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.