SETTLING DEEPER INTO LIFE IN RUSSIA

ISAACWe have finally returned to our (somewhat) normal life in Russia after our trip to America this summer. The boys are back in school, Oksana is teaching two days a week, and I am reading, keeping up my Greek, studying my Russian and doting over Marina Grace. As I have said, we all really missed America and our family and friends there after we got back. What we did there, who we saw, and what we miss kept coming up in conversations. Over time, however, we realized nothing good could come from thinking that life back in America would be just like it was on our three week summer vacation. It would be back to school and work. So we refocused on our life here while still being thankful for our extended American vacation. We also made a couple of decisions.

Our first decision was a big one: We decided to buy a house. We knew our rental apartment was too small and had looked at a few houses both here in Luga and in the nearby village where we go to church. We never got very serious about any of them. After we got back to Russia Oksana found one on-line that had plenty of space and was at a very good price. It was not complete, however. The family had been living in it but had decided to build a second floor and were in the process of doing that when apparently the husband died. (The lady just said she was now alone. We didn’t know if that meant he left or died.) So the upstairs is “roughed in,” but no interior walls are up. They were adding a vinyl exterior so that is also not complete. It’s a little ways down a dirt street, but the houses in the area are nice, and it is surrounded on three sides by a forest. Oksana has a close friend whose husband is a builder. In fact, he specializes in remodeling and restoration. He is a very nice person and volunteered to go with us to inspect the structure. As I said, this one has plenty of room for us, a bit over 2,000 sq. ft. The rooms downstairs are quite large. Our builder friend carefully inspected everything and afterwards told us it is a well-built house, and also the biggest house for that price that he’s seen. He gave us an approximate estimate of how much it would take to complete the work, and since it was well within our budget, we decided to buy it.

I couldn’t take out a mortgage in Russia because I do not have any income here. Obviously, Oksana does not make enough teaching part-time to qualify for a loan either. This summer my “financial guy” in America, whose company has my IRA, told me that one part of my retirement account is invested in a manner his company is not able to continue managing since I no longer live in S.C. We knew there was a possibility that we might buy a home here so while we were in America I transferred that money to my Sberbank account here in Russia. Plus, the Russian government gives money to families who have children if they are making a significant purchase “to improve their living conditions” or will use the money to continue the education of their children. It is called “maternal capital.” So we signed the papers to purchase the home and then applied for the maternal capital to be transferred to the seller (it’s all electronic – you never see the money). The home is ours, but the present owner does not have to be out of the home until she gets our maternal capital deposited to her bank account, which usually takes anywhere from one to two months. Russia does not give “tax breaks” for children. Income tax in Russia is a flat 13%. Anybody can, however, apply for government funds if they have children. Russia’s population was decimated after WWII (“The Great Patriotic War” as it is called here). Then the birth rate fell again dramatically during the Yeltsin presidency since people simply could not afford children. Now the government is very “friendly” toward families with children, and help is available. The maternal capital is not a loan. It is money the government gives to support families with children.

Since it looks like we’ll be here for some time I also decided I need to work even harder on my Russian language skills. Everyone else in the family, even four year old Marina Grace, speaks Russian well. I have studied Russian on my own for several years, but I have never taken an actual classroom course in Russian. So I decided to take a one week “immersion” course offered by a school in St. Petersburg. I checked around and the school had a very good reputation. So I signed up for 30 lessons in one week. It was one-on-one with the teacher, a Russian lady named Anastasia who is from St. Petersburg. For six hours a day I studied and spoke in Russian. No English was used at all. I was not allowed to say anything in English, and she explained everything in Russian only. The bulk of the time was spent in a class room practicing speaking, listening to her and recorded dialogues, reading and doing some grammar. Three afternoons we ventured out into the streets. We went to the Russian Museum, the Hermitage, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. As in the classroom, during our visits we spoke only in Russian. That was particularly difficult. There were so many things to see, but she was constantly asking me questions and explaining things in Russian. So they were not just leisurely trips to important sites. I was seeing Russian history and practicing the Russian language all at the same time. I stayed in the apartment we rent for Roman. Oksana, Gabriel and Marina Grace were back in Luga. That was tough. I had to navigate around the big city all on my own. (More on that below.)

