WHY WE MOVED TO RUSSIA

This weeks blog is a bit more personal than most I have written, although most of them have essentially been personal observations. I have been asked many times why we moved to Russia from America, as I mentioned in an earlier blog. The motives for the question seem to vary. Some are friends who just want to know more about us; some are interested in moving to Russia and want to know more about and discuss our motives and theirs; others just think it is so out of the realm of the ordinary they would like to know what could ever make one think moving to Russia from South Carolina is a good idea. Some aren’t interested at all, and you may want to skip this one!

There is no one reason, so first I’ll review the background. We moved from St. Petersburg, Russia to America in 2008. The main reason we moved was because Oksana was pregnant, and we wanted the child to be born in America. Russian and American paperwork and documents are just too complicated for private individuals who want their child born in Russia to be an American citizen.

Coming back to America was more difficult for me than I thought it would be. I had taught at a University there, and it was the job I thought I was made for. I taught Koine Greek and New Testament at a Baptist school. I loved what I did and worked with a great group of friends. I resigned in 2005 because my marriage was on the brink of divorce. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I hated leaving that school and the close friends I had there.

That is when I moved to Russia, and stayed here three years. When we returned to America in 2008 I took a job working for my brother at a small company. We both thought it would be temporary until something else turned up. I stayed there eight years. In November of 2011 we found out my in-laws from Russia were coming in March of the following year for a two week visit. I knew the visit would go better if I “studied up” on some Russian. When we had lived in St. Petersburg I had learned very little Russian—only survivor’s Russian. After living in America for three years I had lost what little I did know. I went on Amazon and bought the first level of three levels of conversational Russian (Pimsleur) to prepare, since my in-laws knew no English. I finished it and got the second and then later completed all three levels. It was good because it focused on pronunciation and listening, and I could listen to the CDs on my way to work and back. After purchasing the Pimsleur CDs, Amazon “flashed” some books on my account as “you may be interested in these.” So I ordered a history of the October Revolution by Richard Pipes and another one on Orthodox prayer written by Orthodox monks. I became addicted! I read Russian history, practiced the Russia language lessons, and got into Orthodox writings.

I still had no intent of ever going back to live in Russia or becoming Orthodox. I just found it all very interesting. Having lived in Russia and being married to a Russian I’m sure was part of the impact. I wish I could have studied the language, history, and religion of Russia in a university setting where I could get the insights of those more knowledgeable than I in a classroom setting. Nevertheless, I was the sole bread winner and had a wife and two kids. I had to do it on my own, although Oksana tried to spare some time to help me with the language. I recently counted over fifty books I had read on Russian history and Orthodoxy, not counting the Pimsleur collection and the grammar books. It got to be an addiction that was a bit expensive.

Occasionally I started to have thoughts of moving back to Russia, but never mentioned it to anyone—even my wife. I did start looking around on the i-net for opportunities for study or work near our home in South Carolina that would allow me to use or enhance my knowledge of Eastern Europe, but I found nothing. The process, however, made me realize I no longer longed to go back to a teaching position like I had had before. Only a few of my old friends came around anymore. I think I was a pariah to some who I had thought were dear friends. My interests had changed, and it was impossible to go back to the way things were before Russia. My life was different now, and I had finally accepted that fact.

Then in late January of 2014 we got our biggest shock ever. We found out that Oksana had gotten pregnant in December. Years before, when she had her first son in Russia, she was told that she probably would never be able to have other children. She had had a hard time getting pregnant in her first marriage. So when she got pregnant two months after we were married we thought it was a fluke. That was nothing like our response when she got pregnant with our second child!  I had to endure all the “old daddy” jokes, like the one from my nephew asking about the visiting hours in nursing homes for those with children in elementary school! At first I actually was devastated and confused. But then we found out the baby was a girl and my thinking changed. I had four boys—now a girl!? It was actually exciting now.

When she was born in September of 2014 I knew I did not want to miss her young years by leaving for work and coming in too tired to play. I had learned from experience how quickly the years pass, and they grow up. So I started thinking about what I could do to have the family time I craved. I thought of semi-retirement and working part time. My brother was fine with that. So I checked with the Social Security office and found out that with two minor children I could retire early and my benefits would be double what it would be with just my wife and me. Now, Social Security isn’t much, but that did sound better. On the other hand, I feared if I stayed in my old job part time it would end up not being truly part time. I had grown into taking care of many things there, e.g., office manager, inventory and purchasing manager, customer relations, sales and more. I had trouble taking a couple of days off without the phone ringing from work.

Then not too long after she was born we were in a Skype conversation with my in-laws in Russia. My mother-in-law, Sveta, said, almost in passing, that the director of the secondary schools was closing the English program in Luga. English would still be offered in the schools, but they had a program here in Luga which had won several awards. The director no longer wanted the headache of doing all the paperwork for that program. Sveta suggested that since I had taught English in Russia before I could sure get plenty of students.

