RUSSIA’S “ANTI-MISSIONARY” LAW: PART 2

In my last blog I presented results of research my wife and I have done on the amendment to the Anti-Terror Law (“Yarovaya Law”) recently passed in Russia. Our sources were primarily the Russian text of the law and the reported conclusions of a large segment of primarily Protestant (Pentecostal) religious leaders and lawyers who were in conversation with government and administrative representatives while the law was being discussed. While quite a number of articles in the West indicated that the law essentially outlawed missionary (or evangelistic) efforts by non-Orthodox denominations, the group concluded this was far from an accurate reading of the law. The primary fallacy was a misunderstanding of how the government was using the phrase “missionary activity.”

The group reminded listeners that no one abolished Russia’s Federal Law (article 3) on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which states that every person has a right to have or not to have their personal religious and other convictions and to share them freely. As Konstantin Bendas said, “Therefore, the new law, by no means infringes upon our right and even responsibility as Christians to go and tell people about Christ.

The law defines missionary activity of anything done by a religious group or organization or any representative of a group or organization to persuade one who is not a member of that religious group or organization to become of part of this group. The bullets below are the summary written by the group (emphasis are those of the group).

  • It is considered to be a missionary activity when a religious association is spreading information about THEIR religious doctrine. Not just general religious theological information, but the association’s narrow denominational teaching and doctrine.

  • It is considered missionary activity only if it’s aimed at people who are not members of a religious association.

  • It is considered a missionary activity if the intent is to get the people, who are not members of a religious association, become involved as members or followers of the religious association. In other words, if in the end of an activity there is an invitation to a particular church, to a particular service, where a person can potentially become a member/follower of the association, then it does qualify as missionary activity.

  • It is repeated that it is considered a missionary activity only if it is carried out either by religious association directly, or by an individual that’s been authorized by an organization to act on their behalf, or if it is done by an organization’s legal representative.

  • It is considered missionary activity ONLY if it is carried out in public, in other words any activities inside your church building are NOT even considered missionary activities.

The definition does not mean members of a church, synagogue, or mosque cannot seek to convince non-members to join. It means that their missionary activity falls under certain restrictions.

First, the religious organization must be registered with the local government office. This point is a sensitive one for some churches within Russia and sounds unfair to many outside the country. I would say “registration” is common for most everything in Russia. The first thing I had to do upon my arrival here was to get registered as a foreigner living in Russia. I had to give my exact address and other pertinent information. In America we are debating whether it is right to require a person who votes to have a photo ID with them. In Russia, all Russian citizens from age 14 must have an internal passport―a passport that is a legal validation of your citizenship and right to reside in this country. It contains a stamp that indicates where you live (called “прописка”). You can be stopped at any time and be required to show this passport. I have never had this happen to me, but I always know when Oksana sees a policeman nearby because she stops speaking to me in English and we speak Russian! I don’t fear being stopped, quizzed, checked over, however. This may sound draconian to some Americans, but the Russian government is far more strict on the issue of legal immigration and residency than American government. The government here believes that such laws can reduce the number of crimes committed and facilitates prosecution when crimes are committed. This policy of requiring registration extends to groups in that they must be registered to indicate that the group consists of law abiding citizens or legal residents.

The position of the group of religious leaders and lawyers working with the government on this issue was that as believers they had a responsibility to obey the law of the land. While many complain about registration (and it is a pain!), the fact is that in an era when religion is being used as arm for terrorism, anyone claiming to have a group or organization which is exampt from registration probably has a better chance at illicit activity. Several participants asked why a church, if the members are law abiding citizens and wish to exercise their Chrsitian faith in an honest, forthright manner, would be opposed to registration. There are financial cost involved, as well as the time it takes, but the group believes it is better for churches to make these sacrifices given the current dangers of some religioius persons. I have read complaints by those who do not think they should have to register but I personally never got an answer as to the exact reason for their complaint.

The second requirement is that any representative of the church who seeks to “convert” a person not in the group or organization must be an authorized representative. My understanding is that this is not difficult to obtain. The Protestant pastors indicated in these meetings that they got their ID credentials as soon as their church gots its certifications. The speakers stated that it is not difficult to convey the authorization to conduct missionary activities to church members who are in good standing. The purpose of this restriction is clearly to keep individuals from misrepresenting themselves. I am relying on information I have received but never have personally observed, but I am told there are plenty of examples of members of one religious organization misrepresenting themselves. The most common example I hear is of Mormon missionaries dressing like Orthodox priests in order to obtain entry into a hospital, orphanage, aging facility or other public facilities. I was told that this kind of thing has been going on for some time. No one ever took legal action of which I am aware, but now with the advent of terrorism, misrepresentation is a far more serious matter. If a Christian or a Muslim individual wants to address another individual or group than that person must be able to show they are authorized by a registered group.

Third, the person doing the missionary activity is never allowed to attempt to persuade the person or persons outside the group to commit any illegal activity, especially activity that harms or endangers the lives of others. Any person who convinces someone to perform such acts will be held to the same level of accountability as the person performing the illegal acts. Clearly, this restriction is intended to make it clear the Russian government will regard any verbal or electronic communication that encourages violence as criminal activity. The law itself (not the religious amendment) requires internet providers to increase the length of time electronic data is stored. I believe this was the point that many (especially in the West) used to indicate one could not do missionary activity by e-mail, as if by that the Russian government would not allow one to discuss religion in e-mails. Nothing we read in the law or that the group explaining the details of the law said indicated that there was any such restriction.

