I am not sure January was named for the mythological Roman god, Janus, but his name and the fact he had two faces—one looking backward and one looking forward–make it likely. I think it is appropriate for all of us to look back occasionally to gain perspective before we look forward. Perhaps the beginning of a New Year is a good time to do that. There are dangers in looking back, of course. One’s successes can deceive a person into thinking everything will or should turn out positively; or accomplishments may cause a certain haughtiness that leads to an overestimation of one’s own abilities. On the other hand, failures can leave us trapped in a defeatist or even depressed mindset. Fear of failure grips some of us when we think of our pasts. So with a mind toward avoiding those dangers I want to look back at the good, bad, and maybe even the ugly from 2016, before a short look forward at things hoped for. I have found that some things in my past I thought were really good actually were harmful in the long run. Conversely, some of the really bad things that happened to me (or seemed so at the time) made me a much better person. Obviously, I will repeat information from earlier blogs because I am trying to sum up things from the whole experience of our life in Russia through this last year.
By the beginning of 2016 we had already formulated and, to some degree, finalized our move to Russia. I had “turned in my notice” to my brother, who was also my boss, in September of 2015. This time last year Oksana and I had firmly decided our family would move to Russia. So the first half of the year was spent getting ready to leave. How does a family of five prepare to move from America to Russia? Of course, we spent time with close family and as many friends as possible. While we tried to see as many folks as we could, we missed several we wished we could have visited with “just one more time.” We also prepared to get rid of most of our possessions. Oh, we took some things and shipped other items of course, but we knew we could only take a fraction of our belongings. We spent time deciding what was important. Moving to Russia makes you think through what is really valuable to you for the future. The hardest part for me was getting rid of my library. The bulk of my adult life had been spent acquiring more books! I had taught in a university and seminary for 14 years. Books were both a valued part of life and essential to my profession. If you are serious about moving to Russia, however, you must determine what you have to let go of. I kept my books on Koine Greek, my favorite subject to teach during my academic years. I also shipped works on the Russian language, Russian history, and Russian Orthodoxy. Most of the other components of that library I gave away, donated, or sold to a former colleague who insisted on paying me for them. There was sadness, but there was also a strange sense of freedom in leaving things behind. I never felt any sense of freedom about leaving behind those people so dear to me, however. I’m trying to remember that lesson.
SURPRISES, BATTLES, AND BLESSINGS
There have been many surprises since moving. In more than one area our expectations and reality did not match. We knew family life would be very different in Russia than it had been in America. We anticipated some positive changes, but we were also concerned. While there are many common traits among Russians and Americans, the cultures are different. We thought the move and the adjustments would be hardest on our two boys.
Gabriel. Certainly, we believed it would be hardest for Gabriel, who turned 8 about a month after we moved here on June 7. He knew no Russian, and he had never been here before. South Carolina was the only life he had ever known. Elementary school can be a tough place even around kids you already know. When we arrived in early June we got him a tutor to teach him to write in Russian. She did not know English, however. We tried to teach him some Russian, but he did not seem interested. So when we took him to school in September, we were quite worried. We knew, however, the students had been “coached” by their teacher on responding to the arrival of the new kid from America who knew no Russian. She had actually taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! Also, Oksana’s mom has worked in the school system here for years. Still, we feared what kind of reaction Gabriel would receive and wondered how he could possibly learn anything.
Their regular school building was still being renovated, and in the old school where he started they still had the “double desks” so common for so long in Russian schools. Everyone shares a desk with someone else. (Russian readers will know exactly what I am talking about.) Gabriel’s “desk partner” was Alex. Sharing the desks made it easy for Alex to show Gabriel what to do even before Gabe could understand what was being said. Further, rather than making fun of the new kid from America, the other students helped out as well. When Oksana and I would go pick him up from school, other students would report to us on his progress! Alex became a close friend. Alex is a bit older than the other kids in the class, as is Gabriel. We were informed Alex had been diagnosed as autistic. Perhaps Alex knew what struggling in school is like, so I believe he was more sensitive to Gabriel. Also, Alex speaks Russian very distinctly. He came over during New Years, and I could understand him much more easily than I can understand most Russians! There have been a couple of times when Gabriel has felt left out because some kid did not want to include him in the group, but these times have not diminished his fondness for his friends and school. He loves it when he can hang around after school and play with his friends. It is interesting that Gabriel learned fairly quickly how to understand Russian—before he was able to speak much at all. He has done well academically. My suspicion is that Gabriel speaks more Russian around his friends than at home. At home he knows Mom will correct his mistakes. I think the boys he plays with understand he is learning and don’t worry about his mistakes like we do!
