SO, DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVER MOVE BACK TO THE STATES?

It’s a question I have been asked several times, even going back to when we moved here in 2016. From time to time folks still ask me. Recently in one of our regular phone conversations my mother asked the question in a very serious tone. The next day another relative asked me. I guess they had been talking about it. I usually try to give an honest but generic answer: I don’t know the future. I’ve lived long enough to realize that life can change in an instant because of many different and unforeseen reasons. Nevertheless, I felt bad about evading my mom’s question. And it started me to thinking about the things that would be very problematic if we thought about returning to America. I’ll divide them into political and personal, although the division is a bit artificial for us.

POLITICAL. Not long after my conversation with mom, the House Impeachment Inquiry about Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president started. I feel when you are an American living in Russia, it is a good idea to keep up with international politics. Still, I had no intention of getting absorbed in it since I don’t live in Ukraine, and I honestly felt it was “much ado about nothing,” especially given the Biden family’s long and twisted history with Ukraine. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before I realized the telephone conversation was not actually the focus of the first witnesses’ testimonies, The fact is they did not even hear the conversation.

Suddenly Russia was the “front and center” topic of the so-called testimonies. George Kent and William Taylor were the first two witnesses I saw. I could not believe the bald faced lies in the first “testimony.” According to Kent Russia had invaded Ukraine, and the loss of 13,000 Ukrainian lives resulted from evil Russia’s aggression. No, thousands of Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine were killed by other Ukrainians armed with weapons they got from the U.S. I could go on, but I think a couple of paragraphs on Kent and Taylor from Robert Merry’s article in “The American Conservative” sum it up well.

>>But these men embrace a geopolitical outlook that is simplistic, foolhardy, and dangerous. Perhaps no serious blame should accrue to them, since it is the same geopolitical outlook embraced and enforced by pretty much the entire foreign policy establishment, of which these men are mere loyal apparatchiks. And yet they are playing their part in pushing a foreign policy that is directing America towards a very possible disaster.

Neither man manifested even an inkling of an understanding of what kind of game the United States is playing with Ukraine. Neither gave even a nod to the long, complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Neither seemed to understand either the substance or the intensity of Russia’s geopolitical interests along its own borders or the likely consequences of increasing U.S. meddling in what for centuries has been part of Russia’s sphere of influence.<<

As more “experts” were called the lies continued. I posted an article on Facebook from “Consortium News” by one of the “greybeards” left over from the Reagan years (and before), Ray McGovern. There are actually two recent articles by him I recommend. First, on the lying by Fiona Hill during the inquiry see, https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/22/ray-mcgovern-the-pitfalls-of-a-pit-bull-russophobe/?fbclid=IwAR1z1lxEXaTwX1td8qZ3TvIw4vKnoff_goL4DLUJZ1zFMVUToH20mrt1ctU. I have mentioned before understanding the history of Ukraine is very difficult. It’s not that Ukraine has a long history as a “state.” It doesn’t. The difficulty is sorting through the many and varied influences on its development over the years. I have read books on Ukrainian history, but I still get confused over the interplay between the different factions. McGovern, a long time REAL expert on that part of the world, wrote a very helpful and relatively brief article that summarized Ukraine and its history, including Crimea, that I hope many will read: It is aptly called “Ukraine for Dummies.” See https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/14/ray-mcgovern-ukraine-for-dummies/

I finally decided it was not in the interest of my emotional health to continue watching whatever this impeachment inquiry actually was. My main question was left unanswered. I realize a House Inquiry is not a trial as it will be if it goes to the Senate. Still, why did they start by calling as “witnesses” those who could not testify as to having any direct knowledge of the conversation which was ostensibly what motivated them to call for impeachment? Second, how did they go from the topic of Trump’s conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky to broad ranging (and deceptive) testimonies about Russia and Vladimir Putin? How was Russia even involved in this conversation let alone the subject of long rambling statements by these people who are considered experts but apparently have no knowledge of the dismantling of the USSR? Do they realize Ukraine was part of the USSR? The Democrats I saw beforehand talked of impeaching Trump because of the “quid pro quo” linkage of demanding Ukraine investigate the Biden family’s financial and political interests in Ukraine before we (the U.S.) would send weapons to them. The witnesses seemed to know nothing about that.

