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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




A reader recently asked me to write about tea drinking in Russia. It’s an appropriate topic. Contrary to popular belief, the favorite beverage in Russia is tea, not vodka. Drinking tea has been going on in Russia for a very long time; thus it is woven into the cultural experience. Russians love drinking tea, and, of course, there is also a social dimension to it. Just as in America when someone says, “We need to get together for a cup of coffee,” that person is probably not just wanting to have someone sit across the table while he or she drinks coffee. Before I get into the specifics of tea drinking in Russia, however, I would like to add a couple of observations.

My blog is about my “two worlds,” small town southern America and small town northwest Russia. Drinking tea was also an integral part of the southern culture of the United States where I was raised. I could scarcely imagine going through a day without drinking tea. Of course, the tea there was different in the sense that all the tea we drank in our house was iced and sweet. You had to put the sugar in while it was being made, not after it was cold in the glass. Growing up I was aware that some people in other places actually drank hot tea. In South Carolina, however, we liked most of our beverages cold. One could buy cold lemonade, iced tea, cold beer or whatever. The only hot drinks we drank were coffee and–especially on those rare occasions it actually snowed–hot chocolate.

Russians, however, rarely drink liquids that are cold. I noticed when we lived here earlier that it was more than just not choosing to drink cold drinks. It seemed to me there was a mysterious aversion to it. It became more clear to me after we moved back to America. My in-laws came to visit us from Russia. We noticed the milk was being left out of the fridge frequently. At first we thought it was our older son Roman being careless and forgetting to put it back in the fridge. But then my wife saw her mom actually taking it out of the refridgerator well before meal time when we were going to give the boys milk to drink. There is this idea among many Russians that cold drinks are not healthy. The culprit for a cold or sore throat is often traced back to the fact that the person must have consumed a cold beverage… straight out of refrigerator – gasp!!! Every time my father-in-law gets a sore throat he seems to be able to recollect the fact that he foolishly drank something cold from the fridge at some time. Now, as someone from a very warm climate I find this odd in a country where many Russians observe Epiphany, a holy day in Russian Orthodoxy marking the birth and baptism of Jesus, by taking a dip in the frozen waters of the Russian winter. Epiphany is January 19! I have seen them literally cut through the thick ice to be able to get in the water! Another belief in Russia is that running out in the snow with nothing on but your speedos will build up your immunity to sickness. Some children here are encouraged to go out in the snow in their bathing attire and roll around and play in the snow. Of course, as is well known, folks here love going to the banya to take a steam bath. After sitting in temps around 120 F, they then run out into the snow wearing, well, little or nothing at all. These things are done to build up the immunities for the cold here. Now, I am not able to say whether or not exposing oneself to the winter elements in such a manner either does or does not build up immunities. It does seem a strange to me that the people who think drinking a glass of cold milk from the fridge will make your kids get a sore throat are the same ones who believe “Junior” needs to head out into the snow with nothing but his bathing trunks on so he’ll be healthy. Obviously my American prejudices come through sometimes!

Tea was brought to Russia probably in the 17th century. Apparently over the years it came mostly from either China or India, but my understanding is that it was also grown in the old Republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan or the Krasnodar Krai. Just based on my perusal of the teas available and purchased here in Luga, it seems, at least where I live, that Indian and “Ceylon” tea is the preference. For many years tea was brewed in a samovar (самовар or ‘self-boiler’), which was a metal container used to heat or boil the water. It had an attachment around the top to hold the teapot which was filled with tea leaves and thus eventually the tea concentrate. The samovar became extremely popular in Russia. I saw many when we visited my wife’s family in Tula (my wife was actually born there). Back in late 1800s there were 28 samovar factories in Tula! This gave rise to the old idiom about avoiding taking something not needed to a place where it is in abundance, “В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят.” (“You don’t take a samovar to Tula.”) Today, however, the samovars are not really used anymore unless you just like the feel of making tea the really old fashioned way—or perhaps to impress friends. In Tula today there is a Samovar Museum which is absolutely fascinating. One can find samovars bearing the images of the Tsars and others with the Soviet leaders or scenes from life in old Russia.

Black tea was probably the only early choice. It still is probably the most common preference, alhtough green tea has become increasingly popular. There are, however, a multitude of choices. Our family does not drink as much tea as most Russian families, since we are somewhat “Americanized.” When I went to look at our “supply,” however, I found we had at least ten different kinds of tea on top of our convection oven. In addition to the usual basic black or green teas (and more than one “brand” of each), we also have have “ginger and orange green,” “Moroccan mint,” and a couple of other flavors I don’t readily recognize. In restaurants you can get a variety of “mixes” as well. “Fruity” flavors are now available, and the herbal teas, which have a long history in Russia, are increasing in popularity—or so it seems to me.

Tea is usually drunk here with lemon and sugar, but obviously not everyone drinks it the same way. A very old method was to drink the tea and take a small bite of sugar, but I personally have never seen anyone drink it that way. Tea is consumed at any time of the day, but it is traditionally always served at the end of the meal with the dessert. I have never been to a meal in anyone’s home that did not end with tea. This is the social time when people really chat and reflect on things going on in politics, the community, or with the children. The last time I had tea at my in-laws it led to getting out a lot of old pictures from the old Soviet times when Oksana was small. This time is truly Russian tea time, and this is how you get to know each other better.

Even when drunk during the day it is usually with something that is sweet: some home-made preserves (that a lot of Russian women pride themselves in!), honey, some chocolate candy or cookies. (Generally speaking cookies or other desserts here are not as sugary as in America.) The Russian expression “something for tea” means something sweet. If my wife told me to pick up “something for tea” when I go to the store, I would get a small box of cookies. The tea that is poured in your cup is often very strong, and then hot water is provided so that you can make it to your desired strength. Tea is very important and each person determines how he or she prefers it.

I came to Russia not really caring for hot tea of any kind or color. At first, I would look for Lipton tea in the small bags for hot tea since lipton was the brand I recognized. Further, it tasted like “regular” tea (that is, tea I was used to) that was just heated. I now have learned to like other teas here very much and will not return to Lipton. I still don’t drink a lot of tea compared to most Russians. When I first started drinking it I would normally put a small amount of sugar and a little lemon. When eating something sweet I just put the lemon slice in the cup without sqeezing the juice into it and leaving off the sugar. Then I was given tea as a present from my mother-in-law for “Defender of the Fatherland” day. It is Richard Royal Ceylon Black, and it is the best I’ve had. It is “loose leaf tea,” which I now prefer to the tea bags. We, as most Russian households, have an individual “tea cup,” which has a metal filter which fits inside the cup. I boil the water, and then pour it over the tea in the filter which, in turn, is in the cup. I let it “sit” for a few minutes, then remove the filter and tea and add more water to make it the strength I want. When I drink loose leaf black Ceylon tea I do not add lemon and usually avoid the sugar as well. After drinking this “classic” black tea I have no desire for the green or fruity teas.

Something I have only heard of and read about is “tea mushroom.” I’m still not sure of the details, but it is a combination of yeast and bacteria that many believe has medicinal qualities. According to folks here, drinking it aids in the healing of a cold or sore throat or pretty much anything. My wife says it looks kind of like a small jelly fish in a sweetened tea/water solution. It isn’t moving, but it does look like a living organism. You have to “tend” it. Oksana wants one, but says we’d have to get someone to look after if we took a trip, because you have to change the solution on a regular basis. Otherwise, it’ll become too acidic and the “organism” will die off. I’m still a bit confused on the care of something called a tea mushroom. Oksana says in America it is known as “kombucha.” Never heard of it.

