MOVING DAY AND FATHER’S DAY

Today is Father’s Day in America. Russia does not have such a holiday. For me, like many, there is some sadness. I went on Facebook and the “memory” was from 2014–my last Father’s Day with my dad. He was in hospice, and my oldest son and his family were there with us. Dad tried to hug his granddaughter but didn’t have the strength. Of course, being separated from my two sons in America makes it more difficult still. Holidays can be joyous, but they can also be quite painful—especially as one gets older. I am grateful, however, for my dad and for our relationship. He was not one to say, “I love you,” but he was the anchor in our family. I am glad I was there with him when he departed this life. I got to lean over and tell him goodbye before he left us.

There are other mixed emotions. We moved into our new house this week! It is probably less than two miles from our apartment so it was not like moving here from America. On the other hand, I have used my worn out phrase a lot this past week: “I’ve moved many times in my life, and the best one was still awful.” In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “good move.” I am not referring to the purpose for moving. I mean the actual move itself. This one was in some ways more difficult than our move to Russia. We didn’t move any furniture here to Russia, and we were limited in the amount of clothes and other items we could pack. Not so simple with this move.

In America most people usually call a professional moving company to transport everything. They’ll even pack everything for you if you can afford it. There aren’t any moving companies here in small town Russia. You can find guys who move people, but they usually have other jobs as well. We used the men who have been working on our house. We packed everything ourselves. Another difference here is that most of the furniture we bought here, e.g., wardrobes, the boys’ bunk beds, chest of drawers, etc., has to be taken apart to move. Then we wrapped everything in saran wrap. They sell big rolls of it here specifically for that purpose. Taking it apart is not near as bad as putting it back together, so we hired our friend Vadim who does that professionally. He’s amazing. We still have more furniture on order, but at least we’re in our house.

We now have what most Russians consider a large house. It is about 2,700 sq. ft. The downstairs was completed, and a family was living in it. They started the second floor, but then the husband and wife split up. So we bought the house when the second floor had only been “roughed in.” We were able to do the floor plan the way we wanted. Also, we have a rather large yard with a picnic shelter that includes a large, sturdy table and benches, fireplace, and a sink with running water.

Last night my wife’s parents, sister, brother-in-law and their two little girls came over for our house-warming party. Oksana’s sister and her family live in Germany, so it worked out well with them being here on vacation. Oksana’s sister is fluent in English and her husband speaks some English, so that makes it easier for me. It is so good to be in a home with plenty of room and a yard for our children to play in. We are further from “downtown,” but there are a couple of small grocery stores nearby that have the basics.

While we had a great time, I think Oksana’s dad asked me three times, “Now, you are going to stay here, right? You are settling down here?” I assured him that we are. Later, however, Oksana’s mom told her privately that she sensed a sadness in my eyes. Most Russians, whatever their profession, tend to be psychologists. They read every expression carefully.

Her mom was right. While I am glad we have moved and believe coming here was the right decision, buying a home did add a note of finality to our move to Russia. We have several friends, as I have often noted, who are considering moving to Russia. Most of them say it is a “no return” decision for them. For various reasons, they know once they move they cannot pick up and move back to America. It was not that way for us. We moved with the intention of staying, but we also knew that we had family in America who we could call on to help us get back. My brother told me when we left my old job would be waiting. Deep down I know buying this house makes the move final. We are now owners of a home in Russia. Before we could have just called the owner of the apartment and turned in a one month notice and left. We can’t do that now.

It is not that we harbor desires of returning to America. I have stated several times how much we miss our family and friends there, but we don’t miss life there. The political situation is poisonous. As I indicated in a recent blog, I have now seen how the world covers the news, and there is so much main stream Western news outlets do not cover. Americans are not given the whole story on international events unless they really search alternative news sites. Just this week I was reminded of this fact by three reports. First, back in July, 2014 the U.S. said Russia shot down a Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine. In a documentary just released the Prime Minister of Malaysia said there was no evidence that Russia did it. He also said they (the Malaysians) were not allowed to be involved in the official investigation. He concluded based on their government’s research that blaming the Russians was a narrative cooked up immediately by Americans.

