Life in Small Town Russia: Q&A

луга

Periodically I take a break from the heavier topics and write a blog in response to questions I have been asked about life here or details on moving to Russia. The questions usually come from folks who are either interested in moving here or others who are very interested for other personal reasons. So I try to think about the most frequently asked questions and respond. Of course, I am repeating some things I’ve already written. I hate doing that, but my readership sharply increased in January of this year for some reason, and many are Americans interested in details about a move to Russia. I can’t just tell new readers, “Oh, go back and read some of my old blogs—I’ve answered that question at some point.” Please forgive the repetition. I remind you (again) that my life in Russia is small town Russia. Things are different in cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow. Some of my friends here in big cities may want to inform us of some differences.

What do Russians think of you?” I obviously have to generalize. When I say “Russians,” clearly I don’t mean every single Russian. I am only describing in general what I have noticed as trends. Russians tend to be what I call “quietly inquisitive.” That is, rarely if ever do Russians start asking questions when they first meet me. They like to look, listen and get to know me first. Even then most want very much to avoid being pushy or forward with a foreigner. It would be impolite. But they are incurably curious. Something happened a couple of weeks ago that illustrates my point.

We were taking a taxi back from church. Often we try to speak in Russian, but we were tired and we’d just been in America so we were speaking in English. I was sitting beside the driver, whose expression never changed, and Oksana and the kids were in the backseat. When we arrived at our apartment building Oksana got the credit card out to pay while I took the kids and headed for the door. In a couple of minutes Oksana came and told me to take the kids on up. She’d be there in a few minutes. Sometimes the credit card machine has trouble reading the card in certain locations, so I thought that was it. We were in the apartment some time before she finally came up. I asked why it had taken so long. She told me the driver wanted to talk. He had questions.

He asked why we were speaking English. Oksana told him I was American and we had lived in America 8 years. He said, “Is your husband, uh…is he…” Oksana interrupted and said, “Yes, my husband is a good bit older than I am.” He replied, “No, I don’t care about that. Is your husband a REAL American?” She told him that yes I was born and raised in America. Driver: “Where did his people originally come from to America?” Oksana said, “Well, Great Britain, but that was many, many years ago.” He paused before continuing: “How did you convince him to come live in Russia?” She said, “Well, it was his idea. He brought it up first. We lived in St. Petersburg before we moved to America, so he’s been here.” She said the he had a look of stark confusion for a moment. The idea that an American with no Russian ancestry wanted to live in Luga was a bit much for him. He still wanted to know why. She said, “A number of things. It is very expensive to live in America; health care costs are way beyond what Russians can imagine; the political situation is always stormy, and the kind of values and morals being pushed on kids now by the system is not what we wanted for our children. You know, like all the LGBT stuff.” Then he seemed to understand. He smiled and thanked her profusely for talking with him. It seemed to have made the driver’s day to find out some American guy wanted to move his family to his hometown!

That doesn’t happen every day, but it is not atypical in a small town. Russians, to me anyway, seem torn between the need to be polite and even distant and, on the other hand, they want to know the details about our family. If at all possible, they will usually try to go around me and question Oksana, to make sure they won’t offend “the foreigner” with their curiosity. In our experience this questioning has never been with negative intent or with bad feelings toward us. When they find out I’m an American who wanted to move to Russia, who studies the Russian language and who is Russian Orthodox, they’re very interested.

Your wife is Russian. What about those of us who don’t have a Russian spouse?” I think it would be harder in some ways, of course. The “bureaucracy” would be the main problem. I mentioned I’ve applied for Temporary Residency since my three-year visa runs out next year, and I’m tired of having to go outside the country every six months anyway. The application process was a pain. Russians love documents, stamps, and anything that looks official. And God forbid you make a mistake and correct it on the form! And the lines you have to wait in to get them to look at your application are awful. Obama once said no one wants to emigrate to Russia, but then Barack Obama never had to wait in line at Immigration Services in St. Petersburg! According to the UN in 2013-15 Russia ranked 3rd in number of immigrants.

On the other hand, there is help. There are plenty of agencies that will assist you with filling in your forms and translating and notarizing your documents, although there are reasonable costs involved. A notary here is quite different from America. Here they are legally trained, and the one we go to worked as a lawyer for some time. They know how to write up any kind of document and secure the proper stamps.

Naturally, a lot is related to how well you and your spouse speak the language, but there is help if you are not fluent. I have an account with Sberbank, the main Russian bank. The local branch called the other day because Oksana had tried to pay her phone bill directly from my account. I had to verify it. They had someone in the office who was fluent in English speak with me. If you don’t speak any Russian at all, it will be a big problem, of course. But they will work with you even if you struggle and converse at a very basic level. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t speak Russian well. In some circumstances I start by explaining I am a foreigner and sometimes have trouble with my Russian. It works. The Russians go into “help the poor foreigner” mode, and it usually ends well. I personally have never had anyone act frustrated because I am not fluent in Russian. Just the fact that I can express myself and what I need in Russian impresses them actually. They don’t expect an American to be able to say ANYTHING in Russian. But the principle remains: the better you know Russian, the easier it will be. This is especially true if neither husband or wife is Russian. You MUST be involved in studying the language, but you do not have to wait until you’re fluent.

