The most frequent question I get from new readers is why we moved to Russia. Perhaps due to recent political events in America, it seems to me more people are curious about moving here. Therefore, I am reposting this blog from September 30, 2016. Although I wrote it almost 5 years ago after we had lived in Russia for less than 4 months, it still gives a summary of what led us to make the move.
SEPTEMBER 30, 2016 This weeks blog is a bit more personal than most I have written, although most of them have essentially been personal observations. I have been asked many times why we moved to Russia from America. The motives for the question seem to vary. Some are friends who just want to know more about us; some are interested in moving to Russia and want to know more about and discuss our motives and theirs; others just think it is so out of the realm of the ordinary they would like to know what could ever make one think moving to Russia from South Carolina is a good idea. Some aren’t interested at all, and you may want to skip this one!
There are several reasons, so first I’ll review the background. Oksana and I were married in August of 2007. We moved from St. Petersburg, Russia to America in 2008. The main reason we moved was because Oksana was pregnant, and we wanted the child to be born in America. We thought then that the paperwork to get American citizenship abroad would be very complicated. (We learned later it would not have been that difficult.)
Coming back to America was more difficult for me than I thought it would be. I had taught at a University there, and it was the job I believed I was made for. I taught Koine Greek and New Testament at a Baptist school. I loved what I did and worked with a great group of friends. I resigned in 2005 because my marriage was on the brink of divorce. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I hated leaving that school and the close friends I had there.
That is when I moved to Russia, and stayed here almost three years. When we returned to America in April of 2008 I took a job working for my brother at a small company. He and I both thought it would be temporary until something else turned up. I worked there eight years. In November of 2011 we found out my in-laws from Russia were coming in March of the following year for a two week visit. I knew the visit would go better if I “studied up” on some Russian. When we had lived in St. Petersburg I had learned very little Russian. After living in America for three years I had lost what little I did know. I went on Amazon and bought the first level of three levels of conversational Russian (Pimsleur) to prepare, since my in-laws knew no English. I finished it and got the second and then later completed all three levels. It was good because it focused on pronunciation and listening, and I could listen to the CDs on my way to work and back. After purchasing the Pimsleur CDs, Amazon posted some books on my account as “you may be interested in these.” So I ordered a history of the October Revolution by Richard Pipes and another one on Orthodox prayer written by Orthodox monks. I became addicted! I read Russian history, practiced the Russian language lessons, and got into Orthodox writings.
I still had no intent of ever going back to live in Russia or becoming Orthodox. I just found it all very interesting. Having lived in Russia and being married to a Russian I’m sure was part of the impact. I wish I could have studied the language, history, and religion of Russia as a younger man in a university where I could get the insights of those more knowledgeable than I in a classroom setting. Nevertheless, I was the sole bread winner and had a wife and two kids. I had to do it on my own, although Oksana tried to spare some time to help me with the language. I recently counted over fifty books I had read on Russian history and Orthodoxy, not counting the Pimsleur collection and the grammar books. It got to be an addiction that was a bit expensive!
Occasionally I started to have thoughts of moving back to Russia, but never mentioned it to anyone—even my wife. I did start looking around on the i-net for opportunities for study or work near our home in South Carolina that would allow me to use or enhance my knowledge of Eastern Europe, but I found nothing. The process, however, made me realize I no longer yearned to go back to a teaching position like I had had before. Only a few of my old friends came around anymore. I think I was a pariah to some who I had thought were dear friends. My interests had changed, and it was impossible to go back to the way things were before Russia. My life was different now, and I had finally accepted that fact.
Then in late January of 2014 we got our biggest shock ever. We found out that Oksana had gotten pregnant in December. Years before, when she had her first son in Russia, she was told that she probably would never be able to have other children. She had had a hard time getting pregnant in her first marriage. So when she got pregnant two months after we were married we thought it was a fluke. That was nothing like our response when she got pregnant with our second child! I had to endure all the “old daddy” jokes, like the one from my nephew asking about the visiting hours in nursing homes for those with children in elementary school! At first I actually was devastated and confused. From a practical stand point I wondered how we could afford the medical costs. But then we found out the baby was a girl and my thinking changed. I had four boys—now a girl!? It was exciting now.
When she was born in September of 2014 I knew I did not want to miss her young years by leaving for work and coming in too tired to play. I had learned from experience how quickly the years pass, and they grow up. So I started thinking about what I could do to have the family time I craved. I thought of semi-retirement and working part time. My brother was fine with that. So I checked with the Social Security office and found out that with two minor children I could retire early and my benefits would be double what it would be with just my wife and me. Now, Social Security isn’t much, but that did sound better. On the other hand, I feared if I stayed in my old job part time it would end up not being truly part time. I had grown into taking care of many things there, e.g., office manager, inventory and purchasing manager, customer relations, sales and more. I had trouble taking a couple of days off without the phone ringing from work.