As I stated in my earlier blog, everyone involved realized the law and the amendment were written and passed quickly―too quickly for a careful review. Thus, the group of religious leaders did get assurances that the law would be reviewed and revised if necessary after its implementation. They believed that the law, while not ideal, is fair and should be obeyed by believers. Nevertheless, they also expressed grave concerns that things could go very badly in some areas when it is actually implemented. That is, some local authorities and law enforcement agents could apply the law in a very unfair way. Such unfairness could result from the fact local authorities themselves do not understand the law and unknowingly misinterpret it. Given the hastiness with which the law was written even a careful reading could still result in a misreading.

Of greater concern, however, is the danger that local authorities and law enforcement agents who hold prejudices against Protestant Christians could use the law―or better “misuse” the law―to justify unfair or unlawful restrictions on believers. Thus, while the law was not written to deprive any Russian of his or her constitutional rights, some authorities may try to do just that. Therefore, the members of the religoius leadership group pledged to be extremely diligent in observing and listening for reactions as the laws are implemented. They will make sure to maintain careful oversight so that any attempts to represent the law as an excuse for depriving Russian citizens of their rights will be reported to the proper authorities.

Another, very different, tendency I have seen already are the early signs of what might popularly be called a “martyr complex” on the part of believers, especially those who are members of churches that are not registered. We have already seen evidence of the cries of “religious persecution” from this law even before it is implemented. I have expressed repeatedly in more than one blog that dealing with local bureaucracies in Russia is extremely frustrating. Anytime you deal with local authorities or bureaucrats it will be frustrating at the least. I thought perhaps it was because I was American. Now I see that those government officials treat Russians with the same condescending arrogance. I believe there will be confrontations and misunderstandings. Nevertheless, that does not mean the evangelistic Protestants are necessarily being treated differently. The government officials can often treat Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Communists, Capitalists and Hare Krishnas with the same disdain.

I would say to my Protestant friends, the Russian government is still more aware of your religious rights than the Roman government was to the early Christian believers. And yet the Apostle Paul still told the Christians in Rome to abide by the laws of the land. It was not convenient for them either. But the cries of “religious persecution” arising from the passing of this law sound very weak when one looks at what believers were experiencing in Rome then or are experiencing now at the hands of those ISIS authorities in other lands. This law is an attempt to prevent such persons from inflicting murder and violence upon the residents of Russia. It will involve government overreach I am sure. I believe it will entail some unfair treatment of Prostestant believers. The passing of this law, if read carefully and with the interpretation of good legal minds, does not justify the shrill cries both from within and especially from outside Russia.

I heard of a pastor in another Russian town say that the persecution has already started. When asked what happened, he said that he was told that if he went to another town for evangelization the cops might raid his car, frame him, and charge him with drug possession. Now, the cops had not done that. There was no hard evidence that they intended on doing so. Still the cry of religious persecution goes up. My concern is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The believers, who are unwilling to “become official,” represent the police as people who will do this kind of thing and after a while the police get tired of it and start harassing the believers.

As I write this I’ve learned in the last few days of the beheading of a priest in Normandy by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar,” the driving of a truck while firing an automatic weapon in Nice, the stabbing of a pregnant in Reutlingen, among many others that give clear evidence in the minds of many of the work of jihadists. The American administration has chosen to look for other reasons or motives. Further, they have chosen advocating a different response. As Loretta Lynch, Attorney General and Chief Law Enforcement Officer, said after the Orlando shooting, “Our most effective response to terror and to hatred is compassion, it’s unity and it’s love.” The Russian lawmakers disagree and have formulated this law as one facet of a larger plan to prevent actions such as these from occuring in Russia. Any disagreement with the Russian approach surely should be based on facts, however, and not misreadings of the law itself.

I plan to write one more blog on this subject which will deal with some practical issues of how the law impacts the carrying out of missionary activities by a religious group that meets in multi-housing complex or a private residence. I will also discuss why I do not think the motive behind this law was to restrict the growth of Protestantism and demonstrate support for Russian Orthodoxy.

RUSSIA’S “ANTI-MISSIONARY” LAW PART I

One purpose of this blog is to relate how various aspects of life—some perhaps dramatic, most mundane—are experienced and perceived between those in my family’s two worlds of Russia and America. One important aspect of life for many of us is our faith or, if you will, our religion. So this blog and at least one more will discuss recent news about religion in Russia.

On July 6th, 2016, the President of the Russian Federation signed a federal law “About Amendments to the Federal ‘Anti-Terror Law’ and to Certain other Legislative Acts of (the) Russian Federation as Additional Counterterrorism and Public Safety Measures.” Parts of this law have introduced some changes to the law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations (from September 26, 1997). Since the end of June I’ve been receiving e-mails and Facebook messages about this law or, more specifically, about the amendments to the anti-terrorism law. Several evangelical Protestant publications and web-sites in America published articles on the changes this law would make for evangelism or “sharing one’s faith” in Russia. All the articles I received were very negative and presented this law as an attempt by Russia, particularly President Putin, to restrain the open exercise of religion in Russia for anyone but Russian Orthodox believers. They quoted several “experts” on Russia in America and some religious leaders from within Russia who were extremely critical of this law and the restraints on religious freedom.