If you are not comfortable with your Russian I would say do not move to a town where you don’t know any English speakers. If you move to a large city, it might be easier for you in terms of language. I had no trouble when we lived in St. Petersburg because there was usually someone around who spoke English. I frequently was out in the city going to different businesses to teach, and Oksana was never with me. I only knew very basic Russian and did fine.

I think if husband and wife are both learning Russian together that is an advantage. You struggle together and correct each each others mistakes. I have mentioned before I am very comfortable speaking Russian with my doctor because his English is so bad. I don’t mind making mistakes so I speak freely in Russian. When Oksana’s parents were here the other night I understood what was being said, but I held back from speaking because I knew it would slow down the conversation and Oksana can easily translate. So it does help having a spouse who is Russian and is fluent in both languages. Yet it has probably caused me to use her as a crutch and not get more practice.

How have you adjusted to the climate?” Since I’m from South Carolina both Russians and Americans ask me this question. Actually it is the easiest to answer: It hasn’t bothered me. I sometimes think people don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true. I told my wife last week Sept. 22 always feels different for me in Russia. It is the first day of Autumn, and it actually feels like Autumn. It was mid-50s (F), kind of gray, and the leaves are changing colors. When it turned Fall in S.C., it never felt like Fall. Summer doesn’t let go that easy! As far as the winter in Russia, I prepare myself emotionally. It’s Russia, and it’s winter—therefore it is cold. They have nice warm winter clothes here, so it’s no big deal. I loved the climate in S.C. I used to water ski, swim, stay on the lake or at the beach as much as possible. But I always got excited those few times it did snow. And even after all these years in Russia, I’m still like a kid at the first snowfall. I love walking in the snow, playing with the kids in the snow, and then coming in to a nice warm apartment and watching it snow more.

If we move, should I try to move furniture, car, etc., or just buy when I get there?” Shipping things can be expensive and difficult. The difficult part is finding a company in America that actually knows Russian laws and regulations. When we were flying here, for instance, we could have declared “unaccompanied baggage” at customs and saved a load of money. (We’d shipped a pallet of stuff here a couple of weeks before our move, mostly books and some household items.) But nobody told us to declare and we had no way of knowing, so we ended up paying through the nose. Also if the paperwork on the American side is wrong, you’ll end paying a bundle in customs charges when your cargo arrives to Russia. So if you do ship, ask the company if they have ever shipped to Russia. It doesn’t matter how many other countries they’ve shipped to. Ask tough questions, and it will save you money. Also, we did not ship our car, but I was told by a friend who did that he could’ve bought a car the same make and model here for less than he he paid to ship his from America. The truth is Russia wants you to buy a car here, so custom fees are such that you may come out better buying here. We have not purchased a car because taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. Furthermore, Russian drivers tend not drive defensively. If you do choose to buy a car the options are numerous, but the prices are no lower than in America. My general suggestion is that unless it is something you really have a strong emotional attachment to or something you know you cannot get anywhere else, then don’t ship. As I said, we live in a small town, but there was nothing we needed that we could not get here. It took some time on a couple of pieces of furniture because we had them built, but we got what we wanted.

What are the hardships of living in a small town in Russia?” I can’t really think of any hardships when it comes to living here. I mentioned the bureaucracy. That is my biggest problem, but I don’t call it a hardship because it isn’t like I have to do major paperwork all the time. Russia has changed in that we have plenty of grocery stores that have all you need at affordable prices; I love going to the open market for food and clothes; there are plenty of regular clothing stores as well. I know the Western media say sanctions are choking Russia and people are struggling. I’ve read several polls here and read a couple of fuller treatments that were carefully researched. In general about 2/3 of Russians say sanctions have not impacted them at all. Some in the lower poverty group (pensioners) say they have been negatively affected, as well as some who are very wealthy (foreign investors, etc.). Russian farmers love the sanctions. Farming is booming in Russia, and prices on produce remain low.

What are the best things about living in a small town in Russia?” There are several things that come to mind. First, I like the pace of living in a small town. We walk to the market or store or to meet friends. We enjoy our small church. We decided to put our children in public school. There are no Orthodox or private schools here, and we did not know at the time that you can homeschool in Russia. We do not regret it putting them in a public school, however. We have found the school does not try to take over our role as parents. There is a LOT of communication between Gabriel’s teacher and Oksana. Oksana can call her literally anytime she has a question. Gabriel can call us from school if he has a problem. The teacher keeps us well informed. For example, last week he had been sick, but he needed to take a test so we sent him back after missing a day. He did well on the test, but his teacher called Oksana and kindly said, “Gabriel still looks weak to me. I don’t think he needs to be here until he really feels better. I’ll get with you on all missed assignments.” Maybe he would get that attention in a big city school, but I know here he is watched over. He gets home no later than 1:30 (12:30 if there is no P.E.), so he isn’t gone all day. The big payoff was he learned the language so quickly! We also personally know two families here who homeschool. That is becoming more popular here in Russia and is possible in a small town.

