SUMMER UPDATE FROM RUSSIA: PART 2

I had finished this part of the update when I posted part 1, but I needed to proofread and edit. Then, however, I had to focus on an urgent family matter concerning my wife’s health. Now I’ve decided to go ahead and publish it without a lot of editing. In part 2 of my update I will finish the discussion of the current status of Russian/American relations with one remaining topic–sanctions. Then I’ll move to an update on a couple of other issues before concluding with a longer discussion of freedom in my two worlds.

Sanctions. Leaders here have stated they are not expecting America’s sanctions on Russia to be lifted anytime soon, and they believe new sanctions are likely in the future. I can’t remember the exact words the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister used, but he indicated sanctions have become an inherent component of American foreign policy.

At the risk of oversimplification, I believe the motive for individuals, companies and corporations to engage in international trade is quite similar to the reason they do business domestically. The entities do business with each other because transactions between them–of whatever sort–are mutually beneficial. Usually one side receives goods or services they need but cannot provide for themselves, while the other side is able to provide what the trading partner needs at a profit. I know even from working in small business things can get more complicated, but I think the basic scenario remains. International trade just moves it to a different level.

American politicians have grown accustomed not only to having the largest economy in the world but also to the dollar being indispensable for international trade. Thus, they try to use economic clout for political purposes. They pressure American and sometimes allied companies to withdraw from trade with any country that refuses to submit to U.S. political dictates. The company or the corporation often has little or no voice in it. The goal is U.S. unipolar power. The theory is that the economic pressure created by the sanctions will force the recalcitrant adversaries to change their behavior or their leadership. It rarely works, but that is the theory.

The obvious but unstated factor here is that sanctions impact both sides, not just the intended target. You can’t punish only one party in a deal that is mutually beneficial. Putin stated after the summit that the sanctions have hurt both countries, but they have hurt America more than Russia. Based on my readings and observations of life in both countries I would say he is correct.

Nord Stream 2 has been America’s biggest sanctioning project against Russia. I’ve mentioned it several times. The U.S. was not directly involved in the actual agreement, which was between Russia and Germany. Germany will double the supply of gas it gets from Russia. The U.S. stepped in to instruct Germany they must not allow another natural gas pipeline from Russia. Germany refused to submit. They needed the quality natural gas at the price Russia was offering. The U.S. conducted an all out sanctions war to stop it. The pipeline was delayed but work resumed.

The Biden administration has admitted there is nothing else the U.S. can do. The pipeline is now 98% complete and will be completely finished by the end of August. Then there will be a 3 month process of trials and certifications. Germany announced this month that everything looks good for approval, and the gas should be moving normally by the end of the year. Angela Merkel then agreed that Germany would invest in Ukraine and promised to keep pressure on Russia not to discontinue pumping gas through Ukraine. Merkel will be leaving office this fall, however, and there are those who believe the next Chancellor will not be as submissive to the Americans.

The U.S. has been using sanctions against Russia and other countries for quite some time. After Crimea voted to rejoin Russia in March 2014, President Obama significantly and immediately expanded sanctions on Russia. U.S. politicans and media falsely claimed that Russia had “invaded” Crimea. In January, 2015 President Obama assured everyone the sanctions were working: “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.” Most articles in the American press at that time praised Obama’s decision to sanction Russia.

We moved here in 2016. I soon realized that either Obama was badly misinformed or, more likely, he was lying to the American people and the world to make his decision look good. The majority of the American press was too lazy, too ignorant or too scared to point out the deceit.

I agree America will continue the sanctions primarily because American leaders just can’t go before the American people and admit both 1)the many sanctions against Russia have failed to achieve anything, and 2) they (the leaders) have been lying all along. They depend on the American people being ignorant of what the economy is really like in Russia and the fact that Russia is far from being isolated.

Nevertheless, I did read one recent article in TASS that indicated the Biden administration is trying to soften some of the sanctions against Russia and other countries. ( https://tass.com/pressreview/1311339. This link is to “Top Stories in Nezavisimaya Gazeta,” so you have to scroll down to the second article. The Wall Street Journal is the one that broke the story.) If the sanctions are softened, then I suspect that many American journalists will look the other way and not accuse of Biden of kowtowing to Putin as they did with Donald Trump. Biden has some “wiggle room” that the American press did not grant Trump.