Roman. Roman is our 16 year old, and he was born here. We left Russia when Roman was 8 years old. He was excited when we told him we may move back to Russia. He did well in school in America; he also played football and was on the wrestling team. He was an altar server at church as well, so it was not that he was unhappy in America. Nevertheless, he was always “the Russian kid” there. Roman started practicing his Russian again even before we told him we were going to return here. So he could speak Russian well enough to communicate when we arrived, but he has an American accent. Further, he simply did not understand Russian grammar or have a vocabulary equal to his fellow students. Moreover, he had not had courses in America that kids in his grade already had in Russia—especially chemistry, physics, algebra, and, of course, Russian grammar. This is a common problem for kids moving from America to Russia. We knew it, and we immediately secured tutors for him. We have friends who homeschool, and I cannot say how it would be for those children. We decided on public schools because we felt it was the best way for them to learn to socialize in small town Russia and learn the language. Maybe if we had moved to a large city like St. Petersburg or Moscow we would have gone another route. I have said plenty in earlier blogs about the fact that we see the focus of Russian education on preparing the children academically without the strong emphasis on inculcating them with whatever the popular cultural or moral “values” in vogue are. Both our boys have told us Russian schools are harder than American schools academically, but they have simply adjusted.
Roman is by nature an introvert, but he has also been able to develop friends more easily here than in America. He became a bit of a celebrity at school as we understand. Kids who did not even know him or have classes with him would come up and want to practice their English. All his teachers have told us he acted mature beyond his years. Additionally, a few girls asked him from time to time to join them for walks home or to get together for “tea” on Saturdays, so I am quite sure that helped! We have seen Roman “blossom” in terms of his willingness to interact socially. Now if we could just get him to clean his room it would be even better!
We get questions from both family and close friends about our boys frequently. We are glad they shared our concerns and have been praying for them. We also knows folks who are thinking of moving here, and they were quite interested as well for obvious reasons. So we are happy to report that, while there have been struggles and adjustments, both boys are doing well. We were, of course, quite pleased that the negative “atmosphere” between the two countries did not impact how students received our boys.
Marina Grace. We did not worry so much about Marina Grace adjusting. She wasn’t even two yet when we moved. She didn’t even speak English plainly so we didn’t see a language issue. My wife had stayed home with her in America and has continued to do so in Russia. It took a while for Marina Grace to adjust, however. She clung to Oksana constantly the first few weeks. Oksana could go out of the house without her only when Marina Grace was napping. I do not know why, but the move really upset her. She obviously felt very insecure because of the new surroundings. I think it took about two months before we began to see a sense of security settling in with her. She does much better now, although she still needs mom’s attention. She does well when Oksana has to go out, however. She enjoys going to “Baboolya’s” (grandmother’s) house. She loves her grandparents, and seems really happy at home now.
Also, our children have been quite healthy since moving here. Some sniffles on occasion and Roman has had some back problems that are being addressed, but their “systems” had no trouble adjusting to Russian food, water, and even the climate!
Oksana & Hal. Both Oksana and I have had more trouble adjusting to life here than we thought. I don’t mean anything that makes us regret coming here or even have doubts. We both were and are convinced that this move is the right move for our family. We were concerned about the kids! We thought we would have little or no “adjustment issues” since this is Oksana’s home, and I have lived in Russia before. Perhaps eight years in America had left us more “Americanized” than we thought. As I mentioned in other blogs we spent months thinking, analyzing, praying about, and discussing this move. Yet somehow that did not mean we just settled in easily and adjusted with no problems. I can’t really say there was any one specific problem that caused this delayed adjustment. There were actually more conveniences here than we anticipated; no one treated us poorly; the cost of living was such that we did not have financial concerns. We had, however, formed very close family and friendship bonds in America, and these could not be replaced. We had Oksana’s parents to help out, but otherwise we had no “social network” in Russia. We were on our own. In America, we had family and friends from church who we could call at any time even if it was only to chat about minor things.
