BATTLES AND BLESSINGS

Battles and Blessings” again describe life here in Russia. This past month the battles have seemed bigger than before. Homesick! For the first time since we moved here well over a year ago I have felt homesick. I don’t mean I haven’t missed family and friends in America or things we did there before now. Of course we have missed aspects of our lives there and the relationships with folks we love. The shooting in Las Vegas, however, triggered a deeper sense of emptiness. Everyone felt it to some degree I’m sure, but for me it triggered a real sense of wanting to be in my homeland. The news of the horrors there were on the news here, and the Russian people were genuinely sympathetic. Somehow, however, I really needed to talk about it with other countrymen, and that was just not possible. Often in times of catastrophy I think we’ve all seen people pull together. For example, after 09/11 I remember the tremendous sense of unity and patriotism in the U.S. as we lived out our shock and grief together. I don’t know if it was like that this time in America or not. But I know I needed it, and when you live thousands of miles away it can’t happen. I noted in a post a few months ago that over time after you move from a country, you hear less and less from old friends. Life goes on there without you obviously. Now, I know that when we return to visit America we’ll pick right back up where we left off. It is just that when this happened I felt the presence of the silence more deeply.

Of course, there were other factors surrounding the deaths and injuries themselves that seem to intensify the sick feeling in my gut. The lack of any reason, motive or explanation for this violent attack left me more confused and distraught. It wasn’t on the news here 24/7, of course, so I had to pick up what reports I could. As the news kept coming and more information was available, however, things became even more confusing. I’m not a weapons expert, but I did have to go through a good bit of training with various weapons when I was in the Marine Corps. I can’t really fathom how one man could do that much firing in such a relatively small amount of time from 390 yards away even with the modifications of the weapons they described. The first reports I heard said he was “across the street” from the concert. He was four football fields away! That is difficult firing regardless of the weapons used. I think that I, like some others I heard, felt like there is more to this story than what we were first led to believe, and we fear we’ll never hear the full story. It was my hardest week since we’ve been here.

Another factor is my little daughter and I have had a cold and cough for almost three weeks. The fatigue and weakness just won’t go away. Nothing serious, but not being able to sleep without coughing worked on my already frayed emotions. Then the Fall here has not been nearly as pretty and sunny as last year. We have had a LOT of rain. The leaves are changing now, but last year we had many beautiful sunny walks together as a family. This year it has been too wet to walk.

The other “battle” is one I’ve written about many times, and that is the unceasing “Russiagate” chatter by politicians and news pundits in America. Several news organizations continue to run story after story on it without any real evidence. As a matter of fact, evidence isn’t mentioned much anymore. For the most part, the MSM have quit asking the folks they bring on about the evidence. They simply ask for opinions—that is, they bring in people who agree with them and then “lob” easy questions about their opinions. For example I saw one summary of an extensive set of interviews on CNN that went something like this with guest after guest: “Do you and others in the ‘intelligence community’ think the Russians were involved in hacking into our democratic process and impacting the outcome of our democratic elections?” They all said yes, and the conclusion was it has to be true, because I gather they meant truth is always determined by the majority opinion, right? A question like, “What evidence do you have or do you know of that clearly shows a Russia connection with our election?” just doesn’t get asked anymore.

I live here; I talk to people; I see interviews and press reports. Contrary to what one would assume from watching CNN or MSNBC, Russians are not in love with Donald Trump. Most Russians agree with Putin’s assertion that no matter who is President in America the foreign policy never seems to change. Obama sounded different from George W. Bush and promised to close Guantanamo and then after his election sent his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “reset” relations with Russia. He didn’t close Guantanamo, and in 2014 he called Russia “a regional power that doesn’t make anything.” His criticisms of Russia were just as bad as any president in a long time. News flash: Russia, like a lot of American citizens, doesn’t trust what any of our Presidential candidates say when running for office. Putin speaks for many when he says the president doesn’t actually set the agenda for foreign relations in America.

So the national tragedy, my own health, and the continuing barrage on Russia by people who really don’t know ANYTHING about Russia have been my battles of late. There are blessings as well, however. Our kids are doing well. Roman is in college. He has it tough academically, but he perseveres and likes his school. Clearly he is getting a good education. Gabriel, our nine year old, is also doing well. His teacher told Oksana that she must have really worked with him on his Russian this summer, because he both speaks and understands it much better. The teacher said there are very few times when he just does not understand. The truth is we really did not spend a lot of time on it, but he stayed with his grandparents more over the summer, and has picked up a lot from them. He also attended a summer camp here in Luga, and I think playing with kids all day helped his Russian immensely. He has his struggles in school just like any kid, but we continue to be pleased. Our three year old Marina Grace goes to a class a couple of days a week, and loves being around her teacher and the other students. It is funny to hear her try to say those long Russian words! When your children are happy, you can survive a lot of other batttles.

Despite the setback from my illness, I’m enjoying retirement more now. Oksana has been pretty busy because the class she teaches at the private school is much larger and has students of different levels in it. My big contribution has been to spend more time keeping Marina Grace. I love it. She’s old enough now to occupy herself some, so I can study Russian, read my Greek and do a bit of reading on other topics I enjoy. My current “project” is analyzing a Russian translation of the Greek text of the Gospel of John. Challenging, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But my favorite thing is still daughter-daddy times every day with Marina Grace. Also, I decided to teach only one class at school, and it is mostly students I had last year. They are much more accustomed to my “native English” voice, and they are really doing well. I think the fact that they’ve now been in my classes for over a year and have discovered they really can converse with someone whose native tongue is English has motivated most of them in their studies.

Since Marina and I have been sick we’ve missed church for the last couple of weeks, but we are glad to continue our relationship with the folks at the Orthodox church we’ve already grown to appreciate. So national events and news reports and coughs and colds can make life tough sometimes. The good news is despite this being the toughest time yet for this American in Russia, I can still say I’m glad we came. I hurt for my home country. It wasn’t just the one tragic event. It is the arguing, and the political and social in-fighting that seems constant as well. Russia, by comparison, is much more stable socially and politically right now. Don’t get me wrong. It is not ideal. Politicians and locals disagree, but on the whole, there is decorum in their disagreements. I know of only one national politician (Zhirinovsky) who stoops to the level that seems to be common now in American political and social discourse. There is crime, violence, and terrorists still try to wreak havoc in Russia as they do everywhere. On the whole, however, life is stable here, and there is a feeling of security and a greater sense of shared beliefs and values even among those who disagree on specifics issues.

On the political front, Russia is greatly concerned about global terrorism and seeks common ground with other countries that share the belief that terrorism—not computer hacks—is the real “global enemy.” No one knows for sure, but there are estimates the U.S. has anywhere from 800 to 950 military bases outside its borders. Russia has six, plus the troops that were invited by Syria to come there. Russia also has a military storage facility in Vietnam. Russia has been able to build a stronger military with a defense budget of less than one tenth the military budget of America because it does not try to have a “presence” everywhere in the world. Despite what Western hawks say, the real evidence shows Russia is very reluctant to take up arms with other nations. Russia, like most every other country, thinks the leader of North Korea is someone of whom the world should be very wary. Most here think he’s not only dangerous, he’s just plain weird. They believe, however, the wisest course is for an array of countries to present a united front based on solid diplomacy rather than the U.S. resorting to threats on its own. I struggle with the fact almost none of this is reported in the MSM in America. So I have decided to use this little blog to pass on what information I can about perspectives many Americans never hear. I could curse the darkness, but I’ve decided to turn on what little light I can.