My wife and I began looking at the web-sites here in Russia which had this law and information about it. We discovered that not all Russian Protestants here opposed it, and not all Russian Orthodox leaders supported it. Some Russian newspapers and news outlets simply did not mention the religious amendment to the law at all. Clearly the focus of this law itself is anti-terrorism. It is called the “Yarovaya Law” because Irina Yarovaya was the author of the law. The amendment was added which dealt with missionary activity by religious groups or organizations.

Given that I was being asked about this law on a regular basis and the fact that as Oksana and I studied it, it was clear there was much misinformation in the American publications, we decided to do more detailed research on it. Clearly, I could not have done this without my wife doing most of the “grunt work,” especially the detailed translation of the law. She is a native speaker of Russian who, as all who know her understand, is also completely fluent in English. I have studied Russian for about four and a half years, and there is no way I could have plowed through a small portion of the documents she has read or understand the lectures and videos and the three hour webinar she has watched. Even with her high level of understanding of Russian, she had to research certain terms and phrases, which, as we all know, is necessary when you read “legalese.” I will refrain from taking any shots at lawyers and politicians and their use of language. I will just say that I think I have a pretty good vocabulary and grasp of the English language. Yet when I read what would appear to be the simplest of (English) legal documents I am usually confused.

My point is this: You cannot do a google translation of these documents or trust a flimsy translation by someone who knows a little Russian to understand the meaning of the amendment. For example, I made a point about my uncertainty about the e-mail restrictions in a couple of posts, because we could not find the Russian text of this section. So a couple of well-meaning Americans sent me the text in Russian. The problem, however, was that the Russian text they sent, which apparently some publications had indicated dealt with the e-mails, did not even mention e-mails. The law and the language in which it is written are complex. English speaking “commentators” should tread lightly.

Therefore, I want to let the readers know our sources, in addition to the Russian text of the law, we have relied on. They are groups of Russian believers, almost exclusively Protestant and mostly Pentecostal. Their lawyers, who are Protestants as well, have released explanations of the law as well as videos of their discussions. They are predominantly Protestant lawyers who work with (not for) the Russian government. The three hour webinar I mentioned was the culmination of their discussions, and it was held on July 18, 2016.

One caveat on the make up of the group based on my personal experience. When we Americans use the word “Protestant” we are talking about a very large diverse group of Christian believers that includes many denominations and perspectives—both political and religious. Largely due to our history, Protestantism is the largest group as far as numbers in American religion. You simply do not see this diversity in Russia. I am sure that there are a number of Protestant denominations here. Nonetheless, I lived in St. Petersburg for three years and the only ones I knew of were Baptists, Pentecostals and some other evangelistic and evangelical groups like Calvary Chapel and a few other non-denominational community churches. Again, I realize my experience is limited, but it is not like you see a Methodist Church here and a Lutheran one over there and then a Presbyterian church around the corner like you do in the American South where I was raised. Also, I need to remind the reader, as I have stated earlier, my own background is Southern Baptist. I am currently a member of the Eastern Othodox Church, however. Right now, I am a member of a church in the Orthodox Chruch of America, which has historical ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Among the speakers in the videos and webinar were Sergey Ryahovsky, Director and Head Bishop of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith, a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a member of the President’s Council for Coordination with Religious Organisations,* Konstantin Bendas, the First Deputy of the Head Bishop of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith and business manager of the Union, a member of the Experts Council of the State Duma Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations, a group of SCLJ attorneys, and lawyers representing other denominations.

*The Council for Coordination with Religious Organisations is a presidential consultative body that carries out preliminary examination and drafts proposals for the President on relations between the President and religious organisations and on protecting tolerance and mutual respect in issues of freedom of conscience and religion.

All of the speakers agreed that the law was written rather hastily, with a lot of unclarities and even contradictions, leaving room for misinterpretation and potential danger of misimplementation by the local law-enforcement organs. Besides, on the day the members of Parliament voted for that particular law they had to vote on 165 other laws! So it is obvious that few had the time to read the law in its entirety. One of the speakers, however, did explain why the law was passed in such a hurry. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said. “The situation in the world is such that something has to be done to counter the acts of terror happening all around us.” He added that while this situation is not what he and the others would have desired, they had to accept the fact that terrorists have forced leaders of Russia to act in the best interests and safety of its people, and, as law-abiding citizens, they had to comply with the law. He also stated that the government expressed a willingness to modify or redact the law in the future if the implementation does not go fairly or consistent with the Russian Constituion.

The truth is that terrorism, in the minds of many nations and many people, is the biggest international threat today to world peace. Despite President Obama having mocked Mitt Romey in the 2012 campaign for saying Russia was the greatest threat to our national security, he then went on in July of 2015 and nominated Gen. Dunford, who was later confirmed as head of joint chiefs. At the hearings Dunford stated that Russia, not terrorism, was our greatest national threat. Clearly, after the latest NATO meeting this month, the administration still holds this view. It is important to remember, however, that most people in the world do not see the danger this way. Many Americans do not see it this way. Most people in the world see the inhumane murders by shooting, decapitation, bombings, etc., as the chief threat to security in the world. Even in Brussels, the city of NATO’s headquarters, they did not even know of a terroritst cell in their own city before the attack in March, 2016.

