I am writing a conclusion to my last blog for two reasons. I wrote that blog as a response to the article by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, “Expatriates of the Heart.” Dreher addressed the fact that some of his readers have “given up on America” and are considering leaving or have left the country. He invited and received many comments. The first draft I wrote of my response blog was too long, and I deleted quite a bit. So now I want to summarize some points I deleted. The second reason I am writing about the same topic is Mr. Dreher was kind enough to follow up with an article on my blog. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/taking-the-expatriate-option-hal-freeman-russia/ That article got picked up by several outlets so I randomly selected a few comments to read from different sites. So I am working in responses to the comments to the sections I had previously deleted.
Before getting into the heart of my discussion, I’d like to address one point that was raised in the comments which neither Dreher nor I really discussed. A few responded (to paraphrase), “Either Freeman doesn’t really understand or does not care about the totalitarian nature of the Putin led Russian government under which he lives.” One comment referenced the pic of me that was posted with Dreher’s article about our decision to move to Russia. He said it was unintended irony that I was intently reading Pravda, a publication of the Communist Party. Actually I was not reading it. My wife got me to pose for the pic and posted it on Facebook as a joke not long after we moved to Russia. My friends got a big laugh out of it, as you can imagine.
The pic and comments reminded me that last fall Pravda ran a front page story essentially calling Putin a liar who does not care about his people. It quoted Putin from early 2005 when he said he would not raise the age of retirement. The “pension” age in Russia was 60 for men and 55 for women. When Putin indicated in 2018 that he would support a bill to raise it to 65 for men and 60 for women, Pravda and other publications sharply attacked him. (Note: Alterations were made to the bill.)
In Putin’s defense, when he originally promised to keep pensions at the same ages, he did not foresee the sharp rise in life expectancy in Russia over the next several years. (See http://www.unz.com/akarlin/russian-demographics-in-2019/?fbclid=IwAR0duI24PUez05-PQH5Rgx_dJfZj0pvlRNv5xFlwGYqWcN4poy-fgwX_MsA) A whole lot more people are collecting pension checks today, and the government is “feeling the pinch.”
The main point I want to make, however, is the Communist Party and many other outlets feel free to publish strong criticisms of Putin. He is criticized here on a number of other topics, especially what some see as his passive responses to Western aggression. That does not happen in a totalitarian society. If I did not see the news here in Russia, I would judge from Western sources I live in a closed society where no one feels free to criticize the leader. Putin is a strong leader to be sure, but he is no dictator. Dictators silence public criticisms. I would also wrongly conclude Putin enjoys a close relationship with the Communist Party in Russia—or is secretly sympathetic to a return to Communism. A leader wanting to return to Communism does not repeatedly say, as has Putin, that whoever wants Communism restored has no brain. Western publications claiming Putin does not allow dissent in Russia or is a “closet Communist” are not based on actual research of what is written and said here. They ignore or distort both what Putin has written and said and imply contrary views are not allowed. They focus on unproven and illogical accusations that Putin is responsible for the deaths of opposition reporters.
On a related point, overall I think the news shows here present different sides of most issues more fairly than their U.S. counterparts. I admit surpassing the fairness and objectivity of the American MSM is a very low bar to hurdle. In news talk shows here a number of perspectives are heard. They even have an American journalist, Michael Bohm, who usually takes the pro-American perspective on major international stories on one of the main news programs. Can you imagine a major news talk show in America allowing a knowledgeable Russian to explain freely the Russian “side” of the news?
I’ve been coming here since 2002. I have visited Russia many times and have lived here almost six years total. I have read a number of biographical works on Putin, have read as many of his speeches as possible, but I have no way of knowing what he is really like or whether he has huge amounts of money stashed away in off-shore accounts (or whatever the current “inside” information is on him in the West). I have, however, seen first-hand the improvements which have been made during his tenure as president, and they are quite impressive.
In the blog I stated I do not ever try to convince anyone to come to Russia. Rather, I try to provide the best possible responses to inquiries based on my experiences and research. In several comments to Dreher’s first article, some readers explained why they could not leave America. Some just did not believe they could learn a new language. I have repeatedly mentioned that is a problem here, since Russian is a tough language to learn. Probably the most frequently mentioned reason was financial. That is completely understandable. I realize the decision about our move was made easier because I was able to take early retirement and have enough pension to cover living expenses here. There are increasing avenues of work for expats coming to Russia because of changes in electronic communication, but each family has to decide whether or not they can make an acceptable income.
