WHY DO RUSSIANS LIKE PUTIN?

According to most articles written by American “journalists” and the information presented by the current administration, Vladimir Putin is a despicable person who cannot be trusted. Clearly he wants to expand Russia to the old borders of the Soviet Union according to these “experts.” Additionally, anyone who does not treat Putin in this manner is somehow a “stooge.” The first article on my news feed this morning was the suggestion by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager that her opponent, Donald Trump, is a “puppet” for the Kremlin. The legacy of Joseph McCarthy lives again in the campaign of one most would call a liberal democrat. Distaste for and distrust of Vladimir Putin cuts across party lines, however. There are plenty of conservative Republicans giving life to the same legacy.

Back at the beginning of this summer some major, trusted polls indicated that Putin’s popularity in Russia had fallen to a two year low. It is down to 80%. One does not see any Western leader coming anywhere close to this kind of positive rating from their constituents in the best of times! So pundits and observers were forced to explain how this terrible person is so popular in his own country. I surveyed a few articles by authors who tried. One option is the military explanation (Bloomberg). When the Ukraine crisis flared and “Putin annexed Crimea” his ratings went up to 88%. The same phenomenon happened when Russia went into to Syria. The weakness of this explanation is that Putin has maintained high approval ratings for sixteen years, and not just in times of conflict.

Others actually interviewed a few Russians. Unfortunately, the ones I could find that did so, chose to follow up with either the very rich or the very poor. The rich like him because even though energy prices are down and the sanctions are in place the economy could have been much worse. On the other hand, the poor Russians like him just because they are patriotic toward whomever is in charge. The unstated presupposition was that poor Russians are too ignorant to know any better. But the very rich and the very poor hardly make up 80% of the population of Russia. Now, there was one other option I read: Deny, deny, deny. Tim Daiss wrote a piece in Forbes that just ignored the polling and stayed on theme with how the sanctions had “ripped” into Russia and were causing “angst” for Putin. I looked up his bio information because I’m thinking where is he living in Russia that led him to believe this view is accurate. Well, he lives in Vietnam and apparently does know something about that part of the world. I hope so, anyway, because he knows nothing of Russia.

I want this blog to be more about everyday life here. But one can’t ignore the political situation between America and Russia. To be able to communicate what life is really like here I find I have to disspell so much misinformation (aka lies by “journalists”). I do try to read what economists and energy experts say, but I’m no economist. I can, however, look at life here and compare it to trends I have seen since visting here in 2002 and 2003 and living here 2005-2008 and living here now. I also have tried as best as I could to familiarize myself with persons with stronger academic credientials in Russian studies than I who also maintain an academic and intellectual integrity in their studies.

Even before our move I have enjoyed learning as much as possible about the history, politics and language of Russia. I have learned to filter out those, like Daiss or any writer on Russia for Newsweek. I want to learn from those who give me greater insight into Russia which goes beyond (but not in contradiction to) my experiences here. Frankly, I have excluded most of what I see in the Western press. I find writers like Stephen Cohen, Gilbert Doctorow and a few others really understand Russia and Russians. They’ve devoted their careers to finding answers that have nothing to do with the political winds or what sells. My focus, however, is on finding out what “regular” Russians think. What do I sense from conversations with Russians and addresses I hear from President Putin himself here in Russia? How does one explain his enormous popularity for over sixteen years?

First, I think he articulates in a clear, serious, and careful way what his goals are and the rationale for actions he takes. The first thing that impressed me here was that he does not speak “sound bite” language. You know, the kind of political speeches I hear in America that have no real theme and no rationale for the attempts at a theme. The political speeches I’ve heard this year sound even more disjointed than ever. Now, I’m not putting all the blame on the politicians. The massive lack of integrity in the media in America is on display when they lift portions of quotes and apply them in a totally different contexts than what the speaker intended. Fortunately, the media do get caught more now because of the impact of Facebook and other forms of social media. On the other hand, Putin’s answers are usually longer and more complex than what I was accustomed to hearing from politicians in America. Overall, I would say this keeps the interested Russian population more informed, and they get a better understanding of why he does what he does and where he intends to lead the country.

Further, in 2002 (I believe) he started having regular Q & A sessions with local groups of citizens from various places in Russia. Some of the questions are complex and deal with matters and numbers that are researched beforehand. But in one of them I watched recently a grandmother got up and complained that the power had repeatedly been cut off in their apartment buildings. She had contacted the mayor and got no results. The “city” she lived in had a population of 10,000. Putin handled the irate grandmother with compassion and humor. He got involved. The mayor got involved. Things got done! I watched it thinking there is no way any Western leader would even let her in.

The reason it struck me was because I recently read an article by Peggy Noonan on Angela Merkel and the “global mindset” of Western leaders which is so far removed from their constituencies. They welcome “unvetted” refugees to look good to other leaders who have also bought into the global mindset. Merkel’s life is not threatened by her decision. The study showed refugees live primarily in the poorer neighborhoods, and yes, the crime rates there go up. It makes no more impact on Merkel’s daily life than bringing in illegals to America affects the life of Barack Obama. It is easy to be global when you live above the fray, above those who illegals steal from and harm. Do illegals do this? Clearly most do not, but enough do that citizens in Germany ended up dead. But the leaders don’t live in fear because of them. Putin is liked by his people because he does not get caught up in the euphoria of how he has helped these illegal folks without realizing some of them kill people. Just ask the leader of France. Or those who have suffered in Germany because of Merkel’s global vision. Political and religious leaders find it easy to proclaim the virtues of openness when they know those to whom we are open won’t be living next door. Putin makes it clear he welcomes immigrants and hope they come. But he will not lower the standards for entering Russia and risk dangers to citizens so that he will appear “global” to the West.

