A NEW YEAR UPDATE FROM LUGA, RUSSIA

The U.S. elections are over; 2020 is over; the holidays are over. And America has a new president. Things have changed quite a bit in my “other” world across the ocean. I think it is a good time to update any who are interested in how things look peering out from here on the ground in a small town in Russia.

THE RUSSIAN WINTER. The weather has turned quite cold here. Last year I complained that the winter was too mild. I admit my reasoning was completely selfish. It would snow a bit, then warm up above freezing, so the streets and sidewalks stayed muddy and dirty. It was not pleasant for my walks around the town. This year we had a mild November so I feared this winter would be the same. Not so! The snow arrived a few weeks ago. We have blanket of about 9 inches on the ground. The temperatures have remained well below freezing since late December. I thoroughly enjoyed my walk in the snow today, but this South Carolinian has still not learned how to shovel snow efficiently. Our first 3 winters here we lived in an apartment, so the snow was shoveled for us. Our first winter here in our home, as I said, the weather was mild and the snow was light. To put it euphemistically this winter has become a learning experience.

THE HOLIDAYS. We had friends and family in for the holidays. Of course, the holidays here are different. Christmas is January 7, since the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar for all Christian holidays. But we had an American/Russian family arrive on December 24 for a 5 day visit, so we did have a bit of an American Christmas. Oksana cooked traditional American Christmas dishes for our friends: a former student of mine, his Russian wife and their little daughter. We used to get together with them in South Carolina, and now they live in Arkhangelsk, Russia. We had a great time with them, and they are now planning to move to Luga next week. We are looking forward to that–another American living in Luga!

My wife’s sister and her family—husband and two daughters—came in from Germany to visit for New Years. Their daughters are about the age of Marina Grace so they had a wonderful time playing. Their girls speak both Russian and German; our kids speak Russian and English. My father-in-law says everyone at his work teases him and says they know he must be a spy to have such a family!

Gift-giving in Russia takes place on New Years, not Christmas. We invited Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) over to our house to give gifts to the girls. (Actually we paid them, but we won’t go into that.) Watching the kids reciting the poems and singing the songs they prepared for Grandfather Frost (in three languages!) brought us all so much joy. The old man was impressed, too!

It was also nice to be able to order meals while we were all here together. Of course, the kids wanted pizza one night so we ordered a full spectrum of pizzas of all flavors. My favorite is Hawaiian pizza. I’ll admit I love pineapple on pizza. Then another night we ordered burgers. These were all delivered to our home. So we have gone from not even being able to buy pizza and burgers in Luga a few years ago to being able to have them delivered to our home. Oh, the little joys in life!

The main gift I received was three pairs of new jeans from my wife. My old jeans that I brought from America were getting tattered, and it seems the waistline has shrunk a bit in all of them. (That is my story, and I’m sticking to it!) My wife ordered the jeans on-line, and Ozon delivered them to our home. When I first came to Russia you couldn’t even buy jeans here in Luga. They were a treasured commodity in Russia at that time. Now they are sold everywhere and you can also order them online and have them delivered to your home at no cost. The e-commerce is booming in Russia!

The reason I include this information is because the two major on-line delivery companies—Ozon and Wildberries—have said their sales over the holidays increased dramatically. Ozon said this years sales were 2.5 times higher than last year. Wildberries recorded 3 times more sales. Both are Russian companies, despite having names that sound “Western.” The sale of some gift items were “through the roof.” For example, gifts sets of women’s cosmetics were up 242%. I realize the convenience of food and gift deliveries may not sound like much to some folks in the West, but it represents a huge change from the Luga I first visited almost 20 years ago.

COVID 19. There has not been a drastic change in the situation, but for the first half of January the number of cases did decline. On most days the number of new cases were fewer than the number of recoveries. Also, the morbidity rate is down. Of course, these things are always subject to change, but health officials are saying they believe the pandemic will be over for Russia by mid-summer (https://tass.com/society/1243537). Children in most of Russia have gone back to school. Here masks are still hypothetically required in stores, etc., but that regulation continues to be widely ignored. I hear the same from friends in other parts of Russia. So COVID is still here, and there are precautions being taken. Nevertheless, it still does not seem to impact daily life as much as in America.