I said nothing to my wife but could not get it off my mind. I thought, I prayed, I examined every angle and thought of every reason not to follow up, but it would not go away. Then after about two months Oksana and I were on our walk late one afternoon and were almost back home when she said, “You know, I never thought we’d move back to Russia, but I can’t get what mom said off my mind.” So we started discussing, praying, and analyzing everything together!

Several factors merged in our thoughts. One was financial. It took me a long time to learn the sales and business world, but I had finally gotten to where I was making a decent income. Yet it required a lot of time and energy, and it was not particularly fulfilling to me. Further, it takes a lot of money to live in America. I don’t mean to live elaborately.  I mean just to have a home, cars, and clothes. If my sales fell off one month we struggled. We rarely went out; we bought clothes second hand; we were careful to hold down expenses. We still had trouble making ends meet some times. Health care with three kids was a big issue. “Obamacare” was devastating to us. We made too much to benefit from it but not enough for it to be of any advantage to us. It was a heartless piece of legislation. We talked to friends in Luga, and the cost of living was so much lower. We could never live on my social security benefits in America, but our research indicated we could live comfortably on it in the small Russian town of Luga.

The second component of our thinking evolved around the political situation in America and Russia. As the political talk increased in 2015 in anticipation of the 2016 elections I grew more pessimistic about a stable political future in America. I read a book called, “The Deep State” by Mike Lofgren. The book completely changed my thinking on American politics. The author spent practically his whole career working for Republicans in Washington D.C., mostly in the Senate and mostly for John Kasich. He presented his information in a way that convinced me he was being honest. His main point was that D.C. is not run by the politicians you see on T.V. There is a whole world of invisible bureaucrats who control things. Their primary interest is in keeping America involved in conflict, war, and the sales of arms. They want a huge military budget, but not for the privates, corporals or low ranking officers to get deserved salary increases and benefits. They do not care about them. They are pawns to send into wars. These bureaucrats care about arms producers and dealers. Follow the money! The arguments about domestic issues like abortion, women’s right, etc., are primarily for show. Nothing ever really changes on those issues. The “conservative pro-life” Republicans had a majority in both House and Senate when the videos of  Planned Parenthood selling body parts came out, and how did their federal funding change?  Party differences are not significant. Neocon Republicans and neoliberal Democrats really work off the same page. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, for example, may appear to be on different sides, but do not be deceived. Look at their positions on conflicts around the world. America has gotten so used to being involved in wars around the world that most of us no longer can name countries where our military men and women are dying.  We reward diplomats for their contributions to important politicians, not for their ability to solve conflicts without the loss of life.  I wanted very much not to believe him. But the book was a best seller, and I could find no one who wrote a response proving his work was a distortion. The most chilling part of the book was when he described talking with a lobbyist for a company that made weapons. After 09/11/2001 he told Lofgren with some sense of glee, “We’re gonna make a lot of money out of this!” Lofgern alluded to Cicero’s quip that the sinews of war are infinite money. I wanted to throw up.

As the campaigns of the numerous candidates got rolling I was no longer the political junkie I had been. I faded into cynicism. And what would all this mean for us—a Russian-American family? Increasingly what was said about Russia reminded one of the manipulative paranoia of Joseph McCarthy. To fast forward briefly, since then as the election has gotten closer, I note how every time Donald Trump mentions he’d like diplomatic ties with Russia to be stronger to fight ISIS both Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media started talking of his “bromance” with Putin or claiming he was Putin’s puppet or whatever. Let ISIS keep chopping off heads of innocents. Trust the candidate, the real enemy is Russia. As I said, I’m far too cynical now to have a political purpose in making these statements. I don’t care who you vote for. But the fallout from this stupidity was I felt squeezed and quite insecure as to what would happen if we ever did want to make a move to Russia. I concluded we better do it sooner rather than later if we were going to do it. One frustrating thing is that you simply cannot trust what the Western media or especially the American media and what the political wags say about Russia. The picture they paint is a complete distortion in most instances. Whether it is Chris Matthews or Charles Krauthammer, it really is the same stuff from people who do not know the language or the culture of Russia. They’ve never listened to a full speech from Vladimir Putin, but that does not stop them from droning on. They are static in the ears of those who want to know what it is really like. But I digress.

