THE FACES OF LUGA

Delicious fruit from former southern republics and local potatoes

My life here in the small town of Luga is certainly at a slower pace than it was when I lived in the much, much larger city of St. Petersburg. The nature of a small town and the fact that I’m retired gives me the opportunity to observe people a bit more closely. Of course, since I’m the only American most of them have ever met, I wonder what impression I leave with them. It’s interesting not only observing and getting to know them but noticing their reactions to me as well. Here’s my “take” on five citizens of Luga. (I added a brief description of one more after my original draft.) I chose them primarily because they are fairly typical folks but also because my relationship with each of them is at a different level.

THE BUTCHER LADY. We buy a lot of our groceries at the open market. Adjacent to the open area where fruits, vegetables, dairy and other products are sold is a rather large building that looks like a warehouse. A number of vendors sell fresh meat inside. We found a lady there who consistently has very good meat.

We dropped in the other day to get some meat for grilling. She usually has a young man there helping her, but that day she was working her counter alone. When we approached, her back was to us. She had a huge meat cleaver and was working on a side of pork. You could hear the loud “whack” all over the building when her cleaver made contact. I was quite amazed at how she separated meat from bone and then divided huge chunks of meat into smaller portions so efficiently. She is a rather small, thin lady probably in her 50s, so that made it even more impressive.

She quickly finished cutting the meat and turned to face us with her usual kind smile. She removed her head covering, and her slightly tinted auburn hair was still somehow perfectly in place. As Oksana was describing to her what we needed I noticed her lovely pearl necklace and matching earrings. She removed her large gloves while they were talking so she could put on the thin clear ones needed to show us the various meats. Her finger nails were trimmed and polished to perfection. The color of the polish matched her auburn hair. After the lady secured and weighed the meat we needed, Oksana asked if she had some small chunks of meat we could purchase for the homeless cats around our new home. (Russians call such animals “homeless,” not “strays.”) The butcher lady immediately retrieved a small bag with small portions of meat. She handed the bag to Oksana and said, “Бесплатно,” (“It’s free”) with a smile. Oksana paid her for our meat, and we moved on.

I find Butcher Lady to be very interesting. I would not say she is typical, but she is certainly not unusual for the women of Luga. She is obviously quite strong physically and wields that cleaver in a way that I certainly could never match. Yet, she maintains a traditional feminine manner and dress. And she does it in a very casual manner. She did not strike me as trying to draw attention to herself. She smiles at me, but never speaks directly to me. I am quite sure I have never met a butcher like her in America.

THE DAIRY LADY. In the open section of the market is the lady who sells dairy products. Her driver brings them in from the dairy plant in Mezhozerny, a rural village not far from Luga. I feel very comfortable speaking with her on my own. I love her dairy. All her products have a fresh and rich taste. I drop by about twice a week and get pretty much the same thing: four bottles of milk, two kilograms of tvorog (farmer’s cheese), a large container of smetana (sour-cream), and maybe three or four bottles of yogurt. I love to freeze her yogurt and eat it like ice cream. Sometimes I get a half-kilo of cheese and butter. There is no comparison in taste to what I get here in the open market with what we got at the grocery store in the U.S. I can’t eat Kraft cheese or its other products after eating what I get from this lady. I mix fruit with my tvorog and smetana pretty much every day for breakfast. I never ate farmers cheese in America, but what she sells here is a favorite of mine.

I don’t know Dairy Lady’s name, but she is always friendly. I’d like to think the reason she smiles broadly at me when I come to the counter is because of my good looks and charming personality, but I suspect it is because I am a regular customer who tends to buy a lot. Nevertheless, it is always good to hear her greeting and see her face light up when she sees me. A couple of times I have not had the right amount of money, and she sent me on my way and told me to pay next time. She doesn’t have to ask me what “percent” of products I want (meaning fat content). She gets me what tastes good.

The Russian word for “thank you” is transliterated, “spacebo.” But Russians love to make diminutives out of names and words. After my purchase she says, “Spacebochki.” I had never heard that word before, but I knew immediately what it was. She was saying it to me the way she would say it to a friend. The first time she said it to me that way I came home and I told Oksana that Dairy Lady must like me. Now Oksana calls her my “girlfriend.” When you’re a foreigner in a small city you really appreciate being accepted as a “regular.”

VADIM THE FURNITURE GUY. When we moved in our apartment after arriving in Russia we bought some furniture from a local store. In Russia a lot of the furniture is delivered in boxes, unassembled. We met Vadim at the store and learned his specialty was assembling furniture, so we hired him to come after hours and put ours together. Last month, when we moved from that apartment to our new house, we took the furniture apart to transport it. Oksana happened to run into Vadim in town and asked if he would be willing to come over to our new place and reassemble the furniture for us. He agreed. He is building a new house for his family himself and the extra money helps.

Vadim looks to be in his mid-thirties. He is cordial when he comes over, but he never attempts to chat with me. He goes straight to work and is very efficient. I don’t know how he puts all the furniture together with absolutely no help. There are dozens of screws of different kinds, and the boards for certain pieces can be very awkward to handle. Yet he never asks anyone for help while he fastens everything together. He is obviously very proud of his work. When he finished the last day Oksana called me in to see everything. I bragged on his workmanship and told him what an amazing good job he did. He didn’t say anything, but for the first time he smiled broadly and just stood there basking in the praise. He had worked hard and was glad to have his skills appreciated. We paid him, and he parted with a hearty handshake and smile.

After he left I commented to Oksana on how he seldom spoke and how shy he was. She said, “He’s quiet with you, but when it’s just me he talks a lot. Before leaving he always shows me photos of his wife and children, the house he’s building and tells me all about what is going on in their lives. Sometimes I thought I would never get away.” Vadim chose not to ask me anything or strike up any conversation with me, although he was never rude or discourteous. I think the fact I am an American is just too odd for him.

SERGEY THE PLUMBER. Shortly after moving in our new home we noticed something was not right about the way our water heated. Despite having purchased a new water heater [boiler], our water did not get very hot. We assumed that something was wrong with the heater. The company we purchased it from said to drain it, bring it back, and they would check it. Oksana had already called a plumber she knew to come install our washing machine and dryer. We had placed them upstairs in a large bathroom, and there were no pipes to connect them. So we decided we would wait and get him to look about the water heater.

Sergey arrived on a Thursday evening and introduced himself. I spoke to him in Russian and said, “My name is Hal.” He immediately fixed his gaze on me and tried repeating “Hal” under his breath. Russians have a terribly difficult time trying to pronounce my name since the “a” sound in Russian is never pronounced like it is in “Hal.” Many Russians just can’t make that sound. They can pronounce long Russian names with numerous consonants and few vowels quite effortlessly, but the monosyllabic “Hal” leaves them confused. My wife told him just to call me either “Hel” (as most Russians do) or Maxim, which is my “Orthodox” name.

Sergey is 50 years old, but he walks like an older man, slightly bent over with his back a bit arched. He is quite thin and wears his trousers pulled up very high. We followed Sergey around explaining what we needed him to do. He was baffled at the clothes dryer. He had never seen one before. Eventually he figured out what was needed to get it hooked up. Also, it turned out the water heating problem was easily fixed.

I was the first American Sergey had ever met, and he began asking me questions immediately. Oksana would make sure I understood everything. He started with the general question of how I liked Russia and Luga, but moved on to more personal issues. He asked, “How has Russia changed your mentality?” Later, when Oksana was not present he asked, “How is your soul different after living in Russia?” We Americans talk of our inner feelings as being from “the heart.” Russians prefer to talk of one’s soul.

I told him that I had been treated well by the people in Luga. I also said I came here first in 2002, and I was very impressed with all the improvements in the city. To his question about my “soul,” I told him that living here had reminded me of how my small town in America used to be when I was young. The majority of people from where I was raised in America were like most people in Luga I have met: They valued honesty, hard work and being helpful. The pace of life was slower—like it still is in Luga. I said I had gotten back to appreciating the simple life and kind gestures from people. I repeated that no one here judged me by the political conflicts between our countries, and I thought this spoke well of the Russian people. I told him I live very peaceably here.

He was clearly quite pleased with what I said. To hear that an American has good things to say about his town and its people seemed to give him a sense of relief. He came back the next day. Over coffee, he started telling me about how Russia had been involved with America during the American Civil War. (I decided not to protest, “Yeah, but they sided with the Northerners!”) I said, “True, and America joined the ‘Whites’ in their battles against the Bolsheviks during Russia’s civil war.” His eyes lit up, and he said, “Yes!” and then named all the northern cities of Russia where Americans fought. He is a manual laborer, but he is well read and, like many Russians, again proud of the history of his country. He was obviously delighted I knew some Russian history.

As we concluded our conversation and his visit he told me that we had to talk more. When he gave us our bill I was quite surprised. He had been here on Thursday night and then spent most of the day Friday changing some pipes and other things and charged us the equivalent of $31 for labor. I don’t think I’d get off that cheap with an American plumber even for the Thursday night visit! It is not just Sergey, I have noticed the people like Vadim and Sergey we have hired to do various jobs for us in finishing up our house are remarkably cheaper, and yet are hard workers who are committed to doing a good job. We hired an I.T. worker to get us connected to mobile internet through a special antenna since we are not in the city “loop.” He stayed here over two hours and charged us 700 rubles ($11.00).

A couple of days later Sergey called Oksana and told her he had picked some mushrooms in the woods and wanted to bring some over for me. They were chanterelles–my favorite. Knowing how Russians prize their mushrooms it meant a lot to me that he brought them over. He clearly enjoyed telling me all the medicinal advantages of mushrooms when he brought them. I could tell he felt comfortable talking with me, although I could not understand everything he said. As I was writing the rough draft of this blog entry he brought over more mushrooms and some wild berries [“zemlyanika”] for Marina Grace.

What was interesting to me was the difference between Sergey and Vadim. Neither had ever met an American before me. Neither man speaks any English and both work hard with their hands. But whereas Sergey wanted to “pick my brain” about what I thought of Russia and life here in Luga, Vadim asked me no questions. Based on Oksana’s experience, Vadim was just as talkative and outgoing as Sergey. Yet he responded quite differently to me.

DR. SMOLA. I have mentioned before that when they gave me my physical after we moved to Russia they discovered I have a slight degeneration in a disc in my neck. It was causing some pain at that time. I began weekly treatments from the doctor there who specializes in joint problems. Such a doctor is called a “manual therapist,” because he treats the problem with hands-on realignment therapy. Since it cost less than $8.00 for a 40 minute session, and the treatments have completely relieved my pain, I have kept up my weekly treatments.

Dr. Smola is my manual therapist. After all these weekly treatments we have gotten to know each other quite well. He’s in his early 60s. He is a retired physician from the Soviet military. He was a surgeon at one time, but changed his specialty. He speaks a little English, so during my treatments we communicate pretty well. We speak in Russian, but when he uses words I don’t understand I stop him, and we try to figure things out together. It’s actually a great time of practicing my Russian. I’ve learned a lot! It is so much easier talking to persons who have studied other languages, even if they do not know English well. They do know what it is like to try to communicate in a language other than their native tongue. It’s not awkward for me to stop him and ask for explanations. He does the same with me. The last visit it was raining, and when I mentioned needing my “zontik,” he paused and then slapped his hand down on the desk in frustration because he could not remember the English word “umbrella.” It’s comfortable talking with someone like that.

