Winter can come early here in Russia. We had early November snows and for a couple of weeks the temperature never got out of the 20s (F). It has warmed up to mid-30s this week, but the cold and snow are expected to return next week. The days are quite short. Official sunrise today was 9:13 am and sunset is at 4:22 pm. Despite these facts over the last couple of weeks we have had some real highlights, and I was reminded of the good part of living in Russia.
Weekend before last on Saturday afternoon we had our English club at the Erudite school. Students (and others) pay a fee to the school to come for a presentation on a topic we choose beforehand. Oksana and I did the presentation on Education in America. Our classroom was full of about 15 Russian teenagers. We presented various facts and experiences from our time in America. I went over the “nuts of bolts” of ages and grades in elementary, middle and high schools. I covered the basic curriculum and other facts, such as the fact the three schools are in different locations. Here in Russia our high school student, Roman, goes to the same location as our elementary student Gabriel. Elementary students here stay with the same teacher every year. She moves up with them to the next grade each year, and they basically have the same classmates for the entire elementary experience. Oksana reviewed many of her experiences as a parent who did volunteer work at the schools. We included anecdotes from our kids’ experiences in schools in America. The Russian students could ask us any question they wanted, but they had to ask in English. We concluded with a discussion of a scene from the Kevin Spacey movie, “Pay it Forward.” Oksana chose a great scene when the social studies teacher challenges them to think of the world and how they could change it despite being kids who can’t drive and who live in a small town. One kid decided to do three random acts of kindness to people and asked them not to pay him back but to “pay it forward” in other acts of kindness to other people. Our students had to brainstorm in small groups (again, in English) about the ways they could do acts of kindness that could be “paid forward” by others. What we found particulary rewarding was the interest and participation of our Russian students. They came to the school at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon and remained attentive and involved for an hour and a half.
Then last Friday I was asked to come to a Senior Center here in Luga. The senior citizens can come there and study about or learn skills that perhaps they have never had an opportunity to learn, e.g., computers are a big item of interest. English for Seniors is very popular, too. A Russian friend of mine teaches an English class there. He asked if I could come over and let them hear a ‘native speaker.” I agreed and he gave me a ride over. The “class” was about 7 or 8 Russian babushki (grandmothers) and one lady who was a younger widow. She had taught English before, but the other ladies had started studying it late in life. They were very hesitant to speak to me in English, although some did try. They were invited to ask me any question they wanted in English or Russian. At first I would say a few things in Russian to try and help, but they insisted I speak only English. First, they asked about my family and how the adjustment was going moving from America to Russia. As I was telling them I got out my phone and showed pictures of my family. When I showed them a picture of my wife the first lady looked at me, the picture of my wife, back at me, and then asked, “How old is your wife?” I smiled and told her. (Yes, I am noticeably older than my wife!) They asked several questions about my life in South Carolina, the climate, my work, our life there. They were interested especially in how my Russian wife and step-son were received there. I was glad to tell them everyone there was always warm toward Oksana and Roman. Oksana had as many (if not more) friends as I did in America! I then told them also that our two children born in America have been treated well here. I heard them whispering about politics, so I decided to bring that topic up and told them they could ask me about politics in America. One or two expressed disappointment with statements made by Hillary Clinton about Russia. I agreed, but I reminded them that politicians often say things for political gains at home. They readily agreed and were quick to add that Russian politicians do the same.
I left feeling a significant sense of surprise by this meeting. I had thought that this age group would be a bit more negative. Russian grandmothers have a reputation for being negative about a LOT of things. Even when I mentioned some weaknesses about life in America, such as the cost of living and the extremely divisive political year, they said nothing negative but accepted the fact that all societies and governments go through such times. As I was talking to them I could not help but think of the political changes that had happened to their country during their lives. They had been born in post-War Soviet Union after Hitler had devastated the country. Most estimate the number of those killed during WWII in the Soviet Union was over 25 million. By comparison, the number of US killed was a bit under 500,000. They had lived through the recovery of the Soviet Union and saw Communism flourish and then fall. They had watched their country collapse literally almost overnight. Then they had to live through the economic and political devastation that happened after the collapse of Communism. I already knew from talking to my wife and others how hard those years were when there was nothing in the stores for days. Yet there was no bitterness or whining as these ladies spoke of their lives here. They actually seemed more understanding of America’s divisions than most folks are. And we had a number of good laughs during our “class” together.