So after a time of emotional turmoil I took a deep breath and thanked God for what we have. We have great medical care that is not expensive; we eat healthy, natural food that cost far less than in America. We are not burdened by debt and the high cost of living we shouldered in America. The people at our kid’s school, the colleagues and students at the school where we teach and at the medical clinic we go to, go out of their way to be helpful and gracious to all of us. They really try to take care of me.

Battles” in this world—whatever your country of residence—cannot be avoided. Mine are teaching me to evaluate and change my priorities. I have learned to appreciate my time with family here and also to confront and confess my own sins and failures. Seeing the great evil in the world ought not make me forget Solzhenitsyn’s warning after his awful suffering:

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.”

Both the battles and the blessings are teaching me more about humility and gratitude. I’m thankful for what we have here.

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REVISITING REAGAN ON RUSSIAN POLICY

I was born in 1954 in an era when the temperature of the Cold War was below freezing. As a child I vaguely remember hearing of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table at a U.N. meeting. I clearly remember the anxiety on my parents’ faces as they watched reports of the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” There was a very real fear of war between the two great powers wherein weapons capable of destruction like humankind had never seen could be unleashed. I began my academic career at Holly Springs Elementary School in Pickens, S.C. We may have been located out in the “boondocks,” but one never knew where the Soviets would strike. We had to be prepared! We practiced the drill that all of that generation remembers. The alarm would go off in school—that uniquely odd alarm—and we would quickly shove books or whatever inside our desks and then smartly drop under the desk for protection. We were very efficient. One never knew when it might really be “the Russians” (a term we used interchangeably with “Soviets”) attacking. Now, of course, the possibility that hiding under a desk was sufficient protection from a nuclear attack has been questioned. Some, such as my Russian wife, still giggle at the whole thing. One ought not underestimate, however, the feeling of security that desk brought to some of us who grew up living with the “background noise” of nuclear war. In one of those “blip” memories from childhood, I remember being outside playing and hearing the heavy yet shrill sound of a jet that was unusual in its power. Then I saw it! It was huge! We didn’t see many of those where I lived in those days. I recall thinking, “What if it is the Russians? I don’t have a desk!” It was an era of fear. The idea that one day I would be living in that far away fearsome land was not only not on my horizon; it was not even in the same galaxy.

As I grew into the teen years the threats seemed to relax somewhat. Of course, Vietnam was always a point of contention. And there were times when other tensions would flare up again (Czechoslovakia in 1968). By the time Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev formalized “Detente,” however, things seemed to be genuinely better. Still, both sides kept building more bombs, and accusations continued to arise over this or that violation of some agreement. As a high school student I was more worried about football on Friday night, but the threat of a war with the USSR was never really absent.

It was not until Ronald Reagan’s presidency that things really began to change. Now, it didn’t look like that at first. His speech in 1983 in which he called the USSR an “evil empire” surely did not make it look like things would go as they did. I think there are some things that folks have never understood about Reagan and his dealings with the Soviet Union. First, while Reagan was clearly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet, Suzanne Massie, Reagan’s advisor on cultural and religious aspects of Russian life, pointed out he was always interested in the lives of the people here and never held animosity toward those he felt had been exploited by their government. Second, others close to him speak of his growing fear of nuclear war and his belief that he had been put on earth to make sure such a war did not happen. In this blog I’d like to discuss what was so right about his diplomacy then and why a return to those principles are what at least a few of us still long for.

One of the persons most centrally involved with U.S.-Soviet relations over many years is Jack Matlock, who eventually became Reagan’s ambassador to the USSR. Matlock began working with the Foreign Service in 1956. He had grown interested in Russia by reading Dostoevsky as an undergraduate student at Duke University. He also read the works of dissidents who had emmigrated from the USSR and who had written on the underside of Communism. Matlock majored in Slavic languages and went on to Columbia to do graduate work studying Russian history, language, and politics. He knew very early on he wanted to be the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR.

Matlock served four terms in Moscow totalling eleven years. He started as a translator at the embassy in Moscow in 1961, so he was translating during the Cuban Missile Crisis and served in various capacities dealing with the Soviet Union before becoming Ambassador. Two of the most interesting books I’ve read on the Reagan-Gorbachev era were written by Matlock. Then I recently heard an interview with him by Pietro Shakarian wherein Matlock condensed the overall policy that shaped the relationship between the U.S. and the USSR. As I listened I thought that there are perhaps too few people who remember or understand the principles which fueled the policies that ultimately led to enormous reductions in nuclear arms and made the world a place where little boys and girls didn’t have to practice hiding under the desks.

Reagan brought Matlock back to Washington in 1983 as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of European and Soviet Affairs. George Schultz was Secretary of State. Shultz appointed a group of individuals at the State Department who specialized in Soviet relations, along with the Secretary of Defense, to meet regularly and come up with policies and an agenda for dealing with the USSR. Matlock was “executive director” of the group. First, there were three things they agreed not to do.

  1. They would not question the legitimacy of the USSR. The U.S. did not officially recognize the USSR until November of 1933. There were still some right wing voices urging that it no longer be recognized since it was a “revolutionary government.” The group decided not to consider that option.
  2. They would not seek military superiority. They all agreed that no one wanted war, so playing the “military superiority card” should also not enter into discussions with the Soviets. The goal was to reduce weapons being developed by both sides.
  3. They would not try to change the USSR internally or get involved in anything that could be considered a “regime change.” They would conduct affairs with the leaders whom the Soviet Union chose. They wanted to affect policies abroad, not change the internal structure of the government or persons in power.

Then they set forth a four point agenda for what they wanted to accomplish.

  1. The primary goal was to reduce armaments to the greatest extent possible. No one knew how far they could go in reducing arms on both sides, but that was the focus.
  2. They sought to withdraw from “proxy” conflicts. Matlock says they had not blamed the Soviets for starting them, but the reality was that after conflicts broke out in different places in the world the U.S. would move in to support one side, while the USSR moved to support the opposition. The goal had to be to resolve international conflicts not to use those conflicts as ways to undermine the other country.
  3. They wanted to emphasize the importance of human rights. They realized, however, that this was a delicate issue. How does one do this without interfering in the domestic affairs of the other country? They determined they would seek to cooperate and not publicly denounce or “preach” about the flaws in the USSR. They did not believe they would be able to move forward on arms reduction if they used inflamatory language or accusations.
  4. They wanted to convince the Soviets to “lift the Iron Curtain” as it were. By that they meant to seek better relationships through various cultural and diplomatic exchanges. The point they wanted to make was that it would actually be in the best interests of the USSR to take advantage of business, travel, and other forms of interaction with the West.

As the old saying goes, “The rest is history.” The policies, the diplomats, the President, and the Soviets all worked together in a way that did change the world. Nuclear arms were slashed, and eventually the “evil empire” disbanded. In the interview Matlock expressed regret that the policies of recent years have gone in the opposite direction. Regime change has become the “modus operandi” of our government. In a Senate hearing available on YouTube on September 29, 2015 (titled “U.S. Senator attacks Defense Secretary”) Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Gen. Dunsford “Do we still want to replace Assad? Is that the goal?” They both openly agreed this was clearly the goal in Syria. Later the Senator goes on a rant frustrated that Assad has not been taken down and hints he thinks we should try to get Putin out as well. Graham pretends he has inside information that the majority of Syrians want to get rid of the person they elected by a vote of 88% as their leader, and we should engage in military actions that will lead to that end. Graham believes that the United States has the right to send in our military to end the regime of an elected leader and also to engage in a “proxy war” with Russia in the process. Graham pretends his actions are motivated by trying to help the poor Syrians (who, I suppose Graham believes, voted for Assad but really didn’t mean it). Further, Graham’s profane language and the manner in which he refers to Putin, Russia, Assad, and Syria indicate that he completely disagrees with the policies of Reagan’s men and women on how diplomacy should be done.