Second, the medical care is high quality and low cost. I’ve written praising medical care here several times in my blogs and have answered a lot of private e-mails. We don’t have health insurance because we don’t think we need it. We pay about $7.50 for a regular appointment. Appointments are scheduled for 40 minutes. I have never had to wait in line more than 5 minutes. I’m in an on-line group of Americans living in Russia. I have known one American who had cancer surgery, another one who had major surgery, and both said they couldn’t believe how inexpensive their surgeries and treatments were—not even in the same ballpark as what it would’ve been in America. They were completely pleased with their care. I recently talked on-line with an American in St. Petersburg. We were trying to get together at some point and meet personally. He was recovering from a kidney transplant. It cost him NOTHING! I thought when he said it was free he meant the attending physician or surgeon. No, everything was free. He was applying for citizenship, but it hadn’t come through when his treatments began. I told him in America it took me forever to get the emergency room visits paid for when I had birthed two kidney stones. He got a TRANSPLANT and paid nothing. Also, emergency medical care is free for everyone. The quality and cost of medical care here is a huge benefit.

The other advantage of small town life is the low cost of living in general. We checked on an apartment in St. Petersburg when we moved here because we thought we might want to live there. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was about four times what we were paying for the same square meters here. The “dachniki” are the people from the big city who come here on the weekends (mostly in the summer). They frequent our grocery stores and market and buy all they can. We have heard them comment on how much cheaper it is here to buy groceries.

I think the adjustment has gone better for us here in a small town. We visit St. Petersburg on business sometimes. I loved living there when it was just Oksana, Roman and me. But with two small children we found it tougher getting around there. Maybe it is just that both Oksana and I were raised in a small town. I’d have trouble in a big city in America! Internet, medicines, and housing are much, much cheaper here than in America.

How much does it cost to live in your small town?” We live in a two bedroom apartment. It cost about $300 for the apartment and utilities. It is too small (about 60 square meters), but we’re OK for now since Roman our oldest son has an apartment in St. Petersburg. Since we don’t have a car we don’t really have any other major expenses. It is hard to give a figure on how much it would cost a family per month, because different families have different kinds of expenses. For instance, we know a family of six (husband and wife, a grandma and three kids) who live on $700 a month here (they own their property, so they have no mortgage or rent payments, no car payments either). It’s very tight and they have to be very wise about how they spend their money, but they’re managing. A decent house in Luga for a family our size cost about $50,000. Remember: Homes here tend to be smaller than in America. A new house about 1,500 square feet would probably be no more than $60,000. They told me since I am not a citizen I can’t get a loan, however. I took out part of my IRA for when we find the right house.

What kind of job could I get in Russia to support my family?” Since I don’t actually have an official job here, I’ll preface my remarks with saying my response is based on people I’ve talked to here. The two main areas that seem the most “convenient” is either teaching or some area of information technology. Native speakers of English find it easy to get students here. Here in Luga I could teach several classes at the private English school if I wanted to, and I could get as many private students as I wanted. The downside is the pay is sometimes not all that great, although if you build up your clientele of private students it can be pretty good. Also the i-net has opened up many more opportunities for teaching. Some people in Russia teach students in other countries in addition to their Russian students. I have a couple of friends in IT who moved here from America and still kept their overseas clients. They seem to do fine financially. Those are the two areas I know of in which you don’t really need to be fluent in Russian. Obviously, if your Russian is very good then you have more options with companies.

Does Putin or the Russian government in general make life hard on Americans there?” No. Some Russian laws are tough as far as immigration goes. Getting residency is aggravating, as I said. If I get my Temporary Residency I’ll be good for 3 years. Then I’ll apply for Permanent Residency, which is good for 5 years. After those 5 years I’d be eligible to apply for citizenship if I’m interested. If one wants to work here, then you have to get a work visa to start with and you have to pass your Russian exam! (There are agencies that help you do that). You’ll also have to live in the oblast (region) where you work. I didn’t bother with a work visa, since I’m retired, so I do not know all the issues involved. I’d think you’d have to have a Russian employer who takes care of things on this end. In general, however, the Russian government does not try to interfere with people’s lives nearly as much as the American government does.

What is irritating about life in Russia?” The lies told by Western journalists, reporters, and politicians about life in Russia, its government and its people.

What’s the worst thing about living in Russia?” Missing our family and friends. I have two grown sons living in America. Saying goodbye to them and their families when we came back here after our visit was very painful. I use to work for my brother, so we saw each other a lot. I don’t miss having to go to work, but I do miss our times together. He and his wife were so great to us on our recent visit back home. I miss being able to sit down with old friends and chat in English about everything from college football to the meaning of life.

