LIFE IN RUSSIA: TRAVELS, TRIALS, PROBLEMS & PROGRESS

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 apprearances 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 conversatons 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 impatientlty 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 dispise 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.

 

 

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BEING RUSSIAN ORTHODOX WHEN YOU’RE NOT RUSSIAN

I have not written a blog for quite some time for two reasons. First, there has been a barrage of news involving Russia that has distracted me from writing. Politics won’t be the focus of this blog, but I will briefly comment. President Putin was re-elected on March 18. Of course most news outlets in America either stated or hinted it was a “sham election.” There were actually many official election observers from all over the world here, and none of them turned up actual accounts of fraud. (My next blog will address the elections in more depth.) America really doesn’t permit foreign observers to monitor our elections, so this allows us to condemn others while pretending no illegals vote in our elections.

Then there was the Skripal nerve agent attack which UK Prime Minister Theresa May immediately blamed on Russia. Many countries, including the U.S., expelled embassy personnel (“spies”) and Russia responded in kind. The “facts” that were asserted by May and Boris Johnson were contradicted, however, when the representatives from UK’s Porton Down had the integrity to say they couldn’t say where the nerve agent came from. Other parts of the story started falling part as well when the victims surprisingly recovered from the military grade nerve agent. Now the news is about the supposed sarin gas attack on innocent families in Syria. Assad and Putin were both blamed immediately. No investigation has been done by the West, and I don’t expect any open international investigation will be conducted. The facts screwed up the Skripal narrative; I don’t think the dogs of war will let that happen again.

The other reason I have not written is more positive. We have been observing Lent. Lent is the 40 days of spiritual preparation in Orthodoxy prior to Holy Week that leads up to the solemn observance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a time of changing one’s diet and one’s daily routine as much as possible to focus on these events. Preparation is essential for anything one considers important. So with the news reports screaming bad news in our ears, we have also tried to focus on the good news of what we hold dear as people of faith.

In his podcast last week on the John Batchelor show Stephen Cohen referred to an editorial in the Washington Post pubished that week: “Is it a crime to worship God? According to Russia, yes” read the editorial he quoted. Cohen, who is Jewish, pointed out how ridiculous this description of religion in Russia is. One of the most frustrating things about living in Russia is the constant barrage of lies about Russia. This quote was one of the worst. I know the pop term is “fake news,” but I prefer to be more blunt: it is lying. In my last blog I gave a general perspective on the various religions here and how they impact public life. Since Russian Orthodox Christianity has more adherents by far I devoted more space to it. The fact is religion is becoming more and more a part of public life in Russia, and the historic religions are practiced in freedom. In this entry I’ll address the topic more personally. I am a foreigner and also Eastern Orthodox. That I attend a Russian Orthodox church and have neither Russian nor Greek ancestry surprises some Russians. When they find out my Russian wife did not convince me to become Orthodox (it actually was the other way around), people get even more perplexed. So I write as both an outside observer and a participant.

Some of my early readers have already heard this story, but by way of “review,” neither Oksana nor I was rasied Orthodox. She was brought up in a Soviet family, so she was never really exposed to matters of faith. Belief in God was just not something they ever discussed. Oksana was converted in a Protestant Church when she was in University in St. Petersburg. She went to the church to hear and interact with native speakers of English, since that was her major course of study. She ended up becoming part of the church. I, on the other hand, was brought up in an extremely devout Southern Baptist family. My late father was a Southern Baptist preacher. Oksana and I both were out of church for a while after we were married, but eventually we started attending a local Baptist Church, and later non-denominational church, while we lived in America. We came to the Eastern Orthodoxy gradually. I did a lot of reading and started attending Vespers services on Saturday nights. Eventually, we became catechumens and a year later we were chrismated into the Orthodox church. For us the move to Orthodoxy had nothing to do with bad feelings toward anyone or any Protestant church. We still remain close to our Protestant friends and have treasured memories of the churches of which we were a part.

