The most frequent question I get from my American friends is, “What is it like living over there?” Or, as one friend put it, “Do you really like it over there—I mean, better than living in America?” Living in a small town in Russia, like living in a small town in America, has good points and bad points.
HOUSING. We live in an apartment that is much smaller than our home was in America, and there are not as many conveniences as we had there either. We will get a washing machine soon, but they are smaller and dryers are not commonly used. They still hang out clothes here. There is no air conditioning in our apartment. You can get window units, but the summers are so short and the winters are long. It’s just not worth it. It does get hot, but not as hot as most places in America (like South Carolina!), of course. It is June here, and the temperature is still very pleasant. Our refrigerator is much smaller. We live close to several grocery stores, so we just make more trips. We don’t have a car—at least not yet. But there is more public transportation here than in American small towns by far. We can use the buses, “marshrootka” (a van large enough to carry things on board that goes on a particular route), or numerous readily available taxis.
On the positive side things are generally far less expensive. I mentioned on Facebook that our internet is for unlimited minutes and with very fast service for $6.50/month. Our apartment rent is about $200/month. The cell phone service for my i-phone (with unlimited internet usage as well) is also $6.50/month. The down side is you cannot handle things over the phone. You have to go to their office. There is a lot of paperwork that has to be filled out. Groceries and everyday items are also much cheaper. We bought a shopping cart full of groceries for about $25.00. The starting price for a nice washing machine and refrigerator is under $400.00. Dishwashers are available, but most Russians in our small town do not have them in the home.
FOOD. It is easier and cheaper to eat healthy in Russia. The general attitude toward processed foods with chemical preservatives is much more negative here. In America it is much more expensive to eat organic or healthy foods. Here that is not the case. GMO foods are illegal in Russia. Putin made that clear last year with his statement, “We will not poison our people.” The FDA in America apparently does not concur. They still have the equivalent of a farmer’s market in downtown Luga. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meats are plentiful there, and the prices are very good. These fresh foods are usually sold by the “Caucasians” at the market. (The word “Caucasian” in Russian is very different from how it is used in American English. It means someone who comes from the Caucasus mountains or region.) Food is tastier without all the preservatives in my opinion. They do have some places you can get “junk food” like pizza, etc., however. Unlike in St. Petersburg, there are no McDonalds or other fast-food hamburger restaurants here.
Also, medicines are so much more affordable here. For example, I take omeprazole for acid reflux. In America a month supply cost over $20.00. Here I paid less than half a dollar (27 rubles) for 30 pills. Also, more medicines are available over the counter here. We try to avoid antibiotics, but they are available over the counter if you have an infection requiring them. Doctors also still make house calls, and they are more likely to start with recommendations of alternative natural treatments to their patients.
Overall the lower prices on food and lodging means if you do have a stable source of income there is not the high pressure of American life. It was a big attraction for someone like me looking for early retirement. Most people in the world, including Russians, view Americans as mostly wealthy. That is technically true. Compared to most of the world Americans are in general much wealthier. But that is a bit misleading. It simply takes a lot of money to live in America for a family of five. The cost of a house or apartment is extremely high. Even during the “recession” of 2009 and following, grocery cost did not go down. Having cars to get to and from work in our small town was a necessity, not an option. For people in small towns in America public transportation is not as readily available. For our family, we decided some of the inconveniences of a smaller living space and having to walk or take public transportation were worth the exchange for less financial and time pressure.
CLOTHES. Clothing in general is just as expensive in Russia as in America. Russians, especially the women, are very style conscious. Even in a small town like Luga I see young women with these really high heels that leave my baffled as to how they can actually walk in them. The clothes are much more typically Western looking than when I first came here. There is even a shop here in Luga with the word “jeans” (in English) as the name of it. In general you see a lot more signs here these days that have some English names in them. Many of the road signs have the locations written in Russian and also transliterated into English.
DAILY LIFE. As I mentioned we do a lot more walking than we did in America. Most people do. What was more striking to me is the number of children who play, ride bikes, and play ball or other games outside. In our neighborhood in America we didn’t see that many kids playing outside or riding bikes. Our seven year old son is already asking to go outside more. He likes getting out! We are careful because he only knows English, but generally speaking people do not have the same fears that people of evil intent will harm children as in America. It is a lot more like life was when I was a child. The kids play outside till mama calls them home.
A major difference I have noted in Luga from the time I first came here is that the playgrounds are much nicer now than then. I have seen several already and the equipment is relatively new and clean. Further, some playgrounds I have seen have exercise equipment (the equivalent of gym machines really) as part of the playground equipment. Obviously there is an attempt to help children exercise and become healthier. Our son Gabriel loves getting on that equipment.
A negative aspect of living here, however, is the dangerous driving. I mentioned it in an earlier blog describing our trip from St. Petersburg to Luga. Since we walk with our children so frequently, I have found the driving in downtown traffic very disconcerting. I spoke with a local resident about this and he said the accident and mortality rates are very high even in small towns like Luga. He believes it will take some time before there is a cultural shift to safer and more courteous driving.
Another inconvenience is the absence of fresh drinking water from the tap. You have to either buy bottled water or get the water from someone who has access to a fresh water supply, usually an underground spring. These springs are rather common here. Therefore, the refrigerators do not have ice makers. You have to put clean water in the trays and freeze it that way. Of course, after the Flint, MI water catastrophe I am less certain about some supplies of water in the USA.
BUREAUCRACY. The amount of paperwork involved in even simple transactions is, to an American, ridiculous. For example, when we went to the store to get our internet service I lost track of how many pages had to be filled in and signed, and the lady HAD to stamp the front and back of EVERY page! There must be some intrinsic pleasure for Russian clerks to stamp paper. They seem to do it with a certain vigor and seriousness. The amount of paperwork required to get Russian visas for me, Gabriel, and Marina Grace was terrible. Of course, we also had to get citizenship papers and passports from Homeland Security for Oksana and Roman. But none of that was as challenging as having to get the Americans in the family (Marina Grace, Gabriel and myself) “registered” with the Federal Migrations Services here in Luga upon our arrival. You have to fill out all the forms and take them to the local FMS office to be registered. First, the hours of local government office are capricious. You do not know when they will be open. One day it was 11:00 a.m. and another day it was 2:00 p.m. Sometimes they’ll decide to have a random “maintenance day” and there is no way to know ahead of time they won’t be open on that day at all. Then if there is a typographical error or any minor mistake (or even just correction!) the paperwork must be completely filled out again and resubmitted. For example, Oksana put that we are in the “Leningrad Oblast.” “Oblast” means something like “county,” only bigger. The application was rejected because they said the word “oblast” was not necessary. So she had to fill it out again and return to the office at a later date. One remnant of the Communist era is that the local apparatchiks still cling tenaciously to their power.
So if you’re really big into creature comforts and have to have the room temperature the same all year round and must have your fast food available a short drive away, then Russia would probably not be the place you would want to settle down. Maybe keep it to just a short visit! But if think you would prefer simple, more basic living, then it is not a bad life at all.