SPRINGTIME IN RUSSIA

According to my calendar June 20 is the last day of spring. It has been a good one in Russia! When I was a kid growing up in South Carolina, I never understood the “solstice” explanation. I had no idea why they said summer started the third week in June. Most years, I had been playing outside barefoot, dressed in tee shirts and shorts for two months. Not every year was like that, but by June it was always HOT. Spring is not nearly as dependable here in the northwest section of Russia. Last year I thought the winter would not end. We even had a couple of significant snowfalls in May. This year, however, May was beautiful and warm. We had to get out our fans to cool our apartment. June is usually quite wet where we live in Russia, but this year we’ve had only a few rains, and the weather is actually cooler than in May. This morning it is 62 degrees (F). That is what it is most mornings when I walk. I love it.

Russians really appreciate good weather. You can almost sense the better mood in the streets. This year the World Cup is in Russia, and that has added to the excitement. I’ve read a few reports from journalists on how surprised they have been at the way things are here. Thus far the games are turning out to be the positive exercise of what some call Russian “soft-power,” or showing the world that things here are quite different than what they have been told. Despite the fact no American team is participating I saw a report that there are huge crowds of American tourists who came to Russia despite Homeland Security’s baseless travel warnings. I am quite sure there are those at work in the West trying to undermine this very positive view of the events. Many of us fear some kind of international incident designed to make Russia look bad.

Apparently the optimism of the Russian people is not totally (or mostly) generated by the weather. According to a recent TASS poll 83% of Russians have a positive view of life here. Most consider themselves “lucky.” (See http://tass.com/society/1002802) The main factors are family, parenthood and work. I was surprised that even among the over 60 age group and those in the lower income categories a majority of respondants feel good about things here. Health was also a factor. Russians are drinking and smoking less and also watching TV fewer hours since the last poll they did. Since 2000 the average life span in Russia has gone up by six years to 72.6. Obviously there are still unhappy and unfortunate people in Russia, but things are looking up.

I realize this is not the picture most people get of Russia. I somehow unintentionally got linked to a site called Quora. I was doing some research and ended up on the site. It is a site where people ask questions on pretty much anything. I saw that in response to a question about life in Russia, someone had posted a link to my blog. After that I immediately started getting feeds letting me see questions about Russia. The questions are sometimes ridiculous and betray a complete ignorance of Russia. Most of the answers, however, are quite insightful and thorough. One question from May 29 caught my attention: “Why do Russians still overwhelmingly support Putin even though their living standards did not get any better under his rule?” Fortunately the responder was able to show things have gotten much better. I will give my “take” on the increasingly positive attitude among Russians. Whether one wants to give Putin no credit, partial credit, or most of the credit is not my concern. Also, my list is partly based on a few statistics and partly a “worm’s eye view” from my life here, meaning life here on the ground.

1 “The economy, stupid.” That is a phrase James Carville, who was a leader in Bill Clinton’s campaign, came up with when Clinton successfully challenged George H.W. Bush for the presidency in 1992. (Usually stated, “It’s the economy, stupid.”) In early 1991 after the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s popularity soared. Clinton was able to direct people’s attention back to the rather bleak economic situation and win the election.

I have stated before I’m no economist. But I look at numbers that are easy for people like me–like the stock market. The Russian stock market has blossomed of late. It is up around 2,300 most days. Back in April it took a nose dive when another round of sanctions was announced. Apparently the “oligarchs” were going to be hit hard. It quickly rebounded, however, to breaking the “highest ever” notch. Now, I’m not one who believes the stock market is the best or most reliable indicator of a nation’s economy. But it is relevant. In 1998 Russian stock stood at 18. That’s eighteen, not 1,800. Poverty in Russia has been reduced by over half since then, and the GDP has grown by leaps and bounds. Pensions in Russia have risen by 10 times since 2,000.

Observations from the eye of the worm. My wife has been going to a masseuse lately. This lady says she works over 12 hours a day. It is her own private business, and she has more clients than she can handle. Oksana asked her how does she do it physically. She says she is also a manicurist and she alternates times of doing the heavy work of messages with doing pedicures and manicures. She said she is amazed how many ladies in Luga now can afford to come weekly for those. Her description of her small business demonstrates how differently things are from when I came here in 2002.

