DAY OF KNOWLEDGE (День знаний)

September 1 is Day of Knowledge in Russia. It is the day when all schools start in Russia. This is quite different from schools in my “other” world of America. The first day of school is set by each county, so not even every school in the state starts the same day—certainly not every school in the country! The first day here in Russia is more ceremony than actual academic work. We had to prepare for the day, of course. We had to make sure Gabriel has a new uniform that fits. The school he goes to is not really a “stickler” on the uniform, but schools here still require them. Then, most importantly, flowers much be purchased for the homeroom teacher. This is a long standing tradition. All Russian school children take flowers to their teacher on Day of Knowledge. It may sound quaint, but seeing all these children dressed up (Gabe had on his favorite bow-tie) carrying flowers to give to the teacher seems appropriate to me now. So Oksana went two days prior to our nearby florist to get her order in. The lady told her she would be getting a fresh load Thursday evening, so if Oksana could come by then she would prepare a really nice arrangement. She said around 8:00 would be good, but it wasn’t really important because they would be open all night preparing for the big day. I cannot imagine being a florist near Day of Knowledge! We also purchased two balloons filled with helium for the ceremony.

The preparations in our house went fairly smoothly. The uniform looked good on him, and the flowers were beautiful. We bought a very large arrangement which cost $20. So we got a taxi ordered for 9:15 to transport us to the school. We were told to arrive at 9:30, and the ceremony would begin at 10:00. So the four of us set out for School #5 on time. Schools here do not have the names like in America. Here they start with one and go through the numbers for however many schools there are in town. I think we have six schools here. Also, the schools go from first grade all the way through high school at one physical location. In South Carolina, they went to elementary school, then a separate middle school in another place, and then high school was also in a different location. Here it is like it was when I went to school (many years ago) in a rural school in South Carolina. Generally speaking city schools then had separate locations for the different ages, but in the smaller towns or rural communities they were at the same location. Here in Russia there is a lot of emphasis on the older children watching out for the younger ones.

Upon arrival folks were milling around until time for the students to go inside to see their room and teacher. This is not very confusing because in elementary school in Russia the children keep the same teacher every year. They also stay with the same class. Of course, new kids move in and some move away, but for the most part the same students move through the grade system with the same teacher and classmates. We are glad for this because we believe it is helpful to Gabriel. Last year we had so much anxiety over him moving from an American school to a Russian school, but it went far more smoothly than we imagined. His Russian language is still not up to the level of the other children, however, and he really came to love his teacher here. They formed a special bond, so there was no anxiety on his part (or ours) because we all knew he was going back to a familiar classroom, teacher, and classmates. In America, of course, it is a different teacher for every grade. Also, Gabriel would be with some friends from the previous year and some would end up in a different class. I suppose there are advantages to both ways of doing things. I don’t know which I’d consider superior in general, but the fact that Gabriel had so much more stability this year was definitely better for us.

The ceremony lasted less than 30 minutes. There are short talks by some teachers and administrators welcoming everyone. Then there are short skits by some students, mostly the younger ones. There was quite a crowd there so I really could not see very well, but they all were dressed in cute little outfits coming in. Overall it is a very positive festive atmosphere with students, teachers, and the parents and grandparents who can come together for the official beginning of the school year.

I have been asked about our choice for public education by some parents thinking of moving to Russia. So I’ll give some background on our decision. When we moved here we were, as I said, quite anxious about our boys’ adjustments to school. In America we left when the “transgender controversy” was heating up. We did not know how widespread the debate would become, but we saw videos of even young children being taught about sexual identity in public schools. Schools have a right to teach what they want in America whether the parents agree or not. My own experience was that some schools there are very sensitive to parents’ concerns, and some are not. Further, some parents obviously like the introduction of, say, gender identity issues (among other things), and other parents are horrified. We liked the schools our children attended in South Carolina. Still, we feared at the higher levels education was becoming more about social experimentation than education. I can’t say if our fears were well founded or not. I was concerned when I researched the decline in standardized tests in America compared to other countries. We have family and friends who participate in the Classical Education “movement,” and the academic performances of their children are amazing. Further, the parents are comfortable because the “social experimentation” facet is not present.