When turning to how Putin deals with issues within the country, the issue of religion often comes up. He is Russian Orthodox. There is separation of Church and State, but there is a harmonious relationship between Orthodoxy and the State that is not true of the relationship of other religions and the government. He has used government money to rebuild churches and monasteries damaged or destroyed during the era of Communism. There is no law prohibiting Islam, Judaism or any other Protestant or Catholic variation of Christianity or any religion. My own observations are that inter-faith relations are better than ever. I think I addressed the matters of his “anti-missionary” biases fully enough in my earlier blogs.

Putin is also frequently asked about homosexuality by reporters from the West. He insists he is the President of all citizens and that includes homosexuals or those of “minority sexual orientation.” They have a right to a job, fair promotions, recognitions, and the like. They have a right to live together and have their own home or apartment. Yet Russia does not allow “homosexual propaganda” in the schools where minors are taught. Putin stresses that sexual idenity is something that individuals discover for themselves over time, and teachers should not propogate a homosexual lifestyle. As far as other rights for gays and lesbians, e.g., the display of public affection, he leaves that up to each oblast (region) to decide. He makes it clear he believes in traditional marriage and only traditional marriages produce children. In Russia homosexual couples are not allowed to adopt children. The majority of the population of Russia agrees with him. They do not believe any minority gets to tell the majority how the country should be run. On the minority controlling the majority I humorously recall what my sixteen year old said of his experience in America: “It means if one kid got sick from eating yogurt in school the rest of us would never get to eat yogurt at school again.”

Third, the point where Russians and the West see Putin in a completely different light is over international policies. Russians in general see him as strong but not aggressive. The West seems to think Putin is “fixated” on expanding Russian territory. He apparently has this seething desire to restore the Soviet Union borders. In a quote widely published, Putin stated in 2005 that the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

The Associated Press translation is the one that got picked up (instead of the official Kremlin translation) subbing “catastrophe” for “disaster,” and calling the breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

I read the entire speech, and it is a great speech. His point was that tens of millions of people living in the fifteen Republics were suddenly without the basic necessities of life and no clear understanding of the political future of their Republic. I don’t really have to read about what an awful time it was. My wife doesn’t complain or whine, but to hear what that time was like from her is very moving. What an awful time. And millions of people were suddenly without the staples of life. But the West didn’t “feel their pain,” and did not care. It was no disaster for us, so it was no disaster. The quote which I find in Putin’s speeches more often is, “He who does not regret the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who wants it restored has no head.” I actually memorized that quote in Russian.

No one here I talk to and nothing I see in Putin’s leadership from here indicates in any way that Putin wants to reclaim the Baltic States or Ukraine or anywhere else. The first reason is he is too smart. I found even in reading Ukrainian historians who were positive about their country, that they were extremely distressed by the continued presence of corrupt oligarchs. Now, the oligarchs who had positioned themselves well in the last days of the Soviet empire were a problem in every Republic. Yeltsin chose not to deal with the corruption in Russia. Putin handled them better than anyone, although he was roundly condemned in the West as a murderer. He let them continue investments and business, but he did not allow them to manipulate politics. If they crossed the line they paid for it, although the accusations the Putin murdered them did not hold up to the light of day.

The International Monetary Fund has constantly warned Ukraine about its corruption in 2015 and 2016. The one sure source of income for Ukraine has been the United States. The truth is Ukraine is on very shaky financial ground and were it not for the West sending the big bucks, it would be even worse. Our veterans and domestic needs be damned. We must save the Ukraine from Putin.  Putin has no desire to take over Ukraine, although he clearly would like to see a representative government that respects the “left bank” of Ukraine which is largely Russian speaking. And he will protect them. Putin will not allow Russian speaking Ukrainians left vulnerable to the revolutionaries who took over the leadership of their country illegally. Victoria Nuland’s phone call that was hacked made it clear it was the US, not Russia, pushing the “revolution.”  We wanted Yanukovich out even if he was the duly elected President.

Putin is accused of “taking over” Crimea. Crimea has historically been Russian. The overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to re-join Russia. They speak Russian, and they live as Russians. Most Crimeans have never thought of themselves as Ukrainian. Putin has pointed to how different the US attitude was when Albania was a province of Serbia, and the US backed the “Kosovo Albanian’s” quest for independence, and Joe Biden was a leading proponent of bombing Serbia. If the Albanians wanted independence from Serbia then they should have it we insisted. And we would force the issue militarily (as we often do). But when the Crimeans wanted freedom from Ukraine to return to being a part of Russia (as it was originally) we issued sanctions against Russia for the horrible action of giving them the freedom to do what they wanted. When the US said the situation with the Albanians was different from Crimea, Putin said he agreed: The difference, however, was no one was killed when Crimea voted to rejoin Russia. Again, Russians see Putin as pointing out the US hypocrisy.