Another consideration was our boys and how they would handle the idea of a move to Russia. When we told Roman and Gabriel that we were thinking about moving there they both immediately said they liked the idea. My sixteen year old stepson Roman was ready to move immediately. Seven year old Gabriel was positive, but still apprehensive. He feared riding on a plane, but that quickly faded. He liked the idea of being around his Russian grandparents. I started researching education in Russia. I was pleased with what I found out. We had great experiences with teachers and administrators in the schools our children attended in South Carolina. We were concerned about the increasing role the U. S. Government plays in education, however. The social agenda was highlighted later by what seemed to us the ridiculous issue of transgenders and bathrooms. It more and more seemed no issue was too “far out” for the government to step in and force what was politically correct on local school districts. That was not a problem in Russia, as I have written before. If “fluid distinctions” between the genders are what one likes, then you will not be happy with public education in Russia. Conversely, parents like us who are far more traditional are not as comfortable with public education in America. From discussions with people here in Luga about the schools we learned that children here are introduced to certain math courses and the “hard sciences” like chemistry and physics at an earlier point in their education than children in America. International scores of children in Russia are on the rise. We concluded that they would get a very good education here.

We also let them know there were things about life in Russia that were not as nice as America. We would be living in a small apartment, and they would not have their own rooms with plenty of space. There are no fast food restaurants like MacDonalds or Burger King in Luga. We rarely ate at them anyway, but they did say they would miss Chick-fil-A. Of course, an overriding issue for the boys and me was the language issue. Roman was better than Gabriel, but he did not understand the more complex grammatical aspects of Russian grammar well. I can communicate the basic things I need to, but my listening skills are not good. I have a very difficult time with “native speakers” unless they consciously slow down. Gabriel knew no Russian. So we knew struggles were ahead in those areas, and decided we will simply have to work hard. We would not let the language “barrier” stop us. Learning Russian would be tough for us, but it is essential.

After many discussions and tentatively coming to the decision to move, I sought out some responses from people I trusted. I told my best friend with whom I had taught for 14 years and had known much longer than that. He said he hated to see us move but at the same time he was not surprised and even a bit relieved. Essentially he said, “Man, you have been talking to me a lot and boring me some about Russian history so long I’m ready to see you go over there! You need to do it!” I also told our priest and wanted to get his response. He was very positive and also had a somewhat humorous response, “I’m almost envious. I say ‘almost’ because envy is a sin and I’m not to the point of sin, but I am almost envious.” I spoke to others and everyone we talked to said they thought it seemed like a natural move for us. The hardest part was the thought of leaving my two sons by my first marriage and their families. My oldest son was not surprised. He seemed to have “seen it coming” to some degree. My second son was more surprised, but he was also supportive. As I thought then, moving away from them has been the hardest part without question. I miss my boys.

We made the decision to move here the fall before we actually moved. I gave an eight month notice at work! That gave us a lot of time to prepare physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I thought maybe it was too long for goodbyes, but I see now it was not. It also allowed us to let the decision sink in and “settle” in our thoughts. I constantly examined and reexamined my motives for moving. I knew this was a huge decision to move our family of five half way around the world and essentially start over. I did not want to move until all our minds were completely certain that we should make this move. We all were agreed that this was right.

So in March I bought the plane tickets and got a better deal by ordering in advance and giving the site flexible dates to fly. Adjusting has been more difficult than we thought. Even Oksana, who was born here, has had some challenging times. We prepared ourselves for leaving family and friends for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you won’t miss them terribly. We miss my grown boys, their wives and children so very much. There are very few days we don’t recount our times with them. My brother and I had, for the first time in our lives, worked together at the same place. We saw each other most every day. I knew we’d never have that again. We miss our church and the wonderful friends we had there.

We are all glad we are here, however. It is just the adjustment has taken longer than we thought. The truth is, however, I had continuing troubles adjusting to life in America the way it is in 2016. I still love America, but the America I grew up in is gone. It is simply not the same country. The majority of Americans have decided they want those changes. No one forced America at gun point to change its cultural values, how it educates its children, and how it resolves political differences. I respect the rights of others to change values and policies with which I do not agree, and I made my decision on leaving America accordingly. America has chosen to go down a path I regret. But I don’t get to make the call.

When I lived here in Russia before I always felt I was out of place because I was an American and things were different in America. Frankly, I feel out of place in America now. I am a stranger in my own country. When I go to the market here I feel like I’m back in the world of my Grandfather Freeman selling his vegetables in Pickens, S.C. We craved that simpler, more “connected” life. We had looked forward to more natural foods and nutrition in Russia and a life closer to the soil. We have not been disappointed. The schools and the moral approach they couple with education, along with a more rigorous education, is far more like what I was accustomed to early in my life and what I believe is good. I don’t even dread the coming cold weather!

When the struggles come, as they do, we know we could not have been any more careful in our decision. We discussed every angle, we prayed over every detail, and we sought advice from people we trusted. There were positive things that drew us to Russia. I don’t think any move like this should ever been done just to “get away” from things where one is. There are going to be problems and stresses wherever you are going. I know, however, I did not want to let fear of change or an unwillingness to move in faith keep us from pursuing what we believed was best for our family and right in the eyes of God.

