SCHOOLS IN RUSSIA

I am sometimes asked about schools here in Russia. How do public schools in Russia compare to schools in America? How are they different? I have mentioned various aspects of how our kids have done in school all along. I have not, however, given much of an overview of how public secondary schools in Russia differ from their American counterparts. I have also said that we have been basically pleased, but I have not given too many details about the school system itself and how things differ here from my “other world” in South Carolina. Of course, I have to summarize without getting into too many details. I apologize to my Russian readers.

Traditionally, children have begun school at the age of seven in Russia. Fairly recently that regulation was changed to six and a half. Still children here start public school at an older age than kids in America, where most begin with five year kindergarten. Russian school goes through the eleventh, not the twelfth grade. Elementary school extends from grades 1-4; middle school is grades 5-9, and high school is 10-11. Usually the elementary, middle and high schools are at the same physical location, whereas in America they can be miles from each other. The schools are also normally designated by numbers. Gabriel goes to School #5. Occasionally you will see a school named for someone famous, e.g., “Imeni Pushkina” is named for the famous Russian poet. In South Carolina we had Chandler Creek, Skyland, Blue Ridge, etc. They keep things more basic here in Russia. The numbers go up into the hundreds in large cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow.

All schools start in Russia the same day: September 1st is the “Day of Knowledge” throughout the country. Children dress up and take flowers to the teacher. There is a big presentation at the school. Everyones meets outside in the school yard and children gather by classes. There is the formal commencement of the school year as we parents look on. It is pretty impressive. I cannot fathom how much money is spent on flowers for the Day of Knowledge all over Russia! Of course, that is just my Western capitalistic curiosity. Here they cannot fathom why it is that American schools in even the same state start on different days. I really do not have an answer to that question. Also, here transportation is up to the families. In South Carolina there was always the option of the school bus. Kids here usually walk or take a city bus. And now you even see a number of cars outside the schools as parents drop their kids off at school. When I first came here years ago, you rarely saw that. Since Gabriel does not attend the closest school he walks to the bus stop every morning and takes a city bus. Usually his grandfather picks him up and brings him home. If that is not possible either Oksana or I walk to the school so he’ll have someone to walk home with. If we’re in a bind she sends a taxi. The cost is a little under $2.00.

Elementary school children have the same teacher for all the years they are at a school. Gabriel’s teacher, when he started last year, was Galina Mihailovna. She will be his teacher until he leaves elementary school. In our case that worked out well. He really came to love his teacher last year. She taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! She knew our situation and was very good for Gabriel. So when he started this year there was very little anxiety. He knew he was going to have the same teacher and basically the same classmates as last year. I suppose there are advantages and disadvantages compared to changing teachers and classmates every year, but for us there were clearly more advantages.

Students keep the same group of teachers for the different subjects in middle school and high school. That is, they have a different teacher for math, science, history, etc., but the set of teachers does not change. They will have the same teacher for math from the time they start middle school all the way through high school. It is the same for all courses. Now, if there is a severe problem then the parents can ask that their class have a different teacher. The “norm,” however is for them to keep the same set of teachers.

The program of study is pretty much a “lock-step” program. There are no electives. Everyone takes the same courses. The major courses and the grades they are taught are: History (5th-11th); Social Studies (6th -11th) ; Russian Grammar (2-11); Russian Literature (5-11); Foreign Language, usually English or German (2-11) Home Economics (1-11); P.E. (1-11); Art (1-7) and Music (1-7). There are also reading and penmanship courses for the younger children, of course. Math is also taught every year, and geography, biology, physics and chemistry start during middle school and must be taken every year in high school. There is also one course wherein the students are taught survival skills, military training, and First Aid (7-11). Since Roman’s classmates had already had courses he had not, we had to use tutors to “catch him up” last year.

Overall, I think most Americans would see this as a pretty rigorous course of study. Also, I would add that schools here are about academics. There is no equivalent really to the “Friday night football,” like in America. Also, the “social issues” of sexuality and gender identity are simply not considered the task of the school system in Russia. In America Roman had an openly gay teacher in the ninth grade. That is not allowed in Russia; President Putin is often critisized for this law in the West, but I do not see it being changed.

Another difference is that in elementary school students are allowed to have their cell phones with them. Students are allowed to call home when they need to. Again, I can see why American schools do not allow this practice. For us, the Russian way was a big help. When Gabriel was struggling last year with understanding a word or assignment, he could just call us. Sometimes his teacher would get on the phone and talk to Oksana to get the confusion cleared up. Also, Galina Mihailovna keeps her cell phone on her desk at all times. Oksana does not hesitate to call her if there is something she needs to pass on to her. She also promptly answers her phone and never seems distracted by the call. We don’t abuse it, but it helps to be able to do so when needed. She told Oksana she does that because it is always possible that parents need her promptly. Last week Gabriel had had some stomach problems, and Oksana called after school started to tell his teacher that he may have to excuse himself or even come home. Also, while we try not to take advantage of her kindness, Oksana has to call her sometimes in the evening to clear up confusion over an assignment. There is a very close “working” relationship between parents and teachers here.