The week was probably my most difficult one since being here. I felt very out of place without the family, and I could actually feel my brain get tired from being forced to communicate in another language for hours. I do believe it was a productive week, however. It forced me to do things I would not otherwise do. As anyone who has ever tried to be proficient in communicating in any foreign language knows, it is a big move from short sentences in a workbook to actually understanding “native speakers.” The speed makes every word seem to run together. Second, fear of making mistakes is a constant enemy. I think this is the main reason children learn languages so much easier than adults. They simply do not mind making mistakes. They want to communicate. Gabriel never worried about it. Hence, he learned very easily. He just kept speaking it until he got it right. In this course, I didn’t have a choice. I spoke, and I made mistakes. I listened and often did not understand. The teacher was very patient. She knew what she was doing, and she would repeat whatever I asked her to repeat—as many times as I asked. She never seemed frustrated. Also, she had a very high quality sound system, and we listened to dialogues of different Russian speakers. I did not finish the course under any delusions that I am now fluent. I do, however, have a greater grasp of my weak points and how Oksana and I can work together in the home so that with practice I’ll keep improving. I asked Anastasia about any resources or programs of study that would help. She said I speak well, my vocabulary is pretty good and I have a basic understanding of Russian grammar. But, she said emphatically, “You need to practice, practice, practice!”

One evening while I was in St. Petersburg I met a fellow “cultural refugee” for supper at a restaurant near the school. We had met on-line in discussions of issues pertaining to the Russian and American relationship. I told him I had been looking forward to asking him questions I always get asked, e.g., “Why did you move to Russia?” and “What is it about life in Russia you like?” At one point in the conversation he said, “It’s just we don’t have the stress of living in America.” Strangely, I knew what he meant—and what he didn’t mean. I knew he didn’t mean that life in Russia is stress free. Of course, there is stress living here. Learning the language is stressful; living in an environment without the support of friends and family from America is stressful. Bad things happen, things break, etc.

Life is simpler here for us, however. There is no way we could live on my salary in America. The house we bought would be at least three times the cost in South Carolina. (And more than that in other parts of the country.) The stresses of work, fatigue and time pressure are nowhere near what they were there. If we get sick, we don’t stress over medical bills. If something needs to be repaired it doesn’t cost the proverbial “arm and leg.” Clearly, the political debates are nowhere near as intense and divisive. I realize that the Western press presents this as evidence Putin is a dictator and everyone is afraid to criticize him. The truth is, as I have said many times before, issues are discussed here without the blather. My friend and I talked about how we have been involved in discussions and debates with people we know here in Russia about politics and other matters. Neither of us had ever had the experience of people getting angry at us or anyone else involved in the debates. People toast friendship and get back to the meal or whatever they were doing.

I would like to reiterate something else I have mentioned in passing before. The fact that Russia and America have been in a tense relationship now for quite some time does not mean those of us who live here worry about that impacting our relationship with Russian friends or even strangers. After Anastasia and I had visited the Russian Museum the other day we had a long walk through a park with which I was unfamiliar. She continued her “teacher” role even in our conversation in the park, so I had to focus on that. After a while our time was up. She pointed me to where I needed to go to get back to the school and on to my metro station. Unfortunately along the way there was construction, and I was sent on side streets and could not find a way to get back to the area I knew. I headed in the general direction I thought I needed to go. Two things were against me. I’m a small town guy and any big city confuses me. I’m pretty good finding my way through fields and forests, but buildings look the same to me. Second, it was very cloudy and without the sun I have trouble figuring out my directions. Soon, I was lost!

