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.