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

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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.

 

POLITICS AND RELIGION IN RUSSIA

I decided to take a different direction from the more explicitly political blogs I’ve recently written. In my next two blogs I will discuss religion in Russia. The first one will be more general and deal with both historical and political issues. In my next blog I’ll address more personal issues of religion and life here in Russia. I have several reasons for discussing religion in Russia: First, for many of us this is the season of Lent. It is a period of forty days of “ascetic fasting” leading up to the week of Pascha, or what most Westerners call Easter. It is the most significant season in the Russian Orthodox Church. So especially at this time of the year my thoughts naturally drift toward issues of faith. Second, Billy Graham passed from this life last week. Graham was widely known and admired, but those of us who grew up in the predominantly Protestant and rural south took special pride in him as “one of us.” He dined with Presidents and preached all around the world. Other than politicians very few people from my culture got that opportunity. Although well-known, Graham never seemed to lose the sense of who he was, and evangelism became neither a popularity contest nor a means of attaining material wealth. His death took me back to my childhood and the religious atmosphere of that day. Third, I get questions about religion in Russia from time to time. Those who have never been here seem quite interested. Finally, I believe understanding something of the religious character of any country is essential to understanding its culture and what it values. While religion and faith are of nominal importance to many modern observers, I think ignoring it makes one miss interesting and important features of a nation like Russia.

Caveat: I use the terms “religion” and “religious” to refer primarily to the public practice of matters of faith. I realize some juxtapose or contrast faith and religion. (Yes, I’ve seen the, “I’m not religious, I just love Jesus” posts.) I am using the term in a sociologically descriptive manner. A long time ago Emile Durkheim described religion as a system of beliefs and practices related to what one considers “sacred” and includes uniting with others in a single moral community. If one attends a church, synagogue, or mosque, for example, then one qualifies as “religious” in this sense of the word.

My target audience is, again, the person who hears a lot about Russia on the news, but would like to know what life is really like here. As is commonly known, quite a number of people in the West no longer trust what they hear from the mainstream media about a lot of things, including Russia. Discussing religion and politics in a blog means I have to omit some complex, albeit important, developments. I hope the reader can still come away with a good basic understanding. That’s my goal anyway. I’ll give a little historical background and general overview of religion here. Over Russia’s long history its leaders have sought, at various times, to encourage religion, mix it with politics, or, for most of the last century, obliterate it from life in Russia altogether.

The role of religion in Russian history is quite different from the American experience. First, Christianity, specifically Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has been the dominant religion in this region of the world for over a thousand years, although other religions or branches of Christianity have not been absent. According to tradition, Christianity was brought to the region by Saint Andrew, the disciple of Jesus. I’ll skip the historical developments to get to the main tradition (some say legend) about how “Kievan Rus” became Christian. Prince Vladimir (ca. 987), believing that one religion would unite the kingdom, sent out emissaries to the neighboring regions to discern what religion should be adopted. They returned with news that the Bulgarian Muslims had no joy, and they also smelled bad. The German religion had no beauty. They needed look no further, however, after their experience of worship at the Orthodox Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. They reported, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, and of such beauty we know not how to tell of it.” Now, most historians believe it was a bit more complicated than that, but the point is that old Rus “officially” became Orthodox Christian. The Princes and Tsars of the Rurikid and then Romanov dynasties considered themselves and the lands they ruled Christian. In their minds, the Emperor was just as much an emissary of God to his people as were the bishops.

During much of its history Russian society revolved around the Christian calendar. At a time like now, during Lent, daily life focused on the Lenten fast. No one ate meat or dairy; many shops closed; there were no opera performances or plays and certainly no dancing. In some locations even judicial offices shut down. Life revolved around preparation for the coming holy week.

Skip quickly to the era of the Bolshevik Revolution. Again, I’ll pass over many details. The October Revolution of 1917 spelled the end of the Romanov dynasty, although techinically one could argue that the earlier revolt in February had esssentially “sealed the deal.” The Bolshevik leaders knew, however, the battle wasn’t over. Vladimir Lenin and other leaders believed that religion in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular was woven so intricately into the fabric of the old regime that it had to be eradicated as well. The task was not to curb freedom of religion; the task was to convince a whole nation of republics that religion was not even an option. Drastic measures, including executions, were taken to change people’s minds, and they began the task of training the next generation that all religion was wrong and unacceptable.

My other world—America—has never had either an official religion enforced by the government or a government that forbade the practice of religion. Clearly Christianity was also the dominant religion in America in terms of numbers of adherents. Nevertheless, the “theologies” of, say, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams represented three distinct ways of seeing religion and faith. There is reference to belief in the Creator in our Constitution, but the views of those who signed the document ranged from Deism to what perhaps could be called Evangelical Theism. Neither has the U.S. Government ever explicitly set itself up against any religion or prohibited the practice of any major religion, although there have been hotly debated curtailments on exactly what is permitted as the practice of religion in the last generation or so. When I played high school football many years ago, the coach led our team in praying “The Lord’s Prayer” together before we went out on the field. Just before the games started a local pastor would offer a prayer over the loud speaker. No one thought it controversial. Times have changed. Even so, when Americans interpret religious practices or statements by President Putin or anyone else in Russia through the lens of the American experience there is great danger of misinterpretation. So I will offer a few observations based on my own experience of living in both “worlds” that I hope will be helpful.