Then not too long after our little girl was born we were in a Skype conversation with my in-laws in Russia. My mother-in-law, Sveta, said, almost in passing, that the director of the secondary school was closing the English program in Luga. English would still be offered in the schools, but they had a program here in Luga which had won several awards. The director no longer wanted the headache of doing all the paperwork for that program. Sveta said that since I had taught English in Russia before I could easily get plenty of students.
I said nothing to my wife but could not get it off my mind. I thought, I prayed, I examined every angle and thought of every reason not to follow up, but the idea of moving to Russia would not go away. Then after about two months Oksana and I were on our walk late one afternoon and were almost back home when she said, “You know, I never thought we’d move back to Russia, but I can’t get what mom said off my mind.” So we started discussing, praying, and analyzing everything together!
Several factors merged in our thoughts. One was financial. It took me a long time to learn the sales and business world, but I had finally gotten to where I was making a decent income. Yet it required a lot of time and energy, and it was not particularly fulfilling to me. Further, it takes a lot of money to live in America. I don’t mean to live elaborately. I mean just to have a home, cars, food and clothes. If my sales fell off one month we struggled. We rarely went out; we bought clothes second hand; we were careful to hold down expenses. We still had trouble making ends meet some times. Health care with three kids was a big issue. “Obamacare” was devastating to us. My salary was too high to benefit from it but not enough for it to be of any advantage to us. The small company I worked for could not afford to cover our health insurance. Our health care costs soared. It was a heartless piece of legislation. We talked to friends in Luga, and the cost of living was so much lower. We could never live on my social security benefits in America, but our research indicated we could live comfortably on it in Luga.
The second component of our thinking was the political situation in America and Russia. As the political talk increased in 2015 in anticipation of the 2016 elections I grew more pessimistic about a stable political future in America. I read a book called, “The Deep State” by Mike Lofgren. The book completely changed my thinking on American politics. The author spent practically his whole career working for Republicans in Washington D.C., mostly in the Senate and mostly for John Kasich. He presented his information in a way that convinced me he was being honest. His main point was that D.C. is not run by the politicians you see on T.V. There is a world of invisible bureaucrats who control things. Their primary interest is in keeping America involved in conflict, war, and the sale of arms. They want a huge military budget, but not for the privates, corporals or low ranking officers to get deserved salary increases and benefits. They do not care about them. They are pawns to send into wars. These bureaucrats care about arms producers and dealers. Follow the money!
He stated that the arguments about domestic issues, e.g., abortion, are primarily for show. Nothing ever really changes on those issues. The “conservative pro-life” Republicans had a majority in both House and Senate when the videos of Planned Parenthood selling body parts came out in 2015, and how did their federal funding change? Not at all.
Party differences are not significant according to Lofgren. Neocon Republicans and neoliberal Democrats really work off the same page. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, for example, may appear to be on different sides, but do not be deceived. Look at their positions on conflicts around the world. America has gotten used to being involved in wars around the world, and most of us no longer can name countries where our military men and women are dying. We reward diplomats for their contributions to important politicians, not for their ability to solve conflicts without the loss of life.
I wanted very much not to believe him. But the book was a best seller, and I could find no one who wrote a response proving his work was a distortion. The most chilling part of the book was when he described talking with a lobbyist for a company that made weapons. After 09/11/2001 he told Lofgren with some sense of glee, “We’re gonna make a lot of money out of this!” Lofgren alluded to Cicero’s quip that the sinews of war are infinite money. I wanted to throw up.
As the campaigns of the numerous candidates got rolling I was no longer the political junkie I had been. I faded into cynicism. And what would all this mean for us—a Russian-American family? Increasingly what was said about Russia reminded one of the manipulative paranoia of Joseph McCarthy. To fast forward briefly, since then as the election has gotten closer, I note how every time Donald Trump mentions he’d like diplomatic ties with Russia to be stronger to fight ISIS both Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media started talking of his “bromance” with Putin or claiming he was Putin’s puppet or whatever. Let ISIS keep chopping off heads of innocents, but trust the candidates: the real enemy is Russia.
As I said, I’m far too cynical now to have a political purpose in making these statements. I don’t care who you vote for. But the fallout from this stupidity was I felt squeezed and quite insecure as to what would happen if we ever did want to make a move to Russia. I concluded we better do it sooner rather than later if we were going to do it. One frustrating thing is that you simply cannot trust what the Western media and the political wags say about Russia. The picture they paint is a complete distortion in most instances. Whether it is Chris Matthews or Charles Krauthammer, it really is the same stuff from people who do not know the language or the culture of Russia. They’ve never listened to a full speech from Vladimir Putin, but that does not stop them from droning on. They are static in the ears of those who want to know what it is really like. But I digress.
Another consideration was our boys and how they would handle the idea of a move to Russia. When we told Roman and Gabriel that we were thinking about moving there they both immediately said they liked the idea. My sixteen year old stepson Roman was ready to move immediately. Seven year old Gabriel was positive, but still apprehensive. He feared riding on a plane, but that quickly faded. He liked the idea of being around his Russian grandparents.