Unlike in America, Gabriel does not get out of school the same time every day. We are given a schedule. He usually has four or five classes, depending on whether he has P.E., which he has three times a week. It is more structured than his physical education class in America. Students change into their exercise clothes and go through some fairly rigorous exercise routines. Still, even on his longer days, Gabriel gets home sooner than he did in South Carolina. Schools start about the same time in Russia and America, but Gabriel is usually home either at 12:30 or 1:30. While he gets home earlier, he has comparitively more homework here than he did in America. Further, even if it were not for the language issue with us, parents here almost have to work with their kids on homework. There is a lot of it, and it can be complicated. Oksana says it is like a combination of public school and home schooling here! She’s joking, but it is a fairly accurate description.

Finally, at the end of both, middle and high school, students in Russia have to take a rigorous set of standardized tests. They may have passed all their courses, but that does not mean they will pass these final standardized tests with flying colors. It is a big hurdle and an important one for getting into university. This created another problem when Roman started to school here. In Russia, you actually receive a certificate when you finish middle school. They will not accept you to high school if you don’t have the official certificate. Roman had finished the ninth grade in America, but naturally, had no certificate or diploma to show for it. Therefore, he had to repeat the ninth grade. Now, this was not a significant problem because we realized he really did not have the math and science courses which the other students had had. Finishing middle school here is obviously more significant here than in America. They even have a prom at the end of the year!

One reason for the certificate and prom is because college is an option after middle school. If a student qualifies by passing the college’s entrance exam and gets accepted into a college, he or she can forego the last two years of high school. A college in Russia is not the same as a university education. A college education continues your general education courses you would have taken in high school, but also provides the student with courses in his or her chosen vocation. So to go to college, you must qualify academically, but you also must be sure of your chosen profession—at least in general. Roman has known for some time he wanted to go into some sort of design, architecture or construction science. He shadowed my second born son in America who was a Construction Science major at Clemson and now is a project manager for a company that builds multi-housing units. Roman’s career aspirations were confirmed after seeing this work up close. So he will go to college for four years. At the end of that time he will have completed the same general education requirements that any high school student would take, but he will have already been taking courses pertaining to his career choice as well. The college is an architecture and civil engineering college. After completing his degree requirements there, he will have the option of going into the work force if he finds suitable employment in his field or he can continue with getting a higher education in a university setting.

The “switch” from the American school system has presented us with a few challenges, yet we are pleased. In addition to getting what we believe is a good education, Gabriel now communicates easily in Russian. Roman’s courses at college have been quite rigorous, and he has had to study hard. His classes go from 9am to 5pm every day Monday through Friday, and then he goes for half a day on Saturday. Yet both boys are happy with their schools. Certainly you will find parents and students here who are not happy. Some here believe it is too rigorous, and many believe the standardized tests are becoming more “Western.” For example, they have multiple choice answers now, which they did not have before. One had to write out one’s answers with no options listed. From our experience so far, however, we have been pleased.

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF HAL CLARENSOVICH

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF HAL CLARENSOVICH. Yesterday was neither normal nor remarkable. It was different from normal in the sense that we had to go to a private medical clinic for our physical evaluations for teaching at the English school. Even private schools are required to make their teachers and workers obtain certification that their health is “clean.” So we met our colleagues there at 9:00 a.m. I had neither breakfast nor the second cup of coffee, so it was a sacrifice.

The routine involved going to several different offices (actually “cabinets” in Russian, which includes the examining rooms). There were quite a few other people at the clinic as well. Many of them had similar forms to the ones we had so I concluded something about their jobs made them get clean bills of health also. I may have noted before Russians do not really “get in line” for waiting on things like buses, trains, or entering a doctor’s office. So we gathered outside the doors, and when each new person arrived they would ask who is last and know they go in after that person.

In some cases the examinations can be, well, very personal. I’ll spare my readers the details, but sometimes they ain’t comfortable. A rather humorous exchange happened when Oksana and I were walking past an office where no one was gathered, and the nurse opened the door indicating the examination room was not occupied. So Oksana quickly grabbed me and starting explaining that she and I needed to go in together because I’m not fluent in Russian and may not understand some terms. The lady began immediately shaking her head no, so Oksana got a little more insistent. In the meantime I looked at the sign on the door. I’m not fluent in Russian but I do know the Russian word for “Gynecologist.” So I’m pulling away, the lady is gently shaking her head, and Oksana continues to explain that we always go in together, and it’s never been a problem. Well, it was a brief encounter that ended with much laughter when Oksana noticed the sign.