Most Russians drink tea out of nice tea cups, and there are some very beautiful tea sets you can buy here in Russia. Of course, around the house we just drink it in whatever cup is available. The most impressive “utensil” I have seen is the crystal glass usually placed inside a holder called a “podstakannik” (подстаканник), a word that means literally “under the glass.” These can be quite elaborate. If you watch old Russian movies of people on trains you most likely will see them drinking tea from one of these glasses with the holders. Nowadays Russians tend to think of them as too old fashioned or “quaint” at best. I love them and want one just for the “snob factor.” They don’t understand why an American would want one, but I think it would be pretty cool to drink tea out of a crystal glass in a fancy silver holder. If you go on Amazon and type in “podstakannik,” you can see a variety of designs, even some dating back to the Soviet times when they were so popular. Despite my political leanings, I love the old Soviet ones.

The longer I have lived in Russia I am amazed at how Russian and American cultures are both so very similar and yet, in other ways, so dissimilar. Obviously, my family has a great desire for both “sides” to see the similarities and appreciate the differences. Foods and drinks are important for understanding most cultures, and it is no different in this case. It is very hard for me, as one who was raised in small towns and rural areas of South Carolina, to explain what drinking ice tea meant and means to people of that culture. But if you are from that culture you understand. “Sweet tea” is more than something you drink. There is a bond there. I now feel the “connection” with Russian tea drinking. I transposed those old feelings from my “other” world to a different culture. Will it stop any wars or end the “Putin did it” explanation of every thing bad that happens which is so popular now? No, I don’t think so. But for those who like learning of other cultures or want to visit or maybe even settle down in that culture, it’s a good start.


feb-23rdThis blog is a bit more personal than usual. For folks to understand life in Russia, however, I think some personal details are essential from time to time. There are some things about living in another country that you simply cannot prepare for. One main issue is being away from family and friends you love. I was reminded of this fact Thursday night (night here in Russia anyway). I made several phone calls back home. I called my brother because I had not talked to him in a couple of weeks and wanted to check on things. He is very busy because his business is going so well, and now, since we moved, he and his wife have been left with taking our mom to all her appointments, church, and events. She’s 86 and has lived by herself since dad died in 2014. She won’t hear of going to assisted living or “an old folks home” (her phrase). She’s healthy, but she doesn’t drive anymore. So my brother had a pile of work, but he had to take mom to the dentist. Then she needed groceries. Then she wanted to go out for supper. So I hung up feeling a bit guilty I’d left him with all that extra responsibility.

Then I called mom. I was going to suggest gently that maybe she could find other neighbors to help out. But she started telling me all about her life. She gets lonely. Her and dad were married over 65 years! She told me her neighbor had given her some pizza they had left over. Mom let it sit a couple of days in the fridge before eating it. She got food poisoning. So she had been up all night with diarrhea and vomiting. She said dad always took care of her when she would get sick. So, again, I had that terrible feeling. One light moment was after she said she was in such bad shape and was praying but still was sick. Then she said, “I know Baptists aren’t supposed to do this, but I was in such a mess that I called out to dad and said, ‘Clarence! Pray for me! Tell God I need some help!’” The thought of my “Baptist-to-the-bone” mother praying to the departed seemed strangely ironic and a bit funny to me–her now Eastern Orthodox son! I assured her there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. You’re just asking for intercession from them just like we ask our friends still living on earth to intercede for us.

Then I called my friend I taught with at North Greenville University for 13 years. We’ve known each other much longer than that. The university had a post on FB that it would announce the new president at 2:00 that afternoon. I called hoping to find some inside scoop. He didn’t know many details, but as he talked my mind went back to my days there. I’ve mentioned a couple of times in blogs I loved teaching there. I enjoyed my colleagues, my students, the courses I taught. The former president had been very good to my friend and me. I think he signed my friend and me to our contracts to teach there the same day. I know it was time for that president to leave, but as my friend talked on I realized how few people I knew there. Of the “old timers” still there, my friend is the only one with whom I can talk. There was much talk of the “new era” on the university’s web-site. I realized I no longer have connections to that place that was so much a part of my life.

After that I still had to call my oldest son. My second born son was having his gall bladder taken out that morning. I had talked to him the night before, and it was supposed to be laparoscopy, and they were not anticipating any problems. There is still anxiety when it is your child and especially when you live half way around the world! My older son told me he had received a text and apparently all was okay. But as we talked on and he told me about how things were going with him I felt that helplessness that comes from not being able to actually be with that person as you talk together. Nothing can take the place of actually being with a person when you talk about things. I went to bed with a very heavy and somewhat lonely heart that night.

Yesterday we got up and I saw we had a nice new blanket of snow. The sun was shining, which is an odd thing in northwest Russia in the winter. The weather was still well below freezing. That is perfect winter weather here. I hate it when it gets up to or just above freezing. The snow melts and mud and slush are everywhere. Andrei, a gentleman who had put in our internet when we moved in, came by. He is very involved in a church in a nearby village and collects toys, food, clothes, etc., for the poor. Oksana had seen on a Russian social network “vk.com” that he was taking up money for a family with four children who were about to have their power turned off. The wife is pregnant with the fifth child; the husband has a job but is poorly paid. Oksana called him and told him to come by and we could pay for it. I don’t say that to draw attention to us. I say that because there were times when we lived in America we went through some very hard financial times. We were the ones who needed help. We determined that if we ever got to the place where we could help others financially we would remember our times of distress. Even with a decent income you can still live under financial oppression in America with a mortgage, car payment, and credit card debts that seem to have become a part of life there. My income is much lower here, but we are now debt free and the cost of living is so much lower. Jesus said, “It is better to give than receive.” It really is! We are approaching Orthodox Lent. One main facet of Lent for Orthodox is to focus on helping the needy. We had prayed for that opportunity, and it came!

Then we went shopping. We had to walk almost from one end of Luga to the other. But the sun was bright, the air was cold and clean, and the snow was crunchy. It was just the two of us! We left Roman in charge of his little brother and sister. We could actually talk while we walked and carry on a full conversation without interruptions! (Every parent will understand the blessing that is!) My favorite part was, as always, the open market. We bought the last big dairy supply until after Lent. (Orthodox do not eat meat or dairy during the 7 weeks of Lent.) Chatting with the lady there who sells all this completely natural, organic, and local dairy is always pleasant. She always brightens up when she sees us, and we love chatting with her.

Then we came back and quickly got ready to go to Oksana’s parents. Thursday was “Defender of the Fatherland” day in Russia. It was originally started to honor those who fought in the Red Army against the Whites. Over time it really became a day to honor all “potential” defenders of the family and the Fatherland, which is any male. Even I got gifts! It is a great day for Oksana’s dad, since he is retired military. But he had worked Thursday so we celebrated on Friday. (The kids were out of school Thursday and Friday.) We got there, and Oksana’s mom had prepared a full table, of course. It was really pretty.

We began with her toasting her husband, but as she began bragging about how his commanding officers would always say what a great soldier he was, he waved her off. He said, “We aren’t together to talk about me. We are here to toast our wonderful Russian-American family being together!” Wow. He actually said our “Russian-American family” with pride! It was a great meal, and as we were concluding it they brought out some old pics from Oksana’s childhood. (Okay, full disclosure, I had a little trouble “concluding the meal” with conviction because Sveta brought out this big plate of homemade cream puffs she had prepared. “Just one more” went on many more times than it should have!) The pics were primarily of Oksana and awards she received back in grade school. Most of them had a picture of the stern looking Vladimir Lenin looking down with approval. They recognized her academic accomplishments as well as her citizenship as a good littleCommunist. I was not familiar with the injunction until last night, “Proletariats of all countries–Unite!”

The television was on, and the program was about a Russian who was an expert at finding and disarming old mines. I wasn’t paying much attention, but as the ladies were in the kitchen cleaning up, Ivan (my father-in-law) and I started paying more attention. The mine expert went to Angola on a big and important mission. Apparently there were still dangerous mines in the ocean near there. Somehow, as best as I could understand, he joined up with an American, and the two of them worked together to disable many of the mines. He said he could not have done it without having such great help. They became friends and would call his mother back in Russia. The American could only speak English, but he would assure “mama” that her son was safe and they were taking every precaution to remain safe. After the mission was over the American went to Russia to see his friend again and to take flowers to the mother with whom he had spoken by phone. It ended with the Russians and the American reaffirming their friendship. What a great and surprising program to see on a weekend devoted to remembering the Russian military. Ivan looked over at me as the program concluded. Neither of us said anything. But we didn’t have to. It was a powerful scene watching the Russian and the American embrace.