Dr. Smola lives with his aging mother who is in poor health. He is very active physically, but his mother is very demanding of his time after work so he has little social life. He is always interested in how my family is doing and asks about Oksana and then goes down the list asking about each of my children here.

He is from Ukraine, but was stationed here in Luga while he was in the Soviet military and ended up staying. He says he can’t go back to Ukraine. He is a “left-bank” Ukrainian, meaning he is from the Russian speaking area in the east which has become a place of horrible conflict. Early on I mentioned to him a couple of books I had read on Ukraine, and he sensed that my perspective on the events in Ukraine were not those of a typical American who just watches the Western news outlets.

Last week when I was in for my appointment he opened up a lot. He can’t go back to Ukraine because of what the Nazi leaning Ukrainians in Kiev have done to the country. When I said I am sad that those violent people have been helped with money and weapons from the American government, he looked at me with a sense of gratitude for saying that. We have discussed the heart-breaking manner in which the U.S. handled the situation in Ukraine. Victoria Nuland placed her famous intercepted phone call declaring the U.S. “pick” of who would lead Ukraine. Then Senator John McCain appeared on stage supporting Ukrainian rebels widely known for their neo-Nazi associates and sympathies. After the people of Crimea overwhelmingly voted to return to Russia, President Obama declared sanctions against Russia. Although Crimea had been Russian for most of its history and voted to return to Russia for its own security, the U.S. declared it a Putin ordered “invasion,” and Obama launched the sanctions. Since then the Ukrainian political leaders have been heavily influenced by the United States, and it is now the poorest country in Europe and one of the poorest countries in the world.

I think we talked for about 15 minutes before Dr. Smola actually started working on my neck. We do that a lot. He likes bouncing his ideas and frustrations off an American he can trust I guess. I like hearing his perspective as one who knows people in Ukraine and knows first hand what is going on. He and I have developed a real friendship.

There are others space does not allow me to describe in depth. The market is an interesting mixture of folks from different cultures. Quite a number of the vendors there are from the countries around the Caucasus mountain areas. (Hence the word “Caucasian” in Russian refers to people from these areas.) We buy fruit from one lady there from Azerbaijan named Sveta. Her father is Armenian and her mother Azerbaijani. She laughs that she is the only person in her family with a Russian name.

Her family, like many others at the market, spends the winters in their home country down south, then come live in Russia and sell their produce here in the growing seasons. The funniest incident (to me anyway) was when Sveta asked Oksana, “What kind of accent is that you have?” Apparently Oksana picked up a bit of an American accent after 8 years in America. She loves Sveta but was upset that someone with a thick Caucasian accent would ask such a question of her–a native born Russian!

We love buying fruit and vegetables there. Russia forbids GMOs. That means that if you leave the fruit out a long time, it turns brown and rots. But, like with the dairy, you can discern a more natural flavor. I love South Carolina tomatoes, but I thought the tomatoes we bought from Sveta last week were the best I have ever eaten.

We noticed that Sveta’s prices were clearly lower for the same fruit than other market vendors’, who, in addition, have a reputation for using weighted scales. Sveta emphatically told us several times, “My prices are lower, because I want you to keep coming back to me! Also I could never cheat and put weights on my scales! God forbids that! He would punish me!” Lower prices and delicious fruits and vegetables—we like Sveta even if she does talk about Oksana’s accent.

Living outside my own home country I treasure the friendships I have. Little things that make me feel a part of life here mean a lot to me. The other day after my appointment with Dr. Smola I paid my bill and was getting my coat and umbrella out of the locker when I heard someone call, “Maxim!” I knew immediately it was my priest, Batyushka Nicolai. He was dressed in street clothes, but we greeted each other in the traditional Orthodox manner right there in the waiting room. He was bringing his son in for a physical for school. Later he called and asked Oksana if he could come over and see our house while he was in town. He apologized for inviting himself over, but was dying to see our new home. He came and we showed him the house and had a cup of tea together. It was a good day. I hope my readers can sense from this blog entry why it is I see Russia and Russians so differently from how they are usually presented to the West–and how relationships really could be different between my two worlds.

MOVING DAY AND FATHER’S DAY

Today is Father’s Day in America. Russia does not have such a holiday. For me, like many, there is some sadness. I went on Facebook and the “memory” was from 2014–my last Father’s Day with my dad. He was in hospice, and my oldest son and his family were there with us. Dad tried to hug his granddaughter but didn’t have the strength. Of course, being separated from my two sons in America makes it more difficult still. Holidays can be joyous, but they can also be quite painful—especially as one gets older. I am grateful, however, for my dad and for our relationship. He was not one to say, “I love you,” but he was the anchor in our family. I am glad I was there with him when he departed this life. I got to lean over and tell him goodbye before he left us.

There are other mixed emotions. We moved into our new house this week! It is probably less than two miles from our apartment so it was not like moving here from America. On the other hand, I have used my worn out phrase a lot this past week: “I’ve moved many times in my life, and the best one was still awful.” In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “good move.” I am not referring to the purpose for moving. I mean the actual move itself. This one was in some ways more difficult than our move to Russia. We didn’t move any furniture here to Russia, and we were limited in the amount of clothes and other items we could pack. Not so simple with this move.

In America most people usually call a professional moving company to transport everything. They’ll even pack everything for you if you can afford it. There aren’t any moving companies here in small town Russia. You can find guys who move people, but they usually have other jobs as well. We used the men who have been working on our house. We packed everything ourselves. Another difference here is that most of the furniture we bought here, e.g., wardrobes, the boys’ bunk beds, chest of drawers, etc., has to be taken apart to move. Then we wrapped everything in saran wrap. They sell big rolls of it here specifically for that purpose. Taking it apart is not near as bad as putting it back together, so we hired our friend Vadim who does that professionally. He’s amazing. We still have more furniture on order, but at least we’re in our house.

We now have what most Russians consider a large house. It is about 2,700 sq. ft. The downstairs was completed, and a family was living in it. They started the second floor, but then the husband and wife split up. So we bought the house when the second floor had only been “roughed in.” We were able to do the floor plan the way we wanted. Also, we have a rather large yard with a picnic shelter that includes a large, sturdy table and benches, fireplace, and a sink with running water.

Last night my wife’s parents, sister, brother-in-law and their two little girls came over for our house-warming party. Oksana’s sister and her family live in Germany, so it worked out well with them being here on vacation. Oksana’s sister is fluent in English and her husband speaks some English, so that makes it easier for me. It is so good to be in a home with plenty of room and a yard for our children to play in. We are further from “downtown,” but there are a couple of small grocery stores nearby that have the basics.

While we had a great time, I think Oksana’s dad asked me three times, “Now, you are going to stay here, right? You are settling down here?” I assured him that we are. Later, however, Oksana’s mom told her privately that she sensed a sadness in my eyes. Most Russians, whatever their profession, tend to be psychologists. They read every expression carefully.

Her mom was right. While I am glad we have moved and believe coming here was the right decision, buying a home did add a note of finality to our move to Russia. We have several friends, as I have often noted, who are considering moving to Russia. Most of them say it is a “no return” decision for them. For various reasons, they know once they move they cannot pick up and move back to America. It was not that way for us. We moved with the intention of staying, but we also knew that we had family in America who we could call on to help us get back. My brother told me when we left my old job would be waiting. Deep down I know buying this house makes the move final. We are now owners of a home in Russia. Before we could have just called the owner of the apartment and turned in a one month notice and left. We can’t do that now.

It is not that we harbor desires of returning to America. I have stated several times how much we miss our family and friends there, but we don’t miss life there. The political situation is poisonous. As I indicated in a recent blog, I have now seen how the world covers the news, and there is so much main stream Western news outlets do not cover. Americans are not given the whole story on international events unless they really search alternative news sites. Just this week I was reminded of this fact by three reports. First, back in July, 2014 the U.S. said Russia shot down a Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine. In a documentary just released the Prime Minister of Malaysia said there was no evidence that Russia did it. He also said they (the Malaysians) were not allowed to be involved in the official investigation. He concluded based on their government’s research that blaming the Russians was a narrative cooked up immediately by Americans.

Second, the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking a Japanese tanker last week, but the Japanese officials say the U.S. has gotten the story all wrong. Their people who were actually on the ship tell a different story. I didn’t see either what the Malaysian P.M. said or interviews with any of the Japanese crew get much play on the MSM in America. The third article is one I just saw today and have not had time to study carefully. It is about the media blackout on a report of Arab journalists and civilians who were beheaded by the “moderate rebels” America supported in Syria. https://bsnews.info/media-black-out-on-arab-journalists-and-civilians-beheaded-in-syria-by-western-backed-mercenaries/?fbclid=IwAR3x6tt6d9sh9vHZL27IIi_UodUi2zMgczNhqhVQeHrOmKZuBicIClazmus

Even after the lies were revealed years ago about the Gulf of Tonkin, which led to a war and the deaths of so many American military as well as Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, our government still fabricates stories that have the potential to provoke war. For them, war is good. Even a short war can generate a lot more income for some people than a long peace. The hardest truth for me to confront about my own country was the realization that there are people in powerful places in the U.S. Government who will knowingly send our men and women to die in meaningless wars if it means financial or political rewards for them and their circle of contributors. That was a tough, but unavoidable, truth I had to face. My patriotism took a big hit.

I have also recounted the cultural changes that have occurred which also run counter to what we as Orthodox Christians believe. Patrick J. Buchanan recently wrote a very perceptive article on abortion and gay rights in America. The article went beyond those two issues themselves, however. Buchanan analyzed how the phrase “American values” is being used by the candidates for presidency. They don’t just disagree over how to preserve and protect those values. Their understandings of American values are mutually exclusive. Even during the War between the States the division over values was not as deep. Furthermore, there seems to be no way to solve the issue. So many different “groups” differ so widely, and there are no grounds for compromise. Diplomacy, both domestic and foreign, is dead in America. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/political_commentary/commentary_by_pat_buchanan/are_abortion_gay_rights_american_values

I have not said and am not saying now that everyone who agrees with me should move to Russia or to any country. There were a variety of factors that went into our decision. As I mentioned in my last blog, I frequently get psychoanalyzed by readers who think they have figured out THE motive. I was at the age I could start taking Social Security, and the cost of living is low enough for us to live on it comfortably here. We still could have moved without SS, but we would have had to teach full time or make money in some other way. And I have been interested in Russia since I lived here the first time. I started studying the language, reading the history, and attending an Orthodox church years before we even thought about moving here. All these and other factors came together, and we concluded this move was right.

That does not mean I still don’t think about what life back in America would be like. We look at old pictures or see a Facebook memory of our life in America, and both Oksana and I get tears in the eyes. So what do sentimental ex-pats like myself do? Sometimes I think of the downside of life in America. The photos and memories we look at are of loved ones or good times of course! We didn’t take pictures of mortgage and car payments, credit card notices, taxes, and medical bills. America is, in general, a country that lives on debt. The national debt is bigger than the country’s budget. The most recent poll I could find on personal debt in the U.S. was sponsored by CNBC in 2018. They concluded:

“Credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car loans, personal loans: Most Americans have a combination of these sources of debt. And despite their best intentions, Americans are digging themselves deeper into a hole each year. The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages.”