I continued walking and stopped one lady and explained I needed to get to a Metro Station. She told me to continue the direction in which I was going and what street I needed to look for. When I got to that street I couldn’t figure out which direction I should go. I asked a young man (late teens, early twenties maybe) who said he didn’t know. I thanked him anyway and continued my walk. A couple of minutes later he came running up from behind me to tell me that he remembered the general location of the station. He pointed me in the right direction and named the building I should start toward. He tried to speak English, but I understood his Russian better than his English. When I got there the entrance to that Metro was closed! No one was allowed in that station for some reason. I was worried now. I walked a bit further and then stopped a middle aged man about to cross the street. I explained my situation, and I asked him to speak slowly because my Russian was not very good. He pointed and said in English, “Go that way. See blue building. Left.” I found the station and made it home!

When I was meeting my friend for supper the next evening I could not find the restaurant. (Turns out I had walked past it, but it was a small place with no sign out front.) After crossing the street and going on further, I didn’t know what to do. I asked a young lady who had stepped outside for a smoke if she knew where it was. She said she had never heard of it, so I started to move on. She spoke to me (in Russian of course) and said, “Wait. Let me look it up on my phone.” I paused while she put out her cigarette and looked up the place on the phone and showed me on the map. All these encounters took place on a busy crowded street. I openly told them I was a foreigner, and I think all of them figured I was American since two of them used a couple of English words. Yet all of them stopped and took time to help me the best they could. Of the four people I asked for help not one of them was rude and all helped me the best they could. This is not some folksy small town. This is a city of about 6 million people. You will understand when I hear the the U.S. Department of State issue a warning that Russia is not a safe place for Americans to travel, I insist that they are motivated purely by political posturing which has nothing to do with actual knowledge of Russia. If it were so dangerous then this chronically lost meandering American would have had much more to fear and a whole lot more time would’ve been spent trying to get home.

When I got back to Luga Friday night, my father-in-law picked me up at the station. On the short ride through town to our apartment I was very thankful to be back in Luga. I realized how much I like living here. Places and people are now familiar to me. The calmness of this little provincial town reminds me of how calm it used to be in the small towns and the culture in which I was raised back in America many years ago. I know it sounds weird to sound nostalgic about America long ago when talking about life in Russia now, but I sometimes feel that way. I know there were problems, stresses and disagreements back then in America, just as there are in Russia now. There is a difference, however, between cultural stress and constant division and agitation. Whatever one hears on the news, please know that from my experience here and my “worm’s eye” view of things, Russians are not looking for fights and conflicts with Americans. Their political leaders are not trying to stir up feelings of animosity toward Americans within the people here. If they were, I’d perhaps still be wandering around the streets of the big city!

“WHAT WILL THEY SAY IF WE MOVE TO RUSSIA?”

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I have mentioned before that when I started writing this blog it was for my friends in America who wanted to know what life in Russia was really like. I have since discovered there are quite a number of people interested in Russia and some of them are considering moving here as well. I tried to answer several common questions I have received about the practical aspects of moving to Russia in my last blog. Other than the logistical, linguistic and vocational issues I discussed, the possibility of moving to Russia can also create tension or misunderstandings with family members and friends. Why is that so? How will family and friends respond to their leaving? How does one establish new relationships in another culture?

It isn’t hard to understand those who transfer here because of work. It doesn’t happen often since the sanctions, but some companies still do business here. Some of us have married a Russian. That doesn’t make it likely we’ll live in Russia, however. I’m fairly certain there are more Russian/American families who choose to stay in America rather than settle in Russia. Having a Russian wife made me more interested in Russia, but it was far from being a factor that led us to move here. But what about those who just “pick up and move”?

The first thing anyone who starts talking openly about it will notice are the reactions they get when they tell people that they are thinking of moving to RUSSIA. If you suddenly inherit a large sum of money or win the Lottery, and you tell everyone your family is moving to the Caribbean or the Bahamas or to France, people understand that. (They’ll likely be envious!) If you tell friends you are moving to Canada because you’ve had it with Donald Trump and the political craziness in America, they may not agree, but they’ll understand. But when you say, “We’re thinking about moving to Russia,” they usually don’t understand—at all.

