LIFE BACK IN RUSSIA AFTER ONE YEAR

On June 8 we celebrated our one year anniversary of being back in Russia after having lived in America for eight years. I decided to write some reflections on how things have gone. Writing about such things helps me organize my own thoughts. I think after one year we have a better perspective on things. I have to say that some of what I write now in reflection is simply confirmation of what we had already begun to realize. I regret the repetition. What I add is my perspective on how the things we have seen and experienced have impacted our thinking and relationships here. Another reason for some repetition is the increasing number of people I hear from considering moving here. I thought we were really odd when we made the decision to move to Russia. Turns out, that is far from the truth. Since several of these individuals have not read my earlier blogs I have answered some of their questions here. What has life been like in Russia?

First, in general, we confronted no major obstacles after we got here, but neither did we find the adjustment easy. It was a mixed bag. We eventually found the right apartment, got all the furniture and appliances we needed, and finished the essential paperwork. What I had to “relearn” is that generally speaking Russians do not expect to have everything quickly. Most stores in a smaller city in Russia like Luga do not have a large inventory of furniture, kitchen appliances and other household items. We had to order things and wait for a shipment to come in or until a piece could be custom built. Further, official paperwork does not usually get processed quickly. Local apparatchiks here seem to derive pleasure from demonstrating that while Communism is no longer in vogue, government employees still have power over your life—even if we’re just talking about small town government. And no detail is too small for such a demonstration. For example, we turned in one set of papers and under the address blank for “Oblast” Oksana wrote “Leningradskaya Oblast.” No, the form already had “Oblast” so you should not have written the word “Oblast.” And you may not “white out” or cross out “Oblast.” Hence, we had to leave, fill out another set of papers completely, return, wait in line (again!) and resubmit. Our American “immediate gratification” mindset had to be purged from our mental systems.

The process was painful, but I think the results were good. Tribulation brings patience. We had become conditioned to “fast and easy”in America. Note how many times that phrase or a similar phrase shows up in ads in America. Any product or process that is fast and easy must be good, right? I think now this approach sucks you in to a certain kind of mentality. Life has to happen fast—and easy. Nevertheless, no matter how “fast and easy” things were supposed to be, there was always something else for which we had to wait. As Patrick Henry Reardon said, “The life of faith is pretty much evenly divided between serving and waiting. (It is curious we call those who serve us ‘waiters’).” It’s how you wait that reveals the faith part. Further, I don’t think Holy Scripture teaches that character comes from “fast and easy.” I’ve learned here that if you have to wait for that chair to be built or that paperwork to get processed, life still does not lose meaning or fall apart in the meantime. In fact, the waiting helps you discover the value of what you already have or what you can do without. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. That’s called perseverance. I do not get as frustrated with roadblocks and detours near as much as I did before Russia.

I wrote along the way that our boys were adjusting well in school. Fortunately, they persevered and finished their first year well. It was a lot of hard work! Roman, our ninth grader, had not had chemistry, physics, biology and as much algebra and geometry as his Russian classmates. He could speak Russian, since he lived the first eight years of his life here, but he was way behind in grammar and fluency. After the first quarter he had “C”s on most core subjects, but improved throughout the year. He worked hard and finished with a “4” (B) in Russian. Gabriel knew no Russian. He is our extrovert, however, and with both classroom work and playtime with his friends after school, he learned to function well. I can speak Russian fairly well—at least well enough to communicate what I want or need in most situations. I have a lot of trouble understanding “native speakers,” however. Gabriel can now speak as well as I can (and he knows all the slang expressions which I do not know!); he also understands Russians far better than I do. Both boys got nothing but “4”s and “5”s (equivalent to the A/B roll) in the end of the year, so we were pleased.

Here was a very valueable lesson for us and our boys. They HAD to work hard. Our boys had good teachers and good experiences in the schools in America. Honestly, however, they did not work hard. They could just coast and still “get by.” You can’t coast when you barely know the language. You can’t coast when everyone else has had the prerequisites that you have not had. They both responded well. They set their minds to work—well, most days. And the work paid off. Both Roman and Gabriel got academic awards at the end of the year. Of course, we parents were proud. But for me it really wasn’t the award as much as the joy I felt that they had worked hard and saw that was key. I am sure my pride was of a different sort than when they got recognized in America. They ended with a confidence not that they were smarter than other kids; their confidence was in the value of disciplined work. That lesson will last longer than the certificate.