Excluding home mortgages is excluding a lot of debt for most Americans. I have already been asked how much we paid for our house here more than once. Of course, that is a private issue for most people, but a part of the purpose of this blog is information. First, I can’t give an exact figure because Stepan, our friend whose small company did our expansion, would just use my credit card to buy supplies. He wanted it that way. We would know when he bought something and how much he paid for it. I am not going to go through all those receipts to get an exact figure. Oksana and I both estimated the total cost at just under $75,000. We have, as I said, a 2,700 sq. ft. home on a good size lot (0.4 acres). We live at the end of the road (literally), so it is not paved all way to our house. We have a neighbor on one side and one behind us. There is a forest on the other side, and the house across the street is a “dacha” type house which is empty. It is very peaceful and quiet here.

I miss Father’s Day in America. Getting together with all my kids and grand kids for a big meal and enduring the humor which usually had me as the intended target leaves an empty spot in my heart. But life is seldom exactly as we would arrange it in this world. Last night we grilled shashlik [kebabs] and bratwursts. The shelter, as I said, has a built-in fireplace. It was built up high, so that it is easy to put in charcoal and grill over it. Svetlana made a delicious olivier salad, and we had other veggies and fruits. The adults ate, drank, chatted and watched the girls play. Roman and Gabriel went for a long walk to explore the new territory. I don’t believe Oksana’s parents could have looked more contented.

We now have a perfect spot where we can all gather. I have my own study with built-in sturdy shelves for books—lots of shelves which provide the convenient excuse for buying more books! And people here treat me well. I don’t know how I could go back to living in an America that seems to blame Russia for almost every problem and division. I am sure I could not keep quiet while others are lying about “the Russians.”

People here still debate politics, religion, and the economy. They don’t all share the same personal values and morals. Nevertheless, there are basic cultural values which a clear majority of Russians share. After 70 years of Communism, Russians have rediscovered their history and what they consider to be “the good life.” It is not the uniformity that the Communists insisted on, but there is real unity.

I agree with Mr. Buchanan that America has lost its cultural consensus and presently has no means for recovery. There are not just divisions, there are chasms between what different groups of Americans call virtues. And no one seems to know how to build bridges across the chasms. Oksana’s mom was right. There is a certain sadness in my eyes sometimes. Despite the sadness in my eyes, however, there is a genuine and deeper sense of contentment in my soul.

THREE YEARS BACK IN RUSSIA

The Immortal Regiment of Luga, May 9, 2019

This week marks our third “anniversary” back in Russia. On June 7, 2016 my brother took us to the airport in Charlotte, N.C. We hugged and said our goodbyes to him and my mom, and then we entered the airport knowing life was about to change for this family of five in a very big way. So I offer some reflections.

I went back and read the first couple of blog entries I wrote. I posted the first one June 10, but I had written it two days before we left. The house was about empty by then. We had had two “yard sales” and had gotten rid of most of our possessions. If we had to do it over again, we would have sold more than we did. We brought too much to Russia. One of the things we remembered from when we were in Russia before was you could not always get the clothes and possessions you needed in a small town. That has changed.

Some things have not changed. First, we still believe we made the right decision in moving to Russia. We had discussed, thought over, and prayed about our decision to move for well over a year. We ultimately made our decision in September 2015, and then gradually let family and friends know. We’ve had struggles here to be sure, but neither Oksana nor I have doubted that this was the right move.

The second thing that has not changed is the fact we still miss our American family and friends just as much today as the day we left. In fact, I think I miss my grown-up sons in America even more now. They’ve had some big decisions and sometimes problems, and I have regretted not being there with them. Of course, if I had been there, it would have changed nothing. They’re adults with wives, children, and jobs, and there is nothing a parent can do but listen, talk and pray. I don’t know that I expected I would adjust to not being close to them, but if I did then I was wrong.

On the other hand, I have enjoyed the process of becoming more a part of this culture. Victory Day was on May 9, and it has profound meaning for me living here in Russia. It is the celebration of when the Nazis were finally defeated. Living in this city, which was occupied by the Nazis while Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was under siege, makes one aware of the costs of war. I wrote a whole blog on it a year or so ago, so I won’t recount everything. Most all the townspeople gather on the square, and we march together to the war memorial about two miles away. We, like everyone else, carried the photos of relatives who had fought in the war. We took turns carrying the portraits of Oksana’s maternal and paternal grandfathers. This march, called The Immortal Regiment, takes place all across Russia.

Memorial Day in America has always been an important holiday to me. I think of those who landed at Normandy and how they courageously stared death right in the face. Nevertheless, while America lost around 410,000 people during that war, well over 19 million Russians died. The USSR lost about 27 million. And the war was fought here, not “over there.” Many cities and villages were destroyed. Further, estimates are that about 85-90% of the Nazis who died were killed by the Soviets. Russians are the people most responsible for victory in Europe. As Winston Churchill said in his speech to the House of Commons on August 2, 1944,

“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.”

A major disappointment now for us is how the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has deteriorated. It was getting tense when we moved. Donald Trump’s adversaries started playing the “Russia card” after he said in his campaign that working with Russia to fight terrorism would be a good thing. I mistakenly thought those tensions would ease after the 2016 election.

So when we left I was frustrated at the political situation. Nevertheless, I frankly didn’t think Trump had a “snowball’s chance in Hell” of winning the election, so I figured it would all settle down in November. I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and the Clintons have a history of talking tough about Russia, but, in the end, they work out deals. Heck, Bill Clinton had been paid $500,000 for one speech in Russia. Their “foundation” had had some profitable deals with Russia. When Trump won, however, the blame was placed on Russia. In the eyes of many it could not be that Hillary ran an awful campaign or that Americans wanted a non-traditional businessman with no political debts as president. The narrative was and is Trump won because the Russians “meddled.”

Reading those early blogs I remember that I wanted to stay away from politics. Yet, you can’t talk about an American in Russia now without dealing with the political aspects. I regularly watch the newscasts from America. Some days I see nothing about the soaring suicide rates among our war veterans, about poor medical care for the veterans, the explosive costs of medical care for American families, or the crumbling infrastructure . But I do not recall one day of watching the news from America and not hearing something nasty said about “the Russians.” It is as if “Putin’s Russia” has destroyed the American way of life. Thus, I couldn’t and can’t avoid the “elephant in the room.” When people hear I live in Russia, they don’t ask about samovars or borscht.

When the leaders or “wannabe leaders” (e.g., John Bolton) of a nation want to pick a fight with another nation, they often vilify that nation or its elected leaders. They convince their own people how bad other leaders are. Assad gasses his own people in Syria; Maduro doesn’t care that the Venezuelan people are starving; Iran is led by those wanting to destroy America. Putin meddles; he lies; he is evil. The truth of those claims must be accepted, and any contravening evidence squashed. Such talk gets the common people convinced that action must be taken—even military action.

I see no such vilification of America going on in Russia. I don’t hear Vladimir Putin making speeches about confronting America or his emissaries spreading rumors about how horrible the leaders are. Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler, and he really never responded. The “Steele Dossier” was intended to show “the Kremlin” was both out to intimidate Trump and, oddly enough, also get him elected. The falsity of that document has now been proven for those willing to accept facts. Nevertheless, I’m still having to write about politics.

I add the caveat the Putin is not pretending there are no potential problems. The advances in the Russian military capabilities are quite impressive, especially their missile and missile defense systems. Putin unveiled some astounding weaponry in March of last year, but the U.S. seemed to pay no attention. They keep harping on election meddling and acting as if they could defeat any nation in the world. The U.S. continues to drain its resources by funding military bases all around the world. On actual battlefields, however, Afghanistan has turned into another Vietnam in the sense that victory seems no longer a possibility. I’m not sure we even know what victory would look like. If you can’t win in Vietnam or Afghanistan you may want to re-think provoking China and Russia.

The Mueller investigation lasted two years and cost about $35 million tax dollars, but he and his team could not show Trump “colluded” with any Russians. That didn’t stop Mueller from blaming Russia in his recent public remarks. Some of what he said seemed weird to even non-lawyers like myself. He could find no evidence of collusion or anything illegal, but he couldn’t exonerate (prove innocent?) Trump either. Since when do investigators prove innocence? Also, he strongly implied that Trump was guilty of “obstruction of justice.” As John Batchelor sarcastically quipped, “Trump was guilty of trying to obstruct an investigation into a crime that was not committed.” What Mueller did do was continue the anti-Russian theme by insisting that he knew the Russians meddled.

What I did not hear on the network reports I watched was the mention of events in May of last year when Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and 3 Russian companies for interfering in the election. Initially, I read a claim he had hundreds of pages in Russian documents proving they did it. It looked like an easy play for Mueller. Obviously he could not force the Russians to come to America and stand trial, and no one thought they would volunteer. Thus, he could say he knew they were guilty, they would stay in Russia, and Mueller could then claim the Russians meddled and got Trump elected with no fear of contradiction.

What he did not foresee was that the Russians would fight. Concord Management and Consulting hired two Washington lawyers to go to court. They went before a judge and demanded Mueller and his team turn over the incriminating documents used to indict them. They wanted their speedy trial. They added two other points. First, if the documents proving they were meddling were written in Russian, how would said documents convince Americans to vote for Trump? Most Americans don’t read Russian. And how did Mueller’s team know what was in the documents since they could not read Russian either? Second, one of the companies Mueller indicted did not actually exist at the time he claimed they committed the acts.

Mueller’s team fumbled around in court and said they weren’t ready. The lawyers for the Russians asked how Mueller could indict anyone and then claim he was not ready and that he could not produce documents. The judge threw out Mueller’s indictments. (See https://www.sgtreport.com/2018/05/a-russian-nightmare-for-mueller-special-counsel-trial-lawyer-woefully-unprepared-to-actually-prosecute-the-indicted-russians/ and https://therightscoop.com/digenova-russians-call-muellers-bluff-judge-sides-with-russians/  ) After that fiasco, I did not believe any claims that Mueller was a fair man of integrity. It seemed from here that opinions about Mueller and the whole “Russiagate” affair were actually rooted in whether or not one liked or disliked Donald Trump.

After three years in Russia I trust politicians and the American media less than I did before—and my trust was not exactly high beforehand. Further, Trump’s election has polarized many Americans. Some tell me they like Trump, which apparently means they support anything he does. Other despise him and will oppose anyone or any leader with whom Trump tries to work. Then Trump himself is hardly a model of consistency. He stated a couple of weeks ago Iran better watch their threats or “that would be the official end of Iran.” The next week he spoke of the many Iranians he likes and said he was not seeking regime change.

I admire Putin based on the immense changes I see here in Russia from when I first came here in 2002. I went back and read my second blog entry again, which was when we actually arrived here. I described being astounded at the improvements in the airport, the roads, the buildings, the homes, as well as the number and quality of the automobiles. Of course, I don’t know enough about Russian politics to say Putin is responsible for all that, but he has been the main leader of the country during this time of positive transition. His approval ratings fell after the bill was presented on raising the age of retirement, but he still remains popular. His administration has been in charge in an extended period of growth. He gets a lot of the credit; that is the nature of politics.