As far as allegiances for and against Putin and Russia, Ukrainians have been simplistically, albeit helpfully, divided between “left bank” and “right bank.” If you imagine yourself standing on the northern border of Ukraine and looking south down its longest river that winds roughly through the center of the country, the Dnieper River, you could do a generalized division of the cultures as they pertain to Russia. Those on the “left bank” (to the east) would probably speak Russian as their first language, would worship in the Russian Orthodox Church if they are religious, and would basically live life as most Russians do. They would also probably wish for good relations with Russia. On the other hand, those on the right bank (and to the western border) would probably speak Ukrainian or one of the other languages spoken there. They may have Ukrainian, German, Polish or other ancestry, but they would be less likely to have positive impressions of Russia.

For quite some time the U.S. has had positive relations with those in power in Ukraine who oppose “Russian aggression.” This is changing as it is becoming clear to many astute observers on this side of the Atlantic that while the U.S. may seem that it is trying to be helpful and wants to supply money, arms, etc., in order to spread democracy, it “ain’t necessarily so.” From Libya, Iraq and the fact Ukraine’s economy is now the lowest in Europe since American began “helping out,” many have learned America may have its own self-serving agenda. The United States supported a coup in Ukraine with the convoluted explanation that they were helping spread democracy. A country who helps overthrow a duly elected president is not trying to spread democracy, no matter how loud they proclaim said president is corrupt. Is there any politician more corrupt than Victor Poroshenko—or the United States’ all time favorite Russian leader Boris Yeltsin?

In an article that appeared in “The NY Times” (November 13, 2019), Ukrainian billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky, a long time supporter of the new president, Zelensky, and long time adversary of Vladimir Putin, announced he now advocates a Warsaw type pact between Russia and Ukraine. This guy has said really nasty things about Putin in the past and poured millions into opposing Russia, but now he wants a joint treaty with them. I had read an earlier interview with him just after the Ukrainian election of Zelensky wherein I was surprised Kolomoisky sounded so anti-American. Now, he openly states that it is in Ukraine’s best interest to work with Russia—not the United States. This guy is very rich and very influential. That interview was not mentioned in the Trump impeachment hearings.

On the other hand, while I think Trump is not nearly as pro-war and anti-diplomacy as the current leading Democratic candidates, I cannot in good conscience put on a MAGA hat. On Nov. 9 his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in Berlin. His speech was more of the same Russia-bashing one hears from the Democrats in the impeachment inquiry.

>>Today, Russia – led by a former KGB officer stationed in Dresden ‒ invades its neighbors and slays political opponents. It suppresses the independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Russian authorities, even as we speak, use police raids and torture against Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians who are working in opposition to Russian aggression. In Chechnya, anyone considered “undesirable” by the authorities simply disappears.<<

Remember: This is from the man who recently boasted of learning how to lie and teach others how to lie when he was in the CIA. So the fact that he is openly lying in Germany should not surprise. Nora Muller asked him after his speech about what she had been told in Syria—that many are saying it is better to seek good relations with Russia than the United States. Pompeo angrily dismissed this view as “irrational.” He was being as nasty as possible about Russia because the United States has tried in every possible way to stop Nord Stream 2. Nord Stream 2 is a pipeline that would double the amount of natural gas Russia could supply to Germany and then other EU countries. The U.S. fears good trade relationships between Western Europe and Russia will destroy the “narrative” about evil Russia, and these nations will be less dependent on America and more dependent on Russia. Pompeo’s anti-Russian rant fell on deaf ears. Nord Stream 2 is still on track to open in a few weeks.

Last month Denmark gave official permission for the last segment to be completed across their “territory” under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline should be completed by the end of the year. Now Western Europe will get high quality natural gas from Russia at affordable pricing. Further, Russia will not be forced to put up with Ukraine siphoning off its gas as it goes through Ukraine to Europe. Ukraine is now no longer necessary to move the gas. Ukraine will be obsolete and will have to deal honestly with Russia and pay its bills. So even anti-Russian oligarchs are saying Ukraine should link up with Russia. Rather than diplomacy, which seems beyond Pompeo’s intellectual grasp, he continues the fall back position of ranting about the evils of Russia. Europe is no longer falling for it, and it’s getting old.

