My last post was a repost of an old blog I had written after we had been in Russia for four months. In it I explained the main reasons we moved to Russia. We are approaching our fifth anniversary back, and every year I review our time here. In this entry I want to review how those hopes were or were not realized. Did it work out like we thought? Here’s a follow-up almost 5 years later.
FINANCES. I stated in the 2016 blog that the catalyst for moving was the birth of our daughter in September of 2014. Since I was an older than average new dad, I wanted to make the best of the years I have left with my family. Yet even though my income was actually a few thousand dollars above average in America, we struggled financially. To stay in America meant I would have to continue working for the next few years. Based on conversations with folks in Luga, we thought my Social Security checks would be sufficient.
It turns out our estimates were correct. We sold our house, car and a lot of our possessions in America and moved into a small apartment near downtown Luga. Our rent was only $200/month. We did not need to buy a car since taxis are cheap and plentiful. So we paid off all our old bills from the States and saved some money. After 3 years in the apartment we figured out a way to pay cash for a house of our own and remain debt free. We are in a much better place financially in Russia on Social Security than we were in America on my full time salary.
There is an aspect of our experience in Russia I have not heretofore revealed since my wife is only now ready for me to disclose it. In the fall of 2019 Oksana was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2020 she received 8 rounds of chemotherapy treatments and then had two surgeries. She now is following up with a different kind of treatment and is doing well. She has returned to an active life.
In 2018 the “Journal of the American Medical Association” published the results of a long term study they had done (2000-2012) on the financial consequences of having cancer in America. They found 42% of families with a cancer patient lose their entire life savings; 62% are stuck with long term debt; 55% owe more than $10,000. The average cancer patient lost $92,098 as a result of cancer treatments. They stated these figures do not include the added financial hardship of lost work while undergoing treatments.
I know “socialized medicine” is a hot topic in America. It is too complex to explain but the historical development of medical care here is so different from the U.S. that you cannot compare them. One basic difference is there is an extremely strong cultural bias in Russia against any politician or healthcare official who thinks in terms of making a profit on a serious illness. We have had to pay for some initial treatments and medications, but most of her treatments and medicines have been free. I have no doubt that had we been living in America when my wife’s cancer was found we would have been part of that 42% that would have lost everything. She has received excellent care, and we have no medical debt at all. Both medicines she is now receiving are from America and are provided free to us.
FAMILY TIME. I have had plenty of time to spend with my family. That little girl will be 7 years old in September, and I have enjoyed being home to watch her grow. Every morning when she wakes up, I hear, “Daddy!!!” That is my signal to go and lie down with her before she is ready to get up. We spend 10-15 minutes talking over any dreams she may have had overnight, events of the previous day, plans for the day ahead, or whatever is on her mind. I know that when she starts school this fall, things will change. But the time I have had with her in these early years is invalueable. This in itself has made the move worth it.
When we first moved here I was also able to spend a lot of time with Gabriel, but he made friends pretty quickly and prefers now to be out with his buddies. The fact that kids can play outside or ride their bikes around town safely is nice. We lived in a nice neighborhood in America, but I would never have let him just go off with his buddies on bikes for a whole afternoon.
EDUCATION. I mentioned we were also concerned about our children’s education in America. Our main concern was the increasing influence of groups whose goals seem related more to politial correctness than academic achievement. We could not afford sending our kids to a private school in America. If we had stayed homeschooling would have been the only option.
Overall I would say we are pleased with the education our boys have gotten in Luga. Gabriel enjoyed his 3 years in elementary school, but middle school has been much more difficult. The degree of difficulty increased dramatically—too dramatically in our opinion. Then COVID hit and for a couple of months they did school on-line. Parents hated it; the kids hated it: and the teachers hated it. It was a tough and disappointing school year.
The biggest problem we have with education in Russia is the obsessive focus on the standardized tests that students have to take before finishing school. So much about their future education in a university depends on how they do on these tests, and the tests are very difficult. Gabriel had excellent grades in elementary school, but his joy in learning was stunted by the focus on “teaching to the test” in middle school.
Fortunately, this year Oksana’s mom retired from the school system and was able to spend a lot of time with him daily in study and doing homework. Eventually he was able to get to the point where he understood how to get the homework done by himself, and he is doing much better.
Roman completed 9 grades in America, but he had to go back to the 9th grade in Russia, because they don’t accept students without a Russian middle school certificate into 10th grade. Middle school is from 5th through 9th grade here and you have to take big exit tests in the end to get your certificate of completion of the middle school. You can graduate after 9th grade and go to college and that was what Roman chose to do.