Eventually we went up to the next floor, and my first exam up there, while not pleasant, went fine. They drew four viles of blood! We stepped out to the next office, and realized it was the office of the surgeon who I had visited about a year ago for the removal of a growth on my back. His nurse came out and told us he was not available, however, because someone had had an accident and apparently had broken her leg. He would have to treat that emergency first. So we moved back downstairs and waited outside another office. After finishing there, we moved to another. Unbeknownst to me the surgeon, Dr. Tkachenko, had come down to check for an update on the person with the broken leg. As we were sitting outside one of the offices I looked up as he was walking quickly down the hall to get back to his office. After taking about three steps past me, he stopped in his tracks and turned around. He looked at me, smiled, and greeted us warmly. He then motioned quickly for us to follow him. As we were walking back up the stairs he asked Oksana if I had learned to take off my shirt “the Russian way.” As I recounted to FB friends at the time, I discovered Russians and Americans do not take off pullover shirts or sweaters the same way. We had a good laugh together, and I was surprised he remembered. He took us into his office and examined our joints and checked our blood pressure and pulse and we left. Well, after stamping our documents multiple times. Nothing is official in Russia unless it has numerous “official” stamps.

As we went back to wait on another office to open. I thought about what he did. Some would say he gave me preferential treatment. I don’t think Dr. Tkachenko believes it was preferential treatment. It was hospitality to a foreigner. Many Americans have noted that Russians do not seem to smile much. That isn’t true. The truth is they don’t smile without reason. When he saw me his smile told me not only he remembered me, but he was genuinely glad to see me. I’m an American; I’ve done that “American smile.” You know, when you smile broadly at someone and all the time you are thinking, “Do I know this guy? Who is he? Gosh, I don’t remember his name!” Russians don’t do that. He took me up to his office immediately because he wanted to make me feel a sense of being welcomed here. This is certainly not the first time I have been treated with genuine hospitality since I’ve been here. Contrary to popular belief, most Russians don’t harbor animosity toward Americans. They may not like what our government does, but they do not hold individual Americans—like me—responsible for what politicians do. So the next time Rachel Maddow rolls her eyes and sneers when she says, “Russians,” just remember Maddow knows far less about Russian politics than she thinks she does and next to nothing of life in this country or its people.

After getting back home two and a half hours later, we ate lunch. I went in our bedroom and started getting ready for my class that evening. Marina Grace came in and laid down on the bed. She’d had the sniffles and hadn’t been feeling well. After lying down, she said, “Daddy, can you come be with me?” So I got up and lay close beside her and let here watch “Masha and the Bear” on my phone. (Masha and the Bear is the only Russian cartoon I’ve known to become a hit in America.) People often ask why I took early retirement and moved to America. I’ve explained that there are several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that we can afford to live here without me working dawn to dusk, and if my little girl wants me to lie down with her in the afternoon I’ll be here to do it.

After I was lying there about an hour she still wasn’t asleep, so I decided to get up and do my Russian lessons. My laptop was right at the head of the bed so I could still be with her. Oksana and I tape my lessons. She says a sentence in English and then pauses to give me time to say it in Russian. That lets me know if I have learned the vocabulary. Then she repeats the sentence in Russian three times, pausing after each one so I can practice saying it repeatedly to make sure I have the right pronunciation. I have more recordings than I can count! Each lesson lasts 5-7 minutes. Before I had finished the second one Marina was fast asleep. It has happened before on several occasions that when Marina hears both our voices that lets her fall gently to sleep. I finished reviewing my Russian lessons, then turned to prepare to teach my late afternoon class.

The class I teach goes from 4:30-6:00 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays. Since it was a grey and cold Friday I wondered how many would be there. I have 14 students registered in my class. This is larger than most classes at the school. It is a private school, and they like to keep the classes small. But I’m the only native speaker so they made an exception. I teach teenagers, mostly 15-17 years old. They don’t get any school credit for the class or any grades. Some are there to work on getting their certification from Cambridge University. Our school is accredited by Cambridge, and they can qualify at various levels of proficiency. Some are just there to learn English. Parents pay, and students work so they’ll learn English. They all showed up for class. They were a little restless to start with but everyone settled in, and we had a great class. They worked hard. So after being in their regular school, they leave and come to my English class. Then they have to get up and go to school on Saturday morning! Yes, students here in high school go six days a week. I find that impressive.