Nevertheless, we enjoy living in this town and in a culture wherein the values and beliefs we teach our children are not berated by the larger society. Despite what they say, the political situation here is far more stable than in America, and despite what you hear it isn’t run by a dictator. I sincerely grieve over the political and societal fragmentation in America. Mostly I think it is good for me to be here at home for my two younger children. I can do that on my Social Security without all the financial struggles we had in America.

OUR TRIP TO AMERICA: REACTIONS & REFLECTIONS

US FLAG AND PALM TREE

As I mentioned in my last blog we went back to America for a three week visit. It was the first time we had been back there since we moved to Russia on June 6, 2016. We were able to get together with a lot of family members and quite a few friends. Unfortunately, we couldn’t work it out to visit as many as we had hoped. I couldn’t help analyzing things there as well as doing some “self-analysis.”

Arriving in America after being gone for two years was a bit eerie. We were very excited, but we know the political relationship between our “two worlds” has gotten even more tense than it was when we left. As is commonly known, Russia has been blamed for a lot of what is wrong in America. I wondered how my American friends would respond to us. I’ll sum up some observations on our visit back with friends and family and then go on to some broader “cultural” observations.

First, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting with family and friends. I was prepared for a lot of questions about Russia, but in many cases the questions were very general, e.g., the Russian weather, kids and school, etc. Perhaps I was being overly analytical, but a few friends seemed to steer the conversation away from Russia completely. I was uncertain if that was because they feared it could cause tension if we got off on politics or they were just more interested in talking about old times and how things have been since we left.

On the other hand, we had some friends who were very interested in talking about Russia. After Liturgy at our Orthodox Church, we had a number of people ask a lot of questions. Some were ethnic Russians who left years ago and wanted to hear how things in Russia have changed. Others just wanted to chat about our life here. As I’ve said before, in general Orthodox believers tend to be quite interested in Russia.

One evening I was invited to a friend’s home to meet with “some of the guys” from the church just to let them ask me questions about Russia—about living conditions, politics, or whatever. They were friends who are well read on the issues, and they had some very challenging questions and insightful observations. I don’t know how they felt about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. It was so refreshing to participate in such an informed discussion and be able to speak freely.

On the political scene I was interested in watching more of the news in America. When I’m in Russia I can view isolated interviews or commentaries on world events, but I can’t just sit down and spend an evening watching different news programs. Watching news and related programs reminded me of how different things are presented in America from here in Russia. The major differences I noticed were:

First, the reports on international news events were often presented with no reporter actually at the location on which they were reporting. The Syrian conflict was covered more than anything else, but I never saw an American reporter actually in Syria. Obviously I couldn’t watch every network, but the reports would show film clips without interviews on location. Further, the different networks I did watch pretty much followed the same “line” as far as content and commentary. There was little to nothing in the way of trying to get more than one perspective on what was happening.

From here in Russia I’m used to seeing reports on events as they are happening. I follow some English speaking news from people actually there, and the impression I get from Syria is very different from what one sees in America. People in places like Aleppo and Damascus are filmed moving about freely. Frequently I see reporters do random interviews in the streets. What initially surprised me was the fact that their clothes (especially the women) were quite western, not what one usually sees in a middle-eastern, predominantly Islamic country. I’ve also seen interviews with Christian leaders there who are quite relieved that Assad is still the leader of the country. I’ve never seen that view presented on American TV. The only network from America where I have ever seen local interviews were with Pearson Sharp of One America News Network, a network that started in 2013. The only way I could watch it was on youtube, however.

In reporting on domestic news the primary story involved the on-going discussions about Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. One doesn’t have to be a consistent watcher of the news to know that is a very divisive story. I think after being in Russia the nasty ad hominem attacks against him and President Trump seemed even sharper to me (as I explain below). Some of the verbal attacks seemed to have nothing to do with his qualifications. I admit I knew nothing about him, so I liked the few reports I saw of interviews with people who actually knew him and his work. It wasn’t just reports about Kavanaugh that seemed so polemical, however. On almost every domestic issue there seemed to be extreme division, especially if it concerned President Trump in any way. I remembered a quip I recently saw on Facebook, “America has become one giant Jerry Springer show.” It really did seem that way at times! This all seemed different from what I’ve gotten used to in Russia.

It wasn’t just the manner of debates, however. I still heard arguments about the transgender and other “sexual identity” issues. These were being discussed, of course, when we moved in 2016, but they seemed much more prominent now. I saw clips discussing how to refer to “babies” avoiding anything that smacked of imposing a gender on them before they have reached an age when they can decide for themselves. If all you knew was what was on the news one would think proponents of this perspective are the majority. And they believed this issue is of ultimate importance. Not to agree with them on issues related to sexual identity or expression meant complete division. There seemed to be no “middle ground.” It was clear from some comments that for many if there is no agreement on gender or sexual identity and rights, then there is no reason to look for other areas of shared values or ways to work together on anything.