As I said in the opening to this blog, living away from family and friends is tough. The phone calls reminded me that living separated from your past is also painful—those people, that job, or that special place. I am fortunate that my family in America, while not glad to see us go, were supportive of us and continue to be. “Supportive” means more than just wishing us “good luck.” Supportive means they understand and accept the fact we are here. There is no resentment from them. That makes my guilt trips a little shorter! I am thankful for their support and understanding.

The events of that next day, however, reminded me that I also have some of my family here! I still get to see the my little ones play at “Babushka’s.” I see them growing in a country that is not filled with the animosity and division that seems to be choking America. I miss being able to impact the lives of students like I sensed when I was teaching in America. But “that was then, and this is now” has to be my attitude. The people here see me, know I’m American, and form impressions based on how I live here. They see the hypocrisy of Lindsey Graham and John McCain shouting to Ukrainian soldiers that they must “go on the offensive against the Russians in 2017,” then US politicians lecture the Russians on how they must honor the Minsk cease fire/peace agreement. So the Russians must honor, but American senators can go there to encourage and support war? They watch American politicians work with our media to blame Russia for just about anything and everything that happens that they do not like. The former U.N. Ambassador, Samantha Power, who was no friend of Russia, tweeted a message about the Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who died suddenly recently. She called him a “diplomatic maestro and a deeply caring man who did all he could to bridge US-RUS relations.” She was ravaged by many Americans for her kind comments about her recently deceased former colleague. That is what Russians see on TV as “America.” At least in my “little world” I get to show them a different “face,” a different attitude. That is the impact I can and must have. We were laughing about me getting presents on Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland,” but someone quipped that they had read my blog and felt I was defending the Fatherland. I greatly appreciated the compliment! I am not an ex-pat; I am a cultural refugee and see myself as an ambassador minus the political influence. It entails the heartache of missing some joys of family and friends back in the States. But this is my home now. I should live as faithfully as possible to the reasons God put us here.


Last night my wife and I decided to watch a movie together. Not a small mission with three kids! We chose to watch “The Priest,” a Russian movie from 2009 (with English subtitles) that we downloaded from YouTube. The main character is the Russian Orthodox priest Alexander, and the setting is 1941 when the Nazis invaded the USSR. Father Alexander is the priest of a small town in Latvia at the opening of the movie. He is sent to a mission in the region of Pskov in Russia.

The Nazis successfully invade the region and take over the town. They allow Fr Alexander to restore the church that the Soviets had turned into a community center, where they played movies, held dances, etc. The relationship with the Nazis is ambiguous in that they let him conduct the Liturgy, minister to the members of the community and even be involved in some limited ministry to the POWs in the small concentration camp nearby. One particular poingnant moment in the movie is when the Nazis allow the prisoners to come to the Pascha (Easter) service and participate in the Procession of the Cross. The leader of the Nazis is Orthodox. On the other hand, the Nazis are cruel and one young teen girl is senselessly murdered in the very beginning of the movie. There are other acts of violence committed against the citizens by the mocking Nazis. Fr Alexander tries to work with them without compromising his faith. Ultimately the Soviets return in victory. Without giving away the ending, when the Soviet troops arrive it is “out of the frying pan and into the fire” for the believers.

As we watched the movie I found myself responding at a very emotional level. I looked over at Oksana, however, and she was silently sobbing—sometimes not silently. Her reaction was at a much more profound and visceral level than mine. As many of my readers know, Oksana was raised in a Communist home here in Luga, although her dad was stationed in East Germany for several years, and they lived in a Russian military community there. Her atheistic childhood was basically happy. Her memories are not of a cruel and heartless Communism. Her parents were and are very loving and happy people. They believed in the principles of Communism (some of which actually came from the Bible unbeknownst to most Russians) and sought to live them out as best they could. Oksana was a little Octobrist and then a Pioneer. Summers usually involved going to Pioneers’ Camps.

Luga was occupied by the Nazis. The “Seige of Lenningrad” was not too far from outside the city limits. I have mentioned before the old Orthodox Church here still bears the mark of the Nazi era. It also bears the scars of Stalinism. It was turned into a dance hall and then a theatre. Many have pointed out that the numbers of Stalin’s executions were inflated by most Western historians. Nevertheless, you won’t find many here who will vouch that he really was a good guy. The history of the Orthodox Church here records he had all the priests murdered. This is not the corrupted history of Westerners; it is the record of those Russians who lived here and saw what his henchmen did. Still, much of this was hidden from Oksana and her family until much later.

As I observed her tears I thought how difficult it is for an American to get inside the thinking of those who were born and raised in this country. Our history is not just incredibly shorter, it is also largely devoid of many of the horrors. We’ve had our wars, and we’ve had our hard times to be sure. But more Americans died during the War Between the States than in any other war we’ve had. In WWII about 450,000 American lives were lost. That seems a lot, and clearly a lot of people suffered. Russian lost about 27 million, not to mention the suffering, the shame, and the horror of the Nazi occupation and the atrocities that took place. There was no family in Russia that was not impacted by that war. When I first came to Russia some of the “grandmothers” in the Baptist church here tried to speak to me in German. Those of that generation who had not been deported to slavery there had experienced the daily presence of the Nazis. “Foreigner” to them meant “people who speak German” I guess. I wanted to laugh when they concluded that if I didn’t speak Russian, then surely I spoke German! But as I looked at their faces I realized I could not fathom what they had experienced. Since the Revolutionary War my country has never been occupied. Its citizens have never been deported to serve as slaves. We took the land and then later we, in fact, imported human beings from other countries to serve as slaves. So looking at the wrinkled faces of those old “babushki” made me painfully appreciative of their smiles. They accepted suffering as a part of life. The Russian people have been a многострадальный народ (a much-suffering people).

While Russians feel their history more deeply than many of us, they do not stay locked in it. Oksana is no longer a Communist. She enjoyed her life in America, and we enjoy the freedoms we have now in Russia. Both she and I converted to the Orthodox Christian faith. We laugh about idiosyncrasies in American culture and in Russian culture as well. We both have been shaped by the culture and history of the other.

That understanding would be our hope for the relationship of our countries. As an American who has lived in Russia almost four years now, I have to say I do not think there has been much of an atttempt at a political or social level overall to understand Russia, its culture, and its history. On the other hand, we formed some very close friendships while in America with folks who were interested, who did care, and who came to appreciate Oksana’s homeland. And I find many Russians interested in American language and culture. It seems a bit idealistic, but some of our American and Russian friends have given me hope. So as a non-objective observer, I would like to offer some suggestions on certain things any person—at any level—has to understand about Russia before forming judgments.

First, as I have mentioned above, we Americans must recognize that their history has been far more tormented than ours. This October (actually November by the new calendar) will mark the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Tsars and the beginning of 70 years of Communism. “Outsiders” like me need to remember the horrors that that era brought to Russia, but not to all Russians. As I said, Oksana had a happy childhood and a more loving family than many in America will ever know. She remembers many good people growing up who were loyal to their families, good providers, and good moral people. We must recognize both the horrible acts, as the ones portrayed in the movie, perpetrated by the government on religious persons as well as the strong moral stand of many who were not believers.