LIFE IN RUSSIA: ALL THINGS INCONVENIENT, IRRITATING, & INTERESTING

I have tried to point out some positive aspects of life in Russia compared to the impression given by Western reporters, politicians, and some others who have never lived here. In some cases the negative images and statements seem created out of thin air by someone who either has a political point to make or just wants to sell papers at the expense of researching the truth. Many of the descriptions I read are, for the most part, not what I and other Americans living here experience. Nevertheless, life experiences here do vary from what one experiences in America (and much of the West) in big and small ways, and anyone thinking of visiting, living in, or just knowing more about Russia needs to learn what to expect. This weeks blog is about some of the small ways life is different. I get a lot of the “what has Putin done to you lately” kind of questions, but frankly those are way off base when it comes to getting through the day with a sense of accomplishment and peace. I recognize what frustrates or irritates me may be of no consequence to someone else. And I may omit some things that seem insignificant to me, but they would be of major importance to someone else. So, with that disclaimer, I offer my observations.

I would like to mention first a few things about daily life that just make life a little more inconvenient than I selfishly wish. First, you cannot drink tap water. Now, I realize many Europeans are used to avoiding tap water as a way of life, but for the majority of Americans (like me) it is not the norm. I like being able to come in the house on a hot day, shove a glass in the freezer door for ice and then run some tap water for a quick and cold glass of water. Well, you don’t realize how nice it is until you cannot do that. The only potable water here is the water that you either buy at the grocery store or access from one of the underground pumps around town. Fortunately my father-in-law brings us water in large containers on a regular basis. Still it falls to me to fill up the smaller containers each day that we keep in the fridge that the kids can manage. The water does taste better, but how great can water taste? And there is always some spillage no matter how careful I am. Okay, that’s not something that ruins my life, but it is a part of my daily routine I have not yet accepted (without whining about it). I discovered that drinking small amounts of the tap water won’t do any immediate damage, however. I know because last week I asked my wife to hand me my glass of water on the counter. I drank it down and and then realized something was wrong. Turns out, I got the wrong glass. Roman had put some tap water in the glass that was to go in the iron. I just knew by daylight I’d be in a locked in an intense struggle with the death angel, possibly hoping he would win. But I got up fine the next morning.

Further, on the subject of water in Russia, I’m not sure if it has a lot of more iron in it or the pipes just have rust there, but a rust film gathers very quickly in our sinks and the bathtub. In one week the rust is clearly visible. You can even see it on the shower curtain. It makes cleaning the bathroom more of a task than any of us are used to.

Another inconvenience is that there are few automatic dishwashers here. I cannot say there are none. I’m sure some people somewhere in Russia have automatic dishwashers, but I’ve never seen one. For us, I am the dishwasher. We rarely eat fast food or food out of a box. My wife usually prepares a meal the old fashioned way, as do most people in Russia. So I think if she works like that to prepare the meal, I should be the one to wash the dishes. Roman was my helper, but now he has back trouble so the job is left to me. It’s not bad, but the sinks are small and the space is tight. There’s not really enough room in our kitchen for two people to work there anyway. So it is not a terrible job, but it is certainly not something I enjoy about Russian life. I had no idea how many dishes a family of five can dirty. Be prepared gentlemen.

Something else that most of us “individualistic” Westerners consider an inconvenience is that most Russian apartments have no individual controls for temperature. In the summer you open windows and you use fans. When the weather starts getting colder someone somewhere in the city makes the decision to turn on the heat. Remember, most apartments in Russia were built during the Communist period. We all get warm together at the same time, Comrade. You hope it does not get cold before they decide to turn on the heat. The good news is the stoves are natural gas and you can use those to heat with if it gets really cold too early. Our apartment is like most Russian apartments. Radiators provide the heat. Since the temperature is controlled centrally even in cold Russian winters you usually end up opening a window because it often gets too hot inside the apartment. Opening and closing the windows becomes a juggling act for the most part. It does reduce family conflicts over just where to set the thermostat, however.

The inconvenience that comes closest to being an irritant is the fact that many manufacturers of products in or for Russia have no idea what the concept “easy open” means. The brand of coffee sold here that I like comes in a vacuum sealed pack. (Forget those convenient plastic container of coffee you get in America.) You have to pull apart the top liners which are sealed tight. To do that your fingers need to be the size of my two year old daughter’s fingers, but you have to have the grip strength of a professional arm wrestler to open it. When you use a knife or scissors the moment the seal is broken the pressure is released and you have coffee on the counter or the floor or both. Further complicating this situation is the fact that we drink a lot of coffee and the packs are, generally speaking, quite small compared to those in America. Juice here comes mainly in boxes. The top is sealed tight with a screw-off top. But the top is small and on tight, so the adults are the only one who can open it. I have seen Russians put up shelves in a two room apartment so cleverly that you could get most of the stuff off the walls of a four bedroom home in America up with no problem. Then why are there no Russians who can design openings for coffee and juice in the morning that allow you to get through breakfast without wanting to curse out a bag or a box?