Senator Graham obviously speaks for many in Washington and elsewhere. We have now seen the “neocons” like Graham and his soul mate John McCain from the Republican party join with the “Liberal interventionists” on the Democratic side who have no fear or reticence when it comes to war. The screeching coming from these groups could hardly be called diplomatic. It is as if they believe if they scream loudly enough, get profane enough, and make up “facts” as they go along, surely the other side will come to their collective senses.

An important point that is being overlooked is that Reagan and his “team” succeeded. The “final page of the Soviet Union” to which Reagan made reference in 1983 was finally turned. Further, it was done peacefully—but not just peacefully. It was done without the United States having to impose its will on a reluctant people. Why does Lindsey Graham and most others in Washington today believe Reagan was wrong?

Matlock concluded his interview with two important observations. One point he made has been made by almost everyone involved at the time, but it is still overlooked. They did not see themselves as “winning the Cold War.” Neither Reagan, Matlock, or Shultz saw things that way or used that kind of language. That phrase came years later when George H.W. Bush needed to sound “tough” in his election campaign. The men involved saw themselves as working together with the Soviet leaders to bring about a safer and more peaceful world through diplomacy and reduction in arms.

Second, Matlock makes the statement that many who have not followed things carefully will find surprising. He says they really did not even want the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They did want the Baltic States to be released because they had not willfully joined the USSR. Other than that, they believed they had reached a good point in the relationship with the Soviet leaders that they could build on. Second, they believed (rightly as it turned out) that if the USSR broke up the Republics would eventually be run by tyrants. Gorbachev no longer considered himself a Communist toward the end of his time as General Secretary. He referred to himself as a “Social Democrat.” The Americans who had dealt with him over the years did not believe he wanted to be an autocrat, much less a dictator.

What impresses me the most when I read Matlock or some of the others I have mentioned in my blog is how well they knew the countries they were dealing with. They trained for years in diplomacy. Matlock, again, went to Moscow in 1961 after having been fully trained in the language and culture of the country and how to do true diplomacy. He was in Foreign Service training for three years after graduate studies! Reagan chose men like that to serve under him. Now it seems those appointed get their positions either through financial donations to a successful campaign or other political connections. It is “who you know, not what you know” as the saying goes.

What we are seeing now in American foreign relations is not diplomacy. It is people in leadership making pronouncements about people, cultures and societies about which they know very little. First, we try sanctions, and if that fails we try more sanctions. As Stephen Cohen, another expert whom I frequently reference, recently stated, “Countries enact sanctions when they can’t think of a wise policy.” More seriously, we know that some stand to make great financial gains from war. When those like Graham and McCain, who know very little of the countries for whom they believe they are best qualified to choose leaders (e.g., Syria or Ukraine), then war becomes what looks like the only option. Graham is a Senator representing my home state of South Carolina. He sometimes tries to present himself as a conservative carrying on the legacy of Ronald Reagan. The truth is when it comes to foreign policy it appears Graham has no idea how Reagan accomplished what he did. Or, he does know, but the pay off from the Military Industrial Complex is just too great a temptation.

The big difference between the neocons and Reagan is not that Reagan was cowardly or had no convictions. The difference is Reagan’s motives were peace and security for the country he served. Then he was willing to reach out to persons he knew were thoroughly knowledgeable about the places of conflict and the delicate negotiations involved. The neocons and the liberal interventionists just don’t have that hunger in their souls or discipline in their minds. The unfortunate conclusion is that if the current coalition remains in charge, you better find an old desk and start practicing getting under it.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan 1986

DAY OF KNOWLEDGE (День знаний)

September 1 is Day of Knowledge in Russia. It is the day when all schools start in Russia. This is quite different from schools in my “other” world of America. The first day of school is set by each county, so not even every school in the state starts the same day—certainly not every school in the country! The first day here in Russia is more ceremony than actual academic work. We had to prepare for the day, of course. We had to make sure Gabriel has a new uniform that fits. The school he goes to is not really a “stickler” on the uniform, but schools here still require them. Then, most importantly, flowers much be purchased for the homeroom teacher. This is a long standing tradition. All Russian school children take flowers to their teacher on Day of Knowledge. It may sound quaint, but seeing all these children dressed up (Gabe had on his favorite bow-tie) carrying flowers to give to the teacher seems appropriate to me now. So Oksana went two days prior to our nearby florist to get her order in. The lady told her she would be getting a fresh load Thursday evening, so if Oksana could come by then she would prepare a really nice arrangement. She said around 8:00 would be good, but it wasn’t really important because they would be open all night preparing for the big day. I cannot imagine being a florist near Day of Knowledge! We also purchased two balloons filled with helium for the ceremony.

The preparations in our house went fairly smoothly. The uniform looked good on him, and the flowers were beautiful. We bought a very large arrangement which cost $20. So we got a taxi ordered for 9:15 to transport us to the school. We were told to arrive at 9:30, and the ceremony would begin at 10:00. So the four of us set out for School #5 on time. Schools here do not have the names like in America. Here they start with one and go through the numbers for however many schools there are in town. I think we have six schools here. Also, the schools go from first grade all the way through high school at one physical location. In South Carolina, they went to elementary school, then a separate middle school in another place, and then high school was also in a different location. Here it is like it was when I went to school (many years ago) in a rural school in South Carolina. Generally speaking city schools then had separate locations for the different ages, but in the smaller towns or rural communities they were at the same location. Here in Russia there is a lot of emphasis on the older children watching out for the younger ones.

Upon arrival folks were milling around until time for the students to go inside to see their room and teacher. This is not very confusing because in elementary school in Russia the children keep the same teacher every year. They also stay with the same class. Of course, new kids move in and some move away, but for the most part the same students move through the grade system with the same teacher and classmates. We are glad for this because we believe it is helpful to Gabriel. Last year we had so much anxiety over him moving from an American school to a Russian school, but it went far more smoothly than we imagined. His Russian language is still not up to the level of the other children, however, and he really came to love his teacher here. They formed a special bond, so there was no anxiety on his part (or ours) because we all knew he was going back to a familiar classroom, teacher, and classmates. In America, of course, it is a different teacher for every grade. Also, Gabriel would be with some friends from the previous year and some would end up in a different class. I suppose there are advantages to both ways of doing things. I don’t know which I’d consider superior in general, but the fact that Gabriel had so much more stability this year was definitely better for us.

The ceremony lasted less than 30 minutes. There are short talks by some teachers and administrators welcoming everyone. Then there are short skits by some students, mostly the younger ones. There was quite a crowd there so I really could not see very well, but they all were dressed in cute little outfits coming in. Overall it is a very positive festive atmosphere with students, teachers, and the parents and grandparents who can come together for the official beginning of the school year.