In Russia there are certainly debates and disagreements on political matters and leaders. In comparison to America, however, persons usually stay on the issue and not attack people. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the main exception.) Ad hominem attacks are still regarded as weak arguments (as they were in my university philosophy class in America years ago). That isn’t to say Russians don’t ever get angry or emotional over issues, but I sense a stronger attempt at maintaining respect and decorum in public discussions.

My regret in this regard is this tendency has bled into the diplomatic language used by American leaders in discussions about Russia. The late John McCain was highly lauded by invited leaders of both parties as a great man and a “warrior for peace”at his funeral and other memorials recently. I looked up the ways he had described President Putin: “thug,” “killer,” “murderer,” “butcher” were common. Champion of peace and democracy? Nikki Haley, our Ambassador to the UN, has said of Russia (among other things), “Russia will never be our friend, we’ll slap them when needed.” This sounds like something one would hear at recess on an elementary school playground, not in a diplomatic setting. What makes it worse is many people with diplomatic responsibilities speak this way and yet give no evidence of having really studied Russia. Just using the word “friend” indicates an ignorance of what Putin has said and written about international partnerships.

This kind of language is effective in impressing the hard right neocons and other liberal interventionists in America, but historically diplomats have tried to understand other countries and seek ways to solve differences without inflammatory language. The ultimate goal is to solve differences without loss of life. Early on, Ronald Reagan referred to the USSR as the “evil empire.” Later he studied more on Eastern Europe. He sought Jack Matlock to help him understand more of the political and diplomatic world here. He brought in Suzanne Massie regularly to help him understand more about the culture and religion. In a recent article Patrick Buchanan pointed out that before Reagan left office he had walked down the streets of Moscow being cheered and patted on the back. As a result of his authentic and informed diplomacy there would be massive reductions in nuclear arms. The world became a safer place.

Also there is in Russia, compared to America, a greater degree of agreement on just what major issues are. How one “identifies” in terms of sexual orientation or gender identification does not fit in the category of what most Russians consider a “major political issue.” I have read accounts from gay or lesbian persons here who say that if one wants to live such a lifestyle quietly there are usually few problems. The problems arise when the gay community or an individual wants to have a parade or stage public appearances to flaunt their lifestyle. It is often not permitted, especially if there are children around. There is no question that Russia is far more traditional in terms of acceptable public morality than is America. Some people will see that as a positive trait, and others believe this is an example of a backward and intolerant Russian culture.

I return to the evening discussion with my friends from church. Toward the conclusion of the evening, I told them I had tried to be very honest and open about Russia. I had described the many positive developments here, while admitting there are problems yet to be resolved. But, overall, based on my experience here I really do see Russia headed in a direction that will make the country stronger. Polls show a strong majority of Russians see even better days ahead. Social, economic, and political differences are here, but there is in general a larger shared cultural perspective. American reports often focus on the fringe groups in Russia, but this is a misrepresentation of how it is here. I heard Ksenia Sobchak referred to as an “opposition leader in Russia” by more than one American news outlet. She received 1.68% of the total vote in 2018. A person receiving that percentage in America would hardly be referred to as a “leader of the opposition.”

I then told the group I wanted to ask them a question: What about America? I stated very honestly my impressions from our visit. I sensed fragmentation on a number of fronts without an overarching unifying principle. People seem more worried about offending or being offended than finding common ground. I asked them if my perceptions are wrong. If not, what is the solution? As I said, this group was a very thoughtful, well-informed group. But there was a moment when no one spoke. No one contested my perception on the condition in America. Of the responses that followed, there was very little optimism expressed about a good outcome. Some offered that they saw it only getting worse; a few others said a cultural or economic collapse will be the only way toward rebuilding. Someone brought up Orwell’s 1984 as America’s destiny.

The last couple of days of our visit were incredibly enjoyable. We went to the pool; our kids got to enjoy the outdoors of South Carolina. Before we left on Sunday afternoon we thoroughly enjoyed one more Liturgy in English at church and a delightful meal there afterwards. So it was with sadness that we left, although I admit I was anxious to get back to my “routine.” Coming back was hard on our children as well. We all remembered so many good times from our trip and from when we lived in America. We discovered that we tend to remember the good times. Our minds let go of all the struggles we were also enduring during the time we lived there.

You don’t have to go visit America to see our debates, our fights, our values or lack thereof. The world can go on the i-net and see what we argue over and how we debate. They know who Peter Strzok and Brett Kavanaugh are. They’ve seen our justice system at work—with all the corruption and screaming. Many Russians would love to visit America. They see many positive things about it, but they have no desire to have our form of democracy. They will fight to keep it out. Who could blame them?