I still see things here that bother me. Oksana and I have been able to help some elderly folk with their medical (and other) expenses. I’m not sure why more government help is not available. But, again, I don’t know enough about the details of Russia to know who is to blame. I don’t like saying I like (or don’t like) a politician, but I do admire Putin’s discipline and foresight. I also admire the way he has endured the cheap shots from American politicians without responding in kind. He seems to me to be of a higher caliber in the area of political character and resolve.

I have frequently said (and will continue to say) that I have been unpleasantly surprised at how Americans who know nothing of the situation here in Russia comment on it as if they are experts. Just two weeks ago I saw a “friend” on Facebook post something about Putin, calling him an evil dictator. Another one referred to him as a Communist dictator. I won’t go into the details, but I have recounted in my blogs the very negative things that have appeared in the press here about Putin. Pravda, the Communist publication, really blasted him after the bill on raising the retirement age. I’m not reporting second hand info; I actually read what it said. They have taken other shots at him as well. The Moscow Times, which is more pro-Western, often criticizes Putin. I have Russian friends who are not afraid to post their negative evaluations of Putin. Dictators don’t put up with that stuff. While the TV commentators are often positive about Putin, nothing gets anywhere close to the level of the good things CNN has said about Hillary Clinton or the praise Sean Hannity of Fox has rendered to Trump. In Russia, I get more actual news. I often do not learn any facts from the U.S. news reports, but I almost always know who the network likes.

The tragedy of all this political posturing is it damages potential diplomacy and increases the horrible risks in a nuclear age. I have stated on several occasions how my perspective on world events has changed as a result of seeing things from a much broader perspective. I used to think that if I watched CNN and FOX then I had gotten the two perspectives on events. Well, I did get two perspectives, but now I know there are far more than two perspectives on most issues. I watched a British reporter in an interview with a Syrian lady earlier this afternoon. The news anchor kept telling the lady in Syria all the bad things Assad was doing to her people. The lady calmly and firmly told the anchor she and most Western reporters don’t know what they are talking about. The news anchor was insistent in blasting Assad, but it became increasingly clear she had never been to Syria and could produce no one in her news department that had. She knew the narrative her government wanted her to know—despite what recent reports from the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons research showed.

I’m surprised at how many people have read my blog. When I started I thought if 50 people read it, I would consider it a success. It is great to hear from people in many countries who read it. Of course, I hear from some who disagree or just don’t like what I say. That is the nature of public debate. I’m also amazed at how people who don’t know me still think they know my motives. Rod Dreher did an article on me quoting the reasons I had given for our coming to Russia. There were several comments from people who just could not accept those were my true motives. The most humorous was from a fellow who disbelieved all I said and suggested it was probably because my wife is from a family of Russian oligarchs. This Freeman guy really came to Russia to get in on the family’s money. My in-laws must be the only oligarchs in Russia living in a three room apartment.

I had one other significant “life event” since my last blog: I turned 65 years old. I don’t really feel different physically. After my birthday, I walked 5.22 miles (8.4 km) just to prove myself. I’ve pretty much given up losing a lot of weight since my thyroid stopped working a few years back, but except for the thyroid medication I’m on no prescription medicines.

The birthday did, however, make me reflect on life a bit. After pondering the reality that I am in my mid-60s, for some reason my mind went back to when I was in my 40s. Back then I was teaching both at the university and seminary level. I loved my job, loved the students, the administration, and had plenty of speaking opportunities. I even had some articles published.

The only teaching I’ll be doing now is returning to teaching English to Russian teenagers this fall. The only writing I do is this blog and answering e-mails. I never speak in any public format. I certainly do not have the income I did twenty years ago! But life is better now, mainly because the personal aspects of life are far more gratifying to me than the professional ones. I wish I had realized that at a younger age. I kept believing that more professional accomplishments would somehow smooth out my flaws and calm the struggles in my personal life.

Since becoming Eastern Orthodox I have discovered a spiritual perspective or depth that was missing for most of my life. I still think reading New Testament and LXX Greek is an immensely profitable spiritual experience, and I recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity. But I don’t read Greek just to show I can anymore. I love the struggle of comparing Greek to the Russian translations, but I do it in the quiet of our home, and speak of the nuggets revealed to me only to my wife. Further, reading the writings of the Fathers and saints who knew so much about the value of quiet humility has taught me the futility and stupidity of my former ambitions. Did this happen because I came to Russia? I’m not sure, but there is so much “noise” in America now. I know that living here has made the lessons I’ve learned in my later years easier to digest and live. I fondly remember and miss my former “world,” but I’ll always be grateful for the one I live in now.

RESIDING IN RUSSIA

I have not written a blog in well over two months. I accepted another writing project which occupied my attention for some of the time. A Russian Orthodox journal invited me to write an article about coming to Russia and to Russian Orthodoxy. Additionally, we have had some “events” which have kept me from the blog. I will discuss some of these events because they may answer some questions I have recently received.

RESIDENCY. First, I received my Temporary Residency (RVP) in late February. I applied for it back in the first part of September. Getting residency is important. Russia is not a country that holds to “open borders” or anything close to it. The laws on entering the country are clear and enforced. Of course, Russia is the largest territorial country in the world. They cannot guard every kilometer of their border, especially given the rough terrain in some spots, so there are illegals here. It is quite different here than in America, however. First, the illegals come here to work and expect nothing else. They get no benefits from the government. Further, if they have children here, the Russian government does not grant those children citizenship as is the case in America.

All Russian citizens have a “domestic passport.” It functions as a picture ID a bit like a drivers license in America. You must have it with you at all times. Foreigners are also required to have our passports with us. Picture identification is mandatory for citizens and non-citizens. Police can stop you and ask for your ID for any or no reason. I have never been stopped, but I still carry my ID with me.

I, like many others, came here on a 3 year multi-entry visa. As it was coming to the end of the 3 years I applied for my RVP. There are advantages to going through this complex and tedious process. First, I don’t have to leave and re-enter Russia every six months, as is required of anyone here on a visa as I have mentioned before.

Second, with the Temporary Residency one can officially work at any job. This is one of the confusing parts of being here on a visa. You are technically not allowed to work. Nevertheless, I have known many people who teach English here either privately or on-line, and I have never known anyone to have subsequent visa problems. I know other Westerners who do various kinds of work in Information Technology and also never have a problem. Sometimes in Russia the line between “allowed” and “not allowed” gets fuzzy in actual practice. Since I am retired and on Social Security it was not a big issue for me.

More importantly to me, the RVP is a necessary step to permanent residency. While it is good for 3 years (non-renewable), I can apply for permanent residency in 6 months. I intend on applying as soon as I am eligible. Permanent residency is good for five years and can be renewed. In addition to being able to work, the person with the PR is eligible to receive a pension. The pension amount would be small for me since I have not worked here, but it is something. Second, one is eligible for free health care. I have repeatedly stated how good and inexpensive health care is here in Russia. However, if I am a permanent resident, even if I have a serious problem which requires, say, major surgery or long term care, I am granted that for free. Permanent residency is also a step to citizenship, but I have no plans to apply for Russian citizenship.

Work visas are available, but they are not easy to get. The primary problem in a small town like Luga is that most employment opportunities are with small companies or schools. To obtain a work visa you have to be invited by an employer. The employer, in turn, is required to provide you with a job and benefits such as accommodations and health insurance. Most small companies or schools cannot afford that. So work visas are usually granted only by larger schools, universities and businesses.

VISITORS. We had visitors from America who stayed here in Luga for the first two weeks of April. It was an Orthodox couple with six children whom we had met in an on-line group of persons thinking of moving to Russia. They had read my blog and made contact. We got to know them well after several Skype conversations and other messages. They decided they wanted to investigate moving to Luga. They had been to Russia before but never to this area. Their reasons were basically the same as those of other folks I have mentioned. They no longer believe American culture is the best place to raise children with their traditional Orthodox Christian values. There were other cultural and social issues we discussed that I won’t go into, but their children were the main concern. They homeschool their children and sense that the stronger intrusive practices of the American government would continue to be a problem if they stayed in America.

The visit went extremely well. They liked the small town “feel” of Luga and commented frequently on how quiet the town is. They brought one daughter, 4 years old, with them. Since she is Marina’s age, we all thought it would be good. Rob (not his real name) and I were in the playground behind the church with our daughters, and he commented that even when children play here it seems somehow less noisy. The peaceful nature of this small town in Russia impressed them.

They visited our church for Liturgy and the Trapeza meal afterwards the two Sundays they were here. Everyone was very gracious towards them. They really enjoyed getting to know people at Trapeza. There is a homeschool group in the community which meets in our Sunday School room for “co-op,” and they asked Audrey to come and speak to them. She reported having a wonderful time. Both Oksana and I remember that when we first visited the church folks were so reluctant to speak with me since I was the first American many of them had seen. Now, however, they have grown comfortable with us and reached out to our visiting Americans. Several were trying to speak English with them as best they could.

We also spent a day in St. Petersburg. We visited Church on the Savior’s Blood and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Our guests were obviously overwhelmed by the beauty of these classic Russian Orthodox Churches. They also got to walk along Nevsky Prospekt and got a “feel” for old Russia. Walking around the “Center” of Petersburg is much different than Moscow. They said St. Petersburg definitely made Russian history come alive for them.

We took them for walks around Luga several times which gave them opportunities to ask questions. We took them to Luga’s little mall, to the grocery stores, clothing shops, etc. They were impressed both by all that was available here and the prices. At the end of their time here they told us Luga had exceeded their expectations. They made the decision to sell their home, start really saving money and hopefully return to Luga to live in a year or so. They have since notified us their house has sold. They are now saving money to purchase land to build a house here. So it appears that one day I may not be the only American resident in Luga.

POLITICS. Obviously there has been political news since I last wrote a blog. And, of course, Russia is also mentioned in any political development. The Mueller Report was released, and no evidence was found of Trump or his campaign “colluding” with Russians or Vladimir Putin. When Mueller was selected to head the special investigation many thought something would be found on Trump since Mueller was no fan of Trump. The “circle” he included in his investigation were solidly predisposed against Trump, as the Peter Strzok e-mails revealed. Yet, as the investigation wore on it appeared less and less likely than any collusion was being discovered. Finally, just before the report was released only “true believers” like Rachel Maddow, John Brennan and their MSNBC and CNN comrades wrongly thought bad news was ahead for Trump.

After the anti-Trump grieving party subsided, it became clear nothing was really solved. The tirades against him and, by default, Russia continued. In my opinion America is increasingly being led by politicians who crave division and aggression. America has problems with an opiod crisis, rising suicide rates among veterans, deteriorating infrastructure, and other needs. Yet I seldom hear of what the political leaders are doing to solve any of these. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I have heard when Congress has actually solved anything.

The reactions I saw here were a mixture of confusion on the part of some and humor from others. They do not see why the anti-Russian feelings are so strong. Further, other than general broadsides by those who just assume Russia is evil, no facts ever emerged implicating Russia. Mueller’s report seem to assume Russia meddled, but he never offered proof. I’ve been following this story since the “Felix Dzerzhinsky” e-mail and nothing is convincing. Further, William Binney who certainly knows a lot about e-mails and intelligence, has written a very careful explanation of why it was not the Russians. No one has even responded to his points as far as I can tell. (See https://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2019/02/why-the-dnc-was-not-hacked-by-the-russians.html?fbclid=IwAR1e7YhrmJrSaByVa1i_xcjvLZOAcVmhcCCU5TtHcqLx_l0b0JbvtTZZdQg)

I live here. So far the nasty stuff being said about Russia in the U.S. has still not impacted my family or me. Russians in general do not hold individuals responsible for the behavior of their government. Yet some of us are concerned that the constant berating of Russia in the U.S. will eventually have some kind of ramifications.