I have been asked about our choice for public education by some parents thinking of moving to Russia. So I’ll give some background on our decision. When we moved here we were, as I said, quite anxious about our boys’ adjustments to school. In America we left when the “transgender controversy” was heating up. We did not know how widespread the debate would become, but we saw videos of even young children being taught about sexual identity in public schools. Schools have a right to teach what they want in America whether the parents agree or not. My own experience was that some schools there are very sensitive to parents’ concerns, and some are not. Further, some parents obviously like the introduction of, say, gender identity issues (among other things), and other parents are horrified. We liked the schools our children attended in South Carolina. Still, we feared at the higher levels education was becoming more about social experimentation than education. I can’t say if our fears were well founded or not. I was concerned when I researched the decline in standardized tests in America compared to other countries. We have family and friends who participate in the Classical Education “movement,” and the academic performances of their children are amazing. Further, the parents are comfortable because the “social experimentation” facet is not present.

Here in Russia those things are not issues that families face. Schools are about education and, to some degree, patriotism. We have also been impressed by their concern for the social development of our children. On the other hand, there are not as many opportunities for private education in small towns in Russia. We are friends with one family who home schools their children here. I also have seen others on FB who live in Moscow who send their children to an Orthodox Christian School. If there had been one here, we perhaps would have chosen that option. It seems the Orthodox schools are more available for those living in larger cities. The primary reason we decided not to homeschool is because Oksana knows the system and the teachers here very well. Her mom has worked in education in Luga for years. It is a very stable system. Gabriel’s teacher also taught Oksana. I met her high school Physical Education teacher today who told me he planned on teaching Gabriel, then pointed to Marina Grace in her stroller and smiled and said, “Her too. Then I can retire.” It also has a good track record for academics. Students from here tend to do well at the higher levels. Also, we thought, and still believe, it was the best way for our boys to adapt to the language. Every family is different. We, however, had three children at different developmental levels when we moved here: a teenager (16), an eight year old and one not yet two. It would have been difficult to educate them at home even in English. Also, Oksana is the only one completely fluent in Russian so it would have all been “on her.”

As I left the school this morning I felt good about our decision. I believe that it is a good school, and they have made every effort to communicate with us about our children. I admit a part of it was probably that there are a lot of things they do here that remind me of the way they did things when I was a kid in America, e.g., strong discipline, focus on academics, good communication with parents. I admit my nostalgia and prejudice! I’m pleased with the academic and social development of our kids here. That means a lot to any parent. Day of Knowledge was a good experience!

HISTORY, MEMORIALS & MONUMENTS: PUTIN’S SOLUTION

In my last blog I discussed the current disruption going on in America ostensibly provoked by the presence of statues of individuals which many now regard as unacceptable. The usual charge is racism. It seems to me the deeper issue is the inability of the country to come to terms with its history and persons of historical significance. Unfortunately, there is no real debate. Debate, at least as I understand it, means presenting ideas and interpretations of facts in a logical manner and being open to taking a serious look at the different interpretations of those same facts by others. As far as I can see groups are simply trying to overpower the views of others with ad hominem attacks and violent protests. Then the media corporations, which have a very loose relationships with the old “just the facts” approach to spreading news, have been “enlisted” to aid the cause. While those removing statues, changing memorials and road names seem more culturally powerful, I am unconvinced they speak for anything close to a majority of Americans. They have the power of the media and what some term “Hollywood culture” on their side. The question remains as to how America will handle its great and flawed history.

Russia has a history that is longer and, in some ways, more fragmented. Up until a hundred years ago the Romanov monarchy ruled the expansive land. It was not even a Constitutional Monarchy: they held the power. Then in 1917 there were two revolutions. The February Revolution ended with Nicholas II abdicating the throne in March. More significant was the October Revolution (Julian Calendar) which would usher in the rule of Communism and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic. That lasted until 1991, when the USSR disbanded quite abruptly. The Republics became nations. Russia was no longer the largest Republic; it was The Russian Federation. As I indicated in my last blog Boris Yeltsin became President. At the end of that decade he had, at best, a 10% approval rating. In August 1999 he had appointed a somewhat unknown Vladimir Putin as acting Prime Minister. Putin had had a career in the KGB, stationed in Germany, but resigned in protest after the failed coup attempt when Gorbachev was General Secretary. (Most Western press reports omit the fact he resigned from the KGB in a quiet and personal protest.) When Yeltsin resigned in disgrace, he appointed Putin as his successor, and Putin was elected President about three months later.

I have met folks in Russia who still speak with Romantic nostalgia of the Romanov reign. Orthodox Christianity was the religion and faith of the country. Leadership of the vast land was unquestioned. The pictures, the mansions, the clothes—they are impressive! Who could not admire Peter the First (the Great)! Yet others, like my friend and physician, still speak (in hushed tones) of the clarity and friendship of the Communist days. (One caveat, Russians don’t talk to me in a positive way about Communism until they get to know I’m here to learn—not condemn.) In his memory it was a day when the youth respected the elders, everyone had equal access to medicine and health care, and folks formed deep and lasting friendships. On the other hand, there are those who feel very strongly about the injustice of the Soviet system and especially Stalin’s purges.

Now, at the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, how does Putin handle Russia’s relationship to its history, given these vast differences of perspective. Putin’s approval rating in the last Levada poll was 83%. By comparison, Trump does not get half that. That is not to say that all 83% fully approve of Putin’s leadership in my opinion. I know several folks who basically think he’s done a good job, but they believe Russia could do better under different leadership. Russians, at least the ones I talk to, do not jump to the “all or nothing” evaluations of leaders or people in general. We humans are usually a “mixed bag” of virtues and vices—the percentages of each vary from person to person. What I want to discuss is how Putin is leading the country in dealing with its history.

A lot of my information comes from Stephen Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University and New York University. I have mentioned him on several occasions because he has spent years living in the USSR and has made frequent trips to Russia since then. His career was and is knowing Russia. He now has a strong relationship with various leaders of this country—although he was kicked out of the USSR for a few years over things he said and wrote. Cohen recently returned to the States from Russia and, after listening to his podcast on his trip (and also finishing his book on the Soviet Union this summer), I decided to reproduce and enlarge upon his reflections on his trip to Russia in light of the recent events in America and coming events in Russia.

One thing Putin has done is open up Russia’s historical archives to professional historians. While some (e.g., New York Times) have suggested this is not true, Cohen himself speaks from personal experience. With his credentials he was allowed to view all historical documents he needed to see for extensive research. The significant historical documents are available for study now which were kept secret both in the Romanov and Communist period. Khruschev attempted to have at least some released, but he was never successful. Putin, over the years, has released them for professionals, even from America, to study. His only directive, according to Cohen, was that they had to be academic and professional and not engage in nasty polemic with each other.

Cohen was also able to meet with the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation while he was here. (He did not say who, but I assume he meant either Gennady Zyuganov or Ivan Melnikov.) Since this is the centennial of the Revolution, the leaders of the party went to Putin and told him they wanted to have very public celebrations and commemorations of the Revolution in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin consented and said they would be granted official permission, asking only that they keep things peaceful.

The feelings run very deep about these events here. The focus is often on Stalin, as I said. On the one hand, some view him as the one responsible for the great victory over the Nazi invaders. He was the leader and in times of war leaders get the credit or the blame. Many credit Stalin with the victory. They also believe Khruschev inflated the horrors done by Stalin. Stalin has been “rehabilitated” in the eyes of many here. Others believe that had he not gotten rid of so many great military leaders before the Nazis began their invasion, the USSR would have been much better able to defend itself. There are also quite a number of people who had relatives who were sent to the Gulags or were murdered during the “purges” and still harbor great animosity.

