I have not written a blog in a few weeks because life has been very busy for this “retiree.” I got a lot more responses than I usually do on my last blog explaining why we moved to Russia. One of the surprising things about that blog is that I have discovered there are a lot more people in America thinking about either moving to Russia or at least visiting here to investigate the possibility than I ever thought. The reasons vary, but clearly the political and cultural turmoil in America is a big factor. So in this blog I will continue to discuss issues involved in moving or visiting. I have tried to keep in mind the various questions as I write. I am aware that I repeat some points made in earlier posts, but most people have not read all the blogs so, unfortunately, I think repetition is necessary. I will give some personal updates on our status and then give responses to a few important issues.
First, it has taken us longer to get adjusted and settled in than we thought. We landed in Russia five months ago today. We are only now beginning to feel we have things in order. Well, I don’t mean completely in order because I don’t think we have ever reached that point, but you know what I mean. Of course, one complicating factor was that we moved into one apartment and after three months had to move again to a different and unfurnished apartment. Therefore, we were able to choose furniture and other essentials that were right for us. Unfortunately, that took time to pick out the right things. We had to have some things built, because the stores here do not keep everything in inventory. We were able to move only at the beginning of the school year. Hence, the stress was increased.
Second, we had to decide what issues we had to settle immediately and what needed to be postponed. We decided that we could not get the Russian citizenship for Gabriel and Marina Grace right now. We had everything in order when we came here, but, as I have mentioned previously, working with local governments can be frustrating. People in different offices will give you different responses to the same question. Sometimes different people in the same office give you different responses. We were advised by folks here that the Luga office that deals with such matters was more difficult than most. Even the main branch in St. Petersburg told us that. We made a decision that we would have to go to St. Petersburg to get the process completed. The apparatchiks here in Luga always found some reason not to bother. Making a trip to St. Petersburg and staying for a couple of days in and out of offices getting things processed is not feasible right now since our kids are in school. Our kids do not have to get their Russian citizenship right now. So we decided to wait.
Another decision was we decided not to buy a car right now. Obviously there are advantages to having a car when it comes to getting around. Also, our visas for me, Marina Grace, and Gabriel are for three years. It is a Russian law, however, that we have to leave the country every six months and re-enter. I do not understand the logic of that law, but I am not able to get an exemption from it. If we had a car we could easily drive to Estonia, spend the night, and return to Russia, and we would be good for another six months. On the other hand, cars here are just as expensive as they are in the States, if not more expensive. Taxis are cheap. We can get a cab to go across town for under $2.00. There are also buses and “marshutkas” (vans) easily available. Public transportation in small Russian cities is far superior to the public transportation available in the small towns I lived in back in South Carolina. The major factor, however, was my displeasure with Russian drivers as I have made clear before. They drive at a very high rate of speed even in town. There are always little things that are different when driving in a different country, whether rules or just basic practices. I am trying to reduce stress and worry, and I did not feel safe with my wife driving our kids around on the streets of Luga filled with Russian drivers! So we made a decision not to buy a car. We do not keep “chewing” on it or worrying over it.
Looking back we realize we could have enjoyed our initial experience here more if we had not worried so much and had filtered out more quickly what decisions were not pressing. Our expectations were too high. We thought since Oksana is from here and I had lived in Russia for three years, the transition would go smoothly. We both forgot that things don’t go smoothly in Russia very often. In addition to missing our family and friends back in America, we wanted to get all our paperwork and all our decisions settled promptly. Then our pallet we shipped did not arrive as promised. We had to pay more money to get it through customs.We now realize we worried too much over all the details at once. If you are a chronic worrier then I would advise either not coming to Russia or spending a lot of mental energy and prayer on letting go of the worry. I speak as a “fellow struggler.” Do not expect things to go “as planned” here. Choose to solve the more pressing issues and let the other ones go. I can say on a positive note we thank God that most things we worried about ended up well. Our regret is not spending more time enjoying the nice temperatures of the Russian summer!
Another positive piece of news is that our boys (Roman age 16 and Gabriel age 8) continue to enjoy their school. Gabriel still does not speak Russian at home. But his teachers tell us he seems to understand a lot of things, and he is making good grades. His classmates have not teased or bullied him at all. He has told me several times that all his classmates try to help him. His teachers also make sure he understands what he needs. I usually walk him to school, and he is always in a good mood going to school and looks forward to seeing his teachers and friends. Surprisingly, he says he feels more comfortable in his Russian school than he did in his American school. Roman is not as expressive or sociable as Gabriel, but he also likes his school. His Russian has improved, and he has done well “catching up” on the subjects he was behind on when we came here. Tutors have helped. It is taking both boys less time to do their homework now, although Russian schools give more homework than their schools in America. They do not spend as long at school, however. I get Gabriel to school in time for his classes at 8:30. He usually gets out by 1:10 and sometimes earlier. I don’t think we could have asked for a better experience with the Russian school here.