Our biggest surprise is that there were no problems with them being bullied or made to feel as outsiders because they came from America. Our fear was that there would be fallout from the current negative relationship between Russia and America. They did not experience anything like that. Oksana and I did not experience any unkind or rude treatment from the Russian folks either. (Well, she did get a little offended that a few folks thought she had an American accent!) Russians have long lived with the reality that one cannot assume what people are like based on what those folks’ government or media say. People who found out I was American were more curious than anything. I do a lot of walking around town. Most days I go for a long walk, and my route is all over town. I am frequently asked directions or where a certain store is. I explain that I am a “foreigner” and not that familiar with the stores. The responses are always kind and understanding. No one has ever gotten frustrated with me.

The lesson I took from that was a sad one. I realized in this hot political year the truth was the only disparaging talk I heard came from Americans in references to “the Russians.” Politicians, journalists, and other folk who have never formed any kind of relationship with any Russians or had any real knowledge of Russia or Russians—a la James Clapper and James Comey—could still evaluate their character and motives. I learned a deeper respect for those Russians on the street who did not know my name or any details about me other than that I was a foreigner and yet treated me with kindness and respect.

On the other hand, Russians do not make friends quickly. Russia has a long history, and for most of it opening up your life to the wrong person could cost you dearly. While you should not come to Russia expecting to be treated unfairly or rudely just because you are an American, you should not expect to make intimate friends without the time needed for trust to develop. I’ve learned more about friendship here from, well, not having many friends. Authentic friendship takes time and trust. While I still wish it was easier here, I have come to understand trust better. Familiarizing yourself with Russian history helps one to grasp the reasons. Friends here are not just people you enjoy socializing with or folks you like to see at work or church. It’s deeper than that. I see now most of the people we Americans call “friends” are really folks with whom we have a superficial, albeit cordial, relationship.

As far as the language goes, I really wish I could progress more quickly. I’ve been studying Russian on my own for five and a half years. Yet, as I said, I still struggle with understanding the native speakers. The particles, the little phrases, the slang and especially the speed make it difficult. I still am very uncomfortable speaking in social settings when a number of people are talking or in public when people are speaking fast. I find I can practice better in one-on-one conversations with people who know I am learning. My doctor who gives me neck treatments weekly remains my great help. He lets me struggle for the right word, take pauses before speaking, and if I get the wrong case or repeat myself there is no embarrassment. Fear of failure or of making a mistake is a terrible roadblock to fluency. I think that is a major reason Roman and Gabriel have made progress more quickly than I. Mistakes don’t bother them. I get the paralysis of analysis before every sentence! Oksana has taken a course from Moscow on teaching Russian to English speakers, and that is helping immensely. I can open up to her, of course, with my silly or obvious questions. I’m trying to be patient. I read on average it takes ten years to become fluent in Russian. I think I’ll beat that for sure!

While learning the language is important and helpful, I stick with what I said when we first moved here: Russians appreciate any attempt you make at learning their language. If you get it wrong and your pronunciation leaves them unable to hide a smile or even laughter, they really do like it when Americans try to speak their language. They respond very readily to any Westerner who tries to understand their culture, their language, their history or their religion. I remember several years ago being on a city bus in St. Petersburg when a group of Americans got on. They were loud, rude, and basically unconcerned about the people already on the bus. Although adults, they were poster children for the stereotypical “arrogant Americans.” So if you display genuine (and I mean authentic) respect for this country—its people, its language, its culture and history—you will be well received. And those who don’t make that effort should have the integrity not to criticize Russia based on what you heard from a newscaster who also knows nothing of this language, culture or history.

Three practical observations: First, we have been able to find pretty much anything we need for food, clothing and daily needs at very reasonable prices. (Caveat: the pizzas in Luga are not nearly as good as the ones from Papa Johns in Greer, South Carolina.) When we left in 2008 there was one “chain” grocery store in Luga. Now there are several, and they are all superior to the old “Dixie” store that is still here. There are far more products available. When we left you could not use a credit card in stores to buy food or clothes—or anything else. Now, we make most of our purchases on our debit card or go to the ATM for cash.