TRAVEL. One thing that happened quickly after the summit is that travel between Russia and America has resumed. Both ambassadors have returned to their respective embassies, and visas are being processed. I regret that COVID shut down travel between Russia and America for so long. We know two families who had tentative plans to move near us in Russia. One family had already secured housing, and the other was starting to look. They had to change their plans when all borders were closed. By the time they opened, these families had missed their window of opportunity and now circumstances are such that they will not be able to move. I understand but deeply regret it. Nevertheless, we have made arrangements for an American couple who wants to visit Luga for the month of August. Hopefully there will be more to come.

CITIZENSHIP. Receiving my Russian citizenship has been a relief. Now I do not have to worry about any further paperwork in regard to my stay here. I admit to showing off my Russian passport to friends at church and other places–even to my doctor when I had bronchitis. I have been pleased to hear their encouraging comments and sincere congratulations. Russians know how difficult the bureaucracy here can be, and they really seemed to appreciate the fact that an American would go through all the frustration to become a Russian citizen. They have accepted me with great kindness. I am very thankful to my wife for all the work she did in making sure we had the right information and forms were filled out correctly.

CONCLUSION: REFLECTIONS ON FREEDOM. I think the strangest experience as far as evaluating my own emotions was July 4. Since our move back here just over 5 years ago, I have seen an increase in the dissatisfaction of many of my friends and acquaintances in America with the situation there. The tension between different groups is more intense. My anti-Trump friends hated the fact he was (in their opinion) unfairly elected in 2016 and believed Trump had colluded with the Russians to get himself elected. (They tip-toed carefully when they talked about the Russia part with me.) Then after Biden was elected in 2020 many of my pro-Trump friends have complained, with some apparent justification, that the election results were rigged. Both sides believe the electoral process has been violated. When voters in a republic do not trust the electoral process things do not look good for that nation.

Another complaint I have heard has been concerning the increasing frequency of censureship of opinions on social media, YouTube, and in other public forums when those views do not conform to the accepted U.S. political or social narrative. And it is not just the peons who are being silenced. Last month, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis) uploaded videos with positive claims about the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine for those with COVID. The videos were removed, and the Senator was suspended for 7 days. As usual, the censurers did not point to anything factually incorrect in the videos. The claims were not called lies; the YouTube medical team determined the Senator was passing on “misinformation.”

Many have complained Facebook’s fact checkers are quite predictable. In reference to Facebook, someone posted on VK, “I’m really interested to know what a ‘fact checker’s’ credentials are? What are their sources? Seems like they are just given a script and told to run with it.”

Yet, on July 4 I read many FB posts from some of the same folks celebrating what several of them referred to as the greatest and freest country in the world. I thought that sounded strange after all the complaining over factchecking, censorship and rigged elections. FoxNews commentator Tomi Lahren said, “Even at a time when America is sadly and moronically put last, it is still the greatest nation in the world.” Sounds good, but what are the standards for greatness among the nations? Exactly what is it that makes America the greatest nation in the world?

Further, I know most of the people making these statements have never lived outside the U.S. A few have toured or vacationed abroad. Others lived on an American military base in another country, but none of the folks I saw making these claims have ever tried to make a life somewhere else.

I am not saying there is something wrong with loving your country or believing in its greatness. Our family treasures our years in America. We still recall so many wonderful experiences with people we grew to love. We think of our life there in such positive ways. But it’s not enough for many Americans to say, “I love America,” Or, “America is a great country to live in.” They must go further: It is the BEST country in the world to live in. It is not just a free country, it is the country with the MOST freedoms anywhere. Hubris, masquerading as patriotism, is now an American virtue.

I remembered our first July 4 after we had just moved back to Russia. We did our best to make it a holiday. This year, however, all that was gone. I’ve heard all the lies about Russia continue year after year even after they’ve been proven false. I still read articles written in mainstream news outlets and hear speeches from American politicians that decry how the dictatorship in Russia robs its people of freedom, and it is a country run by a “kleptocracy.” Putin is lying to and stealing from his own people. The implication is that American politicians, especially an American President, would never do that.

I am not the only American living in Russia who will say I enjoy more freedoms here than I did in America. And living abroad has let me see the violence, wars, and deaths the American government is responsible for all over the world. And I honestly don’t believe the American people will ever be allowed to see any of that. As I wrote to an American Facebook friend with whom I was discussing this issue, I am sad to say it, but for this ol’ U.S. Marine July 4 was just another day.