In addition to the inconveniences, there are some things that are irritations. These are more serious than the inconveniences. One I have mentioned earlier is dealing with workers in local government offices. Practically anything to do with official documents is a source of irritation. Rarely will you find a helpful local worker in a small town. I have been told that sometimes in the larger cities like St. Petersburg you will find helpful people. We didn’t find anyone like that here. So if and when you arrive don’t expect a, “Hello, how may I help you?” from the grouchy local apparatchik.

Second, the driving here is awful and, in my opinion, dangerous. People drive extremely fast in the city. And it makes no sense. They see the light ahead is red and still try to reach maximum speed before stopping quickly. I did see worse driving in Santo Domingo, but it is still quite dangerous here. There are a number of traffic accidents, and yet no one seems to think that if people would drive more slowly and carefully that would not happen as much. The police are out in force, but I’m not sure if they actually stop people for speeding. We like to walk as a family, and it is more than irritating sometimes. It is worse on the weekends. The locals say that is because people from St. Petersburg have dachas here and visit on the weekends. Maybe that is true, I cannot say. I can say there needs to be a cultural change toward safe and defensive driving, but I do not see that happening anytime soon.

There are other things about life here that are just, well, interesting. I find the manner of dress here quite interesting. The range is amazing. Walking to the market last week I saw three guys dressed in track shorts of various and sundry colors that were so short and looked so tacky that a Walmart greeter would bar them entrance. Then the next person I saw was a young lady that looked like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine. She was tall, attractive and her apparel was so perfect that I believe that most actresses in Hollywood would kill to look like that. Next to her in line was a babushka (grandmother) with a dress that reminded me of a potato sack. And she had on black socks. For those old enough to remember, it was like seeing Jaqueline Kennedy standing next to Nikita Khrushchev’s wife on their visit to America. Now, not all older ladies dress like that here anymore. One difference I have noticed from when I first came to Luga years ago is that many “seniors” dress quite nicely. The most interesting one was a lady I saw last week—again at the market. I don’t know her age, but I’m pretty sure she was north of 55. She had on a nice soft yellow plaid suit. Her shoes were a perfect match for the outfit, and even her glasses went well. But her hair was a light purple. I’m not kidding. Oksana was in line buying something, and I so wanted to scream, “Sweetie, look!!!” Of course I refrained. The fact that Russians dress like this does give one the freedom to wear whatever you want to the market and know you won’t stand out.

The other thing I find interesting in a good way is when you break through the rather firm Russian exterior in relationships. This happens slowly, cautiously. We have been buying fresh fruits from the same guy at the market. His name is Sasha, and he’s from Uzbekistan. At first he was all business. After a few times he would smile when he saw us coming. Now, for those who know anything of Russian culture, the smile is a big deal. So we just kept buying from Sasha. Then week before last we stopped and looked at his supply, but told him we really did not bring cash for buying any fruit that day. He said that was no problem, we could just take what we needed and bring the money tomorrow. So we took the fruit and paid him the next day. Then this week we bought a good bit from him because the days of getting fresh fruit are diminishing. Oksana gave him the 650 rubles we owed him, and he smiled and gave her 50 back. Today he sold us nectarines at his cost—100 rubles per kilogram cheaper than his usual price. Consistently I have found that in stores or shops they will tell you if their product or produce is not good. The ones you get to know will be very honest. We buy dairy products at the market at the same place from the same lady every time, and the lady carefully explains which ones have any preservatives or were prepared in a way she knows we do not like. If she does not have something she knows we prefer, then she tells us. They like return business, and it is nice to know they remember you and what kind of products you like. Then on Saturday Oksana stopped in a store looking for window treatments. They were more expensive than she thought they would be. Oksana told her we rent our apartment and do not really need the custom made treatments this store focuses on. So the lady just told her that her competitor down the street usually has more in stock and at a cheaper price. When she realized that we just rent our apartment and do not need expensive custom items she directed us to someone with better pricing.

There is one Russian tradition that my wife and I disagree on concerning the category to which it belongs. I opted for “interesting” or maybe “inconvenient.” She thinks it should go under “irritating.” So we’ll just leave this one for observation. The custom is that when one has a celebration, say, a birthday, and she is female (it really is sexist), then the “birthday girl” is expected to host the party. Now, the guests will bring gifts. It is up to the one having the birthday, however, to have the apartment or home spotless and do ALL the cooking. Birthdays are a big event here in Russia. It is regrettable that it sometimes can be quite difficult for the one who is to be the center of attention. I do not understand how someone doesn’t think, “You know the best present would be to prepare a meal for her and her family in our home.” So if you do not want to cook and clean for your birthday—don’t let the Russians know it is your birthday.