It’s not just small businesses, however. We’ve got a new grocery store right next to our apartment! “Spar” has opened a nice new store with a wide variety of foods and other items. I personally know of at least four new large grocery stores and one small mall that have opened in this little town in the two years we’ve been here. That does not include the numerous other businesses that have opened.

Who or what is responsible? As I read Western reports which actually admit things are better, they most often somehow weirdly blame (not credit) Putin. He’s corrupt; his government is a bunch of oligarchs; he got lucky with oil prices. Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia, tries to make Russia look more pitiful and evil today. In his recent debate with Stephen Cohen, I even heard him praise the 90s again (although he tried to quickly qualify his remark). The 90s was good for “master America” and the oligarchs they were funding. Oddly I hear a lot of bad things about “Putin’s oligarchs” these days. Do people not realize the U.S. help create those oligarchs when Yeltsin was president? And when Putin fights them, he’s called a dictator. If he works with them, it’s “Putin’s oligarchs.” If he reins in on them, he’s a dictator. Makes for easy reporting. The bottom line is despite sanctions and despite so-called corruption, the people here are doing better economically. Still, it seems America will continue to level more and more sanctions because…well, if you can’t think of a good policy, issue more sanctions. Maybe the “oligarchs” are hurting. But from the worm’s eye view, sanctions have not impacted regular folks’ lives.

Another factor worth considering is the fact Russia’s sovereign debt is $575 BILLION. By comparison Britain’s is $7.5 TRILLION; France–$5 trillion, and the U.S. debt is 21 trillion dollars. Since Russia has $450 billion in foreign reserves, this makes the picture even more positive for Russia.

2 People feel safer. Despite the fact that NATO continues to flex its military muscle and inch closer and closer to Russia, people here feel more secure. The reason Russia had to suck up to America in the 90s is because it had no options. The military was in shambles. The Rand Corporation is a think tank started by Douglas Aircraft Co. to offer research and analysis on armed forces, among other things, for the U.S. Government. In 2014 at the time of the Ukrainian crisis, they reported on the Russian military and, in essence, said Russia was more bark than bite. While stating advances had been made by Russia, the overall gist of the report was the U.S. had little to fear if there were a direct confrontation. The 2017 report read quite differently, however. Based on its observations of the Russian military activities in Syria they stated, “Starkly, assessments in this report will show US forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called on to fight.” They also cautioned this was simply based on what they had observed in Syria and believed Russia had other superior armaments that they had not displayed.

In his speech back in March of 2018, Vladimir Putin showed a video of new long range missiles (among other things) with startling capabilities. While the immediate reaction from many in the States was that he was bluffing, some older “grey beards” from the Reagan era cautioned he was not. No evidence has been produced showing his claims are not valid. Several have confirmed they are. Space does not allow me to discuss each of the points of his presentation, but the overall conclusion was that there are valid reasons Russians do not feel like an inferior opponent as they did in the 90s.

Donald Trump immediately said we don’t need another arms race. Putin’s response (to the Russian people) was that Russia does not want or need to escalate defense spending. He announced further REDUCTIONS in military spending and said the money is being redirected to pensions and other needs in domestic affairs. While well over half the Russian people say they are glad for the military strength of Russia, almost 45% said they believed Putin should spend more on help for average Russians. There are still people struggling here. He has responded and agreed with them. The reason Russia can do so well militarily is because it rarely goes outside its own borders. Putin sent military help to Syria because he was invited, and because the West, specifically Donald Trump, had said earlier that Russia should join in and fight terrorism. Oddly, Putin was critisized by the West for fighting terrorists in Syria. Until 1947 the name was “War Department” in America. It eventually became, “The Department of Defense.” It really still is a war department. America has not had to defend itself since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus, the U.S. spends over 10 times what Russia does on its military and now, by its own research, has an inferior military to Russia.

