FOOTBALL, POLITICS & LIFE IN RUSSIA

FOOTBALL, POLITICS AND LIFE IN RUSSIA

FOOTBALL

I am not sure how closely my American friends have been able to follow the World Cup and the impact of the games on life here in Russia. It has been big! Frankly, I know very little about soccer, aka “football” over here in Russia. (I hate calling soccer “football,” but I’m a minority of one here.) The only soccer games I’ve ever watched was when one of my sons was on the high school team back in South Carolina. I went to every game I could, but I learned almost nothing about the game. My son got a team trophy, but I couldn’t even figure out what “offside” meant. They all were running back and forth all over the field! I guess “football” for me will always be the American version.

The games, however, have had a tremendously positive impact on Russia on more than one level. First, the Russian team was not expected to do well at all. I read one article that said they were something like the 68th ranked team in that writer’s view. Yet they made it to the quarter finals—and almost won that game. I watched their match against Spain and became a nervous wreck. They won on an unbelieveable save by their goalie. Thus, I did not watch their game against Croatia because it was at night, and I knew I’d get too nervous and lie awake too long. Despite the fact they lost that very close game, the people here were still very proud of their team. Russia had something else to cheer about. In addition to the unity created by pulling for their team, however, there are other “victories” or benefits.

First, there have been financial benefits for Russia. There were some rumblings in a few circles that the government was having to spend too much money on preparing for the games. They suggested the cost was too big a burden on the budget. Most countries, they pointed out, actually lose money on hosting such events. I watched a video of an interview with Sergey Budrunov, the president of the International Union of Economists, as he explained the cost and benefits of the game. (The video can be seen w/ English subtitles and transcript at https://russia-insider.com/en/politics/host-countries-usually-lose-money-world-cup-russia-scores-250-return-russian-tv-news-video). It cost Russia between $10-$11 billion to provide 12 new stadiums, 5,000 miles of new roads, upgrades to already existing roads and making sure airports and other public service locales were ready for the expected crowds. That’s a lot of money and the Federal Govt. would have to provide well over half of it. Big crowds came, however, and the revenues from ticket sales and associated prices to customers will pay for the cost involved. Mr. Budronov said that by the time the games are over the costs will have been recovered. Profits stand to be substantial from the future revenues that will come in through sales tax on shirts, souvenirs, hotels, food, etc. Judging from the clips I’ve seen of fans eating, buying clothes, gifts, parties, etc., that profit should be substantial. Some estimates say Russia will recover 5 times what they spent. Also, the new stadiums, new roads, and upgraded infrastructure will still be in place after the games are over. There will be future profits to be added from these improvements in the years to come.

Second, the bigger pay off, in the opinion of many, is in the area of what I’ll loosely call “Public Relations,” although “International Relations” may actually be more appropriate. There have been many interviews shown here with fans from many countries who testify to how different their experience in Russia has been from what they were told to expect. Most admitted they came here with a significant apprehension because of what they had heard about Russia. Many from the Western countries said they were warned not only of criminals, but also maltreatment they would probably receive from the Russian police and the Russian “hooligans.” In interview after interview we heard from visitors from all over the world praising Russia and the treatment they received here. Some said police did check their documents, but usually with a friendly smile. Several recounted that when taxis were overwhelmed by the crowds they were given free rides from “regular” folks who did not charge them anything and would not take money when offered. Our son Roman went into the “center” of St. Petersburg and said the atmosphere was great. He said from the languages he heard there were more “foreigners” than Russians out in the streets and all seemed to be having a good time. My FB friends who are “real” European football fans reported the same in their experiences at the games and the parties after the games.

It hasn’t been just the fans talking about the dissonance between what they were told to expect and what they actually have experienced, however. I read many reports filed by journalists from outside of Russia reporting on the same phenomenon. The one that surprised me the most was by Steven Goff of The Washington Post. The Washington Post has been one of the “lead dogs” in anti-Russian propoganda production. Goff admits even up until the last moment he was wishing he did not have to go to Russia. His experiences here were not at all what he expected, however. It turned out to be a wonderful experience and his description of Russia is quite different from what one expects to find in The Washington Post. (See https://m.sfgate.com/news/article/After-seeing-Moscow-I-understand-why-FIFA-gave-13004407.php?utm_campaign=fb-mobile&utm_source=CMS+Sharing+Button&utm_medium=social). I have no doubts that the anti-Russian propoganda will continue, but for those who have been paying attention it will be a harder sale. It was gratifying to me and to other Americans living here in Russia to see and hear of the experiences of others who discovered the truth of what we have been saying: the Russia you read about in the main stream Western press is a creation motivated by the political and/or social agendas of the writers.

POLITICS

President Trump is to arrive in Helsinki, Finland soon for his summit with President Putin, so the attention here will move immediately from football to politics. The two leaders have met before, but it has been at conferences or gatherings when leaders from other countries were present as well. This will be the first meeting with just the two of them, their staffs, and the interpretors. On July 16 they have a meeting sheduled between the two of them without aides present. I do not know what to expect. In my next blog, which I’ve almost completed, I will address the issues of how this meeting has been discussed in the Western Press. I will focus on one particular interview. For now, however, I’d like to offer my observations on how Russians and Americans (not politicians, just the women and men in the street) differ in respect to how they carry out political discussions. These are based totally on my experiences and I have no studies to back them up.

First, Americans, as I have said before, tend to get more emotionally involved with a particular politician or leader. They will often ask, “Do you like Trump (or whomever)?” Or say, “I can’t stand him!” Generally in a discussion on politics, Russians are more comfortable talking about the issues with which one may agree or disagree, rather than whether you like the politician. Further, Americans tend to be “all or nothing” about a candidate. If they like Trump, they will support him no matter what. I have several pro-Trump friends. When Trump indicated he might not sign a particular spending bill, one friend told me how bad the spending bill was. Trump changed his mind at the last moment and signed it. My friend responded to someone else criticizing him by showing how the bill was essential to keep the government running. In other words his one point of consistency was his support of Trump. I think Americans see this as loyalty. Others, the “never Trumpers,” are going to be against whatever Trump recommends. This was clear when Justice Kennedy recently retired from the Supreme Court. There were people in the streets, in interviews, on FB, Twitter, etc., before anyone had actually been nominated, proclaiming their opposition to the nominee. Trump would be nominating the person, that was all the information needed.

Russians tend to keep a little “distance” between themselves and any politician. I’m not saying there aren’t people here who feel strongly for or against Putin or other politicians. In general, these feelings are kept “close to the vest,” however. Most people I know voted for Putin. Most people in Russia voted for Putin. The idea, however, that those people agree with him on every point or fall in line with whatever he says is a completely inaccurate interpretation of how things are here. For example, I chatted with my doctor again this week while he was giving me my neck treatment. He’s a great guy, but he would really like to go back to Communist days and the USSR. He was fondly recalling the times of being a doctor and not worrying about having to charge patients for whatever treatments they needed; he cherishes the memory of the comaraderie among the people here that he believes has been lost. He also “lectured” me (he knows I don’t agree with him) about the labor laws which he believes were far superior then. (Unfortunately, he got excited and starting speaking so fast that I missed a couple of his main points due to my inferior Russian listening skills!) He voted for Putin, however, not his Communist opponent. He said he believes Putin has been more effective in implementing correct economic and social policies that have helped Russia come out of the disaster of the Boris Yeltsin horror of the 90s. His heart longs for Russia to return to Communism, but his head realizes that would not be the best route.

My opinion is that there has always been this basic difference, with Americans becoming more animated in political discusions than most Russians. We Americans have always loved our political debates. The election of Donald Trump, however, has intensified it in a way beyond anything prior to 2016. Now it seems every political decision is a “bone of contention.” This was brought home to me when an old friend I had not seen in years contacted me through Facebook. He and I never agreed on politics and would constantly rib each other in a good natured way when we were young men. Now, however, after we talked about the old times a bit, he said some very negative things about Russia and added, “And I don’t like Putin!” I probed him on where he got his information. He became very angry, said I was calling him a liar, and jumped me like I was a Trump troll or something. My own political views on Trump are that when he makes a decision I agree with I’m not ashamed to commend him, but when he makes one I don’t agree with, I’ll blast away. I guess I’ve become more Russian. I neither like nor dislike him. (Although I admit the hair still bothers me.) It became clear to me through this very unpleasant conversation with a friend from over 30 years ago that things are different in America. I think I realized it before, but never reflected on it. I have American friends I really like but with whom I avoid any political discussion at all. You go there with them, and you better be prepared to fight. I go to my Russian doctor every week for a 40 minute treatment and we talk about everything—including politics. He’s an old Communist, and I voted for Ronald Reagan. Yet, we still can have sane and helpful conversations–even if my Russian is not quite fully up to the challenge.

Russians also usually stay on an even keel about political events. They tend not to get to excited when things go bad and neither are they euphoric when events look good. No one here in Luga was riding around blowing their horns or shouting in the streets when Putin got re-elected. Most here were in agreement, but Russians have a history that teaches them not to hope (or despair) based on one leader or one election. Last night I watched a string of Americans (politicians and activists) at some rally deriding the nomination of perspective Justice Kavanaugh. His confirmation, they made clear, would end democracy as we know it. They launched into a string of catastrophic events that would surely follow if he is confirmed. I think the persons who are selected to serve on the Supreme Court are very important. But I’ve lived long enough to see both liberals and conservatives put on the Court, and not one of them has ever had the power to dethrone democracy. I personally think democracy is being dethroned in America, but it is not by any one Supreme Court justice.

Finally, Russians tend not to let one issue impact everything, and they listen to “the other side.” Again, the events surrounding the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh reminded me of this difference. The main issue or point of contention in America based on what I have heard talked about for some time is what his nomination will do to abortion rights. Then it went from, “if he’s confirmed then women can’t have abortions, then it will mean no contraceptives, then all rights of women will be essentially taken away.” That isn’t an exact quote, but—believe it or not—that is essentially what one activist said, and she received cheers and applause for her insights. Abortion is still legal here in Russia, although I pointed out in my last blog it is becoming more infrequent. The Russian Orthodox Church is taking the lead in the trying to stop or at least reduce the number of abortions. They provide financial and other forms of assistance to help women who are thinking of an abortion go ahead and have the baby. Surprising to us they even run anti-abortion commercials through their television network. They don’t attack anyone over the issue. But they make their goals clear. I don’t know if they could do anti-abortion commercials on American TV. The persons who are for abortion here don’t get offended or angry when the other side sets forth their alternatives. They have their reasons, but they are quite willing for both sides to “have their say.” Who would have thought? Freedom of speech is alive and well in Russia.