Thus, in 2004, after Putin had held several meetings with Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, The State Museum of the Gulag was opened in Moscow. It provides graphic glimpses of what life was like for those political prisoners. It has been enlarged several times and was moved to its current location in 2015. Unlike in America,where there has never been a museum that deals directly with slavery in America, Russia does face the horrors of its past head on, even if there are strong disagreements over what really happened and why.

Further, some time ago Putin began accepting bids and proposed plans for a monument to the victims of Stalin’s purges. Thus, this year on October 30, The Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Oppression, the monument will be unveiled by Vladimir Putin himself. So those who wish to celebrate the memory of the positive changes they believe were brought by Communism in general and, yes, Josef Stalin in particular, will have the freedom to celebrate and observe with memorials to him or any leaders they so choose. At the same time, the President will be present with those who wish to memorialize victims who suffered much under this government. Of course, there have been articles in the U.S. press trying to portray Putin as a Stalinist. He clearly is not, but it does fit the impression of him the West seems to need.

My point here is not to say Putin or his “solution” is perfect. I don’t know in such cases if there is a “perfect solution.” And I do not know enough to render an ultimate “verdict” on his presidency. I am not a Russian, and I am not a professional historian or politician. I do, however, want my American readers to see a different, and I hope fuller, view of what goes on here. While I’m not an expert and my views are somewhat limited, I do take the trouble to educate myself as best I can in reading “real” scholars and having discussions with people of different perspectives. Criticisms of Putin from America are usually simplistic and ill-informed and intended to tear down this country. The purpose of attacking Putin is usually to put down Russia itself. My Russian friends who disagree with Putin do so because they want the country stronger and more caring. Russians are quite capable of looking at their own history, drawing their own conclusions about their history and their politicians, and then allowing that their fellow Russians may come to very different conclusions. When did America lose this capacity?

What I like about the discussions here is that they are civil, usually based on the facts and how they should be interpreted, and are ultimately about what is best for the country. What I find quite bothersome about the processes going on in America is that in the name of tolerance we are becoming, well, completely intolerant. Further, I don’t get the impression the multiple “sides” or the media groups reporting the events are really out for what is best for the country. I’ve seen more clearly living here that many news outlets have no intention of researching and reporting truth. What I find most baffling is how it got like it is, because I still do not believe the majority of Americans are like the people I see “leading” the crowds there. In my part of that world, I worked with people of different races, perspectives, political backgrounds, and yet we worked together, worshipped together, ate together and, yes, disagreed on some things, but in the end we got along. Those motivating the antagonism and violence and those reporting on the antagonism and violence must be forced to tell the truth for better days to be ahead.

Now, will Putin’s solution work out perfectly with the Stalinists and the descendants of the victims coming together in a “kum-ba-ya” moment? I don’t know about that, but I am impressed by the confidence Putin seems to have in the culture here. He believes granting different sides freedom to express their historical loyalties is a good thing. I am hopeful that America will again reach the point where they can appreciate the complexity of history—our “histories” come to us from from folks who were fallible and virtuous.

Yesterday someone posted pics of a few old TV series from years ago. I saw one of the Friday night program from decades ago, “Dallas.” The main character, as all of us old enough to recall the program know, was the despicable J.R. Ewing. J.R. was the worst when it came to cheating, lying, dividing and conquering in the mythical Oil Man’s world of Dallas. In one episode wherein he sunk to a new low of lying and cheating even for J.R., I think it may have been his brother Bobby who in exasperation asked him how it was possible even for HIM to stoop to such despicable and dishonest behavior. In what is probably his most memorable line, he smiled back and explained, “Once you lose your integrity, the rest is easy.” Until the political leaders who have some control over events and the media that control the spread of information about the events and perspectives recover their integrity, I fear the multitudes of Americans with higher values and a stronger sense of unity will suffer even more from the loss.

Catherine, Lenin and Robert E. Lee

     We are approaching the end of our second summer back in Russia. Life seems pretty normal here compared to the news we hear from back in the States. I have not been able to keep up with all the events of Charlottesville, so I am not informed enough to offer any in-depth insights. I have only picked up fragmented reports. I thought America seemed so divided when we left last summer. The political race was heating up; it seemed like it was a different campaign from what I had ever observed in that there was a deeper bitterness dividing the “sides.” I vaguely recall past elections when the former adversaries would come together for a hand shake, or congratulations would be sent to the victor and usually there was an assurance by both sides on the need for all to work together for the good of the country. It seemed this time the election was barely over before the cries of Russian hacking and Russian collusion started. I still thought that, while it was taking longer, eventually the healing would begin. Clearly I was wrong. The divisions now seem deeper than just political differences given the brutality of the last week of news. The nation seems more fragmented than simply divided. I really do not know how to explain these things to my Russian friends, because I do not understand what is going on in America myself.

In Russia life goes on at the same pace. This past weekend was the celebration called “Day of the City” in Luga. Many cities in Russia have a day set aside around the anniversary of their founding to celebrate the good things about the city. In the weeks prior to it the workers clean up, repaint and “spruce things up.” Luga was founded in 1777 by Catherine the Great. So this year there was an unveiling of a monument to her. It is a very nice statue. My understanding is that the violence in Charlottesville began in protest over the removal of the statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Then it devolved into other issues of rights and free speech over which there was no agreement. Russia went through its own days of violent disagreement especially after the fall of Communism. In the 90s Boris Yeltsin was essentially selling off the resources of the nation to the highest bidders. He was widely disdained here but supported by the West, especially America. Statues were destroyed, buildings vandalized, and crime soared. It is quite different in Luga now. There is a statue across the street from our apartment of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution and the first clear leader of the change to Communism. Go down the road and there is the new statue of Catherine the Great who was empress of Russia 1762-96. A recent history I just finished calls her reign “The Golden Age.” Some people here still revere Lenin; others loathe the violent and atheistic regime they believe he led. Others have great admiration for the Romanov dynasty, while some point to the lavish and hypocritical life many believe she lived. Somehow folks in Luga have learned to accept their history, and most would agree both leaders had their flaws. No one seems to think a statue in their honor indicates moral and political perfection. Both, the Romanov dynasty and the Bolsheviks, have their place in Russian and Lugan history.

The celebration is about food for adults and games for the children for the most part. We enjoyed walking around and seeing folks. There were huge agricultural and military vehicles and machines on the street outside our apartment, as well as some small arms for kids to see and feel what a real Kalashnikov is like. The agricultural machines represent the work to be done in peace, and the military vehicles represent the protection of the people. They were quite impressive.