I’ve been hearing about the topic of “American exceptionalism” again. I’m never comfortable talkng about myself, my “group,” or my country as “exceptional.” That doesn’t mean America doesn’t have some great people and great characteristics, as I addressed in a blog last month. I recall, however, the words of the Scottish Chaplain Oswald Chambers on a different topic, but his point applies more generally. As he advised those under his spiritual care he said, “Don’t seek to be known as a man of prayer. Seek to be a man of prayer.” Telling others how exceptional we are as individuals or as a country probably indicates we’re not as exceptional as we may suppose. I can tell you that in my unremarkable day, I was again the recipient of genuine hospitality offered by a doctor who had been very busy with a potential real emergency and a whole lot of other people waiting on him. Because the financial pressures of life here are less than in my home country, I was able to be beside my little daughter as she faded off to peaceful sleep listening to her mom and dad’s voice. I got to work with a room full of students who put forth the effort to study outside their regular school hours and activities just to learn another language. I think that was a pretty exceptional day.

doctor

OUR TRIP TO FINLAND

OUR TRIP TO FINLAND. As I have mentioned before one of the laws of Russia is that most visas require us non-citizens to leave the country every six months. You don’t have to go far at all. Just cross the border. You don’t have to stay gone long—just get your passport stamped and you can re-enter, and you’re good for another six months. Somehow, in a way I do not understand, this helps Russia to keep check on us “foreigners.” I am here on a “private visa,” which is good for three years, but I still have to leave every six months. After that I can get temporary residency permit, which means I will not have to leave for three years.

Marina Grace and Gabriel also have to leave every six months. Our paperwork has been acccepted for processing in order for them to become Russian citizens. We won’t get the approved paperwork back until next April, but we’re optimistic that we can get them citizenship after that. There are two advantages to them getting citizenship. One advantage is that they don’t have to go out of the country with us every six months. The second advantage is huge: Russia has a program which issues “Maternal Capital.” When you have more than one child, born between 2007-2018 to a mother who is a Russian citizen, you qualify for financial rewards from the government. Russia has a demographic problem: There are not enough people here. The primary factor was the huge number of people killed in “The Great Patriotic War” (WWII). Over 19 million Russians were killed in that war. Further, after the Revolution, abortion became a standard form of birth control. The population has never recovered. Russia is almost twice the size of the United States, but it has less than half the population. You can only apply one time for the Maternal Capital, but the more children you have the more money you receive. Since we have three children we are eligible for 1.5 million rubles. There are some restrictions on how you have to spend the money, since it is intended to pump money back into the economy, but they are rather “fluid” restrictions. It was very difficult getting the paperwork approved, but obviously it is worth it in the long run.

Six months ago we went to Finland for our out of country journey. We all enjoyed the trip so we decided to return there. I realize that making two trips to Finland does not make me an expert, but I thought some people may be interested in what Finland is like. I’ll break it down in terms of disadvantages and advantages.

The only real disadvantage we found was the reality that international travel these days is a pain. International travel with small children is beyond a pain. The flight itself took less than an hour, and our children did fine. Marina Grace sang the whole trip. It is getting through the terminals that is problematic. We decided to make it as simple as possible. Since we were leaving on Thursday and returning Saturday, we decided we could just stuff our backpacks full and have enough clothing. The only “luggage” we took was Marina’s stroller, which is kind of large. We didn’t know if we had to check it in as luggage or we could take it to the plane—or maybe someone from the airlines (FinnAir) could take it on board. We were given three different answers from airline personell. Oksana had to go back and forth before learning that they would just take it on board for us. Getting through security and then passport controls in a timely manner proved frustrating. No one treated us poorly, but just the process—especially with a three year old—is difficult. It was the same way coming back. We were exhausted even though, as I said, the flight was short. During all that screening, we did have one humorous incident. When I was unloading the containers with our computers, phones, etc., the lady asked me something in Russian, and I answered her. But then she kept talking as I was turning away, and I didn’t understand. I asked her to repeat it, and she said it again in Russian. Oksana only heard the last part and turned to me and said, “I guess they can’t speak English here!” The young lady said, “Oh, I thought he was Italian.” Not sure if an Italian could’ve understood her any better, but I’ll take the fact she thought I looked Italian as a compliment!

Now to the good information. We found Finland to be a very nice clean place to visit. You can even drink tap water there! Oksana went down to buy bottled water at the hotel, and the lady said, “You know, you can drink tap water here.” Oksana said she was sorry, but she just couldn’t bring herself to drink tap water. The lady replied that when they go elsewhere in Europe the Finnish people hate not being able to drink from the tap. We flew to Helsinki, although we never actually went into the city itself. We got a nice hotel at a reasonable cost fairly close to the airport in the town of Vantaa. The hotel we stayed in the first time we came was full, so we had to choose another close by. We actually liked it better. On both trips the hotels provided a free shuttle to and from the airport for the 15 minute drive. Our room was not fancy, but it was nice, clean and very spacious. The four of us had plenty of room. The hotel had a sauna, restaurant, and provided a nice breakfast for free in the cafeteria.

There was a huge mall about a one mile walk from our hotel. We enjoyed walking through a large park to get there. Our children loved the mall, and there were plenty of things for children. We had our first Mexican meal since leaving the States at a restaurant in the mall. It was very good, but when I asked for chimichangas they had no idea what I was talking about. So it wasn’t exactly like eating Mexican back home. Oksana also found a nice shop for buying Christmas presents for her friends. The kids loved the huge toy store.