Second, Russia has endured the collapse of two governments in one century. The old Orthodox Tsars were toppled by the Communists. Then Communism collapsed under the weight of its own abuses and stagnation. America now is in a political and social whirlpool. I’ve never seen it this disjointed or divided. But it is good to remember our country has never had a coup; we’ve never been forced to completely reorient our loyalties. Russians have been through this twice since 1917. I believe and detest the fact that some American politicians resent the fact that Russia is, comparitively speaking, a much more stable country now. They seem determined to twist reality to convince the tax paying populace that Russia is just the way it used to be—and thus we really need to spend a lot of our money on weapons. Unlike what the Western media and some politicians suggest, there is some dissension here but people feel free to express their disagreements with the current administration. The truth, however, is most Russians realize that the disagreements with each other are miniscule compared to their past revolutions. They have a leader that, according to almost all polls (both Western and the ones taken here) approve of. That does not mean they approve of everything Mr. Putin does! They complain about things. At the same time many believe and appreciate that they have a leader who loves this country and has worked tirelessly to make it better. So even those who disagree with him are by and large civil. Americans must come “to the table” understanding that most Russians like the general direction in which their country is going. I don’t sense that same shared unity of vision from Americans about America. Nevertheless, we can’t resent Russia because it is not in turmoil like we are.

Third, Americans should investigate for themselves what is and is not true about Russia and its leaders. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill O’Reilly have casually referred to Putin as a murderer. From their comments and their writings I see no evidence they have actually researched this charge. One has to go outside the pale of reading Western press releases to study the charges. I have thought of devoting one blog to this topic simply because it has become a part of the polemic of some American leaders. The trick is to keep repeating something enough times that you can slip it by the public as an accepted fact without really having to prove it. For example, when Boris Nemtsov was murdered (and Putin was assumed guilty by the West), Putin had an 86% approval rating. So he murdered Nemtsov because he was insecure of his political standing or future? Name one American politician who comes close to 85% approval. Trump was ecstatic over 55% this week. Putin took over when Boris Yeltsin appointed him as his successor. As Gleb Povlovsky said, “Yeltsin didn’t build a government; he led a revolution for ten years.” There were a lot of bad people in power. Some journalists and political operatives were murdered. Since Yeltsin appointed Putin I guess it became convenient for Westerners to pin the murders on him. The idea that no one here actually investigated these murders is simple ignorance.

Fourth, appreciate what could come of good relations between Russia and America. I confess feeling more than frustration that Donald Trump’s foreign politicy seems to lack a “center.” He fires Flynn, says Crimea should be returned to Ukraine, then insist in the following press conference that having good relations with Russia is a good thing. What I do like about what he has said is that there is potential for good if both countries unite in fighting ISIS and all forms of terrorism. I clearly remember the tension of the Cold War days. But there was a shared conviction ultimately that, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Terrorists do not care about the ramifications of their actions. If Russia and the United States can join together, then I think the terrorists will be on the run.

Finally, I would offer the Ronald Reagan model of leading the relations between the two countries. Now, I realize I have good American friends and good Russian friends who think that is a terrible suggestion. Reagan did refer to the USSR as “the evil empire,” after all. I contend, however, as with Jack Matlock and others, Reagan hated Communism. He thought it was awful. He didn’t hate the people living under it. Reagan chose Jack Matlock to be his lead diplomat in working with the Soviets. Matlock had studied the Russian language, culture, and politics all his adult life. He had immersed himself in it. He spoke “their language” in the fullest sense of that phrase. He appreciated their good points and separated political and personal differences. Then Reagan got to know Suzanne Massie—of “trust but verify” fame. She had studied the language and the culture since she was a child and had written a profound book called Land of the Firebird (which even someone with my extremely limited artistic abilities can enjoy). Her area was more the religious, artistic, and cultural aspects of Russia. She traveled to Russia whenever possible even in the Cold War era. Reagan, she said, would call her in for lunch from time to time and the conversation would often begin, “So tell me how the real Russians are doing?” He wanted to know what life was like for them—especially the religious ones. (Both Massie and Matlock were Democrats, by the way. They were chosen for their expertise not the potential political donations they would bring to the president.) Russians were not cogs in some political wheel or tools for some political game as far as Reagan was concerned. So he took the abuse he got from the right wing of his party and went to Russia to meet with Gorbachev. I was a child, but I remember Krushchev and the reaction of adults to his banging his shoe, claiming (supposedly) “we will bury you,” and the Cuban missile crisis. The animosity between the two countries, the nuclear proliferation and all of that were a part of life for us. I never thought I would see the end of it. If you had asked me (or most members of the CIA) in 1990 if the USSR would fall the next year the answer would have been, “No way!” But it did fall. The number of nuclear weapons was drastically reduced, and the world was safer.

Last Sunday we went to Liturgy at the downtown Orthodox Church. It was very uncomfortable, primarily because the church was packed! It was hot inside, and I couldn’t move! Everybody stood there for two hours with their big coats on! I reflected on that later, however, and again as I watched the movie. Back in those days of that occupation and what followed, one could be risking freedom or even one’s life by faithful worship. Now, Russia is—despite what you hear—a free country. Some worship; some don’t. Some like the President Putin and brag on him. Others don’t like him, and they let you know. Reagan reminds me that change is possible. Things, cultures, politics can be made better. I hope sooner rather than later.


This past week has been my “doctor week.” Last Monday I went to an ear, nose, and throat specialist; Wednesday I went to the physician who treats my neck/discs problems; and Thursday I went to a dermatologist; this morning I went to a surgeon to have a large mole removed. So I thought I’d give an update and a few more details on the medical care here in Russia.

The first difference I noted between the way we do things in America and here in Russia was the way “appointments” are made. All three physicians had been recommended by friends who gave us the doctors’ phone numbers. The dermatologist scheduled the appointment with the surgeon. Oksana called the doctors directly, and and told them the days we could come, and they told her when we should show up. They didn’t give exact appointment times but just told her when they start seeing patients. Now, since we go to the neck doctor each week, we set up a standard weekly time. With the others we showed up and essentially took a seat in line. When we arrived we asked, “Who is last?” That way you know when you are next. You do not sign in since you do not have a set time. That seems like it would lead to problems, but everyone understands the “system.” Frankly the wait was less time in both cases than it was most times I had an “appointment” with my doctor in America.

From the time I was a young man I have had ear trouble in that when the weather changes or just gets very humid or cold my ear canals clog up. In northwest Russia, since we are so close to the gulf of Finland, the weather is often quite humid and since we are so far north it is very cold. Of course, that means a lot of snow, but it also means I feel like I have cotton in my ear a lot. When I got to her office I realized the ENT was actually Svetlana, a lady I had taught when I filled in for another teacher at our school. Russian doctors frequently try to study as much English as possible since most of the medical information on the internet is in English. She treated my condition well with the same kind of “machine” my doctor in America used. She also asked about my overall health, any joint issues, etc. When I told her about my neck and TMJ she offered as much information as she could. Then we discussed a hearing test because I think maybe I don’t hear as well in my right ear. They’ll let me know when there is an opening. The treatment gave me immediate relief, but she graciously refused payment. When Oksana tried to pay her, she smiled and said, “You need to leave now.”

Then Wednesday I went back for my usual appointment with the doctor who treats my neck problems. As I mentioned last time, during my treatments I get to practice my Russian, and the doctor practices his English. This time, however, we mostly spoke in Russia. Since he speaks more slowly and distinctly for me I like talking with him. The treatments, which consist of massage as well as manipulation of the joints, last forty minutes. When I took my shirt off he saw I had a large, irritated mole on my back which is looking kind of bad. He went and got a different bandage (he didn’t like the one Oksana had put on it) and then insisted I go to a dermatologist and get him to look at it. After the treatment, I thanked him and paid the lady the $8.45 after he reminded me again to get the skin problem checked because the mole was so large. Oksana had her appointment with this same physician that afternoon, and he made sure we had made an appointment with the dermatologist. He also asked her questions about how I was handling Russia, how are my moods, if I am I doing fine emotionally during my time of adjustment in Russia. She assured him I am fine. (She may or may not have told the truth.)