3 “Family Values.” The main factor Russians listed for their positive feelings about life was the family, not the economy or military. For 70 years Russians were taught that the family was not the focus of life. Socialism shifted the attention to labor in the name of “the bright future.” The traditional Christian values of Russia’s long heritage could no longer be taught. Children were the responsibility of the state. A recent Levada poll indicated that on most family issues the trend in Russia is back to more traditional values. (http://www.pravmir.com/poll-christian-values-on-sodomy-abortion-surge-in-russia-83-reject-homosexuality/) Since this includes negative views on homosexuality, trans-gender issues, as well as abortions, many in the West use this as a point of attack. Again, it does not mean homosexuality or abortion are illegal here. It means the trend in public evaluations are toward a stronger family unit and more Russians now disapprove of these practices. Of course, there is far more involved in “family” than the values I mentioned, so one ought not to miss that basic point in the discussion of specific values or morals.

Problems remain, of course, but in general Russians feel better about life here. They believe their society is becoming a better place for work, family, and one’s health. Whether deserved or not, Vladimir Putin received 77% of the vote in the March election so many Russians must give him credit. When I turned on the first reviews of the election from America I heard Howard Kurtz from FoxNews ask a guest to talk about “the Russian election” (eye-roll), “the so-called election,” he clarified. I like some of Kurtz’ reports on the media. Nevertheless, he has no idea what goes on in Russian elections, but obviously he felt obliged to act like it was fraudulent. Evidence is not important when you bash Russia, and more of your media buddies will approve of you. I switched to other outlets and the descriptions were worse, e.g., “sham election.” It wasn’t a sham election. There were plenty of international observers here. (For an analysis from a true Russian expert who was a part of an international team of observers see Gilbert Doctorow, https://russia-insider.com/en/what-i-saw-official-observer-russian-elections/ri22879.) On the other hand, I saw a report yesterday that a Federal judge in Kansas had blocked a new Kansas law that stated one had to be able to prove one is an American citizen before voting in an election. Judge Julie Robinson said the concern for non-citizens voting did not “outweigh the burden of proof of citizenship.” I find it sadly ironic that America condemns Russian elections while it believes no one in America should have the “burden” of having to prove they are legal before they vote.

I saw another headline on Fox this morning: “Americans’ satisfaction with direction of country at a 12 year high!” I clicked on for more information. It said 38% of Americans are content with the way America is headed—and that’s a 12 year high. Ironically, the number is the inverse of the 83% of Russians who are pleased with the direction their country is headed. Perhaps it is time for America to get the plank out of its own economic/political/military eye before seeing clearly enough to remove any specks from Russia’s cultural corneas.

 

 

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TWO YEARS IN RUSSIA: RESPONSES AND REFLECTIONS

Two years ago today I wrote my first blog, which I published a couple of days later. We had most everything in our home packed up and ready for our move to Russia. In these two years I’ve learned a lot more about Russia—and about America. That first blog picked up a handful of readers, mostly friends from church and a couple of family members. My blog last month was an interview a Ph.D. student in Bucharest did with me on my conversion to Orthodoxy. A website editor asked me to add a section on the impact the move to Orthodoxy had on our relocating to Russia. That blog got more “hits” by the thousands than any early blogs. I also received a lot of questions and feedback. So this “two year review” summarizes observations I’ve made all along since our move to Russia. I beg the indulgence of regular readers, because it does repeat many points I’ve made along the way. Nevertheless, I thought I needed to respond to some of the questions I was asked.

I do not believe the increase in readership is because I’ve become a better writer (as much as I wish that were the case). The reason is, based on the responses I’ve received, there is a growing number of people who want to know more about what life is like in Russia and others still who are seriously considering moving here. I write as one whose family came here not because I was sent here by an employer or any other external reason. We didn’t have to move to Russia; we decided for personal and idealogical reasons it was the best move for our family. My biggest surprise is how many people found some of our reasons very similar to their own concerns.

Caveat: A couple of times I have heard from Americans living in St. Petersburg or Moscow who kindly say my summaries are not always consistent with their experience. I forget or simply fail to mention that when I say “in Russia” I mean “in small town Russia.” My blog is about life outside the more usual locations for “ex-pats.”