While Roman’s and Gabriel’s Russian has continued to get better, I do not think mine has improved very much. With the issues involved in moving here and then moving again, buying furnishings for the apartment, teaching, etc., I have not been able to focus on my Russian as much as I wanted, and my progress has been very slow. I can speak on mundane issues with Oksana’s family and friends. If they call or come by and need to know where she is or what we are doing I can explain things. When we go over for dinner I can understand the conversations pretty well and sometimes join in. I can use Russian much more effectively in teaching my classes in English than I could when I lived here before. My vocabulary is such that I can explain the English concepts much better. My listening skills are still way below par, and I still hesitate too much to speak for fear of making mistakes. I started taking Skype lessons through a school in St. Petersburg. It is rather expensive, but I was pleased with it. When the wife of the Director at our school found out about it, she asked if she could be my teacher instead. She had studied teaching Russian as a second language and did have some experience. She also offered to teach me for free at the school where I am the “English Consultant.” Since I have never studied Russian in a classroom I decided studying with her in person would be better. I look forward to starting with her this week.
If you are planning on working in Russia in a job other than teaching English you need to set the goal of becoming fluent in Russian. Becoming fluent in Russian takes years for most people. Obviously, the more time you can devote to it, the less time it takes to become fluent. Being fluent will open up a lot of doors of opportunity here. But there are few jobs available, other than teaching, to those who cannot speak Russian. America puts a lot of effort in making people who cannot speak English “comfortable” in America, and they make it so many can work without knowing English. That is not the case in Russia. Even to become a temporary resident you have to pass a rather rigid test in Russian. If you teach English you do not have to know Russian, although it helps. There are a LOT of opportunities for English teachers here. When I taught in St. Petersburg I actually taught in two schools and could have had as many private students as I wanted. Teaching jobs usually do not pay as well, however.
I will restate what I said in an earlier blog, however, about learning Russian. Russians realize that Russian grammar is more complicated than English. If you can speak Russian at all they greatly appreciate the fact that you are trying to learn it. Sometimes the important point is not that you are able to communicate with them, it is that they know you are trying to learn their language. I am the first “native speaker” my students have had. They were very shy and tried to say as little as possible. So one day after I gave them their assignment in English, I switched to Russian and said, “Okay, start. Get to work!” They all looked up immediately, and one young lady said, “Wow, you speak Russian really well.” If an American speaks Russian at all they think it is really well! After that they seemed to warm up to me, and that is when I started using what Russian I know to help them understand English. So you do not have to be fluent for your Russian to break down some cultural barriers.
For those wanting to move to Russia another choice you will have to make is whether you want to live in a larger city or a smaller town or even a rural area. Despite being from a small town in South Carolina, I felt more comfortable going out on my own in St. Petersburg, which has about 7 million people, than I do in Luga. There are many people who know English there and the attitudes are generally, well, less provincial. There are also more jobs available in a larger city. On the other hand, it is much more expensive. When we moved here we thought we might live in Luga just until we got comfortable as a family living in Russia and then move to St. Petersburg. But when I checked on the cost of living in St. Petersburg we decided we did not want to go back under the financial stress we had left in America. It was far more expensive there. Further, while living in St. Petersburg may have been less stressful for me, we don’t think it would be for the children. As I mentioned above, our boys have gotten a lot of individualized attention in their school. I can’t say that they would not have such care in St. Petersburg, but I do not think they would have. The small town atmosphere and the fact that grandparents live nearby led us to decide to stay in Luga.
I mentioned the disadvantage of living in a small town is that there are fewer jobs, athough you still can usually find a job teaching English. I think it is harder to form friendships here initially as well. In St. Petersburg even many of the Russians I met were from somewhere else. Also, the “natives” were more accustomed to meeting new people from different places. Here most people have lived here in Luga a long time and already have their friends. And the old Russian culture of people living private lives except for a few close friends still lives on in the small towns. There is an old Russian phrase I learned a long time ago, “Старый друг лучше новых двух.” (“An old friend is better than two new ones.”)
I already mentioned the positive aspects of the lower cost of living in a small town. So far we estimate that our family of five could live fairly comfortably on less than $1,500 a month. We live in a 60 square meter apartment, have visited the doctors and dentist several times (as any family with three kids does!), we have purchased our clothes for the winter, etc. Roman has two tutors, and we sometimes use another one for Gabriel. Also, we buy pretty much whatever groceries we want. We actually can afford the kinds of clothes and groceries here we could not afford in America. GMO food is illegal in Russia, and natural foods here are not more expensive like in America.
Living in a small town in Russia means we can live a simpler life and we can avoid the financial pressure that just seems to be a part of American life for most people. Clearly there are people in America who do not have to worry about paying the bills each month. But the truth is we observed some very wealthy people in America who confessed that they lived under great financial strain that comes from the cultural pressure there to live just above your means. We had to focus on not getting caught up in the “trying to keep up with the Joneses” mentality that leads you to buy stuff you do not need and continue to accumulate the unnecessary. We are glad to be out from under that burden. I am sure if some of our American friends saw our small apartment here and how we live our lives now they would think we are doing without the “finer things in life.” We don’t see it that way. We lived in a four bedroom home with two cars, closets full of clothes, big yard, etc., but we do not miss that part of America at all. We miss our friends there, but not “the stuff.” We opted for small town life in Russia and for our family it is the right decision. For those moving here, we have found that we tend to remember the “good ol’ days” in South Carolina. The truth is there were some very good days and we had great times. There were also some really stressful and depressing days which our memories tend to delete now! Somehow the mind lets go of the frustrating parts and holds to the positive. From time to time we have to remind each other that things were not perfect there either.