After returning to our room and resting a bit after our trip to the mall, we decided to walk in the opposite direction that evening to see what we could find. We felt very safe walking. There were many other folks out walking on the large paved trails. The streets were well lit so we had no trouble getting around. We did get surprised when we got to the strip mall. There were many nice stores, but only one restaurant, which was a Japanese buffet. In America, a place with that many stores would have had five restaurants I’m sure! The food was adequate, but it wasn’t great. Even though it was the only restaurant in the whole complex it was only half full of customers on a Friday night! I guess Finnish people don’t eat out much.

The thing that makes Finland an easy place for Americans to visit is that everyone we met spoke fluent English. In the airport, and of course at the hotel and restaurants, we had no trouble communicating. But several times we stopped folks on the park trail or in the mall and asked for directions or for other information, and every person we asked spoke English with no problem. Speaking English really helped at the airport. When you enter Finland you must check in of course. You don’t just present your documents and walk on through, however. They ask you very specific questions about why you are there, where are you staying and how long will you be there. Obviously we flew in with many Russians, and they were required to answer in English (or Finnish). On our first trip there the Russian lady in the line next to us did not speak English well. They started asking her very pointed questions about the purpose of her trip. As all of us who try to communicate in a language other than our native tongue know, the more nervous you get, the harder it gets to communicate. The gentlemen working in this area do not smile and do not seem very patient. Fortunately, they recognized that my English was that of a “native speaker,” and I had our passports, as well as our papers showing our hotel registration and return flights. So we had no problem, but I did feel for the Russians who were left to struggle.

I cannot speak or understand the Finnish language AT ALL. Both Oksana and I thought it sounded, well, very different from Russian or English! It sounds very “tonal” and has numerous double vowels. When we got on the bus that took us out to the plane, I actually felt comfortable that everyone was speaking Russian. I can’t understand it when everyone is speaking at once like that, but at least it was Russian. I thought about how my life is so different living in another country and visiting places that I would have never thought of in earlier stages of my life. There are difficult aspects of “life abroad” to be sure. I admit to keeping an “open ear” hoping perhaps I’ll hear an American voice. (I never did.) On the other hand, I cannot imagine not having had the experiences I now am having. I live in a world that is so very different from the one in which I was raised. Not understanding clearly what someone says to me or looking closely for little “cultural cues” to see how I should react to different situations has become “second nature” to me now.

So overall I can recommend Finland as a nice and interesting place to visit. The prices for food and lodging are reasonable, and, given how many folks know English, it is quite easy to get around. I think we’ll be going back again in the future and hopefully see more.

The positive feelings about our trip over the long weekend were shattered, however, when we woke up Monday morning to the news of the shooting in Texas. As I recounted in my blog after the Las Vegas shootings, being able to get only partial news and being away from other Americans seems to intensify the feelings. This one hit me even harder. All such shootings, bombings, etc., are horrible. I cannot deny, however, the fact that this one happened in a small Baptist church in a small Southern town impacted me more because, well, small Southern towns and small Baptist churches was my world growing up. Seeing the pictures of those individuals, of all ages, who had been brutally murdered brought me to tears. Then the larger questions of how will American culture change as a result of these continued senseless mass murders will no doubt have to be addressed. Right now, I, like many others, have to wait with a heavy heart. The one positive and encouraging video I saw was of the pastor and his wife, who lost a daughter as well as many members of their church “family,” when they spoke to the press. They spoke with wisdom and faith even though their hearts were broken. I reminded myself of St. Paul’s words, “if it is only in this life that we have hoped in Christ, then we are, of all men, most to be pitied.”

WHAT HAS NOT MADE AMERICA GREAT

In my last blog entry I pointed to several characteristics of some Americans that I think reflect true greatness. I’m quite sure the people I described would not call themselves “great.” They are simply acting out of human compassion. My wife and I have had several discussions about how unfortunate it is that many people who have never been to the United States know nothing of the humility and kindess that I wrote about in my previous blog. Most here are more aware of the material wealth or high standard of living in America. My family and I do not really miss the standard of living or the material advantages of America. We think of those Americans I wrote about last time who are always ready to help out in times of crisis, disaster, or basic need.

Then why is America not regarded as a great nation by many? What are those things that that are not great? What have I come to see more clearly by living in Russia about how many in the world see us? I call attention to Dwight Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address” to America, given on January 17, 1961. He had served as Commander of Allied forces before serving two terms as President of the United States. In his last addess as President, he warned of dangers that America was facing. He mentioned the global threat, obviously meaning Communism although he never used that word. The focus of his warning, however, was the new threat posed as the flourishing Armament Industry was joined to the Military Establishment. He called it the Military Industrial Complex. America had never built a lot of arms. Now, after WWII, however, it was truly an industry. He feared the political, social, and moral dangers this new Industry would bring to America.