The Baltic States are also way too risky for any country to want to “take.” While Estonia seems to have stabilized and the relationship with Russia is uncertain, last year Latvia’s population decreased by 8.7% and Lithuania by 11.3%. Since the fall of the USSR about half the ethnic Russians have returned to Russia. Since both countries are members of the EU many skilled workers left for better paying jobs in Western Europe. There seems to be little that can be done to stem the dire consequences of the dwindling population and work force. No one here writes or talks about Putin wanting to expand Russia’s borders.

It is important to keep the bigger international picture in mind. America has bases literally all over the world. They participate to some degree in the majority of wars and conflicts in the world. Russia tried that in Afghanistan, and it went poorly. They don’t want a repeat. Putin is strong against terrorists. Make no mistake. He believes ISIS and others of like spirit are very dangerous, and if asked by any country Russia will join the fight. Putin has tried repeatedly to get America to fight terrorism together. But America insist on calling the shots even when it has called so many shots wrongly. Our Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, has that rare combination of diplomatic idiocy, narcissism, and “lap dogism” that one rarely sees in one person. He insists that America has a right to go into Syria and tell the Syrians how we will handle this ISIS situation, and if they harm any of the “moderate” rebels (as deemed by the US) we will retaliate. We declared a no-fly zone in their country.

The point is Russians see through this duplicity. Putin’s agenda is not about expanding the borders of Russia. That myth is a creation of the Military Industrial Complex of America. Retired General Richard Cody recently spoke to US Defense Contractors and lamented that after Communism and the Berlin Wall fell, business “went south.” In his words, “peace broke out all over.” But better days are ahead he assured them. With Russia’s saber-rattling, they can sell a lot of arms. Never mind that Russia isn’t rattling any sabers. The US spends $609 billion dollars on its military and Russia spends $85 billion. That’s a lot more sabers to rattle. Russia has ten military bases outside the borders of Russia, and all but two of them are in the old Soviet Republics. I really could not get a firm count on how many military bases the United States has around the world.  It is at least 800, more than any empire in history. If we choose to spend our money all around the world to show our strength and influence then we ought to stop the national hypocrisy of acting like Russia is the aggressive one. We want the right to join with NATO in placing bases very close to Russian borders but would scream to high heaven if the worked out a deal with Mexico or Canada and did the same. If you are an American and your son or daughter goes in the military there is a good chance he or she will fight and risk life and limb for a country that cares nothing for America. In Russia, that is not likely to happen. Putin focuses on Russian security and does not try to play “king maker” around the world.

Putin has indicated on different occasions the nature of the Russian economy and the goals he has for the country. First, Russia is the third largest producer of oil and the second largest producer of natural gas in the world. Thus, the low price of oil right now means that things are harder economically. But he still has plans to increase Russia’s ability to deliver oil to China and other places. BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) may be the undoing of the “petro-dollar.” If so, the US is in trouble.

Second, Russia has upped its production of grain. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted 2016 will be a record harvest for grains in Russia. It appears now that Russia may be the largest supplier of wheat in the world this year. Also, Putin’s goal is to make Russia the largest producer of non-GMO foods in the world. Two thirds of EU states reject GMOs, so this goal is quite important. I was shocked when I came here and saw huge wheat and corn fields where the farm land was formerly fallow.

Related to the grain production, Putin wants Russia to be self-sufficient in terms of food production by 2020. In 2005 Russia imported half of its food. In 2014 it exported more than $20 billion worth of grain alone. Predictions are that in 2016 it will be $30 billion. Inflation remains a problem at about 6%, but most predictions are that it will continue to drop. Clearly the economy is growing and is more diversified.

Putin has also done a very good job of keeping Russia’s external debt manageable. The latest figures I could find rank Russia at 19th in terms of external debt. The US ranks as number 1, which is not surprising. The US maintains a huge external debt, about twice what the next highest is (UK). Third and fourth on the list is France and Germany. So Russia’s main western antagonizers are far more deeply into external debt than Russia. In 2014 President Obama said it was important to remember “Russia doesn’t make anything.” Then in January of 2016 he stated that the sanctions had “left Russia isolated, its economy in tatters.” Clearly that is not true. I live here. I keep up with the news here. Russia’s economy is far from being in tatters, and international relationships in Eurasia are looking more positive.

Russians are not a gullible people. They have had some “interesting” political leaders who have made them suspicious. Putin was chosen by Yeltsin as his successor, and Yeltsin was dispised. Putin took over a horrible political, economic situation. But even as Prime Minister before he was named as President he had already impressed many in Russia in those very awful days. The country was down emotionally, economically and spiritually. I saw this personally when I came here in 2002. Putin earned their approval; he did not inherit it. It is now pretty clear the West did not think anyone could pull Russia out of its low condition. They made promises they did not keep because they thought Russia would continue to be weak. They miscalculated. Russia is no longer weak, so it is important for Western leaders to make their leader look corrupt—as if American politicians remain above corruption.