I don’t recall cities of this size in America celebrating their anniversaries like here. Why bring in the huge vehicles and arms to the celebration? Russian history is very different from American history, as I have discussed before. After church on Sundays we often go to the little cafe across the courtyard from our apartment for lunch. We all five can get a pretty good meal and ice cream for dessert for a little more than twelve dollars! The first time we went there I saw a picture on the wall in the dining room of downtown Luga from many years ago. It was one with the old cars from back in the forties on the street. I thought if you switched out the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the picture and photo shopped in a First Baptist, it could have been of a small town in South Carolina in the forties! But then something caught my eye: the street sign. It was forbidding parking in the street as best I could read. Nothing strange there, but the sign was written in German. It was taken when the Nazis had taken over the city. I thought what would it be like to see an old photo of the town in which I was born back in Pickens, S.C. if the street signs were not in English. How would I feel if my grandparents had shared stories with me of when the Nazis ran their lives and made them learn their language? When I was growing up I heard folks talk of men (and some women) who “went off to war.” That was always the phrase. All my ancestors in the last hundred years went off to fight wars in other lands. In Luga, one fought for your own city. Luga was granted the status of “Hero City” by the Russian government. They eventually were overrun by the far more numerous Nazis, but they held them off long enough for St. Petersburg to get prepared to some degree for the coming seige. They also maintained a militia which pestered the Germans who beseiged St. Petersburg with what was essentially guerilla warfare. War is awful. The older I get the more I hate it. But I think it is different when you know you are fighting for your land, your family, the land of your friends and extended family. You are fighting for your life and the kind of life you passionately want preserved. The ancestors of Luga didn’t “go off” to war; they fought for their farms on those very farms. Celebrations of present freedoms mean a lot more, I think, when that is your history. It’s games and food, but at a deeper level it is more than that. I shudder to think it could take war on our own land to make Americans more appreciative of the freedoms we now have. Maybe freedom of speech would be exercised with more discretion if we saw first hand the alternative of speaking a foreign tongue in our own land.

On a personal level we continue to adjust. I still do my walks around town, practice my Russian as much as possible and enjoy family time. We finally found a church where we belong. I have mentioned in a few blogs that our church was an important part of our life in America, and we have not been able to find a Russian Orthodox church that seemed, well, a good fit. But a taxi driver recommended that we go to one in a small village about 15 minutes from here called Tolmachёvo. Our first Sunday there we were surprised to see a relatively new and very attractive Orthodox building. We learned the old church, which was built in 1899, burned down in 1999. The new one was completed in 2007. The priest conducted the Liturgy in a way that made us feel, well, more at home. The singing was beautiful, as it has been in every Orthodox Church I’ve attended. After the Liturgy the priest was presented flowers by the congregation for his birthday (which was the day before). A lady spoke on behalf of the whole group. He has been there fourteen years. He came there when he was 29 years old. She told him they appreciated the way he had walked with all the families through some very difficult years. She added very sincerely, “You have taught us to be kinder to each other, to be more patient with others. We are better people because of you, and we thank you for that.” You could see her words were sincere, and the congregation kept nodding in agreement.

After people dispersed we were waiting for a taxi to come pick us up, and that gave us an opportunity to talk to Father Nikolay with no one around for a few minutes. Oksana explained we had moved to Luga after eight years in America, that I was American and while I speak some Russian I am not (yet!) fluent. He leaned over and focused his gaze on me, as if for a clearer look and said, “Did you play Santa Claus in the Christmas play at Erudite school?” I confessed that I was in fact Santa. Unbeknownst to us his younger daughter attends the school where we teach. He then explained that the Church has an “American connection.” It was founded by General Zherbin, who was from a well-to-do family back in the late 1800s. After the revolution about half the family was able to leave Russia for America. They settled in Seattle and became very successful there. One lady became a prominent member of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Another member of that family worked for NASA and was, in fact, the supervisor of the Space Station project when America and Russia worked on it together. It is my understanding that all the American members of the family have passed on, but they kept in touch with the church throughout their lives. I told him I was shocked that an Orthodox Church in this small village had such a connection with America. He added that the Reader (the young gentleman who had read the Gospels and other readings during the Liturgy) had lived in America for three years and spoke fluently in English. (We have since joined with him and his wife for a few meals and have formed a quick and meaningful friendship.)

Eight days from our first visit the church had reserved a bus to go to St. Petersburg to venerate the relics of the original St. Nicholas. We thought it would be a good chance perhaps to meet folks in the church and get to know the priest better. We showed up Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. and were in line by 8:30. We had plenty of time to chat! It was five hours later when we exited the Cathedral after quickly viewing and venerating the relics! Thousands and thousands of people were there—on a Monday morning! But we did get a chance to chat more with the priest. We did feel like we got the chance to know Father Nicolas very well. He even asked Oksana to consider teaching in the children’s Sunday School. We were very pleased to feel a part of this rather small congregation with the “American connection.” Somehow we sensed this was a place for our family.

All of us on Facebook see the various “memes” that pop up from time to time. Some funny, some thoughtful. I saw one on a page from a friend about my age the other day that made me laugh—and think. It said, “If I could sum up my life in one sentence it would be: ‘Now that didn’t go as planned.’” My life certainly has not gone as planned. I was born in a small Southern town during the Cold War. Robert E. Lee was much revered in my part of the country. But at 18 years old I joined the Marines as a loyal American and was ready to go fight Communists in Vietnam—or anywhere. Thankfully, I never was sent. Not only did I not plan on living in Russia one day, the thought would have seemed pathetically laughable to my young self. But here I am. One of my sons in America turned thirty-five this month, and my little daughter here in Russia turns three next month. I’m still trying to weave the strands together from the different stages of my life, but the tapestry still needs a lot of work. As my blog indicates, living here has made me think more about history—personal and national. It has made me think more deeply about the ways in which the two “worlds” of my life differ and the values they share. I guess it is natural that the differences attract most of the attention, and the differences between Russia and America are quite real. Nevertheless, after spending a typical day reading the news from America, then studying Russian grammar and history, then walking to the local market with the family, I still think my friends and acquaintances from my two worlds are more alike than different. I also believe both can learn from the flaws and strengths of the other. Maybe the blog can help with that, but I may be aiming too high.

LIFE BACK IN RUSSIA AFTER ONE YEAR

On June 8 we celebrated our one year anniversary of being back in Russia after having lived in America for eight years. I decided to write some reflections on how things have gone. Writing about such things helps me organize my own thoughts. I think after one year we have a better perspective on things. I have to say that some of what I write now in reflection is simply confirmation of what we had already begun to realize. I regret the repetition. What I add is my perspective on how the things we have seen and experienced have impacted our thinking and relationships here. Another reason for some repetition is the increasing number of people I hear from considering moving here. I thought we were really odd when we made the decision to move to Russia. Turns out, that is far from the truth. Since several of these individuals have not read my earlier blogs I have answered some of their questions here. What has life been like in Russia?

First, in general, we confronted no major obstacles after we got here, but neither did we find the adjustment easy. It was a mixed bag. We eventually found the right apartment, got all the furniture and appliances we needed, and finished the essential paperwork. What I had to “relearn” is that generally speaking Russians do not expect to have everything quickly. Most stores in a smaller city in Russia like Luga do not have a large inventory of furniture, kitchen appliances and other household items. We had to order things and wait for a shipment to come in or until a piece could be custom built. Further, official paperwork does not usually get processed quickly. Local apparatchiks here seem to derive pleasure from demonstrating that while Communism is no longer in vogue, government employees still have power over your life—even if we’re just talking about small town government. And no detail is too small for such a demonstration. For example, we turned in one set of papers and under the address blank for “Oblast” Oksana wrote “Leningradskaya Oblast.” No, the form already had “Oblast” so you should not have written the word “Oblast.” And you may not “white out” or cross out “Oblast.” Hence, we had to leave, fill out another set of papers completely, return, wait in line (again!) and resubmit. Our American “immediate gratification” mindset had to be purged from our mental systems.