They began vaccinating people with the new Russian vaccines in certain professions as I mentioned in an earlier blog. Putin appeared very perturbed last week that mass vaccinations had not begun. He said Russia has a huge supply of the Russian vaccines. So they begin administering those January 18 around the country. Anyone who wants to be vaccinated can be, regardless of profession. To receive the vaccine is optional, not mandatory.

In a blog early last year I noted how Western writers were proclaiming the end was in sight for Putin’s leadership since COVID would soon destroy his presidency. I stated that I saw no evidence for these claims. In a recent article Canadian scholar on Russia Paul Robinson reviewed how wrong these claims were (https://www.rt.com/russia/511088-western-predictions-russian-economy/?fbclid=IwAR18yVGDLk3TK9mS7NHS9RZS1ZA565DNF-1vdCH5LQzKi7mV8E2z3Ww_NDE). He mentions an article from early 2020 in the Wall Street Journal predicting COVID would “imperil” Putin’s presidency. This past spring The Spectator said, “The situation in Russia is bad and going to get worse.” The reports of the death of Putin’s presidency turned out to be wishful thinking on the part of those “journalists,” however.

COVID has impacted Russia in negative ways, just as it has almost every other country. But the latest Levada Poll I saw put Putin’s approval rating at 68%. I don’t think any leader of any Western country comes even close to that. The GDP in Russia declined by just under 4% in 2020. That is not good, but it is less than half of the decline seen in other European countries. (I was not able to find the final 2020 data on the annual GDP in the U.S., which lurched about in the second and third quarters.)

On the positive side Russia finished with a budget surplus. (Yes, America—it is possible.) They now have nearly $200 billion in the reserve fund. Their gold reserves continue to increase. The GDP is predicted to grow by 3% in 2021. Robinson called Putin the “regional peacekeeper” in helping to resolve the Armenian/Azerbaijan crisis. He pointed out Putin also had a hand in keeping things from getting worse than they could have in Belarus. Putin, according to Robinson, is getting a reputation as one who works for peace.

In my “other world” things are very different. America’s budget deficit continues to soar. It was over $3 BILLION last year. Millions of Americans do not trust the election results. Some cannot believe Joe Biden got more votes for President than anyone in American history, including over 11% more of the votes from Americans of color than Barack Obama. Others, however, just as insistently claim there is absolutely no evidence of election tampering, and Trump supporters need to accept the results and work together. Compared to the political situation in America, Russia is the epitome of stability.

It seems I end up mentioning Putin in a lot of my blogs. That is because American political leaders and journalists can’t quit talking about him. As I frequently remind my readers, I am not suggesting everyone in Russia loves Putin. They don’t. I don’t agree with all his decisions, but I do think he is a good president. The reason I mention his approval ratings frequently is to show how wrong and deceitful Western writers are when it comes to Putin and Russia. I keep bringing up Putin, because he is still getting blamed for what goes wrong in America. Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are claiming Vladimir Putin called Trump and told him to initiate the assault on the Capitol. Clinton says she wants something along the lines of a 09/11 investigation according to her tweet I saw published. There are apparently many Americans who still like to hear Putin and Russia get blamed for America’s problems even after the lies of the last four years were found to be without evidence.

MISUNDERSTANDING RUSSIA. These claims of Clinton and Pelosi take me to another recent article by Robinson addressing the common claim by so-called leaders in the U.S. that Putin and Russia enjoy all the unrest in America. https://www.rt.com/russia/512071-capitol-violence-consequences-fear/?fbclid=IwAR2rs5XalGngjJGbL2r-NOUi8ACy9BcmQ-d16xQ7QeXJyfSUhAWKbIHw3dQ I read this unsubstantiated claim both from Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Nikki Haley. Both women blamed “the other side” for opening the door to instability in America that makes Vladimir Putin so happy.

About a month before Robinson wrote that article an American friend here in Russia posted an article on Facebook by someone blaming Russia for America’s problems. My friend posted it in jest, because we joke about all the craziness over Russia in the heads of American politicians and journalists. I read the first paragraph, and the author (whose name I do not recall or care to recall) claimed three times that Putin loves “chaos.” I told my friend I was not going to waste my time going further than that one paragraph.