Second, the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking a Japanese tanker last week, but the Japanese officials say the U.S. has gotten the story all wrong. Their people who were actually on the ship tell a different story. I didn’t see either what the Malaysian P.M. said or interviews with any of the Japanese crew get much play on the MSM in America. The third article is one I just saw today and have not had time to study carefully. It is about the media blackout on a report of Arab journalists and civilians who were beheaded by the “moderate rebels” America supported in Syria. https://bsnews.info/media-black-out-on-arab-journalists-and-civilians-beheaded-in-syria-by-western-backed-mercenaries/?fbclid=IwAR3x6tt6d9sh9vHZL27IIi_UodUi2zMgczNhqhVQeHrOmKZuBicIClazmus

Even after the lies were revealed years ago about the Gulf of Tonkin, which led to a war and the deaths of so many American military as well as Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, our government still fabricates stories that have the potential to provoke war. For them, war is good. Even a short war can generate a lot more income for some people than a long peace. The hardest truth for me to confront about my own country was the realization that there are people in powerful places in the U.S. Government who will knowingly send our men and women to die in meaningless wars if it means financial or political rewards for them and their circle of contributors. That was a tough, but unavoidable, truth I had to face. My patriotism took a big hit.

I have also recounted the cultural changes that have occurred which also run counter to what we as Orthodox Christians believe. Patrick J. Buchanan recently wrote a very perceptive article on abortion and gay rights in America. The article went beyond those two issues themselves, however. Buchanan analyzed how the phrase “American values” is being used by the candidates for presidency. They don’t just disagree over how to preserve and protect those values. Their understandings of American values are mutually exclusive. Even during the War between the States the division over values was not as deep. Furthermore, there seems to be no way to solve the issue. So many different “groups” differ so widely, and there are no grounds for compromise. Diplomacy, both domestic and foreign, is dead in America. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/political_commentary/commentary_by_pat_buchanan/are_abortion_gay_rights_american_values

I have not said and am not saying now that everyone who agrees with me should move to Russia or to any country. There were a variety of factors that went into our decision. As I mentioned in my last blog, I frequently get psychoanalyzed by readers who think they have figured out THE motive. I was at the age I could start taking Social Security, and the cost of living is low enough for us to live on it comfortably here. We still could have moved without SS, but we would have had to teach full time or make money in some other way. And I have been interested in Russia since I lived here the first time. I started studying the language, reading the history, and attending an Orthodox church years before we even thought about moving here. All these and other factors came together, and we concluded this move was right.

That does not mean I still don’t think about what life back in America would be like. We look at old pictures or see a Facebook memory of our life in America, and both Oksana and I get tears in the eyes. So what do sentimental ex-pats like myself do? Sometimes I think of the downside of life in America. The photos and memories we look at are of loved ones or good times of course! We didn’t take pictures of mortgage and car payments, credit card notices, taxes, and medical bills. America is, in general, a country that lives on debt. The national debt is bigger than the country’s budget. The most recent poll I could find on personal debt in the U.S. was sponsored by CNBC in 2018. They concluded:

“Credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car loans, personal loans: Most Americans have a combination of these sources of debt. And despite their best intentions, Americans are digging themselves deeper into a hole each year. The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages.”

Excluding home mortgages is excluding a lot of debt for most Americans. I have already been asked how much we paid for our house here more than once. Of course, that is a private issue for most people, but a part of the purpose of this blog is information. First, I can’t give an exact figure because Stepan, our friend whose small company did our expansion, would just use my credit card to buy supplies. He wanted it that way. We would know when he bought something and how much he paid for it. I am not going to go through all those receipts to get an exact figure. Oksana and I both estimated the total cost at just under $75,000. We have, as I said, a 2,700 sq. ft. home on a good size lot (0.4 acres). We live at the end of the road (literally), so it is not paved all way to our house. We have a neighbor on one side and one behind us. There is a forest on the other side, and the house across the street is a “dacha” type house which is empty. It is very peaceful and quiet here.