The process was painful, but I think the results were good. Tribulation brings patience. We had become conditioned to “fast and easy”in America. Note how many times that phrase or a similar phrase shows up in ads in America. Any product or process that is fast and easy must be good, right? I think now this approach sucks you in to a certain kind of mentality. Life has to happen fast—and easy. Nevertheless, no matter how “fast and easy” things were supposed to be, there was always something else for which we had to wait. As Patrick Henry Reardon said, “The life of faith is pretty much evenly divided between serving and waiting. (It is curious we call those who serve us ‘waiters’).” It’s how you wait that reveals the faith part. Further, I don’t think Holy Scripture teaches that character comes from “fast and easy.” I’ve learned here that if you have to wait for that chair to be built or that paperwork to get processed, life still does not lose meaning or fall apart in the meantime. In fact, the waiting helps you discover the value of what you already have or what you can do without. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. That’s called perseverance. I do not get as frustrated with roadblocks and detours near as much as I did before Russia.

I wrote along the way that our boys were adjusting well in school. Fortunately, they persevered and finished their first year well. It was a lot of hard work! Roman, our ninth grader, had not had chemistry, physics, biology and as much algebra and geometry as his Russian classmates. He could speak Russian, since he lived the first eight years of his life here, but he was way behind in grammar and fluency. After the first quarter he had “C”s on most core subjects, but improved throughout the year. He worked hard and finished with a “4” (B) in Russian. Gabriel knew no Russian. He is our extrovert, however, and with both classroom work and playtime with his friends after school, he learned to function well. I can speak Russian fairly well—at least well enough to communicate what I want or need in most situations. I have a lot of trouble understanding “native speakers,” however. Gabriel can now speak as well as I can (and he knows all the slang expressions which I do not know!); he also understands Russians far better than I do. Both boys got nothing but “4”s and “5”s (equivalent to the A/B roll) in the end of the year, so we were pleased.

Here was a very valueable lesson for us and our boys. They HAD to work hard. Our boys had good teachers and good experiences in the schools in America. Honestly, however, they did not work hard. They could just coast and still “get by.” You can’t coast when you barely know the language. You can’t coast when everyone else has had the prerequisites that you have not had. They both responded well. They set their minds to work—well, most days. And the work paid off. Both Roman and Gabriel got academic awards at the end of the year. Of course, we parents were proud. But for me it really wasn’t the award as much as the joy I felt that they had worked hard and saw that was key. I am sure my pride was of a different sort than when they got recognized in America. They ended with a confidence not that they were smarter than other kids; their confidence was in the value of disciplined work. That lesson will last longer than the certificate.

Our biggest surprise is that there were no problems with them being bullied or made to feel as outsiders because they came from America. Our fear was that there would be fallout from the current negative relationship between Russia and America. They did not experience anything like that. Oksana and I did not experience any unkind or rude treatment from the Russian folks either. (Well, she did get a little offended that a few folks thought she had an American accent!) Russians have long lived with the reality that one cannot assume what people are like based on what those folks’ government or media say. People who found out I was American were more curious than anything. I do a lot of walking around town. Most days I go for a long walk, and my route is all over town. I am frequently asked directions or where a certain store is. I explain that I am a “foreigner” and not that familiar with the stores. The responses are always kind and understanding. No one has ever gotten frustrated with me.

The lesson I took from that was a sad one. I realized in this hot political year the truth was the only disparaging talk I heard came from Americans in references to “the Russians.” Politicians, journalists, and other folk who have never formed any kind of relationship with any Russians or had any real knowledge of Russia or Russians—a la James Clapper and James Comey—could still evaluate their character and motives. I learned a deeper respect for those Russians on the street who did not know my name or any details about me other than that I was a foreigner and yet treated me with kindness and respect.

On the other hand, Russians do not make friends quickly. Russia has a long history, and for most of it opening up your life to the wrong person could cost you dearly. While you should not come to Russia expecting to be treated unfairly or rudely just because you are an American, you should not expect to make intimate friends without the time needed for trust to develop. I’ve learned more about friendship here from, well, not having many friends. Authentic friendship takes time and trust. While I still wish it was easier here, I have come to understand trust better. Familiarizing yourself with Russian history helps one to grasp the reasons. Friends here are not just people you enjoy socializing with or folks you like to see at work or church. It’s deeper than that. I see now most of the people we Americans call “friends” are really folks with whom we have a superficial, albeit cordial, relationship.

As far as the language goes, I really wish I could progress more quickly. I’ve been studying Russian on my own for five and a half years. Yet, as I said, I still struggle with understanding the native speakers. The particles, the little phrases, the slang and especially the speed make it difficult. I still am very uncomfortable speaking in social settings when a number of people are talking or in public when people are speaking fast. I find I can practice better in one-on-one conversations with people who know I am learning. My doctor who gives me neck treatments weekly remains my great help. He lets me struggle for the right word, take pauses before speaking, and if I get the wrong case or repeat myself there is no embarrassment. Fear of failure or of making a mistake is a terrible roadblock to fluency. I think that is a major reason Roman and Gabriel have made progress more quickly than I. Mistakes don’t bother them. I get the paralysis of analysis before every sentence! Oksana has taken a course from Moscow on teaching Russian to English speakers, and that is helping immensely. I can open up to her, of course, with my silly or obvious questions. I’m trying to be patient. I read on average it takes ten years to become fluent in Russian. I think I’ll beat that for sure!

While learning the language is important and helpful, I stick with what I said when we first moved here: Russians appreciate any attempt you make at learning their language. If you get it wrong and your pronunciation leaves them unable to hide a smile or even laughter, they really do like it when Americans try to speak their language. They respond very readily to any Westerner who tries to understand their culture, their language, their history or their religion. I remember several years ago being on a city bus in St. Petersburg when a group of Americans got on. They were loud, rude, and basically unconcerned about the people already on the bus. Although adults, they were poster children for the stereotypical “arrogant Americans.” So if you display genuine (and I mean authentic) respect for this country—its people, its language, its culture and history—you will be well received. And those who don’t make that effort should have the integrity not to criticize Russia based on what you heard from a newscaster who also knows nothing of this language, culture or history.

Three practical observations: First, we have been able to find pretty much anything we need for food, clothing and daily needs at very reasonable prices. (Caveat: the pizzas in Luga are not nearly as good as the ones from Papa Johns in Greer, South Carolina.) When we left in 2008 there was one “chain” grocery store in Luga. Now there are several, and they are all superior to the old “Dixie” store that is still here. There are far more products available. When we left you could not use a credit card in stores to buy food or clothes—or anything else. Now, we make most of our purchases on our debit card or go to the ATM for cash.

Further, exchanging money is far more convenient than when we lived here before. I still have a bank account in my American bank, and it really is no trouble to tranfer money for our use here. I have found Capital 360 makes things easy. My pension is deposited directly into my bank account, and we can transfer it to 360 without charge. As I said above, I can go to the ATM here in Luga and withdraw rubles, again without charge. I am identified immediately by e-mail when any money is withdrawn from my account. I can be here on my computer and see within one minute when Oksana has made a purchase for groceries or whatever she went to get (and pretty much calculate when she’ll be home). It also allows for me to watch for any “irregularities” of course.

Another factor I have commented on in previous blogs is the excellent medical treatment we have received. I can expand that to dental care as well. The medical and dental clinics are very nice, clean, and the medical staff has always been helpful. Our family has had the “bugs” that go with winter. I’ve had a benign growth surgically removed from my back, weekly treatments for a bad disc in my neck and a thorough physical, including blood work and an ultrasound of all internal organs. I’ve had a tooth pulled (which had a bony cyst attached), two fillings, and one severely chipped molar repaired. I could not be more pleased with the care as well as the cost. We can get medicines that were expensive and prescription only in America at a small fraction of the cost here in Russia usually without a prescription. I have seen Facebook comments still bashing Russian health care, but our experience of care here is that it is at least as good as in America and, as far as our medical clinic, it’s much better and more modern than the one in Greer we went to. And I pay under $9.00 for an office visit.