My hope is that on “the other side” of all this political rancor we are going through in America we will come again to recognizing the ideals which once bound us together. Despite what is shown on TV, I do not believe the majority of Americans want things to be the way they appear on the nightly news. Those people ranting and raging do not represent the Americans I know. To some degree I blame the current leadership. Trump’s tweets get people’s emotions going, and I don’t think they change anyone’s mind. They are calls to the already converted. Then Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Shumer rejoins with responses impregnated with animosity but devoid of intellectual content; now Maxine Waters has given encouragement to harassment and physical confrontation toward those with whom her followers disagree. If Trump says anything positive about Russia and the need to work together one can be sure that Adam Schiff, Lindsey Graham or even the ailing John McCain will make sure people understand that means our President is working for Putin. That is not what I believe most Americans believe or would believe if they had the facts presented to them.

During the World Cup games a reporter happened upon an old Russian man with a basket of crocheted items, e.g., little figurines of football players and other small tokens. He said he had learned to crochet from his grandmother when he was a little boy. He had made these little items to come and give to the people visiting from other countries so they would remember Russia. Another young man brought little jars with jelly his grandmother had made for the same reason. Americans, they won’t show you that on the evening news. Somehow even with 24 hour news coverages, there is no time for stories like these to be shown in America. Those media types and the politicians want to convince you of the evil that is here in Russia and the evil that is in those on the other side of the political debates. They want to appeal to a darker side. I am no Pollyanna. There is evil in the world. But the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who suffered more than I can imagine, reminds us of the true nature and location of evil:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

afinkeev-russia-spain-afp

Advertisements

SPRINGTIME IN RUSSIA

According to my calendar June 20 is the last day of spring. It has been a good one in Russia! When I was a kid growing up in South Carolina, I never understood the “solstice” explanation. I had no idea why they said summer started the third week in June. Most years, I had been playing outside barefoot, dressed in tee shirts and shorts for two months. Not every year was like that, but by June it was always HOT. Spring is not nearly as dependable here in the northwest section of Russia. Last year I thought the winter would not end. We even had a couple of significant snowfalls in May. This year, however, May was beautiful and warm. We had to get out our fans to cool our apartment. June is usually quite wet where we live in Russia, but this year we’ve had only a few rains, and the weather is actually cooler than in May. This morning it is 62 degrees (F). That is what it is most mornings when I walk. I love it.

Russians really appreciate good weather. You can almost sense the better mood in the streets. This year the World Cup is in Russia, and that has added to the excitement. I’ve read a few reports from journalists on how surprised they have been at the way things are here. Thus far the games are turning out to be the positive exercise of what some call Russian “soft-power,” or showing the world that things here are quite different than what they have been told. Despite the fact no American team is participating I saw a report that there are huge crowds of American tourists who came to Russia despite Homeland Security’s baseless travel warnings. I am quite sure there are those at work in the West trying to undermine this very positive view of the events. Many of us fear some kind of international incident designed to make Russia look bad.

Apparently the optimism of the Russian people is not totally (or mostly) generated by the weather. According to a recent TASS poll 83% of Russians have a positive view of life here. Most consider themselves “lucky.” (See http://tass.com/society/1002802) The main factors are family, parenthood and work. I was surprised that even among the over 60 age group and those in the lower income categories a majority of respondants feel good about things here. Health was also a factor. Russians are drinking and smoking less and also watching TV fewer hours since the last poll they did. Since 2000 the average life span in Russia has gone up by six years to 72.6. Obviously there are still unhappy and unfortunate people in Russia, but things are looking up.

I realize this is not the picture most people get of Russia. I somehow unintentionally got linked to a site called Quora. I was doing some research and ended up on the site. It is a site where people ask questions on pretty much anything. I saw that in response to a question about life in Russia, someone had posted a link to my blog. After that I immediately started getting feeds letting me see questions about Russia. The questions are sometimes ridiculous and betray a complete ignorance of Russia. Most of the answers, however, are quite insightful and thorough. One question from May 29 caught my attention: “Why do Russians still overwhelmingly support Putin even though their living standards did not get any better under his rule?” Fortunately the responder was able to show things have gotten much better. I will give my “take” on the increasingly positive attitude among Russians. Whether one wants to give Putin no credit, partial credit, or most of the credit is not my concern. Also, my list is partly based on a few statistics and partly a “worm’s eye view” from my life here, meaning life here on the ground.

1 “The economy, stupid.” That is a phrase James Carville, who was a leader in Bill Clinton’s campaign, came up with when Clinton successfully challenged George H.W. Bush for the presidency in 1992. (Usually stated, “It’s the economy, stupid.”) In early 1991 after the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s popularity soared. Clinton was able to direct people’s attention back to the rather bleak economic situation and win the election.

I have stated before I’m no economist. But I look at numbers that are easy for people like me–like the stock market. The Russian stock market has blossomed of late. It is up around 2,300 most days. Back in April it took a nose dive when another round of sanctions was announced. Apparently the “oligarchs” were going to be hit hard. It quickly rebounded, however, to breaking the “highest ever” notch. Now, I’m not one who believes the stock market is the best or most reliable indicator of a nation’s economy. But it is relevant. In 1998 Russian stock stood at 18. That’s eighteen, not 1,800. Poverty in Russia has been reduced by over half since then, and the GDP has grown by leaps and bounds. Pensions in Russia have risen by 10 times since 2,000.

Observations from the eye of the worm. My wife has been going to a masseuse lately. This lady says she works over 12 hours a day. It is her own private business, and she has more clients than she can handle. Oksana asked her how does she do it physically. She says she is also a manicurist and she alternates times of doing the heavy work of messages with doing pedicures and manicures. She said she is amazed how many ladies in Luga now can afford to come weekly for those. Her description of her small business demonstrates how differently things are from when I came here in 2002.

It’s not just small businesses, however. We’ve got a new grocery store right next to our apartment! “Spar” has opened a nice new store with a wide variety of foods and other items. I personally know of at least four new large grocery stores and one small mall that have opened in this little town in the two years we’ve been here. That does not include the numerous other businesses that have opened.

Who or what is responsible? As I read Western reports which actually admit things are better, they most often somehow weirdly blame (not credit) Putin. He’s corrupt; his government is a bunch of oligarchs; he got lucky with oil prices. Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia, tries to make Russia look more pitiful and evil today. In his recent debate with Stephen Cohen, I even heard him praise the 90s again (although he tried to quickly qualify his remark). The 90s was good for “master America” and the oligarchs they were funding. Oddly I hear a lot of bad things about “Putin’s oligarchs” these days. Do people not realize the U.S. help create those oligarchs when Yeltsin was president? And when Putin fights them, he’s called a dictator. If he works with them, it’s “Putin’s oligarchs.” If he reins in on them, he’s a dictator. Makes for easy reporting. The bottom line is despite sanctions and despite so-called corruption, the people here are doing better economically. Still, it seems America will continue to level more and more sanctions because…well, if you can’t think of a good policy, issue more sanctions. Maybe the “oligarchs” are hurting. But from the worm’s eye view, sanctions have not impacted regular folks’ lives.

Another factor worth considering is the fact Russia’s sovereign debt is $575 BILLION. By comparison Britain’s is $7.5 TRILLION; France–$5 trillion, and the U.S. debt is 21 trillion dollars. Since Russia has $450 billion in foreign reserves, this makes the picture even more positive for Russia.

2 People feel safer. Despite the fact that NATO continues to flex its military muscle and inch closer and closer to Russia, people here feel more secure. The reason Russia had to suck up to America in the 90s is because it had no options. The military was in shambles. The Rand Corporation is a think tank started by Douglas Aircraft Co. to offer research and analysis on armed forces, among other things, for the U.S. Government. In 2014 at the time of the Ukrainian crisis, they reported on the Russian military and, in essence, said Russia was more bark than bite. While stating advances had been made by Russia, the overall gist of the report was the U.S. had little to fear if there were a direct confrontation. The 2017 report read quite differently, however. Based on its observations of the Russian military activities in Syria they stated, “Starkly, assessments in this report will show US forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called on to fight.” They also cautioned this was simply based on what they had observed in Syria and believed Russia had other superior armaments that they had not displayed.

In his speech back in March of 2018, Vladimir Putin showed a video of new long range missiles (among other things) with startling capabilities. While the immediate reaction from many in the States was that he was bluffing, some older “grey beards” from the Reagan era cautioned he was not. No evidence has been produced showing his claims are not valid. Several have confirmed they are. Space does not allow me to discuss each of the points of his presentation, but the overall conclusion was that there are valid reasons Russians do not feel like an inferior opponent as they did in the 90s.

Donald Trump immediately said we don’t need another arms race. Putin’s response (to the Russian people) was that Russia does not want or need to escalate defense spending. He announced further REDUCTIONS in military spending and said the money is being redirected to pensions and other needs in domestic affairs. While well over half the Russian people say they are glad for the military strength of Russia, almost 45% said they believed Putin should spend more on help for average Russians. There are still people struggling here. He has responded and agreed with them. The reason Russia can do so well militarily is because it rarely goes outside its own borders. Putin sent military help to Syria because he was invited, and because the West, specifically Donald Trump, had said earlier that Russia should join in and fight terrorism. Oddly, Putin was critisized by the West for fighting terrorists in Syria. Until 1947 the name was “War Department” in America. It eventually became, “The Department of Defense.” It really still is a war department. America has not had to defend itself since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus, the U.S. spends over 10 times what Russia does on its military and now, by its own research, has an inferior military to Russia.