While Russian Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion here in terms of adherents and influence, it is not the only religion. In 1997 Russian law referred to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Budhism as the four religions significant in Russian history. After Russian Orthodoxy, Islam is the next most widely practiced religion in Russia. Estimates show about 5-7% of the population is Muslim. In September of 2015 President Putin spoke at the dedication of The Moscow Cathedral Mosque, the largest Mosque in Europe. Also present were President Erdogan from Turkey, Palestinian leader Mahmond Abbas and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin praised the “great global religion of Islam,” while blasting “terrorists from the so-called Islamic State.”

There are also Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in towns the size of Luga, athough far fewer than in towns of this size in America. Protestants and Roman Catholics make up a very small percentage of the population (most think around 2-3%), but they are recognized as part of the religious landscape in Russia. In the summer of 2016 I wrote three blogs on the anti-terrorism law that came to be known as the “anti-missionary law.” Despite the alarmist writings from the West that Protestant mission efforts were being outlawed, I tried to show why that interpretation was wrong. Since then nothing much has been mentioned. A few people were fined modest amounts for violating their visas, but Protestants churches still carry on as before in freedom as far as I can tell. None of my Russian Protestant friends or my American Protestant friends who come here to help them out have complained of any problems.

I mentioned in my blog on Putin’s early life that an observant Jewish family shared their communal apartment when he was growing up, and it appears that the warm relationship he had with them impacted his perspective on Judaism into adulthood. This does not rule out the fact that there has been a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment “in the air” in Russia. Judaism has a long and tumultuous history in Russia, but today perhaps less than 1% of the population is Jewish, and the majority of those persons identify as ethnic, not observant, Jews.

Estimates of how many Russians are Orthodox vary a great deal, but the latest I read was 41%. There are far more who claim to be Orthodox than there are who actually attend Liturgy on anything like a regular basis. The fact that many people identify themselves as part of a religious group and yet do not really participate regularly with that group is true in many countries, however. Still, there is no question that Orthodoxy occupies the prominent place in Russian history and is the religion with which most Russians identify today. When Vladimir Putin wants to reach out to the “religious community” for assistance he reaches out to the Patriarch of Moscow or other representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

One important factor that must be remembered is that the blatantly atheistic and anti-religious attitude of the Communist party has been removed as far as I can tell. For the upcoming election the Communist Party of the Russian Federation chose Pavel Grudinin as their candidate. This is the first time since the fall of the USSR their candidate has not been Gennady Zyganov. One article I read said they are preparing for “life after Putin.” They know Grudinin is not going to win. They want to get his name and his views out in the political arena now. He is a well-spoken candidate. When Putin serves this last six year term, the people will have become used to seeing Grudinin’s name, and there is value in name recognition. I think that is a logical interpretation of events. There is no indication that Zyganov had to be asked to step aside. He agreed with the plan according to the author of the article. I don’t think their plan will work, because my own view is that Putin will soon begin grooming his replacement to carry on similar policies that are now in place. What is significant for our purposes, however, is that the Communist Party does not seek an adversarial relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church if at all possible. Gone are the days of Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev who were solidly opposed to the Church. If the Communist leaders today were to battle with the Church, they would lose political influence. From the handouts that the older Communist gentleman gives me as I pass his tent from time to time, I see no opposition to religion.

Since my wife was born and raised here in the heyday of Communism, many of our friends and acquaintances are former Communists. I think these relationships have helped me understand more of the political and religious landscape of Russia. I think many Russians of a whole generation are like my friends Gennady and Masha. Gennady is retired from the Russian army, and Masha is a retired school teacher. Both were card-carrying Communists (literally) up until the fall of the USSR. They were of the generation that was brought up as Octobrists, Pioneers, and members of the Komsomol. They never considered becoming religious. Life is different now, however, and their views are different. Both their grown children are Russian Orthodox and take the grandchildren to church weekly. At one time this would have been shocking and would have caused family dissension. Not any more. While they do not attend the Liturgy, Gennady and Masha have gone inside the church to light a candle and say a prayer on important occasions of joy or need. They even talk about going to church more regularly at some point in the future.

My hunch is that Vladimir Putin may have had a subtle influence on them. I do not mean they looked at him and thought they would follow along. I think he changed the “atmosphere” in a way that made for better relations between people like Gennady and Masha and the Church. They did not vote for Putin when he first ran for President. They preferred the Communist candidates. Over time, however, they came to believe he was doing a good job and obviously Russia was doing better under his leadership. Although Putin was not the Communist Party candidate, the fact that he was former KGB probably made it easier for them and many others of their generation to vote for a non-Communist.