Then there are those experiences which just leave you feeling better about a place or an experience you dreaded. Today was such a day. Oksana took Gabriel to the dentist becaue of a “milk” (baby) tooth that has been bothering him. It was one of those toward the back of his lower jaw. The young lady was a pediatric dentist, and when she started talking to Gabriel Oksana explained he did not speak Russian. She asked what language he did speak and when she told her English, she spoke to him in English. Her English was not great, but she did not let that bother her and just kept chatting away! That made Gabriel feel more comfortable I’m sure. She took x-rays and examined the tooth and said it would be best for it to come out. He has had several absesses there from time to time. So she said he could come back if he didn’t feel comfortable doing it now. Gabriel was all for doing it now. He actually said, “I’m so excited! I can’t wait to have my tooth pulled!” The dentist was quite surprised to say the least. She spent a lot of time with him getting the area numb. She pulled the tooth and Gabriel never had any pain. She complimented him and Oksana on the fact that most children have a lot more dental problems or cavities at that age: Gabriel had only one problematic tooth in his whole mouth! Then she was clearly quite proud of having an American customer and told the others in the office, “I have an English patient today! Just like the movie.” The total cost was about $18.00. Then she asked Oksana if her husband taught at Erudite school. When Oksana said yes, the dentist explained a couple of the doctors from her dental clinic had teenagers in my English class. So Gabriel had a very positive experience, and Oksana came away quite happy as well. As with our medical treatment, we felt that we got very good care from a concerned and kind health care professional. And $18.00 to have a tooth pulled feels pretty good as well!

So life here, as in America, has good points and bad points. Life can be very inconvenient here sometimes. And, on occasion, it is more than inconvenient. I am aware of the image many have of life in Russia as tough, cold and unfriendly. And it is tough, cold and unfriendly sometimes. You can’t get into the other side of Russian life, however, by reading about it or watching the news. It takes time and effort. Nevertheless, there are some things and some people here that make you know that your life has been greatly enriched by becoming a part of life here and the people of this land.

SETTLING IN TO OUR LIFE IN RUSSIA

This week’s blog is a continuation of the blog I did earlier on moving to Russia that focuses more on the practical issues that we are continuing to discover after having lived in Russia for three months. After the blog I did on why move to Russia I have received several more inquiries from folks considering a move to Russia or at least interested in more of the details on life here. Apparently there are more people interested in that topic than I thought. I apologize for the repetition of some thoughts I began in the earlier blog.

This week was very difficult because we moved. Our first apartment was only available for three months, so we knew we would have to move by September 1. Our “new” apartment is a bit smaller, but we like it much better. Our present landlords, who have been very helpful, remodelled it in a more open floor plan and lighter colors. We really like it. As I have mentioned before, one of the most difficult aspects of moving from America to Russia is that living quarters are, in general, significantly smaller. The fact that we had gotten tired of the “clutter” that just seems to be a part of American life helped us let go of things we realized we did not need. If you are a horder or just like to keep a lot of old things for memory (or whatever) living here would be very difficult. You do not have room in Russian apartments to store unnecessary stuff. I have noticed Russians are very creative in maximizing shelving space, however! And you are not limited completely to what you can store in your apartment because there are storage units (garages) you can buy.

We moved most of our things ourselves from one apartment to the other, but we did hire three men to move the really heavy stuff. It was literally the Russian version of “three men and a truck.” We packed ten suitcases as full as possible with clothes and other items for them to move. We also had them move some of the heavier boxes and two or three items of small furniture. We moved from one fifth floor apartment to another fifth floor apartment. Those three guys really had to work hard! They charged us a total of $41.50. I should have hired them to move everything! It is not difficult to find “day laborers” for the heavy lifting (literally) you need done at very cheap rates like that.

Right now the economy is doing fairly well (contrary to what you read in the press) and more people are wanting to buy homes and apartments. Therefore, the apartments on the lower levels are being bought. Those, like us, who just want to rent right now end up taking the inconvenient upper levels. They are often cheaper, however, so there is a good side. If we had been able to sell our home in America before we moved, we probably would have bought an apartment. Each family has to make that decision based on their financial resources. As I have said, we have enough room for our family of five, and we pay about two hundred dollars a month for rent.

I continue to be amazed at the low prices of most things here in Russia. This week I had to go to an Ear/Nose/Throat specialist for an ear condition that is chronic, but not serious. He cleaned and checked my ears in a very thorough manner. He charged me 500 rubles, which is about $8.35! The same procedure in America at my GP’s office cost me $180.00. The facility here was much nicer than when I had had to go the doctor before when I was in Russia. It was very clean and modern. It is a “polyclinic,” which is not a hospital, but has more doctors and specialists than a regular “doctor’s office” in the States. The one we go to is privately owned, as opposed to the ones run by the government. We continue to be pleased with our medical care here and certainly with the cost of the care and medicines we need.