The next day (Thursday) I went to the dermatologist, whom I had met when I had my physical for teaching at the school. He examined my back and said it does not look like anything that is malignant, but if I do not have it removed then it would continue to grow and get in the way and bleed. He said that normally they remove moles with a lazer, but given the size of this one it would have to be removed surgically. He called his friend who is a surgeon and scheduled me an appointment to have it removed Monday morning. Oksana was there so he was interested in chatting about America and how we saw some of the political changes going on. As with Svetlana, he would not take any money for his services. So I left with with a hearty hand shake and smile.

My appointment with the surgeon was this morning at 8:30. I have been to this facility before, and it is very nice, modern, and clean. We got there a little early but after a short wait he was ready for me. He looked my mole over and measured it. Then he took me back to his operating room. He asked Oksana to wait a few moments until everything was sanitized. He made sure I knew how to say, “That hurts!” in Russian. I assured him I know how to let people know I am hurting. He warned me the injections to numb the area usually hurt some, but they were not bad. What surprised me is how quickly they took effect, yet I could tell from his touch that the area an inch away was not “dead.” The surgery turned out to be a bit more complicated than any mole removal I’ve ever had. It took him over thirty minutes. He said the problem was it was also quite deep. He put in two layers of stiches. He used cat gut to sew inside the incision, and then a kind of metal surgical thread for the outer skin. He was very careful, and his nurse was at my side the whole time. Oksana watched him sew me up and said he put the stiches very close together, and there were a lot of stiches. I asked him how many, and he smiled and said, “I wasn’t counting, but it was three packs of surgical thread.” I was hoping to find out so I could brag and get a lot of sympathy, but that has not worked out for me so far!

The nurse went downstairs with us to explain what the doctor did to the folks who do the paperwork. That took a while, since Russians consider every little detail of paperwork of great importance. Given the current exchange rate the cost for both the surgery and for the test for my tissues to make sure there is no cancer was just under $70.00. The surgeon charged me $51.00 for his services and the rest was for the histological tests. I’ll have to pay $20.00 for two follow up visits including the one to remove the stiches.

Health care in Russia is a very different system than in the United States, and I cannot give an in-depth analysis of it because I don’t know all the different aspects of it. There are a few things I’ve learned, however. First, the socialism of Russia’s past and its current democratic system has left basically two “paths” of health care. There is the free, government supported health care. Citizens can choose to be treated in free clinics. Non-citizens like me or other Russians who prefer and can afford private care opt for what many think is the superior care you get for private care. Many of the physicians, however, just work different locations so I’m not sure private care is all that superior. It clearly is more convenient, however. You call the doctor, as we did, and show up and you get treated ASAP. But compared to America, the government is far less instrusive—or so it seems to me—and there really are no large health care companies involved. Thus, even in the private systems the costs are much lower than in the United States. I do not get the sense the doctors are under any pressure to see “X” number of patients to make a profit for a health care company or hospital system as sometimes happens in the US. They also want to take time to get to know you. And as a matter of courtesy two physicians did not want to take money from a “foreigner” who is adjusting to the rigorous winters of Russia.

I am somewhat baffled by the changes in health care in America, and I certainly am not qualified to offer expert analysis. I offer the following observations only as a “consumer” who tried to keep up with changes in health care from various news outlets and a few conversations with friends who work in the medical field. While it is not expert analysis, I can explain how the way I and my family were treated changed. I went to the same medical clinic for many years in our small town in South Carolina and saw the same doctor for almost all of my visits. He treated all members of my family. I had good affordable health insurance, so costs were reasonable both for medical treatment and for medicine, which we bought at a pharmacy that adjoined the medical clinic. I could not have been more pleased with medical treatment in America. It was excellent. Then a larger hospital system/health care company bought out the clinic a few years back. After that I had to take whatever doctor was available. I think the care I received was good, but there was a distinct changes from before in the way I was able to interact with the physicians. I rarely got to see the same doctor. There was no small talk; no asking about other members of the family and, frankly, very few questions about my overall health. They treated the immediate problem, and I was sent on my way. I finally changed doctors and upon his first evaluation he concluded that I had had an undiagnosed thyroid condition probably for years. I do not fault the doctors. I think the system created the pressure which led to poorer care. Further, with the health care changes and the government getting more involved under “Obamacare,” the financial strain on a family of five like ours was very intense and our care became, frankly, inadequate. The question when one of us got sick was, “Do we want to pay $150 for an office visit? Is it that bad?” The deductable was so high it did not help cover most expenses. Thus, it has been refreshing to be able to address some health concerns of our family in Russia without the undue financial stress. We remain confident we are receiving excellent care here. One of the odd things is that some friends and family have encouraged us to go to St. Petersburg or another big city for treatment like I received today. I can say for those who are considering moving here or spending time in Russia, medical care even in a small city like Luga is above what we expected and, to be honest, above what we received the last couple of years before we came here. On the other hand, there is still poverty in Russia and many people in Luga cannot afford the kind of care we receive. The average wage is still quite low so the perspective of some here would be different from ours. What I regard as extremely affordable care is, for some residents here, not within their financial reach.

In all of the appointments here the doctors all seemed very concerned about my overall health and wanted to discuss aspects of what could be causing the various problems. They all took quite a bit of time with me and wanted to get the “total picture.” Also, they all were concerned about how I, an American, am adjusting to life here in small town Russia—especially knowing I come from the very different climate in the southern part of the United States to live in northwest Russia. There was absolutely no “prejudice” or animosity shown toward me. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I was conscious while interacting with them, as with many of the people I deal with here in Luga, that I may be the only American they have ever met—probably the only one they’ve ever gotten to know personally. I want to let them know I have great respect for this town and its residents. I also sense that they really respect the fact I am living here. Another friend tells Oksana frequently how much he and others admire me for living here. It is nice to hear, but I really do not think I deserve any special admiration because my family and I chose to live here. I appreciate their respect, but I also appreciate their kindness and generosity towards me and my family.


This past Wednesday was Oksana’s birthday—the first, of course, since we’ve been back. It was an interesting day and provides a bit of a window for understanding more of Russian culture and our experience here, so I decided to let my readers in on it.

The day began well for me. For some time I have had pain in my neck—literally. I went to a chiropractor in S.C before we moved and got relief. There are far fewer chiropractors in Russia, however, and none in Luga. Roman has back problems, and through his visits we discovered a medical doctor who does focus on joint and skeletal issues. My x-rays revealed some alignment problems in the discs in my neck and a slight herniation. Oddly enough, Oksana’s neck has also been giving her trouble. The x-rays showed three fused discs from birth. So we both go for treatments once a week, as does Roman. It’s less than $8.50 a treatment each, so it is not a financial strain really.

Wednesday was my first day going by myself. Oksana had always served as interpreter through my first two visits, but her appointments have to be at a different time. So I admit to being nervous about the language part. I went over some medical vocabulary before I went, of course. When he started I decided to “dive in” and start speaking Russian and hoped we could communicate. He understood pretty much all I said. After a bit he told me in English that he had studied medical English at his University and medical school years ago. I guess he decided that since I was willing to speak Russian, he would speak English. So we conversed for the rest of the time (the appointment last about 40 minutes) with him speaking English while I spoke Russian. There was this “comaraderie” of having someone who was also struggling, but when he reverted to Russian he spoke slowly for me. He ended up telling me about his experiences in Libya years ago, and how he actually had met Gaddafi. He had to speak in Russian for the non-medical part, but since he spoke slowly I understood.

We have noticed that some Russians who will not speak any English when Oksana is with me, try to speak English with me when she is not there. I guess it’s just easier to use her if she is there, but my hunch (based on their comments) is that they are a bit afraid of speaking English in front of her because she is so fluent. Since they know I am struggling with my Russian, they don’t mind struggling with their English!

After my appointment I went by the market and bought some dairy products from our friend there. I love going there because her family has this dairy farm in a nearby village called Mezhozyorny. They sell wonderful milk, cheeses, sour cream, etc. And I’ve been going there by myself long enough now that she is accustomed to my speech. We were able to chat just a bit. I went home feeling very good. My “solo trip” went well!