I mentioned in my last blog that one of the things that irritates me most is the wrong information being spread about Russia. Almost all you hear about Russia is negative, whether it comes from the news, politicians or movies. Much of it is also wrong. I still have friends and relatives who are absolutely convinced I am either lying or have been brainwashed when I tell them Russia is a nice place to live. They have never read one speech by Vladimir Putin or listened to any of his press conferences, but they are absolutely sure that he is an evil dictator. They’ve heard it on the news many times. How did we get to this point? Most people who follow closely know the Military Industrial Complex has its agenda. They know painting Russia as a threat helps get the defense budget high enough to buy and sell more weapons. They have lots of money and influence which they can use to demonize Russia. Most also understand that some politicians try to paint Russia as evil to generate votes or blame an election loss on. I’d like to do a brief background going back further, however. Why is there such a disconnect between what people hear daily about Russia and what people like me who live here say about it?

First, there is, of course, the history of the Cold War. Everything I heard growing up about the USSR (or just “Russia”) was about how awful it was. The leaders were dictators who didn’t care about their people. There was no free press because those despots censored the news to fit how they wanted the people to think. In my home region back in the “Bible Belt” we heard a lot about how “the godless Communists” excluded God and religion from public life. I still hear from people who carry this image of Russia in their minds today.

After the “fall” (or “dismantling”) of the USSR things changed for a time. Boris Yeltsin was elected, and American leaders declared brighter days were ahead for Russia. During the decade of the 90s (about which I have written), the U.S. stepped in to show the Russians how to do democracy. President Bill Clinton convinced the IMF to pour a lot of money into Russia, and he sent American experts and advisers of all sorts into Yeltsin’s Russia to “help” the country become a democracy—just like America. The reports from people who were supposed to know were glowing. The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, David Remnick, said in 1997, “The Russian prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before in history.” The economist, Richard Ericson, said in 1998, “The guarded optimism of the economists….seems justified; the ‘holistic’ transformation of Russia will continue.” In March of the same year, Vice-President Al Gore said, “Optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia.” (The quotes are all from Failed Crusade, by Stephen F. Cohen. The first part of this book is a thorough discussion of these wrong evaluations.)

The quotes above come from less than a year before the Russian economy completely collapsed in 1998. A lot of Russians were literally starving. Despite Clinton having convinced the IMF to send $10 million to Russia in the mid-90s when “my friend Boris” (as Clinton called him) was running for re-election, over 50% of the Russian population lived below the poverty line, which was $45/month in 1998. The majority of American journalists, politicians, economists, and scholars were completely wrong about Russia. When confronted with the truth of how bad it was going they indicated it was temporary and were dismissive of the awful suffering of the Russian population, repeating and old saying from Joseph Stalin: “You have to crack eggs to make an omelette.” It didn’t seem like “cracking an egg” to Russians living here; it was “the collapse of modern life for us,” as one Russian writer put it. I’ve talked to many Russians personally. Their experience of the Americans “helping” Russia was awful.

President Boris Yeltsin had done everything the Americans asked, but American democracy did not work in Russia for a lot of reasons. First, most of the money received went into the pockets of a whole new generation of “oligarchs,” not to meet the needs of the Russian people. Another factor was the “experts” often lacked knowledge of Russian history, traditions, and character. Russia could not “jump out its history” and be like America. Cohen points out that many journalists who came here then to report on what was supposedly happening didn’t even know the language, let alone the history of the country. They saw rich people in Moscow doing well and thought the whole country was like that. Authentic investigative reporting on Russia was a rarity.

Vladimir Putin was initially praised by Clinton when he became president. With the passing of time, however, Putin came to trust American leaders less and less. He would not follow their dictates. He moved the country in a different direction, especially after George W. Bush deceived him and pulled out of the IMF treaty. To make a long story short, Russia did much better in every way when it stopped doing the bidding of the Americans. Better days for Russia did lie ahead, but that was because Putin pulled the plug on American paternalism. Those experts, journalists, and politicians either had to admit they were wrong OR they could make “Putin’s Russia” and even the Russian people look as bad as possible. Most chose the latter option, and they still stick with it. The campaign to demonize Russia was and is a coordinated effort.