3 “Family Values.” The main factor Russians listed for their positive feelings about life was the family, not the economy or military. For 70 years Russians were taught that the family was not the focus of life. Socialism shifted the attention to labor in the name of “the bright future.” The traditional Christian values of Russia’s long heritage could no longer be taught. Children were the responsibility of the state. A recent Levada poll indicated that on most family issues the trend in Russia is back to more traditional values. (http://www.pravmir.com/poll-christian-values-on-sodomy-abortion-surge-in-russia-83-reject-homosexuality/) Since this includes negative views on homosexuality, trans-gender issues, as well as abortions, many in the West use this as a point of attack. Again, it does not mean homosexuality or abortion are illegal here. It means the trend in public evaluations are toward a stronger family unit and more Russians now disapprove of these practices. Of course, there is far more involved in “family” than the values I mentioned, so one ought not to miss that basic point in the discussion of specific values or morals.

Problems remain, of course, but in general Russians feel better about life here. They believe their society is becoming a better place for work, family, and one’s health. Whether deserved or not, Vladimir Putin received 77% of the vote in the March election so many Russians must give him credit. When I turned on the first reviews of the election from America I heard Howard Kurtz from FoxNews ask a guest to talk about “the Russian election” (eye-roll), “the so-called election,” he clarified. I like some of Kurtz’ reports on the media. Nevertheless, he has no idea what goes on in Russian elections, but obviously he felt obliged to act like it was fraudulent. Evidence is not important when you bash Russia, and more of your media buddies will approve of you. I switched to other outlets and the descriptions were worse, e.g., “sham election.” It wasn’t a sham election. There were plenty of international observers here. (For an analysis from a true Russian expert who was a part of an international team of observers see Gilbert Doctorow, https://russia-insider.com/en/what-i-saw-official-observer-russian-elections/ri22879.) On the other hand, I saw a report yesterday that a Federal judge in Kansas had blocked a new Kansas law that stated one had to be able to prove one is an American citizen before voting in an election. Judge Julie Robinson said the concern for non-citizens voting did not “outweigh the burden of proof of citizenship.” I find it sadly ironic that America condemns Russian elections while it believes no one in America should have the “burden” of having to prove they are legal before they vote.

I saw another headline on Fox this morning: “Americans’ satisfaction with direction of country at a 12 year high!” I clicked on for more information. It said 38% of Americans are content with the way America is headed—and that’s a 12 year high. Ironically, the number is the inverse of the 83% of Russians who are pleased with the direction their country is headed. Perhaps it is time for America to get the plank out of its own economic/political/military eye before seeing clearly enough to remove any specks from Russia’s cultural corneas.

 

 

TWO YEARS IN RUSSIA: RESPONSES AND REFLECTIONS

Two years ago today I wrote my first blog, which I published a couple of days later. We had most everything in our home packed up and ready for our move to Russia. In these two years I’ve learned a lot more about Russia—and about America. That first blog picked up a handful of readers, mostly friends from church and a couple of family members. My blog last month was an interview a Ph.D. student in Bucharest did with me on my conversion to Orthodoxy. A website editor asked me to add a section on the impact the move to Orthodoxy had on our relocating to Russia. That blog got more “hits” by the thousands than any early blogs. I also received a lot of questions and feedback. So this “two year review” summarizes observations I’ve made all along since our move to Russia. I beg the indulgence of regular readers, because it does repeat many points I’ve made along the way. Nevertheless, I thought I needed to respond to some of the questions I was asked.

I do not believe the increase in readership is because I’ve become a better writer (as much as I wish that were the case). The reason is, based on the responses I’ve received, there is a growing number of people who want to know more about what life is like in Russia and others still who are seriously considering moving here. I write as one whose family came here not because I was sent here by an employer or any other external reason. We didn’t have to move to Russia; we decided for personal and idealogical reasons it was the best move for our family. My biggest surprise is how many people found some of our reasons very similar to their own concerns.

Caveat: A couple of times I have heard from Americans living in St. Petersburg or Moscow who kindly say my summaries are not always consistent with their experience. I forget or simply fail to mention that when I say “in Russia” I mean “in small town Russia.” My blog is about life outside the more usual locations for “ex-pats.”

The majority of the inquiries I received were from Orthodox Christians, several of whom are thinking about moving from America. They indicated it is not that other Americans do not share their moral or spiritual convictions. They sense a popular hostility towards those convictions. Under the cover of “politically correct” Christian views will be or already are being silenced. As one mom told me, “Yes, we can do homeschooling and we have our friends at church. But if we stay we will have to live a relatively cloistered life and hope things get better.” They do not want their children to grow up that way. Certainly Orthodox Christians are not the only people who are concerned about what they see as moral decline in America. Orthodoxy, however, traces most of its major historical developments outside of the West and, it seems to me, Orthodox folks sense a stronger bond with believers in countries like Russia where Orthodoxy is the numerically dominant faith. There is a greater openness to non-Western thought and practices.

The moral or religious concern is often coupled with fatigue about the political situation in the U.S. It is not about liking or not liking Donald Trump. I have heard from some who voted for him and some who did not, but they reflect the same frustration at the intransigent nature of the political system in the U.S. Substantive policies do not seem to change no matter who is elected. Lowering unemployment and raising the stock market are important, but these are not the types of changes many people believe should be substituted for a healthier, more traditional, philosophical and moral foundation. They are frustrated that the political fights have become more intense, but they tell me they foresee few changes at a deeper cultural level. America continues to fight in wars all over the world. Their sons and daughters may be sent to places few Americans can locate on a map to “fight terrorism” or “spread democracy.” Rightly or wrongly, apparently many Americans are like me and believe these phrases are meaningless. The U.S. is very selective about which terrorists we fight, and we only want democracy in places that will elect a leader the American political establishment approves of. If our own meddling causes the continuation of war and strife, then so be it. When we sell them weapons some people will make loads of money and some of that money will end up in the pockets of cooperative politicians. Far more children than terrorists have died in most countries where we are “spreading democracy,” but the concern among the weapons dealers seems to be that nagging fear that world peace will break out. The people I hear from are not disloyal Americans. They are heartbroken Americans. I heard from one retired gentleman last week who had come across my blog and said he would move here too if he could afford it. He lamented the money we pour into wars taking place where American security is not at stake, but he and others go without reasonably priced medical care.

Now to some specific questions. “How are you and your family treated in Russia?” The foundation for the question is the recognition of the many negative or downright nasty things said about Russia by American politicians and media outlets. That was of some concern for us when we moved, but the animosity toward Russia was not nearly as sharp then as it is now. Nevertheless, we continue to be treated well by the Russian people. In fact, I think most Russians are quite happy to know that the “real” Americans they meet do not view them or their country in a negative way. No matter how obnoxious, uninformed or venomous John McCain and his kin are in their rants about Russia, no one here holds me or my family responsible. As my regular readers know, taxi drivers are a great source for local “inside scoop.” Yesterday the driver asked us, “Do Americans really see us Russians as a threat to them or the world?” Russians are more baffled than angry over the way they are portrayed in American news. They are certainly aware of what is said, but neither I nor any member of my family has ever been mistreated or even had anything negative said to us because we are Americans.

What about the political situation in ‘Putin’s Russia’?” The political situation here is far more stable than in the States. That does not mean there are no disagreements. Contrary to what some in America believe, political debate goes on here in a lively public manner. Despite what you read in the U.S., other candidates are often very openly critical of Putin. There is simply more common ground and a stronger sense of decorum among the various parties and persons in Russian debates. I try as best I can to keep up with the news here. I think I need to know in general what Putin says to his own people. I am convinced he has no aspirations to engage in unprovoked military action against any country. He does not send any signals to his own citizens to prepare them for a coming conflict he is supposedly looking for. Also, I do not believe he has any intent on extending the borders of Russia into Ukraine or the Baltic states or anywhere else. I don’t say this because I think Putin is such a nice guy. The main reason I and others think this way is that even cursory research shows that many of the countries he is accused of wanting to take over are economic and/or political disasters. Even among those who do not like Putin, I have found most believe he is an intelligent leader. He is far too intelligent to put the economic stability of Russia at risk in the interest of taking over some other country that would be a huge economic drain on Russian resources. Ukraine is drowning economically and socially; the populations of Latvia and Lithuania are shrinking rapidly—especially among younger workers. Why would Putin want to risk sinking Russia so he could control struggling Latvia? Russia is already the biggest geographical country in the world. Further, I continue to hear the ignorant claim that Putin wants to return Russia to Communism. There is still a Communist party here, but I see no evidence that Putin is secretly working for its success. Russian school children would not be required to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn if Vladimir Putin were planning a return to Communism.

How has the adjustment process gone for your family?” Our sons Roman (18) and Gabriel (9) have had to study hard, especially given the language issue, but they have done well academically and socially. Our big surprise this year was that Gabriel not only won the math award for all third and fourth graders at his school, he placed second in the major Russian language competition. He knew no Russian at all when we came here two years ago. He has worked hard, but his scores also indicate how hard and how well his teacher has worked with him. All parents know that if your children are doing well then any adjustment is much easier. Roman is happy and doing well in college, and Gabriel enjoys his school and has many friends. They really have not missed much in terms of “stuff” from America. Marina Grace (3) speaks English primarily, but she also uses Russian. We continue to get more involved with our church, and it is the place where we have met most of our new friends since moving here. Since things are so much cheaper here we can afford to “splurge” and go out to eat or order pizza to be brought in for our “family nights.” I am grateful that my social security is sufficient for us to afford living here. We don’t have a car, but the taxis are cheap and always available. As I said above, the drivers are a great source of info!

We still have things left to do and goals to reach. We like our apartment and its location, but we’re coming to realize it is a little too small for our family needs. At some point we are going to need to move, and we dread it (of course). The questions are the same they would be in America. Do we buy or rent? Should we continue with apartment living or try to find a suitable house? Should we stay here in Luga near Oksana’s folks or move to the village where we go to church and know more people?