Also we needed to buy all new furniture since this apartment is not furnished. The apartment does have a refridgerator and washing machine. We had to buy furniture for two bedrooms and one large den and some kitchen items, e.g, table, toaster oven, dishes, as well as all those “little things” which are necessary for getting a new place ready to live in. Not all the furniture we wanted was available immediately. One store, a chain called “Expert,” has good merchandise at good prices, but does not keep a lot of inventory. One can view their furniture (and most anything else) on their website and either they build it or have it built, and then deliver in one to two weeks. On the other hand, I was surprised that most stores, especially appliance stores, have such large inventories. I wrote of the difficulties we had with shipping a pallet earlier. After buying furniture and appliances here I would recommend not shipping unless absolutely necessary and buy what you need after you get here. To give folks an idea of costs, I would say we spent no more than $1,500 for all the furniture and appliances we needed.

The appliances you need are readily available–refrigerators, freezers, toasters, washing machines, coffee-makers, food processors, etc. Two caveats, however: First, most of the bigger appliances you’ll see here are smaller than in America. A normal size “fridge” here is about ¾ the size of one in America. Rather large fridges and freezers are still available, but I suspect many people choose not to put them in their apartments because of space issues. Washing machines in general are also smaller than the American counterparts, but my wife says they are much more effective than the agitator kind that is still widely used in America. Second, I did not see any clothes dryers in the stores we visited. Most people have balconies they use to dry their clothes on the line. We do not have a balcony, however, and will have to use a clothes rack inside. That is definitely inconvenient, but we can make it work. Nevertheless, there is a shop very close to us which washes and dries clothes rather cheaply. For our larger clothes like bed linens we will simply use them.

Our boys just started school here. September 1 is a very big day in Russia. It is the “Day of Knowledge” when all Russian students from first grade through high school begin the school year. Unlike in the United States where schools start on different days even within one state, in Russia it is a national event, practically a national holiday. There are other differences as well. Children take the teachers flowers and sometimes chocolates on the first day. The florists must really do well at this time of year! We also had to buy new clothes, because kids wear really nice clothes to school, that is, collared shirts, sport jackets, and, on the first day, neck ties. Jeans, sneakers, and shorts are not permitted at the public school our boys attend. We bought Gabriel (2nd grade) a uniform. Children are supposed to dress in uniforms, but the schools are rather lax on enforcing it. But, as with all children, Gabriel did not like being the only one without a uniform. The message that they are trying to convey is that school is serious, and children need to dress appropriately. Surprisingly, our kids did not complain much, although Roman (9th grade) misses being able to wear shorts practically every day of the year to school in South Carolina. Also the kids wear one pair of shoes to school but take a change of shoes for when they are inside the school. They are served breakfast and lunch at school. The cost is 500 rubles per month. That is less than $9.00 for both breakfast and lunch!

Russian children spend fewer hours at school, but have quite a bit of homework compared to what they had in America. They do not begin first grade until the age of seven. They also go only through the eleventh grade. Also, all grades are at the same location from first grade through high school. They try to encourage the older children to have a watchful eye on the younger ones. We are glad our ninth grader is at the same location as our second grader.

We moved from Russia to America when our older son Roman was 8 years old, the same age Gabriel is now. American schools are extremely well prepared for immigrant children. Roman knew no English when we moved there, so Oksana spent one summer preparing him as best she could. We were advised by the school system there to put him in the “mainstream” school. We took their advice and were glad we did. For the first couple of years the ESOL teachers there pulled him out of his classes for 30 minutes every day and helped him with his English. Overall, we found the American schools are extremely good at introducing students to the English language. By the end of his first year he was fluent. Children “pick up” a new language better than adults, but I was really surprised how quickly Roman was able to communicate in English. I credit the school with that. By the time he started middle school he was in honors English.

Russian grammar is more complicated than English grammar, and school administrators and teachers here just do not see many children who do not know Russian. Most in a small town like Luga have never had one. Obviously we could not expect the Russian school here to have a program or special class for students who do not speak Russian. Thus, we do not anticipate the transition for Gabriel to go as smoothly or as quickly as it did for Roman in America. We have found the school administrators and teachers to be extremely helpful, however. They have been very focused on our children and making sure we have the information we need. I think they consider our children a bit of a challenge and want to do their job well. Our children have now had their first couple of days at school, and we were greatly relieved that they both liked it very much. Gabriel said the other students were very understanding that he does not know Russian and were quite helpful. The teacher also talked with Oksana and told her Gabriel did very well. I think “so far, so good” applies here. Roman is more overwhelmed as far as academics are concerned, as it is the third year for his classmates of studying chemistry, physics, geometry, biology, and geography. He knows he has a lot of catching up to do.