Then this past weekend we had two house guests. “Olga” and her daughter “Tatiana” came Saturday afternoon from St. Petersburg and spent the night with us. Olga and Oksana had taught English together years ago when they both lived up in the Murmansk area. Tatiana was a child then, and she is now almost twenty-two years old. Her mom just retired from teaching and moved to St. Petersburg. Retirement is granted earlier to those who live and work that far north. The climate is horrendous, even by Russian standards, and certain government “incentives” are given to get people to live and work there. I had never met either of them, but Tatiana had spent four months this past summer working in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We looked forward to getting her impressions!
There was the usual awkwardness of meeting an American and needing to communicate in English. But it was not long before we all felt much more comfortable with each other. Oksana prepared a large supper, and we enjoyed the meal and chatted a long time. We stayed up almost till midnight chatting. Tatiana took a big interest in Marina Grace, and Marina Grace loved it. They are actually from Ukaine and even though they have lived a long time in Russia, they still go back in summers for visits to the Ukraine.
The next day our conversation turned to politics. They were very hesitant to say anything, but Oksana assured them I really wanted to get their honest impressions. They seemed relieved that they could speak openly. They both spoke strongly against the “propaganda” that goes on and how Ukraine is being used almost as a pawn in the disputes between Russia and the the West, particularly the United States. They said they knew that pictures of “Russian soldiers” are staged to make things look like the Russians are “invading.” They, like most Eastern Europeans, know how the news is presented in America. They also said there had been tensions between them and some family members still living in Ukraine when things first went bad. They confirmed what I had read and heard that Poroshenko is liked by almost no one there and were it not for Western money that keeps coming in he would have been gone long ago. I also asked their opinion on what I had read in several books on Ukraine that the country had always been divided. It seemed to me the West was trying to exploit those divisions. They quickly confirmed my impressions.
Sunday afternoon while Olga and Oksana were having a chat in the kitchen about the “old days,” Tatiana came over and said some very kind things to me. She is a rather quiet young lady who obviously is quite kind. She said that her experience in America working with and for Americans was overall very positive. She liked the Americans and got along well with her American co-workers. She added, however, “But the thing I noticed is that the Americans I was around showed little interest in life of other countries, rarely asking me about my country. They seemed to accept whatever they had seen on their news as the truth.” She also repeated something I had said the night before: Americans in general have little interest in learning other languages. She then confessed to me that she was uncertain about meeting and spending time with me, but she said, “When the three of us ladies were in the kitchen last night I heard you speaking Russian to your children. I was shocked! I had no idea that an American father would not only study Russian, but use it when talking to his kids! You have no idea how much that meant to me!” Now, it clearly was not that I was using some really sophisticated Russian vocabulary or that I spoke so fluently that impressed her! I speak simple lines in Russian and then in English. She wasn’t impressed with my Russian; she was moved by the fact I spoke it to my kids. She said she saw all my books on Russian and Eastern European history on the book shelf and could see I had a great interest in this country and its culture. She said it made her feel renewed. I thanked her and told her there were others like me, and I hope there would be more interest in the future. I assured her I had not always had such an openness. I was raised in the Cold War and accepted what I was told. But as I have gotten older I have learned it is best to investigate things with the understanding I could be WRONG. And, in this case, I was.
I came away from these three experiences with a number of feelings and reflections. First, with all three groups, it was great to be around different age groups who really want to “broaden” their horizons and learn as much as possible about another country, cutlure, and language. I wish more Americans could see and experience what I experienced in getting together with them. I have written in several of my blog posts about the fact that I believe there is a severe misrepresentation of the Russian people and the Russian leadership being foisted on the American people by some for political and economic reasons. One aspect of this blog is I have a strong desire to disspell what I believe are wrong impressions and “facts.” I have no delusions. I realize my small blog will not have a great impact on the bigger picture of Russian-American relations. Yet in that movie I mentioned earlier, Kevin Spacey’s character challenges his young students to dare to make a difference in the world by doing SOMETHING where they are. So while I realize that life will go on the same, and the attitudes of most people will remain as they are, I also believe it is a great blessing and responsibility from God of being the only American most of the people here will ever meet and get to know personally. And I’ll be here next week, next month, and after that. They won’t just see me in class or at a meeting. They’ll probably run into me at the market or the grocery store. I can’t change how most Russians will think of Americans, but I can change how some Russians in this town will think. I also believe, based on responses I have received, that there are some from the West who do read my blog and take to heart that what they have been told about Russia is wrong.