My point is this: From both sides of the proverbial political aisle in America, powerful people continue to sow as much animosity toward Russia as possible. The Mueller report found nothing, despite what had been promised. Trump said he would drain the swamp, but there are some nasty swamp rats in his own circle of advisers. He replaced John Bolton with Robert O’Brien, who is a Bolton cut-out without the tacky mustache and idiotic grin. Trump said late in 2018 we were getting out of Syria. Bolton quickly jumped in and “corrected” this misinformation. This fall Trump again made it very clear we were pulling back and eventually getting out. But then the military establishment jumped in with both feet from both parties. Both Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham could not wait to condemn his “abandonment” of the Kurds. Most Americans have no idea who the Kurds are. They are hardly a monolithic group. They range from good people to barbaric terrorists. The way Graham described them as such long time faithful allies of America you would think the Kurds were paddling the boat when George Washington crossed the Delaware River. The Kurds are our “allies” as long as we give them uniforms and weapons. That is their “loyalty” to America.

Nevertheless, Trump backed down. Not only did he back down, he sent our troops to take over Syrian oil wells. He even said he wanted Exxon or another American oil company to come in and manage them. So America gets to take over another country’s oil fields because….oh yeah, we’re spreading democracy. Contrast the views expressed by candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Make sure you watch to the end and see how sweet the CBS folks are to him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C38toRT3_-0

The U.S. is in Syria against international law. We claim we are protecting the oil wells from ISIS. No, we’re not. Syria and their legally invited ally, Russia, are fully capable of that. Further, ISIS did not exist until Barack Obama sent our troops into Syria. Of course, the 30 day stay Obama promised has turned into 5 years, and now we have decided their oil fields belong in our care. Wonder why they have terrorists over there. Nevertheless, given the massive U.S. media campaign to demonize Assad, the majority of Americans believe we’re justified. There has been no evidence Assad ever tried to “gas” his own people, but the overwhelming majority of Americans will never be informed of that uncomfortable fact. Both political parties and the MSM from all the major networks keep it quiet.

I don’t get my information from Russian news outlets. Oh, I try to keep up with the news here, but that is not where I get my information. I follow reporters—professional and non-professional—who are actually in the countries I try to learn about. I’ve mentioned Janice Kortkamp and Tom Duggan in Syria before. Janice is American; Tom is British. Also, Eva Karene Bartlett has been there, as well as other “hot spots,” and she reports what she sees and hears. I trust Consortium News for analysis, which is basically retired intelligence professionals like Ray McGovern. I also read Philip Giraldi and Lawrence Wilkerson (also a South Carolinian—more reliable than Lindsey Graham for sure). Old politicians like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul also have good observations. These people, however, are not the people to whom most Americans look for information on international events. Sadly, most Americans do not even know who I am talking about. More unfortunately, the people they look to are lying. Thus, I really don’t fit in with any major political perspectives in America.

THE PERSONAL. The other dimension for our reluctance to ever return permanently to America is more immediate. Our major source of income is my Social Security check. We do a little part time teaching, but that is more to help out the English school than to rake in big bucks. Here we live comfortably. Our house is paid for. We still have some debt on our credit card from extra work we had done on the house, but that should be paid off in no more than a couple months. Living debt free for a family of five (with one son in college) on Social Security would not be possible in America. We don’t splurge much, but we don’t pinch pennies—or rubles—either.

I’ve written so much before about the traditional morals here in contrast to what is going on in America, that I will only mention that continues to be a factor in where we want our children educated and socialized. It has surprised me that when I read what traditional Americans like me are saying about the decline of morals in America, they do so in such a way that indicates the whole world is in moral decline or abdicating traditional morals. No, what is happening in America and Western Europe is not happening everywhere. It is not happening here in Russia. An excerpt from Putin’s speech at the Valdai International Conference a couple of years ago shows what I mean. Putin said:

We see that many Euro-Atlantic states have taken the way where they deny or reject their own roots, including their own Christian roots which form the basis of Western civilization. In these countries the moral basis and any traditional identity are being denied—national, religious, cultural, and even gender identities are being denied or relativised. There, politics treats a family with many children as juridically equal to a homosexual partnership; faith in God is equal to faith in Satan. The excesses and exaggerations of political correctness in these countries indeed lead to serious consideration for the legitimization of parties that promote the propaganda of pedophilia.

