Travels. Unlike some of my recent blogs which have focused specifically on the substantive topics of religion and politics in Russia, this one is personal musings on how these combine with other factors to impact our life here. The last two weekends have been interesting but also frustrating. As I have mentioned before if you are in Russia on a visa, you have to leave the country every six months—just to return. It somehow helps them keep a check on a foreigner living here when you leave and then are put back in the system. We usually take the short flight to Finland, but the airline rates were much higher than usual so we decided to go to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, which was much cheaper. We learned Gabriel and Marina Grace are now official citizens of The Russian Federation, so only Oksana and I flew to Belarus. We planned a quick trip: fly there on Saturday and return Sunday. We left the kids with her parents.
Oksana had rented us a small, quite old, Soviet style one room apartment in Minsk. It was a 40 minute drive from the airport to the city. I was surprised when we drove into Minsk. I had heard some stories about how life is in Belarus, but Minsk impressed me with its beauty and also how clean it was. No trash anywhere! It was almost 10:00 p.m. when we drove through the city, but folks were out walking, including families with small children. We passed McDonalds and there were teenagers “hanging out” there just as one would expect on a Saturday night in America.
The old apartment was nicer than I expected. Like many buildings in the city it was built by Germans enslaved there after WWII. The Nazis came through Belarus and occupied it, as they occupied cities like Luga here in Russia. Eventually, however, the Russians drove them out and marched all the way to Berlin to end the war. (The allied troops arrived slightly later.) After that, things did not go well for the German invaders. They had to perform slave labor until they were sent back to Germany over five year intervals. Some Germans ended up learning the local language and decided to stay rather than go back to post-war Germany. I can say the Germans built beautiful and very sturdy buildings. The beauty of Minsk far exceeded my expectations.
We returned to the airport the next day. The drive from and then back to the airport gave us the chance to get local information from the best of possible sources: taxi drivers! Almost everyone in Belarus speaks Russian so there was no language barrier for Oksana to “probe” them. Despite the wonderful buildings and appearances there are serious problems with inflation and heavy taxation. The economy was “revamped” about a year ago, and folks are struggling even more with the extremely high cost of basic items. Just in our short visit we could tell the prices were much higher than in Russia. Alexander Lukashenko became their first president in 1994. According to the Constitution adopted at that time the president could serve two five year terms. Nevertheless, he has been able to manipulate the system and remains the only president they have ever had. People in general seem quite tired of his heavy handed and wrong headed leadership, but he remains in power. The driver said most people see no other alternative to his leadership. They believe he is grooming his fourteen year old son for eventually becoming president.
It was an interesting, but not profitable, visit. After we returned we learned that for visa purposes, Belarus does not count as going outside the country. Both countries are regarded as one entity, so in order to get a renewed migration card I had to leave the country again this past weekend. Russian bureaucracy remains frustrating to us. Nothing on the website warned us not to go to Belarus. The good news is I am now the only non-citizen of Russia in our family. Everyone has dual citizenship except me. I will now seek to become a temporary resident, which means I would not have to leave the country every six months.
So Friday I flew to our usual destination of Finland. I went alone. I hate travelling without my family. Gone are the enjoyable days of airline travel when I was a young man before terrorism. I had to fly “commercial” a lot when I was in the Marines. Very simple. You walked in, bought your ticket and boarded the plane. Now international travel is inconvenient at best and frequently quite difficult. I sometimes have to go through three secuity checks. I was able to check in on-line this time so that made things a bit simpler. I’ve blogged about Finland before. It is a comparitively easy place for Americans since most people there speak English. I flew out Friday night and got a return flight for Saturday morning.
A couple of minor conversations were a bit unusual—and humorous. The Russian passport control person in St. Petersburg actually chatted a bit with me. I guess he saw that I had been in Russia a good while and asked me (in Russian) if I spoke Russian. I told him I did, but I do not speak fluently. He said that to experience the freedom of Russia I need to speak fluently. (It was a play on words since the phrase for “speaking fluently” in Russian is “speaking freely.”) I told him I very much want to, but I still have problems understanding native speakers. He almost smiled and said he understood. First chat I’ve ever had with someone at a passport control booth. They usually are stone-faced, sullen or just plain rude.
The other conversation was humbling. I was going through security in the Helsinki airport for my return trip, and it was crowded. Traveling alone, I was hearing people speak in Finish and Russian all around me, and people were jostling for position in line. When I got to the front the security officer told me to do something, but she spoke in Finnish. Before I could say anything she impatiently told me again in Finnish. I responded just as impatiently and told her to speak in English. As soon as I said it I felt stupid, because I realized I had just told her in Russian to speak to me in English. I had not understood what she had told me in Finnish, but after I said what I did in Russian I understood her facial expression perfectly: “What kind of idiot just asked me in Russian to speak English?” Oh well, the good news is she understood my Russian and gave me the directions in English. I quickly did as she asked and hurried away with head down.
Progress living in Russia. Of course we had missed Liturgy at our Orthodox Church since we were out of the country. I did have a pleasant time the week before meeting some folks there I had never met. After the Liturgy I went to Trapeza (meal). I was sitting at a long table waiting for the food to be served. I was chatting with a friend, but I noticed three Russian grandmothers sitting across the table and to our left. They kept glancing at me and whispering. Finally, they spoke to my friend in a quiet tone. He said, “The grandmothers would like to know what you think of Donald Trump.” This was just after the bombing of Syria. It was diplomacy time for me. I explained that I was very disappointed that he decided to bomb Syria, especially since the international team was on the way to inspect and see if there really had been a gas attack. I admitted I was suspicious of my government, along with France and the UK, because they bombed Syria the day before the inspection team arrived. I also emphasized that every poll I had read about before the bombing showed a clear majority of Americans did not want to bomb Syria. One of those polls showed almost 70% opposed it. I said I believed the evidence indicates the American people do not want war with Syria or Russia.