As I have reflected more on these meetings it has also caused some changes in my own goals. One goal that I mentioned to my facebook friends is that if I am going to live here and be a “representative” of my country, I need to get better at Russian. I dropped out of FB for a while (although this blog gets posted there automatically) so I can spend more time studying Russian and writing my blog. With our responsibilities at the school, raising three children, and interacting with various individuals and groups, I have to put time in our life here. I now have a Russian tutor and am doubling my efforts on the language.
There is a deeper emotional reason at work, however. Facebook and other forms of electronic communication are wonderful if you are living abroad. You get to see pics of your friends’ kids, parties, church and social events. You get to post pics of your own life and argue over football and politics. (Yes, my alma-mater Clemson plays its arch rival USC Gamecocks this Saturday, and I still have a strong emotional investment there!) It is so much different now than before when I lived in Russia as far as communication. The downside is these things can keep you from fully engaging where you are. I can spend hours chatting on-line with my friends half way round the world and never speak to my neighbors. I decided to take a break from FB and get a Russian teacher to develop my Russian so I can establish my life here. If I am going to be a part of this community, then I need to know the language better than I do. But I also need to be emotionally connected. That does not mean I will cut off all contact with my family and friends in America. Absolutely not!!! But it does mean I will not be so focused on my life there that I miss my life here.
So to answer those who asks, “What do you like about retiring in Russia?” it obviously is not about the warm climate and sunny beaches. Russia does not fit the “picture” of “Wow, retire here and indulge yourself!” that I see plastered on-line. For me, it is about still sensing that we are being used for larger purposes than enhancing our creature comforts. My Christian faith teaches me that there is no perfect place and no geographical location—no matter how sunny and special—that will give us ultimate fulfillment in this world. I have confirmed through experience what ealier I had accepted by faith in the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures: your bank account can’t do it for you either. The time in my life when I was most materially prosperous was the most miserable time of my life. As C. S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
So life here in Russia can be aggravating, frustrating and sometimes lonely. Nevertheless, the aggravations and frustrations and feelings of isolation may vary depending on geographical location, but they don’t go away. What I like about Russia is seeing the difference both in myself and others that my being here makes. They are small right now. Hopefully, as we get better adjusted and I become more proficient in the language and understand our place and purpose here, they’ll be more vistas we see open up.
So my input for those who are thinking about or are actually planning on coming here is let yourself become a part of this country and whatever city or place you live in. Russians seem to sense when that is your attitude and when it isn’t. Maybe it is that “big Russian soul” or whatever, but they can discern those who are trying to bring a piece of American culture here and those who are bringing themselves to this culture. No one here expects me to be an unpatriotic American. They do not mind when I tell them I love my country. On the other hand, as I told the group of older ladies, I know there are Russians here who don’t like Americans and won’t like me no matter what I do. So what? They will not stop me from learning from this culture and, in turn, demonstrating what I believe is good about my country and our values and how there is a better way than the hatred and divisiveness that predominates now.
Today is Thanksgiving in America. I recall my childhood experiences at school. I realize many question the historical reliability and details of the way American kids in those days re-enacted Thanksgiving. But the legend, myth, or whatever you call it, was a part of what I learned America was. Some of us would dress up as “Indians,” while others donned those big ol’ Pilgrim hats. We were taught the two groups came together because both lacked some things. But, more than a spirit of mutual dependence, there was a spirit of mutual trust and companionship. None of us were taught that those were attitudes that just happened or remained in place automatically. They have to be cultivated, and they come to fruition only with conscious effort and struggle of spirit. The cynics say the historical picture, as well as the effort, is all wrong. It is about domination and the survival of the politically and militaristically fittest. I disagree. I choose the legend and message from my childhood. That is the attitude that has to return if we want “to make America great again.” Happy Thanksgiving!