The majority of the inquiries I received were from Orthodox Christians, several of whom are thinking about moving from America. They indicated it is not that other Americans do not share their moral or spiritual convictions. They sense a popular hostility towards those convictions. Under the cover of “politically correct” Christian views will be or already are being silenced. As one mom told me, “Yes, we can do homeschooling and we have our friends at church. But if we stay we will have to live a relatively cloistered life and hope things get better.” They do not want their children to grow up that way. Certainly Orthodox Christians are not the only people who are concerned about what they see as moral decline in America. Orthodoxy, however, traces most of its major historical developments outside of the West and, it seems to me, Orthodox folks sense a stronger bond with believers in countries like Russia where Orthodoxy is the numerically dominant faith. There is a greater openness to non-Western thought and practices.

The moral or religious concern is often coupled with fatigue about the political situation in the U.S. It is not about liking or not liking Donald Trump. I have heard from some who voted for him and some who did not, but they reflect the same frustration at the intransigent nature of the political system in the U.S. Substantive policies do not seem to change no matter who is elected. Lowering unemployment and raising the stock market are important, but these are not the types of changes many people believe should be substituted for a healthier, more traditional, philosophical and moral foundation. They are frustrated that the political fights have become more intense, but they tell me they foresee few changes at a deeper cultural level. America continues to fight in wars all over the world. Their sons and daughters may be sent to places few Americans can locate on a map to “fight terrorism” or “spread democracy.” Rightly or wrongly, apparently many Americans are like me and believe these phrases are meaningless. The U.S. is very selective about which terrorists we fight, and we only want democracy in places that will elect a leader the American political establishment approves of. If our own meddling causes the continuation of war and strife, then so be it. When we sell them weapons some people will make loads of money and some of that money will end up in the pockets of cooperative politicians. Far more children than terrorists have died in most countries where we are “spreading democracy,” but the concern among the weapons dealers seems to be that nagging fear that world peace will break out. The people I hear from are not disloyal Americans. They are heartbroken Americans. I heard from one retired gentleman last week who had come across my blog and said he would move here too if he could afford it. He lamented the money we pour into wars taking place where American security is not at stake, but he and others go without reasonably priced medical care.

Now to some specific questions. “How are you and your family treated in Russia?” The foundation for the question is the recognition of the many negative or downright nasty things said about Russia by American politicians and media outlets. That was of some concern for us when we moved, but the animosity toward Russia was not nearly as sharp then as it is now. Nevertheless, we continue to be treated well by the Russian people. In fact, I think most Russians are quite happy to know that the “real” Americans they meet do not view them or their country in a negative way. No matter how obnoxious, uninformed or venomous John McCain and his kin are in their rants about Russia, no one here holds me or my family responsible. As my regular readers know, taxi drivers are a great source for local “inside scoop.” Yesterday the driver asked us, “Do Americans really see us Russians as a threat to them or the world?” Russians are more baffled than angry over the way they are portrayed in American news. They are certainly aware of what is said, but neither I nor any member of my family has ever been mistreated or even had anything negative said to us because we are Americans.

What about the political situation in ‘Putin’s Russia’?” The political situation here is far more stable than in the States. That does not mean there are no disagreements. Contrary to what some in America believe, political debate goes on here in a lively public manner. Despite what you read in the U.S., other candidates are often very openly critical of Putin. There is simply more common ground and a stronger sense of decorum among the various parties and persons in Russian debates. I try as best I can to keep up with the news here. I think I need to know in general what Putin says to his own people. I am convinced he has no aspirations to engage in unprovoked military action against any country. He does not send any signals to his own citizens to prepare them for a coming conflict he is supposedly looking for. Also, I do not believe he has any intent on extending the borders of Russia into Ukraine or the Baltic states or anywhere else. I don’t say this because I think Putin is such a nice guy. The main reason I and others think this way is that even cursory research shows that many of the countries he is accused of wanting to take over are economic and/or political disasters. Even among those who do not like Putin, I have found most believe he is an intelligent leader. He is far too intelligent to put the economic stability of Russia at risk in the interest of taking over some other country that would be a huge economic drain on Russian resources. Ukraine is drowning economically and socially; the populations of Latvia and Lithuania are shrinking rapidly—especially among younger workers. Why would Putin want to risk sinking Russia so he could control struggling Latvia? Russia is already the biggest geographical country in the world. Further, I continue to hear the ignorant claim that Putin wants to return Russia to Communism. There is still a Communist party here, but I see no evidence that Putin is secretly working for its success. Russian school children would not be required to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn if Vladimir Putin were planning a return to Communism.