I think there is a significant number of Russians who do not really like Putin, but still would give him their approval as a leader. And he is roundly criticized by some journalists, although definitely not the majority of them. So in some ways opinions are quite divided over him as a person. Do not think everyone here likes Putin. But still many who do not like him are able to detach their own personal distaste for his leadership style and other details from their evaluation of what he has done for the country. They do not like him, they long for someone else, but they do understand and approve of many things he has accomplished. I don’t have to read statistics to know life in Russia is better by a long shot than when Putin came to power. My purpose has not been to show what a great guy Vladimir Putin is. Clearly he has done more than most imagined for Russia. I dealt with him at length in this blog because when I start talking about life in Russia, the first response I get, “Yeah, but that awful guy Putin…” I hope this blog has dispelled some of the falsehoods. My own perspective, I admit, is when I look at the political leaders and the political situation in my home country of America and the leadership and the situation in the country in which I live now, I think the latter is in much better hands–by far.

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WHAT IF I WANTED TO MOVE TO RUSSIA?

I posted an article on FB that a friend had sent to me titled, “Ten Good Reasons to Move to Russia.”  Part of my reason for posting it was to convince others (and perhaps myself) that moving here from America is not considered crazy by everyone.  Another motive, however, was that fact that I do get questions from friends and sometimes strangers who write me about moving to Russia.  It isn’t that they are completely serious about making the move, but some of them have told me they do think about it. Others ask me about it just because they would like to know what is involved in moving to this culture. They don’t think they ever will. They simply have a healthy curiosity about the details.  So I thought I’d try to give some insight from our experiences thus far for those who are just curious and for those who, well, sort of think about it from time to time.

First, getting a visa is not difficult. It is paperwork, but it is not that bad.  I suggest going the route I did. Get an invitation from a citizen and resident of Russia.  Essentially what they say is that you are invited, and they will be responsible for you while you are here.  My invitation was from my father-in-law.  It does not have to be from family, however.  The visa I got for myself, Gabriel, and Marina Grace was a three year multiple stay private visa. Despite the fact it’s for three years, by law foreign citizens can’t stay in the country for longer than 6 months at a time. So Gabriel, Marina Grace and I will have to leave Russia and then reenter every six months. We don’t have to go far.  We could potentially cross the border with neighboring Estonia and come back the next day, but it is still a bit inconvenient. I hope to apply for a temporary residency permit before the three years are up.  It is also for three years, but with this document in my hands I won’t be obligated to leave and re-enter every 6 months. I will have to prove I have an income, provide them with a criminal background check from the FBI, and pass tests in Russian language, history and civics.  The language part is what is holding me up. It is a long test and much of it is written.  I am far more comfortable with speaking Russian than writing it.  I’ve never had classes in Russian so my spelling is atrocious and my reading is ponderous at best.  Of course, you do not have to have that status to live here. And as far as our two youngest kids, we’re planning to obtain Russian citizenships for them as soon as possible.

If one does decide to come here I suggest that you do not ship anything unless absolutely necessary.  Most things are very reasonably priced here. So it cost less to buy things here than to ship. The dollar to ruble rate right now is about $1=60 rubles. We brought the maximum number of suitcases permitted.  We had to pay extra, but nothing like it would have been to ship them.  We had five full backpacks we carried on as personal items, five smaller suitcases as carry on luggage and ten large suitcases for check-in—two for each of us. Different airlines charge differently. Luftansa is a wonderful airline—my pick of all of them.  But they charge a LOT to bring more luggage ($200 for every extra suitcase).  We flew Aeroflot out of New York and it was very reasonable.  They charged $35 each for the extra suitcases.  The mistake we made was we shipped one pallet of books and winter clothes separately.  We were charged about $1,100 by an American company called Sefco.  They were awful.  They said this would be all we would have to pay, but we learned after we got here that we still had to pay customs a  duty for our cargo. And the worst is it could’ve been avoided if we had declared this cargo as our unaccompanied luggage at customs when we were flying to Russia. But nobody told us that, of course.  They also told us not to worry about the BOL (bill of lading describing what was in the boxes), and that the weight of the cargo didn’t really matter as long as we could fit all the boxes in a given volume.  That was completely wrong.  We ended up having to pay as much on customs fees and the fee to get it here to Luga from St. Petersburg as we did to get it from America to St. Petersburg. And because of the faulty paperwork the customs in St.Petersburg had to give a thorough inspection to all our belongings.  We were worried about how they would handle going through our things, but they put everything back in order.   I have since learned that this is quite common.  The American companies try to make it look as cheap as possible and do not let you know the total cost.  Further, they said we would get it in thirty days. It took over two months and when I complained to Sefco, the owner of the company said he was offended.  I used no profanity. I used no threatening language. I simply told him how his company treated me and how incompetent they were.  When I asked him to check and see when our cargo would get here he refused. I had offended him.  If I hear one more American tell me how offended he or she is I think I’ll scream.

Other topics I am asked about are the ones that deal with daily life.  Let me dispense with the wrong ideas that come from the ignorant press in the West.  We get i-net and we get it cheap.  I find no evidence of anyone in the FSB (fka KGB) spying on my e-mails.  As many of you know both Oksana and I are on Facebook.  We post pretty much what we want to.  We can talk about politics, religion, or what we had for supper last night.  I am not joking when I say we were more worried about the Americans when we were getting ready for our trip than the Russians. Oksana got her American citizenship, and she was told during the application process to watch what she posted on-line.  People think I’m joking when I say we were more worried about the American government than the Russian government.  I will remind you that James Clapper, Director of the National Intelligence, was asked before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2013, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”  He said no, and later added not intentionally anyway.  Eric Snowden said that was the point at which he decided to expose the lie.  So he gave proof to three persons in the media that demonstrated Clapper was lying.  Clapper said after that that he “misspoke,” but much later eventually admitted he lied.  Today, as far as I know, Clapper is still Direct of National Intelligence, and Eric Snowden is in exile in Moscow under criminal charges by the American government.  My point: It’s probably not the Russians listening in.  You can come here and discuss whatever you like in person, on the phone, in an e-mail, and Facebook or any social media.