How well do we need to know the Russian language?” The simple response is the more you know the better. Russians will appreciate any efforts you make at learning their language. In general people will be patient if you are trying to explain what you need at the grocery store or wherever when they realize you are a foreigner who doesn’t speak Russian well. Neverthelss, it is difficult to become close friends with those with whom you cannot communicate. Anyone interested in coming here should obviously see learning Russian as “part of the package.” Learning Russian is slow. The grammar is quite complex for most English speakers. I’ve been at it a long time, but I have decided to reduce my responsibilities at the private school in order to devote more time to studying and writing. I’ll stay on as the “English Consultant” on an as-needed basis. I need to focus more on my Russian language skills, however. I have improved since coming here, but not nearly as much as I would like. When you are around people who are trying to learn English, no one cares about you speaking Russian. They want to hear a “native speaker” speak English! Since I have never taken classes in Russian or worked in an environment of total immersion, I feel I’m lagging too far behind. I am currently taking an on-line course that is very helpful. There are resources for those of us who cannot take classroom courses, and I advise anyone coming here to take advantage of them. Don’t be too impatient with yourself, however. Better to see it as a process, rather than, “I have to learn Russian right now!” Slow progress is better than constant worry and frustration.

Other suggestions:

Learn some Russian history. I enjoy reading Russian history—ancient and modern. (I finally got my hands on Stephen Cohen’s book on Bukharin that I had missed, and it is fascinating!) More than personal enjoyment, however, I believe that understanding a nation’s past always enables one to comprehend the present better. I would encourage anyone moving here to at least familiarize yourself with the basics of Russian history. There are a few one volume works that are very helpful. Of course, if you really want to impress your Russian friends, then learn more about their cultural “heroes” in ballet, literature, theatre, and such. Since I’m from what at one time was the rather “culturally impoverished” American South, I don’t even try.

Another suggestion is obvious: No matter how much history you know or current news you read, you have to check your sources on what the economy, political situation or life in general is like in Russia now. More difficult than learning about Russia’s past is getting accurate information about the present. The biggest frustration I have about “the news” from America on Russia is the profound ignorance of the people who do not let their ignorance silence them. One guy on a Facebook thread wrote all kind of nasty things about life in Russia and challenged people to “go there and see!” I responded and asked him where in Russia he lived, because it is not like that where I live. After a couple of evasive answers he finally admitted he had never been here, but had a friend who visited here in the 80s and he saw his photos. He said he could tell a lot about how bad it was just by seeing the drabness of those photos. He actually said that. But it is not just some guy on FB. I frequently hear from people who have never been here or only visited briefly who rant about Russia and talk as if they know far more than I and others who live here. Worse still, politicians and media folk with hidden political and social agendas will say whatever they need to say whether it is based on facts about Russia or not. The frequently heard protests in America against ethnic prejudice or racism are not violated if you’re talking about Russia or Russians. If you’re anti-Russian you’re safe.

Life here is very different (in a good way) from what it was like when Oksana, Roman and I moved to America in 2008. Oksana says it is nothing like the Russia of the 90s. If I were to describe Russia based only on my experiences living in Russia from 2005-2008 a lot of my descriptions would be wrong. Factor that in when you hear someone describe life in Russia. Even ex-pat Russians currently living in America may not have an accurate view of how it is here now unless they travel here frequently or keep in close touch with relatives still here. The Russia most ex-pats left twenty or thirty years ago has changed dramatically as far as daily life and opportunities.

What are the main problems you face?” The main problems are more emotional than physical. I miss my family and friends in America, as does Oksana. We were very close to my grown kids and their families there. We have not been back in two years. We hope to visit in August, but nothing can take the place of regularly being near people you love. I firmly believe this is the place where we should be, where God wants us to be, but I still have to fight not only missing my family but feelings of guilt for not being there. While Roman is now 18 and pretty much independent, I remind myself that I am here with our two small children. I have far more time with them now. As much as I miss my two sons in America, the fact is they are grown and have their own jobs and families. I love them, and I know they love me. But they don’t need me around as much as my little ones here depend on me. We made a decision that it would be better for our children to grow up here. Our two years here have confirmed that decision I believe. I have received e-mails or messages from parents struggling with the fact that a move would separate their families. I completely understand that struggle!

The other difficulty I have is the low level stress of always being in another culture. There are no Americans here. I miss hearing my own language in the streets, in the stores, in church, in the homes of friends here. I miss the ease with which I knew the right things to do and say socially without thinking. You don’t notice those little things until you’re in a very different environment. As I have said many times before, however, the culture in America is vastly different from the one in which I grew up. I had to trade getting to hear English all the time for the larger advantages of life here for my family and me.

Summary. In addition to the above, what are the other advantages or disadvantages of life here based on our experience in this small town?

1 Excellent medical care at a small percent of the cost of what it is in America. If one of us gets sick we pay $8.07 (at today’s exchange rate) for an office visit, and office visits will last as long as it takes for the doctor to be thorough. I can pay double the $8.07 and a doctor will come to our apartment. We go to an excellent modern clinic where the staff and most of the medical personnel there know me and are very helpful. Emergency care is free. I know some Russian friends will want to respond and explain to me a lot of Russians think health care here is too expensive (although socialized medicine is always an alternative if you can’t afford a private clinic). I am aware it is tough especially on pensioners. But you have no idea how expensive it can be to get sick or have a health crisis in America if you haven’t lived there.

2 The cost of housing is, in general, far less expensive. We’ve been given some general pricing on how much it would be to build a new house, and it is far cheaper per square meter (or foot) than in America. Our apartment, as I said, is small by American standards (two bedrooms, den, tiny kitchen area), but it is nice and our rent is only about $200/month (utilities not included).

3 Public transportation even in this small town is excellent. It would be nice to have a car, but I’ve already mentioned the taxis, and there are city buses or vans readily available even in small towns like Luga. To give some idea of cost, we take a taxi to church in a village about 15 minutes from here, and the cost is about $3.50 each way. To go across town is about $2.00.

Disadvantages I have not mentioned:

1 Bureaucracy. This culture is addicted to paperwork and documents, and they all have to have “official” stamping. The hours here for most government offices fluctuate. And “Technical Break” apparently covers any time they just don’t feel like working. Our children just got their Russian citizenship, but the paperwork was a nightmare for my wife. Another frustration is that it is hard to get direct and dependable advice from anybody in those offices.

2 If you don’t like snow and cold, the winters will seem very long.

Overall we are pleased with our decision to move here. I realize we are different from some considering the move in that my wife is Russian and I have lived here before. Still, after eight years in America we had to readjust. We had become a fairly traditional American family. We miss some of the conveniences of America, but Russia is modernized and has all we really need in terms of material things. And the non-material “things” are even better.

34633260_10216357884208138_5418146126312243200_n

MY INTERVIEW ON RUSSIA AND RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY

Last week a I received an e-mail from Tudor Petcu, who is a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Philosophy of the the University of Bucharest. I did not know him, but he had read my blog on being Russian Orthodox although I’m not Russian. He asked me if he could do a written interview with me and ask me questions on how living in Russia has impacted me and how it is that I became Orthodox. This would be part of his research for his Ph.D. He was very gracious and I gladly accepted. I received his permission to post his questions and my answers on my blog.

  1. First of all, given the fact that you are an American living in Russia, please let me know what’s your perspective on Russia from a spiritual and cultural point of view and how did this country actually influence you as an American.

I came to Russia for the first time in 2002 as a part of a group that gave financial and other resources to Russian orphanages. The group I was with focused on the rather small city of Luga. At that time this city, in which I now live, was very poor. Crime, drugs, and alcoholism were quite common. The fall of Communism and ten years of the failed leadership of Boris Yeltsin had taken quite a toll on the people here. Many necessities were still in short supply. Now, sixteen years later the city is quite different. The resilience and inner strength of the people of Russia in the face of adversity is, in my opinion, the characteristic that led to the recovery of Russian culture and a deepening spirituality. Even in the years when poverty was common, things like ballet, opera, dramatic arts, and literature were still very important to the common people. As an American, I normally associated those interests with those in higher socio-economic groups. I was quite surprised at the number of Western classics and authors with which most Russians were quite familiar. I would say I have observed a cultural depth here that I had not experienced before coming to Russia. There wasn’t the hunger for immediate gratification that we Americans find so attractive.

Spiritually I think the change has been slower. Religion, faith, and the Christian spirituality that had been a part of Russia for practically all its history had been almost completely removed from this society for seventy years. I now see great changes in this area. From my own experience, as one who worships in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small community, I have observed a diversity of age groups in attendence. There are many children with whom my children play after Liturgy. What has surprised me, frankly, is the number of older Russians who I know were brought up in the Communist era, yet are now deeply committed to their church. It is not simply attending Liturgy, however. They seem very focused and reflective during Liturgy. There is not the fascination with being spiritually entertained in Russia that predominates in the more popular “seeker sensitive” churches in America. Obviously I cannot read the motives of worshippers whether they are in America or Russia. I can listen and think through what I have heard from and observed in people of both cultures. Further, generalizations are always inaccurate at some points, but I would say the spirituality that dominates in Russia is more of a reflective and contemplative spirituality than the emotionally driven worship and spirituality I often encountered in America prior to becoming Orthodox.

So Russia influenced me in these areas by making me realize how I had let my circumstances dictate my commitments. Russians had overcome far more than I had ever faced and still came away committed to appreciating and improving their culture. They had faced having all spiritual values and truths expunged from their society, but they renewed their commitment to those values. Many Russians have said they see the Communist era as having purified Russia. The sufferings for their faith had a positive impact on the Church and on them as individuals. They influenced me to face my owns struggles this way. Too often I had tried to avoid the difficulties rather than let them strengthen me. Russian influence had led me to seek spiritual and cultural values whatever my circumstances.

2). With your permission, I am interested to find out more information about your spiritual personality before becoming an Orthodox. Who were you before discovering Orthodoxy and what was your view on life and its purpose?