Freedom, for residents of both my worlds, depends to a significant degree on what you want to be free to do and say. And we all know freedom is never absolute, as in the old saying, “My freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” For example, there are apparently a significant number of people in America who understand gender to be a very fluid concept and unrelated to biological differences. As best I can tell they strongly believe in spreading their views and in America they can. They would not be free to say or do things in a public place in Russia, however, that they are free to do in America. They would not be allowed to teach in a public school or present programs to children here in Russia as they can in America. Teachers here are not free to teach kids to explore transgenderism.

On the other hand, freedom of speech in America is being curtailed by greatly expanding the semantic range of the word “racism.” A lot of things can’t be said in public in America because they fit under that large racism umbrella. Racism in Russia is defined in a more narrow and traditional manner. There are no restrictions on free speech here because someone somewhere calls it racist yet common sense indicates the speech or behavior had nothing to do with race. Yet, conversely, perpetrators of some actions in America that look like crimes to me, like looting and destroying stores, are not punished or stopped because to do so would be to practice racism. BLM gets a free ticket.

My point is not who is right or wrong; my point is clearly there is a significant subjective element in the concept of freedom. Also, choosing what is the best and freest country is contingent to some degree on where each individual, family or nation believes the line restricting freedom should be drawn. People in other nations see what is happening in America and are baffled at the continuing insistence that it is the freest nation in the world. Watching people openly destroy another’s place of business does not look like freedom to most of the world.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I have received a number of contacts and questions from Americans who are interested in moving to Russia. My wife and I were chatting about what characteristics are important to a family or individual who would be happy living in Russia. The first thing that came to both our minds was Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy came to Russia many centuries ago. After Communism did its best to eliminate or at least contain it, Russian Orthodoxy has sprung to life again. My experience has been that Russian Orthodox values and beliefs are respected here by a majority of people―many of whom are not Orthodox. In some sense, however, it goes deeper than being accepted by the citizens here. It seems to us that Orthodox believers from other countries grasp aspects of Russian culture more easily.

On the other hand, over July 4 I saw posts on Facebook by two of my American friends who have lived in Russia for several years now. They apparently were also a bit irritated by all the claims of America being the freest country, and they both wrote in their posts of how much freer they feel here than in America. Neither of these individuals is Orthodox. They are not religious at all. This is the part I can observe but can’t really explain. We believe our Orthodox faith makes the adjustment to living in Russia easier. Yet, there are those here of different faiths and no faith who have come here from America and find the same sense of belonging and freedom of expression that we have.

I never tell anyone Russia is the greatest place in the world to live. Neither do I tell anyone they should move here. Those kind of decisions vary from family to family―and from individual to individual. There are “blessings and battles” no matter where one lives. Choose your battles; choose your blessings.

There are, however, many oppressed people groups around the world who can’t think in terms of the degree to which they are free. They don’t have even basic personal freedoms. I am thankful to be living in a place where I can genuinely celebrate freedom and the lines where I believe freedom is appropriately restricted. I’ll just do the celebrating on May 9, not July 4.

SUMMER UPDATE FROM RUSSIA 2021: PART 1

I have not done a general update in awhile, so in this blog entry I’ll comment on how things things are in Russia from my perspective in the small town of Luga. I’ll cover the weather, COVID, and a few other miscellaneous issues. I will also include something on the relationship between my two countries because the relationship between Russia and America keeps evolving. The blog turned out to be longer than I planned, so I decided to divide it into two shorter ones for more convenience. Here is part 1, and part 2 will be published shortly.

THE HEAT. This summer is by far the hottest summer I have ever experienced in Russia. It’s not just me. I have also heard some life time residents here say the same thing. The weather this past winter seemed a bit colder than normal for Luga. We had over a foot of snow in our yard for about 3 months. The temperatures were cold, rarely getting even a little above freezing during those months and well below freezing most of that time. This summer, however, we have had a many days with the temperature over 90 degrees (32 C). From reports I’ve been getting these temps (or higher) have extended from below Moscow up to St. Petersburg and to other regions as well. https://www.rbth.com/lifestyle/333934-hot-summer-russia.

The weather has seemed similar to our summers in South Carolina with high temps and high humidity. In S.C., however, almost all homes, apartments, and places of business are now air conditioned. While that is true of a few places in Luga, it is definitely not the norm. The summers here are usually short and the temps rarely get even close to what we are having now, so it’s just not worth it for most of us to spend money on air conditioning we would rarely use. So this summer we have been forced to purchase more fans to keep the air circulating in our home. It’s been very much like the American South of my childhood—hot and humid with no air conditioning.