Further, exchanging money is far more convenient than when we lived here before. I still have a bank account in my American bank, and it really is no trouble to tranfer money for our use here. I have found Capital 360 makes things easy. My pension is deposited directly into my bank account, and we can transfer it to 360 without charge. As I said above, I can go to the ATM here in Luga and withdraw rubles, again without charge. I am identified immediately by e-mail when any money is withdrawn from my account. I can be here on my computer and see within one minute when Oksana has made a purchase for groceries or whatever she went to get (and pretty much calculate when she’ll be home). It also allows for me to watch for any “irregularities” of course.

Another factor I have commented on in previous blogs is the excellent medical treatment we have received. I can expand that to dental care as well. The medical and dental clinics are very nice, clean, and the medical staff has always been helpful. Our family has had the “bugs” that go with winter. I’ve had a benign growth surgically removed from my back, weekly treatments for a bad disc in my neck and a thorough physical, including blood work and an ultrasound of all internal organs. I’ve had a tooth pulled (which had a bony cyst attached), two fillings, and one severely chipped molar repaired. I could not be more pleased with the care as well as the cost. We can get medicines that were expensive and prescription only in America at a small fraction of the cost here in Russia usually without a prescription. I have seen Facebook comments still bashing Russian health care, but our experience of care here is that it is at least as good as in America and, as far as our medical clinic, it’s much better and more modern than the one in Greer we went to. And I pay under $9.00 for an office visit.

So after one year I can’t say we’re totally adjusted. But I can say we’ve had no major problems and have learned a lot. Life in this culture is quieter and without the rancid political vitriol which has become typical in America. Society is, for the most part, unapologetically traditional, and politicians of different parties seem focused on the goal of continuing improvement in Russian life. People here disagree as much and as often as they like. Political debate is not stifled on TV or in the street. As I turned off the street toward our apartment building today the nice old Communist man was standing there beside his little tent offering me the latest edition of the old Communist newspaper Pravda, as he often does. No shouting in my face, no posters condemning anyone. I took the paper, thanked him, and he quietly responded, “Пожалуйста” (“you’re welcome”) with a soft smile. He and I come from different “worlds,” but despite missing family and friends in our American world immensely, we’re glad to be here in this one.

“HACKSAW RIDGE” AND VICTORY DAY

I have not written a blog entry in two months. First, things tend to get very busy at the end of the school year. Our time at the English school got more hectic, and our boys had a lot of preparing for exams. Then I had some problems that were thought to be neurological with my neck and jaw. It actually was a cyst that had formed at the base of one of my molars, which was complicated by an abscess. I’ll skip the details, but it was not a pleasant tooth extraction. Thus, I have wanted to write an entry on the events of May for some time but time pressure and tooth pain hindered my work.

My wife and kids watched the Mel Gibson movie “Hacksaw Ridge” just after Memorial Day (in America). What a compelling movie based on events of a “real” soldier during World War II in the Pacific! Earlier in the month, May 9, we had observed what may be the biggest holiday in Russia: Victory Day. It is holiday commemorating the surrender of the Nazis which concluded “The Great Patriotic War,” as it is called in Russia.

I was taught in my history courses in high school in America about the war from what I now see as a decidely American perspective. We defeated Japan in the Pacific and we, along with our western European allies, defeated Germany in Europe. I do not recall much being said about the USSR, other than we were on the same side against the Nazis. It was if the USSR was a bit player in that awful drama. I don’t know for sure that my education was typical, but I think it was. I am firmly convinced now that what I was taught was distorted to the point of being deceitful.

When we celebrated Memorial Day living in America I will admit to some guilt. I always thought it was important to remember our fallen soldiers. And I would spend time reflecting on those who paid the ultimate price. In America, however, it was always a holiday that at a cultural level marked the beginning of summer. We usually went to the lake, beach, or some bar-b-que. After a few words of gratitude for our freedoms and those who died for that freedom, we’d get the party started. Of course, sad to say, many in America would just get the party started right away without the words.