I was raised in a very devout Baptist family in America. The rural culture of that time was quite anti-intellectual, and as a teenager I became an atheist (although I told no one). Eventually at the end of my military service I came to believe atheism was even more intellectually bankrupt and returned to the church. My faith became central to my life. The purpose of life was to know God better and to live out what his will for my life was. After university I went to seminary for a Master’s degree. I was ordained as a Baptist minister, but my heart was in the academia. I completed my Ph.D. in Koine Greek and New Testament. I went on to teach in a Baptist University for 14 years. Over the years my faith became more “intellectualized” and less a matter of the heart. The purpose of life became more about professional and academic goals, rather than my earlier goal of knowing God. I went through the painful ordeal of a divorce, which led to me resigning from the University. I do not blame being a Protestant for that; I had to accept full responsibility for my own moral and spiritual failures. It was at that time I was offered a job teaching English in St. Petersburg, Russia. I left America and lived in Russia for three years. I married my present wife in St. Petersburg in 2007. She was raised in a Communist home, but had joined a Protestant church years before I met her. We were not in church when we married, and spirituality, sadly, played no part in my life. I think at that time I probably could not have given any purpose for my life other than the immediate concerns of each day. We came to America in 2008. My old life in America could not be recovered. I became quite despondent because I now had a job I did not find fulfilling and very few of my old friends. Life had lost its purpose. My wife eventually started going to church—one of many Baptist churches in the area. Later I joined her, and eventually we found our place among the faithful there. I was asked to teach a group in Sunday School and again committed myself to knowing God and doing his will.

3) Which was the main reason why you have made the decision to convert to the Orthodox Church? What exactly have you discovered in Orthodox spirituality?

It is very difficult to say what the main thing was that led to my conversion. First, my decision to become Orthodox was based on what I found attractive in Orthodoxy; it was not because I was unhappy with my Protestant church or life in general. At the time we had no plans to live in Russia again, but my interest in Russia had been rekindled when I read a book on the “October Revolution.” I started reading more on Russian history. I also ordered a conversational Russian course. For some reason, I kept reading Russian history and trying to learn the basics of the language. Then I came across a book called “The Art of Prayer,” which was a compilation from writings of several Orthodox elders (mostly Russian). The majority of the writings came from Theophan the Recluse and secondly Ignatiy Brianchaninov. I couldn’t put the book down. I would read their prayers and teachings every morning before work and before I went to bed at night. They were, obviously, from a time and a “world” very different from mine, but I knew the life they had in the Spirit was one I wanted. Something within me resonated with what these men wrote. Their spirituality was not about increasing the things you did or the number of people you influenced. It was “putting your head inside your heart.” It was focusing on the inner life, which would eventually result in exterior changes, but those were not the point. It certainly wasn’t what Protestants call “antinomian,” but neither was it focused on listing what was permissable and non-permissable behavior. I was brought up in a very legalistic atmosphere, and it had always been difficult for me to overcome that. So when I had failed completely morally and spiritually I considered myself a failure and had left the church—and God. In the teachings of these Orthodox thinkers, they simply placed life on a different and deeper level altogether. There was an honesty about failures. As one monk said in response to the question on what he and the other monks did in a monastery: “We fall down, and we get back up; we fall down, and we get back up.” I found that very refreshing.

I then found an Orthodox Church about 40 minutes away from my home and started attending Saturday night Vespers. I did not understand a lot of what was going on there. What I did understand was that everything there was about God. I sometimes smile when my Protestant friends ask me, “What was it that attracted you to the Orthodox Church?” I tell them, “The fact that the Orthodox Church was not trying to attract me.” They were friendly; they were caring. But worship wasn’t about me. So I would have to say it was the profound readings from those old Russian writers as well as the theocentric focus of Orthodox worship that were the primary factors that led to my conversion to Orthodoxy.

4) Can you say that becoming Orthodox, you have lived the most important or the deepest spiritual revolution?

Yes, I would say that my becoming Orthodox has been the most significant “revolution” in my Christian experience. The last time I went to my Protestant church I left thinking about the positive things I had experienced. The music was profound and enjoyable; the sermon was a great interpretation of a biblical text; the greetings from others were very genuine. As I put the keys in the car, I distinctly recall the thought that seemed to burst in my mind: “But did you really worship God?” I had thought about God; I had “absorbed” information about God; I had listened to descriptions of him; I felt good singing about him, yet I could not get those Saturday night services at the Orthodox Church out of my mind. Those daily readings from Theophan and the Orthodox Liturgy had completely revolutionized my spiritual life.

5). How and why in your opinion can Orthodoxy help people gain redemption?

Since I am still fairly new to Orthodoxy this question is a difficult one. I will offer what I can at this early stage in my “jouney into Orthodoxy.”

How? Orthodoxy can help people gain redemption by those of us who are Orthodox living out our “theosis” before others. The Spirit of Christ is within us. Life is about letting the character of God become manifest through us. That way it is never letting others focus on us. We know by “theosis” we don’t mean we become gods in essence. The divine “energies” are present, however, and it is our responsibility to live redemptively with others.

Why? There is a lot of brokenness in relationships with each other but ultimately with God. In my opinion, we won’t mend the brokenness by pointing them to a really cool religious experience or spiritual hedonism. These things are superficial resolutions. The Orthodox people with whom I came in contact reflected an honest concern that did not point me to themselves or to their experiences. Their message was simple: “Come and see.” Again, I came out of a religious culture that emphasized telling people about Jesus and being ready for any question they might have. We had to win them! We organize “worship” services with their emotional and spiritual comfort in mind. Orthodoxy can help people gain redemption because it points them to God. Orthodoxy does not try and point them to improved social relationships at church or offer an attractive religious experience. Orthodox doesn’t have those “traps” in its history or religious sub-culture. Orthodoxy is founded on the truths of Holy Scripture and how those truths were interpreted by the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers. It is not about novelty. What Orthodoxy offers is the body and blood of Christ to a world in need of the redemption found only in Him.

6). Considering that you are a convert to Orthodoxy, what would be the most important lesson that everyone of us should learn in the Orthodox Church?

I suppose that the lesson from my conversion is that if someone like me who came from a devout Protestant background, gained ordination and degrees in that tradition, and then squandered it all, can end up Eastern Orthodox then I think anyone can. I would like Orthodox people to have confidence in the faith we share. For my Ph.D. dissertation I spent a lot of time studying polemic in the ancient world–that is, how individuals and groups from various philosophical and cultural backgrounds argued with each other. Polemic was when things had reached the boiling point. My conclusions are that not much was ever gained with those arguments. I had many conversations and lunches with my priest in America before I converted to Orthodoxy. He never launched into what was wrong with Protestantism or Protestants. He never condemned any of the weaknesses he may have seen. He always let me ask my questions and patiently answered them. It was always about what Orthodoxy stood for, not who it stood against. I am concerned with a trend I saw in some Orthodox circles in America which focused on where we disagree with other branches of Christianity and deciding which ones are really Christian and which are not. The disagreements are there, but I see no advantage in focusing on them.

In Russia, I don’t see that as much as I see another problem which many of the Russian “elders” I have read pointed to: the need to stay away from superstitions and empty traditions. Orthodoxy has such a great appreciation for tradition. I think that is wonderful. Traditionalism, however, focuses on aspects of one’s culture or ethnic heritage which may have nothing to do with the faith. Likewise, old ideas and activities that are rooted more in paganism than the Christian faith ought to be left outside our way of thinking as believers. We must remember the mother of all virtues is humility. There is nothing about national or ethnic pride that leads to spiritual strength or virtues, whether it be American or Russian pride.

theophan recluse

LIFE IN RUSSIA: TRAVELS, TRIALS, PROBLEMS & PROGRESS

Oksana had rented us a small, quite old, Soviet style one room apartment in Minsk. It was a 40 minute drive from the airport to the city. I was surprised when we drove into Minsk. I had heard some stories about how life is in Belarus, but Minsk impressed me with its beauty and also how clean it was. No trash anywhere! It was almost 10:00 p.m. when we drove through the city, but folks were out walking, including families with small children. We passed McDonalds and there were teenagers “hanging out” there just as one would expect on a Saturday night in America.

The old apartment was nicer than I expected. Like many buildings in the city it was built by Germans enslaved there after WWII. The Nazis came through Belarus and occupied it, as they occupied cities like Luga here in Russia. Eventually, however, the Russians drove them out and marched all the way to Berlin to end the war. (The allied troops arrived slightly later.) After that, things did not go well for the German invaders. They had to perform slave labor until they were sent back to Germany over five year intervals. Some Germans ended up learning the local language and decided to stay rather than go back to post-war Germany. I can say the Germans built beautiful and very sturdy buildings. The beauty of Minsk far exceeded my expectations.

We returned to the airport the next day. The drive from and then back to the airport gave us the chance to get local information from the best of possible sources: taxi drivers! Almost everyone in Belarus speaks Russian so there was no language barrier for Oksana to “probe” them. Despite the wonderful buildings and apprearances there are serious problems with inflation and heavy taxation. The economy was “revamped” about a year ago, and folks are struggling even more with the extremely high cost of basic items. Just in our short visit we could tell the prices were much higher than in Russia. Alexander Lukashenko became their first president in 1994. According to the Constitution adopted at that time the president could serve two five year terms. Nevertheless, he has been able to manipulate the system and remains the only president they have ever had. People in general seem quite tired of his heavy handed and wrong headed leadership, but he remains in power. The driver said most people see no other alternative to his leadership. They believe he is grooming his fourteen year old son for eventually becoming president.

It was an interesting, but not profitable, visit. After we returned we learned that for visa purposes, Belarus does not count as going outside the country. Both countries are regarded as one entity, so in order to get a renewed migration card I had to leave the country again this past weekend. Russian bureaucracy remains frustrating to us. Nothing on the website warned us not to go to Belarus. The good news is I am now the only non-citizen of Russia in our family. Everyone has dual citizenship except me. I will now seek to become a temporary resident, which means I would not have to leave the country every six months.

So Friday I flew to our usual destination of Finland. I went alone. I hate travelling without my family. Gone are the enjoyable days of airline travel when I was a young man before terrorism. I had to fly “commercial” a lot when I was in the Marines. Very simple. You walked in, bought your ticket and boarded the plane. Now international travel is inconvenient at best and frequently quite difficult. I sometimes have to go through three secuity checks. I was able to check in on-line this time so that made things a bit simpler. I’ve blogged about Finland before. It is a comparitively easy place for Americans since most people there speak English. I flew out Friday night and got a return flight for Saturday morning.