Also, if you do not use Skype I would suggest any American coming here should get it. It’s free to download and you can use it for free.  We can go on-line and talk with friends and family on the computer, face-to-face for as long as we like for no charge.  It’s great getting to see my kids and grandkids back in America when we talk.  Further, Skype has a feature where for a flat fee of $50 a year we can have a local South Carolina phone number.  So if anyone needs to call us “on the go” they can make a local call from their cell or landline to that number, the call will come to our computer and we can talk via Skype at no additional charges for us and absolutely free for them.  Whatsap is a great i-phone ap for keeping in touch with friends and family oversees, cost-free as well. You can chat, send pictures and videos, and even make phone calls at no cost at all from any place in the world!

These things are important when you live abroad.  We lived in America for eight years.  I still have grown children there.  Our friends are there.  When I lived here ten years ago all we had was e-mail and phone calls, which were rather expensive.  It is not like that anymore.  I realize Facebook has its dangers and flaws.  But for us now, it is a wonderful way to see family and friends as well as a great way to exchange articles or other forms of information.  Of course, there are dangers with electronic communication.  Everything from misunderstanding a sarcastic remark to being hacked.  We can’t avoid those dangers.  But if you live here you will not be cut off from your family and friends as was once the case.

I have been asked about health care by a few people.  I have addressed this on my FB page, but it is important.  Russia has two main ways of providing health care.  If you qualify as a citizen or legal resident, you can have free health care.  If you choose or, as in my case, you do not qualify for free health care, you can pay private doctors or the hospitals.  It is more than reasonably priced.  For example, my step son Roman, who is 16, has been having back pain when he stands a long time.  He is not one to complain so I just heard him talking about it.  We took him to a nearby health care facility, and he saw a surgeon.  He examined Roman and suspected a bit of scoliosis and perhaps disc problems, but he wanted him to have an MRI.  There was no one in Luga who was qualified to read an MRI so we had to take him to Gatchina, a slightly larger town nearby.  He received the MRI, and we took the results back to the surgeon and also to the neurologist who is here as well.  The results confirmed a slight deformity, probably aggravated from lifting weights and participating in football and wrestling.  So they recommended a course of treatments that we have begun.  So I will sum up our experience as an example of Russian health care that we personally have gone through.  First, it was very cheap.  We had to pay for it, but the surgeon charged him 500 rubles for the first visit.  Given the exchange rate I mentioned, he charged under $10 for the office visit. He did not charge for the second visit to read the MRI because, in his words, “I didn’t do anything to help you with that first visit. I won’t charge you again.”  The MRI cost us $50.00.  Yes, I wrote “fifty dollars.” He will go for twenty treatments, as well as take some anti-inflammatory shots.  The treatments cost roughly the equivalent of $2.50 a trip.  They are done at the local hospital where the surgeon and neurologist (who is a lady) work.  She will supervise any other treatments she deems necessary.

We have been very pleased with the attention that the medical personnel have given to Roman.  They have been thorough and kind.  They did not want just to give him pain pills or prescribe medicines until they knew exactly what the problem was.  Obviously, I can’t speak for the whole spectrum of health care.  I am simply saying this is our experience with Russian health care, and I could not be any more pleased.  Frankly, at the risk of sounding like I’m bashing America, the health care act that is popularly called “Obamacare” was devastating to us as a family.  We were a middle income family and that meant we were required to participate and purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.  But we never received any help from the insurance.  We had to pay the full price for an office visit.  If the strep or flu had run through our whole family it would’ve been devastating to our budget because we all would’ve had to pay full price. And medical care in America is tremendously expensive.  I paid a surgeon less than $10 for an office visit here in Russia, and in America I paid my doctor $150 for an office visit.  And that was the cheapest we could find!

Another question I got from a mother (and a few others) was about the food and nutrition in Russia.  When I first came to Russia I really did not like the food.  It tasted somewhat bland.  I love Mexican food. HOT MEXICAN!  So pelmeni (common dish here) just did not measure up.  Now, however, I love Russian food.  First, you have to develop a taste for sour cream.  Russians put it on at least 50% of their food.  Second, dark, grainy bread is something I had never even tried. I had always eaten white processed bread.  Now, I can’t eat that stuff.  The homemade soups Russians make with sour cream and black bread are absolutely delicious.  In general, you don’t find a lot of “processed” foods.  We went to a place that served pizza and they made sure we knew they made the dough, they brought in the meats, cheeses, etc., from the local market.  You can get frozen pizza and other things like that at the grocery store.  I even see boxes of cold cereal, which I never saw before.  These things are in the chain supermarkets. It just does not taste as good to us as the many other things we can buy. The local market, very similar to a farmers market in South Carolina, is where we get most of our food. The meat is fresh.  The veggies and fruit are fresh. Obviously the growing season is not as long here so the fruits will become more difficult as the cold season rolls in.  The cheeses, including a delicious “farmers cheese,” sour cream and other dairy products are wonderful.  There is just a fuller taste than the homogenized, pasteurized stuff.  GMOs are illegal in Russia.  Monsanto has been locked out.  Obviously, that takes strong political will from the politicians to resist the financial allurements of such a huge company, but Vladimir Putin was obstinate:  “I will not allow these companies to poison the people of Russia.”  And, as with most things, food is less expensive across the board.  We can buy five dollars worth of fresh pork, beef or veal and have plenty for a family of five for TWO meals.  I can buy a pound (although it is all sold in kilograms) of sweet cherries in the summer for about one dollar. I paid $6.00/lb for the same fruit in America.

