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.

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