A couple of minor conversatons were a bit unusual—and humorous. The Russian passport control person in St. Petersburg actually chatted a bit with me. I guess he saw that I had been in Russia a good while and asked me (in Russian) if I spoke Russian. I told him I did, but I do not speak fluently. He said that to experience the freedom of Russia I need to speak fluently. (It was a play on words since the phrase for “speaking fluently” in Russian is “speaking freely.”) I told him I very much want to, but I still have problems understanding native speakers. He almost smiled and said he understood. First chat I’ve ever had with someone at a passport control booth. They usually are stone-faced, sullen or just plain rude.

The other conversation was humbling. I was going through security in the Helsinki airport for my return trip, and it was crowded. Traveling alone, I was hearing people speak in Finish and Russian all around me, and people were jostling for position in line. When I got to the front the security officer told me to do something, but she spoke in Finnish. Before I could say anything she impatiently told me again in Finnish. I responded just as impatientlty and told her to speak in English. As soon as I said it I felt stupid, because I realized I had just told her in Russian to speak to me in English. I had not understood what she had told me in Finnish, but after I said what I did in Russian I understood her facial expression perfectly: “What kind of idiot just asked me in Russian to speak English?” Oh well, the good news is she understood my Russian and gave me the directions in English. I quickly did as she asked and hurried away with head down.

Progress living in Russia. Of course we had missed Liturgy at our Orthodox Church since we were out of the country. I did have a pleasant time the week before meeting some folks there I had never met. After the Liturgy I went to Trapeza (meal). I was sitting at a long table waiting for the food to be served. I was chatting with a friend, but I noticed three Russian grandmothers sitting across the table and to our left. They kept glancing at me and whispering. Finally, they spoke to my friend in a quiet tone. He said, “The grandmothers would like to know what you think of Donald Trump.” This was just after the bombing of Syria. It was diplomacy time for me. I explained that I was very disappointed that he decided to bomb Syria, especially since the international team was on the way to inspect and see if there really had been a gas attack. I admitted I was suspicious of my government, along with France and the UK, because they bombed Syria the day before the inspection team arrived. I also emphasized that every poll I had read about before the bombing showed a clear majority of Americans did not want to bomb Syria. One of those polls showed almost 70% opposed it. I said I believed the evidence indicates the American people do not want war with Syria or Russia.

They smiled–and Russian babushki do not smile often! They said they did not believe Americans wanted war either, but all the news points to the U.S. Government and press saying bad things about Russia. One of the gentlemen from the choir asked why I thought the government did the bombings if the American people do not want war. I said my belief is that the sale and use of weapons always results in huge profits; also, I think Syria is a crucial point for the transport for oil. Oil and weapons mean big money for powerful people. He replied that he would like for me to run for President of the United States. We laughed.

Problems living in Russia. It was a good conversation, but overall it is becoming more and more difficult here for me to defend my government. Russians do not understand why America and other Western countries favor getting rid of Assad, since that certainly opens the door to ISIS and pretty much all the terrorists groups. No one else is in line after Assad who could provide stability. Before I came to Russia I thought Assad was a horrible person. I believed, based on what I had seen and read in the American news and heard from American leaders, that he was a horrible dictator. If news outlets across the spectrum from FOX, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, etc., say it, then it must be true. Moving here opened me to other sources of news, however. I had no idea that the West basically depends on the White Helmets and other groups affiliated with the terrorists for information. I knew from my own observations that their videos were fraudulent. Also, here I found “alternative news sources.” I became aware of people like Tom Duggan and Eva Barlett. Recently I have also listened to Vanessa Beeley and read Janice Kortkamp. These are people who have actually lived in Syria or at least spend months at a time there. My perspective on Assad has changed from getting news directly from Syria.

Then after the bombing I was impressed with Pearson Sharp of One America News Network. OANN has traditionally been pro-Trump and overall conservative in its perspective. Sharp videoed his arrival in Damascus the day before the bombings started. He expressed surprise that he was able to get a visa and enter Syria fairly easily. The other mainstream reporters had said how hard it was and most Westerners could not get in. He said it wasn’t hard for him. Then he walked the streets of Damascus late the night of his arrival. People were out walking the streets freely. He was surprised that he saw folks smoking, going to bars, women wearing tank tops, etc. People he spoke with—without exception—liked Assad and said the West does not understand that their options are government control (Assad) or rebels who do not tolerate anything but a very strict observance of their version of Islam or severe punishment or death will result.

Sharp was awakened in the night by the bombs. He observed most were intercepted and others did little damage. The West said most bombs got through and even blew up chemical producing factories. The next day he went to the actual site where the gas attack on the Syrians, which provoked our bombing, supposedly happened. He videoed as he walked up to many people randomly, and no one saw anything of a gas attack. On the bombings they said maybe six or seven bombs got through, but they just destroyed empty buildings. Everyone was actually in a pretty good mood. No casualties resulted from Western bombing. Later other veteran reporters, e.g., Robert Fisk of the UK, reported the same thing. In fact, no one actually on the ground there reported anything of significance.

The “official” report from the U.S., France, and the UK said we blew up chemical producing plants. That is not credible. First, OPCW has inspected Syria annually for the last three years. The report at the end of last year said Syria has no factories producing chemical weapons. Further, everything I read or was told by people who know chemistry better than I (which, admittedly, doesn’t take much), said there is no way to blow up a chemical producing plant without releasing the chemicals in the atmosphere and killing many people in the area. The amount of heat that must be quickly generated is simply not possible with conventional weapons. None of the Western media seems to have bothered investigating the official account of the governments.

Syria has a significant Christian population—probably about 10%. The overwhelming majority of these believers are Orthodox Christians. The leaders of these churches issued a statement condemning the bombings. (Here is their full statement:http://syriacpatriarchate.org/2018/04/a-statement-issued-by-the-patriarchates-of-antioch-and-all-the-east-for-the-greek-orthodox-syrian-orthodox-and-greek-melkite-catholic/)

So there is a connection with Russia in that the majority of Christians in both countries are Orthodox. Russians hear and know that the believers in Syria are scared that if Nikki Haley’s commitment to getting rid of Assad comes true, it will leave them open to being murdered and massacred as were Orthodox believers in regions dominated by jihadists types before Russia and the Syrian army drove them out. (I realize America is giving itself credit for driving out ISIS from Syria, but that claim doesn’t even merit discussion.)

I really thought when we moved to Russia in June of 2016 that the political divisions in America that had spilled over into relations with Russia would subside a few months after the election. I thought basic decorum and diplomacy would return and the two countries would, as Donald Trump had proposed, get back to normalcy in fighting the terrorists of the world. Obviously I was wrong. The news about Russia is still dominated by reports filed by people who have no idea what life is like here. The dogs of war from both parties still get center stage despite the fact they have little real knowledge of life in the countries they denounce.

We try to look, however, to the good things about life in Russia. Divisions and disagreements take place within Russia but without the venomous rancor of the divisions in America. Our family appreciates the schools our children go to and the church we attend. We move about, shop, walk, and carry on in safety. As a “traditional family” here in Russia, we do not feel like we are swimming against a great cultural tide created by people who dispise and seek to silence the values we hold dear. You can find evil in Russia, but it rarely struts down the street like in America.

I have found the longer we stay in Russia that absence really does make my heart grow fonder. I miss our times with close family and friends in America now more than ever. Even in Finland I saw things that took my mind back to loved ones and memories from across the ocean and the years. On the other hand, I fear ending up like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s novel who, after all his travels, found you really can’t go home again. He realized he wasn’t the same man who left, and home was, well, the home he left was no more. You can never step in the same river twice, as they say.

 

 

LIFE IN RUSSIA: TRAVELS, TRIALS, PROBLEMS & PROGRESS

Travels. Unlike some of my recent blogs which have focused specifically on the substantive topics of religion and politics in Russia, this one is personal musings on how these combine with other factors to impact our life here. The last two weekends have been interesting but also frustrating. As I have mentioned before if you are in Russia on a visa, you have to leave the country every six months—just to return. It somehow helps them keep a check on a foreigner living here when you leave and then are put back in the system. We usually take the short flight to Finland, but the airline rates were much higher than usual so we decided to go to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, which was much cheaper. We learned Gabriel and Marina Grace are now official citizens of The Russian Federation, so only Oksana and I flew to Belarus. We planned a quick trip: fly there on Saturday and return Sunday. We left the kids with her parents.

Oksana had rented us a small, quite old, Soviet style one room apartment in Minsk. It was a 40 minute drive from the airport to the city. I was surprised when we drove into Minsk. I had heard some stories about how life is in Belarus, but Minsk impressed me with its beauty and also how clean it was. No trash anywhere! It was almost 10:00 p.m. when we drove through the city, but folks were out walking, including families with small children. We passed McDonalds and there were teenagers “hanging out” there just as one would expect on a Saturday night in America.

The old apartment was nicer than I expected. Like many buildings in the city it was built by Germans enslaved there after WWII. The Nazis came through Belarus and occupied it, as they occupied cities like Luga here in Russia. Eventually, however, the Russians drove them out and marched all the way to Berlin to end the war. (The allied troops arrived slightly later.) After that, things did not go well for the German invaders. They had to perform slave labor until they were sent back to Germany over five year intervals. Some Germans ended up learning the local language and decided to stay rather than go back to post-war Germany. I can say the Germans built beautiful and very sturdy buildings. The beauty of Minsk far exceeded my expectations.

We returned to the airport the next day. The drive from and then back to the airport gave us the chance to get local information from the best of possible sources: taxi drivers! Almost everyone in Belarus speaks Russian so there was no language barrier for Oksana to “probe” them. Despite the wonderful buildings and apprearances there are serious problems with inflation and heavy taxation. The economy was “revamped” about a year ago, and folks are struggling even more with the extremely high cost of basic items. Just in our short visit we could tell the prices were much higher than in Russia. Alexander Lukashenko became their first president in 1994. According to the Constitution adopted at that time the president could serve two five year terms. Nevertheless, he has been able to manipulate the system and remains the only president they have ever had. People in general seem quite tired of his heavy handed and wrong headed leadership, but he remains in power. The driver said most people see no other alternative to his leadership. They believe he is grooming his fourteen year old son for eventually becoming president.