I started researching education in Russia. I was pleased with what I found out. We had great experiences with teachers and administrators in the schools our children attended in South Carolina. We were concerned about the increasing role the U. S. Government plays in education, however. The social agenda was highlighted later by what seemed to us the ridiculous issue of transgender bathrooms. It more and more seemed no issue was too “far out” for the government to step in and force what was politically correct on local school districts. That was not a problem in Russia, as I have written before. If “fluid distinctions” between the genders are what one likes, then you will not be happy with public education in Russia. Conversely, parents like us who are far more traditional are not as comfortable with public education in America. From discussions with people here in Luga about the schools we learned that children here are introduced to certain math courses and the “hard sciences” like chemistry and physics at an earlier point in their education than children in America. International scores of children in Russia are on the rise. We concluded that they would get a very good education here.
We also let the boys know that they should be prepared they’d miss some things from their life in America, mainly the creature comforts. We would be living in a small apartment, and they would not have their own rooms with plenty of space. There were no fast food restaurants like McDonalds or Burger King in Luga. We rarely ate at them anyway, but they did say they would miss Chick-fil-A.
Of course, an overriding issue for the boys and me was the language issue. Roman was better than Gabriel, but he did not understand the more complex grammatical aspects of Russian grammar well. He left Russia after he completed the first year of grammar school. I can communicate the basic things I need to, but my listening skills are not good. I have a very difficult time with “native speakers” unless they consciously slow down. Gabriel knew no Russian at all. So we knew struggles were ahead in those areas, and decided we would simply have to work hard. We would not let the language barrier stop us. Learning Russian would be tough for us, but it is essential.
After many discussions and tentatively coming to the decision to move, I sought out some responses from people I trusted. I told my best friend with whom I had taught for 14 years and had known much longer than that. He said he hated to see us move but at the same time he was not surprised. Essentially he said, “Man, you have been talking to me a lot and boring me some about Russian history so long I’m ready to see you finally go over there! You need to do it!” I also told our priest and wanted to get his response. He was very positive and also had a somewhat humorous response, “I’m almost envious. I say ‘almost’ because envy is a sin and I’m not to the point of sin, but I am almost envious.” I spoke to others and everyone we talked to said they thought it seemed like a natural move for us. The hardest part was the thought of leaving my two sons by my first marriage and their families. My oldest son was not surprised. He seemed to have “seen it coming” to some degree. My second son was more surprised, but he was also supportive. As I thought then, moving away from them has been the hardest part without question. I miss my boys.
We made the decision to move here the fall before we actually moved. I gave my brother an eight month notice at work! That gave us a lot of time to prepare physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I thought maybe it was too long for goodbyes, but I see now it was not. It also allowed us to let the decision sink in and “settle” in our thoughts. I constantly examined and reexamined my motives for moving. I knew this was a huge decision to move our family of five half way around the world and essentially start over. I did not want to move until all our minds were completely certain that we should make this move. We all were in agreement that this was right.
So in March we bought the plane tickets and got a better deal by ordering in advance and giving the site flexible dates to fly. Adjusting has been more difficult than we thought. Even Oksana, who was born here, has had some challenging times. We prepared ourselves for leaving family and friends for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you won’t miss them terribly. We miss my grown boys, their wives and children so very much. There are very few days we don’t recount our times with them. My brother and I had, for the first time in our lives, worked together at the same place. We saw each other most every day. I knew we’d never have that again. We miss our church and the wonderful friends we had there.
We are all glad we are here, however. It is just the adjustment has taken longer than we thought.
The truth is, however, I had continuing troubles adjusting to life in America the way it is in 2016. I still love America, but the America I grew up in is gone. It is simply not the same country. Apparently the majority of Americans have decided they want those changes. No one forced America at gun point to change its cultural values, how it educates its children, and how it resolves political differences. I respect the rights of others to change values and policies with which I do not agree, and I made my decision on leaving America accordingly. America has chosen to go down a path I regret. But I don’t get to make the call.
When I lived here in Russia before I always felt I was out of place because I was an American and things were different in America. Frankly, I feel out of place in America now. I am a stranger in my own country. When I go to the market here I feel like I’m back in the world of my Grandfather Freeman selling his vegetables in Pickens, S.C. We craved that simpler, more “connected” life. We had looked forward to more natural foods and nutrition in Russia and a life closer to the soil. We have not been disappointed. The schools and the moral approach they couple with education, along with a more rigorous education, is far more like what I was accustomed to early in my life and what I believe is good. I don’t even dread the coming cold weather!
When the struggles come, as they do, we know we could not have been any more careful in our decision. We discussed every angle, we prayed over every detail, and we sought advice from people we trusted. There were positive things that drew us to Russia. I don’t think any move like this should ever be done just to “get away” from things where one is. There are going to be problems and stresses wherever you are going. I know, however, I did not want to let fear of change or an unwillingness to move in faith keep us from pursuing what we believed was best for our family and right in the eyes of God.