There is also the issue of nationalism. I have just finished reading, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated Edition), by the eminent political scientist John Mearsheimer. He is a proponent of “offensive realism” in understanding international relations. One subject he devotes a lot of space to is nationalism. We are social creatures by nature. We tend to think in terms of “our group.” At an international level many of us who live in powerful countries tend to think our country is powerful because, well, its government and perhaps its people are better. Many citizens in the United States have come to believe that, despite our problems, we are “exceptional.” Mearsheimer points out that by exceptional we really mean “superior.” Our belief in individual freedoms and unfettered capitalism sets us apart in the minds of many Americans. If we go to war, it is for a good cause. We “won” the Cold War because our capitalism was superior to their Communism or socialism (unfortunately many use those terms interchangeably). We were also more virtuous than the amoral Communists.

Mearsheimer reminds us that before all the current Russia bashing we had joined with the Communist leader, Joseph Stalin, during WW2. Roosevelt started calling him “Uncle Joe,” so it would be acceptable to the American people for him to work with Stalin. FDR admitted he actually gave in to several of Stalin’s wishes to get what he wanted from Stalin. That frequently is the nature of political diplomacy. Russia is no longer Communist, and Vladimir Putin is nothing like Joseph Stalin, but many politicians and members of the press must convince the American people otherwise. Roosevelt got along quite well with Uncle Joe and met with him on several occasions. FDR was elected four times as president of the United States, and his popularity was still in good standing after meeting with Stalin on several significant occasions. Donald Trump recently had one summit with Vladimir Putin, and he was roundly condemned by the press and even called “treasonous” by the former CIA director. Ideology has nothing to do with the way Russia is portrayed in the American press or political circles. It’s a different agenda altogether. If one considers it appropriate to join hands with Stalin and totally impermissible even to talk with Putin, then ideology isn’t the key ingredient.

Many Americans want to feel a sense of pride in our country. That is not uncommon or necessarily wrong. Yet, in my opinion, there is a lot of “cognitive dissonance” among Americans right now. We have trouble finding consistency between what we have always believed about our country and the reality we are experiencing. I think that Donald Trump was elected, in part, because many Americans found “traditional” politicians out of touch and unresponsive when it came to what they cared about. Further, there is little doubt that many now distrust the mainstream media. There is no longer a Walter Cronkite who can convince us “and that’s the way it is” at the completion of a newscast. Liberals decry Fox News as “unbalanced and unfair,” and conservatives cry “fake news” at other MSM outlets. Both groups believe censorship and distortion are alive and well in the American media.

I know many religious people in America who are fearful that one can no longer talk openly about matters of faith in “the public square.”A high school football coach near Seattle, Wa. was fired for refusing to stop taking a private moment for a quick personal prayer on the football field after games. They aren’t asking Congress to establish their religion; they just sense “the free exercise thereof” is being taken away. The Soviet Union believed it was the responsibility of the State, not the parents, to decide the values children were taught. One of the reasons homeschooling is becoming more popular in America is because some parents see this philosophy at work in America. In short, many fear what was so wrong with the USSR has invaded their American experience. Thus, the “powers that be” have to work harder to make Russia even more evil. Russia is a convenient distraction from the domestic divisions. It has proved to be one topic that unites most Republican and Democrats.

In an age with the communication capacities like we now have, it is hard to keep intellectually curious people living in the dark, however. The people I know who are interested in Russia, whether they want to move here or not, are doing their own research. They seek out and find sources that they believe are providing trustworthy information. They’ve concluded that most of what is said about Russia is wrong, and they’re not afraid to face the situation in America as it really is.