There were folks from various nationalities, including quite a few from Eastern Europe, in our Orthodox Church in South Carolina. There were also several former Catholics and Protestants, so both Oksana and I felt at home. It was really the only Orthodox congregation anywhere near us, so we were grateful. Finding a church here took longer than we thought it would, despite the fact there are a number of them. Eventually we came to a rather small Russian Orthodox church in a nearby village that became our church home.

While all Orthodox Churches use the same Liturgy (in different languages obviously), there are some minor differences in the Russian Orthodox Churches here that we’ve had to adjust to. For me, it has been a bigger adjustment because of the fact the services are in Church Slavonic. I could understand enough to follow if the Liturgy were Russian, but Slavonic makes it very difficult for me. So the first and most obvious difference is the language.

Second, all women in the Russian Orthodox Church wear a head covering and overall dress more traditionally, no pants. The wearing of head coverings was optional in our OCA church. I do not want to give the impression that there are guards at the doors of our church here. If a lady does not have a veil, one will be graciously and quietly provided. Further, our priest frequently reminds parishioners of the dangers of focusing on externals.

The third difference involves receiving Communion. Receiving the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, is the focus of the Liturgy in both American and Russian Orthodoxy. We go to the front toward the conclusion of the Liturgy for receving the elements from the priest. The first difference on this issue is confession. Since it is so serious, we must confess our sins to Christ in the presence of the priest at the appointed times. In the OCA church we did confession at least four times a year—once at each major fast. You could make an appointment so you would have whatever time you needed. Obviously one could come at other times if necessary. In the Russian Orthodox Church confession is every week. You do not participate in the Eucharist unless you have been to confession. I took Communion twice last week, so I went to confession twice. I had to reorient my understanding of confession because all I knew about it before was from Roman Catholicism. In Orthodoxy the priest is a witness to your confession to Christ, a sort of an accountability partner – to make it more understandable for my Protestant friends. He may provide advice, counsel, or encouragement at any time, but you are not confessing to him. You receive the priestly prayer of absolution after the confession, but it is made clear that Christ, not the priest, is absolving you and forgiving you of your sins. Again, the language is an issue for me. I speak Russian with my priest, but when I’m confessing my wrongdoings I realize if I get a word wrong I could be confessing the wrong thing. One purpose of the confession is that we examine our hearts before we receive the body and blood of Christ. I’m examining my heart and my Russian language skills all at once.

The second difference is that when we went to receive the cup in America we went together as a family. Not so in Russia. Babies and children go first; then the men; and finally the women. There is always a babushka (grandmother) there making sure the women do not get in front of the men. I didn’t know this the first time and by nature did not step in front of ladies. I learned not to make that mistake again!

The highlight of the year is Pascha, or Easter as most Catholics and Protestants call it. As I said earlier we observe the “ascetic” fast prior to this event, which is done to prepare ourselves. We don’t eat meat, dairy and animal fats. Now, no one asks you if you have kept the fast. That is an individual matter and people are encouraged to “look in their own plate only.” In America we were also carefully taught not to offend or give any impression we were better than anyone else for observing it. If you were invited by a non-Orthodox to a meal you ate whatever was set before you without mentioning “fast.” That isn’t talked about here as much, because in Russia pretty much everyone knows it is going on. They have products marked specifically for the fast seasons in grocery stores, and several restaurants have menus for those observing the fasts. It is more a part of the culture than it was in South Carolina, where most people do not really know much about Eastern Orthodoxy. If they are religious there, they’re probably Protestants and have no idea what you are talking about when you mention “the Nativity Fast” or “Apostles’ Fast”.

Our first Pascha in South Carolina was an amazing experience. We went to church late at night, almost midnight, the Saturday night before. The services and Liturgy lasted well into the morning. We finished around 3:00 a.m. and then had a fellowship meal. We went home and slept, and then brought the boys back for a Vespers and egg hunt at the church. Our last year there Marina Grace was a baby, so Oksana stayed home with her. The boys and I went, and they both were altar boys. It was quite an experience for them.