Furthermore, Gennady and Masha believe that the Orthodox Church preserves both a sense of Russian identity and the morals they see as valueable in society. They don’t mind that their grandchildren were baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church supports a strong family, honesty in business affairs, and concern for the needy. These are values and moral concerns they also think are important. Unlike many of their leaders from the Soviet times, these values were what they and so many others thought was good about Communism. That they do not accept all the Chruch’s teachings does not mean they overlook what their generation and the Church have in common about this country. When I say “Communist” to many of my American friends they think of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev who I mentioned above, as if they were typical Russians. My response to them is to ask if Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are typical Americans. The mainstream media in America stereotypes Russians and hopes America will conclude “they’re all like that.” Note again how James Clapper was explicit in his lumping Russians together as “almost genetically” drawn to do all the controlling things he accused them of. (Excursus: Clapper’s accusation seems even more bold since he lied to Congress in front of TV cameras. Mr. Wyden (D-Oregon) made it clear he wanted a yes or no to his question as to whether, during Clapper’s tenure as Director of National Intellegence, the NSA had spied on Americans. Clapper feverishly rubbed his bald head and said, “No.” Later Clapper told Andrea Mitchell he chose “the least untruthful manner by saying no.” Of course, that is hard to reconcile with the fact that “yes” would have been completely honest. What does “least untruthful” mean? This man still believes he has the right to sit in moral judgement of Russians, and he continues to be asked to testify in Washington despite the fact he lied and then lied about lying.)

Vladimir Putin is the person set forth by our MSM as the epitome of the evil Russian. Additionally I hear him criticized for what some see as blatant political hypocrisy of “playing” to the former Communists and to the Orthodox believers as well. I remind readers of his family background I wrote about a few weeks ago. Vladimir Putin was the only living child of a man who was a dedicated Communist spokesman at his factory and a Christian mother who wanted him to be a part of the Church. Their marriage somehow worked. Putin greatlly admired his father’s courage, and his limp reminded Putin of the fact his dad had risked his life for his country. President Putin speaks with deep love when he tells how his devout mother had to sneak off with a neighbor to get him baptized. That doesn’t mean I think Putin is always right. It means religion has always been a part of his life. Communism was his world as well. His example has made it clear to people like Gennady and Masha that they need not dispise their Christian neighbors or be upset at their children for raising their family in the faith. Is it a perfect “balance”? Probably not. Nevertheless, neither Gennady and Masha nor many of our Orthodox friends think Putin is “using religion” just to get votes. And some of them are not going to vote for him. Their lack of support, however, does not come from the fact that they think he is too religious or that he has a Communist past.

From my experience the people of Russia have a larger sense of shared moral commitments and goals for the country than people in my homeland, America. When I see news clips from America I see a lot of division. Vice-president Pence spoke about his faith and listening to Jesus in an interview and he was immediately mocked on a popular talk show and accused of mental illness. I hear daily debates on the issues related to transgender children, sexual orientation, and other very private isses and how they should be addressed in public schools in America. On the political front, some are outraged that two FBI agents, who were investigating the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal, were having an extramarital affair, and their numerous text messages revealed clear anti-Trump commitments. On the other “side,” many are absolutely convinced that it had to be the Russians or some such group that took control and got Trump elected. Almost a year and a half after the election some still refuse to accept it as a valid election and the investigation drags on and on. Millions of dollars are being spent on an investigation whose primary indictments right now are of 13 Russians who supposedly used social media to divide America. In any other context that would be laughable. America’s divisions run far deeper and have existed far longer than anything 13 people of any country could do via Twitter and Facebook.

Russia has its divisions and disagreements. Of course, what the Western media shows is Pussy Riot and others like them who disparage the country and all leaders. Their following is miniscule and does not deserve the attention. The West has also drawn attention to the campaigns of Ksenya Sobchak and Alexei Navalny, who has been declared ineligible for his past crimes. I read one article on each a couple of weeks ago, and both articles referred to them as “leaders of the opposition” in Russia. No polling I’ve seen done by organizations from Russia or the West show either of them breaking the 2% mark of public approval. Both candidates appeal mainly to young voters looking for change. Their support derives largely from those who are not old enough to remember the fall of the USSR and the devastation of the decade that followed. Candidates in America who can’t poll above 2% get no attention from the press. A different standard applies when the Western press is covering Russia, however.

I’m quite sure corruption still exists here, although I’m also sure it is not as common as it was when I came here in 2002. While I realize that corruption may exist in Russia on a level of which I am not aware, I am far more concerned about the injection of money going to candidates in America from George Soros, Monsanto, the Military Industrial Complex and many other large corporations.

In summary, the relationship between religion and politics is in general a sensitive and shaky one, whether in America or Russia. Russia has run the gamut so to speak. It went through many years where the two were woven together tightly. While much good was done during those years, the corrupting nature of power crept both into the Church and the State. Passing off religion as an “opiate to the masses” did not work out well in terms of eliminating corruption either. The Communism that was supposed to leave all citizens equal resulted in some being “far more equal” than others. The USSR did not fall because America won the Cold War. It fell under the weight of its own senility and moral backruptcy. I do not write as one who has intricate or special knowledge of what goes on in the halls and walls of the Kremlin. I see good things that I believe have happened under Putin’s leadership, and I admire his intellect. I especially respect the way he has maintained dignity in the face of crass and unjustified condemnations by American leaders. Nevertheless I don’t think any politician can be the savior of the country, and my comments are evaluations of broad policies not the person. My perspective is “from the bottom up.” I am an admitted cynic when it comes to believing in a perfect balance of religious influence and political power. I don’t think Russia has found that balance. I do think it is far closer than it has ever been and closer than I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Kirill_Putin

PUTIN’S CONTINUING LEADERSHIP & PRESIDENCY

In my last two blogs I have given biographical overviews of Vladimir Putin up to the time of his appointment as president on January 1, 2000. Next month, March 2018, he is expected by almost everyone here and abroad to be elected to another six year term. How is it that this man from very poor and difficult beginnings has become the leader of Russia for so many years? The West has tried to “demonize” Putin for some time now. If he is as corrupt as they say, as devious as they say, as manipulative as they say, why is it that he continues to enjoy public approval ratings that no national politician in America even comes close to? Are Russians themselves corrupt and controlling (“almost genetically” driven that way according to the racist James Clapper)? Or is it that they are naive, foolish, ignorant or a combination of all the above? If Joe Biden is right, why have the Russians gotten it so wrong?