I miss Father’s Day in America. Getting together with all my kids and grand kids for a big meal and enduring the humor which usually had me as the intended target leaves an empty spot in my heart. But life is seldom exactly as we would arrange it in this world. Last night we grilled shashlik [kebabs] and bratwursts. The shelter, as I said, has a built-in fireplace. It was built up high, so that it is easy to put in charcoal and grill over it. Svetlana made a delicious olivier salad, and we had other veggies and fruits. The adults ate, drank, chatted and watched the girls play. Roman and Gabriel went for a long walk to explore the new territory. I don’t believe Oksana’s parents could have looked more contented.

We now have a perfect spot where we can all gather. I have my own study with built-in sturdy shelves for books—lots of shelves which provide the convenient excuse for buying more books! And people here treat me well. I don’t know how I could go back to living in an America that seems to blame Russia for almost every problem and division. I am sure I could not keep quiet while others are lying about “the Russians.”

People here still debate politics, religion, and the economy. They don’t all share the same personal values and morals. Nevertheless, there are basic cultural values which a clear majority of Russians share. After 70 years of Communism, Russians have rediscovered their history and what they consider to be “the good life.” It is not the uniformity that the Communists insisted on, but there is real unity.

I agree with Mr. Buchanan that America has lost its cultural consensus and presently has no means for recovery. There are not just divisions, there are chasms between what different groups of Americans call virtues. And no one seems to know how to build bridges across the chasms. Oksana’s mom was right. There is a certain sadness in my eyes sometimes. Despite the sadness in my eyes, however, there is a genuine and deeper sense of contentment in my soul.

THREE YEARS BACK IN RUSSIA

The Immortal Regiment of Luga, May 9, 2019

This week marks our third “anniversary” back in Russia. On June 7, 2016 my brother took us to the airport in Charlotte, N.C. We hugged and said our goodbyes to him and my mom, and then we entered the airport knowing life was about to change for this family of five in a very big way. So I offer some reflections.

I went back and read the first couple of blog entries I wrote. I posted the first one June 10, but I had written it two days before we left. The house was about empty by then. We had had two “yard sales” and had gotten rid of most of our possessions. If we had to do it over again, we would have sold more than we did. We brought too much to Russia. One of the things we remembered from when we were in Russia before was you could not always get the clothes and possessions you needed in a small town. That has changed.

Some things have not changed. First, we still believe we made the right decision in moving to Russia. We had discussed, thought over, and prayed about our decision to move for well over a year. We ultimately made our decision in September 2015, and then gradually let family and friends know. We’ve had struggles here to be sure, but neither Oksana nor I have doubted that this was the right move.

The second thing that has not changed is the fact we still miss our American family and friends just as much today as the day we left. In fact, I think I miss my grown-up sons in America even more now. They’ve had some big decisions and sometimes problems, and I have regretted not being there with them. Of course, if I had been there, it would have changed nothing. They’re adults with wives, children, and jobs, and there is nothing a parent can do but listen, talk and pray. I don’t know that I expected I would adjust to not being close to them, but if I did then I was wrong.

On the other hand, I have enjoyed the process of becoming more a part of this culture. Victory Day was on May 9, and it has profound meaning for me living here in Russia. It is the celebration of when the Nazis were finally defeated. Living in this city, which was occupied by the Nazis while Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was under siege, makes one aware of the costs of war. I wrote a whole blog on it a year or so ago, so I won’t recount everything. Most all the townspeople gather on the square, and we march together to the war memorial about two miles away. We, like everyone else, carried the photos of relatives who had fought in the war. We took turns carrying the portraits of Oksana’s maternal and paternal grandfathers. This march, called The Immortal Regiment, takes place all across Russia.