Poor Oksana had so much to do Wednesday! Then there is the cultural difference that greatly impacts a woman’s ability to enjoy her birthday unless you are really into this aspect of Russian culture. In Russia, as I have mentioned, you are expected to prepare for your own birthday. I had decided that with all Oksana had on her right now, we would not have family and friends over and make her do all that cooking, plus the stress of three semi-lazy males having to help clean. We would take her parents and another couple out to eat. (Yes, the birthday family has to pay!) We would reserve a small room at a nearby restaurant. Her folks believed the kids should go, however. How can children not be present for mom’s birthday meal! The problem was our kids know that big “official” Russian meals take forever. They don’t just bring everything out, and you eat it. You start with a salad. And then another salad of a different kind; then another. One may be fruit, the next more vegetables, then the other some mixture of meat. Then there is the soup, then some other veggies, and only THEN the entre. The the dessert(s) follow. It is a long process. Our kids would die!

Let me just insert here that when I say “salad,” in Russia you are not talking about some lettuce thrown in with some carrots, cukes, and tomatoes you’ve sliced or diced. We talking major creations of such complexity that I have no idea all the things that are in them. I never knew salads could be so complicated! The same is true with soups. The Campbells soup people would bow their head in shame if they saw the soups a Russian housewife makes! Anyway, we finally resolved the disagreement with her folks by telling them we would buy a cake and our immediate family would observe Oksana’s birthday here on Wednesday and them take them and our other friends to a meal Sunday afternoon. Problem solved. Or so we thought.

Oksana’s parents are very loving, however, and decided Wednesday they could not let the day pass without coming in to join wishing Oksana birthday greetings. While their motives were entirely loving, our response was, “So this means cleaning and cooking for the parents as well.” Things like this did not bother Oksana before she was “corrupted” in America. When she had a birthday in America usually my sister-in-law, daughter-in-law or other friends would organize the meal. If it was at our house my son and his wife would bring in the food. Or my son and his wife would pick up a lot of pizza and all the kids enjoyed it as did we. No pressure. After spending eight years in America, Oksana somehow adjusted well to this “it’s your birthday…sit back, do nothing, and let others cook for you and bring presents” approach.

Here we all cleaned like crazy and Oksana cooked the meal. I say she cooked the meal, but what I mean is she went to the grocery store(s) on foot, chose the food, brought three bags of groceries home by hand and hauled them up to the fifth floor. She did decide to buy a cake instead of making her own from scratch. She saw a chocolate one just dripping with rich chocolate. The lady there told her they rarely sold those—they were so sweet and had so much rich chocolate glaze that it was messy. In general, Russian desserts are not as sweet as American desserts. We like that, but sometimes you just have to have a rich, sweet, chocolate dessert. She brought it home for the meal. Oksana and I were the first to taste it before the kids did. She whispered, “Just like in America!” The funny part came with 8 year old Gabriel started eating it. He immediately exclaimed, “The Russians have hacked American recipes and stolen the way to make chocolate cake!” He came up with that one on his own, so I think he’s heard too many political discussions around the house about Russian hackers! Darn Putin, he gets into everything! Of course, I don’t mind a bit the Russians stole the American cake recipes! Keep up the hacking!

Oksana was exhausted from her birthday. Marina Grace was not sleepy, so that made it worse. The next day, however, she got up and read the birthday greetings and wishes sent on facebook, skype, and WhatsApp, and they all meant so much to her. The greetings came to her from people from different “stages” of her life and our life together. They literally came from all over the world. She was pretty much in tears (in a good way) as she read them. They were a great encouragement! Then she was given gifts and flowers by co-workers at the school and received many words of support and gratitude. She received four different flower arrangements for her birthday! She loves them. Now we’ll see how the Sunday afternoon birthday dinner goes…. Should be less of a hassle—maybe.


I am not sure January was named for the mythological Roman god, Janus, but his name and the fact he had two faces—one looking backward and one looking forward–makes it likely. I think it is appropriate for all of us to look back occasionally to gain perspective before we look forward. Perhaps the beginning of a New Year is a good time to do that. There are dangers in looking back, of course. One’s successes can deceive a person into thinking everything will or should turn out positively; or accomplishments may cause a certain haughtiness that leads to an overestimation of one’s own abilities. On the other hand, failures can leave us trapped in a defeatist or even depressed mindset. Fear of failure grips some of us when we think of our pasts. So with a mind toward avoiding those dangers I want to look back at the good, bad, and maybe even the ugly from 2016, before a short look forward at things hoped for. I have found that some things in my past I thought were really good actually were harmful in the long run. Conversely, some of the really bad things that happened to me (or seemed so at the time) made me a much better person. Obviously, I will repeat information from earlier blogs because I am trying to sum up things from the whole experience of our life in Russia through this last year.

By the beginning of 2016 we had already formulated and, to some degree, finalized our move to Russia. I had “turned in my notice” to my brother, who was also my boss, in September of 2015. This time last year Oksana and I had firmly decided our family would move to Russia. So the first half of the year was spent getting ready to leave. How does a family of five prepare to move from America to Russia? Of course, we spent time with close family and as many friends as possible. While we tried to see as many folks as we could, we missed several we wished we could have visited with “just one more time.” We also prepared to get rid of most of our possessions. Oh, we took some things and shipped other items of course, but we knew we could only take a fraction of our belongings. We spent time deciding what was important. Moving to Russia makes you think through what is really valueable to you for the future. The hardest part for me was getting rid of my library. The bulk of my adult life had been spent acquiring more books! I had taught in a university and seminary for 14 years. Books were both a valued part of life and essential to my profession. If you are serious about moving to Russia, however, you must determine what you have to let go of. I kept my books on Koine Greek, my favorite subject to teach during my academic years. I also shipped works on the Russian language, Russian history, and Russian Orthodoxy. Most of the other components of that library I gave away, donated, or sold to a former colleague who insisted on paying me for them. There was sadness, but there was also a strange sense of freedom in leaving things behind. I never felt any sense of freedom about leaving behind those people so dear to me, however. I’m trying to remember that lesson.


There have been many surprises since moving. In more than one area our expectations and reality did not match. We knew family life would be very different in Russia than it had been in America. We anticipated some positive changes, but we were also concerned. While there are many common traits among Russians and Americans, the cultures are different. We thought the move and the adjustments would be hardest on our two boys.

Gabriel. Certainly, we believed it would be hardest for Gabriel, who turned 8 about a month after we moved here on June 7. He knew no Russian, and he had never been here before. South Carolina was the only life he had ever known. Elementary school can be a tough place even around kids you already know. When we arrived in early June we got him a tutor to teach him to write in Russian. She did not know English, however. We tried to teach him some Russian, but he did not seem interested. So when we took him to school in September, we were quite worried. We knew, however, the students had been “coached” by their teacher on responding to the arrival of the new kid from America who knew no Russian. She had actually taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! Also, Oksana’s mom has worked in the school system here for years. Still, we feared what kind of reaction Gabriel would receive and wondered how he could possibly learn anything.

Their regular school building was still being renovated, and in the old school where he started they still had the “double desks” so common for so long in Russian schools. Everyone shares a desk with someone else. (Russian readers will know exactly what I am talking about.) Gabriel’s “desk partner” was Alex. Sharing the desks made it easy for Alex to show Gabriel what to do even before Gabe could understand what was being said. Further, rather than making fun of the new kid from America, the other students helped out as well. When Oksana and I would go pick him up from school, other students would report to us on his progress! Alex became a close friend. Alex is a bit older than the other kids in the class, as is Gabriel. We were informed Alex had been diagnosed as autistic. Perhaps Alex knew what struggling in school is like, so I believe he was more sensitive to Gabriel. Also, Alex speaks Russian very distinctly. He came over during New Years, and I could understand him much more easily than I can understand most Russians! There have been a couple of times when Gabriel has felt left out because some kid did not want to include him in the group, but these times have not diminished his fondness for his friends and school. He loves it when he can hang around after school and play with his friends. It is interesting that Gabriel learned fairly quickly how to understand Russian—before he was able to speak much at all. He has done well academically. My suspicion is that Gabriel speaks more Russian around his friends than at home. At home he knows Mom will correct his mistakes. I think the boys he plays with understand he is learning and don’t worry about his mistakes like we do!