How has the adjustment process gone for your family?” Our sons Roman (18) and Gabriel (9) have had to study hard, especially given the language issue, but they have done well academically and socially. Our big surprise this year was that Gabriel not only won the math award for all third and fourth graders at his school, he placed second in the major Russian language competition. He knew no Russian at all when we came here two years ago. He has worked hard, but his scores also indicate how hard and how well his teacher has worked with him. All parents know that if your children are doing well then any adjustment is much easier. Roman is happy and doing well in college, and Gabriel enjoys his school and has many friends. They really have not missed much in terms of “stuff” from America. Marina Grace (3) speaks English primarily, but she also uses Russian. We continue to get more involved with our church, and it is the place where we have met most of our new friends since moving here. Since things are so much cheaper here we can afford to “splurge” and go out to eat or order pizza to be brought in for our “family nights.” I am grateful that my social security is sufficient for us to afford living here. We don’t have a car, but the taxis are cheap and always available. As I said above, the drivers are a great source of info!

We still have things left to do and goals to reach. We like our apartment and its location, but we’re coming to realize it is a little too small for our family needs. At some point we are going to need to move, and we dread it (of course). The questions are the same they would be in America. Do we buy or rent? Should we continue with apartment living or try to find a suitable house? Should we stay here in Luga near Oksana’s folks or move to the village where we go to church and know more people?

How well do we need to know the Russian language?” The simple response is the more you know the better. Russians will appreciate any efforts you make at learning their language. In general people will be patient if you are trying to explain what you need at the grocery store or wherever when they realize you are a foreigner who doesn’t speak Russian well. Neverthelss, it is difficult to become close friends with those with whom you cannot communicate. Anyone interested in coming here should obviously see learning Russian as “part of the package.” Learning Russian is slow. The grammar is quite complex for most English speakers. I’ve been at it a long time, but I have decided to reduce my responsibilities at the private school in order to devote more time to studying and writing. I’ll stay on as the “English Consultant” on an as-needed basis. I need to focus more on my Russian language skills, however. I have improved since coming here, but not nearly as much as I would like. When you are around people who are trying to learn English, no one cares about you speaking Russian. They want to hear a “native speaker” speak English! Since I have never taken classes in Russian or worked in an environment of total immersion, I feel I’m lagging too far behind. I am currently taking an on-line course that is very helpful. There are resources for those of us who cannot take classroom courses, and I advise anyone coming here to take advantage of them. Don’t be too impatient with yourself, however. Better to see it as a process, rather than, “I have to learn Russian right now!” Slow progress is better than constant worry and frustration.

Other suggestions:

Learn some Russian history. I enjoy reading Russian history—ancient and modern. (I finally got my hands on Stephen Cohen’s book on Bukharin that I had missed, and it is fascinating!) More than personal enjoyment, however, I believe that understanding a nation’s past always enables one to comprehend the present better. I would encourage anyone moving here to at least familiarize yourself with the basics of Russian history. There are a few one volume works that are very helpful. Of course, if you really want to impress your Russian friends, then learn more about their cultural “heroes” in ballet, literature, theatre, and such. Since I’m from what at one time was the rather “culturally impoverished” American South, I don’t even try.

Another suggestion is obvious: No matter how much history you know or current news you read, you have to check your sources on what the economy, political situation or life in general is like in Russia now. More difficult than learning about Russia’s past is getting accurate information about the present. The biggest frustration I have about “the news” from America on Russia is the profound ignorance of the people who do not let their ignorance silence them. One guy on a Facebook thread wrote all kind of nasty things about life in Russia and challenged people to “go there and see!” I responded and asked him where in Russia he lived, because it is not like that where I live. After a couple of evasive answers he finally admitted he had never been here, but had a friend who visited here in the 80s and he saw his photos. He said he could tell a lot about how bad it was just by seeing the drabness of those photos. He actually said that. But it is not just some guy on FB. I frequently hear from people who have never been here or only visited briefly who rant about Russia and talk as if they know far more than I and others who live here. Worse still, politicians and media folk with hidden political and social agendas will say whatever they need to say whether it is based on facts about Russia or not. The frequently heard protests in America against ethnic prejudice or racism are not violated if you’re talking about Russia or Russians. If you’re anti-Russian you’re safe.