While Eisenhower clearly saw global dangers, and in WWII had witnessed war and evil first hand, remarkably his final speech still sets forth the hope of a world at peace. He said, “The world, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of fear and hate.” The nations of the world must become a confederation of “mutual trust and respect.” Further, it must be a confederation of equals. The weakest country must come to the table with a confidence equal to that of America. There was no talk of “American exceptionalism.” Rather than an exploding industry of arms production he said, “Disarmament is a continuing imperative.” Clearly, his successors did not heed his advice or share his vision. What happened? What went wrong?

I’ve mentioned Vietnam in my blog on more than one occasion. I regret repeating myself, but Vietnam had such a profound impact on me and my country. The Vietnam “war” offcially began in 1955, the year after I was born. Yet it was after Eisenhower that America began expanding the war. Kennedy started the escalation in 1961, clearly as a “proxy war” with the USSR, and it grew for years. More and more troops and armaments were sent, and more and more bombs were dropped, many of a very incendiary nature. Eisenhower had warned the day was coming when, “A government contract would become a substitute for intellectual curiosity” in research.

For those of us old enough to remember, as the years went by the war ripped our country apart. As I grew into my teen years hippies, yippies, the drug culture, anti-war protests, Woodstock, the 1968 Democratic Convention became the foci of the evening news. These movements and events displayed the divisiveness in our country that Eisenhower feared. “Hawks” and “Doves” arguing in Washington over it were the dominant features of our political culture.

I remember in high school we asked our history teacher to explain why we were there. She gave us the “standard” line: if we allow the Commnists in the North to take over South Vietnam, then the Communists will have a “foothold” in southeast Asia. With China, just to the north and already Communist, and the Soviet Union being such a huge and powerful Communist country, this could lead to the whole eastern hemisphere and possibly the world falling to Communism. Made sense to me–at the time anyway. So a few months after graduating from high school, I joined the Marine Corps. I was never sent to Vietnam, as I planned, however. Shortly after I signed up, they started reducing the number of troops.

HAL THE MARINE

America eventually pulled out altogether, and Saigon fell in the Spring of 1975. I recall two things: scenes of the people begging for the helocopters to take them or at least their children away. Weeping women were holding babies up for them to be taken. The country had been ravaged by war. There was nothing left. The whole country was decimated and violent, and they believed the only hope for their babies was to get them out of the country. Second, I felt a hollowness for my fellow Marines at Lejeune who had been injured or lost dear comrades in battle. Why? We just pulled out?

Today Vietnam is a “socialist republic” with one political party—the Communist party, although its economy is a “mixed economy.” There were great problems and a lot of suffering, as I understand, after the Americans left. Today, however, it is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Of course, while Communism did take over Vietnam, Communism did not take over anything else. China, immediately to the north is still Communist (sort of), but the U.S. trades freely with them (and owes them a LOT of money). The USSR no longer exists, and neither Russia nor any of the old Republics is Communist. It took me a long time to realize and admit that our national interests never were at stake in Vietnam. Vietnam never attacked America or jeopardized any of its interests. We were fighting a proxy war with the USSR, and thousands of Vietnamese lost their lives and others lost their land and their futures because of it. So much for Eisenhower’s dream of us working for the “betterment” of all nations.

Fast forward to the present: Today, unfortunately, we have not given up on our interventionist policies—no matter the cost to any particular country. It seems we have continued to send troops and fights battles somewhere for most of my life. The seed of doubt, first sown in my mind after Vietnam, that our goals were not always “altruistic” have now sadly flourished. For example, I have heard horror stories about Bashar Al-Assad in Syria for as long as I remember. We have been told, and I believed, that he is an awful person who sometimes slaughtered his own people. After moving to Russia I had access to reports I did not even know of in America. For example, now that I’m an Orthodox Christian I subscribe to several Orthodox Christian sites that provide various kinds of information and inspiration from this part of the world. Not long after getting settled in I saw an interview with an Orthodox priest in Syria. It was during the battle for Aleppo. The Syrian priest was pleading with anyone who would listen for the Americans and others to please stop opposing Assad. If Assad were removed there would be no protection for the Christians from the radical and violent ISIS jihadists. He recounted how ISIS soldiers had slaughtered even Christian children. He stated that Assad had protected the Christian groups there, and no Christian group in Syria opposed him because he allowed them the freedom to practice their Christianity. This man wasn’t a politician trying to curry favor from the powers that be. He was a priest longing for the safety of his people. Not long after that I saw clearly the fraudulant reports of the “White Helmets.” I saw them save that same little girl from various locations. And then they did the same with a little boy. Clearly this group was not who the West proclaimed it to be.