Among the comments I read on me and our move was the suggestion that finances, not cultural values, may have been the real reason we moved. Our “lifestyle” here is in some ways better than in America and in some ways not. We have lived in a very small apartment now for over two and a half years. Our three room apartment is about one-fourth the size of our home in America. It is cramped! Also, we have gone without a car during this time and are dependent on public transportation. Public transportation here is good and cheap so we don’t have to have a car, but obviously having our own car would provide us with more convenience for travel. On the other hand, having a mortgage, car payments, utility and medical bills in the U.S. meant we rarely could go out to a nice restaurant; vacations were few and far between. It is different for us here. We can go out to eat, travel a bit, and we have also been able to help other families in distress through help a fellow Orthodox believer organizes in the area. So we have less in terms of “material goods” here, but our cost of living is also much, much lower. Families have to determine for themselves what they can do given their financial responsibilities.
I worked for my brother in America, and he offered that I could retire but continue working my old job part-time. The total income from Social Security and part-time pay would’ve been about the same as my full-time salary, and I would have had more time with my family. I was concerned about how much time I would’ve been called back to the office, but the overriding issue was we were growing more concerned about the direction American culture was headed.
Another question that came up was what specifically were the things about American culture that motivated us to leave. The people who asked were not arguing the basic point Dreher (and I) made about America’s moral and spiritual decline. But “are those problems sufficiently different from the country to which you moved to warrant such a drastic step?” I believe they are. I did not write much about these concerns in my early blogs. As I have said, the blog was started in response to a request from some folks at our church who were simply interested in what life was like in Russia. Early on I stated that I would not avoid the political (or cultural) issues, but those were not the main purpose. Further, I really was reluctant to criticize my country. As the situation in America further declined, however, and I got more and more inquiries from people who were seriously thinking about moving here, the blog “evolved.” I think it is more important now to address specifics of what prompted us to consider a move.
When we moved from Russia to America in 2008 we decided that Roman, who was almost 8 at the time, would go to public school. We did it primarily so he could learn English, and it worked very well. Also, the school was in a rural area outside a small town in South Carolina. I believed public schools there were still solid academically, and I did not foresee any “worldview” conflicts. All went well as far as I knew, but I found out after he had completed one year of early high school that he had had one teacher who was openly gay. The teacher would sometimes describe places he and his partner had gone over the weekend or what activities they had enjoyed. My response was not one of an open-minded progressive. At the same time, had I known about it, I was informed there was nothing I could have done other than to remove our son from the school. That opened my eyes to other ways even my small town culture was changing.
The second event was related to “transgenderism.” While we were thinking about moving to Russia, a chain discount store, Target, announced that the restroom facilities would not be restricted to one’s biological gender. How one “identified” in terms of gender would be respected. Shortly after that there was a report of an incident in one of the Target stores located very close to us. A mother was waiting for her young daughter to use the restroom when she saw a person, who was obviously a biological male (dressed as a female), enter the restroom. She became concerned and when she entered she apparently saw this person trying to enter the stall where her daughter was. I said “apparently” because the press release was vague. The trans-gender person was told to leave, but no charges were filed. The mother was horrified. I feared this would not be an isolated event.
I have a daughter. I was 60 years old when, after four sons, she was born. I had a girl! I admit the rumors that I am a doting, overprotective aged father are true. I was enraged when I read the story. I thought even more deeply about the culture in which my little girl and her 7 year old brother would be raised. I learned early this week that near where we lived, there is a neighboring town in S.C. debating whether or not “drag queens” can present their “reading hour”program to small children in the public library. Permission was given to them to do so. It was halted, however, when the library officials realized the “Mom’s Liberal Happy Hour SC” group, who was sponsoring the event, had required tickets to attend, which was against the library’s policies. Nevertheless, the group dropped the ticket requirement and reapplied. Their request was approved. So little children got the opportunity to hear a drag queen who believes she can, in her words, “give them someone to look up to.”
Obviously, no one is forced to take their child to such an event. But I have learned over time you cannot fully insulate your child from the culture. I am no expert on parenting, but I do have a lot of parental experience extending over times of cultural change. I have 5 children. My oldest son is 36, my second son is 34, my stepson is 18, my youngest son is 10 and my daughter is now 4. Yes, that is quite a range. I have learned, as have many parents, that during adolescence children reach a point when parents are no longer the dominate influence in their lives. They are financially dependent, but you have to deal with the fact they are influenced by forces outside your control. We all struggle to prepare them for the big—and sometimes bad—world. Releasing them into a culture that is so blatant in its opposition to traditional values was a new and big concern for me. We are never able to keep out all the bad influences, but it is a new era in America. The drag queens aren’t just parading publicly in San Francisco. They’re in Simpsonville, S.C. – the buckle of the Bible Belt! As Dreher indicated, America is no longer a force for good in the minds of some of us.