I’ve tried to analyze our adjustment. A part of this blog was to help ME! The line that comes to mind is Thomas Wolfe’s “you can’t go home again.” I now recall when Oksana, Roman, and I moved to America in 2008 how difficult it was for me. I no longer was part of the same circle of friends I had known. Some had just moved or lost touch; others chose not to “re-include” me because of my past. It was a very difficult time until we both—as a couple—formed new friendships or reconnected with a few of my old friends who wanted to renew the relationship. And Oksana made many new friends in America. I think maybe some ladies just wanted to meet “the Russian” at first out of curiosity, but for whatever reason it “clicked.” But Oksana had left Luga in 2006. She of course came back to visit until 2008 when we moved to America, but you can’t be gone from a place for that long and expect to come back to life as it was. We both have had to adjust to that. In some ways, it is perhaps easier for those who have never been here. You know coming in that everything is a clean slate. We made the mistake of thinking that because we had lived here before things would go smoothly.
There were other factors. Here Oksana has had to spend an enormous amount of time helping the boys, especially Gabriel, with homework. Russian schools give more homework in general than in the States, but then added to that is the need for Oksana to translate some things and to stay close while homework is being done. Even though both of us only teach part time, we both are teaching out of areas we’ve been accustomed to. We both taught adult learners in St. Petersburg who were self-motivated and wanted to focus more on formal relationships and business. Here Oksana teaches first graders, and I teach teenagers. So it has taken more preparation than we anticipated.
The fact that we have a two year old daughter who is high-maintenance has added more “fatigue and time pressure” to the stress of daily life. Roman used to help out with childcare, but he goes to a tutor most days after school and then has homework at night. We do not have a car and so we either walk or call a cab. Again, this takes a bit more time, and we’ve been frustrated because we came here to achieve a slower pace with less time pressure.
Language. My biggest frustration has been the language issue which I have mentioned in several blogs. Again, expectations got in the way. Oksana had been complimenting my vocabulary and pronunciation for some time. We thought all I needed was immersion. I had been working on my Russian for a long time, but rather than making it easier, the move made it harder for me to focus on improvement. I started teaching, and when you are hired as a native speaker, they really don’t want you trying to impress them with your Russian. You are there to speak English! Had I gone into a job requiring I learn Russian I am sure things would have been different because of the external pressure and help to progress.
Furthermore, it was more difficult to speak Russian in our home than we thought. Oksana is completely fluent in both languages. Russian is her “native tongue,” but she had gotten used to speaking English in America for EIGHT years. We spoke English in our home and with our friends. So it is natural for her to speak English to all of us—she “defaults” to English with us. Roman, as I said, can converse in Russian fairly comfortably (and he likes to), but he does make mistakes and has to have clarifications or corrections from her occasionally. I cannot speak Russian as well as Oksana (obviously) or Roman. I’m slower. I have to think about grammatical consistency (What case? Gender? Verbal aspect?) before I speak. It is just more cumbersome when she has to stop and clarify a word or concentrate on speaking slowly when talking with me. A smooth conversation with me in Russian takes time. Additionally, Oksana and I have always communicated in English so it is hard for her to remember to speak Russian with me. Then since Gabriel didn’t know any Russian we had to speak English to include him in our conversations. So it is hard for a family to speak in a language they have not been speaking in, especially if the level of differences is so wide. Many people think immersion is best, but there are road blocks. Moreover, it is not easy to be immersed when you must speak English at work and the Russian at home is uneven. Again, I think it would actually be easier to improve if everyone in the home is learning at roughly the same level and pace. While having native speaker in the home is convenient, it means no one is forced to learn in order to be able to handle daily life.