From the books I have read on Putin, from reading his speeches, and my own observations of him while living here, chaos is the last thing Putin wants. The man loves order. I heard him describe the “tyranny” he wants in Russia: “The Tyranny of Law.” He is a lawyer by training and education. Putin can handle people or national leaders disagreeing with him; he is remarkable in his ability to take their criticisms and name-calling. What seems to drive him is the need to establish order within Russia and work for it throughout international relationships. As Robinson says, “Vladimir Putin regularly portrays himself as defending the international order, and his complaints about the United States often center around accusations that the USA is causing international instability by launching wars, supporting rebellions, and inciting regime change and color revolutions.”

Russian leaders do not enjoy the instability in America and the world. I suspect one reason is they know they usually get blamed for it. The only thing Russia has gotten from the disorder is more and more sanctions have been put on them. They also know there are those “behind the curtain” in America who are exploiting the political and social divisions among Americans and creating international divisions, which Russians do not like. I’m not a lawyer, but I am certainly familiar with the phrase cui bono? The ones who have the most to gain from such disruptions of order in America and the world are not the Russians or Vladimir Putin.

I suggest the question that needs to be asked is, “Who supports the politicians who are trying to shift the blame to the Russians?” What corporations, weapons manufacturers, publishers, or social media tycoons make the most of all this turmoil being created in America? Whose power and financial resources have been increased dramatically in America in the last year? Russia stands to gain if order returns to America. International trade and communication could be restored.

Remarkably, Russia is doing well considering COVID, the increasing number of American sanctions, as well as the decrease in the price of gas and oil over the last year. It would do even better if diplomacy replaced sanctions and turmoil initiated by America. Russia has nothing to gain by promoting an atmosphere in America which enables politicians, media magnates, and corporate heads to have an excuse for punishing Russia. These tycoons use Russia as a diversion. They can increase the sanctions on Russia and go on exploiting the American people.

CONCLUSION. I first came to Russia less than two years after Putin had become president. The Russia I see now is far more stable, with far less crime now than then. The old debt of the USSR has been paid off. Russia keeps within its budget and pays its bills. Employment rates have taken a hit during COVID, but it is still far better than when I came here. Over the last four years America has kept adding to the Russian sanctions in any area Mike Pompeo could think of, but the Russian reserve fund keeps growing. It has dealt with the economic and trade sanctions in a truly remarkable way.

Russia is in many ways quite diverse. Since its borders spread from Finland and the Baltic countries in the west to China and North Korea in the east it encompasses many different cultures and religions. It has a varied history as well, with Tsars, and their faith deeply rooted in Orthodox Christianity, to 70 years of Communism and “official” atheism. Somehow all this diversity has not pulled Russia apart. My friends who are former members of “the Party” and my friends who are devout Orthodox Christians seem to get along pretty well. Most Russians I know like Vladimir Putin and hope he runs again, while others are tired of him and hope this is his last term as president. Yet, there is nothing like the animosity I hear from Biden-backers and Trump supporters.

My “other” country of America has a comparatively short history and the continental United States (“the lower 48”) only borders Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. Oceans lie to the east and west. Ironically, however, there is far more division and animosity among Americans. There is a saying from Holy Scripture, “Pride goes before the fall.” Nevertheless, America has described itself “exceptional” for quite some time, and even now I still frequently hear Americans proclaiming, “We are the greatest country in the world!” American politicians seem to think they have a divine right to “spread democracy” even if that strangely means inciting violence in order to overthrow democratically elected leaders. International laws are for other nations; America reserves for itself the right to enter a country uninvited to do “regime change.”

I will write more about how the change in presidential administrations in America may or may not affect relations with Russia in my next blog. For now, I simply state my hope that my native country will stop blaming other nations—particularly Russia—for problems it has created on its own. No one made this happen to America. There are other places in Scripture which speak positively of the future of a people or a nation that “humbles itself.” It remains to be seen whether corporate humility and introspection are even within the realm of possibility for America.