There is no such ambiguity to the observance of Victory Day in Russia. It is a “holiday with tears,” as they call it. All schools and most places of employment are closed. Residents of Luga gathered at 9:00 on the square assemble and then march to the “Memorial” on the outskirts of town. The procession actually started a little early and we had to catch up. I was shocked at the number of people participating in the march. It was in the thousands. The crowd went as far as I could see. It is called the “Immortal Regiment,” to emphasize that the memory of these brave persons will not die. It is a tradition to carry posters with the pictures of your family members who fought in the war. Both of my wife’s grandfathers fought so Gabriel and Roman carried posters with their pictures. Patriotic songs were played over a loud speaker mounted on a van as we walked. This same observance is carried out in cities all over Russia. Moscow had 850,000 and reports were that St. Petersburg had 750,000 participate. I don’t know the official numbers for Luga, a much smaller city of course, but it was far more than I have ever seen at a parade in America.

When we got to the Memorial there was no big fanfare. Some words were spoken in gratitude for those who fought and especially those who died. At the Memorial there are graves of the soldiers who perished fighting for Luga, then a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, and also a space where the remains of those who were not found until much later have been placed. An Orthodox priest performs a brief memorial service at that location every year. I began reflecting on why the observance here is so different than in America.

First, the war was fought here. We (Americans) sent brave men and women to fight, but the battle was across one ocean or the other. Luga was occupied for almost three years by the Nazis while they beseighed Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Luga was awarded the status of “Hero City,” because it did hold off the Nazis for three weeks giving Leningrad a little more time to prepare. Remarkably, 1 in 10 citizens of Luga were awared medals for bravery. When I walk the streets of Luga I can see monuments on walls of buildings describing what happened there during the occupation or where the Nazis had their offices. A few weeks ago we flew to Finland for a long weekend. When we flew back my father-in-law picked us up at the airport in St. Petersburg. As we were driving back to Luga, he pointed to the exact point where the Nazis camped—and ultimately were stopped. We knew that road, that specific place was where it happened. There is something about seeing such sights on a daily bases that makes the war more “real.”

Second, almost everyone here has a relative who fought in the war. The official archives show that 27.5 million soldiers and civilians from the USSR died. Of those, 70% were ethnic Russians. So just under 20 million Russians died during that war. Most estimates indicate around 415,000 Americans died. Now, that is a lot of Americans, and no one takes their sacrifice lightly. But I, like many Americans, did not have any relatives who died in the war. I did have a couple of uncles who were in the war in the Pacific, but there is almost no one here who does not have someone who fought in the war and most Russians have some family member who died. Oral history is quite powerful.

Another factor in this region is the horror of the seige of Leningrad. It went on for around 900 days. People starved to death; many bodies would be left in the street; diseases of various kinds were rampant. President Putin, for example, had an older brother to die from diptheria as a child. His mother almost died. He had two uncles who were killed in combat, and his father was left with a permanent limp from being injured in battle in Estonia. As an aside, this made it extremely inappropriate for papers such as the Washington Post to editorialize (as if it were real news) that Putin was manipulating the situation for his own political ends in his moving Victory Day speech. The Post’s articles on Russia justify Stephen Cohen’s reference to our views of the old Soviet news reports of a bygone era, calling the Washington Post “Pravda on the Potomac.”

There is also a lot of pride here, however. While exact figures are illusive, the estimates are that 13.6 million Nazis died during the war, and that somewhere between 85-90% were killed by the Soviets. So almost 9 out of 10 German soldiers were killed by Soviets. I loved the movie, “Saving Privte Ryan.” But the truth is our image of the Americans landing at Normandy and marching straight to Berlin to end the war is, again, a severe distortion. The Allies faced 11 German divisions on that march. The Russians fought 228 German divisions from Moscow to Berlin. All this led Winston Churchill to state:

“I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.”

—Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 2 August 1944, “War Situation”

Russians know that the West tends to ignore their central role in the war, especially in educating our children. Now, more than ever, it seems vitally important to many politicians and media members to portray Russia as an evil nation. Apparently some have thought it better to redact the historical accounts in a way that would not lead anyone to appreciate the Soviet war efforts. My purpose is in no way to undermine or discount the contributions to the war by the Allies or the bravery of those who fought and died in the war. It is, however, to make what readers I have aware of the noble and brave efforts of the Russians and other member countries of the USSR. No good comes from our historical distortions. My desires are the same as those stated by President Ronald Reagan in his State of the Union address in 1984. Please go to the link below for two crucial minutes of that speech.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gzg9TMSBBk