Housing is much different than in America.  Our apartment would be considered quite small in America.  We have two bedrooms, a large den area that opens to a small kitchen.  It has been recently remodeled and has attractive wallpaper, light fixtures, etc.  If you want a big house with plenty of space it will be difficult to find, but I’m not sure how difficult, because we did not look.  I think it certainly would be easier than ten years ago, but in general living space is just more cramped.  I think that would be the hardest adjustment for most families from America.  We were surprised that our kids have not complained.  We told them before we moved that this is the way it is, and so far it has not been a problem. I’m sure our 16 year old would like his own “space” away from his little brother and sister.  But each family would have to look at the personalities of each child—and each adult—to decide if they could accept it.

The upside is there is little stress about having a super nice place.  It is not like in America where someone looks at your house and draws all kinds of conclusions about your salary, taste, culture, education or whatever else.  We want our place to look nice when someone comes over, but it is not the pressure we sensed in America.  I’m sure the super rich in Russia have really elaborate homes. But for us in a small town there is just not the disparity between some who live in huge elaborate homes in completely separate parts of the town from the folks on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.  Some people here are more well off financially than others, but nothing like the differences you see in America.  Another advantage is cost.  Our apartment is $200 a month.  All utilities combined are roughly another $100.  This is a LOT less than any apartment we ever looked at America, and considerable less than the mortgage on our home.

Cars cost about the same here as they do in America—maybe a little more.  The sanctions did impact the auto industry here I think.  But I see very nice cars here.  Ten years ago, I saw mostly older, smaller and more run down cars.  Now, I don’t really see any difference from what you see in America.  Cars of all kinds, makes, models, etc.  I saw a Lada last week, and it was really nice.  The Lada was a car produced in the Soviet times.  It is still made in Russia.  They used to look like boxes to me—cheap boxes at that.  But the ones I’ve seen now are very nice.  I don’t know the price, but I was impressed with the appearance.

The last topic I’ll address is language, although I write about it in another blog.  The Russian language is very difficult to learn for an American.  The grammar is much more complicated.  If you live in St. Petersburg, Moscow or some other large city, you really don’t have to know Russian well.  I never worried when I went out in the streets of St. Petersburg.  If I got in a jam, I could find someone who knew English and the Russians who knew English loved practicing on me.  I knew very little Russian at all—just a few words and phrases.  I know a lot more Russian now, but I’m more intimidated going out in the street or to the store here than in St. Pete.  Most of the people in this small town do not know English well enough to communicate with me in English.  I can communicate on a basic level what I need in Russian, but I can’t understand the native speakers because they speak too fast for me.  And they are not used to slowing down.  We had a guest in our home a couple of weeks ago and Oksana told her if she would speak slowly Hal can understand you.  She said that was not possible.  And it wasn’t.  She didn’t slow down all night.  But, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, if you can learn any Russian at all it will be so helpful because the people will try to help you.  They know that if you came from America and you learned a little bit of Russian it was tough. They know their language is complicated. And they appreciate it so much when you show you are trying.  We had some friends over about a month ago, folks I knew before, and I told Roman in Russian to bring in some more chairs from the kitchen. The lady squealed with excitement!  “Hal spoke to Roman in Russian!”  So if you come, the more Russian you can learn the better. But Russians will not be surprised if you cannot speak it at all.

The hardest part of living here is building a totally new “social network.” Both Oksana and I like to get together with friends and enjoy socializing.  We have not been able to do much of that here.  We believe it is changing, and we will develop more friendships as we get involved in school and work this fall.  But anyone who comes needs to prepared to be patient.  In general, Russians do not “open up” to new friends as easily as Americans.  As I discussed in an earlier blog, there are exceptions, but most Russians learn to trust a bit more slowly.  Friendship here is seen as a deeper bond than just superficial relationships.  So it takes a while to develop new friends.  Again, there are advantages. We’ve had a much more family time than we ever had in America.  But if you move here, the Welcome Wagon won’t show up for quite a while.

RUSSIA’S ANTI-MISSIONARY LAW: CONCLUSION

In the previous two blogs I have addressed the confusion surrounding the anti-terrorism law passed recently in Russia which stirred up a great deal of concern, even alarm, in some religious circles both in Russia and in the West. Those most alarmed were Evangelical Protestants. According to some articles and blogs, Russia is essentially outlawing evangelism and missionary work in this country. Since I received so many queries about this law (actually the amendments to the law) from friends in America I decided to “interrupt” my regular blogs and investigate the specifics of the law. My wife consulted the Russian text of the amendments and the law as much as possible. We also watched webinars and videos produced by the Slavic Center for Law and Justice (hereafter SCLJ), which is made up primarily of Protestant leaders and Evangelical lawyers in Russia. I will summarize or review the basic points and then address the issues of religious services in apartments or homes and the issue of “foreign citizens” and their rights to do missionary activity. The following points were made earlier, but are important enough to repeat.

