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.

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2 thoughts on “SETTLING IN TO OUR LIFE IN RUSSIA

  1. Very useful, information, I am surprised that Church is not a social center in Russia. I have to think about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

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  2. And I do know some churches in St. Petersburg focus more on the meals and social interaction. My hunch is that in a small town you don’t have as many “new folk” and hence the church feels able to focus almost solely on worship. Maybe the adage, “Every virtue carries w/in itself the seeds of its own destruction” applies. I admire the focus on the church as a place of worship, not a social hall. But it can degenerate into coldness toward one another and folks are just unhelpful to new people like us. I like social interaction but that can become the focus, and authentic worship is rednered secondary. Not easy!

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