Since I can get European news more easily here, I now hear more complaints from Western Europe about American interventionism. America continues its policy of “regime change” in countries that elect leaders it doesn’t like. Venezuela’s president is now on the hit list of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. The justification is that there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and America must jump in and support a coup that would drive out President Maduro. Despite the fact that same method turned out horribly in Iraq and Libya, the American people are still being told we do this because we care about the people there. I am quite sure the Iraqis and Libyans disagree. The U.S. is responsible for the loss of many innocent lives in those countries. We tried it with Syria, but we were unsuccessful. Despite Trump’s expressed desire to get us out of Syria, it looks like the war hawks are determined that will not happen.

As I have mentioned before, I also swallowed the “we need to help these poor people out” pitches from our government years ago. I was absolutely convinced Assad in Syria was a terrible person who would periodically gas his own people. After hearing so many bad things about Russia that I knew were lies, however, I grew suspicious of reports about other countries. Are those also lies? Then I watched reports from those actually on the ground. I am not talking about main stream reporters who appeal to “unidentified sources.” Janice Kortkamp, Tom Duggan, Eva Bartlett and Pearson Sharp (One America News) showed me from their work in Syria that it was all a lie.

I have also mentioned that nagging question I had as to why are we not just as concerned about other regimes that are clearly more corrupt than Venezuela—and yet have little or no oil. The corrupt dictators of Chad, Burma, Sudan and a host of other countries have been around a LOT longer than Maduro. Their people have been suffering for years. Check out the number of “child soldiers” in Burma. Yet our humanitarian compassion just doesn’t spread to where huge reservoirs of oil are not present. And isn’t it possible that our sanctions and other actions against the economy of Venezuela over the last two years are what really ignited the “humanitarian crisis” there?

Further, Saudi Arabia was recently denounced by the U.N. for executing teenage boys over minor crimes. At least one 16 year old was photographed being beheaded because he had been caught using WhatsApp to talk with other teens outside his country. Women in Saudi Arabia who are convicted of adultery are still stoned. The evidence of the sins need not be overwhelming. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia purchases huge amounts of weaponry from the U.S. “military industrial complex,” perhaps more than any country in the world. It also uses the petrodollar which helps keep the American economy afloat.

During his campaign President Trump viciously attacked the Saudi regime. He called Saudi Arabia the “world’s biggest funder of international terrorism.” Worse, he said, they use our petrodollar to fund these terrorists activities. He even blamed them for blowing up the World Trade Center. (See https://internationalman.com/articles/the-secret-reason-trump-is-so-cozy-with-saudi-arabia/ .)

Yet Trump used his first veto to stop a resolution passed by both the House and Senate to stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against tiny Yemen. The government he condemned he now praises. I think he knew in the presidential campaign how corrupt the Saudi government is. I think he also believed being President of the United States means you are perhaps the most powerful man in the world—at least the most powerful in Washington, D.C. He really did believe he could stop the Saudi bad behavior when he became president. He was wrong. I don’t think Trump was lying during the campaign. I think he learned, as did Bush II and Obama, he wasn’t in charge.

Further, Trump has been constantly berated over the “collusion” and any attempt to do real diplomacy has been met with intense criticism. This morning I watched Trump appear before reporters and talk of his recent conversation with Putin. The two leaders agreed both countries should try to help with getting food and supplies to the people of Venezuela. They further agreed to start negotiations for mutually reducing nuclear weapons and also increasing trade between the two countries. CNN’s Jake Tapper immediately called Trump a “spokesman for the Kremlin.” Such is the depth to which reporting has descended in America.

There are two main reasons I don’t believe Trump and Putin “colluded.” First, the lack of evidence which the Mueller report confirmed. Second, Putin has said publicly it really doesn’t matter who the President of the United States is. The President is not the one who makes the big decisions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xykvrGpCW6E. Trump said before he was elected he would work with Putin and, to some degree, Assad and work against Saudi Arabia. That is not what happened. Putin knew it wouldn’t work before Trump did.

I have used the phrase “blessings and battles” on a number of occasions to summarize life here in Russia. The battles with Russian bureaucracy that I mentioned are minor compared to the battles within my own mind over events in my home country. The political division rages on, and I can hardly fathom how vicious and dirty things will become as another election year (2020) approaches. Several folks we know in America wanting to come to Russia have already expressed their fears to us about 2020.

One battle for those of us already here—and this is far from being the first time I’ve mentioned it—is that we know many things being reported about Russia and other countries are lies. Yet, to express this fact is often taken by family and friends in America as either delusional or deceitful. The mystery remains for many of us: How do those who have never been here, never studied the language, history or political system in any depth seem to know so much? I have talked to other Americans who live here. We really regret it when family and friends sometimes cut off communication with us. But we can’t pretend to believe what we know is not factual.

For most of my life I was a true believer in America as a country committed to truth and justice. Yet the talk our Secretary of State recently gave at Texas A&M University expressed clearly why I have long since stopped believing that. It was not just that Pompeo said that at the CIA “we lie, we cheat, we steal.” As Ron Paul said, it was the glee and even silly laughter with which he proclaimed lying, cheating, and stealing as “the glory of the American experiment.” Dr. Paul says you have to watch his comments, which are obviously mocking the military cadet’s vow “not to lie, not to cheat, not to steal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RmEsPE7iq0.

The blessings include that fact that Russia is a good place to raise a family, and it is a far more peaceful culture. Oh, I know there are many good things about America and bad things about Russia. Still, no one here is questioning my right to raise my children as I believe to be right. No one is telling me I have to expose them to “alternative lifestyles” before they reach maturity.

This time of year has been the high point of the year for Orthodox believers. Last Sunday was Orthodox Pascha (Easter). Unfortunately my family and I got hit with a “rotovirus,” and only Gabriel was able to attend the midnight service. (Since I wasn’t there he got to do the Gospel reading in English for everyone.) Fortunately, I was not so sick I couldn’t watch TV. We turned on the TV to the Orthodox channel Saturday morning. We watched live the service the Patriarch was conducting in Moscow. The hosts frequently explained for the viewers the significance of each part of the service. When there was a break one commentator joyfully exclaimed how wonderful it is now in Russia that “We Orthodox Christians can live out our faith, we can express our beliefs, share the faith in this land which prohibited anything to do with Christianity for so long.” He was exuberant. Even the lead story on the secular news channel I turned to was Orthodox Pascha.

Russia went through horrible years wherein for over three generations the government tried to obliterate from the land any vestiges of Christianity or any religion. It has now emerged as a place in which people like us can raise and feed our families without interference or exclusion. Politicians and peasants alike can speak of their faith without thinking they will “offend” others who choose to disagree. I fear that many of the “powers-that-be” in America have different plans for the land of my birth.

THE EXPAT OPTION: A CONCLUSION

I am writing a conclusion to my last blog for two reasons. I wrote that blog as a response to the article by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, “Expatriates of the Heart.” Dreher addressed the fact that some of his readers have “given up on America” and are considering leaving or have left the country. He invited and received many comments. The first draft I wrote of my response blog was too long, and I deleted quite a bit. So now I want to summarize some points I deleted. The second reason I am writing about the same topic is Mr. Dreher was kind enough to follow up with an article on my blog. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/taking-the-expatriate-option-hal-freeman-russia/ That article got picked up by several outlets so I randomly selected a few comments to read from different sites. So I am working in responses to the comments to the sections I had previously deleted.

Before getting into the heart of my discussion, I’d like to address one point that was raised in the comments which neither Dreher nor I really discussed. A few responded (to paraphrase), “Either Freeman doesn’t really understand or does not care about the totalitarian nature of the Putin led Russian government under which he lives.” One comment referenced the pic of me that was posted with Dreher’s article about our decision to move to Russia. He said it was unintended irony that I was intently reading Pravda, a publication of the Communist Party. Actually I was not reading it. My wife got me to pose for the pic and posted it on Facebook as a joke not long after we moved to Russia. My friends got a big laugh out of it, as you can imagine.

The pic and comments reminded me that last fall Pravda ran a front page story essentially calling Putin a liar who does not care about his people. It quoted Putin from early 2005 when he said he would not raise the age of retirement. The “pension” age in Russia was 60 for men and 55 for women. When Putin indicated in 2018 that he would support a bill to raise it to 65 for men and 60 for women, Pravda and other publications sharply attacked him. (Note: Alterations were made to the bill.)

In Putin’s defense, when he originally promised to keep pensions at the same ages, he did not foresee the sharp rise in life expectancy in Russia over the next several years. (See http://www.unz.com/akarlin/russian-demographics-in-2019/?fbclid=IwAR0duI24PUez05-PQH5Rgx_dJfZj0pvlRNv5xFlwGYqWcN4poy-fgwX_MsA) A whole lot more people are collecting pension checks today, and the government is “feeling the pinch.”

The main point I want to make, however, is the Communist Party and many other outlets feel free to publish strong criticisms of Putin. He is criticized here on a number of other topics, especially what some see as his passive responses to Western aggression. That does not happen in a totalitarian society. If I did not see the news here in Russia, I would judge from Western sources I live in a closed society where no one feels free to criticize the leader. Putin is a strong leader to be sure, but he is no dictator. Dictators silence public criticisms. I would also wrongly conclude Putin enjoys a close relationship with the Communist Party in Russia—or is secretly sympathetic to a return to Communism. A leader wanting to return to Communism does not repeatedly say, as has Putin, that whoever wants Communism restored has no brain. Western publications claiming Putin does not allow dissent in Russia or is a “closet Communist” are not based on actual research of what is written and said here. They ignore or distort both what Putin has written and said and imply contrary views are not allowed. They focus on unproven and illogical accusations that Putin is responsible for the deaths of opposition reporters.

On a related point, overall I think the news shows here present different sides of most issues more fairly than their U.S. counterparts. I admit surpassing the fairness and objectivity of the American MSM is a very low bar to hurdle. In news talk shows here a number of perspectives are heard. They even have an American journalist, Michael Bohm, who usually takes the pro-American perspective on major international stories on one of the main news programs. Can you imagine a major news talk show in America allowing a knowledgeable Russian to explain freely the Russian “side” of the news?

I’ve been coming here since 2002. I have visited Russia many times and have lived here almost six years total. I have read a number of biographical works on Putin, have read as many of his speeches as possible, but I have no way of knowing what he is really like or whether he has huge amounts of money stashed away in off-shore accounts (or whatever the current “inside” information is on him in the West). I have, however, seen first-hand the improvements which have been made during his tenure as president, and they are quite impressive.

In the blog I stated I do not ever try to convince anyone to come to Russia. Rather, I try to provide the best possible responses to inquiries based on my experiences and research. In several comments to Dreher’s first article, some readers explained why they could not leave America. Some just did not believe they could learn a new language. I have repeatedly mentioned that is a problem here, since Russian is a tough language to learn. Probably the most frequently mentioned reason was financial. That is completely understandable. I realize the decision about our move was made easier because I was able to take early retirement and have enough pension to cover living expenses here. There are increasing avenues of work for expats coming to Russia because of changes in electronic communication, but each family has to decide whether or not they can make an acceptable income.