I realize there are those in America who applaud the changes that have been going on and the move away from traditional values and morals. They certainly have a right to their views and reasons to be joyful about the changes for what they see are better and more open standards. But those who lament the departure of America from traditional values should understand this is not a worldwide phenomenon. These individuals tend to hold on to the “America is the savior of the world” mentality that is not longer tenable. I am not sure how we would fit back into such a culture.

Health care and finances are another area I have mentioned. Gabriel and Marina Grace have been sick this past week. They came down with bronchitis, which was going around. Oksana took both Gabriel and Marina Grace to the pediatrician. The doctor charged her for Gabriel, but wouldn’t charge her for both of them. Then Oksana took them back for a re-check and to have further tests done because they were fearing pneumonia could have developed. The doctor charged for the tests, but not for the re-check. Her total charge for both office visits was $11.58. The x-rays were $15.00 and the blood tests were about $12.00. Two office visits for two kids, plus x-rays and blood tests for Gabriel would have been an economic disaster right before Christmas if we were living in America. I do not want to go back to the paralysis of living in perpetual debt.

CONCLUSION. I have a concern (fear?) of what life would be like for my Russian-American family in the States given the possible fall out from the political situation. Vladimir Putin is not waiting with bated breath to invade Ukraine or any other country. Why would he want to take over a country with the debt as huge as Ukraine, given Russia has just paid off the lingering “Soviet” debt? I watched the interview with Maria Butina, the Russian lady who was arrested in the United States and kept in solitary confinement for a year and a half. All she was guilty of was being a Russian and a gun rights supporter. https://yandex.ru/video/preview?filmId=1807381273084603644&text=Maria%20Butina%20speaks%20to%20RT&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1574679423112341-185110717466526656300124-sas1-1958&redircnt=1574679434.1 The political clash between Russia and America, a clash that America has initiated and maintains, is very personal and fearful for us.

My kids are becoming more comfortable speaking Russian than English. Sometimes little Marina Grace says things in such a way I know she’s thinking in Russian even when she’s speaking to me in English. She asked me in English last week, “Daddy, what time did I stand this morning?” The verb referring to getting out of bed in the morning is the same verb for “to stand” in Russian. What would she face back in America? We’re not even talking about the “trans” bathroom problems.

For many people the political debates can be put on the proverbial shelf. They either say they don’t know who or what to believe or, more commonly, that I don’t really understand how awful Russia is. They haven’t been here, have never studied it beyond what they see on TV, but they are sure that Rachel Maddow or Mike Pompeo must know so much more than I do about Russia. But their wife and kids don’t carry a Russian passport. And life is good here. There is no dictator. I don’t fear Russia squelching my free speech whether vocal or on the i-net. No one hates me because I’m American. I am not afraid of the Russian police grabbing me. I don’t know if life would go as well if we returned to America.

I’ve stated many times the worst part about living in Russia is missing family and friends. The climate does not bother me; the food is good; I’m getting better at speaking the language. I’m even reading Anna Karenina in Russian now! (Okay, it’s a simplified version with some of the big words translated. And I’m reading it as Oksana tutors me, but I think it still counts!) But Marina will ask if we can go see Mama Freeman today or “Can we go up to Uncle Eddie and Aunt Jean’s house?” (My brother and his wife.) She named her favorite doll, “Anna Kate” after my son’s daughter in America. So, yeah, we all miss America a lot. But not enough to risk a return.

Last week we observed the sad anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It has been 56 years. When he ran for president it created quite a stir in the American south. South Carolina, like most southern states at the time, had been solidly Democrat. Yet Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, came from very wealthy Massachusetts society. He was “upper crust,” and it was very different from where we lived in rural South Carolina. His accent was, well, different. More importantly than that, for my devoutly Baptist family, he was solidly Roman Catholic. My dad was an open-minded and open-hearted man in many ways. It was when segregation and racism reigned in much of South Carolina. Yet I never heard my dad utter a racial slur or tell a racist joke. I saw him treat black people with the same patience and kindness with which he treated everyone else. But he would not vote for a Catholic. He calmly told me Catholics must follow what the Pope says, and he didn’t think our president should be under the authority of the Pope. He supported Goldwater.