Life here is very different (in a good way) from what it was like when Oksana, Roman and I moved to America in 2008. Oksana says it is nothing like the Russia of the 90s. If I were to describe Russia based only on my experiences living in Russia from 2005-2008 a lot of my descriptions would be wrong. Factor that in when you hear someone describe life in Russia. Even ex-pat Russians currently living in America may not have an accurate view of how it is here now unless they travel here frequently or keep in close touch with relatives still here. The Russia most ex-pats left twenty or thirty years ago has changed dramatically as far as daily life and opportunities.

What are the main problems you face?” The main problems are more emotional than physical. I miss my family and friends in America, as does Oksana. We were very close to my grown kids and their families there. We have not been back in two years. We hope to visit in August, but nothing can take the place of regularly being near people you love. I firmly believe this is the place where we should be, where God wants us to be, but I still have to fight not only missing my family but feelings of guilt for not being there. While Roman is now 18 and pretty much independent, I remind myself that I am here with our two small children. I have far more time with them now. As much as I miss my two sons in America, the fact is they are grown and have their own jobs and families. I love them, and I know they love me. But they don’t need me around as much as my little ones here depend on me. We made a decision that it would be better for our children to grow up here. Our two years here have confirmed that decision I believe. I have received e-mails or messages from parents struggling with the fact that a move would separate their families. I completely understand that struggle!

The other difficulty I have is the low level stress of always being in another culture. There are no Americans here. I miss hearing my own language in the streets, in the stores, in church, in the homes of friends here. I miss the ease with which I knew the right things to do and say socially without thinking. You don’t notice those little things until you’re in a very different environment. As I have said many times before, however, the culture in America is vastly different from the one in which I grew up. I had to trade getting to hear English all the time for the larger advantages of life here for my family and me.

Summary. In addition to the above, what are the other advantages or disadvantages of life here based on our experience in this small town?

1 Excellent medical care at a small percent of the cost of what it is in America. If one of us gets sick we pay $8.07 (at today’s exchange rate) for an office visit, and office visits will last as long as it takes for the doctor to be thorough. I can pay double the $8.07 and a doctor will come to our apartment. We go to an excellent modern clinic where the staff and most of the medical personnel there know me and are very helpful. Emergency care is free. I know some Russian friends will want to respond and explain to me a lot of Russians think health care here is too expensive (although socialized medicine is always an alternative if you can’t afford a private clinic). I am aware it is tough especially on pensioners. But you have no idea how expensive it can be to get sick or have a health crisis in America if you haven’t lived there.

2 The cost of housing is, in general, far less expensive. We’ve been given some general pricing on how much it would be to build a new house, and it is far cheaper per square meter (or foot) than in America. Our apartment, as I said, is small by American standards (two bedrooms, den, tiny kitchen area), but it is nice and our rent is only about $200/month (utilities not included).

3 Public transportation even in this small town is excellent. It would be nice to have a car, but I’ve already mentioned the taxis, and there are city buses or vans readily available even in small towns like Luga. To give some idea of cost, we take a taxi to church in a village about 15 minutes from here, and the cost is about $3.50 each way. To go across town is about $2.00.

Disadvantages I have not mentioned:

1 Bureaucracy. This culture is addicted to paperwork and documents, and they all have to have “official” stamping. The hours here for most government offices fluctuate. And “Technical Break” apparently covers any time they just don’t feel like working. Our children just got their Russian citizenship, but the paperwork was a nightmare for my wife. Another frustration is that it is hard to get direct and dependable advice from anybody in those offices.

2 If you don’t like snow and cold, the winters will seem very long.

Overall we are pleased with our decision to move here. I realize we are different from some considering the move in that my wife is Russian and I have lived here before. Still, after eight years in America we had to readjust. We had become a fairly traditional American family. We miss some of the conveniences of America, but Russia is modernized and has all we really need in terms of material things. And the non-material “things” are even better.

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