I also found an independent British reporter, Tom Duggan, on Facebook. I know little about his past. I’m not sure how he came to Syria. He ended up marrying a Syrian lady, settling down and learning the language and culture. He made his life there. I appreciate a guy like that! There were no Western reporters on the ground in Aleppo from mainstream networks. Our news networks got their information second hand, as I said, mostly from the “White Helmets” or from the UK based Syrian Observatory, which has few if any contacts in Syria. Duggan lives there. His small film crew films the fighting, and he explains what is going on. Rifle rounds have barely missed him on several occasions. He also explained the the truth about the sarin gas attack supposedly carried out by Assad on his own people. Clearly it could not have come from the Syrian troops. Of course, anyone following the fighting realized that the official story put forth by the U.S. Government made no sense anyway. The Syrian Army was winning the battle for Aleppo. The terrorists were on the run. Why would Assad do it? Duggan’s explanations and videos, along with the refusal of the U.S. to submit to an international team of investigaters going in convinced me there was dishonesty coming from my homeland. We contined to supply weapons and enter Syria uninvited. We have the explicit and mutually exclusive goals of removing Assad from office and defeating ISIS. Assad had won election by 88% of the vote. Of course, we claim the elections were fradulent. After our own last election and the cries that went up from both sides about fraud, do we really think our condemnations of the elections in other countries carry any moral force? We continue to reserve for ourselves the right to decide who should rule in other countries. We are willing to kill and destroy in those countries to preserve that right.

If our goal is to remove Assad because of the supposed horrors he has done to his people, why are we so inconsistent in applying this policy. The criterion for intervention is ostensibly that the leader, Assad, is a bad person. What about the President of Chad, Idriss Deby? He’s been in power since 1990, and the U.S. has condemned his murderous and vicious reign. No one, including the U.S., questions the fact that this man has been ruling his people with constant and violent abuses of their human rights. Yet, we’ve never attempted to oust him, and, in fact, continue to buy oil and other petroleum products from him. When Assad spoke out against the “petrodollar,” then we looked more carefully at how evil he was.

My point in my previous blog entry was that I have come to believe that the greatness of America lies in the boundless efforts to which its citizens go to help others. They desire neither fame nor fortune—or votes. I think these people are the real great Americans. Since writing it my wife and I have thought of other wonderful aspects of greatness we saw while living in America. I am convinced this greatness lies in the fact people are “moved with compassion.” They don’t want to control over who they help and don’t ask about political affinities.

I have also become convinced that our military interventions which disallow the right of citizens of other countries to elect leaders we don’t like will ultimately lead to our disaster. It took me a long time and a lot of research to reach the horrible conclusion that there are people in power in America who will send the sons and daughters of others off to fight prolonged and fruitless wars simply to enhance their financial or political stature. It was a conclusion I reached painfully.

One frustrating aspect of this is that all this hypocritical intervention blinds the world to the great things about the American people about which I wrote and of which I am proud. It isn’t our financial resources or our standard of living that make us great. It is that willingness to help others even when we’ve never met them personally. There are two military men who set forth two very different “visions” to which America should aspire. We can follow the vision of Dwight Eisenhower or, on the other hand, we can follow John McCain. Eisenhower foresaw a nation with a strong and ready military which should be used only in cases when our national security was threatened or there was a genuine international crisis. All nations should come to the proverbial table as equals. The rights and responsibilities of all nations would be respected. Above all, the people of all nations would be treasured. McCain has a very different view. The United States of America is called to lead the world. Leading the world means reserving for ourselves the right to make decisions and draw conclusions on policies and leadership for any country. This kind of vision has nothing to do with the greatness Americans demonstrate in caring for people and their crises regardless of what kind of people they are or even if they even knew them. I obviously see Eisenhower’s vision more consistent with what is truly great about America. It’s more honest. I hope we do make America great again. I believe, however, we need to be very discerning as to how we define greatness.

GREAT THINGS ABOUT AMERICA

Donald Trump’s slogan “Making America Great Again” has triggered some thoughts on America and “greatness” while I’m living far away. The extreme, and often contentious, divide between my two “worlds”–small town Russia and small town America—has caused me think more about what is really good, if not great, in both of them. Somehow living outside America has caused me to think more deeply about what I perceive are both its virtues and vices. My wife and I have had several discussions about the great things about America that just get missed somehow. This entry will focus on the virtues of America. My next entry will be about the vices I believe keep the rest of the world from seeing the great things about America. Obviously, these observations are based on my life there in America and here in Russia. So what is so great about America?