I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot. I was in the 4th grade at Keowee Elementary school. The principal, Miss Holloman, came and told our teacher, Mrs. Kelly, that Kennedy had been shot. We were getting our books packed to go home, and just before the final bell she told us he had died. When I got home my mom and dad were sitting squarely in front of the TV watching the news come in. Mom had tears running down her face. Dad looked like he had been kicked in the stomach. He just kept shaking his head in silence. I was confused. They didn’t vote for Kennedy, but you would have thought a family member had just died. I expressed my confusion to my dad. He said, “Son, he was our President. The President of the United States, our country, was shot down like a dog in the street. It’s just awful.”

I came away believing that what united us as Americans was more important than political parties, votes or what you think of who is in office. Our little Southern Baptist church got together and prayed. Everyone did. It really didn’t matter who you voted for. No one even asked. As I watched the House Inquiry last week I started thinking about Kennedy’s death. As Adam Schiff maneuvered the inquiry, I saw a nation that has lost something. Something very important. It’s just not the same. I fear what has been lost cannot be recovered

NADEZHDA, THE FASCINATING GOAT LADY

One morning this summer shortly after we had moved into our new house I took a break from reading to go down and get another cup of coffee. I glanced out our upstairs window as I returned, and I saw a lady, a babushka (grandmother), walking outside our fence. As she passed by I could see she was leading four goats into the forest beside our house. It looked like a billy goat, a nanny goat and two kid goats. The goats were looking around for something to munch on as they walked, but they never got far from the old babushka. I called for my little daughter to come watch “the goat lady.”

[Caveat: Sometimes Russian readers whom I do not know will translate my blogs into Russian and post them on Russian sites. I realize “goat lady” does not translate easily (or prettily) into Russian. For my English readers this could be partly because the term for a male goat has a negative connotation in Russian—kind of like “jackass” in English.]

I saw this babushka walking with her goats on a regular basis after that. It was a fun distraction to watch the goats play as they walked through that pine forest. Eventually Oksana went out to meet her. She wanted to find out if “goat lady” sold milk. Oksana returned to tell me her name was Nadezhda, which means “hope,” and she did indeed sell raw goat milk. She does not process it in any way, but she assured Oksana that no one in her family or anyone who had purchased her milk had ever gotten sick from it. Since she lives just around the corner from us in an old house with her goats and two old dogs, it is convenient for us to get the milk which is quite tasty, not to mention nutritious.

I went with Oksana to meet her one day. She seemed very glad to meet an American. She was a little uncomfortable, however, because I have no patronymic name. I think I have covered this before, but Russians do not have a “middle” name like Americans or other Westerners. After their given name they have a name which is a form of the name of their father. For example, my wife’s name is “Oksana Ivanovna,” since her father’s name is Ivan. (If she had a brother his patronymic name would be Ivanovich.) Only her close friends call her simply Oksana. When Oksana explained Americans don’t have patronymic names Nadezhda still looked uncomfortable. I think it seemed impolite to her to call a man my age simply by his given name. So she avoided addressing me directly.

Over the next couple of weeks Nadezhda began to feel comfortable talking to Oksana. One day Oksana returned home and told me Nadezhda’s life story. She was born in Luga over 80 years ago. She came from an Orthodox family. Her grandfather had been a deacon in the Orthodox Church when the October Revolution occurred. After the Bolsheviks took over and established the Communist government, her grandfather announced that God had told him the Communists would rule Russia for only 70 years. Word of his prediction (or prophesy) reached the ears of the authorities. He was severely punished and warned never to say such things again. But he was not a cowardly man. In his mind, God had given him a message to be proclaimed. He would not keep quiet. After receiving more warnings, he was ultimately executed.

When Nadezhda was a little girl the Nazis captured and occupied Luga on their march toward St. Petersburg. The citizens of Luga, as I have mentioned before, formed militias to fight for their homeland. Eventually the superior numbers and firepower of the Germans were too much for them. Nevertheless, Luga was later declared a “Hero City” because the people here held off the Germans long enough for St. Petersburg to barricade itself against the coming siege. The Nazis besieged St. Petersburg from September 1941 until January 1944, but the city never fell into Nazi hands.