Roman. Roman is our 16 year old, and he was born here. We left Russia when Roman was 8 years old. He was excited when we told him we may move back to Russia. He did well in school in America; he also played football and was on the wrestling team. He was an altar server at church as well, so it was not that he was unhappy in America. Nevertheless, he was always “the Russian kid” there. Roman started practicing his Russian again even before we told him we were going to return here. So he could speak Russian well enough to communicate when we arrived, but he has an American accent. Further, he simply did not understand Russian grammar or have a vocabulary equal to his fellow students. Moreover, he had not had courses in America that kids in his grade already had in Russia—especially chemistry, physics, algebra, and, of course, Russian grammar. This is a common problem for kids moving from America to Russia. We knew it, and we immediately secured tutors for him. We have friends who homeschool, and I cannot say how it would be for those children. We decided on public schools because we felt it was the best way for them to learn to socialize in small town Russia and learn the language. Maybe if we had moved to a large city like St. Petersburg or Moscow we would have gone another route. I have said plenty in earlier blogs about the fact that we see the focus of Russian education on preparing the children academically without the strong emphasis on inculcating them with whatever the popular cultural or moral “values” in vogue are. Both our boys have told us Russian schools are harder than American schools academically, but they have simply adjusted.

Roman is by nature an introvert, but he has also been able to develop frienships more easily here than in America. He became a bit of a celebrity at school as we understand. Kids who did not even know him or have classes with him would come up and want to practice their English. All his teachers have told us he acted mature beyond his years. Additionally, a few girls asked him from time to time to join them for walks home or to get together for “tea” on Saturdays, so I am quite sure that helped! We have seen Roman “blossom” in terms of his willingness to interact socially. Now if we could just get him to clean his room it would be even better!

We get questions from both family and close friends about our boys frequently. We are glad they shared our concerns and have been praying for them. We also knows folks who are thinking of moving here, and they were quite interested as well for obvious reasons. So we are happy to report that, while there have been struggles and adjustments, both boys are doing well. We were, of course, quite pleased that the negative “atmosphere” between the two countries did not impact how students received our boys.

Marina Grace. We did not worry so much about Marina Grace adjusting. She wasn’t even two yet when we moved. She didn’t even speak English plainly so we didn’t see a language issue. My wife had stayed home with her in America and has continued to do so in Russia. It took a while for Marina Grace to adjust, however. She clung to Oksana constantly the first few weeks. Oksana could go out of the house without her only when Marina Grace was napping. I do not know why, but the move really upset her. She obviously felt very insecure because of the new surroundings. I think it took about two months before we began to see a sense of security settling in with her. She does much better now, although she still needs mom’s attention. She does well when Oksana has to go out, however. She enjoys going to “Baboolya’s” (grandmother’s) house. She loves her grandparents, and seems really happy at home now.

Also, our children have been quite healthy since moving here. Some sniffles on occasion and Roman has had some back problems that are being addressed, but their “systems” had no trouble adjusting to Russian food, water, and even the climate!

Oksana & Hal. Both Oksana and I have had more trouble adjusting to life here than we thought. I don’t mean anything that makes us regret coming here or even have doubts. We both were and are convinced that this move is the right move for our family. We were concerned about the kids! We thought we would have little or no “adjustment issues” since this is Oksana’s home, and I have lived in Russia before. Perhaps eight years in America had left us more “Americanized” than we thought. As I mentioned in other blogs we spent months thinking, analyzing, praying about, and discussing this move. Yet somehow that did not mean we just settled in easily and adjusted with no problems. I can’t really say there was any one specific problem that caused this delayed adjustment. There were actually more conveniences here than we anticipated; no one treated us poorly; the cost of living was such that we did not have financial concerns. We had, however, formed very close family and friendship bonds in America, and these could not be replaced. We had Oksana’s parents to help out, but otherwise we had no “social network” in Russia. We were on our own. In America, we had family and friends from church who we could call at any time even if it was only to chat about minor things.

I’ve tried to analyze our adjustment. A part of this blog was to help ME! The line that comes to mind is Thomas Wolfe’s “you can’t go home again.” I now recall when Oksana, Roman, and I moved to America in 2008 how difficult it was for me. I no longer was part of the same circle of friends I had known. Some had just moved or lost touch; others chose not to “re-include” me because of my past. It was a very difficult time until we both—as a couple—formed new friendships or reconnected with a few of my old friends who wanted to renew the relationship. And Oksana made many new friends in America. I think maybe some ladies just wanted to meet “the Russian” at first out of curiosity, but for whatever reason it “clicked.” But Oksana had left Luga in 2006. She of course came back to visit until 2008 when we moved to America, but you can’t be gone from a place for that long and expect to come back to life as it was. We both have had to adjust to that. In some ways, it is perhaps easier in some ways for those who have never been here. You know coming in that everything is a clean slate. We made the mistake of thinking that because we had lived here before things would go smoothly.

There were other factors. Here Oksana has had to spend an enormous amount of time helping the boys, especially Gabriel, with homework. Russian schools give more homework in general than in the States, but then added to that is the need for Oksana to translate some things and to stay close while homework is being done. Even though both of us only teach part time, we both are teaching out of areas we’ve been accustomed to. We both taught adult learners in St. Petersburg who were self-motivated and wanted to focus more on formal relationships and business. Here Oksana teaches first graders, and I teach teenagers. So it has taken more preperation than we anticipated.

The fact that we have a two year old daughter who is high-maintenance has added more “fatigue and time pressure” to the stress of daily life. Roman used to help out with childcare, but he goes to a tutor most days after school and then has homework at night. We do not have a car and so we either walk or call a cab. Again, this takes a bit more time, and we’ve been frustrated because we came here to achieve a slower pace with less time pressure.

Language. My biggest frustration has been the language issue which I have mentioned in several blogs. Again, expectations got in the way. Oksana had been complimenting my vocabulary and pronunciation for some time. We thought all I needed was immersion. I had been working on my Russian for a long time, but rather than making it easier, the move made it harder for me to focus on improvement. I started teaching, and when you are hired as a native speaker, they really don’t want you trying to impress them with your Russian. You are there to speak English! Had I gone into a job requiring I learn Russian I am sure things would have been different because of the external pressure and help to progress.

Furthermore, it was more difficult to speak Russian in our home than we thought. Oksana is completely fluent in both languages. Russian is her “native tongue,” but she had gotten used to speaking Engish in America for EIGHT years. We spoke English in our home and with our friends. So it is natural for her to speak English to all of us—she “defaults” to English with us. Roman, as I said, can converse in Russian fairly comfortably in Russian (and he likes to), but he does make mistakes and has to have clarifications or corrections from her occasionally. I cannot speak Russian as well as Oksana (obviously) or Roman. I’m slower. I have to think about grammatical consistency (What case? Gender? Verbal aspect?) before I speak. It is just more combersome when she has to stop and clarify a word or concentrate on speaking slowly when talking with me. A smooth conversation with me in Russian takes time. Additionally, Oksana and I have always communicated in English so it is hard for her to remember to speak Rusisan with me. Then since Gabriel didn’t know any Russian we had to speak English to include him in our conversations. So it is hard for a family to speak in a language they have not been speaking in, especially if the level of differences is so wide. Many people think immersion is best, but there are road blocks. Moreover, it is not easy to be immersed when you must speak English at work and the Russian at home is uneven. Again, I think it would actually be easier to improve if everyone in the home is learning at roughly the same level and pace. While having native speaker in the home is convenient, it means no one is forced to learn in order to be able to handle daily life.