It was an interesting, but not profitable, visit. After we returned we learned that for visa purposes, Belarus does not count as going outside the country. Both countries are regarded as one entity, so in order to get a renewed migration card I had to leave the country again this past weekend. Russian bureaucracy remains frustrating to us. Nothing on the website warned us not to go to Belarus. The good news is I am now the only non-citizen of Russia in our family. Everyone has dual citizenship except me. I will now seek to become a temporary resident, which means I would not have to leave the country every six months.

So Friday I flew to our usual destination of Finland. I went alone. I hate travelling without my family. Gone are the enjoyable days of airline travel when I was a young man before terrorism. I had to fly “commercial” a lot when I was in the Marines. Very simple. You walked in, bought your ticket and boarded the plane. Now international travel is inconvenient at best and frequently quite difficult. I sometimes have to go through three secuity checks. I was able to check in on-line this time so that made things a bit simpler. I’ve blogged about Finland before. It is a comparitively easy place for Americans since most people there speak English. I flew out Friday night and got a return flight for Saturday morning.

A couple of minor conversatons were a bit unusual—and humorous. The Russian passport control person in St. Petersburg actually chatted a bit with me. I guess he saw that I had been in Russia a good while and asked me (in Russian) if I spoke Russian. I told him I did, but I do not speak fluently. He said that to experience the freedom of Russia I need to speak fluently. (It was a play on words since the phrase for “speaking fluently” in Russian is “speaking freely.”) I told him I very much want to, but I still have problems understanding native speakers. He almost smiled and said he understood. First chat I’ve ever had with someone at a passport control booth. They usually are stone-faced, sullen or just plain rude.

The other conversation was humbling. I was going through security in the Helsinki airport for my return trip, and it was crowded. Traveling alone, I was hearing people speak in Finish and Russian all around me, and people were jostling for position in line. When I got to the front the security officer told me to do something, but she spoke in Finnish. Before I could say anything she impatiently told me again in Finnish. I responded just as impatientlty and told her to speak in English. As soon as I said it I felt stupid, because I realized I had just told her in Russian to speak to me in English. I had not understood what she had told me in Finnish, but after I said what I did in Russian I understood her facial expression perfectly: “What kind of idiot just asked me in Russian to speak English?” Oh well, the good news is she understood my Russian and gave me the directions in English. I quickly did as she asked and hurried away with head down.

Progress living in Russia. Of course we had missed Liturgy at our Orthodox Church since we were out of the country. I did have a pleasant time the week before meeting some folks there I had never met. After the Liturgy I went to Trapeza (meal). I was sitting at a long table waiting for the food to be served. I was chatting with a friend, but I noticed three Russian grandmothers sitting across the table and to our left. They kept glancing at me and whispering. Finally, they spoke to my friend in a quiet tone. He said, “The grandmothers would like to know what you think of Donald Trump.” This was just after the bombing of Syria. It was diplomacy time for me. I explained that I was very disappointed that he decided to bomb Syria, especially since the international team was on the way to inspect and see if there really had been a gas attack. I admitted I was suspicious of my government, along with France and the UK, because they bombed Syria the day before the inspection team arrived. I also emphasized that every poll I had read about before the bombing showed a clear majority of Americans did not want to bomb Syria. One of those polls showed almost 70% opposed it. I said I believed the evidence indicates the American people do not want war with Syria or Russia.

They smiled–and Russian babushki do not smile often! They said they did not believe Americans wanted war either, but all the news points to the U.S. Government and press saying bad things about Russia. One of the gentlemen from the choir asked why I thought the government did the bombings if the American people do not want war. I said my belief is that the sale and use of weapons always results in huge profits; also, I think Syria is a crucial point for the transport for oil. Oil and weapons mean big money for powerful people. He replied that he would like for me to run for President of the United States. We laughed.

Problems living in Russia. It was a good conversation, but overall it is becoming more and more difficult here for me to defend my government. Russians do not understand why America and other Western countries favor getting rid of Assad, since that certainly opens the door to ISIS and pretty much all the terrorists groups. No one else is in line after Assad who could provide stability. Before I came to Russia I thought Assad was a horrible person. I believed, based on what I had seen and read in the American news and heard from American leaders, that he was a horrible dictator. If news outlets across the spectrum from FOX, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, etc., say it, then it must be true. Moving here opened me to other sources of news, however. I had no idea that the West basically depends on the White Helmets and other groups affiliated with the terrorists for information. I knew from my own observations that their videos were fraudulent. Also, here I found “alternative news sources.” I became aware of people like Tom Duggan and Eva Barlett. Recently I have also listened to Vanessa Beeley and read Janice Kortkamp. These are people who have actually lived in Syria or at least spend months at a time there. My perspective on Assad has changed from getting news directly from Syria.

Then after the bombing I was impressed with Pearson Sharp of One America News Network. OANN has traditionally been pro-Trump and overall conservative in its perspective. Sharp videoed his arrival in Damascus the day before the bombings started. He expressed surprise that he was able to get a visa and enter Syria fairly easily. The other mainstream reporters had said how hard it was and most Westerners could not get in. He said it wasn’t hard for him. Then he walked the streets of Damascus late the night of his arrival. People were out walking the streets freely. He was surprised that he saw folks smoking, going to bars, women wearing tank tops, etc. People he spoke with—without exception—liked Assad and said the West does not understand that their options are government control (Assad) or rebels who do not tolerate anything but a very strict observance of their version of Islam or severe punishment or death will result.

Sharp was awakened in the night by the bombs. He observed most were intercepted and others did little damage. The West said most bombs got through and even blew up chemical producing factories. The next day he went to the actual site where the gas attack on the Syrians, which provoked our bombing, supposedly happened. He videoed as he walked up to many people randomly, and no one saw anything of a gas attack. On the bombings they said maybe six or seven bombs got through, but they just destroyed empty buildings. Everyone was actually in a pretty good mood. No casualties resulted from Western bombing. Later other veteran reporters, e.g., Robert Fisk of the UK, reported the same thing. In fact, no one actually on the ground there reported anything of significance.

The “official” report from the U.S., France, and the UK said we blew up chemical producing plants. That is not credible. First, OPCW has inspected Syria annually for the last three years. The report at the end of last year said Syria has no factories producing chemical weapons. Further, everything I read or was told by people who know chemistry better than I (which, admittedly, doesn’t take much), said there is no way to blow up a chemical producing plant without releasing the chemicals in the atmosphere and killing many people in the area. The amount of heat that must be quickly generated is simply not possible with conventional weapons. None of the Western media seems to have bothered investigating the official account of the governments.

Syria has a significant Christian population—probably about 10%. The overwhelming majority of these believers are Orthodox Christians. The leaders of these churches issued a statement condemning the bombings. (Here is their full statement: http://syriacpatriarchate.org/2018/04/a-statement-issued-by-the-patriarchates-of-antioch-and-all-the-east-for-the-greek-orthodox-syrian-orthodox-and-greek-melkite-catholic/)

So there is a connection with Russia in that the majority of Christians in both countries are Orthodox. Russians hear and know that the believers in Syria are scared that if Nikki Haley’s commitment to getting rid of Assad comes true, it will leave them open to being murdered and massacred as were Orthodox believers in regions dominated by jihadists types before Russia and the Syrian army drove them out. (I realize America is giving itself credit for driving out ISIS from Syria, but that claim doesn’t even merit discussion.)

I really thought when we moved to Russia in June of 2016 that the political divisions in America that had spilled over into relations with Russia would subside a few months after the election. I thought basic decorum and diplomacy would return and the two countries would, as Donald Trump had proposed, get back to normalcy in fighting the terrorists of the world. Obviously I was wrong. The news about Russia is still dominated by reports filed by people who have no idea what life is like here. The dogs of war from both parties still get center stage despite the fact they have little real knowledge of life in the countries they denounce.

We try to look, however, to the good things about life in Russia. Divisions and disagreements take place within Russia but without the venomous rancor of the divisions in America. Our family appreciates the schools our children go to and the church we attend. We move about, shop, walk, and carry on in safety. As a “traditional family” here in Russia, we do not feel like we are swimming against a great cultural tide created by people who dispise and seek to silence the values we hold dear. You can find evil in Russia, but it rarely struts down the street like in America.

I have found the longer we stay in Russia that absence really does make my heart grow fonder. I miss our times with close family and friends in America now more than ever. Even in Finland I saw things that took my mind back to loved ones and memories from across the ocean and the years. On the other hand, I fear ending up like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s novel who, after all his travels, found you really can’t go home again. He realized he wasn’t the same man who left, and home was, well, the home he left was no more. You can never step in the same river twice, as they say.

 

 

BEING RUSSIAN ORTHODOX WHEN YOU’RE NOT RUSSIAN

I have not written a blog for quite some time for two reasons. First, there has been a barrage of news involving Russia that has distracted me from writing. Politics won’t be the focus of this blog, but I will briefly comment. President Putin was re-elected on March 18. Of course most news outlets in America either stated or hinted it was a “sham election.” There were actually many official election observers from all over the world here, and none of them turned up actual accounts of fraud. (My next blog will address the elections in more depth.) America really doesn’t permit foreign observers to monitor our elections, so this allows us to condemn others while pretending no illegals vote in our elections.

Then there was the Skripal nerve agent attack which UK Prime Minister Theresa May immediately blamed on Russia. Many countries, including the U.S., expelled embassy personnel (“spies”) and Russia responded in kind. The “facts” that were asserted by May and Boris Johnson were contradicted, however, when the representatives from UK’s Porton Down had the integrity to say they couldn’t say where the nerve agent came from. Other parts of the story started falling part as well when the victims surprisingly recovered from the military grade nerve agent. Now the news is about the supposed sarin gas attack on innocent families in Syria. Assad and Putin were both blamed immediately. No investigation has been done by the West, and I don’t expect any open international investigation will be conducted. The facts screwed up the Skripal narrative; I don’t think the dogs of war will let that happen again.