Memorial Day in America has always been an important holiday to me. I think of those who landed at Normandy and how they courageously stared death right in the face. Nevertheless, while America lost around 410,000 people during that war, well over 19 million Russians died. The USSR lost about 27 million. And the war was fought here, not “over there.” Many cities and villages were destroyed. Further, estimates are that about 85-90% of the Nazis who died were killed by the Soviets. Russians are the people most responsible for victory in Europe. As Winston Churchill said in his speech to the House of Commons on August 2, 1944,

“I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.”

A major disappointment now for us is how the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has deteriorated. It was getting tense when we moved. Donald Trump’s adversaries started playing the “Russia card” after he said in his campaign that working with Russia to fight terrorism would be a good thing. I mistakenly thought those tensions would ease after the 2016 election.

So when we left I was frustrated at the political situation. Nevertheless, I frankly didn’t think Trump had a “snowball’s chance in Hell” of winning the election, so I figured it would all settle down in November. I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and the Clintons have a history of talking tough about Russia, but, in the end, they work out deals. Heck, Bill Clinton had been paid $500,000 for one speech in Russia. Their “foundation” had had some profitable deals with Russia. When Trump won, however, the blame was placed on Russia. In the eyes of many it could not be that Hillary ran an awful campaign or that Americans wanted a non-traditional businessman with no political debts as president. The narrative was and is Trump won because the Russians “meddled.”

Reading those early blogs I remember that I wanted to stay away from politics. Yet, you can’t talk about an American in Russia now without dealing with the political aspects. I regularly watch the newscasts from America. Some days I see nothing about the soaring suicide rates among our war veterans, about poor medical care for the veterans, the explosive costs of medical care for American families, or the crumbling infrastructure . But I do not recall one day of watching the news from America and not hearing something nasty said about “the Russians.” It is as if “Putin’s Russia” has destroyed the American way of life. Thus, I couldn’t and can’t avoid the “elephant in the room.” When people hear I live in Russia, they don’t ask about samovars or borscht.

When the leaders or “wannabe leaders” (e.g., John Bolton) of a nation want to pick a fight with another nation, they often vilify that nation or its elected leaders. They convince their own people how bad other leaders are. Assad gasses his own people in Syria; Maduro doesn’t care that the Venezuelan people are starving; Iran is led by those wanting to destroy America. Putin meddles; he lies; he is evil. The truth of those claims must be accepted, and any contravening evidence squashed. Such talk gets the common people convinced that action must be taken—even military action.

I see no such vilification of America going on in Russia. I don’t hear Vladimir Putin making speeches about confronting America or his emissaries spreading rumors about how horrible the leaders are. Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler, and he really never responded. The “Steele Dossier” was intended to show “the Kremlin” was both out to intimidate Trump and, oddly enough, also get him elected. The falsity of that document has now been proven for those willing to accept facts. Nevertheless, I’m still having to write about politics.

I add the caveat the Putin is not pretending there are no potential problems. The advances in the Russian military capabilities are quite impressive, especially their missile and missile defense systems. Putin unveiled some astounding weaponry in March of last year, but the U.S. seemed to pay no attention. They keep harping on election meddling and acting as if they could defeat any nation in the world. The U.S. continues to drain its resources by funding military bases all around the world. On actual battlefields, however, Afghanistan has turned into another Vietnam in the sense that victory seems no longer a possibility. I’m not sure we even know what victory would look like. If you can’t win in Vietnam or Afghanistan you may want to re-think provoking China and Russia.