And now for my opinionated conclusion. I followed as carefully as possible the track of hurricane Florence as it headed toward the Carolinas. Fortunately the damage to the property of my family members living on the coast and other parts of S.C. was not nearly as bad as had been earlier feared. Still, many residents of the Carolinas were hit pretty hard with flooding and now see even more of it as water levels continue to rise. A friend of mine in the S.C. State Guard posted videos of him and his comrades in uniform responding to the needs of those in distress. I saw U.S. Marines from my old duty station, Camp Lejeune, out helping in the same way. I watched other videos posted of many other volunteer organizations and individuals doing whatever they could to help those who experienced the worst of the storm. That is what is great about America.

What cultural refugees like me believe is that if America wants to spread democracy and stop evil empires from arising, they should do it by exporting more of the kind of help I saw after the hurricane. No one discounts the need to have a military prepared to fight to defend our borders. But we have active duty troops stationed in almost 150 countries. Estimates are we have 170,000 active duty troops serving outside the borders of the United States. It is very hard to get concrete figures, but estimates are that America is involved in conflicts in 76 countries. We average dropping a bomb somewhere in the world every 12 minutes. I know the U.S. does humanitarian work and sends aid, but when you’re dropping a bomb somewhere every few minutes that noise drowns out everything. Nations don’t perceive this as “spreading democracy.” I’ve seen first hand how both our media and our leaders distort, twist and lie about life in a country that “is not our friend.” It’s about spreading American hegemony, not democracy. You don’t spread democracy at the point of a gun.

I came to Russia the first time as a part of a group of people who were helping Russian orphanages and churches. They had started back in the dreary days of the nineties. That same group continues to come. Group members collect money and dispense it to the needy children and causes in Russia. They also come here to help build churches and join together in worship. There are no strings attached to the help, and they don’t ask to control anything or anyone. Unfortunately, the majority of the power brokers in America believe that in order for other countries to see the light of American democracy we must threaten to slap them or even bomb them. Somehow in this twisted logic they think if we’re nasty enough and confront them aggressively enough, they will kowtow to us and look gratefully to “the city set on a hill.” I remind people that old vision of America was of a city set on a hill, not a weapons complex. Meanwhile America’s inner turmoil, rage and intellectually vacuous infighting are laid bare for the world to see. My own belief is that getting involved in working with those outside its borders in a way that saves lives may be the only way America can actually save itself.

DOES BEING AN EXPAT MAKE ONE AN EXPERT?

It has been quite some time since my last blog. In the realm of politics Presidents Trump and Putin met in Helsinki. On a personal level our family made our first trip back to the United States since we moved to Russia over two years ago. Now I have taken time for reflections of both a political and personal nature.

The Political. I was a bit excited when I first heard about the summit with Putin and Trump. I realize some don’t care about political events or reflections. I, on the other hand, admit to being slightly on the “political junkie” side of things. More than that, however, decisions between the leaders of these two countries can impact families like us directly—travel plans, financial transactions, etc. So it really isn’t responsible for me to adopt the “I just don’t get into politics” perspective. If you’re an American living in Russia, politics matters.

I actually had prepared a blog before the summit, but I was waiting until after the leaders met before I completed it. Just before the summit I watched how the news outlets in America were preparing the nation. On June 29 I watched an interview with Sebastian Gorka and Daniel Hoffman on FoxNews on how they thought Trump should handle the meeting. It went worse than I feared. Hoffman quickly dispensed with any talk of common objectives and said Trump should look for leverage against Putin. Gorka then assumed the mantle of “expert Russian analyst” and used statistics from at least 12-15 years ago to describe Russia, e.g., male life expectancy, birth/death rate comparisons, etc. Then he said Russia is in “a world of hurt” and “a death spiral.” His figures and general description of Russia were terribly outdated as anyone who casually keeps up with Russia knows. He portrayed Russia and Putin as helpless and vulnerable. The point was clear: Trump needs to exploit a very weak Russia.

Gorka’s reputation as a researcher has been criticized severely going back to when he got his Ph.D. from Corvinus University in Budapest. A quick Google search will show that there are a number of analysts who say his dissertation wouldn’t make a good Bachelor’s thesis. Further, Gorka was brought on by the Trump administration as deputy assistant to the president in January of 2017, but was gone by the end of August. He said he decided to leave because he was undermined by people who were not true believers in the “Make America Great Again” campaign. White House sources said he was told to leave, and security was instructed not to allow him to re-enter the White House. You would think a guy like that would buckle down on his research, but apparently shoddy research does not prevent one from being treated as an expert on American news shows these days. There is a plethora of evidence on Russia’s growth in economic and military strength, as well as positive news on the vast improvements in the health of Russians, as I documented in a recent blog. The two points I got from this interview were: 1)There is no real reason for working with Russia or Putin on shared or mutually beneficial goals. It is all about leverage and control. 2)Russia remains the way it was in the 90s. That is what many like Gorka and Hoffman want America to believe. It’s a lie, but it must be maintained despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, Trump was better prepared for the summit than they were for that interview.