Church Life. We are also disappointed that we have not been able to find a church where we “fit in.” We are Orthodox and, again, we did not think there would be a problem making the change to the Russian Orthodox Church, since our OCA church uses pretty much the same liturgy. The shift to hearing Slavonic made it more difficult than we thought, however. Only Oksana can understand old Slavonic. Standing for the entire Divine Liturgy was not a problem for any of us in America, but when you really can’t keep up with what is being said, it makes it more difficult obviously. I don’t mean for a service or two. I mean when week after week you don’t understand, then it is hard—especially for the kids. Furthermore, it has been very difficult to get to know the other folks at the church simply because that is not what Russians see as a part of the Liturgy or even after the Liturgy. There is no meal after the Liturgy, as we enjoyed each week in America. One priest at a village church was very friendly toward us, but he is a monk and there was no contact with him otherwise. This is the primary problem we are going to focus on for 2017.
Politics & Friendships. I guess the major strain we were not expecting to be so strong concerns how intense the political tension between Russia and the United States have become since we have been here. There were tensions before we moved, to be sure. We had cause for concern, but as the election year grew more intense we did not expect how bitter things would become. I was shocked and disappointed at the new level of McCarthyism that raised its ugly head in America. We did not expect these differences to get in the way of our personal relationships.
I also realized pretty soon after we got here that the Western Press in general, and the American Press especially, were misrepresenting Russia either out of willful ignorance, malicious intent, or just plain journalistic laziness. It started with articles I read on what “life in Russia” is really like. Since I have lived in Russia for a total of over four years, I think I’m a pretty good judge of that. It wasn’t that there were some differences that could be accounted for by focusing on a different geographical area in Russia or a different perspective from the West; there were total distortions in pieces on generalized descriptions of life here. Russia is often portrayed as this economically choked country with a populace ravaged by poverty and essentially ignorant of truth since the leaders have totally closed them off from an open press. This perspective is far from the truth.
People here have access to news from all over the world. They read both sides of most issues and are quite aware of criticisms of the government here from both Russian and Western media. My belief is that Russians actually are more willing and able to access different perspectives than most Americans. Then during the campaign when Trump said he would like to work with Russia to fight ISIS, he was called a Putin “stooge,” “puppet,” and a whole lot worse. Then John McCain proclaimed him a murderer and thug and said anyone who disagreed with him (McCain) is a liar. This is the same McCain who was on stage in Ukraine with Neo-Nazis. This was very distressing because to say anything positive about Russia was taken as a sign of disloyalty—even if it was the future president of the United States who said it. Thus, some contacts believed we were the same way when we spoke positively about the political situation here. I really did not foresee the political relationship between “my two worlds” collapsing as it did. There is no attempt on the part of these politicians to understand the situation here. Thus, Oksana and I feel very frustrated that the questions about Russia are often impregnated with so much wrong information that we really cannot make clear how things are without conversations becoming divisive.
When I came to Russia the first time in 2002 I did not like Putin. I didn’t like any Russian politicians. I loved my Russian friends, but I thought the worst of the political system. Things have changed. First, to some degree, the political system here has changed. When I first came the country was still reeling from Boris Yeltsin’s horrible leadership. Yeltsin sold out to the West, and the West took advantage of it with no concern for what could be mutually beneficial for the two countries. So when Putin came to power in 2000, it was a far different situation than now. Some say he was ruthless; I say he had to be a bit ruthless to get the country stabilized. Second, I can now see the bigger picture of what Putin was doing. He really did want to attack the dishonest oligarchs (and eventually did), for example, but he had to “eat the elephant” one bite at a time. He needed to restore the pride in the Russian people for their country. When I came here then there were very few flags on display except on government buildings, and patriotism was very low. Now, however, flags are frequently on displya in public places and a strong sense of Russian patriotism has clearly returned. Third, as I alluded to above, I have seen that I, and many Americans, were misled by the American news and information outlets. There have always been distortions in reports I am sure. Now, however, reports are so far from what both other Americans who live here see and what bonafide and seasoned scholars on Russia are saying that we don’t even recognize the Russia these people are talking or writing about.
