I mentioned in a previous blog that I had applied for Russian citizenship back in December. When we moved to Russia almost five years ago, I had no plans to become a Russian citizen. I intended to stay on my private visa for three years, and then apply for Temporary Residency. Temporary Residency is good for another three years and after that I thought I would apply for Permanent Residency. That was so far down the road, however, that I really didn’t think that much about it. I knew applying for Russian citizenship was complicated, but the biggest drawback was that you had to sign a document that you intended to have your American citizenship revoked. Russia did not officially allow dual citizenship, although I read the U.S. did not accept the letter of revocation without you first paying a sizable fee for this service.
The situation changed around May of 2020 when Russia changed the law to allow dual citizenship. The application process for my Temporary Residency had been awful and had involved several trips to St. Petersburg to their ever crowded Immigration Center. The Luga office had been no help. In the remarks I saw when President Putin spoke of the change in the citizenship law, he was quite emphatic that things had to be simplified and potential citizens had to be given more help in local offices and on-line. I decided to apply.
THE PROCESS. When we applied in December we were able to do so here in Luga, and the official at the local immigration office was very helpful. She went over the whole application with Oksana with specific and clear instructions on how it was to be done. When we returned she reviewed the document, printed it out and assured us it would be sent to St. Petersburg promptly.
She was very positive that the application would eventually be approved and I would receive citizenship. The requirements as she explained them were not complicated. And we had all the necessary documents on hand to support the application. 1) I had my American passport translated and notarized. 2)We also presented our marriage license to prove we were legally married. 3) We had my birth certificate, as well as the birth certificates for our two children who were born to our marriage. (When they received their Russian citizenship a couple of years ago Russian immigration officials just put big red stamps on the back of their US birth certificates stating they were now Russian citizens; they didn’t issue Russian birth certificates to them.) 4) Finally, we all had been residing in Russia. All documents issued in the US had to be apostilled (verified by State officials) before we even left the country. This makes them valid in the countries that are members of the Hague Convention. When we came to Russia, we had all our US documents translated and notarized. When the Luga immigration officer told us we should expect to hear from them in three to four months I still had my doubts. It seemed too simple for Russia.
Nevertheless, we got a call in mid-March that my application had been approved. I was to go to the local office for the “ceremony” at which time I would take the oath for Russian citizenship. I was unsure as to whether I would have to read it or say it from memory, so I memorized it in Russian. There were about ten of us there to be sworn in. The others were either from Ukraine or Belarus, so I was the only non-native speaker. We were allowed to read the oath, but since I had memorized it I was not a “slave to the text.” The official seemed surprised that I said it so well and gave me a genuine word of congratulation. I felt pretty good about myself, till I went to fill out the document and started writing my name in English. I paused rather embarrassed. The lady smiled and joked, “Now what country are you applying to for citizenship?” She cheerfully gave me another form to fill out in Russian.
We then began the hard work. We went down to provide all the details to be put in my Russian internal passport. All Russians carry a domestic or internal passport. It is not like in America where a driver’s license is all you need. Then I had to go to the next office and “unregister” as a foreign resident of Luga.
I thought after I got the passport the paperwork was over. I was completely wrong! We had to go to various offices over the next couple of weeks. I had to have my medical insurance changed; I had to unregister as a foreigner living at this address and re-register as a citizen. I had to unregister at Sberbank as a foreign account holder, and then re-register as a citizen. I also decided to apply for a pension since I am old enough to qualify for retirement in Russia. Although I have never had an official job in Russia I do qualify for a pension. Since I’ve never worked here, the base amount is so small they say it is not enough to live on. So they sent me to the equivalent of “Social Services,” which will supplement my retirement. I’m not sure of the exact amount I will receive as of yet. It will certainly be small by American standards, probably $175/month at the most, but given the low cost of living here it will certainly help.