The Mueller investigation lasted two years and cost about $35 million tax dollars, but he and his team could not show Trump “colluded” with any Russians. That didn’t stop Mueller from blaming Russia in his recent public remarks. Some of what he said seemed weird to even non-lawyers like myself. He could find no evidence of collusion or anything illegal, but he couldn’t exonerate (prove innocent?) Trump either. Since when do investigators prove innocence? Also, he strongly implied that Trump was guilty of “obstruction of justice.” As John Batchelor sarcastically quipped, “Trump was guilty of trying to obstruct an investigation into a crime that was not committed.” What Mueller did do was continue the anti-Russian theme by insisting that he knew the Russians meddled.

What I did not hear on the network reports I watched was the mention of events in May of last year when Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and 3 Russian companies for interfering in the election. Initially, I read a claim he had hundreds of pages in Russian documents proving they did it. It looked like an easy play for Mueller. Obviously he could not force the Russians to come to America and stand trial, and no one thought they would volunteer. Thus, he could say he knew they were guilty, they would stay in Russia, and Mueller could then claim the Russians meddled and got Trump elected with no fear of contradiction.

What he did not foresee was that the Russians would fight. Concord Management and Consulting hired two Washington lawyers to go to court. They went before a judge and demanded Mueller and his team turn over the incriminating documents used to indict them. They wanted their speedy trial. They added two other points. First, if the documents proving they were meddling were written in Russian, how would said documents convince Americans to vote for Trump? Most Americans don’t read Russian. And how did Mueller’s team know what was in the documents since they could not read Russian either? Second, one of the companies Mueller indicted did not actually exist at the time he claimed they committed the acts.

Mueller’s team fumbled around in court and said they weren’t ready. The lawyers for the Russians asked how Mueller could indict anyone and then claim he was not ready and that he could not produce documents. The judge threw out Mueller’s indictments. (See https://www.sgtreport.com/2018/05/a-russian-nightmare-for-mueller-special-counsel-trial-lawyer-woefully-unprepared-to-actually-prosecute-the-indicted-russians/ and https://therightscoop.com/digenova-russians-call-muellers-bluff-judge-sides-with-russians/  ) After that fiasco, I did not believe any claims that Mueller was a fair man of integrity. It seemed from here that opinions about Mueller and the whole “Russiagate” affair were actually rooted in whether or not one liked or disliked Donald Trump.

After three years in Russia I trust politicians and the American media less than I did before—and my trust was not exactly high beforehand. Further, Trump’s election has polarized many Americans. Some tell me they like Trump, which apparently means they support anything he does. Other despise him and will oppose anyone or any leader with whom Trump tries to work. Then Trump himself is hardly a model of consistency. He stated a couple of weeks ago Iran better watch their threats or “that would be the official end of Iran.” The next week he spoke of the many Iranians he likes and said he was not seeking regime change.

I admire Putin based on the immense changes I see here in Russia from when I first came here in 2002. I went back and read my second blog entry again, which was when we actually arrived here. I described being astounded at the improvements in the airport, the roads, the buildings, the homes, as well as the number and quality of the automobiles. Of course, I don’t know enough about Russian politics to say Putin is responsible for all that, but he has been the main leader of the country during this time of positive transition. His approval ratings fell after the bill was presented on raising the age of retirement, but he still remains popular. His administration has been in charge in an extended period of growth. He gets a lot of the credit; that is the nature of politics.

I still see things here that bother me. Oksana and I have been able to help some elderly folk with their medical (and other) expenses. I’m not sure why more government help is not available. But, again, I don’t know enough about the details of Russia to know who is to blame. I don’t like saying I like (or don’t like) a politician, but I do admire Putin’s discipline and foresight. I also admire the way he has endured the cheap shots from American politicians without responding in kind. He seems to me to be of a higher caliber in the area of political character and resolve.