Fortunately we have not experienced any problems with our legal status here in Russia because of the tensions between the two countries. There have been some points of tension with Americans, but hopefully nothing serious. The stress is more over where the tensions will lead. From here I regretfully have to say the aggression is clearly more from America. Four thousand troops (3rd Army Brigade) just arrived in Poland to patrol the Suwalki gap. NATO has German troops close enough to St. Petersburg, Russia that they are within the range of conventional weapons. US Marines have recently landed in Norway, in another obvious attempt to irritate Russia. With all these movements going on from NATO and the US, this week I heard Senators lecturing Trump’s nominees to various cabinet positions about how RUSSIA must be made to change its aggressive behavior. There are 70,000 US troops in Europe. Russia has no troops in North America. If Russia brought troops anywhere near as close to the US as America brings both troops, weapons and missles to Russia’s borders, politicians and many people there would go—well, for lack of a better term—ballistic. In 2016 the final tally reported indicates the US dropped 26,171 bombs on five foreign countries. Actually, the figure is certainly lower than actual, since the Defense Department can count a “single strike” as one bomb—only on very rare occasions is a single strike one bomb. So there is no reluctance on the part of the US to resort to military action. When Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan in 1941 that was the last time America officially declared war on a foreign country. Clearly the US has settled in to sending off men and women to die without anyone really being held accountable for such decisions. Since I live in Russia, I have to be careful in expressing great disagreement with the policies of my home country without being portrayed as anti-American. Perhaps it is some of the “70s” left in me, but I believe one ought to be able to express disagreement—even disgust—at US policies without it jeapodizing relationships. Not all believe this way, however. For many, these political issues remain a kind of vague hypothetical debate. To families like us who live here they are a source of great and existential concern.
GRATITUDE AND LOOKING FORWARD
Despite the battles and struggles we are grateful for the blessings. We have the deep sense that we are all better for having lived in both cultures. We are glad to be living here, and in many ways we consider ourselves quite fortunate for the richness it has brought to our lives and to our family. We have a modest income from my retirement which we could not live on in America, but provides plenty of financial resources for life here in Russia and frees me up for more family time. While learning the language, making friends and getting into our “routine” has been difficult and slow, we can see the changes. We have been able to establish some on-line friendships with Americans in our “Moving to Russia” group who either have come here, are planning to come here, or are considering it. We look forward to meeting some of them in person in the coming year. I am discouraged that it has taken as long as it has for us to adjust, but I have no doubt that God has a purpose for us here and that in the coming year we will all be better at communicating in Russian, interacting with people and new friends here, and that our lives will continue to be greatly enriched by the people and the experiences. Obviously, no one knows tomorrow, and I have learned not to “assume upon life.” We don’t know if we have a tomorrow or a next year here on earth. What I am saying is our attitude now is that the future looks to us like a more pleasant time of gathering fruit from our present labors.
As I have mentioned above, in one of my “former lives” I taught Koine Greek and New Testament. The phrase that came to my mind as I closed out my reflections on the very eventful and sometimes “mean” year of 2016 is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Forgetting the things behind…” I always explained that forgetting in that world did not mean to remove from conscious awareness as it often does with us today. Paul had, in fact, just reflected on his past in this very chapter. “To forget” meant a choice not to allow the past—failures or accomplishments—to be brought into the present in a distracting or destructive way. “To remember” meant to bring something into the present experience from the past to make us stronger and better—more aware of who we are as people of faith. When God promises he will “remember our sins no more,” he means that our past moral failures will not form a barrier to our present relationship with Him. When Jesus told his disciples at the Supper to “do this in remembrance of me,” he meant participation in the Eucharist was a means by which his very presence would be brought to us and experienced by us. So we forget the things behind in the sense that we know our failures and struggles here can be removed from our future growth, maturity, and joy. We remember the past relationships, struggles, and, yes, failures in the sense we know that they work together for good. We’re glad that we’re here. We look forward to and press on toward what is ahead.