First, the law was drawn up quickly and is quite confusing even for those in the legal profession. At times the restrictions or clarifications seem contradictory. Thus, the members of the SCLJ emphasize the importance of careful oversight at the point of implementation.

Second, the primary point of confusion is over way the law defines “missionary activity.” I will not rehearse all the aspects of the definition again, but it is important to remember that missionary activity is defined as occuring when a religious organization or its approved representative seeks to convince others to join that organization publicly. The law does not address the issue of communicating truths about an individual’s faith either verbally or electronically. Even if a person preaches a message and calls the listeners to come to faith in Christ, this is not missionary activity according to the law.

Third, the members again reminded participates that Article 28 of the Russian Constitution gives all citizens of Russia and foreign citizens the right to confess their religion and disseminate information about that faith. Nothing in the law can be interpreted to violate the Constituion.

A major concern of the Protestant churches in Russia is the issue of meeting in apartments or homes because this is VERY common for many churches in Russia. The members of the SCLJ admitted this can be problematic in part because of the wording of the articles. Their conclusions are as follows:

  1. Any group can gather to study the Bible, pray, or conduct other aspects of their religious activity even if they are not registered. If they are not trying to disseminate the information in order to convince others to join the group officially they are not engaging in missionary activity.
  2. Article 24.1 states that if a registered group meets in a building or any premises which have been legally provided to the group, then missionary activity is “obstacle free.” Article 24.2 goes on to elaborate on the various buildings or premises or land on which these buildings have been built and states clearly there are no obstacles in the law to practicing missionary activity, i.e., attempting to convince any present who are not in the group to become a part of the group. The person responsible for handling the legal papers for the church can be the priest, pastor or any leader. The SCLJ suggested it would be best to use someone who handles the finances of the church. At a practical level this means that hypothetically if I wanted my religious group (a “religious association”) to meet in my apartment for “church services” then I would have to provide them with a legal document authorizing them essentially to “lease” my apartment. Thus, they would then qualify as a “religious premise” and missionary activity can take place “obstacle free.”
  3. Article 24.3 is the paragraph that caused the most consternation and the most confusion as well. It was this paragraph, or more specifically, part of the paragraph that caused many to believe the amendment to the law was forbidding the free exercise of religion in the area of evangelism. It states, “Missionary work in residential premises shall not be permitted with the exception of the cases stipulated in paragraph 2 of Article 16 hereof.” Article 16 lists the aspects of religious organizations as worship services, weddings, funerals, Communion, baptism or confirmation, etc. In other words the group can do these things because they are not, according to the law, missionary activity. Further, “residential premises” are not those premises which paragraph 2 defines as having been authorized as “religious premises.” Clearly, this part is extremely confusing, and the uproar resulting from it is not surprising. But an apartment that meets the criteria of a “religious premise” is not subject to the restrictions of a “residential premise.”

The other major issue addressed was the impact of this law on foreign citizens and missionary activity. First, a foreigner has to be invited by a registered group to be able to practice “missionary activity.” This does not mean a foreigner cannot speak in a non-registered church. If someone comes from, say, America, with a legal visa, and he or she addresses or preaches to a congregation and even calls some to become Christians if they are not, this is still not missionary activity. If the foreign preacher only addressed the issue of conversion to Christianity and did not address the specific issues of becoming members of that religious organization then it was not religious activity. Now, clearly in most Protestant denominations if someone comes to Russia from America and preaches and invites people to “get saved,” and they do he has been a missionary. But according to this law he has not, and therefore he has not violated the law.

Second, even if a foreigner is invited by a registered religious organization he or she can only practice missionary activity in the region (oblast) in which the church is registered. Now, there are “centralized churches,” with multiple locations. If a registered centralized church invites a foreign citizen to Russia, then he or she is allowed to do missionary activity in any region where that church is authorized if he has proper documentation. I would assume, for example, the Baptist Union of Russia would meet the criteria. But if the foreigner is invited by a local independent congregation the foreigner may not go outside that region. If the missioner does missionary activity outside of the region, then he or she would then most likely be deported. The presenter in the webinar said that he believes based on the studies by the lawyers of the SCLJ that one could appeal this section on the grounds it violates the Constitution. But he said at a practical level a foreigner who violates this restriction would probably be deported before the appeal was heard. He concluded with a rather humorous Russian expression, “Всё можно, только осторожно“ (“all is permissable, but be careful”). In Russian it rhymes, but the catchiness of it gets lost in translation.

Again, the law itself does not prohibit missionary activity as most believers understand missionary activity. It will require careful oversight in how it is implemented, as I stated in my last blog. Continued antagonism over the law itself I fear only increases the possibility that local authorities will look more carefully at the groups who are complaining. Further, the SCLJ members indicate that congregations must know the law and their rights. Nothing is gained by shrill misinterpretations based on sloppy and hurried reading and research. The Pentecostal group has issued a PDF document of over 70 pages to help members understand their rights and responsibilities in the light of the new law. One surprising conclusion is that it really does not matter if a group is not registered with the state as long as they understand the law and what their rights and responsibilities are.