Among the comments I read on me and our move was the suggestion that finances, not cultural values, may have been the real reason we moved. Our “lifestyle” here is in some ways better than in America and in some ways not. We have lived in a very small apartment now for over two and a half years. Our three room apartment is about one-fourth the size of our home in America. It is cramped! Also, we have gone without a car during this time and are dependent on public transportation. Public transportation here is good and cheap so we don’t have to have a car, but obviously having our own car would provide us with more convenience for travel. On the other hand, having a mortgage, car payments, utility and medical bills in the U.S. meant we rarely could go out to a nice restaurant; vacations were few and far between. It is different for us here. We can go out to eat, travel a bit, and we have also been able to help other families in distress through help a fellow Orthodox believer organizes in the area. So we have less in terms of “material goods” here, but our cost of living is also much, much lower. Families have to determine for themselves what they can do given their financial responsibilities.

I worked for my brother in America, and he offered that I could retire but continue working my old job part-time. The total income from Social Security and part-time pay would’ve been about the same as my full-time salary, and I would have had more time with my family. I was concerned about how much time I would’ve been called back to the office, but the overriding issue was we were growing more concerned about the direction American culture was headed.

Another question that came up was what specifically were the things about American culture that motivated us to leave. The people who asked were not arguing the basic point Dreher (and I) made about America’s moral and spiritual decline. But “are those problems sufficiently different from the country to which you moved to warrant such a drastic step?” I believe they are. I did not write much about these concerns in my early blogs. As I have said, the blog was started in response to a request from some folks at our church who were simply interested in what life was like in Russia. Early on I stated that I would not avoid the political (or cultural) issues, but those were not the main purpose. Further, I really was reluctant to criticize my country. As the situation in America further declined, however, and I got more and more inquiries from people who were seriously thinking about moving here, the blog “evolved.” I think it is more important now to address specifics of what prompted us to consider a move.

When we moved from Russia to America in 2008 we decided that Roman, who was almost 8 at the time, would go to public school. We did it primarily so he could learn English, and it worked very well. Also, the school was in a rural area outside a small town in South Carolina. I believed public schools there were still solid academically, and I did not foresee any “worldview” conflicts. All went well as far as I knew, but I found out after he had completed one year of early high school that he had had one teacher who was openly gay. The teacher would sometimes describe places he and his partner had gone over the weekend or what activities they had enjoyed. My response was not one of an open-minded progressive. At the same time, had I known about it, I was informed there was nothing I could have done other than to remove our son from the school. That opened my eyes to other ways even my small town culture was changing.

The second event was related to “transgenderism.” While we were thinking about moving to Russia, a chain discount store, Target, announced that the restroom facilities would not be restricted to one’s biological gender. How one “identified” in terms of gender would be respected. Shortly after that there was a report of an incident in one of the Target stores located very close to us. A mother was waiting for her young daughter to use the restroom when she saw a person, who was obviously a biological male (dressed as a female), enter the restroom. She became concerned and when she entered she apparently saw this person trying to enter the stall where her daughter was. I said “apparently” because the press release was vague. The trans-gender person was told to leave, but no charges were filed. The mother was horrified. I feared this would not be an isolated event.

I have a daughter. I was 60 years old when, after four sons, she was born. I had a girl! I admit the rumors that I am a doting, overprotective aged father are true. I was enraged when I read the story. I thought even more deeply about the culture in which my little girl and her 7 year old brother would be raised. I learned early this week that near where we lived, there is a neighboring town in S.C. debating whether or not “drag queens” can present their “reading hour”program to small children in the public library. Permission was given to them to do so. It was halted, however, when the library officials realized the “Mom’s Liberal Happy Hour SC” group, who was sponsoring the event, had required tickets to attend, which was against the library’s policies. Nevertheless, the group dropped the ticket requirement and reapplied. Their request was approved. So little children got the opportunity to hear a drag queen who believes she can, in her words, “give them someone to look up to.”

Obviously, no one is forced to take their child to such an event. But I have learned over time you cannot fully insulate your child from the culture. I am no expert on parenting, but I do have a lot of parental experience extending over times of cultural change. I have 5 children. My oldest son is 36, my second son is 34, my stepson is 18, my youngest son is 10 and my daughter is now 4. Yes, that is quite a range. I have learned, as have many parents, that during adolescence children reach a point when parents are no longer the dominate influence in their lives. They are financially dependent, but you have to deal with the fact they are influenced by forces outside your control. We all struggle to prepare them for the big—and sometimes bad—world. Releasing them into a culture that is so blatant in its opposition to traditional values was a new and big concern for me. We are never able to keep out all the bad influences, but it is a new era in America. The drag queens aren’t just parading publicly in San Francisco. They’re in Simpsonville, S.C. – the buckle of the Bible Belt! As Dreher indicated, America is no longer a force for good in the minds of some of us.

It isn’t just the changing of values, however. It is the censure of open discussion and inquiry. Even when persons try to articulate their conservative social views in a clearly rational manner, they rarely get an honest hearing. The same old ad hominem attacks are used repeatedly. I see reports that on major college campuses honest political and social debate is being silenced. I recall my state supported university as a place devoted to healthy and rational debate. So if my children were to reach college age in America, it would not be just what university will provide a quality program for them; it would also be to what degree this university silences those who do not go along with the current spirit of the times. Is freedom of speech still a reality even in the hallowed halls of the academia in America?

The situation is very different here in Russia. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Russians, in general, still approve of traditional male/female roles, much as Americans did when I was growing up. Men hold the door for ladies and help with cumbersome or heavy bags. They also “watch their language” when ladies are present. Some American women find these things offensive. Others do not. It is difficult being a gentleman in America: you never know if you’re going to offend somebody by what you do or say. On more serious issues, Putin’s philosophy on matters of same sex relationships and gender identity are that such decisions should not be encouraged until the individual is of mature age. A strong majority of Russians agree. Thus, while gender reassignment surgery is legal in Russia for adults, as is the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, gay marriage is prohibited. Further, strict laws are in place prohibiting the display of affection by such individuals in a public place to which children have access. Thus, events like gay pride parades and similar activities are usually prohibited by local authorities, although they are sometimes allowed in certain locales. I am quite confident access to public restrooms will continue to be based strictly on biological gender, and no drag queens will be appearing at the local libraries or schools. In a broader sense, traditional Orthodox values are generally encouraged.

Another valid question raised in the comments to Dreher’s article about me is, “Are we not as believers called on to be salt and light where we are?” What if everyone with our convictions leaves? Then what happens? Should we apply some sort of cultural “categorical imperative”? It is a fair and important question. So how does someone like me respond?

First, some personal history. When I was 18 years old I joined the U.S. Marines. I distinctly remember that after I had signed up I went down for the preliminary psychological and physical examinations. This was not when I was entering “boot camp,” but it was to make sure I was suitable. After I had finished the tests I went to “check out.” The sergeant spoke in a usual gruff manner: “Freeman!” I meekly responded, “Yes, Sir?” He said, “Our country is at war in a place called Vietnam. Will you hereby swear you are willing to take up arms to defend your country to the death?” I had never heard it expressed quite that way before, but I firmly responded: “Yes, Sir!” He nodded, “Very well, sign here and you are dismissed. You’ll be notified when to report to Parris Island.”

I served over three years active duty, but I was never sent to Vietnam. At the time I sincerely meant it when I said I had no qualms about fighting. Now, I think what a tragedy other young men like me were sent to fight in what was a meaningless war. As I said in my last blog, John Bolton wasn’t willing to do what I and thousands of young men were willing to do, but he and others in leadership are still sending young men and women to such places. I detest both the hypocrisy and the casual way leaders and politicians are eager to send Americans to risk their lives for what turns out to be political posturing and arms sales. Dying in Afghanistan or Syria will not ensure the security of the American borders or the American way of life. In my youthful naivete, I was willing to risk my life for my country. Knowing what I know now, I’m not willing to risk my children.

I am not called to save American culture from itself. Pat Buchanan wrote The Suicide of a Superpower: Will American Civilization Survive to 2025, in which he describes the descent and possible death of American civilization. For his negative appraisal of American culture he was terminated from his job at MSNBC. He takes the title from Arnold Toynbee: “Great civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” I will not sacrifice the future of my children on the altar of America’s suicidal tendencies. God did not call Lot to transform Sodom. He told him to leave.

Again, I am not trying to convince anyone to move to Russia. I do think if one decides to remain in America then you need to get very serious about The Benedict Option. And be ready to pay what may be a very high price for being counter-cultural. Whether or not a family decides to go “The Benedict Option on Steroids” route (as one wag called a move to Russia) is up to each family. Clearly, moving to Russia does not mean I’m more committed to my values or more spiritual than others. It was something we researched, about which we prayed, sought advice and came to believe was right for our family.

Emigrating clearly requires consideration of a number of factors and is not just about dissatisfaction with the decline of cultural values one sees in his or her home culture. Moving from America to Russia is not for everyone, but many families are seriously considering it. The clear majority are Orthodox. There is a spiritual connection to Russia among Orthodox churches and believers. These are not families acting on a whim. I’m impressed by their diligence in research. They somehow find and get in touch with people like us who are already here. Some have visited Russia, and others have plans to do so soon. The ones I have talked to are families who understand far more about Russia than those typically criticizing them. They are not under any delusions that Russia is perfect and free of problems or crime. These people are not to be compared with “starry-eyed” predecessors of past eras. They believe the U.S. Government will continue to intrude in the private lives of its citizens and seek to influence the next generation in ways that contradict the values they hold most dear. Life in Russia presents immigrants with challenges, problems and frustrations. It is not, however, interested in tearing down the faith and values of those parents who desire to pass them on to their next generation.

ROD DREHER, JOHN MEARSHEIMER AND THE EXPAT OPTION

Several days after I posted my last blog I noticed a sharp uptick in viewers. In 24 hours I got over 400 views. For a small time blogger like myself that is unusual when I have not posted anything new. Occasionally I get a larger than normal number of “hits” either when my blog is translated into Russian or when another site picks it up. Neither of those had happened. I discovered the blog had been mentioned in the comments to an article, “An Expatriate of the Heart,” by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/an-expatriate-of-the-heart/

Rod Dreher is widely known in Christian circles from his book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” The book was published in 2017, but his idea had been discussed in print long before then. While Dreher is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, his book was widely acclaimed not only in Orthodox circles but among Protestant Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics. The book extends some of the thought of Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and examines virtues in “post-Christian” America. Dreher contends the traditional Christian world-view has been all but excluded from both the pop-millennial culture and the halls of Western academia.

Dreher decided to take up MacIntyre’s challenge to pioneer a new way of following Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s counsel to live out the Christian tradition in Christian communities that are in many ways socially detached from the larger communities in which they are geographically located. (The idea goes back to Benedict of Nursia.) In his preface Dreher recalls how in 1999 at the birth of his first child his thoughts on American culture began to change. Before then he had thought of himself as a Christian and also a conservative. Dreher, like many new parents, began to think more about the future culture in which his son would grow up. He began to notice disturbing trends in American culture and wondered “what, exactly, it was that mainstream conservatism was conserving.” For Dreher, the days of depending on changing America’s moral and spiritual values through electing a new slate of politicians are over. Dreher’s call to arms is not about resurrecting the “Moral Majority” of Jerry Falwell. The ballot box is no longer an effective means of cultural transformation.