They smiled–and Russian babushki do not smile often! They said they did not believe Americans wanted war either, but all the news points to the U.S. Government and press saying bad things about Russia. One of the gentlemen from the choir asked why I thought the government did the bombings if the American people do not want war. I said my belief is that the sale and use of weapons always results in huge profits; also, I think Syria is a crucial point for the transport for oil. Oil and weapons mean big money for powerful people. He replied that he would like for me to run for President of the United States. We laughed.
Problems living in Russia. It was a good conversation, but overall it is becoming more and more difficult here for me to defend my government. Russians do not understand why America and other Western countries favor getting rid of Assad, since that certainly opens the door to ISIS and pretty much all the terrorists groups. No one else is in line after Assad who could provide stability. Before I came to Russia I thought Assad was a horrible person. I believed, based on what I had seen and read in the American news and heard from American leaders, that he was a horrible dictator. If news outlets across the spectrum from FOX, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, etc., say it, then it must be true. Moving here opened me to other sources of news, however. I had no idea that the West basically depends on the White Helmets and other groups affiliated with the terrorists for information. I knew from my own observations that their videos were fraudulent. Also, here I found “alternative news sources.” I became aware of people like Tom Duggan and Eva Barlett. Recently I have also listened to Vanessa Beeley and read Janice Kortkamp. These are people who have actually lived in Syria or at least spend months at a time there. My perspective on Assad has changed from getting news directly from Syria.
Then after the bombing I was impressed with Pearson Sharp of One America News Network. OANN has traditionally been pro-Trump and overall conservative in its perspective. Sharp videoed his arrival in Damascus the day before the bombings started. He expressed surprise that he was able to get a visa and enter Syria fairly easily. The other mainstream reporters had said how hard it was and most Westerners could not get in. He said it wasn’t hard for him. Then he walked the streets of Damascus late the night of his arrival. People were out walking the streets freely. He was surprised that he saw folks smoking, going to bars, women wearing tank tops, etc. People he spoke with—without exception—liked Assad and said the West does not understand that their options are government control (Assad) or rebels who do not tolerate anything but a very strict observance of their version of Islam or severe punishment or death will result.
Sharp was awakened in the night by the bombs. He observed most were intercepted and others did little damage. The West said most bombs got through and even blew up chemical producing factories. The next day he went to the actual site where the gas attack on the Syrians, which provoked our bombing, supposedly happened. He videoed as he walked up to many people randomly, and no one saw anything of a gas attack. On the bombings they said maybe six or seven bombs got through, but they just destroyed empty buildings. Everyone was actually in a pretty good mood. No casualties resulted from Western bombing. Later other veteran reporters, e.g., Robert Fisk of the UK, reported the same thing. In fact, no one actually on the ground there reported anything of significance.
The “official” report from the U.S., France, and the UK said we blew up chemical producing plants. That is not credible. First, OPCW has inspected Syria annually for the last three years. The report at the end of last year said Syria has no factories producing chemical weapons. Further, everything I read or was told by people who know chemistry better than I (which, admittedly, doesn’t take much), said there is no way to blow up a chemical producing plant without releasing the chemicals in the atmosphere and killing many people in the area. The amount of heat that must be quickly generated is simply not possible with conventional weapons. None of the Western media seems to have bothered investigating the official account of the governments.
Syria has a significant Christian population—probably about 10%. The overwhelming majority of these believers are Orthodox Christians. The leaders of these churches issued a statement condemning the bombings. (Here is their full statement: http://syriacpatriarchate.org/2018/04/a-statement-issued-by-the-patriarchates-of-antioch-and-all-the-east-for-the-greek-orthodox-syrian-orthodox-and-greek-melkite-catholic/)
So there is a connection with Russia in that the majority of Christians in both countries are Orthodox. Russians hear and know that the believers in Syria are scared that if Nikki Haley’s commitment to getting rid of Assad comes true, it will leave them open to being murdered and massacred as were Orthodox believers in regions dominated by jihadists types before Russia and the Syrian army drove them out. (I realize America is giving itself credit for driving out ISIS from Syria, but that claim doesn’t even merit discussion.)
I really thought when we moved to Russia in June of 2016 that the political divisions in America that had spilled over into relations with Russia would subside a few months after the election. I thought basic decorum and diplomacy would return and the two countries would, as Donald Trump had proposed, get back to normalcy in fighting the terrorists of the world. Obviously I was wrong. The news about Russia is still dominated by reports filed by people who have no idea what life is like here. The dogs of war from both parties still get center stage despite the fact they have little real knowledge of life in the countries they denounce.
We try to look, however, to the good things about life in Russia. Divisions and disagreements take place within Russia but without the venomous rancor of the divisions in America. Our family appreciates the schools our children go to and the church we attend. We move about, shop, walk, and carry on in safety. As a “traditional family” here in Russia, we do not feel like we are swimming against a great cultural tide created by people who despise and seek to silence the values we hold dear. You can find evil in Russia, but it rarely struts down the street like in America.
I have found the longer we stay in Russia that absence really does make my heart grow fonder. I miss our times with close family and friends in America now more than ever. Even in Finland I saw things that took my mind back to loved ones and memories from across the ocean and the years. On the other hand, I fear ending up like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s novel who, after all his travels, found you really can’t go home again. He realized he wasn’t the same man who left, and home was, well, the home he left was no more. You can never step in the same river twice, as they say.