Further, the majority of these attacks are linked with religion, particularly Islam. It is a sensitive subject in the U.S.A. There is a deeply rooted belief in freedom of religion and the need to respect people of all faiths or no faith. There is also the rightly held belief that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not commit terrorist attacks. On the other hand, some point out most Germans were not Nazis and most Russians were not Bolsheviks or would have been supporters of any of the later purges during Stalin’s reign had they known about them. The fact is that Russia today, like many other countries, believes there is imminent danger coming from terrorists. Additionally, one has to address the religious dimension to this danger because so many of the murderous attacks have been done in the name of the Islamic religion. Simply saying, as Obama did, that these people are not true Muslims does not make it any less true how they see themselves.

It is also clear that many of the attacks by these terrorists either have been carried out or incited by persons from outside the country in which the acts occurred. Sometimes individuals come in and perform the evil deeds themselves or sometimes they establish contacts with persons in the target country and convince them (or a singular individual) to carry out the murderous actions. Clearly there is a religious dimension to their approach in the majority of cases. Thus, I agree that the logic behind the formation of this religious amendment to the law was based on this concern.

I’ll say a general word about the materials we have read and watched. Overall, the speakers were cautiously optimistic about the law, encouraging their fellow “brothers and sisters in Christ” not to panic, but practice caution and common sense and read the law in its entirety instead of just certain statements that are easy to misinterpret if not read without preconceived notions of what the law surely says. This caution is applicable both to Russian believers and especially to Western (primarily American) believers and writers. Writing stories about how Russia is banning Christians from missionary work in Russia may sell and be popular. Unfortunately, the popularity of these articles has come at the expense of truth.

The main problem in their opinion and certainly in mine is that many writers did not read the definition of “missionary activity” closely. They took what they understood as missionary activity by Christian believers and interpreted the restrictions in that light. This approach caused them to distort the law completely. So what does the law define as “missionary activity”?

Definition of a Missionary Activity and its 6 attributes. (with the help of the video by Konstantin Bendas; Mr. Bendas’ statements are in quotation marks).

There are 6 attributes in the definition of the missionary activity. (The) Presence of ALL 6 attributes is what is considered a “missionary activity” by law.”

Chapter III Missionary Activity. Article 24 Content of Missionary Activity.

  1. Current federal law considers a missionary activity to be an activity of a religious association aimed at spreading information about their religious doctrine to people who are not members or followers of that association with the intent to get the above mentioned people involved as members or followers of the religious association; such activity is carried out either by religious association directly, or by an authorized individual or a legal representative; it is carried out publicly, with the help of mass media, internet or via any other lawful means of communication.Konstantin Bendas’s interpretations of the above passage are as follows:
  • Current federal law defines missionary activity as activity of a religious association. It has nothing to do with activities of an individual.” Therefore, it is not considered a missionary activity when an individual is sharing his or her personal religious convictions and beliefs with others (individual may or may not be a member of a religious association).This is very different from how Christians see missionary activity! In other words, if I am at work and get to talking with a collegue about matters of faith, and I explain my beliefs and tell them about what I think Christianity is, I have not engaged in missionary activity according to this law even if the person himself or herself converts to Christianity on the spot. Now, if I tell my American friends back home about this experience, they would gladly call me a missionary! If any American tells a Russian about the Christian faith then that is clearly in the minds of American believers missionary activity. According to the law, as Bendas and others would point out, I was not representing any particular religious organization. Thus, it does not qualify ACCORDING TO THIS LAW as “missionary activity.” Likewise, if I invite some Russian friends over to our apartment and we have tea, cookies and I share about my faith or we read the Bible and talk about the meaning of certain Scriptures, this is not missionary activity and is hence not forbidden by the law. So the statement that this law prohibits missionary work, evangelism, or Bible studies is clearly wrong. All the lawyers who had worked with members of the Duma are in agreement on this fact.

    Nevertheless, some conclude the law does mean that one cannot have a church meeting in an apartment or explain one’s faith as a member of a particular church or denomination. I will cover that aspect of the law more fully in my next blog. In general it means that if I set forth my religious beliefs as a representative of a particular group or organization, I have to be able to show that group or organization (church) authorized me to do so. For now I simply call attention to the fact that it prohibits me from representing a group or organization (church) without authorization from that group or organization. I cannot claim to be a representative of the local Baptist church if I cannot show I am authorized by that church to represent it. The purpose here is to eliminate individuals from representing themselves as members of a particular denomination or church without actually having anything to do with that church.

Konstantin Bendas is going to release more short videos in the future that deal with the remaining attributes of the missionary activity, in particular the impact of the law on the missionary activity of foreigners in Russia and gatherings of believers in their apartments for religious activities, e.g., Bible studies, home church services, and marriage ceremonies.