Since writing the first draft of this blog, I decided to add that some people might be interested in rural life. For example, I have a friend who is an Orthodox priest. Probably in January he and his family of ten will be moving to Veliky Rostov (about 2-3 hours north of Moscow I think). He would like to start an Orthodox Christian community there. It will be agrarian. Non-citizens can buy land in Russia, and I believe the current cost there is about $60 per acre. There is a great push in Russia for more farming. The government wants very much to increase agricultural production. Father Joseph would like to have other Americans there who would live “close to the land,” and be a part of a community instilling not only a good work ethic, but strong moral and spiritual values in their children. His Facebook group is “Moving to Russia,” and I received his permission for adding this part to my blog.
If moving to Russia I would suggest getting as much information from reliable sources as possible. You will not find that information in most outlets from the Western press. Before I moved to Russia I thought the information in much of the media was distorted some. Now I think most of it is just completely wrong. Their analyses of the economic and political statuses here are often way beyond slanted. The economy is down in Russia, but nothing like what I read and see on the internet from the West. There is nothing we need that we cannot buy here. Further, the political and cultural turmoil in America on this eve of this important election is far greater than anything here. That is not to say people do not disagree politically, but there is a civility here in those debates that America has apparently lost—at least for now.
Hillary Clinton has “upped the ante” with her tirades about Russia in general and specifically Vladimir Putin being interventionist in American politics and an Eastern European aggressor. Her immediate response in blaming the Russians for the e-mail leaks was particularly disturbing. NATO has adopted the convoluted logic of excusing its increase in troops closer and closer to Russia—because Putin is so aggressive. My intention is to discuss the September elections here in Russia and the very important November elections in America in my next blog. My point for now is you need to have a very strong and healthy skepticism about how Russia and the Russians are presented in the media from the West.
It is also good to talk to anyone in America that knows Russia first hand. One word of caution: I have discovered that Russians (and other Eastern Europeans) who left in the 90s and even in the first decade of the “new” millenium are shocked at our descriptions of life here. If a person left here during that time period and has not returned on a regular basis, then their understanding of Russia may be quite dated and misleading. Times were awful during that period, but the Russia they left is not the same as it is today. I have frequently mentioned how different this country is from when I first came here in 2002. It has dramatically changed even since we left in 2008. While poverty is still a problem, clearly many people are doing much better financially and materially. But there are other differences. I saw this as an “outsider looking in,” but I am also looking from the inside. Russia has become more “modern” in many ways, but I also think it has rediscovered its past, its history, its “soul.” There is a healthy pride in their country that I did not see when I was here before. There is a growing emotional, moral, and spiritual strength I thought was gone. There is still crime and bad things do go on here. There are laws and politicians I do not appreciate. And any reporter or politician can choose to focus on those. But it is a distortion of the truth at best to write or speak as if those are normative.
The last question I will discuss is how Russians accept Americans. As I hinted at above, it is not a part of this culture for people just to come up and start talking to a total stranger, especially one from America. So I have felt a loner at times. But my mother-in-law told us that we are being talked about and people are calling her interested in our family in a positive way. They really do want to get to know us, but it is a slow process here.
A few other examples will hopefully help demonstrate my point. We did a workshop at our school for the English teachers on Education and Family Values in America. The ladies were so interested and asked a lot of quesitons. We went for over two and a half hours because they really wanted to hear what we had to say and ask questions. Last week my wife stopped by the market to buy a couple of small toys for the kids. I guess the vendor heard Gabriel speaking in a language other than Russian. So he began asking questions—one after another. It was cold and snowing and Oksana just wanted to get home. But he kept asking. After finding out she was married to an American, he wanted to know my views on various topics. She had a hard time leaving. He told her wanted to get together with us and his wife and get to know each other “as family.” Then I saw the Director of the school where we teach (let’s name him Mikhail), at church one Sunday. He introduced me to his friend Alexander. Mikhail and I chatted a few minutes (in “Russlish.” He knows about as much English as I know Russian so we have our own “language.”) Mikhail was talking about our move here as we chatted. His friend said very little, and his expression barely changed at all. He was very passive during our chat. But later Mikhail told us how interesting his friend found our talk and how he admired me coming here and living in this culture. He thought it was so great to see an American who wants to be in Russia. Well, his admiration of me is probably a bit too high, but it was another confirmation of what I have believed since I first came here. Russians are very good at distinguishing between the politicians and their political views in America from real Americans they may meet. I’m sure there are Russians who do not and will not like Americans. But overall I have found the Russian people to be very interested and accepting of those of us from the West. I believe anyone who visits or comes to live here and is genuinely interested in learning from and being a part of this country will find plenty of acceptance.