I would like to point out the way Putin handled three complex issues that I believe reveal aspects of his leadership that are important for understanding how he was first elected president and has been able to stay in office for so long. Obviously there are other factors, and I have left off his handling of several issues and events.  But the nature of a blog is one cannot discuss everything. This is an overview, not an in-depth analysis. I’ll close with some personal observations on why I think things are viewed so differently here in Russia than in America.

THE “SECOND WAR” WITH CHECHNYA. The first issue I will discuss in Putin becoming accepted by the people of Russia arose at the time he was appointed and then narrowly approved by the Duma as Prime Minister. At that time his positive ratings were between 1-2%. Their attitudes toward him began to change as a result of the conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan. This region was made part of Russia centuries ago. Their location is in the southern region around the Caucasus, rather close to the Caspian Sea. Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia joined together in 1917. Eventually they became part of the USSR. The area is heavily Muslim although Dagestan is ethnically diverse. After the fall of the USSR, Chechnya wanted to leave the Russian Federation. Dagestan did not. In 1994 Chechnya rebelled against Russian rule. They went to war. This “first war” with Chechnya lasted two years and proved to be a humiliating defeat for Russia. Despite its much larger size Russia was not able to control Chechnya. Yeltsin tried at least “to contain” the rebels, but was not successsful. The weakness of the Russian military was evident. Yeltsin signed a peace treaty with Chechnya in 1996.

Upon his appointment as Prime Minister, Putin immediately requested absolute and direct control over handling the Chechen problem. Yeltsin agreed. Chechen leader Shamil Basayev had declared he wanted to make neighboring Dagestan an Islamic State. The majority of the people in Dagestan, as it turned out, did not want to become an Islamic State. In August of 1999 when approximately 2,000 Chechen guerillas infiltrated the region, Putin responded quickly. He announced Russia would drive the Muslim terrorists out of Dagestan and pursue them into Chechnya. Putin ordered bombers and helicopter gunships to attack villages and locations where the rebels were known to be. The residents of Dagestan sided with the Russians. The rebels retreated, and Putin ordered his troops to stay in pursuit.

In response the terrorists carried out a series of car bombs. The first bomb was at an apartment in Dagestan where Russian troops were staying. Then there were two bomb attacks on apartments in Moscow and finally one in Volgodonsk (southern Russia). A total of 305 people (including children) were killed, and 846 were wounded. Putin stepped up the pressure in Chechnya and approved his general’s plan for total war. The rebels retreated to Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya. Putin ordered bombing raids. He received international criticism for these attacks, since obviously citizens were killed. Heretofore, the Islamic radicals had used withdrawing into a city as a means of neutralizing their opponent. The plan did not work with Putin. They were terrorists who had killed innocent Russians within the Russian Federation. After having been repeatedly questioned by the media about the bombing attacks on the city, Putin responded angrily to a reporter’s question: “We will go after (the terrorists) wherever they are. If, pardon me, we find them in the toilet, we’ll waste them in the outhouse.” By January the rebels abandoned Grozny. In doing so they fell into a trap set by the Russians for any fleeing militants. Several hundred more rebels were killed trying to escape the city.

Boris Yeltsin later said he considered Putin’s actions at the time political suicide. He indicated he knew Putin saw it the same way. It was as if he did not care that he would not have a political career afterwards, reflected Yeltsin. Putin was determined to defeat them because of what they had done to the citizens of Russia and Dagestan and believed it would prevent further attacks.

The pundits were wrong, however, about the impact his decisions would have on his political future. His popularity began to rise. In the fall his ratings went up into the 20-30% range. His handling of the crisis with the Chechens gave limited vindication to the reputation of a nation whose citizens had had very little to give them any sense of pride in quite some time.

putin in chechnya

Putin took over as president by appointment on January 1 and prepared for his first election ever, which would be in March. Putin hated campaigning and refused to do it in the traditional way. He brought in Dmitri Medvedev to run his campaign but refused to give “stump” speeches or do TV commercials. He made a rather raw remark to the effect that choosing a president was not on the level of deciding on “tampax or snickers.” The main way chosen to let people know more about him were “biographical interviews” aired on television and then in the print media. In addition to information on his background, he told people how bad he thought the problems were in Russia and what he was doing about them. According to surveys, two things impacted people greatly. First, he did what he said he would do in those first three months. He was the first politician who actually told them what he wanted to do and then showed what he was doing to accomplish those goals. Second, people sensed or believed he had not been sucked in by the corruption and intrigue which they had seen for over a decade in other politicians. When the election was held in March of 2000, Putin won by 53%.