It isn’t just the changing of values, however. It is the censure of open discussion and inquiry. Even when persons try to articulate their conservative social views in a clearly rational manner, they rarely get an honest hearing. The same old ad hominem attacks are used repeatedly. I see reports that on major college campuses honest political and social debate is being silenced. I recall my state supported university as a place devoted to healthy and rational debate. So if my children were to reach college age in America, it would not be just what university will provide a quality program for them; it would also be to what degree this university silences those who do not go along with the current spirit of the times. Is freedom of speech still a reality even in the hallowed halls of the academia in America?
The situation is very different here in Russia. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Russians, in general, still approve of traditional male/female roles, much as Americans did when I was growing up. Men hold the door for ladies and help with cumbersome or heavy bags. They also “watch their language” when ladies are present. Some American women find these things offensive. Others do not. It is difficult being a gentleman in America: you never know if you’re going to offend somebody by what you do or say. On more serious issues, Putin’s philosophy on matters of same sex relationships and gender identity are that such decisions should not be encouraged until the individual is of mature age. A strong majority of Russians agree. Thus, while gender reassignment surgery is legal in Russia for adults, as is the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, gay marriage is prohibited. Further, strict laws are in place prohibiting the display of affection by such individuals in a public place to which children have access. Thus, events like gay pride parades and similar activities are usually prohibited by local authorities, although they are sometimes allowed in certain locales. I am quite confident access to public restrooms will continue to be based strictly on biological gender, and no drag queens will be appearing at the local libraries or schools. In a broader sense, traditional Orthodox values are generally encouraged.
Another valid question raised in the comments to Dreher’s article about me is, “Are we not as believers called on to be salt and light where we are?” What if everyone with our convictions leaves? Then what happens? Should we apply some sort of cultural “categorical imperative”? It is a fair and important question. So how does someone like me respond?
First, some personal history. When I was 18 years old I joined the U.S. Marines. I distinctly remember that after I had signed up I went down for the preliminary psychological and physical examinations. This was not when I was entering “boot camp,” but it was to make sure I was suitable. After I had finished the tests I went to “check out.” The sergeant spoke in a usual gruff manner: “Freeman!” I meekly responded, “Yes, Sir?” He said, “Our country is at war in a place called Vietnam. Will you hereby swear you are willing to take up arms to defend your country to the death?” I had never heard it expressed quite that way before, but I firmly responded: “Yes, Sir!” He nodded, “Very well, sign here and you are dismissed. You’ll be notified when to report to Parris Island.”
I served over three years active duty, but I was never sent to Vietnam. At the time I sincerely meant it when I said I had no qualms about fighting. Now, I think what a tragedy other young men like me were sent to fight in what was a meaningless war. As I said in my last blog, John Bolton wasn’t willing to do what I and thousands of young men were willing to do, but he and others in leadership are still sending young men and women to such places. I detest both the hypocrisy and the casual way leaders and politicians are eager to send Americans to risk their lives for what turns out to be political posturing and arms sales. Dying in Afghanistan or Syria will not ensure the security of the American borders or the American way of life. In my youthful naivete, I was willing to risk my life for my country. Knowing what I know now, I’m not willing to risk my children.
I am not called to save American culture from itself. Pat Buchanan wrote The Suicide of a Superpower: Will American Civilization Survive to 2025, in which he describes the descent and possible death of American civilization. For his negative appraisal of American culture he was terminated from his job at MSNBC. He takes the title from Arnold Toynbee: “Great civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” I will not sacrifice the future of my children on the altar of America’s suicidal tendencies. God did not call Lot to transform Sodom. He told him to leave.
Again, I am not trying to convince anyone to move to Russia. I do think if one decides to remain in America then you need to get very serious about The Benedict Option. And be ready to pay what may be a very high price for being counter-cultural. Whether or not a family decides to go “The Benedict Option on Steroids” route (as one wag called a move to Russia) is up to each family. Clearly, moving to Russia does not mean I’m more committed to my values or more spiritual than others. It was something we researched, about which we prayed, sought advice and came to believe was right for our family.
Emigrating clearly requires consideration of a number of factors and is not just about dissatisfaction with the decline of cultural values one sees in his or her home culture. Moving from America to Russia is not for everyone, but many families are seriously considering it. The clear majority are Orthodox. There is a spiritual connection to Russia among Orthodox churches and believers. These are not families acting on a whim. I’m impressed by their diligence in research. They somehow find and get in touch with people like us who are already here. Some have visited Russia, and others have plans to do so soon. The ones I have talked to are families who understand far more about Russia than those typically criticizing them. They are not under any delusions that Russia is perfect and free of problems or crime. These people are not to be compared with “starry-eyed” predecessors of past eras. They believe the U.S. Government will continue to intrude in the private lives of its citizens and seek to influence the next generation in ways that contradict the values they hold most dear. Life in Russia presents immigrants with challenges, problems and frustrations. It is not, however, interested in tearing down the faith and values of those parents who desire to pass them on to their next generation.