I have frequently said (and will continue to say) that I have been unpleasantly surprised at how Americans who know nothing of the situation here in Russia comment on it as if they are experts. Just two weeks ago I saw a “friend” on Facebook post something about Putin, calling him an evil dictator. Another one referred to him as a Communist dictator. I won’t go into the details, but I have recounted in my blogs the very negative things that have appeared in the press here about Putin. Pravda, the Communist publication, really blasted him after the bill on raising the retirement age. I’m not reporting second hand info; I actually read what it said. They have taken other shots at him as well. The Moscow Times, which is more pro-Western, often criticizes Putin. I have Russian friends who are not afraid to post their negative evaluations of Putin. Dictators don’t put up with that stuff. While the TV commentators are often positive about Putin, nothing gets anywhere close to the level of the good things CNN has said about Hillary Clinton or the praise Sean Hannity of Fox has rendered to Trump. In Russia, I get more actual news. I often do not learn any facts from the U.S. news reports, but I almost always know who the network likes.

The tragedy of all this political posturing is it damages potential diplomacy and increases the horrible risks in a nuclear age. I have stated on several occasions how my perspective on world events has changed as a result of seeing things from a much broader perspective. I used to think that if I watched CNN and FOX then I had gotten the two perspectives on events. Well, I did get two perspectives, but now I know there are far more than two perspectives on most issues. I watched a British reporter in an interview with a Syrian lady earlier this afternoon. The news anchor kept telling the lady in Syria all the bad things Assad was doing to her people. The lady calmly and firmly told the anchor she and most Western reporters don’t know what they are talking about. The news anchor was insistent in blasting Assad, but it became increasingly clear she had never been to Syria and could produce no one in her news department that had. She knew the narrative her government wanted her to know—despite what recent reports from the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons research showed.

I’m surprised at how many people have read my blog. When I started I thought if 50 people read it, I would consider it a success. It is great to hear from people in many countries who read it. Of course, I hear from some who disagree or just don’t like what I say. That is the nature of public debate. I’m also amazed at how people who don’t know me still think they know my motives. Rod Dreher did an article on me quoting the reasons I had given for our coming to Russia. There were several comments from people who just could not accept those were my true motives. The most humorous was from a fellow who disbelieved all I said and suggested it was probably because my wife is from a family of Russian oligarchs. This Freeman guy really came to Russia to get in on the family’s money. My in-laws must be the only oligarchs in Russia living in a three room apartment.

I had one other significant “life event” since my last blog: I turned 65 years old. I don’t really feel different physically. After my birthday, I walked 5.22 miles (8.4 km) just to prove myself. I’ve pretty much given up losing a lot of weight since my thyroid stopped working a few years back, but except for the thyroid medication I’m on no prescription medicines.

The birthday did, however, make me reflect on life a bit. After pondering the reality that I am in my mid-60s, for some reason my mind went back to when I was in my 40s. Back then I was teaching both at the university and seminary level. I loved my job, loved the students, the administration, and had plenty of speaking opportunities. I even had some articles published.

The only teaching I’ll be doing now is returning to teaching English to Russian teenagers this fall. The only writing I do is this blog and answering e-mails. I never speak in any public format. I certainly do not have the income I did twenty years ago! But life is better now, mainly because the personal aspects of life are far more gratifying to me than the professional ones. I wish I had realized that at a younger age. I kept believing that more professional accomplishments would somehow smooth out my flaws and calm the struggles in my personal life.

Since becoming Eastern Orthodox I have discovered a spiritual perspective or depth that was missing for most of my life. I still think reading New Testament and LXX Greek is an immensely profitable spiritual experience, and I recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity. But I don’t read Greek just to show I can anymore. I love the struggle of comparing Greek to the Russian translations, but I do it in the quiet of our home, and speak of the nuggets revealed to me only to my wife. Further, reading the writings of the Fathers and saints who knew so much about the value of quiet humility has taught me the futility and stupidity of my former ambitions. Did this happen because I came to Russia? I’m not sure, but there is so much “noise” in America now. I know that living here has made the lessons I’ve learned in my later years easier to digest and live. I fondly remember and miss my former “world,” but I’ll always be grateful for the one I live in now.