PRIVATIZATION & CORRUPTION. After becoming president, Putin focused on the issue of “privatization” which began long before he became president. In general, privatization refers to the process of transferring assets from the government to the private sector. When Gorbachev came to power, the state (USSR) owned almost all the assets in the country. Gorbachev started market oriented reforms which allowed for some limited privatization to be enacted gradually. But perestroika was not an economic plan. Eventually, some joked perestroika had become “catastroika” (destruction, catastrophy). The process got corrupted early on. In general, those with power were able to take control of the large assets of the government. The more they accumulated, the more they were able to bribe whoever they needed to bribe to get even more. Further, they were often able to dodge any taxes on what they illegally obtained. Oil and gas companies were the primary foci of the corruption. The abuse really increased during Yeltsin’s years. At one point Yeltsin even told those in power, “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” So while the term sounds innocuous enough, it was poisonous for the Russian economy.

Putin wanted privatization to continiue but without being the domain of the oligarchs. Putin believed land and other assets should be available for private owndership, but he wanted all Russians to be able to participate. He also did not believe assets essential to the well-being of the country should be in the hands of these oligarchs who seemed focused only on their own profit margins. He set a course that would allow people to obtain their own apartments, land, farms, etc. He dealt with the oligarchs by agreeing that they were free to pursue their business interests, but, in turn, they had to stay out of politics. Further, he encouraged them to invest in Russia. Third, he simplified the tax code. He implemented a flat tax rate on income at 13%. He reduced the rate of corporate tax profit from 35% to 24%. He insisted, however, that there would be greater penalties if corporations or the oligarchs themselves sought to continue to dodge taxes or play politics. Once in February of 2003 Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, perhaps his main nemesis, had a rather sharp exchange in which Khodorskovsky implied Putin was corrupt. Putin responded, “Mr. Khodorkovsky, are you completely sure your taxes are in order?” He replied brazenly, “Absolutely.” Putin responded, “Well, that’s what we are going to find out.” Eventually it did not work out well for Mr. Khodorkovsky.

The result of monitoring the oligarchs and the simplification of the tax system were factors in the increase of the government revenues. There were other important factors as well. Oil prices continued to rise early in Putin’s presidency. That is always a good thing for the Russian economy. Further, the fact that farmers (and others) owned their land resulted in an increase of productivity. This fact supplemented the increase brought about by the main economic assets of Russia—gas and oil.

Additionally, there were events that negatively impacted Putin’s reputation. The sinking of the Kursk, Russia’s most modern submarine, in August of 2000 was perhaps the worst. Putin was briefed on the situation the morning after it happened, and his military advisers gave him a reassuring, albeit very inaccurate, report. They told him the Kursk had plenty of resources for survival. So Putin went ahead with a planned trip to Sochi. Eventually Russia could not get inside the vessel. On August 19 Norwegians arrived and got inside the vessel in 20 minutes. Obviously it was too late. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinksy, two oligarchs who did not care for Putin, controlled the TV news media and presented the news in the worst possible light for Putin. Putin’s popularity suffered.

Встреча В.Путина и М.Ходорковского в Кремле

CHANGES IN PAY/ECONOMY. The third issue Putin faced was maintaining the military and government services while also translating the government revenues into tangible help for the working class. After becoming president he increased pensions by 12% and then shortly thereafter by 20%. The average income in 2000 when Putin became president was 2,700 rubles; the average in 2012 when Putin last ran for president was 29,000. One reason the salary rate was so low in 2000 was because teachers, government workers, medical professionals and others went without pay for many months at a time. For example, last week my wife ran into the lady who taught her English when she was in high school. They began talking about the “old days,” and her teacher recalled how they went for months without pay in the 90s. She once taught six months in a public school without a paycheck. This was not uncommon. People did whatever they could to survive. After classes some teachers from Oksana’s school ran to the flea market to sell packages with imported tights – a part of the wardrobe coveted by many Russian women and girls, but scarce in the communist days. By the end of spring of Putin’s first year in office, all unpaid salaries had been paid.

Putin’s popularity continued to rise over the years. In 2004 he won by 70%. Putin could not serve as president in 2008 because of the constitutional restriction to two consecutive terms. After Dmitry Medvedev was president for one term (while Putin served as Prime Minister), Putin was re-elected in 2012 with 63% of the vote.

After having lived here and trying to familiarize myself with Russian attitudes as much as possible, there are things I see that cause misunderstanding on the part of Westerners, particularly Americans. We Americans tend to get very emotional about our leaders. It is often a love or hate relationship. After Hillary Clinton was defeated in 2016 there were many scenes on TV and in print media showing her followers openly weeping. Even looking at the reporters on CNN or MSNBC one could see the deep sense of personal loss felt by the news commentators. As one friend quipped to me, “Wow, you’d think their best dog just died.” Likewise, I have seen people get very emotional in their support of Donald Trump. If one says something negative about him, there is often a strong cry of offense. Clearly, Trump has been maligned by the majority of media types who just do not like him. The debate or the discussion then becomes heated and emotional. This scenario is how the majority of political “discussions” now take place in America. To a great extent in America, politics is being done at a visceral level.

Now, I’ve seen Russian newscasters and debaters get pretty excited and even shrill, but it is usually over issues or interpretations of the facts. Clearly there are exceptions, but most Russians I know personally or see on TV just do not get emotionally involved with Vladimir Putin either way. Some really like him; some don’t care for him. But when I read that Putin gets an 80% approval rating, I don’t interpret that as meaning 80% of Russians are in agreement with all he’s done or that they fawn over him and get a Chris Matthews’ “thrill going up the back of the leg” when he speaks. Most Russians I know see good points and bad points in Putin. Some I know who are generally favorable to him still think inflation has outrun pensions; many believe he does not give enough breaks to help out small businesses. On the whole, however, most think he does a good job on other fronts. So they look at the total picture and approve of the job he’s doing without being willfully blind to the flaws.