We chose to put our children in public education in part because we believe it is the best way for them to learn the language. There are advantages to language immersion we simply cannot replicate in the home. Nevertheless, we have been asked about home schooling because we have family and friends in America who home school. Home schooling is not as common in Russia as it is in America. We do know one family here in Luga that has chosen to homeschool their two sons. This is going to be their first year. So there are resources available.

Some parents we know in America choose to homeschool because they do not believe the quality of education in the public schools in their area is high enough. We thought, prayed, discussed and analyzed our decision to come to Russia for almost a year. A big component of our decision was the impact on our children and obviously education was a part of that concern. I tried to research education in Russia as best I could, and of course we had contacts here. Looking at the results of the international scores can be tenuous I suppose. Cultures are different. But math and science scores seem to be less suspect to the cultural influences. Russia, after the fall of Communism and the debacle of the 90s, had rather abysmal scores. Over the last several years Russia has climbed in the rankings of the countries significantly. The latest results I saw showed Russia had jumped over seven other countries in the rankings in the past year. It has exhibited a continued rise academically. The US, on the other hand, has declined, and Russia now is rated on most of the sites I checked as at least slightly ahead of America and more than slightly ahead in some. After looking at the curriculum we concluded our children will receive a very good academic education in the Russian public schools.

Another factor our friends who homeschool in America are concerned about is their belief that the values they try to teach their children at home often are contravened by the US Department of Education. They contend that the DOE increasingly sees its role as forcing local school systems to instruct students on sexual mores, gender orientation, and other areas that these parents do not think appropriate or necessary for a good education. The whole “transgender” and bathroom controversy forced this issue to the forefront to some extent, and it seems that there is more division than ever.

The Russian leadership in education clearly does not want the schools in an adversarial relationship with the majority of Russian families over the moral or religious values a child should hold. Based on what I have heard Putin say on the topic, however, he does not believe a culture or its educational system can or should be “morally neutral.” He clearly longs for Russian society to be held together in part by a strong sense of “traditional” morality. Olga Vasilyeva was recently appointed as Minister of Education. She is widely known as a strong Orthodox Christian. One cannot say for sure yet, but it would appear that her views are consistent with Putin’s conservative social perspectives. Russian schools are unashamedly supportive of the concept of heterosexual families and do not permit “homosexual propaganda” (as it is called here). So any decisions parents would make on schools would depend on how they themselves wish their children to be taught. If one wants his or her child educated in an educational environment where there is an openness to and support for “minority sexual orientations” then that parent probably would not be happy with the Russian schools’ approaches to these issues.

The other “message” sent by appointing Olga Vasilyeva as Minister of Education is that Russian schools will revert back to a more “classical” education. The former Minister of Education spoke openly about the need to think of students as “consumers” who needed technical and practical training. While this has been quite popular in America for some time, it represented a big change for Russia. Generally speaking, Russians did not like it. The preference here, reflected in the change of education ministers, is for the focus to be on history, languages, philosophy, literature, art, etc.

Another aspect of life that is very important to several people who have written me is the role of the Church. The main difference between Russia and America, of course, is that of the three main branches of Christianity in America the Protestant churches are the most numerous, followed by Catholic and then Eastern Orthodox. Here the Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest. We do have a Catholic Church here in Luga and there are some smaller Protestant churches. I devoted three blogs to the recent anti-terrorism law and how it impacts believers here, so I will simply say I see no tension between the churches. That doesn’t mean there is no tension. I just have not seen or heard of any evidence of it.

The Orthodox Church here is different from our Orthodox Church in America obviously. Church Slavonic is used in the Liturgy. Another significant diffference is that we lived in the South, and in many southern states and towns, one’s church becomes either central or at the least very important in forming social relationships. I’m sure this is true of other regions of the country, but I can’t speak from experience about those. Our church in South Carolina had “coffee hour” (Russian: trapeza) after the Liturgy, and we enjoyed a meal with our fellow congregants each week. Being raised in Southern Baptist churches we had frequent “church fellowships” or parties, etc., so friendship came easy. In the Russian Orthodox churches here there may be shared meals on a particular holy day, but there is not really a strong social dimension to church life.

Some see this as a weakness in that it does not create a strong bond in the Body of Christ. Others believe that the Church is not a social center. The purpose is to worship God together and then go out to minister. I will avoid the theological discussion and simply observe Americans (and some other Westerners) need to be aware of this difference if they come here. Meeting new friends, as I have said, is more difficult in Russia. One way to meet friends in America is to go to church. Now, I cannot say if this observation is true about the Catholic or Protestant churches here. I tend to think there is more in terms of social interaction in the Protestant churches, however.

So as we continue to “settle in” with school, work, church, and other aspects of life. I hope to be able to provide more information as we get to know the country better. I am thankful for the feedback and questions I have received. Again, I realize some of what I have published has repetition, but I see the blog as building on a lot of what I have already said.