Our visits to all of these offices were complicated by the fact that no one had ever handled an American becoming a Russian citizen in Luga. A big problem is I do not have a patronymic name. All Russians have a first name, patronymic name and family (last) name. The patronymic name indicates who your father is. For example, my wife’s name is Oksana Ivanovna, because her dad’s name is Ivan. Female names end in “a” usually. A male whose father is named Ivan would be Ivanovich. When addressing someone formally Russians do not use titles like Mr. or Mrs. They use the first name followed by the patronymic name. The computer systems here are all set up to take a patronymic name. They were shocked I didn’t have one. So at every stop they had to call in the supervisor, the computer person and anyone else available to figure out what to do. I am thankful they were willing to work until they got me in their systems.
On the negative side, it seemed like these offices didn’t communicate with each other at all. And you have to prove by your documents what you are saying is true. I even had to have official documents to prove my address. They do not take your word for anything. The thing that surprised me was that they required all this proof after I had gotten my passport certifying I had been approved for citizenship. Do they not realize you can’t get that passport without proving all this stuff!? On the positive side, all the workers were cordial and helpful. They really wanted to get everything in order for me. I was the first American for all of them, and obviously it meant extra work. Unlike the apparatchiks I had faced when I first came to Russia, they were never rude.
The only documents I lack now are my Russian foreign passport (required for traveling abroad) and my senior train pass for local trains. Oksana was able to apply for the foreign passport online through gosuslugi site. I will pick it up this Friday. I will get my “train pass” on May 14.
REFLECTIONS ON BEING A RUSSIAN CITIZEN. A question I am asked now is whether I feel like I am a Russian or not. The answer is no. I am officially Russian, and the government will treat me as such. I have all the “rights and priviledges” as any native born Russian citizen. That does not make me Russian. I was born, raised and spent most of my life in America. One cannot change that.
Nevertheless, I still feel a kinship with this country, its customs and its people. I have said on several occasions that I am not a Russian scholar. I did not have the advantage of going to a university and studying the history, language and culture as many “real” Russian scholars from the West have. I do benefit from their works. I have at least three shelves of books on Russian history and culture that I’ve read. I grieved when Stephen Cohen passed away because I treasured his insights gained from his years of scholarship. I still profit from books and articles written by a new generation of Russian scholars.
At the same time I spent most of my adult life in the academia. I attended conferences, gatherings, and exchanged papers and research with other scholars in my field. Those are so helpful, but at the same time there can be sometimes an “artificiality” about the academic world. You are studying something objectively. While I don’t have the advantages of an academic pursuit of Russian studies, I believe my experiences of living here in a small Russian town have made me more “Russified.” I shop at the market; I chat with family and friends here; we celebrate holidays together; we go to a Russian Orthodox Church here; my kids attend Russian schools. So, no, I don’t feel like I am a Russian, but I do know intimately what living in Russia is like. I am not a Russian scholar, but I can tell who the good ones are. I have also seen a side of Russian life that it seems many of them have missed.
Another question concerns to what extent I am still an American. After all, I chose to leave America. Additionally, I did not leave America to pursue further academic study or because of my career. We simply packed up and left. As I tried to make it clear in my early blogs, there were several reasons we moved here. First, I had a 7 year old son and a 1 year old daughter, in addition to a teenager. I knew to stay in America meant I would have to continue working past retirement age to afford living there. I would miss a lot while my kids were growing up. A family of five cannot survive in America on Social Security. I knew the cost of living in Russia was such that we could live comfortably there, however.
There were other reasons as well which were more than personal. I didn’t like the trends I saw in American culture. It had not gotten to the point of being “woke,” but I feared that was where things were headed. The American culture I saw unfolding was not the one in which I was raised, and it was not one in which I wanted my children raised. I do not believe “democracy” should be defined as one group telling the other how they must live. As I said in a couple of blogs, I never believed I had the right to say what American culture must do or how life there should be. But I don’t think the culture should be one that forces its fabricated values on me either. I feared that was where things were headed. If you read what the forefathers of America said, you find they detested the idea of democracy, in part, for this very reason. See the latter part of this article by Patrick Buchanan https://buchanan.org/blog/autocracy-vs-democracy-or-china-vs-america-149527?fbclid=IwAR2XGF1GzoTWr5qUavLQ8Oqf6WuTEk3Krh5i6tv9VvPsPtoSlQtj0sOQ9a4
Facebook is famous for its memes. Some are hilarious, and some are stupid. Some are, well, thought provoking. One I read essentially said, “If you don’t love America, then you should leave.” I paused and reflected. For most of my life I never doubted I loved my country. I willingly signed up for the U.S. Marines. I paid my taxes and did what I could for my community. But I cannot honestly say I love what America has become. Again, it isn’t because my views are not held by the majority. It is because the corporate stifling of freedom of speech and press has removed honest debate from the marketplace of ideas. And the violence toward other, often weaker, nations by leveling inane sanctions infuriates me, not to mention the knee jerk pro-war attitudes of most in Washington, D.C.