I think over the years my body has adjusted to normal Russian weather, because despite my Southern, hot-weather background, I have very little energy in this heat and yet I can do my 5 mile walks in the snow with no problem. The good news is that according to the long range forecasts this is supposed to be the last week of the brutally hot weather. I hope the weather folks are correct.

COVID. By the end of February of 2021 the number of new COVID cases had plateaued in Russia with less than 10,000 new cases per day, and the recoveries were frequently higher than the number of new cases. Around March 1, the rates began to rise sharply. The numbers of new cases per day are often over 20,000 now. The mortality rate for those who get COVID in Russia has also gone up.

The total numbers overall are not near as high as those in the U.S. (even accounting for the population difference), but they are going up here rapidly. Here are the latest stats from worldometer.

Total # of cases U.S: 34,929,856 Russia 5,907,999

Deaths: U.S. 624,606 Russia: 146,868

Recoveries: U.S. 29,358,531 Russia: 5,300,908

There is still cause for concern, of course. I have heard several theories as to why this recent uptick has happened in Russia, e.g., new strands, more social interaction, the normality of viruses going through phases of growth/plateau, etc. The “experts” just can’t seem to reach a consensus on anything having to do with COVID. I will refrain from offering my own relatively uninformed opinion as to what caused the uptick. That is not the point of the blog anyway.

Oddly enough, despite the rising numbers, the Russian economy seems well on the way to recovering from the pandemic. Further, many believe there is no evidence of any long term negative impact of the pandemic on the unemployment or inflationary figures. President Putin said this week that the consequences of the pandemic have been largely overcome and the economy is generally back to normal.

Daily life still goes on as usual for most folks here in Luga. Some wear masks in public, but most don’t wear them even inside stores or taxis. I asked my stepson about how it is in St. Petersburg where he lives. He said the only place people are required to wear a mask is on the metro (subway).

Vaccines. Russia was the first country to develop a vaccine, and now there are four to choose from. Estimates vary, but most from last month indicated that less than 23% of Russians have received the vaccine. (I found estimates on the U.S. rate around 67%. One article that said that in the U.S. it is now up to 70%.) Several within the administration would like to make vaccination mandatory in Russia. President Putin and others have strongly encouraged people to get vaccinated, but he has stated he does not support mandatory vaccinations. He believes a great deal of flexibility should remain with local governments to make decisions. He stated early on that he believes Russia is just too large to have one set policy for the whole country. One health minister said that if you “shade and color” regions in Russia according to the number of cases, it would look like a patchwork quilt. The numbers vary a great deal.

Some cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, are making it mandatory for many workers and businesses operators to have the vaccine. A recent report in RT said that Moscow has become the first city in the world to make vaccination against coronavirus compulsory not just for healthcare workers, but for employees in a range of public industries which demand that they interact regularly with the public, e.g., catering, transportion, tourism and museums. A TASS report this week says 25 regions in Russia will adopt similar measures. They also have now begun a major “campaign” to convince Russians they should take the vaccine. They reported number of people getting the vaccines has started to increase.

There have been a few surveys as to why the large majority of Russians are still choosing not to be vaccinated. One reason frequently mentioned, and some regard it as the main reason, is that the majority of those surveyed said they don’t want the vaccines because they believe a longer period of testing should have been required. Many Russian people are reluctant to get the vaccine over concern for the long term effects on one’s health. It isn’t that they don’t believe COVID is a real or a potentially dangerous disease. They simply think the vaccines could present a greater danger in the future. They know they risks of getting COVID, and they realize their health could be negatively impacted, but they weigh the probability of those risks against the unknown impact the vaccines may have.

From articles I have read and comments I have heard about Russians in the American media, it seems the idea being pushed is that Russians just do whatever Vladimir Putin tells them to do. Putin still enjoys a high approval rating as president, and he has made it clear he wants more people to get the vaccine. The idea, however, that Russians just immediately submit to whatever Mr. Putin says about anything is a fabrication. I hope it is not what the majority of Americans believe, but some in the Western press seem to like presenting Russians as mindless and subservient Putin underlings. The truth is many who voted for Putin don’t consider him or his staff their medical advisor. And thank God there is no Russian equivalent of Anthony Fauci pontificating his own view as the only truly scientific one. If Putin’s goal is to become the dictator people like Sen. Ted Cruz say he is, then he is not doing a very good job of it.