A few days later I got even more upset. We were getting ready for our trip to the States, and I was also working on a new Russian language lesson. I went into the kitchen for something, and on our TV was a report by CNN International. I recognized immediately that the person being interviewed was David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. Remnick was in the middle of a rant describing how bad it is in Russia. Then he launched a broadside against “dictator” Vladimir Putin. Completing his litany of awful things about Putin he then stated that no one in Russia is allowed to hear bad things like he had just said. Putin controls the media, and Russians can’t hear these truths. Now get the picture: I’m in my den in Russia listening to David Remnick tell the viewers that people in Russia can’t hear the points he is making about Putin. I don’t have a special satellite. I get my i-net and TV from the little place across the courtyard which feeds 90% of the people in this small Russian city. One doesn’t need to be an academic to know Remnick is either lying or is totally uninformed.

I should’ve stayed and watched to find out when this interview was made. How recent was it? It really doesn’t matter because when I came here in 2005 I frequently heard Putin criticized on Russian TV as I do now. Remnick and other Western writers like to portray Putin as an old Communist dictator who will not tolerate public criticism. I have a copy of last month’s issue of Pravda (August, 2018), the official publication of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. They strongly criticize Putin right there on the front page. The interview with Gorka irritated me simply because I know a lot of people who listen to Fox and trust Gorka. On the other hand, I realize many know of Gorka’s reputation as a sloppy researcher. But David Remnick is a great writer and thinker. I remember reading Lenin’s Tomb (and later Resurrection) which were reflections on his time in the USSR when he was with The Washington Post (late 1980s). He is fluent in Russian and has lived here. His observations from that time were quite impressive, and I loved his humorous anecdotes about daily life that I definitely could relate to. How can a writer that sharp be so out of touch? Are he and Gorka just lying because they know that describing Russia as a really horrible place is what is popular these days? Is it just the old J.R. Ewing approach that “once you lose your integrity the rest is easy”? Or have they just gotten lazy and do not want to engage in the complexity of Russian politics and culture as it is today?

Of course, after the summit I heard the rage and broadsides against Trump over the fact he even met with Putin. He had a few defenders, but they were mostly drowned out. In the reports I heard there was no mention of the fact that Trump was doing what U.S. presidents have done since Eisenhower. He met with the President of the country which is the only other major nuclear power, and they had a civil discussion. If Donald Trump was guilty of “treasonous” or “outrageous” actions in doing that, was John F. Kennedy “treasonous” for meeting with Nikita Khrushchev? JFK certainly came out of that summit looking much worse than Trump did with Putin. I knew beforehand Trump would be criticized for meeting with Putin, but I had no idea the reactions would be so ludicrous. The week before the summit I had listened to how Peter Strzok, who had been put in charge of investigating Trump and Hillary Clinton, described Trump in the most vulgar and prejudicial language possible BEFORE his investigation of the election began. He was the FBI’s man in charge of those investigations. And then Trump was denounced for not defending our “intelligence agencies” in the post-summit news conference.

I retreated. As I said, I think I need to keep up with news and politics, but I had reached the end of my proverbial rope. I shut it off. As I have mentioned before I spent most of my adult life in an academic setting. So I decided to turn off the news with its “pseudo-experts” and read something more responsibly academic. I chose Richard Sakwa’s newest book called Russia Against the Rest. I’ve read Sakwa before, and he carefully cites his sources and is very logical in his observations. I needed that.

I got no further than the opening lines to the first chapter (p.11) when I had one of those “Aha!” moments. Sakwa’s observations on those who analyze Russia struck me.

Competing Cold War narratives have taken on the character of foundational myths. A political myth is a way of freezing a moment in time and imbuing it with permanent significance. A myth in this context is not a falsehood, but a fiction or constructed narrative that provides a certain interpretation of the evidence.”

This insightful section helped me to see that Gorka, Remnick and the rest of their journalistic kin are not really lying, at least as they understand things. There is no “falsification” going on because they really do see Russia as the same as it was during another era. For Gorka, the statistics from the 90s are frozen. There is no need for new research; for Remnick, Russia is still the USSR of 1988 and Putin is just like all the rest. Authentic research runs the risk of creating cognitive dissonance that could be unmanageable for them. Gorka and Remnick represent two opposite ends of the American political spectrum. Gorka is a conservative who appears on FOX and, despite his past run-ins with the White House, is very supportive of Trump. Remnick, who is a typical CNN liberal, sees a monochrome Trump: he is all bad. What joins them is the shared myth of Russia. And they really do believe the myth.