The other reason I have not written is more positive. We have been observing Lent. Lent is the 40 days of spiritual preparation in Orthodoxy prior to Holy Week that leads up to the solemn observance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a time of changing one’s diet and one’s daily routine as much as possible to focus on these events. Preparation is essential for anything one considers important. So with the news reports screaming bad news in our ears, we have also tried to focus on the good news of what we hold dear as people of faith.

In his podcast last week on the John Batchelor show Stephen Cohen referred to an editorial in the Washington Post pubished that week: “Is it a crime to worship God? According to Russia, yes” read the editorial he quoted. Cohen, who is Jewish, pointed out how ridiculous this description of religion in Russia is. One of the most frustrating things about living in Russia is the constant barrage of lies about Russia. This quote was one of the worst. I know the pop term is “fake news,” but I prefer to be more blunt: it is lying. In my last blog I gave a general perspective on the various religions here and how they impact public life. Since Russian Orthodox Christianity has more adherents by far I devoted more space to it. The fact is religion is becoming more and more a part of public life in Russia, and the historic religions are practiced in freedom. In this entry I’ll address the topic more personally. I am a foreigner and also Eastern Orthodox. That I attend a Russian Orthodox church and have neither Russian nor Greek ancestry surprises some Russians. When they find out my Russian wife did not convince me to become Orthodox (it actually was the other way around), people get even more perplexed. So I write as both an outside observer and a participant.

Some of my early readers have already heard this story, but by way of “review,” neither Oksana nor I was rasied Orthodox. She was brought up in a Soviet family, so she was never really exposed to matters of faith. Belief in God was just not something they ever discussed. Oksana was converted in a Protestant Church when she was in University in St. Petersburg. She went to the church to hear and interact with native speakers of English, since that was her major course of study. She ended up becoming part of the church. I, on the other hand, was brought up in an extremely devout Southern Baptist family. My late father was a Southern Baptist preacher. Oksana and I both were out of church for a while after we were married, but eventually we started attending a local Baptist Church, and later non-denominational church, while we lived in America. We came to the Eastern Orthodoxy gradually. I did a lot of reading and started attending Vespers services on Saturday nights. Eventually, we became catechumens and a year later we were chrismated into the Orthodox church. For us the move to Orthodoxy had nothing to do with bad feelings toward anyone or any Protestant church. We still remain close to our Protestant friends and have treasured memories of the churches of which we were a part.

There were folks from various nationalities, including quite a few from Eastern Europe, in our Orthodox Church in South Carolina. There were also several former Catholics and Protestants, so both Oksana and I felt at home. It was really the only Orthodox congregation anywhere near us, so we were grateful. Finding a church here took longer than we thought it would, despite the fact there are a number of them. Eventually we came to a rather small Russian Orthodox church in a nearby village that became our church home.

While all Orthodox Churches use the same Liturgy (in different languages obviously), there are some minor differences in the Russian Orthodox Churches here that we’ve had to adjust to. For me, it has been a bigger adjustment because of the fact the services are in Church Slavonic. I could understand enough to follow if the Liturgy were Russian, but Slavonic makes it very difficult for me. So the first and most obvious difference is the language.

Second, all women in the Russian Orthodox Church wear a head covering and overall dress more traditionally, no pants. The wearing of head coverings was optional in our OCA church. I do not want to give the impression that there are guards at the doors of our church here. If a lady does not have a veil, one will be graciously and quietly provided. Further, our priest frequently reminds parishioners of the dangers of focusing on externals.

The third difference involves receiving Communion. Receiving the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, is the focus of the Liturgy in both American and Russian Orthodoxy. We go to the front toward the conclusion of the Liturgy for receving the elements from the priest. The first difference on this issue is confession. Since it is so serious, we must confess our sins to Christ in the presence of the priest at the appointed times. In the OCA church we did confession at least four times a year—once at each major fast. You could make an appointment so you would have whatever time you needed. Obviously one could come at other times if necessary. In the Russian Orthodox Church confession is every week. You do not participate in the Eucharist unless you have been to confession. I took Communion twice last week, so I went to confession twice. I had to reorient my understanding of confession because all I knew about it before was from Roman Catholicism. In Orthodoxy the priest is a witness to your confession to Christ, a sort of an accountability partner – to make it more understandable for my Protestant friends. He may provide advice, counsel, or encouragement at any time, but you are not confessing to him. You receive the priestly prayer of absolution after the confession, but it is made clear that Christ, not the priest, is absolving you and forgiving you of your sins. Again, the language is an issue for me. I speak Russian with my priest, but when I’m confessing my wrongdoings I realize if I get a word wrong I could be confessing the wrong thing. One purpose of the confession is that we examine our hearts before we receive the body and blood of Christ. I’m examining my heart and my Russian language skills all at once.

The second difference is that when we went to receive the cup in America we went together as a family. Not so in Russia. Babies and children go first; then the men; and finally the women. There is always a babushka (grandmother) there making sure the women do not get in front of the men. I didn’t know this the first time and by nature did not step in front of ladies. I learned not to make that mistake again!

The highlight of the year is Pascha, or Easter as most Catholics and Protestants call it. As I said earlier we observe the “ascetic” fast prior to this event, which is done to prepare ourselves. We don’t eat meat, dairy and animal fats. Now, no one asks you if you have kept the fast. That is an individual matter and people are encouraged to “look in their own plate only.” In America we were also carefully taught not to offend or give any impression we were better than anyone else for observing it. If you were invited by a non-Orthodox to a meal you ate whatever was set before you without mentioning “fast.” That isn’t talked about here as much, because in Russia pretty much everyone knows it is going on. They have products marked specifically for the fast seasons in grocery stores, and several restaurants have menus for those observing the fasts. It is more a part of the culture than it was in South Carolina, where most people do not really know much about Eastern Orthodoxy. If they are religious there, they’re probably Protestants and have no idea what you are talking about when you mention “the Nativity Fast” or “Apostles’ Fast”.

Our first Pascha in South Carolina was an amazing experience. We went to church late at night, almost midnight, the Saturday night before. The services and Liturgy lasted well into the morning. We finished around 3:00 a.m. and then had a fellowship meal. We went home and slept, and then brought the boys back for a Vespers and egg hunt at the church. Our last year there Marina Grace was a baby, so Oksana stayed home with her. The boys and I went, and they both were altar boys. It was quite an experience for them.

The thing that was really moving for us is when they had the reading from the Gospel of St. John in different languages. Anyone who spoke a different language was invited to read a small portion of the Gospel in their own language. I think there were 18 languages spoken our first year. Our church there was not a large church, but there were people from literally all over the world. We were amazed! For couples like us from two different countries it was so refreshing to hear of others with stories like ours.

This year Gabriel was very excited. He is now an “official” altar boy. He is, in fact, the only altar boy. Two others serve the altar, but he is the only child. Oksana was also looking forward to it, although we were both concerned about how three year old Marina Grace would do. To be honest, I wasn’t excited about it. Standing for four hours in a service where you do not understand anything is tough. I kept reflecting on our experiences back in America. But I believed it was important to go so we all went.

When we arrived I went down for confession. My thoughts were kind of complicated so I had written it out and handed it to the priest. He got a candle, read it, tore the paper and prayed over me. Then he called Oksana over. He wanted me to go put on a robe and do the readings in English. The official “reader” had asked me about maybe doing the English reading, but I told him I can’t chant. He is fluent in English so I thought it was better for him to do it. The priest would have nothing of that. So I went back into the “Sanctuary” section and prepared myself. When the Liturgy began I saw that the church was packed with people. The lie in the Washington Post about religion in Russia came to mind, but I tried to focus on more spiritual things.

It was an interesting experience. I had no idea how much goes on around the altar during the Liturgy because the doors are closed much of the time. Everything was done with such care, especially the handling of the bread and the wine. Our priest, Batyushka Nicolay, made sure everything was done exactly right. Eventually it was time for the readings. I suspected almost everyone there spoke Russian and very few knew English. The languages that were read were 1) Church Slavonic 2) Russian 3) English 4) Belarussian (my friend, the Reader, is from Belarus) and the priest read from the Greek text.

I felt quite honored I had been asked to read. And I felt more a part of the congregation. Due to the language barrier, I usually feel somewhat isolated during Liturgy. Even in Trapeza (Orthodox word for shared meal after the Liturgy) I only have a couple of folks I can talk to. I don’t have enough confidence to initiate a conversation in Russian. And most people feel the same about me I suspect. One Sunday I told one of the ladies who had brought soup that her soup was very tasty. I spoke to her in Russian, and she just stared back and smiled. Later she privately told my wife she couldn’t say anything because she was scared. Oksana said, “Just speak a little slower and more distinctly than you normally do, and he can understand your Russian. Just talk to him. He can speak Russian.” She said, “I can’t. I want to, but I’ve never talked to a foreigner before.” So I realize the anxiety is on both sides. The meal we had after Pascha service (at about 3:30 a.m.) was a wonderful fast-free meal, the first one and much anticipated after the long fasting season . We had “kotlety” (sort of like individual mini meatloaves) as our entree and a few other dishes. People still didn’t approach me and start conversations, but I sensed a lot more smiles, and heard some comments about how nice it was to hear the Gospel in a new language. Our priest, as usual, called me to sit beside him during the meal.

I can’t change the political situation all over the world. I can’t convince America the news there about Russia is all wrong. I can’t convince Russia that many Americans are kind and do not want war. I can reach a few, however. Russia is not a godless dictatorship where worship is outlawed. I don’t care what your news in America says; I live here. They’re lying. Faith is again being woven back into the fabric of life here. You can see it in the big cathedrals in Moscow and St. Petersburg they show on TV here. (Yes, the Russian Orthodox Church has its own network you can watch anytime.) You can also see it in little villages across the rural Russian countryside. And in one of those villages this congregation sees a real live American. I try to speak their language; my kids go to the same schools as their kids; I believe in the same God and worship him the same way. I am a part of this world, although I realize the irony of also being an outside observer. Nevertheless, despite the barriers between us that many from my homeland want to raise higher, this Pascha turned out to be a small but meaningful step to becoming more a participant and less an outside observer.