The thing that was really moving for us is when they had the reading from the Gospel of St. John in different languages. Anyone who spoke a different language was invited to read a small portion of the Gospel in their own language. I think there were 18 languages spoken our first year. Our church there was not a large church, but there were people from literally all over the world. We were amazed! For couples like us from two different countries it was so refreshing to hear of others with stories like ours.

This year Gabriel was very excited. He is now an “official” altar boy. He is, in fact, the only altar boy. Two others serve the altar, but he is the only child. Oksana was also looking forward to it, although we were both concerned about how three year old Marina Grace would do. To be honest, I wasn’t excited about it. Standing for four hours in a service where you do not understand anything is tough. I kept reflecting on our experiences back in America. But I believed it was important to go so we all went.

When we arrived I went down for confession. My thoughts were kind of complicated so I had written it out and handed it to the priest. He got a candle, read it, tore the paper and prayed over me. Then he called Oksana over. He wanted me to go put on a robe and do the readings in English. The official “reader” had asked me about maybe doing the English reading, but I told him I can’t chant. He is fluent in English so I thought it was better for him to do it. The priest would have nothing of that. So I went back into the “Sanctuary” section and prepared myself. When the Liturgy began I saw that the church was packed with people. The lie in the Washington Post about religion in Russia came to mind, but I tried to focus on more spiritual things.

It was an interesting experience. I had no idea how much goes on around the altar during the Liturgy because the doors are closed much of the time. Everything was done with such care, especially the handling of the bread and the wine. Our priest, Batyushka Nicolay, made sure everything was done exactly right. Eventually it was time for the readings. I suspected almost everyone there spoke Russian and very few knew English. The languages that were read were 1) Church Slavonic 2) Russian 3) English 4) Belarussian (my friend, the Reader, is from Belarus) and the priest read from the Greek text.

I felt quite honored I had been asked to read. And I felt more a part of the congregation. Due to the language barrier, I usually feel somewhat isolated during Liturgy. Even in Trapeza (Orthodox word for shared meal after the Liturgy) I only have a couple of folks I can talk to. I don’t have enough confidence to initiate a conversation in Russian. And most people feel the same about me I suspect. One Sunday I told one of the ladies who had brought soup that her soup was very tasty. I spoke to her in Russian, and she just stared back and smiled. Later she privately told my wife she couldn’t say anything because she was scared. Oksana said, “Just speak a little slower and more distinctly than you normally do, and he can understand your Russian. Just talk to him. He can speak Russian.” She said, “I can’t. I want to, but I’ve never talked to a foreigner before.” So I realize the anxiety is on both sides. The meal we had after Pascha service (at about 3:30 a.m.) was a wonderful fast-free meal, the first one and much anticipated after the long fasting season . We had “kotlety” (sort of like individual mini meatloaves) as our entree and a few other dishes. People still didn’t approach me and start conversations, but I sensed a lot more smiles, and heard some comments about how nice it was to hear the Gospel in a new language. Our priest, as usual, called me to sit beside him during the meal.

I can’t change the political situation all over the world. I can’t convince America the news there about Russia is all wrong. I can’t convince Russia that many Americans are kind and do not want war. I can reach a few, however. Russia is not a godless dictatorship where worship is outlawed. I don’t care what your news in America says; I live here. They’re lying. Faith is again being woven back into the fabric of life here. You can see it in the big cathedrals in Moscow and St. Petersburg they show on TV here. (Yes, the Russian Orthodox Church has its own network you can watch anytime.) You can also see it in little villages across the rural Russian countryside. And in one of those villages this congregation sees a real live American. I try to speak their language; my kids go to the same schools as their kids; I believe in the same God and worship him the same way. I am a part of this world, although I realize the irony of also being an outside observer. Nevertheless, despite the barriers between us that many from my homeland want to raise higher, this Pascha turned out to be a small but meaningful step to becoming more a participant and less an outside observer.