So what does all this information mean to people who want to move to Russia or who are open to learning more? It probably means that some friends, co-workers or even members of your extended family will look at you differently. There are also some Russian ex-pats who left Russia many years ago who will tell you how bad it is. Clearly many won’t agree with or like your conclusions. Some simply will not understand your possible move or your views no matter what you say, and some of those will express their disapproval strongly. Others will understand to some degree, but still can’t grasp how a family just leaves what they have in America. I have had people who have never lived anywhere else but America tell me emphatically that America is the greatest place on earth to live. Families and friends vary, of course. Nevertheless, most I talk to who are seriously considering moving here have had “blow back” from some of the people they care about. So be ready. Furthermore, know that if you do move, the longer you’re gone, the more distant you probably will feel. The pulse of everyday life in Russia is not the same. It will be hard to convey that to some good friends back in America.

On the other end of the move be prepared that friendship with Russians won’t happen overnight. Again, there are exceptions, but “friendship” to Russians describes a very close relationship. They do not use the term casually like we Americans do. Becoming friends among Russians takes time and trust. If you are not fluent in Russian, it may take even longer. I also mentioned at the end of my last blog that one of the things I miss the most is having long comfortable conversations with my old American friends. While we were home for those three weeks in August I got to meet up with several of them. I indicated I didn’t get as many questions about Russia as I had expected, but we chatted for long periods about a variety of subjects. When we got back here, I realized how much I have missed that. Here is the quandary: I can’t talk to Russians about college football or a number of my favorite subjects. My alma mater Clemson is undefeated and among the top teams in the country right now! That means absolutely nothing to my Russian friends. On the other hand, there are a number of my American friends that I really can’t talk to about Russia and my life here. Living outside the United States is simply not something they can imagine or about which they have any interest in learning. My point here: be prepared to feel something of an “outsider” in both places.

The good news is things do improve here with time. As I said in the last blog, Russians will be interested in you. It is not that they, as a group, simply do not want to get to know you. They will want to ask you questions about America. They are very interested in learning your thoughts. Eventually they will want to “pick your brain” about what you think of Russia and other topics. These conversations can be quite fun and often lead to a lot of laughter. And Russian friends are very dependable and will want to help you in any way they can. Most are honored that you’re here. Just be prepared that it may take a while. Also, you can find friends from the “homeland” here. We communicate on-line and many get together as they discover those living nearby. Don’t try to set up an American “commune,” but don’t be afraid to reach out to other Americans for advice and friendship.

There is another kind of problem with moving here. When you live here you see news reports unlike what one gets from most American news outlets. I’ve mentioned how my own understanding of Syria and Bashar al-Assad has totally changed by seeing reports from other Westerners actually on the ground there. I have also seen how America’s friend Saudi Arabia is doing its best to slaughter the people of Yemen with American weapons, while we paint Iran as evil. Iran has nothing like the history of the Saudis when it comes to violence and oppression. I want my Russian friends to believe the best about America, but the more I learn the more difficult that gets.

The truth is, however, most who are seriously considering moving here already know of most of these potential pitfalls and problems. I rarely hear from anyone wearing “rose colored glasses.” They know there will be difficulties. Many are cautious and even afraid. But they are more afraid of the soaring debt and tumbling ethical and educational standards in America. They have to think through how to make a living and how to form networks here. Yet they also sense something shocking: they sense freedom when they think about moving to Russia. So they’ve started studying the Russian language and learning about life here. Those who can make trips to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what it is like in Russia. It’s not for the faint of heart to be sure. Nevertheless, they are people who are willing to take risks. If Russia is what many of us who live here claim it is, then it may be worth the sacrifice to live in such a place and raise families in such an atmosphere.

Clearly, huge numbers of Americans are not interested in moving to Russia. We think no less of those who choose to stay. That is what sometimes gets missed. Many Americans are aware of the problems there but want to stay and work for change. They want to build on those great aspects of America, some of which I have written about in previous blogs. I admire that, although I admit my pessimism. My wife and I concluded that staying and working for change was not where we believed our efforts were best spent. A family will have to sacrifice in order to come to Russia, but other sacrifices will be demanded of you if you stay. I honestly believe a significant number of people are going to be making the same decision we did. For those who will never come, however, I am hoping that you will still have an appreciation for this country, this culture, and these people.