Dreher’s book both enlightens “orthodox” (little “o” is emphasized) believers about the current cultural and social trends and calls those believers to unite in “counter-cultural” communities. America’s education system, like its political system, can no longer be trusted. It is not so much a criticism of “dumbing down” educational expectations, as getting parents to recognize that the loss of classic educational principles in American school systems is often matched with a desire to “socialize” the students in ways that run counter to basic Christian values. I recall before we moved from America seeing the public education videos proudly showing trans-gender individuals being brought in early grade school classes to interact with the students and ostensibly lower their apprehensions about such individuals. Conservative Christianity is no longer part of mainstream America. Dreher follows Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore in saying the church must “lose its cultural respectability to become radically faithful.”

Others, not writing from a Christian perspective, have also noted major changes in American culture and the inability of much of “the public” to change those trends. In his recent book, “The Great Delusion,” noted political scientist John Mearsheimer discusses how difficult, nay impossible, it is for people in a liberal culture to agree on what “the good life” is. Mearsheimer is not using the word “liberal” in the way we often do to describe someone who holds to a certain set of political perspectives, e.g., women rights, gay rights, pro-choice, etc. He is using “liberal” to refer to belief in the importance of the individual and individual rights as opposed to, say, a monarchy or some other system that devalues the place of the individual in the political and economic destiny of a nation.

Despite the emphasis on individual rights, Mearsheimer contends we are profoundly communal in nature. We are born and raised “in community.” Society and culture are essential factors in our self-definition. He defines a major dilemma the liberal state faces: “For a society to hold together, there must be substantial overlap in how its members think about the good life, and they must respect each other when, inevitably, serious disagreements arise.” I doubt anyone reading or watching the debates about our cultural values in America would conclude there is a whole lot of respectful debate going on over our deep divisions in defining “the good life.”

In the sense that Mearsheimer defines “liberal,” the Constitution of the United States outlines a liberal nation. America was founded on individual rights, e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to engage in business without governmental controls. That would be what Mearsheimer calls “modus vivendi” freedom. That is the kind of “liberal” thinking that characterizes the views of more traditional, usually Republican, Americans.

Another major group in American culture which is also liberal is categorized by Mearsheimer as “progressive liberals.” They agree on the importance of individual freedoms. They point out, however, that we all are born with different opportunities to realize those freedoms. Most people would concur that certain factors about one’s birth–whether you are white or black; poor or rich; Protestant or Jewish—can and often has impacted the American experience of freedom. Progressive liberals today include such factors as sexual orientation and gender identity. “Racism” is extended in a number of ways which vivendi liberals find confusing. Thus, according to progressive liberals, the government must engage in social engineering to make sure those individuals who sometimes were denied their rights get full access. What this approach means is that the rights of those who have traditionally enjoyed “privilege” over others should be stripped of any possible advantages. Thus, preference may be given to others historically denied full access. The government must intervene to balance the scales. Currently, the progressives are in charge culturally and politically. Mearsheimer, like Dreher, believes the modus vivendi liberal adherents cannot win the cultural battle at the ballot box. He states:

“To understand how thoroughly progressivism has triumphed, consider how liberalism relates to the major political parties in the United States today. The Democratic Party’s ruling ideology is clearly progressive liberalism, and it acts accordingly when it controls the key levers of power in Washington. If you listen to Republicans, you might think they follow the dictates of modus vivendi liberalism. That is usually true of their rhetoric, but it is not how they govern. In office, Republicans act like Democrats” (p.69).

An example of this fact is that most Republican candidates campaigned as “anti-abortion.” Republicans held majorities in the House and Senate, as well as the White House, from 2016-2018, but absolutely nothing was done to reduce government funding of Planned Parenthood. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/report-government-funds-largest-source-of-planned-parenthood-revenue-66930. This funding continues even after videos showing members of Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parts were proven authentic. http://thefederalist.com/2019/01/18/court-rules-undercover-videos-planned-parenthood-selling-baby-body-parts-authentic/.

In Dreher’s article, “Expatriate of the Heart,” to which I referred in my first paragraph, he ventures a bit further than “counter cultural.” He gives a lengthy quote from a reader in Atlanta who had “played by the rules” of how to succeed in America. He was an Eagle Scout growing up, served in the military, sent his daughters to Christian colleges and worked hard. He ended up losing the business he helped build to hostile investors, his wife left him “for another woman,” and the court took his house. From his struggle he found his place in the Orthodox faith, but realized how American culture had changed in ways that contradicted his faith. He began to travel and came to see his homeland differently. He gave up on America. Dreher was obviously impacted by this man’s letter as well as other information he has been receiving from followers.

While the seed for “The Benedict Option” was the birth of his son, Dreher relates another parental “ah ha” moment. His 14 year old son mentioned his interest in someday joining the military. Dreher was surprised at his own response. He does not look down on the military, but he winced when he thought of how the U.S. forces are involved in perpetual wars all over the globe. He did not want his son to participate.

I don’t have space to treat Mearsheimer’s discussion of this issue thoroughly. Suffice to say he documents how fruitless and devastating our wars have been since WWII. My father’s generation was told Korea was important enough to fight over. After many lives were lost, little was accomplished. The next generation was told Vietnam was worth fighting for in order to stop the growth of Communism. It took many years before the U.S. admitted it was a lost cause and left the country in a far more decimated condition than when we arrived. Many lives—both American and Vietnamese—were lost. The North Vietnamese moved back in after the U.S. pulled out, and today a united Vietnam has one political party—which is Communist. The Vietnamese economy seems finally to have recovered from the American intervention.

From Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places Mearsheimer shows how ill-informed our attempts to export “liberal democracy” have been. We were told how awful Gaddafi was in Libya and felt no remorse when “we came, we saw, he died.” Now, Libya, which was once prosperous, is devastated by an ongoing civil war and human marketing. Our government lied to us. It has been lying to us a long time. The sad irony is, says Mearsheimer, liberals know very little about how to do the almost impossible job of regime change, but they refuse to stop trying. They were unable to accomplish the regime change they wanted in Syria, so now they want to try again in Venezuela. I don’t know much about Venezuela, but I have read enough to see the “Western info machine” is already producing plenty of false information. We have heavily and unfairly sanctioned the Venezuelan economy, fed lies to the American people about our activities, and now want to use Venezuelan poverty as an excuse to intervene. Leaders like John Bolton have evidenced no understanding of how to be authentic diplomats. Bolton wrote in his Yale “reunion” yearbook 25 years after the event how he had joined the National Guard as a young man to avoid going to Vietnam. His reason: “I didn’t want to die in some Southeast Asia rice paddy.” While Bolton himself was a coward when it came to going to battle, he thinks nothing of sending our military men and women to die in battles that are just as meaningless.

Dreher points out other examples that are deeply disturbing. He documents how the United States government has used tax dollars to spread pro-gay rights literature in other countries. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine marched in a gay rights rally in that country last year. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine ran the following statement from U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on its web-site, “The United States joins people around the world in celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Pride Month, and reaffirms its commitment to protecting and defending the human rights of all, including LGBTI persons.” This is now our mission around the world. Can one truly be “counter-culture” when our tax dollars are used to support everything from Planned Parenthood in America to gay rights in Ukraine?

Many of us resonate with Dreher’s words and feelings when he confesses that he had always thought of America as a force for good in the world, but, sadly, he can no longer say that. He concludes, “Personally, I don’t know what it would mean to ‘give up’ on America. That said, I find our country to be an increasingly hostile, alien place, in terms of the direction of the culture, and the lack of a sense that there is anything left to restrain its descent.”

He invited readers to respond with their own ideas on leaving America or the experiences of those who have left. There were many responses. You can access those on your own (see the link in the beginning), because I do not have the space to discuss them. I was surprised that there were few respondents who disagreed over the basic point about the lost virtues of America. The best a few could say was that it is no better anywhere else. I hear this kind of response frequently. The belief is still strong in America that since the West is imploding culturally and morally, the whole world is without hope.

It is not true. The fact that progressively liberal values and war-mongering are predominant in America and Western Europe does not mean it is like that everywhere. No country could have qualified as more “godless” than the USSR. Today, however, the traditional morals which Dreher and many others long for are alive and well in Russia. I know Americans are being told Russia is a terrible non-democratic aggressive nation run by a thug. I live here and have often wondered why these lies are passed on so casually. Mearsheimer points out that one way to keep a society intact is to “create a foreign bogeyman sufficiently fearful to motivate the society’s members to work together to defend against the threat” (p. 38). I firmly believe this is a major motive for the lies about Russia in the American political and media establishment. They need to direct the attention of Americans away from the real corruption and division within its own borders. If Vladimir Putin is the personification of evil in the world, then perhaps Americans will unite around a corrupt and corrupting circle of power within the beltway of Washington, D.C.

Further, Russia is not the world’s aggressor. A recent article appeared in Consortium News about U.S. military bases. https://consortiumnews.com/2019/01/16/bases-bases-everywhere-except-in-pentagons-report/. The Pentagon’s Base Structure Report reported there were 514 U.S. military bases outside its borders. Knowledgeable observers noticed that bases in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places were not in the report. Actually most experts put the number of bases outside American borders at about 800―but many are kept off the “official” list. Not even members of Congress know about some of them and certainly exercise no control over them. They are accountable to no one but the generals. The U.S. has not officially declared war since 1942, but we continue to send men and women in uniform to other countries to die if necessary “defending our freedom.” Mearsheimer stresses that we have two oceans on each coast which act as natural defenses. Neither Canada to our north nor Mexico to our south has the will or the economic and military means to challenge our hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. We have an arsenal of nuclear weapons and have declared the Western Hemisphere off limits to any hostile power. In what possible sense are American troops fighting for our national security in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria? We have been involved in wars all over the world and have pushed NATO up to Russia’s borders, but we insist that it is really Russia who is aggressive.

The traditional values, the loss of which many in America are lamenting, are largely the values of the Russian culture in which I live. I do not write as someone who has been told this. I live here. The Russian Orthodox Church has a strong influence on local life. There are also active Catholic and Protestant churches in my town. The Church and State work together at a national level. For example, both want to reduce the numbers of abortions which skyrocketed during the Communist era because abortion was commonly used for birth control. The Church has made a strong commitment to help women in “crisis pregnancies.” The laws are more restrictive now about when and for what reason abortions can be performed. Watching the news here after Gov. Cuomo signed the bill in New York permitting late term abortions, I was struck by the contrast between the agony of my Christian friends’ posts on Facebook and the smiles and celebrations of the governor and legislators in New York. Abortions are still performed in Russia, but the numbers are steadily declining and no one smiles, laughs or brags about them.

I realize many in America are very glad that the American government is intervening and the understanding of “morality” has changed radically. They applaud freedoms won for gay, lesbian, trans-gender and many other Americans who have been oppressed. They have the right to rejoice: They won. The Benedict Option is one way for those on the other “side” to adapt. Many have been and are living it out. Others, like me, decided it was not in our family’s best interest to risk the future of our children to stay. After the New York decision on abortion I received an e-mail from an American Orthodox mother asking questions about moving to Russia. She realized the struggles involved in such a move. She wrote, however, “We have to move. No matter how well we are doing in home schooling and church, we cannot keep the government out of the lives of our children.”