AMERICA AND PUTIN. The sanctions and the expansion east by NATO has strengthened Putin’s support in Russia. Since the first sanctions a few years ago his approval ratings have gone from the low 60s to the low 80s. Last week I was chatting with my friend Yuri. He was a physician in the Soviet navy. He is Ukrainian by birth and still travels home on rare occasions. He became a bit nostalgic about the old USSR days. He said, “We all got along. It was before the West came in and gave money to the Nazi supporters. They split us up. And health care…my patients did not worry about paying. We had free health care.” I thought he was going to tell me he really would like to return to a Communist leader. He continued, “Hal, do the American leaders not know how much they have done for Putin’s support? If it weren’t for Putin, the West would have destroyed our economy and moved their NATO troops within our borders. They want us at war with Ukraine.” Yuri supports Putin because he realizes the West wants global superiority, and he doesn’t want to risk a change in leadership. He’s not a fervant Putin supporter, but he believes Putin cares about the country and will stand up to Russia’s western adversaries.

Then a few days later we were riding back from church in a taxi. The cab driver somehow starting talking about politics and next month’s election. He said, “We have to have Putin as our leader. If it weren’t for him the West would have auctioned off our country by now. Listen to what they say about us. They want to destroy us. With someone else in power, they probably would.”

Biden’s plans are, because of his extreme ignorance and strong political ambitions, misguided and counterproductive. Since he knows nothing of Russia, he and those who share his uninformed views have ended up encouraging the very attitudes they would like to undermine. I pointed out in Part 2 of my response to Biden and Carpenter’s article that the sanctions have actually caused the Russian economy to diversify and flourish. Now Congress has had the U.S. Treasury compile a list of over 200 oligarchs (basically individuals worth over 1 billion dollars) and political leaders “close to Putin” evidently to prepare sanctions against them. Apparently it does not occur to these “Russophobes” that they may be driving these individuals to Putin. Many of them have invested heavily in the West. Putin has tried to get them to invest in Russia. Now they may have to. Even Mikhail Prokhorov is on the list. He is the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. He’s probably as pro-American as any Russian I know of. Yet he’s deemed “close to Putin”? So they want to drive his financial assets—well over a billion dollars—back into Russia? Good for Russia; bad for America. The short-sightedness and, well, stupidity of our Russian policies are amazing.

Putin himself is not driven by emotions. All kinds of verbal assaults have been thrown at him by Western leaders as I discussed in an earlier blog. He never responds in kind to what I have termed their juvenile attacks. He maintains the air of a diplomat. He sets the tone for political discussion here. Until there is a return to informed diplomacy in America, I am sure Putin’s political base is secure. This is not because Russians are foolish or gullible or evil. It is because American leaders ignore authentic and informed diplomacy and continue to allow the “deep state” neocons and neo-interventionist liberals to lead us further down a path of destruction.

ADDENDUM: After writing my last blog on Putin and mentioning charges of corruption I came across this article by Sharon Tennison, who has extensive knowledge of Russia and how things get done here. She lived and worked in Russia for many years and has done much to foster good relations between Americans and Russians. The article makes her experience and research clear on the subject. https://consortiumnews.com/2018/02/06/understanding-russia-un-demonizing-putin/

 

 

VLADIMIR PUTIN: FROM THE KGB TO THE PRESIDENCY

In my last blog I wrote about the early years of Vladimir Putin, addressing particularly his parents’ early life and struggles as well as his own. I ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of his time as a KGB administrator in Dresden, Germany. I mentioned my “target audience” was the Western, mostly American, readers who are unaware of much of Putin other than what they read in the daily news. I was gratified to hear from a number of such readers who told me that they appreciated the entry because they knew almost nothing about Putin’s past. It was also good to hear from readers outside the West who already knew the details but had positive things to say about the review. So in this current blog I’ll pick up where I left off. I’ll summarize the years between his departure from Germany and his rise to the presidency of the Russian Federation. “Russiagate” just will not go away in America, and even this week John McCain found a way to interpret the uproar over the releasing of “the memo” as doing Putin’s “work for him.” The caricature of Putin continues, so I think it important to offer another, and I believe more accurate, portrayal.

When Putin left Germany in 1990 he was offered a position at a strategic office of the KGB in Moscow. He turned it down for a lesser position in Leningrad. Leningrad was his hometown, and his parents, who still lived there, were now aged and their health was declining. His work was at Leningrad State University. While his “official” job was in the special affairs department for the Dean of the university, actually he was monitoring foreign students and their documents and relationships with Russian students for the KGB. While there his name was given to Anatoly Sobchak, who had been a law professor at the university while Putin was there. Sobchak was a democrat who would go on to be mayor of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and become quite an influential politician. He was a very impressive speaker who broadcast lectures on democratizing on Leningrad TV. More than one source says he became the most well known politician in Russia after Yeltsin. Putin had been a pupil of Sobchak’s when he was a student there, but it isn’t clear that Sobchak remembered him.