Here in Luga the Germans tore down street signs and other public announcement boards and replaced them with ones written in German. Administrative buildings downtown were taken over by Nazi leaders, and Nazi soldiers served to police the population here. This “policing” included taking any Russian citizens they desired into captivity to do whatever work the German authorities dictated. Some families were exported to Germany to take care of work there. Since many Germans were serving in the military there was a great need for slave labor in Germany. The Germans decided to use Russians as slaves.

Little Nadezhda, her sister, and parents were among the Russians sent to Germany as slaves. While her mother and father had to do whatever their German masters said, Nadezhda said that, oddly enough, it was a good time for her and her sister. They lived in a Russian settlement and, unlike many Russian kids their age that were taken to Germany, were not made to work. The best thing was they had three meals a day! So they could play and eat plenty of food. They really were so much better off than many during those times.

Eventually the Russians were able to push the Germans out of Russia. It seems to me it was a miraculous feat. The Nazi soldiers were forced out, and the Russians pursued them and eventually took control of Berlin. The allied troops were also coming from the other direction. Some wanted to get to Berlin before the Russians and get the glory of the certain victory. General Eisenhower was in charge of allied forces there at the time and stated that would not be the case. He said the Russians had sacrificed more lives by far than anyone in this war, and the victory in Berlin should belong to them.

The allies and the Russians subsequently joined together to liberate German cities. The troops who came to liberate the city where Nadezhda and her family were kept were Americans. She recalled her amazement at seeing real live American troops enter the city. They called out to the troops. Some ignored them, but some tried to say “hello” to them in mangled Russian. (The Russian word for a formal hello is «Здравствуйте» [Zdrahstvuyteh]. Most Americans wouldn’t even attempt to say that word.) Then the Russians saw that some of the American soldiers were black. None of them had ever seen a black person before! Nadezhda bashfully admitted they stared at them. It wasn’t racism. It was simply the first time they had seen black people up close and in person. Anyway, the Americans arranged for them to be sent back to their homeland.

The journey back home was far from joyous. Their train stopped in Poland, and the Polish people greeted them with bottles of vodka with which they could celebrate on the way home. Turns out it was a ruse. The vodka was laced with poison, and the men who drank it died shortly after leaving Poland. There had been a long standing animosity between the Soviet Union and Poland, but the Russians really did believe the Poles were glad they had defeated the Nazis. They were wrong.

The joy of arriving back home to Luga also quickly evaporated. The city was devastated by the Germans. There was nothing of value left. Worse, there was a food shortage. Nadezhda and her family went from having three square meals a day in Germany to reduced rations here in Russia. The rebuilding of Russia after “The Great Patriotic War” (as WW2 is called in Russia) would take many years.

Eventually Russia and the USSR would get back on its feet. Nadezhda went on to have a family and career. She worked for the City Planning Commission. She inspected construction projects within the city. She still keeps a sharp eye on construction. She explained to us everything about the construction of our home, so obviously as she was walking her goats by here she was still “the inspector.” I don’t mean she shared a few general tidbits. She gave the details on how this house was built and the elevation of the lot. Thus, her conclusion that it was a well-built house was great to hear.

Years later there was another tragedy in Nadezhda’s life. One Sunday morning she was going to Liturgy on St. Nicolas Day. It was a cold wintry day with snow and ice. As she got off the city bus she fell and slid under the bus. The driver did not see her and drove over her. The wheel of the bus crossed over her body from below one hip to over her opposite shoulder. She barely survived and spent many months in the hospital. She still bears the scars from that accident. She worked on for a while but eventually had to retire because of the injuries. But she never gave up or gave in. Today she says she walks her goats in part to keep them healthy and enjoy the natural feed, but also because if she sits and does not get out and move around she gets very sore in the places where the bus tire ran over her.

So now when I look out and see Nadezhda I see more than some old grandmother walking her goats. This lady survived being the daughter of slaves in Germany, a famine in her own country and being run over by a bus. She lived through the leadership of Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev. She saw Communist power rise after the war and saw it fall with Gorbachev. She somehow made it through the awful 90s when, with the help of America, Yeltsin and the oligarchs almost destroyed Russia again. There is some fascinating history inside the mind of that old woman with the goats.

