, and, conversely, they have hurt Western countries far worse than the uninformed initiators of the sanctions promised. I have mentioned that I saw the video myself when President Biden said the sanctions would cause the Russian people to rise up and Putin would be gone by the end of the year. Putin’s approval ratings remain around 83-85%. Biden’s approval ratings were less than half that the last time I checked.
I saw that gas prices have come down in the States, but they are still well above what they were a year ago as best I recall. When I see the costs of certain grocery items there I wonder how we would have been able to make it if were still in the U.S. living on my salary. Well, the truth is I would not have my old salary if we were still there. The COVID policies shut down jobs like I had in our small company. Living on Social Security in America would not have been possible. It was difficult living on a single income when we were in the States and I had a full time job. I can’t imagine what it is like now.
Countries in Western Europe are getting hurt even worse than the U.S. They depend heavily on Russia for energy as well as food and fertilizer. And when cold weather hits I do not see how countries like Germany will survive without natural gas from Russia. So the commitment to the sanctions is already weakening in many of the EU countries. And leaders in these countries are either already gone, e.g., Johnson in Great Britain and Draghi in Italy, or are suffering from very low approval ratings. Whether Macron can hold on in France and Scholz in Germany remains to be seen.
Life for a single American father living in Russia is still difficult to be sure. I get frustrated living here, and it is often quite lonely. But if we were still in America and had the medical bills from Oksana’s cancer on top of my job being eliminated, I have no idea what we would have done. Beneath all the economists’ talk about the sizes of different economies and the rates of growth, etc., the one thing that stands out most clearly to me from living in Russia is that the purchasing power of the ruble is so much greater than many Western experts realize. I will say that from my experience some things are cheaper in America, e.g., electronics. Buying a computer and a cell phone was cheaper in America. The items that people usually buy weekly, however, like groceries, gas, and medicines cost only a fraction of what we paid in America. I think the biggest differences may be in health care costs and housing. Both rent and the cost of new homes in Luga is well below what we paid in our small town in South Carolina. My understanding is that the price of housing has skyrocketed even more in America of late.
When I tell my Russian friends how much groceries and gas cost in America or how much we paid for rent when we moved there the looks on some of their faces indicate they are not sure if I am telling the truth. Many Russians have no idea how much money it takes for the average family to live on in America even in “normal” times. Conversely from posts I see on social networks, most Americans believe that the hard times they are going through are worldwide. Their perspective is quite distorted. Neither your politicians nor your press there want you to know what life is like here. They keep telling you we live under a dictatorship that manipulates the common people for whom the dictator and his lieutenants care nothing. I think I have written enough about the psychological phenomenon of projection in earlier blogs.
Therefore, I would appeal to my readers not to believe information presented about Russia by those who have a political agenda or who have not been here in recent years. For example, State Department spokesperson Ned Price recently said Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine because he (Putin) hates to see democracy at work in a neighboring country. He stated this after we all know Victoria Nuland ordered a coup d’etat to remove the democratically elected president of Ukraine and bragged about the money the U.S. spent funding it.
CONFLICT IN UKRAINE. I will briefly address the conflict since it is the major news item from this part of the world. As I said, I will deal with it more fully in my next blog. War is awful, and the deaths of Ukrainians and Russians are painful for so many people. I continue to believe, however, that had the U.S. minded its own business there would be no war in Ukraine. Compare Volodymyr Zelensky’s campaign promises of abiding by the Minsk agreements and resuming good relations with Russia when he was running for President to what he did after he was elected and received U.S. “support.” I continue to insist that there is fighting and dying in Ukraine in large part because that is what the American government and military culture wanted. In unguarded and unscripted moments President Biden has said the U.S. wants this conflict to wear down Russia and force it to use up its military resources. Greater minds than I have reached the same conclusion. In my next blog I will post links to videos by John Mearsheimer and others who have a firm and independent understanding of the development of the Ukrainian crisis.
Putin has stated very clearly that he does not believe Ukraine is a sovereign country. Ukraine is one of several U.S. vassal states. Ukraine didn’t decide to bring in missiles and other “lethal weapons” from the United States to put as close to Russia’s border as possible. The U.S. made the decision and then informed Ukraine what was coming in terms of weapons and money. It is difficult to tell how much money the U.S. has sent to Ukraine this year. Estimates I have seen range from $65 to $70 billion. This money is not just for weapons. The salaries of soldiers (including Nazi battalions) are being funded by America. Other government workers’ salaries are being paid by the U.S. All this while Americans are suffering from the worst inflation in over 40 years. And yet people still pretend Ukraine is acting as an independent sovereign state. President Putin knows that is a lie, and he acted to protect Russia. That is what leaders are elected to do. And that is why the U.S. seems to be making Vladimir Putin more popular than ever.