Sobchak, based on the recommendation and a personal meeting, asked Putin to be an advisor. Putin was hesitant for two related reasons: First, Sobchak had said some pretty nasty things about the KGB. Was he sure he wanted a KGB officer to advise him? Second, what would the KGB think of Putin advising Sobchak? Sobchak assured Putin there was no problem. With KGB approval, Putin became an advisor to the democratic Sobchak while continuing his other work with the KGB.

That situation would soon change, however. The KGB backed a coup attempt on Gorbachev in August of 1991. As soon as Putin learned of it, he resigned his KGB appointment in a rather quiet protest. Fortunately, the coup failed. Sobchak offered Putin a full-time position, and Putin accepted. With all his charisma and insight, Sobchak preferred to leave the administrative work to former government workers.

Some question how it is that Putin could work for someone who had been so vocal in his opposition to Communism and the KGB. As I mentioned in my last blog, Putin was a man of the 70s, a part of a generation consisting of many who never felt a great affection for or devotion to Communism. A former colleague in Dresden has recounted the negative things Putin said about the Communist leaders of that time. After he returned to Russia and saw how bad things had become for the people there, his feelings grew even stronger. He saw the economy no longer worked. Good, hard working people had nothing. The military was a shadow of its former self. The health care system was in horrible shape. He no longer believed in Communism at all.

The significant point that we Westerners often miss is that Putin and many others, e.g., Sobchak himself, distinguished between Communism and the USSR. They wanted to replace Communism with democracy—a “Soviet” democracy. That does not mean they wanted the dissolution of the USSR. The Soviet Union was a UNION of 15 interdependent republics. In the USSR they did not function individually. Some readers may recall that I said Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s “Man in Moscow,” stated in a recent interview that he and others did not want to see the dissolution of the USSR. The republics, they feared, were totally unprepared and would fall into the hands of a few tyrants. The question we cannot answer is what would a democratic Soviet Union have “looked like” or how would it have functioned. We will never know.

One of the interesting questions that some scholars have investigated is how is it that the Soviet Union fell apart so quickly. If there were “true believers” in charge in Moscow, how did the break up come so abruptly? What happened is exactly what Matlock, and others within Russia, feared. Leaders, like Yeltsin and others who had no commitment to the greater good of all, came to power. Corruption became rampant throughout the former republics, which were now nations on their own. The former leaders and others with financial resources exploited the resources as best they could. They didn’t mind dissolving the USSR because they became extremely rich. The truth is that the dissolution of the nation into 15 nations was not by the “guiding hands of an enlightened NATO” as Joe Biden would have us believe. It was a massive power grab. The collapse of the USSR was a horrible catastrophe for millions of people. They descended into an economic and existential nightmare. Twenty-five million Russians were now living outside their own country. Again, the important point is that many like Putin did not want Communism to continue, but they did want the USSR to continue. He commends Gorbachev for recognizing the need for drastic change, but he does not believe Gorbachev had the skills to carry out the change in the right way.

Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation in June of 1991. At first he had a working relationship with Sobchak for whom Putin still worked. Putin, as in his days with the KGB, earned the reputation of a hard worker who was not afraid to take on tasks requiring a great deal of meticulous work. He also had to be decisive in handling very different groups. Many still adhered to the old Communist system and ideology. At one point a number of Communists, who worked in one of the newer government buildings in Leningrad, flew the old Hammer and Sickle flag of the Communist days over their building. Putin sent workers to take the flag down. The next day, a new Hammer and Sickle went up. Putin again ordered his workers to take it down. The same thing happened the next day. Putin ordered his workers to go with a crane and cut down the flag pole. It’s a rather humorous anecdote, but it showed the kinds of things Putin did to show his determination.

Sobchak was a different leader, however, after he had power. The corrupt practice of accumulating personal wealth proved to be too great a temptation. Crime ruled in St. Petersburg. (The official name change to St. Petersburg when Sobchak was elected.) The economy was going horribly across the country, and St. Petersburg was suffering as well. The city council tried to get rid of Sobchak in 1993, but Yeltsin came to his rescue and dissolved the council. Still, investigations began into Sobchak’s financial matters. He was widely seen as dishonest. He was defeated in a run-off in May of 1996, despite the fact Bill Clinton came to town in support of Sobchak. Putin was now out of a job. He hung around his office for a few days, but then was told very sternly it was time to clear out.

Putin was extremely disappointed at the loss. He had been named with Sobchak in some of the corruption charges but nothing was ever proved against him. He was charged publicly for corruption, but countersued for libel and won. Now he had no job, however, and his loyalty to Sobchak left him with no options to continue in government work. He and his wife invited his former secretary and her husband over to their dacha to relax and have a meal. Putin referred to it as a “wake” over his lost work. His assistant’s husband and Putin went out to the banya, a steam room located adjacent to the house (very common in Russia). After the steam bath the two men went for a swim in the nearby pond. Suddenly they saw smoke. Putin ran back toward the house. There had been a spark from or small explosion in the furnace of the banya, and the fire reached the house. Putin rushed in the dark house, which was filled with smoke, and lowered his two young daughters to safety. Then he went upstairs to retrieve a briefcase containing their life savings. Firemen arrived quickly, but they had no water. Putin told them to get the water from the lake. They replied they had no hose. Everything burned to the ground.