I never try to convince anyone to come to Russia. I do receive frequent inquiries. I try, as best I can based on my experiences and research, to give honest descriptions and answers. I will repeat what my regular readers have heard me say many times. Despite the bad political relations between the U.S. and Russia neither I nor my family have ever been treated in a bad way. Our children attend public schools. They have to study harder, but they have learned the language and are doing well. Sometimes we do not agree with what is taught in a science class (for example), but nothing is ever presented in such a way as to tear down what we teach at home. The views of the parents are respected. There is essentially no debate here over gender issues or traditional male/female roles. Some of my American friends will see this as horrible, while others will be envious. Life in Russia is certainly not without challenges and difficulties. I continue to struggle with the language and other aspects of life here. Nevertheless, I do not sense the deep seated alienation living in this culture as Dreher and many others sense living in America.

America has long regarded itself as a “shining city set on a hill.” We stood for freedom both within and outside our borders. In some ways I fit into two groups that bemoan the current conditions there. First, many respondents to Dreher’s article were baby boomers. I am one, too. We watched Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best on TV. We laughed at the humorous problems and felt moved by the love of “traditional families.” It was not an ideal world, however. There was ugliness and real racism, but we kept pushing until we improved the culture we thought worth saving. And it did improve. Now, the very culture we wanted to save is seen by many as a sad remnant of an immoral and nasty life. Second, I am also a member of the group with young children. I have a teenager, a 10 year old and a four year old here. Saying goodbye to my other world and knowing it was impossible for my children to have what I had had was traumatic. Embracing that far-away cold land of Russia was intimidating. We made the choice. We’re glad we did. Life here is far from perfect, but the trends are definitely positive. The future looks bright and refreshing. People have hope. Sadly I cannot say that about my native land.

BETWEEN TWO CHRISTMASES

dedmors snegurochkaMy wife usually wakes up in a pretty good mood. After that first cup of coffee she can be even cheerful and chatty. But December 25 she woke up grumbling and coffee didn’t help. “This living between two worlds is rough at Christmas,” she muttered. In Russia, December 25 is just a normal day. She had to wake Gabriel and get him ready for school, and then she had to prepare to teach her two English classes in the afternoon. When Gabriel got up, things did not improve. He was almost 8 years old when we moved from America, so he clearly remembers December 25 as a day when every law-abiding 10-year-old should be able to stay home and enjoy gifts and eat Christmas cookies. Thus began our tension between the holidays of Russia and America.

I wrote about it last year, but I still get questions on why Russians celebrate Christmas on a different day than Americans. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the calendar currently in use in most parts of the world. There were some slight differences in calculation which apparently made it more accurate. Jesus was born under the Julian calendar which had been put into effect in 45 B.C. While Russia, like most countries, eventually (1917) adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church is a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy that did not go along. December 25 under the Julian calendar is January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. Hence, our American family and friends celebrate Christmas on a different day than those of us here in Russia.

There are other differences, as well as some similarities, in the way the holidays are celebrated. You cannot really replicate the American Christmas experience in Russia. Christmas in America is something almost the whole culture celebrates. Most people know it is the observance of the birth of Jesus, but a lot of people who are not Christians still celebrate it as a winter holiday. It’s a time of gift-giving and office parties for a lot of people of any faith or no faith. It is the biggest holiday of the year. I loved Christmas even during my years as an atheist. New Years is also a holiday, of course, but it is mainly limited to New Year’s Eve, when there are often parties, and January 1, when there is traditionally a big meal and a lot of football. Some of my American friends have already taken the Christmas tree down by the time the New Year arrives.

In Russia there are also lights, trees, and the exchange of gifts. Most of those things center around New Years Day, however. That is the time when gifts from Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his grand-daughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) are opened. The tree is a “New Years Tree.” Most families and friends have a big party on New Years Eve night. It is the biggest holiday of the year as far as I can tell. The kids are out of school from then until January 9. Also, most adults do not have to go to work during this time so the festive spirit lingers on after January 1.

Christmas here in Russia is a holy day set aside by the Church. It is a day of worship and reflection. In the last week of the “nativity fast” Orthodox believers are encouraged to spend more time in reflection and study as they prepare for January 7. In America we may casually talk about the “Christmas holidays.” In Russia “Christmas” refers specifically to the observance of the birth of Christ. The Russian word for “Christmas” (Рождество) is probably better translated “Nativity.”

So, I have been asked: What is the good and bad of spending this particular holiday season in Russia? First, as an Orthodox believer, I like the fact that Christmas remains specifically Christian. Everyone has New Years to party and celebrate with their families and close friends. That night is for the gifts, the parties, the tree, etc. Then the next week those us who are believers can gather in worship on Christmas. There is less internal stress when the focus is on Christmas as a time for devotion and reflection. I don’t mean it is completely somber. I write this the Saturday before Russian Christmas, and the kids at church are going to decorate the Sunday School room and even a tree outside the church with nativity ornaments. Obviously the downside is I miss gathering with my family and friends in America. Missing those meals and celebrations does not get any easier with the passing of time. This year was our third Christmas here, and I think it was the toughest emotionally for me.

I will venture a broader observation on the differences in this holiday time. At least for now, I do not believe that materialism has as strong a grip on Russian culture—at least small town Russian culture—as it does in America. By materialism I mean equating the “stuff” that we own with ultimate value in life whether we actually need it or not. Average Russians had to endure really tough economic times not many years ago. Most people here are old enough to remember what it was like to go to the store and not be able to get basic necessities. To me, while there are clearly exceptions, the average Russian does not require as much to feel that life is good as the average American. Further, most Russians I know do not labor under the kind of debt most Americans carry. Comparing household debt in Russia and America is a bit like the proverbial apples and oranges comparison. The economies are very different. I rarely come across a study that actually takes in consideration all the various factors. The so-called “standard of living” in America is higher, but I don’t think most Russians worry about that as much as most Americans. Again, all generalities fail in some details, but I speak as someone who has lived in small towns in both countries. Most American analysts have never lived here and seem out of touch with how to evaluate Russian life and attitudes toward money.

The Russian economy is improving, however. I have read reports that by 2020 things could look much better. If so, I wonder what impact it will have on this culture. Times of economic prosperity can mean other, more lasting, treasures and relationships get neglected. I hope this will not be the case in Russia. Oddly, I’m one of those who hopes that Russia will not emulate the West.

In the meantime I continue learning how to adjust to the different culture. I stepped back at the end of the year to think on the battles and blessings. The main obstacle remains the language. Learning to speak Russian better is just a part of my life here as far as I’m concerned. I envy some of my western friends. There are some who don’t speak Russian well (if at all) and really don’t worry about it. They can communicate in English with those they need to. They tell me they would like to speak Russian better, but they are not going to worry over it or spend a lot of time on it. On the other hand, I would love to be like those who started studying Russian at a younger age and in a classroom setting. The cultural transition went much more smoothly for them in some ways. I take heart in the good things I hear, however. My mother-in-law says she can tell I understand a lot more. I ran into my friend Natasha at the market. We chatted in Russian briefly, and she later told Oksana that my Russian sounded like “natural Russian.” Then a lady at church heard me talking to our priest at Trapeza and told Oksana she was surprised at how well “Maxim” (my Russian Orthodox name) could speak Russian. So I choose to believe there is improvement despite how slow and frustrating the progress seems. I try to relax and remember I am making improvements and, more importantly, our kids have “picked up” the language much more easily than I have. That’s a good thing.

I am grateful that, despite my frustration with the language, our adjustment to Russian culture has been easier than I thought it would be. We have purchased our home, and the work on it is scheduled to be done by the end of this month. We were able to transfer money for the purchase of the home from my retirement account with no complications. We will have well over the twice the space. I’ll even have my own study!

The economic situation in Luga is still going well. I continue to hear sometimes on American news programs how awful things are in Russia, but, as with many things about Russia, there is no evidence actually offered. While we loved all the socials and gift-giving at Christmas in America, many families like us experience financial stress after it is over. It has been better in Russia, despite the fact my retirement income is not even close to what my salary was in America. This year Gabriel got a throat infection and cough early in December. It turned out to be a long-term ordeal. He had to go to the doctor three times over a two-week period. The first round of medicines did not work so the doctor changed his medication. If Gabriel had gotten sick like that in America at this time of year it would have been a financial disaster for us. Three doctor visits and buying all those meds! Our medical bills plus Christmas gifts would have put us in serious debt. In Russia the total cost for three doctor visits in a private clinic plus the medicines came to about $40.00. After that we still could afford to buy nice gifts for family and a few friends without the huge financial stress.

The social and political status remains relatively calm here. Maybe it just seems calm, because the tension and divisiveness in my American world continues on an upward trajectory. So maybe it’s just Russia seems mild by comparison. I guess the big political news for us watchers of the international scene was that Trump announced our troops would pull out of Syria and a significant number would be leaving Afghanistan. I was not surprised at the attacks that came at him from both Democrats and Republicans, and I wonder if he can pull off the withdrawal. Apparently there is no “anti-war” party within the Beltway of Washington, D.C. A significant number in both parties seem strongly committed to keeping America perpetually at war. The old plea from the Vietnam era to “give peace a chance” is not a chant heard from many voices in Washington or pop culture these days. I do not consider myself a Trump “fan.” As I’ve stated before, he makes some decisions I think are good—like trying to bring American troops home—and others that I don’t. What I found so distressing were the base and even very vulgar attacks made on him by other politicians. It’s not like that here. That does not mean Putin has no critics. Simply because those who disagree with Putin make their points in the proper context and without crass and profane language does not mean he has used fear and intimidation to silence his critics, as some uninformed Western observers declare. I like following politics, but it’s getting tough to stomach. I heard one news commentator, whose name I did not know, refer to the “draining of civility” in Washington. That struck me as apt phrase. Hence, many of my American friends hate talking politics. It sickens them, and it sickens me that the world watches and concludes this is “real” America. It isn’t the way most Americans live their lives, but that is not how some of our political leaders make it appear on international TV.

Then the “culture war” in America also seems to continue with no end in sight. I remember years ago “tolerance” was a word used frequently as a positive virtue. Maybe I’m missing something living halfway round the world, but the culture seems decidedly intolerant in my native land. It’s different here. I can’t describe it or quantify it unfortunately, but I have experienced it. In America I can “blend in.” Here, there is no hiding the fact I’m not Russian. No one here who knows me (even casually) mistakes me for a Russian. In this small town I’m an outsider, an oddity. As they said to the disciple Peter as he tried to blend in around the fire during Jesus’ trial, “Thy speech doth betray thee.” The minute I open my mouth, they know I’m not one of their own. I’m different, and I never try to pretend I’m Russian. They know I’m from that country whose leaders and media have nothing but bad things to say about them, their leader and their country. Still, no one treats me in an intolerant manner. Further, I have found the values and virtues I consider most important in life are those shared by many Russians. There is a bond there. I don’t try to be anything but an American, but there are essential aspects of who I am that are far more important to me than being an American. I think the Russians who get to know me understand that. It doesn’t mean I still don’t feel the tension of belonging in some sense to both America and to Russia. The two Christmases remind me of that struggle. Nevertheless, I will treasure the memories and lessons of the one world and continue seeking the positive new dimensions of the other.

CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!