Further, having lived outside the United States before, I knew that much of what Americans hear about other countries—especially Russia—is blatently false. Americans are often given a view of the world by their press and politicians that has no connection with reality. My particular concern was the power of what is usually conveniently called the Military Industrial Complex that General Eisenhower warned about. I have written enough about that in my previous blogs. I simply do not see America as anything close to an “instrument of peace and justice” in the world.
That is not say I do not believe there are good, peace-loving and moral people from all political perspectives in America. They are many in America still trying to make the country better than it is. They care about people. I sense that many of them feel helpless in their efforts, however. So in light of my family situation and the fact that I had the opportunity to leave, I chose to do so.
There have been many struggles in adjusting to life back in Russia. We have moved twice. We bought a home. The paperwork on anything is often a nightmare. Even so, I have not once regretted the move. I still have a long way to go in becoming “Russified.” After all the distractions of becoming a citizen, I am refocusing on my Russian language skills. I have a Russian friend who comes over twice a week for an hour and we chat in Russian. It’s not Russian lessons in the sense of grammar, etc. It helps me practice. I really thought I would be further along by now. I was feeling sorry for myself and complaining to my wife last week that I don’t feel I’ve made much progress at all. My wife stopped my whining when she said, “I could hear you talking last night while I was cooking, and you conversed in Russian for almost an hour straight.” Her words brought me encouragement—even if her tone was a little sharp. Now I’m even more inspired!
Russian literature is also more interesting to me now. I understand the plots differently after having lived in Luga for five years. I am reading “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky again. I said “again” because I started it before we moved and finished about 500 pages. But the move to Russia took me away from it, so I started reading it again from the beginning last week. I’m surprised at how differently I read it now that I’ve lived in Luga all this time. I must admit, however, I do not claim I fully understand Russian literature. I just completed, “The Master and Margarita,” and I didn’t come close to a clear understanding of it. So I’m still a “work in progress.” (The good news is several Russians have told me they can’t understand that book either!)
We have finished Great Lent in Russian Orthodoxy and are in Holy Week. Being a part of a local congregation of fellow Orthodox has also meant a lot to my “Russification.” We have a wonderful priest, and I am enjoying getting to know some of the members much better. I still have Protestant friends in America and in Luga with whom I am very close. My move to Orthodoxy was never intended as being “anti-Protestant.” But worshipping with a Russian Orthodox congregation and reading the deep thoughts and spirituality of the Orthodox thinkers from long ago, as well as more contemporary ones, has been very helpful to me settling in here.
So I am quite grateful to be a citizen of both Russia and the United States. Those two “worlds” of mine continue to clash politically, however. Many fear a military confrontation may be on the horizon. I hope not. I long for an environment to emerge where mutual respect is present on both sides. But I’ll admit I am not optimistic. When Trump was president and he talked of working together with Russia and met with President Putin in Helsinki, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and others attacked him for being Putin’s puppet. Biden mentioned last week that his administration was trying to set up a meeting with Putin. Lindsey Graham, after condemning the announcement of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, immediately accused Biden of letting Russia push him around. Both parties use the same playbook apparently. The love of conflict and war runs deep in D.C. It’s way too deep for me to stop it.
Even so, I will not stop doing my little part in helping my American readers appreciate this country and this culture in which I now live. And let my Russian readers be assured, there is a significant segment of the American population that also longs for peace and mutual respect and understanding. My dream is that these who would “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” will one day be rendered powerless. Until then, I’ll keep writing.