After the fire they found the money was unharmed. It was $5,000. Putin’s friend later said he was shocked that Putin had been a bureaucrat for so many years and only had $5,000. People at much lower levels in city government had accumulated far more personal wealth than that. The other surprise was for Putin. The fireman sifted through the rubble, but only found one thing unharmed. When Putin had gone with Sobchak back in 1993 to Jerusalem, his mother had given him a small aluminum cross to have blessed at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Putin marvelled that the little aluminum cross had withstood the heat and flames of the buildings burning to the ground. He took it as a sign of hope and committed to wearing it every day.

Putin’s glimmer of hope was quickly realized in the form of certain people who worked in the Yeltsin administration and knew him (Putin) from his work under Sobchak. Sobchak and Yeltsin were no longer allies, but earlier when Yeltsin was running for re-election Putin had worked with people from his re-election campaign in St. Petersburg. Three days after the dacha fire Yeltsin’s Prime Minster appointed a cabinet which consisted of a former city council member from St. Petersburg. Eventually someone convinced him to reach out to Putin as someone who could work in legal matters. So Putin and his family moved to Moscow, he began work in the Yeltsin administration. His wife came to love living in Moscow, but Putin flew back to Petersburg every Friday to visit his parents as long as they lived.

Putin settled in to the task of dealing with corruption. That was a very messy business, because there was a LOT of corruption, and Putin had to be careful not to “ruffle the wrong feathers.” It was a horrible time for Russia. The Russian stock market collapsed in 1998. Russia could not process oil cheap enough to make any profit from sales. The outlook was bleak.

Putin went through three jobs in the Yeltsin administration in three years. He did not know Yeltsin when he moved to Moscow. As he had everywhere he had worked Putin gained a reputation for doing jobs that were difficult and required long hours. On July 27, 1998 he became the Director of the FSB, which was essentially the Russian Federation version of the KGB. Again, he set about to combat corruption and streamline the system. Then, in another surprise move, on August 9, 1999 Putin was appointed Prime Minister and approved on August 16. He was the fifth Prime Minister appointed by Yeltsin in the last 15 months. He was a political unknown, and almost no one believed he would last any longer than the others. Yeltsin had decided, however, he would resign the Presidency. He told Putin he wanted to appoint him President for the New Year. He would have to run for election within three months. Putin initially told him he did not think he was ready or qualified to be president. Eventually, after more conversations, he agreed to Yeltsin’s plan.

Why did Boris Yeltsin choose to turn over the presidency of the Russian Federation to Vladimir Putin, a man he did not really know that well? Yeltsin’s later reflections indicate two main reasons.

First, Putin’s old boss, Anatoly Sobchak was linked with more corruption charges which had, oddly enough, originated in the middle of Yeltsin’s anti-corruption campaign. Virtually no one came to Sobchak’s defense, and he and Yeltsin no longer got along at all. In October 1997 armed guards showed up and brought him in as a material witness in a big corruption case. He was being questioned in the prosecutor’s office when he complained of chest pains. He was taken to the hospital and his wife reported he had had a heart attack, though some doubted her story. He remained in the hospital for a month. Putin heard of his old boss’s dilemma. He arranged funds, papers, and an airplane to fly Sobchak to Finland to a hospital there. Putin called on old friends in law enforcement to get him to the airport and on the plane. Technically, Sobchak had the proper documents, e.g., passport, etc., to leave the country. He was officially under investigation, however. It was not clear if Putin had broken the law or not. What impressed Yeltsin was that Putin was willing to risk his career to help his old boss. That was a degree of loyalty he rarely—if ever—had seen. He admitted to being deeply impressed.

Second, Yeltsin had originally thought Putin was distant or rather cool in his manner. He was impressed with Putin’s work, but Putin always relayed the pertinent information and nothing more. Over time, Yeltsin began to see what others had seen. Putin was not a careerist. He did not try to endear himself to the boss. He would stand or fall on the merits of his work. Putin did not play political games. He was forthright and spoke what he saw as the truth. Putin was what Allen Lynch called a “first rate second rate man.” He saw his job as helping his superiors look good. When he was given orders either by Sobchak or Yeltsin, he carried out his orders without drawing attention to himself. When I was in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 70s we had a saying: “Ours is not to reason why, but simply to do or die.” I get the impression Putin carried much the same motto.

Did his loyalty ever bleed over into joining in the corruption? Some said yes, but even the chair of one committee who investigated Putin said she thought Putin must have been corrupt, but she could find no proof of it. Obviously the ethical waters were very murky. Corruption abounded in the 90s in Russia. I doubt it was possible to be completely separate from it. I’ve worked in relatively pure waters and still found complete honesty was often a very “fuzzy” thing. One man who became a later opponent of Putin was Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky had worked with Sobchak, but went on to head Aeroflot and other businesses. Berezovsky said one time he wanted to start a new car dealership quickly and without questions in St. Petersburg. He did what he always did: offered a bribe to the official in charge. Putin was the man. Berezovsky said, “He was the first bureaucrat not to take bribes…Seriously, it made a huge impression on me.”

Both Yeltsin and Putin kept their “deal” about Putin becoming President a secret until the last day of the year. Yeltsin taped his New Years Eve midnight speech privately and no one saw it other than those who taped it until it was shown on TV. Even Putin’s wife did not know about it. When someone called to congratulate her, she thought it was just a New Years day greeting. So as January 1, 2000 dawned on Russia, the country had for a new president a man who had never run for office.

putin and elcin