A college education in Russia is very different from a university education. It is somewhat like a technical college in that it prepares you for a particular profession. Students take the entrance exams that particular college gives. They also count GPA from their middle school certificate and that adds extra points. Further, students need to be sure they know what their chosen profession will be, for there is no way to change your major half way through. Roman did well on the exams, and he had known for some time he wanted to study architecture. So after four years of studying he will be getting his degree from the St. Petersburg College of Engineering and Architecture this summer.
As I have mentioned above, we have not been pleased with the laser like focus on standardized tests scores, but overall the experience has been good. We decided to stay with public schools and not do homeschooling. First, if a student wants to go to university standardized tests are a part of the system whether we like it or not. Oksana was not sure she was prepared to take on homeschooling given she had been out of Russia for 8 years and was not up-to-date on how to prepare kids for the tests. Second, we never felt the public schools here interfered with the basic values we were teaching at home. Third, Gabriel simply did not want to be homeschooled. He enjoyed his friends at school.
I also mentioned that the language issue was a concern for the boys and me before we moved, but going to school and being immersed in the language took care of that for the boys. Roman picked up conversational Russian pretty quickly, but had to study the grammar intensely. Gabriel learned Russian at school and on the playground. He never seemed to struggle. Marina Grace became fully bilingual without any instruction. It is truly amazing how a small child’s mind can seemingly absorb two languages at once. She speaks with no accent in either language. I am still a work in progress. I do not teach at the English school anymore, and I have my Russian citizenship behind me so I am able to devote more time to it. I continue to progress slowly, but I sense I am progressing.
I mentioned I’d warned the boys that in a small provincial town we most likely would have to go without some of the American “creature comforts,” e.g., fastfood. We rarely went out to places like McDonalds while in America, but occasionally we would splurge. My warning about Luga, however, turned out to be a “nothing burger” (horrible pun, I know). They have burgers, pizzas, sushi, etc. here in Luga. We even now have a KFC. And most of these places deliver.
The most negative of our concerns was over the tense political situation between the U.S. and Russia, and unfortunately that continues to intensify. I spend a lot of time writing about this topic because what happens at a political level impacts us directly sometimes. For example, we had to go all the way to the U.S. embassy in Moscow to renew the kids’ passports since the U.S. had shut down the consulate in St. Petersburg. Now the embassy is greatly reducing its services as well. Little known to the public, one of Biden’s executive orders says that anyone supporting Russia “in a destabilizing manner” can have their assets and the assets of their grown children in America seized by the American government! Even what is said in a blog (like mine) or on social media can be included in “destabilization.” (For a longer explanation see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5EaJlmjDco) What if a real war breaks out between the two countries? So what I write about politics is profoundly personal.
During the 2016 campaign Trump had said he would like to work with Russia to fight terrorism. By the response of the Democrats one would have thought he had offered Vladimir Putin the codes to U.S. nuclear weapons. I really had no idea at the time how intense the anti-Russian propaganda would get in America. After Mueller’s $35 million investigation, Adam Schiff’s House Intelligence investigation, and every reporter the MSM could spare to look for dirt about Russia, no one ever came up with actual evidence of collusion. Yet Russia continues to be blamed for election inteference, and Schiff and others were never held accountable for their lies to the American people.
Republicans complained vociferously about the Democrats lying and blaming Russian collusion while Trump was president. Yet last week when President Joe Biden waived sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project operator, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz immediately blasted Biden. He said the waiver was a “reward to Russia for Russian hackers shutting down a major infrastructure pipeline on the Eastern Seaboard. Today he (Biden) signed a waiver greenlighting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.” https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/may/20/ted-cruz-rips-biden-sanction-waiver-on-russia/
There is more than one lie packed in the Senator’s remarks. First, the hackers were a non-political group called Darkside, a group that is very open about its operations. They admit they hack into large corporations and then demand a ransom to repair it. They are not tied in any way to the Russian government. https://www.moonofalabama.org/2021/05/more-hacks-more-baseless-accusations-against-russia.html?fbclid=IwAR1vtFA2ZIxd8S8Ub2n0wj5P8ZkwhwMr85jLl_VT_EnZqVW7BJLhRG2ZQnU#more.
Second, the CEO of Colonial Pipeline has admitted Darkside did not actually hack into the company’s operational systems. They hacked into the company’s billing system. The CEO, Joseph Blout, was actually the person who ordered the operations halted, and the pipeline was shut down at his direction. Then he paid Darkside $4.4 million to remove the hack. Again, no evidence emerged that Russia had anything to do with it. https://jalopnik.com/the-colonial-pipeline-was-fine-but-it-was-shutdown-to-1846911689.
Like his political opponents from the last four years Cruz did not care for or bother to wait for any investigations. He “played the Russia card” after spending the last four years complaining about the Democrats doing the same thing. And Cruz did not stop there. On May 22 he tweeted, “Yes, Colonel Vladimir Putin of the KGB is and always has been a communist. Most brutal left-wing dictators are.”