MY TRIP TO KRONSHTADT

On Sunday July 3 my step-son Roman and I joined my mother-in-law Svetlana for a trip to the city of Kronshtadt on the island of Kotlin near the mouth of the Gulf of Finland.  It is located almost 20 miles (30 km) from St. Petersburg.  I knew about Kronshtadt from the name “St. John of Kronshtadt,” who is an Orthodox saint, and I also knew that it has a history identified with the Russian navy.

Kronshtadt has a long history, but I’ll just hit the highlights. It was taken from the Swedes by Peter the Great (Peter the First) in 1703.  Peter the Great is the most well-known of the Romanovs I suppose.  His large physical size coupled with his uncanny ability to learn how to build stuff—especially ships—made him a larger than life person in Russian history.  He is responsible for building St. Petersburg and Kronshtadt.  Given his interest in learning from and exchanging ideas with the West (something never done in Russia before him), the city of St. Petersburg became known as “the Window to the West.”

Our trip provided me with more insights into Russian history, as well as reminders of those little details about learning to live in Russia.  We went on a tour with some other faculty from the school where Sveta teaches. We boarded the bus about 7:00 a.m. It was the warmest day we had had yet since our move here. I started to wear Bermuda shorts, but my wife reminded me that men my age do not wear shorts in Russia. Silly me. But when we showed up all the other men (my age or older) had on shorts. So things HAVE changed in Russia!  I consoled myself with the fact I could still go in the Orthodox cathedral there.  Shorts are seen as a lack of respect in a Russian temple.  The bus was a twenty nine seat bus, and all but two or three of the seats were filled. So with the driver and the man who organized the trip we had about 30 people. Since it was hot I decided to wear my thinnest nice shirt. It is a white pull over with a small Russian flag over the left breast pocket.  The leader came to us and checked off our names from his list, “Svetlana… Roman… Hell” (that is how most Russians say my name).  He then glanced at me and back at her, “So he’s the foreigner?” “Yes.” He then looked at me and my shirt and said, “Foreigner has a Russian flag on his shirt.”  Well, I thought about complaining about being offended at the dismissive use of “foreigner,” but the “I’m offended” card does not really play well in Russia.  As the Russians say, “на обиженных воду возят!”  We boarded the bus.

I was relieved it was such a nice bus. The seats were comfortable with an arm rest. You could lean back a little if needed.  He announced our trip would take about 2.5 hours, but we would stop in about an hour for a bathroom break and an opportunity to get tea, coffee, or snacks.  Into the trip the bus driver turned the air conditioning on, and I was so relieved. It had started to get really warm.  Then you saw these Russians reach up and close their little overhead vents.  The lady in front of me got out her jacket and put it on.  Here is something I have never understood about Russians.  They are used to severe winter cold. It can go for days—weeks–and never get above freezing. But they’re tough. They keep going as if freezing is normal.  But in summer if it gets a little breezy and the weather feels so refreshing to me, they get the chills.  One day we were out for a walk here with our little Marina Grace in her stroller. It was such a pleasant evening at about 68 degrees F.  So she had on a dress that covered her shoulders. We met about six or seven couples out like us with little ones in strollers. Everyone except Marina Grace had on a heavy cap, sweater, long leggings, and heavy shoes.  I have given up trying to understand that.  I did not like the glares we got, however, as if we were exposing our child to bitter weather.

We arrived at the store/gas station at exactly one hour after our departure.  I would not call it a “convenience store” in the American sense because it is nowhere near the size of a QT or other such stores.  But it did promise gas, snacks of various sorts, and restrooms. The first thing I noticed was it had more than one restroom. Usually these stores only have one. They were not marked “men” and “women,” however.  You just take the next one available.  Roman went to get in line to buy him a soft drink and snacks and me coffee while I went to the restroom. When I came out he said he did not get any snacks because it was time for the shop workers to go on a mysterious break “due to technical reasons.” Those can happen at any hour here, and the “technical reasons” can mean anything in the world. I checked the time and it was 8:01 a.m.  A few from our bus had gotten some snacks and drinks before the break started, but most of us did not. Now, this kind of thing may seem common to Russians. To an American, however, taking a break while you have about 20 customers waiting in line to buy products your store will make a pretty good profit on seems ridiculous.  Sensing I was the only one really upset about this turn of events, I tried to calm my glare as I looked out at the three workers enjoying their technical difficulties smoke break while I went coffee-less. Fortunately, my MIL, Sveta, came to my rescue.  There was a very small cafe not far away, and we got coffee and juice.  My day was saved.  Through all of this experience the Russians remained stoic in the face of disappointment and found a solution.  My response would have been more typically American: fuss, complain, write a letter to someone! Here they know: it won’t work anyway.

We arrived at Fort Konstantin on the outskirts of Kronshtadt for our first site-seeing spot. We had to wait for the local tour guide to arrive. That took about 10 minutes. He got on the bus and explained he had lived in Kronshtadt since 1951. He would later prove he knew the town well. But when the bus tried to enter the fort there was a problem. Our guy and the tour guide stepped out and both got on the phone. The driver was then told to pull the bus to the entrance gate. After a wait of another 10 minutes we were told they did not allow tourists on Fort Konstantin till after 12 noon. We moved on. In Russia you really do not expect things to go according to plan.