There are several ways to learn about a foreign country in which you may want to live and/or work. The traditional and perhaps best way to learn about Russia is to go to a university and major in Russian studies. You study the language, history and culture under qualified professors. Then usually you go and spend a semester or even a year studying here.

When we decided to move back to Russia I was supporting a wife and three kids, so I hardly had the opportunity, time or money to go the traditional route. I tried to condense in a short time as much learning as I could about this country. Since I had already visited here three times and then lived here almost three years, I did have a head start.

I had already started the first task, to study the language, and I continue to study it—most every day. The progress is slow, but I’m getting to the point of actually talking one on one with Russians. This is why I plod away at the Russian language. I don’t study Russian in hopes that one day I can impress people with my linguistic skills or get a certificate showing I am fluent in Russian. Those goals are beyond my grasp anyway. I study Russian to know the people here better. I believe in order to understand a country or culture one must be familiar with the language. Our thoughts are expressed in our words, the words of our native language. We cannot disconnect thought from language. I don’t believe I can really get to know Russians and how they think unless I understand as much of the language as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever reach the point of complete understanding, but the more I know the better. Furthermore, when Russians see that I’m struggling to learn their complex language just so I can talk with them they seem very grateful and open up to me more.

Second, I had also already begun to familiarize myself with Russian history. Heck, as a kid, I thought everyone here had always been atheists and Communists. I really enjoyed learning that there are so many aspects of Russian history about which I was totally ignorant. And reading Russian history is more enjoyable than studying the Russian language in my opinion.

I have two shelves of books on every part of Russian history, but I especially love the more recent history of the last 100 years or so. The books I prefer are those based on research that included interaction with “the people of the land.” For example, I’ve read a number of analyses of Stalin’s gulags. My favorite is Stephen Cohen’s, “The Victims Return,” because 1) Cohen holds a Ph.D. in Russian studies from Columbia University and taught Russian studies at Princeton and New York Universities for many years. Thus, he has stellar academic credentials. 2) He also spent a lot of time in Russia over his academic career, and still comes here and interacts with former acquaintances both in and out of the Russian government. Thus, he has access to “inside” information not readily available to the public. He and Gorbachev have been friends for years, and he is still interviewed by Russian reporters when he is here.

“The Victims Return” is based on his personal interviews and interactions with people who either had been imprisoned in the gulags or had family members who were. His biography on Nicolai Bukharin was secretly translated into Russian, and many “zeks,” (prisoners of the gulags), including Bukharin’s widow, sought him out. Oh, I know the Soviet archives have been opened and many who have read those documents have reached different conclusions than Cohen. However, I still trust scholars like him who do research on the streets and in the apartments more than those whose research is limited to sitting at a desk with a computer. A couple of years ago I got a nasty response to a blog in which I had made a negative comment about Stalin. The irate reader insisted Stalin only imprisoned true criminals. I asked him, “And how many former prisoners have you discussed this with?” His language got so bad I blocked him. Of course, studying Russian history and drawing any hard conclusions should always be done with humility. There is a saying I’ve heard, although I can’t find the original source: “Россия—страна с непредсказуемым прошлым.” (“Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.”)

Listening to Nadezhda, however, is a way to hear the history of this land come alive. She lives in that old house on a dirt road in the small city of Luga. I suspect even many people living here still think of her as I did: the old lady with the goats. But hearing her life story, I realized how much I could learn from her and people like her who went through similar experiences. My life in America was so different. There is something about meeting people like her that jars my mind into thinking from a different perspective.

This is a land with a history rich in wonders and horrors. Since first coming here in 2002 I have seen it transformed for the better. Russians are durable folk. For over three years now I have read almost daily what the mainstream media wonks and the warmongering politicians say about “the Russians” on American TV. Sometimes I wonder what I would think of “the Russians” had I never lived here. Would I have been able to see through the distortions and lies? I must be honest and say–probably not. I would not have had the chance to participate in life here: to shop here; to send my kids to school here; to go to church or to birthday parties here. I would not have had the opportunity to meet Nadezhda, the goat lady. I am quite sure my understanding not only of Russia and Russians but of life itself would have been much more distorted and impoverished.