So after one year I can’t say we’re totally adjusted. But I can say we’ve had no major problems and have learned a lot. Life in this culture is quieter and without the rancid political vitriol which has become typical in America. Society is, for the most part, unapologetically traditional, and politicians of different parties seem focused on the goal of continuing improvement in Russian life. People here disagree as much and as often as they like. Political debate is not stifled on TV or in the street. As I turned off the street toward our apartment building today the nice old Communist man was standing there beside his little tent offering me the latest edition of the old Communist newspaper Pravda, as he often does. No shouting in my face, no posters condemning anyone. I took the paper, thanked him, and he quietly responded, “Пожалуйста” (“you’re welcome”) with a soft smile. He and I come from different “worlds,” but despite missing family and friends in our American world immensely, we’re glad to be here in this one.

“HACKSAW RIDGE” AND VICTORY DAY

I have not written a blog entry in two months. First, things tend to get very busy at the end of the school year. Our time at the English school got more hectic, and our boys had a lot of preparing for exams. Then I had some problems that were thought to be neurological with my neck and jaw. It actually was a cyst that had formed at the base of one of my molars, which was complicated by an abscess. I’ll skip the details, but it was not a pleasant tooth extraction. Thus, I have wanted to write an entry on the events of May for some time but time pressure and tooth pain hindered my work.

My wife and kids watched the Mel Gibson movie “Hacksaw Ridge” just after Memorial Day (in America). What a compelling movie based on events of a “real” soldier during World War II in the Pacific! Earlier in the month, May 9, we had observed what may be the biggest holiday in Russia: Victory Day. It is holiday commemorating the surrender of the Nazis which concluded “The Great Patriotic War,” as it is called in Russia.

I was taught in my history courses in high school in America about the war from what I now see as a decidely American perspective. We defeated Japan in the Pacific and we, along with our western European allies, defeated Germany in Europe. I do not recall much being said about the USSR, other than we were on the same side against the Nazis. It was if the USSR was a bit player in that awful drama. I don’t know for sure that my education was typical, but I think it was. I am firmly convinced now that what I was taught was distorted to the point of being deceitful.

When we celebrated Memorial Day living in America I will admit to some guilt. I always thought it was important to remember our fallen soldiers. And I would spend time reflecting on those who paid the ultimate price. In America, however, it was always a holiday that at a cultural level marked the beginning of summer. We usually went to the lake, beach, or some bar-b-que. After a few words of gratitude for our freedoms and those who died for that freedom, we’d get the party started. Of course, sad to say, many in America would just get the party started right away without the words.

There is no such ambiguity to the observance of Victory Day in Russia. It is a “holiday with tears,” as they call it. All schools and most places of employment are closed. Residents of Luga gathered at 9:00 on the square assemble and then march to the “Memorial” on the outskirts of town. The procession actually started a little early and we had to catch up. I was shocked at the number of people participating in the march. It was in the thousands. The crowd went as far as I could see. It is called the “Immortal Regiment,” to emphasize that the memory of these brave persons will not die. It is a tradition to carry posters with the pictures of your family members who fought in the war. Both of my wife’s grandfathers fought so Gabriel and Roman carried posters with their pictures. Patriotic songs were played over a loud speaker mounted on a van as we walked. This same observance is carried out in cities all over Russia. Moscow had 850,000 and reports were that St. Petersburg had 750,000 participate. I don’t know the official numbers for Luga, a much smaller city of course, but it was far more than I have ever seen at a parade in America.

When we got to the Memorial there was no big fanfare. Some words were spoken in gratitude for those who fought and especially those who died. At the Memorial there are graves of the soldiers who perished fighting for Luga, then a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, and also a space where the remains of those who were not found until much later have been placed. An Orthodox priest performs a brief memorial service at that location every year. I began reflecting on why the observance here is so different than in America.

First, the war was fought here. We (Americans) sent brave men and women to fight, but the battle was across one ocean or the other. Luga was occupied for almost three years by the Nazis while they beseighed Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Luga was awarded the status of “Hero City,” because it did hold off the Nazis for three weeks giving Leningrad a little more time to prepare. Remarkably, 1 in 10 citizens of Luga were awared medals for bravery. When I walk the streets of Luga I can see monuments on walls of buildings describing what happened there during the occupation or where the Nazis had their offices. A few weeks ago we flew to Finland for a long weekend. When we flew back my father-in-law picked us up at the airport in St. Petersburg. As we were driving back to Luga, he pointed to the exact point where the Nazis camped—and ultimately were stopped. We knew that road, that specific place was where it happened. There is something about seeing such sights on a daily bases that makes the war more “real.”

Second, almost everyone here has a relative who fought in the war. The official archives show that 27.5 million soldiers and civilians from the USSR died. Of those, 70% were ethnic Russians. So just under 20 million Russians died during that war. Most estimates indicate around 415,000 Americans died. Now, that is a lot of Americans, and no one takes their sacrifice lightly. But I, like many Americans, did not have any relatives who died in the war. I did have a couple of uncles who were in the war in the Pacific, but there is almost no one here who does not have someone who fought in the war and most Russians have some family member who died. Oral history is quite powerful.

Another factor in this region is the horror of the seige of Leningrad. It went on for around 900 days. People starved to death; many bodies would be left in the street; diseases of various kinds were rampant. President Putin, for example, had an older brother to die from diptheria as a child. His mother almost died. He had two uncles who were killed in combat, and his father was left with a permanent limp from being injured in battle in Estonia. As an aside, this made it extremely inappropriate for papers such as the Washington Post to editorialize (as if it were real news) that Putin was manipulating the situation for his own political ends in his moving Victory Day speech. The Post’s articles on Russia justify Stephen Cohen’s reference to our views of the old Soviet news reports of a bygone era, calling the Washington Post “Pravda on the Potomac.”

There is also a lot of pride here, however. While exact figures are illusive, the estimates are that 13.6 million Nazis died during the war, and that somewhere between 85-90% were killed by the Soviets. So almost 9 out of 10 German soldiers were killed by Soviets. I loved the movie, “Saving Privte Ryan.” But the truth is our image of the Americans landing at Normandy and marching straight to Berlin to end the war is, again, a severe distortion. The Allies faced 11 German divisions on that march. The Russians fought 228 German divisions from Moscow to Berlin. All this led Winston Churchill to state:

“I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.”

—Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 2 August 1944, “War Situation”

Russians know that the West tends to ignore their central role in the war, especially in educating our children. Now, more than ever, it seems vitally important to many politicians and media members to portray Russia as an evil nation. Apparently some have thought it better to redact the historical accounts in a way that would not lead anyone to appreciate the Soviet war efforts. My purpose is in no way to undermine or discount the contributions to the war by the Allies or the bravery of those who fought and died in the war. It is, however, to make what readers I have aware of the noble and brave efforts of the Russians and other member countries of the USSR. No good comes from our historical distortions. My desires are the same as those stated by President Ronald Reagan in his State of the Union address in 1984. Please go to the link below for two crucial minutes of that speech.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gzg9TMSBBk