The Personal. When one actually lives in this country you can’t live by myths of any kind. You live in the world here as it is. The “true expat” has to live with the good and bad. By “true expat” I exclude those few, like a couple of families I encountered in St. Petersburg years ago, who did all they could to live in a “bubble” shielded from everyday Russian life. They had jobs around Russians, but really hung out with other expats, had their kids in English schools, went to church or local pubs with others from outside Russia. By true expats, I’m talking about the majority who are folks like me. (As I said in an earlier blog, I prefer the term “cultural refugee,” but it’s a bit too cumbersome.) We choose to live as others in Russia. Some were sent here by an employer, but we’ve all chosen to be a part of Russian life, not establish a quasi-colony from the homeland. We struggle with learning the language; our kids are around other Russian kids at school or church. We don’t pretend to be Russians, but we do try to immerse ourselves in life here. Many of us are married to a Russian spouse, but we all want to be a part of this culture. We loved our lives in America, but our lives are here now.

So now I go to the question which I posed in the title to this blog entry: Does being an expat make one an expert? The short answer is, “No, but…” Obviously I must explain. Simply living here does not make you an expert on Russia in the full sense of that description. You may not be perfectly fluent in Russian or be able to name all the members of the Romanov dynasty. In fact, you may not know the GDP, present military involvements, or inflation rate. Nevertheless, if one is an expat in the sense I have described, you keep up with the news in general, what is available at the store, and how the prices on products vary from week to week. You have a general idea to what degree Vladimir Putin or the Russian government is or is not involved in your life. Thus, you are able to sense the fallacies of the descriptions of Russia by those who are regarded as experts in the West. You don’t need to know the specific statistics to know that Gorka’s description is absurd. I’ve been coming to Russia since 2002 and have lived here for over five of those years. I don’t need to do research to know this country is not in a “world of hurt” or a “death spiral.” Of course, there are problems and poverty, but there are too many new stores and homes being built to call it a death spiral. Living in a small town I can see improvements being made in this city almost every month. Conversations with locals have a far more positive “tone” than before. I know David Remnick is wrong because I have watched a number of programs where those who want to criticize Putin are given plenty of opportunities. Remnick is describing something he wants or needs to be true. Nevertheless, given the fact that so many have so much invested in his analysis being correct, he gets to be the expert.

People like me and my friends do not have a message most of the political and media wags of the larger Western world want to hear. Nevertheless, I still think it is important to do what we can to let people know what it really is like here. I had no idea when I started this blog it would go the way it did. I thought I’d describe personal events and struggles. I intended to talk about politics some, but I figured Russia would fade from the American political scene. I had no idea Russia would remain a featured segment of American political life. So I don’t claim to be an expert, but I know who the experts are. I’ll keep reading Sakwa, Cohen, Doctorow and others whose descriptions and interpretations of Russia are consistent with the experiences of those of us who live here and are helpful to us better understanding what is going. I keep up in general with the Russian stock market, the GDP, export/import figures and the like. I’ll plod along learning the language as best I can. And I listen intently to the “common folk” here. How are their spirits? What do they say about their lives here? Doesn’t make me an expert, but I do believe with work I, and many others like me, can be honest and informed observers and participants in life in Russia who pass on how things really are.

I fully realize that the audience I will reach is not just smaller than those of Gorka and Remnick; my audience is minuscule compared to theirs. So what does someone like me really accomplish? Why bother? After I finished Sakwa’s book I was able to get The Power of Impossible Ideas, by Sharon Tennison (2012). Sharon had contacted me by e-mail several weeks ago. She commended me on my blog and encouraged me to keep it up. I did not know who she was at the time, but we have since corresponded on several occasions, and I have become much more familiar with her work. I hope to meet with her personally next week in St. Petersburg. Back in the 80s Sharon became very concerned over the issue of nuclear destruction. Her book documents her efforts and journey to change the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. She began doing “Bottom Up Diplomacy.” She founded an NGO which is now called “Center for Citizen Initiatives.” Her book does not paint with a broad brush. She gives details of places, times, names, even sometimes what people were wearing! As I read her accounts of how many Americans joined together with Russians and other Soviets to learn about each other and then after the USSR collapsed how those Americans helped the Russians rebuild their lives, I was amazed. The accounts of “coincidences” of her meeting by chance individuals both in Russia and America who became crucial to her efforts boggled my mind. She met so many people, and so many lives—both Russian and American—were changed. Vladimir Putin would include suggestions from her organization in some of his addresses to the nation. I do not have the energy, ingenuity, or certainly the organizational skills to rise to the level of Sharon Tennison. The book was a tremendous encouragement, however, to do what I can. I have mentioned before living here has impacted me even more on how I view war. War happened here. The Nazis came and took over this town. You can see the places, the pictures, and hear the stories of lives that were destroyed. The next war, if there is one, won’t remain here. The weapons are different. It will include American soil.

I want things like trade and student and cultural exchanges between my two worlds to get back to what they could be. I’d like to see the nations join together to fight the real terrorists. But the thought of a war happening between Russia and America because lies are allowed to drown out truth is not acceptable. I am grateful to Sharon Tennison for reminding me that one person’s efforts are important.

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