The majority of Russians think for themselves and make their own decisions. There are members of my extended Russian family who want me to get vaccinated. I have chosen not to. They don’t agree with me, but they respect my decision. There is no arguing or condescending remarks about the ignorance of the other’s perspective.

I read an article last week in which it was reported that the leaders of the Democratic Party in America were saying it’s the Republicans in America who refuse to get the vaccine. It is all about politics. Maybe more Republicans than Democrats refuse the vaccine. I don’t know, and I don’t care. My point is that in Russia whether you do or do not get the vaccine tells me absolutely nothing about your political views or preferences. Putin has strongly pushed the vaccine in several public remarks, as have other members of his administration. Yet I know people who strongly support him as president say they will not get the vaccine. Individual decisions like this one are about how people evaluate the risks and advantages of the vaccine. That principle applies to a number of social issues in Russia, by the way.

RUSSIAN/AMERICAN RELATIONS. I won’t go into great detail about the political relationship between America and Russia since I have done that in a number of blogs. Nevertheless, some recent events and changes need to be mentioned I think. First, I have noticed a sharpness that was not there before in the comments of even diplomats like Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, when he speaks of the actions of America. Lavrov is the epitome of what a diplomat should be in my opinion. He is always in command of the facts, and he is careful, clear, and thoughtful when he speaks–whether in Russian or in English. (He is fluent in English.) Yet both the tone and content of his and other Russian leaders’ comments lately indicate they have largely given up on believing the U.S. will come to the proverbial table accepting Russia as an equal. I think Putin, Lavrov and others have tried a long time in their public statements not to frame the relationship as adversarial, but I sense that time is over. American politicians frequently refer to Russia as an adversary. I think the folks in the Kremlin have accepted that status.

Why the change? After Biden was elected, but before he was inaugurated, Putin, Lavrov and others stated that they were hoping for improvement in the relationship but not really expecting it. I think their slim hopes disappeared when the folks at the Kremlin saw in February that the new administration was still going to back protests in Russia over Alexei Navalny. I wrote on this issue in my February blog. At that point I think Russia moved beyond actively seeking reconciliation with the U.S.

America held to the wrong-headed belief that Alexei Navalny was some kind of populist leader of the opposition to Putin. It appeared they believed he could be useful in undermining Putin’s presidency. I think it obvious that the U.S. and other Western countries seriously overestimated Navalny’s popularity in Russia. They also seriously misjudged his character, but that’s another topic.

There have been a few minor events that indicated Russia would no longer tolerate the taunting actions of Western aligned countries near its borders. A very significant one occurred when the British vessel HMS Defender went 3 kilometers inside Russian waters not far from the coast of Crimea. The Russians reported that they warned the ship to turn around, and after it refused to do so they (the Russians) opened fire near the ship and even dropped a warning bomb.

Initially, British officials denied what Russia said had happened. There was a BBC reporter aboard the Defender, however, and confirmed (with a video) that warnings were directed at the ship, then gunfire and a warning bomb followed–just as the Russians had said. British officials then changed their story to say they had every right to be there because in their opinion Crimea is not a part of Russia.

Despite clearly being caught in a lie about a serious international incident, other Western countries still supported the British. I have lost count of how many lies about Russia have poured from the mouths of Western politicians, but they still insist Vladimir Putin is the dishonest one. One can be quite confident that if the West really had caught Putin in such a lie it would be front page news. In the U.S. and Western Europe, however, if you lie about or lie to Russia it really doesn’t count as a lie. Boris Johnson’s administration didn’t lie. They just misspoke.

I found what President Putin said in his Q & A with the Russian people afterwards extremely significant. There were many who were saying WW3 could have been started over this incident had the British ship not left the waters near Crimea. Putin responded to his questioner, “You said the world teetered on the brink of a world war. No, of course not. Even if we had sunk that ship, it would still be difficult to imagine that this would have put the world on the brink of WW3, since those who are doing this, they know that they cannot emerge victorious from this war.” Clearly, Mr. Putin was sending a message that he believes the West knows that Russia has superior strategic weaponry. He will not back down in the face of further provocations. I have not heard him speak so bluntly before.

In my next blog I’ll conclude the discussion of Russian/American relations and then move to personal reflections on how our long absence from America has impacted my thinking on life and freedom in the two countries.