I will conclude with some suggestions as to why I think this law and the amendments were so seriously misinterpreted.

First, as everyone stated, the law was done hurriedly, and it was not well written. Even the Russian lawyers trained in this area stated they had trouble understanding it. The members of the Duma who spoke with members from the SCLJ indicated there would be continued discussion and hopefullly clarifications.

Second, the law itself addresses terrorism. This law was not drawn up to combat the practice of religion. Religion became a part of the law because religion is being used by terrorists. My own hunch (and I have no proof) is that those writing the law were not thinking about local churches and how they carry out their mission when they wrote the law. The fuel behind the forming of this law was not the idea, “how do we stop Protestants from evangelizing Russians?” Their minds were on terrorists and how to stop them from killing Russians or convincing others to kill their countrymen for them.

Third, writers and commentators were too quick to draw conclusions without carefully reading and studying the law. I believe the Western (particularly American) writers and observers were quite anxious to “jump” on this so-called prohibition of missionary activity without careful translation and consultation with those with legal training.

Finally, I think this haste is part of the larger issue of an anxiousness on the part of Americans to present Russia in general and Vladimir Putin in particular in the worst possible light. The sub-text of some of what I read was essentially that Putin has been itching to stop the Protestant church and curry favor with Russian Orthodox leaders. Putin does consider himself Orthodox. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that about 1% of the Russian population is Protestant. Some estimate the numbers lower and one estimate (not actual compilation) went as high as 2%. The numbers have flucuated a little over the years, but not by much. Vladimir Putin is a very astute politician in my opinion. I doubt that he wakes up and worries about the roughly 1% of the population of his country that is Protestant undermining his work as president. Muslims make up about 6.5% so that gives one some idea of the nature of the religious landscape in Russia. Further, while Western writers also played the “Putin is just trying to please the Russian Orthodox” card, the CSLJ said their contact with the Orthodox leaders said they do not like the law either. This was also what Oksana and I heard from our Orthodox Public Relations contact. After 70 years of atheistic Communism dominating the country and culture, the Orthodox Church hardly wants another government that dictates what religious activities are acceptable or unacceptable. The Russian Constitution clearly supports a separation of Church and State and everyone here we talked to or read wants to keep it that way.

In my experience of living in America and Russia, and having friends and family in both countries, I think the biggest difference in perception between the two groups is over Putin. Now, there are Russians who do not like Putin at all. One only need to read The Moscow Times to discover there are publications and journalists in Russia who do not like him either. Yet the majority of Russians by far approve of Putin and the job he is doing. I realize that is not what is reported in some American periodicals. But even the Washington Post in an article earlier this year put his approval rating at 83% among Russians. Bloomberg found his approval rating at 80%, which is about where Russia Today puts him. No American politician can come anywhere close to numbers like that. Obama’s latest approval rating was considered pretty high by most observers, and it was 54%.

One does not need to be a social psychologist to understand that the old adage, “misery loves company” is true both at an individual and cultural level. I have never seeen my country, the USA, as divided as it is now politically. It was not this bad even during the Vietnam war. Everyday I read about Hillary and her e-mails, the DNC and those e-mails and the subplots, etc., and then the next story will be about the latest thing coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth. I admit this is just my perception based on observations and communications, but saying that Americans are not satisfied with the options in a gross understatement. So to look at Russia, the nation this administration has declared our greatest geo-political threat, and see the unity and support that their president has maintained is clearly upsetting to many in politics and the media in the US. They want him to fail! So they have kept beating the drum long enough about how evil he and Russia are that it has seeped down into the fabric of the culture. Putin has to be a terrible person and leader, because we all say he is. So when there is a thread of hope that he has done something that really is dastardly, that really does sound like KGB all over again, we have to jump on it. Trouble is, translating Russian and getting into the actual confusion of legal documents is not something considered essential when you’re just looking for dirt.

All the persons involved in the study concluded that the laws and amendments were not well written—Orthodox, Protestant, religiously neutral persons in the Duma even. The law, however, was about how to stop the raging wave of terrorism around the world from striking Russia. Clarity and concision were sacrificed in order to get something out quickly. Unlike the media in the U.S., the Russian media does not de-emphasize the number of terrorists attacks occuring in the world. Terrorism, not relations with the U.S., is front and center. It is unfortunate, however, that people of good intent have been misled by those who ought to work harder before they write.

The group of lawyers and religious leaders who make up the CSLJ concluded with the sound advice that believers in Russia must know the truth about the law. They have to recognize where the law is unclear and be prepared to give knowledgeable responses to local authorities. The PDF document that I mentioned earlier is one of several informative documents which have been made available to church members on the specifics of the relative issues. They ended by reminding members of the need to respond to any questions from local authorities with knowledge and courtesy. Nothing in this law can override Article 28 of the Constitution on the freedom of religion and conscience in Russia.

The last webinar was done with an English translator. Anyone interested in more specifics than I have provided should go to this site. A couple of words of caution. The trranslator did not have manuscripts and sometimes his translations seem halted and there are some mistranslations. You will see these noted in the comments on the side by those watching the webinar. A part of the problem was the first presenter would not pause long enough for the interpreter to finish. Also, the webinar is two and a half hours. I think if time is limited the first hour would be extremly helpful. Please find the link below:

http://www.cef.ru/infoblock/publications/newsitem/article/1395701