In two days we leave our home in the small town of Greer, South Carolina and fly to New York, connect to Moscow, and then on to St. Petersburg, Russia. After that we will drive about 130 km. to the town of Luga, Russia, my wife’s hometown. We move from a small town in the United States to a small town in Russia. I first went to Russia in 2002 for a two week stay, and then I returned in 2003 for another two weeks. After going through some very distressing personal struggles, I moved to St. Petersburg in 2005. I taught at the St. Petersburg Linguistic Institute. While there I married my Russian wife, Oksana.
I love St. Petersburg. My only travels outside the US were during my Marine Corps days and they were limited to islands in the Caribbean. I never had been to Europe, certainly not Eastern Europe. My family is from the small town of Pickens, South Carolina. It is light years from the culture and size of St. Petersburg. The architecture of St. Petersburg is classic Russian (with Italian and French influence of course). The buildings are low; the streets are wide. But after my wife became pregnant (surprise!) we decided to move to the States. Oksana, who was 7 months pregnant at the time, Roman, my step-son, and I arrived in America April 15, 2008. I got a job working in a small company for my brother. We established new friends; Oksana learned to drive a car; and we found “our place” in America.
We had no plans to return to Russia. On the other hand, Russia never really left my mind. Late in 2011 we learned my Russian in-laws were coming in early spring for a visit. I knew I had to brush up on my Russian—well, what little Russian I knew. I purchased Level 1 of Pimsleur, primarily because it was all oral. I knew the Cyrillic alphabet. (I had taught Koine Greek at a University and that made learning the Russian alphabet pretty easy.) After I finished Level 3 Oksana and I kept making more recordings based on the Pimsleur method. I would have preferred to study in a classroom and have time for written assignments, more grammatical work, and classroom interaction. But with a full-time job, family, church, etc., I did not have time for an ideal pedagogical method. I also got interested in reading Russian history and Russian Orthodox works.
Our former church hosted children from Belarus who had been exposed to radiation from living in the area impacted by Chernobyl. We hosted children in our home for six weeks in 2013 and 2014. It was that experience that showed us that we really were a bi-cultural family. The kids from Belarus loved being in our home and being able to speak Russian and eat Russian snacks. We loved it, and they loved it.
In 2014 I got the surprise of my life. Oksana was pregnant again. Our daughter, Marina Grace, was born September 19, 2014. I had four sons. Having a daughter was something I never dreamed of. It was at that time I knew I did not want to miss her growing up. I’m an old dad. Everyone assumes I am the grandfather. I did some soul-searching. My job was going pretty well. We had a nice home, cars, etc. But all these things were “not in my blood.” I continued to torture myself with my Russian lessons. Frustrated at my slow progress I would want to quit, but could not put it down. I moved around in my studies of Eastern European history from Tsarist times, to the October Revolution, then modern politics and back to the Tsars.
We also decided at that time to convert to Orthodoxy. We were chrismated into St. John of the Ladder, which is affiliated with Orthodox Church of America. This denomination was started by Russian Orthodox missionaries to Alaska a long time ago. My late father was a Southern Baptist preacher. I graduated from two Southern Baptist Seminaries and taught in Baptist Universities for fourteen years. After my separation and subsequent divorce from my first wife, I had resigned and that was when I went to teach in St. Petersburg. My wife was brought up in the Soviet Union. Her dad is a retired artillery officer from the Soviet army. Her early teaching was the standard atheism of the Soviet Union. Oddly enough, we both somehow found our “spiritual home” in the Orthodox Church.
Shortly thereafter, my Russian mother-in-law mentioned in a Skype conversation that the English program in their town’s English school was shut down, much to everyone’s chagrin. Oksana graduated from that school, and it was a great program. Svetlana casually stated something like, “Well, Hal has taught English in Russia; he knows what life is like here…” Neither my wife nor I could get the thought out of our heads. We did question our sanity! Move ourselves and three kids from the US to Russia??? But after much thought, discussion, and prayer we concluded this was what we should do. Eventually I gave an eight month notice at work, and we prepared to sell our house, car, and as many possessions as possible. Russia here we come!
So I write from our home in America, which has almost no furniture in it. My wife and step-son are now American citizens. We have our tickets to Russia, and the three “native born” Americans in the family have our Russian visas. We have said our goodbyes to our dear friends here. We have one more day to finish packing and cleaning. We are sad at leaving those friends. We know our lives have been “Americanized.” We know drastic changes are ahead. But we are excited and hopeful.
There are more than one reason I’m writing this blog. They include:
- I need to do it primarily for my own personal reflection. I don’t think blogs get read very much, so my expectation is not a high readership. Writing helps me process information. It helps me to think through events and conversations better.
- Nevertheless, I do think people, especially in the U.S., will come to a better understanding of life in Russia—both at a personal and political level. In fact, the idea to write the blog came from being asked by several friends who would like to know more about what life really is like in Russia. Further, most news organizations have cut back on the number of reporters actually living in countries they report on. Some of those who do live there still limit themselves socially to the “ex-pat communities.” I intentionally avoided that life when I lived in Russia before. My friends were primarily Russians. I didn’t know any Americans living in St. Petersburg and did not seek them out. I live the Russian life from “the inside out.” I am neither a politician nor a reporter. But I can tell when politicians and reporters in the US say or write things that based either willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. And some of these reporters work for big name magazines, papers, or networks. I fear there are no more David Remnicks left in the press corps that cover Russian news.
- I need to alert readers to my own presuppositions, even if those are not uninformed presuppositions. One of those I will mention now is that in my opinion there are many in the military-industrial complex in the United States that have a vested interest in spreading wrong information about Russia. Some people make a lot of money trying to scare Americans so they can sell a lot of hardware in the interest of “National Security.” This blog will be primarily personal. The focus will be on what life is like in a small town in Russia as processed by an American who is from a small town in the US. But I won’t avoid calling into question what is being force-fed to the American public. Life in the small towns of both Russia and America are to some degree shaped by decisions made at a political level. I am American and I have no desire to tear down my country. While I love the study of Russian language, history, politics and religion, I do not think of myself as anything but an American. Yet I see no point in trying to hide my disagreement with ill-informed or self-serving political decisions or my disgust over the current imploding of our culture.