This is typical dishonest inflammatory garbage. I sincerely thought Ted Cruz was a better man than that. Yes, Vladimir Putin was a member of the Communist Party during the days of the USSR. So was my father-in-law, mother-in-law, my doctor and several friends. If one wanted to move up in one’s profession you joined the party. It wasn’t about ideology. None of these people, including Putin, are still in the party. If Senator Cruz did actual research he would know that the Communist Party has opposed Mr. Putin every time he has run for president.
Cruz does not deal with the basis for his opposition to Nord Stream 2 because there is little rational basis. Here’s a review of what I have written before: Germany can get natural gas from Russia for 25-30% cheaper than it can get it by having it shipped from America. The gas is also of a higher quality. Further, there is a sufficient supply with Nord Stream 2 to provide gas for other parts of Europe when needed. America can promise neither the quality nor the quantity that Russia provides. American politicians complain that Ukraine could be hurt by Nord Stream. They should have thought of that before they led the coup in Ukraine. And why should Germans pay higher prices for gas because of what has gone on in Ukraine? America’s supposed belief in free and open trade is simply a farce. America believes it has the right to tell Germany who it can buy natural gas from.
Biden stated that he issued the waver because Nord Stream 2 is too close to completion for the U.S. to stop it, and he did not want to jeapordize further the relationship with Germany. I am actually glad someone finally admitted that. Nord Stream 2 is over 95% complete. Cruz said Biden gave the green light to Nord Stream. Nord Stream was going to be completed with or without any kind of light from America. When I last checked the line was less than 70 miles from completion. There is simply nothing the U.S. can do about it. Cruz and other Republicans as well as Democrats cannot admit the cold hard truth that America no longer controls the world.
The point is that the Democrats and Republicans have simply swapped roles. Thus, it seems there is no end in sight to the Russia narrative. Biden is scheduled to meet in person with Putin June 16. I hope there are positive developments, but I am not expecting much. It will be interesting to see how the MSM, which blasted Trump for meeting with Putin in Helsinki, handles Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva.
I’ve lived in Russia almost 8 years total. I firmly believe that if Senator Cruz were right about Putin being a “brutal dictator” I would know that by now. The Senator knows nothing about life or politics in Russia. Furthermore, dictatorships can be initiated in different ways. In October of 2020 candidate Biden said, “You can’t (legislate) by executive order unless you’re a dictator.” I believe Biden has signed at least 46 executive orders already as president. In response to one of President Biden’s Executive Orders a Christian college went to court over being forced to allow men in the women’s dorms and showers. The College of the Ozarks lost the case. The guys cannot be stopped from going in the women’s showers. So much for the rights of private institutions.
The day before Biden was inaugurated, the world watched as U.S. troops and razor wire surrounded the White House. There it was for all the world to see. The White House of the United States of America looking as if it were under seige―not from fear of attack by the Russians or the Chinese, but from fear of its own citizens. Nevertheless, the U.S. still insist it is the kind of democracy needed around the world. Most of the world does not want the American version of democracy.
Another very different way the political situation has impacted us in terms of personal friendships. I’ve said before one of the things I like about social media like FB is catching up with friends from my past. Most of the independent news sources I like get blocked or put in FB jail a lot.
While many of my old friends are interested in my life in Russia, over these 5 years I’ve learned why politicians as different as Adam Schiff and Ted Cruz play the Russia card. My Cold War generation was raised on anti-Russian or anti-USSR (we didn’t really distinguish between the two) attitudes planted in our brain. Obviously, my experience has shown me things are very different. But I still see posts and comments blindly following the “Russia is the Evil Empire” thinking from both those friends who vote Republican and those who vote Democrat. It’s not anger I feel when I see or hear these. It’s a sense of greater emotional distance from my homeland. The fond memories of our time in America are being swallowed up by people who simply won’t believe the times and countries have changed. I can get angry at Ted Cruz for a while and then go on with life. Feelings of alienation from old friends are at a deeper level.
CONCLUSION. In Russia, things have gone as well as I expected in some areas and better than I thought in others. I enjoy living here. And, yes, I do know it is not perfect. I had to jump through too many administrative hoops to finally get my citizenship to claim this is a perfect system. But I did get my citizenship, and I feel accepted here. I can still say no member of my family has ever been treated poorly or had to endure any nasty comments about Americans. I feel more freedom than I did in America—even before recent events. I say that with sadness, not glee.
I recently saw a reference to Ronald Reagan’s old quote, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” As difficult as it is for some to accept–and entirely impossible for others–that is not the way it looks from here…