So we went to one of the first locations built to defend the island.  We saw five “forts” that were well worn.  This was where Peter set up his first defenses. You could see the old wells for the artillery.  Then there were the “catacombs” where the guards slept, but there was no light there so we could not go in. We were told too many visitors had been injured. It was moving to see something that old. There were 22 of those defenses set up, but 17 were too low and the vegetation too thick for us to see.  According to records the water from the gulf came to the spot of the fort on which we were standing back in the 1700s.

We then went to visit the city of Kronshtadt.  It was much larger than I expected.  The number of apartments built during the Soviet period was well beyond what Roman and I had imagined. And new apartments were still going up.  When we arrived downtown we first visited the memorial to St. John.  Then there was a small Orthodox Church a few meters away.  This was the church where he had actually served and lived for several years. The church was very beautiful from the outside, but we could not go inside.  We moved on and just saw some sites in the city.  One building impressed me because on the side facing the street between the windows it had several stone plagues commemorating different significant events in the history of the town. One I found especially moving was the one describing when the Nazis entered the city.  The thought occurred to me that America certainly does not have anything like the long and troubled history of Russia.  Yet I also think a willful historical amnesia has gripped our country.  I know our major cities have monuments and plagues, but you see these in almost every city of every size in Russia.  While there is still patriotism in America to be sure, we seem to have lost that reverence for our past and the sacrifices that were made. Or it could be I’m getting older and becoming a typical cynical curmudgeon.

We then visited an apartment building and I wondered what we were going to see. But it was actually three rooms in the building dedicated to the “firsts” of Kronshtadt.  I could not follow his Russian well enough to understand all of them. Clearly most dealt with diving and military equipment for diving and for submarines.  Also I understood that the first radio to be used for maritime maneuvers was invented there. The diving suits and their paraphernalia were particularly impressive. The suits were huge and cumbersome.  The weight of the boots, helmets, and clothing was much greater than I would have assumed.  I saw the large dagger-like knives that came with the suit and assumed they were for self-defense. The diver used them, however, to loose himself from the boots and equipment when he needed to ascend to the surface. Some early divers had forgotten their knives and died on the ocean floor.  The oxygen delivery system was a hand pump kept on the ship that pumped the air down to the diver.  Those first divers were made of more courageous stuff than I am I must admit. We then went to another room that had a Soviet soldier in full battle array.  The weapons looked like they were drawn from about the same time I was in the U.S. Marines. It was strange looking at that mannequin. So, you were the guy we were taught to hate, huh?  I had hoped to get more pictures but we were hurried out.

We then went to the Naval Cathedral I had been longing to see.  I had read up on it before our trip.  It was built from 1903-1913. It was closed by the Soviets in 1929.  It served as a cinema, a house of officers and then a naval museum.  After the fall of Communism a cross (which is HUGE) was restored to the building in 2002.  Divine Liturgy began again in 2005. It was reconsecrated in 2013 with Patriarch Kirill leading and Prime Minister Medvedev and his spouse in attendance. The relationship of religion and the political leadership of Russia is such a long, fascinating and complicated one.

The cathedral is not an aesthetic disappointment.  The almost unreal size does not deprive it of beauty. I stood for a moment and watched tourists kind of rush in. You knew the Orthodox because they stopped before entering and crossed themselves and most bowed.  Orthodox do not “rush” into a holy place set aside for worship.  Of course, the ladies could not rush in no matter what. There was a line of women who had not brought the required head coverings for entering the Cathedral.  Someone was there to provide a temporary covering for each woman or girl to wear. Felt weird, a guy raised a Baptist in America pausing to cross myself slowly before I entered a Russian Orthodox Cathedral on a base that had served both the Romanovs and the Soviet Union.

The interior of the cathedral was breathtaking. So many beautiful icons, and the interior of the domed roof was stunning.  I took several pictures, and I hope you can see them on my post!  Svetlana bought us all candles, and I lit mine before the icon of St. John.  There were people there who obviously were just there to tour the building as an artifact of history.  Others were venerating the icons, lighting candles and bowing before the iconostasis.

We left the cathedral and our last stop was at the harbor.  We actually were able to board a large boat (small ship?).  Before we boarded I got to observe another common feature of Russian public life.  Russians are congenitally incapable of forming a line to enter anything. They “gather,” or they “bunch up,” “form herds,” I really do not know what to call it.  I lived with this phenomenon when I would catch the Metro (subway) to and from work every day in St. Petersburg.  They are not always rude, but they are always on the lookout as to how they can inch just a little ahead of the other person.  One lady saw me standing idly sort of in the middle of the “bunch” of people around the ticket office and asked if I was waiting to buy tickets. When I said nyet, she immediately saw her opening! Before boarding the ship we “shuttled” back and forth on the pier as the little ship approached the dock.  Members of each tour group trying to position themselves, based on their prediction of exactly where the ship would tie up so as to be the first to enter.  After the vessel arrived the different tour groups were allowed to enter based on the group of which they were a part.  So our shuffling had meant nothing.  We were the second group.  In the end, despite the fact that on the pier it looked like there would be no way we all could have room on the boat, there was plenty of room.  We sailed around the island and got a good look at St. Petersburg.  He even pointed out Vasilievsky Island where Oksana and I used to live. But I had a hard time keeping up and just did not realize what I was looking at most of the time. My Russian is not good enough to follow a fast talking ship’s tour guide with good sound, much less coming through the microphone.