Church Life. We are also disappointed that we have not been able to find a church where we “fit in.” We are Orthodox and, again, we did not think there would be a problem making the change to the Russian Orthodox Church, since our OCA church uses pretty much the same liturgy. The shift to hearing Slavonic made it more difficult than we thought, however. Only Oksana can understand old Slavonic. Standing for the entire Divine Liturgy was not a problem for any of us in America, but when you really can’t keep up with what is being said, it makes it more difficult obviously. I don’t mean for a service or two. I mean when week after week you don’t understand, then it is hard—especially for the kids. Furthermore, it has been very difficult to get to know the other folks at the church simply because that is not what Russians see as a part of the Liturgy or even after the Liturgy. There is no meal after the Liturgy, as we enjoyed each week in America. One priest at a village church was very friendly toward us, but he is a monk and there was no contact with him otherwise. This is the primary problem we are going to focus on for 2017.

Politics & Friendships. I guess the major strain we were not expecting to be so strong concerns how intense the political tension between Russia and the United States have become since we have been here. There were tensions before we moved, to be sure. We had cause for concern, but as the election year grew more intense we did not expect how bitter things would become. I was shocked and disappointed at the new level of McCarthyism that raised its ugly head in America. We did not expect these differences to get in the way of our personal relationships.

I also realized pretty soon after we got here that the Western Press in general, and the American Press especially, were misrepresenting Russia either out of willful ignorance, malicious intent, or just plain journalistic laziness. It started with articles I read on what “life in Russia” is really like. Since I have lived in Russia for a total of over four years, I think I’m a pretty good judge of that. It wasn’t that there were some differences that could be accounted for by focusing on a different geographical area in Russia or a different perspective from the West; there were total distortions in pieces on generalized descriptions of life here. Russia is often portrayed as this economically choked country with a populace ravaged by poverty and essentially ignorant of truth since the leaders have totally closed them off from an open press. This perspective is far from the truth.

People here have access to news from all over the world. They read both sides of most issues and are quite aware of criticisms of the government here from both Russian and Western media. My belief is that Russians actually are more willing and able to access different perspectives than most Americans. Then during the campaign when Trump said he would like to work with Russia to fight ISIS, he was called a Putin “stooge,” “puppet,” and a whole lot worse. Then John McCain proclaimed him a murderer and thug and said anyone who disagreed with him (McCain) is a liar. This is the same McCain who was on stage in Ukraine with Neo-Nazis. This was very distressing because to say anything positive about Russia was taken as a sign of disloyalty—even if it was the future president of the United States who said it. Thus, some contacts believed we were the same way when we spoke positively about the political situation here. I really did not forsee the political relationship between “my two worlds” collapsing as it did. There is no attempt on the part of these politicians to understand the situation here. Thus, Oksana and I feel very frustrated that the questions about Russia are often impregnated with so much wrong information that we really cannot make clear how things are without conversations becoming divisive.

When I came to Russia the first time in 2002 I did not like Putin. I didn’t like any Russian politicians. I loved my Russian friends, but I thought the worst of the political system. Things have changed. First, to some degree, the political system here has changed. When I first came the country was still reeling from Boris Yeltsin’s horrible leadership. Yeltsin sold out to the West, and the West took advantage of it with no concern for what could be mutually beneficial for the two countries. So when Putin came to power in 2000, it was a far different situation than now. Some say he was ruthless; I say he had to be a bit ruthless to get the country stabilized. Second, I can now see the bigger picture of what Putin was doing. He really did want to attack the dishonest oligarchs (and eventually did), for example, but he had to “eat the elephant” one bite at a time. He needed to restore the pride in the Russian people for their country. When I came here then there were very few flags on display except on government buildings, and patriotism was very low. Now, however, flags are frequently on displya in public places and a strong sense of Russian patriotism has clearly returned. Third, as I alluded to above, I have seen that I, and many Americans, were misled by the American news and information outlets. There have always been distortions in reports I am sure. Now, however, reports are so far from what both other Americans who live here see and what bonafide and seasoned scholars on Russia are saying that we don’t even recognize the Russia these people are talking or writing about.

Fortunately we have not experienced any problems with our legal status here in Russia because of the tensions between the two countries. There have been some points of tension with Americans, but hopefully nothing serious. The stress is more over where the tensions will lead. From here I regretfully have to say the aggression is clearly more from America. Four thousand troops (3rd Army Brigade) just arrived in Poland to patrol the Suwalki gap. NATO has German troops close enough to St. Petersburg, Russia that they are within the range of conventional weapons. US Marines have recently landed in Norway, in another obvious attempt to irritate Russia. With all these movements going on from NATO and the US, this week I heard Senators lecturing Trump’s nominees to various cabinet positions about how RUSSIA must be made to change its aggressive behavior. There are 70,000 US troops in Europe. Russia has no troops in North America. If Russia brought troops anywhere near as close to the US as America brings both troops, weapons and missles to Russia’s borders, politicians and many people there would go—well, for lack of a better term—ballistic. In 2016 the final tally reported indicates the US dropped 26,171 bombs on five foreign countries. Actually, the figure is certainly lower than actual, since the Defense Department can count a “single strike” as one bomb—only on very rare occasions is a single strike one bomb. So there is no reluctance on the part of the US to resort to military action. When Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan in 1941 that was the last time America officially declared war on a foreign country. Clearly the US has settled in to sending off men and women to die without anyone really being held accountable for such decisions. Since I live in Russia, I have to be careful in expressing great disagreement with the policies of my home country without being portrayed as anti-American. Perhaps it is some of the “70s” left in me, but I believe one ought to be able to express disagreement—even disgust—at US policies without it jeapodizing relationships. Not all believe this way, however. For many, these political issues remain a kind of vague hypothetical debate. To families like us who live here they are a source of great and existential concern.


Despite the battles and struggles we are grateful for the blessings. We have the deep sense that we are all better for having lived in both cultures. We are glad to be living here, and in many ways we consider ourselves quite fortunate for the richness it has brought to our lives and to our family. We have a modest income from my retirement which we could not live on in America, but provides plenty of financial resources for life here in Russia and frees me up for more family time. While learning the language, making friends and getting into our “routine” has been difficult and slow, we can see the changes. We have been able to establish some on-line friendships with Americans in our “Moving to Russia” group who either have come here, are planning to come here, or are considering it. We look forward to meeting some of them in person in the coming year. I am discouraged that it has taken as long as it has for us to adjust, but I have no doubt that God has a purpose for us here and that in the coming year we will all be better at communicating in Russian, interacting with people and new friends here, and that our lives will continue to be greatly enriched by the people and the experiences. Obviously, no one knows tomorrow, and I have learned not to “assume upon life.” We don’t know if we have a tomorrow or a next year here on earth. What I am saying is our attutude now is that the future looks to us like a more pleasant time of gathering fruit from our present labors.

As I have mentioned above, in one of my “former lives” I taught Koine Greek and New Testament. The phrase that came to my mind as I closed out my reflections on the very eventful and sometimes “mean” year of 2016 is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Forgetting the things behind…” I always explained that forgetting in that world did not mean to remove from conscious awareness as it often does with us today. Paul had, in fact, just reflected on his past in this very chapter. “To forget” meant a choice not to allow the past—failures or accomplishments—to be brought into the present in a distracting or destructive way. “To remember” meant to bring something into the present experience from the past to make us stronger and better—more aware of who we are as people of faith. When God promises he will “remember our sins no more,” he means that our past moral failures will not form a barrier to our present relationship with Him. When Jesus told his disciples at the Supper to “do this in remembrance of me,” he meant participation in the Eucharist was a means by which his very presence would be brought to us and experienced by us. So we forget the things behind in the sense that we know our failures and struggles here can be removed from our future growth, maturity, and joy. We remember the past relationships, struggles, and, yes, failures in the sense we know that they work together for good. We’re glad that we’re here. We look forward to and press on toward what is ahead.