I’ve mentioned several times in my blog about how pleased we are with both the quality and cost of health care here in Russia. Our experience in America was, frankly, becoming a nightmare. I think that blinded me to one facet of American care that I had learned to appreciate long ago. When I was a teenager, our little town got a “Rescue Squad.” It was not funded primarily by any health insurance company or any government agency that I know of. I’m sure it got some money from some outside agencies, but I recall the many local people who would give generously to support it. They had bake sales, car washes, etc. to raise money. It acquired emergency vehicles and sufficient personel at the small building who waited ready to take off at a moments notice to wherever people were in medical distress. It wasn’t adjacent to the hospital, and I’m not sure of the actual connection to the medical community. Many of the people there volunteered and even paid for their own training. Later, the 911 system developed, and to this day I am impressed by the way people in my community respond to medical emergencies. I know from experience that “first responders” keep on their scanners, and if they hear of distress nearby they come immediately. I was present one night when a first responder came. It wasn’t a job for him. This guy had a “day job” and got paid nothing for his emergency response. But he wanted to help. They are people who have learned how to administer emergency care like CPR, mouth-to-mouth, stopping arteries from bleeding, etc. Then the emergency vehicles would be there pronto, and I have seen firemen show up within minutes even when there was no fire. There was a crisis, and they wanted to assist. These people are not the highly paid health insurance executives or specialists who demand high salaries. They do this because they love helping people. Where we live here in Russia it is difficult if not impossible to get an emergency vehicle quickly. Most people just call a taxi or try to get a friend to transport them to the hospital if they need to go for immediate care. I guess I took such care for granted in America until we moved away.

The second, and somewhat related area, is disaster relief in America. As I’ve mentioned before, my late father was a Southern Baptist pastor. These churches had “Baptist Men’s Groups.” I was dragged to their once-a-month Saturday breakfasts. It was mostly retired fellows sitting around eating too much bacon and talking about football, fishing, and some “church stuff” too. I was unimpressed–until there was a hurricaine that hit in the lower part of our state. Dad took me to the church when they were getting ready to go. They had their chain saws, shovels, hammers and off they went. They cleared, they cleaned, they repaired. They stayed gone for days! When the hurricaines hit last month in the States I saw posts of various groups like this headed out to help. These men and women may be from various churches, community or civic groups. Again, they don’t get paid. Their leaders are not like the head of Red Cross or whatever who bring in six figure incomes. They are just common folk who freely devote their time, energy, and expertise to people in need. And I’ve seen them go to other countries as well! They don’t get noticed or applauded on the news or anywhere else. They don’t do it for noteriety. People are hurting. They go to do what they can for these people they don’t even know.

Another area is not the emergency or disaster kind of situations. I have seen greatness in the way people respond to the events of life. Before Marina Grace was born Oksana was invited to two “showers.” For the uninformed it refers to a gathering of women who “shower” the mother-to-be with gifts for the baby. We got pink outfits of various sorts as well as a good supply of Pampers. After she had the baby the “troops” started arriving. We were in a small group at North Hills Community Church, and they had scheduled when each member of the group would bring us food. Then there were neighbors and family members who also brought things. Oksana did not have to cook a meal for two weeks. Folks came in briefly, brought food, doted over the baby, and then were on their way. We didn’t have to cook or buy diapers! And it is not just births. When my dad died, the same thing happened. People came with food and offered to help in any way possible. Since I’ve seen this kind of thing done all my life, I think I forgot what a wonderful and great thing it is about the small town culture in which I was raised. I realize other cultures do similar things. I’m not saying America alone does this kind of thing. I’m saying it is a great thing for anyone to do, and I’m proud it is done in my country.

The final “great” thing I’ll mention is how Americans often receive people who are—for lack of a better term–“different.” The first time I came to Russia was in 2002. I came with a group of Americans who worked with churches and orphanages here. We brought financial and other kinds of support for needs we learned of. We visited the orphanage here in Luga. which focuses on “special needs” children with Downs Syndrome, autism, or various physical disabilities. On my first visit there, we were given a “tour.” During that time the Director called me and my interpreter aside and led me away to a quiet room with the shades pulled down. There were about 10 cribs with sleeping babies there. She explained that these were Downs Syndrome babies who no one would ever adopt. She and my interpreter slipped out of the room. I quietly went to each crib. I had a very strong urge just to sit down and weep. I thought to myself that if there was some way I could get these “unadoptable” children to America I could find every one of them a loving home in two days. Now, I will add that Russia has come a long way in this area since then, and there is a changing attitude for which I am grateful. And I know it is not always easy for special needs children in America. But my experiences out of America have shown me how great America is when it comes to acceptance of those who are “different,” and how their contributions to life and society are encouraged, trained, and appreciated.

 

001I realize that not all of American culture is like what I have described. My hope is that when the talk of “Making America Great Again” gets down to specifics it will be to honor and cultivate the really great things about America. These great things about America are often the things from daily life that go completely unnoticed because they seem, well, small to some people. They aren’t small. Individuals going to help someone having a heart attack in the middle of the night; taking a bus for miles to get to where the homes of folks you don’t know have been destroyed; taking food and clothing to care for a new baby or to help those whose loved one is now gone from this life; caring about and teaching an autistic child how to communicate. This is greatness.

BATTLES AND BLESSINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVISITING REAGAN ON RUSSIAN POLICY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan 1986