Then we returned to our bus and began the trip home.  We had one more “bathroom” stop which turned into quite a long experience.  But we made it back to Luga fourteen  hours after we left, and the weather was nice and cool. Roman and I walked the mile home to our apartment.  It had been quite a day.  I saw a lot of Russian history, got to reflect in a beautiful cathedral, and got to smile at how different and how much alike Russians and Americans behave.

 

 

RUSSIAN & ENGLISH: THE LANGUAGE PROBLEM

My wife gave me a shirt some time ago from an on-line “store.” It has the Russian alphabet on it. At the bottom it says, “No doubt we will speak Russian in heaven, only because it takes an eternity to learn.” I love reading Russian history and going to visit places like Kronshtadt like I did earlier this week. I’ve been here enough to have a pretty good grasp of the culture and people. The most difficult part, however, is learning the language. That is the goal right now.

I took three years of French in high school and college. At seminary I studied Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. Then to get into a graduate program I had to pass a test in German. Koine Greek, which is basically the language spoken by the common people from about 300 B.C to A.D. 300 in the Roman Empire, became my love. I went on to do graduate studies in it and taught it for 14 years at the university and seminary level. At some points having studied Greek helped me with Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet came easy to me because of the impact of Greek on the formation of Cyrillic. Also, the cases are similar, except Greek has a five case system and Russian has six cases. But there are problems as well. The cases have the same names pretty much, but they are not used the same way. For example, both have a genitive case, but Russian uses it in far more varied ways.

An explanation on cases may be in order. For us English speakers the formation of the ideas of a sentence are primarily bound up with word order. That is not to say some writers cannot form complex and intricate sentences in English. What I mean, however, is we English speakers think in terms of “subject-verb-direct object” and then fill in the rest of the ideas, qualifiers, modifiers, etc. In Greek and Russian (and certainly other languages as well) the word order is not dominant. The role a noun plays in the sentence is determined by the way it ends. The word is spelled differently depending on what part it plays in the sentence. In English if I say, “The car is outside,” the word “car” is spelled exactly like it would be in the sentence, “I see the car.” Here is where it gets really sticky for us English folks. Nouns in Greek or Russian are either masculine, feminine or neuter. And they end differently in the different cases based on their gender.

You can stick the words in the sentence any place you want to (w/in certain guidelines), because the way the word ends signals whether it is the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.

When I lived in St. Petersburg I had a very limited vocabulary of Russian—what they call “survivor Russian.” I learned how to read directions home, how to ask for whatever I needed in the market, etc. I recently saw an article on line and the title was, “How to Learn Russian in Russia.” I clicked on it and the first point was, “Go live in a small Russian town.” The author’s point was that living in places like Moscow or St. Petersburg you really do not have to learn Russian. There are plenty of Russians in the large cities who know English and will gladly practice their English with a “native speaker.” He’s right. I never really had to know Russian in St. Pete. But in Luga, it is a necessity.

I have never studied Russian in a classroom. I may have mentioned before I did Pimsleur’s three levels and I’ve continued to study privately for over four years. But I still am underwhelmed with what I know. Two main problems: It takes me forever to think through which case endings to use. But the time I figure it out, the conversation has moved on. I think the only way to overcome this is by practice. The other problem is the speed of the native speakers. This is common to all of us who want to speak another language. I have to really concentrate on what is being said, especially if there is more than one Russian speaking. I can sit there like the proverbial “knot on a log” and get the general gist of the conversation. I am not to the level of meaningful participation by a long shot. The good news and bad news is most Russians who listen to me say my pronunciation is very good. I get that “left-handed” compliment, “Wow, you don’t sound like an American when you speak Russian!” That is a good thing. I’ve never heard anyone but Russians or other Eastern Europeans speak Russian so I guess I did not get corrupted. The bad news? Since my pronunciation is good, Russians tend to overestimate my listening skills. They hear me speak and think I am more knowledgeable that I really am. So they feel free to speak with me as if I am fluent. What I am at that point is lost!

Let me anticipate a question I get a lot—well, usually a comment functioning as a question. “Hal, your wife is Russian. She speaks English and Russian. You have a Russian teacher in your house!” First, let me say my wife amazes me. She took her first English course in elementary school when she was ten years old. She says knew right then that would be her life. She would get a degree in English and teach. Ten years old! I am at the point in life we lyingly call “middle age,” and I still don’t know what I want to be when I “grow up.” Oksana can carry on a conversation in English and Russian at the same time. Further, she learned British English, but lived in the American south for eight years so she can speak “the Queen’s English” and then slide into redneck English. One odd point is that when she speaks British English I don’t hear the Russian accent. Others have told her the same thing. So one would assume I have a ready made, easy access Russian teacher right here. There are problems. First, sometimes a wife and husband teacher-student combo does not work well. It is a different dynamic. And then there are three kids in the house who will not surrender the time to us. Second, Oksana was my interpreter here. I knew NO Russian when we met. It is very, very difficult for her to speak to me in Russian. When we were living in America we were at this church picnic. I was really trying to practice my Russian. So Oksana and I were setting up our “place” and our food and I was really trying to speak only Russian. My friend was standing nearby and said, “Yall are weird.” I said, “Hey man I have to practice my Russian at every opportunity.” He said, “I understand that, but the whole time Oksana was speaking English and you were speaking Russian.” Neither one of us realized that. The third problem is that teaching Russian to an English speaker is a totally different animal than teaching English to a Russian speaker. She is a marvelous linguist but sometimes I ask her, for example, “yeah, I know what the instrumental case is but explain why you use it here!” Her favorite answer is, “This is how it historically came to be.” So at some point I will have to have an experienced teacher who teaches English speakers that complicated Russian grammar!

Another difficulty is that although they tell me my pronunciation is good, I still do not get some words exactly right. And if my pronunciation is not really good or exactly right then many Russians just cannot figure out what I mean. Accenting a word correctly is extremely important in Russian. If I don’t put the stress on the right syllable, many here in Luga simply cannot understand. Americans are used to hearing English spoken in a number of ways. We are a land of immigrants and you just get used to hearing people “butcher” the English language, and you become pretty good at figuring out what they mean. Russians in small towns do not hear as many variations of their own language. And I sometimes cannot hear the differences even when they are explained to me. For example, Russian has this “letter” called the “soft-sign.” It was obviously invented just to make things extremely difficult for Westerners. It supposedly changes the pronunciation of the previous letter but I can’t hear it. And it also makes recognizing the gender more difficult. I hate the soft-sign. It was a Communist plot even before there were Communists here!

I learned a lot from my Russian students. Mainly, their deep desire to learn the language. They are, in general, extremely motivated to learn English. So much information is in English these days. I had several physicians in my classes. I asked one why I always have a lot of doctors in my classes. She said 85% of medical information on the i-net is in English. Further, international conferences, webinars, etc. are usually in English. One computer tech joined in and said he communicates with techs in China, but they don’t usually learn Russian and most in Russian don’t learn Chinese. So they communicate in English.

To understand another culture, however, one must familiarize yourself with the language. The better you learn the language, the better you understand the people. Russia and the United States are clearly not getting along these days. I cannot get into all the reasons, but I will repeat what I said in an earlier blog. We have reporters writing news reports on Russia who do not know the language or the culture. To some degree that is becoming true of our diplomats who increasingly are being appointed as ambassadors because of their political contributions rather than their knowledge of the culture and the people. In my opinion Jack Matlock was the best diplomat we have had in my lifetime in what was then the Soviet Union. He was Ronald Reagan’s chief adviser on Soviet matters and went on to be Ambassador to Moscow under George H.W. Bush. Reagan said things that would tend to upset people on this side of the world. He was known as ardently anti-Communist. But he had Jack Matlock. Matlock knew the history, the culture and the language thoroughly. He was not even a Republican, let alone a contributor to Reagan’s campaign. Reagan didn’t want his money; he wanted his diplomatic skills. Those were tense days of the Soviet Union and the United States at odds on many things. But it turned out there were a lot less nuclear weapons afterwards and the tension was nothing like today.

Russians thoroughly appreciate any efforts by Americans to learn Russian. They may not always understand my Russian, but they love the fact that I’m trying. They know there is no real reason for an American to learn Russian unless he or she is interested in Russia. So I’ve got a long way to go for sure. But I will not be able to live in these two worlds of mine without putting forth the continued effort to learn this language.

I will close by observing it isn’t like English is the easiest language to learn or that it always makes sense. When I taught in St. Petersburg I taught on Monday nights at Pratt & Whitney, Russia. The class was mostly engineers who knew English but needed as much practice with a native speaker as possible. They did a lot of work with folks in Toronto. They asked me one night to explain baseball and some of the idioms because the folks in Toronto used them a lot. I said, “Oh sure. Baseball is an easy game and there are a lot of idioms from the game.” I started by explaining strikes and balls.

Me: If the batter tries to hit the ball and misses it or if he doesn’t try to hit it and the umpire judges he should have, it is called a “strike.”

Question from Alexander: Dr. Freeman, please sir, let me ask, if I hit the table with my hand like this (hits the table) you can say I am striking the table?

Me: Yes.

Alexander: If you hit me in the jaw with your fist, I can say, ‘He struck me,’ yes?

Me: Correct.

Alexander: Then why do you call it a strike if he misses it or does not try to strike (hit) the ball?

Me: I’ll have to think about that and get back with you. Now, if the pitcher throws it and the ball is not where the batter can hit it, then it is called a ball.

Alexander: What did he throw when it was a strike

Me: He threw the ball.

Alexander: But you said he threw a ball only when the batter couldn’t hit it.

Me: Yeah, it is just a term. Now, if he hits the ball and makes it to 1st base before the other team can get the ball to first base, it is called a hit.

Alexander: What if they get the ball to first base before he does?

Me; It is not a hit.

Alexander: But you said he hit it.

Me: Yes, he did hit it, but it is not a hit.

Alexander: Please sir, I am confused. If he does not strike the ball it is called a strike, if he can’t hit it then it is called a ball, although he threw a ball when it was a strike. And if he does hit it then he still didn’t hit it if he does not get to the base before the ball he did not hit gets there.

Me: Okay, well, we probably need to….uh, let’s just cover some general idioms and forget this little baseball lesson.

Aren’t languages a fun thing?