Here in Russia those things are not issues that families face. Schools are about education and, to some degree, patriotism. We have also been impressed by their concern for the social development of our children. On the other hand, there are not as many opportunities for private education in small towns in Russia. We are friends with one family who home schools their children here. I also have seen others on FB who live in Moscow who send their children to an Orthodox Christian School. If there had been one here, we perhaps would have chosen that option. It seems the Orthodox schools are more available for those living in larger cities. The primary reason we decided not to homeschool is because Oksana knows the system and the teachers here very well. Her mom has worked in education in Luga for years. It is a very stable system. Gabriel’s teacher also taught Oksana. I met her high school Physical Education teacher today who told me he planned on teaching Gabriel, then pointed to Marina Grace in her stroller and smiled and said, “Her too. Then I can retire.” It also has a good track record for academics. Students from here tend to do well at the higher levels. Also, we thought, and still believe, it was the best way for our boys to adapt to the language. Every family is different. We, however, had three children at different developmental levels when we moved here: a teenager (16), an eight year old and one not yet two. It would have been difficult to educate them at home even in English. Also, Oksana is the only one completely fluent in Russian so it would have all been “on her.”

As I left the school this morning I felt good about our decision. I believe that it is a good school, and they have made every effort to communicate with us about our children. I admit a part of it was probably that there are a lot of things they do here that remind me of the way they did things when I was a kid in America, e.g., strong discipline, focus on academics, good communication with parents. I admit my nostalgia and prejudice! I’m pleased with the academic and social development of our kids here. That means a lot to any parent. Day of Knowledge was a good experience!

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HISTORY, MEMORIALS & MONUMENTS: PUTIN’S SOLUTION

In my last blog I discussed the current disruption going on in America ostensibly provoked by the presence of statues of individuals which many now regard as unacceptable. The usual charge is racism. It seems to me the deeper issue is the inability of the country to come to terms with its history and persons of historical significance. Unfortunately, there is no real debate. Debate, at least as I understand it, means presenting ideas and interpretations of facts in a logical manner and being open to taking a serious look at the different interpretations of those same facts by others. As far as I can see groups are simply trying to overpower the views of others with ad hominem attacks and violent protests. Then the media corporations, which have a very loose relationships with the old “just the facts” approach to spreading news, have been “enlisted” to aid the cause. While those removing statues, changing memorials and road names seem more culturally powerful, I am unconvinced they speak for anything close to a majority of Americans. They have the power of the media and what some term “Hollywood culture” on their side. The question remains as to how America will handle its great and flawed history.

Russia has a history that is longer and, in some ways, more fragmented. Up until a hundred years ago the Romanov monarchy ruled the expansive land. It was not even a Constitutional Monarchy: they held the power. Then in 1917 there were two revolutions. The February Revolution ended with Nicholas II abdicating the throne in March. More significant was the October Revolution (Julian Calendar) which would usher in the rule of Communism and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic. That lasted until 1991, when the USSR disbanded quite abruptly. The Republics became nations. Russia was no longer the largest Republic; it was The Russian Federation. As I indicated in my last blog Boris Yeltsin became President. At the end of that decade he had, at best, a 10% approval rating. In August 1999 he had appointed a somewhat unknown Vladimir Putin as acting Prime Minister. Putin had had a career in the KGB, stationed in Germany, but resigned in protest after the failed coup attempt when Gorbachev was General Secretary. (Most Western press reports omit the fact he resigned from the KGB in a quiet and personal protest.) When Yeltsin resigned in disgrace, he appointed Putin as his successor, and Putin was elected President about three months later.

I have met folks in Russia who still speak with Romantic nostalgia of the Romanov reign. Orthodox Christianity was the religion and faith of the country. Leadership of the vast land was unquestioned. The pictures, the mansions, the clothes—they are impressive! Who could not admire Peter the First (the Great)! Yet others, like my friend and physician, still speak (in hushed tones) of the clarity and friendship of the Communist days. (One caveat, Russians don’t talk to me in a positive way about Communism until they get to know I’m here to learn—not condemn.) In his memory it was a day when the youth respected the elders, everyone had equal access to medicine and health care, and folks formed deep and lasting friendships. On the other hand, there are those who feel very strongly about the injustice of the Soviet system and especially Stalin’s purges.

Now, at the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, how does Putin handle Russia’s relationship to its history, given these vast differences of perspective. Putin’s approval rating in the last Levada poll was 83%. By comparison, Trump does not get half that. That is not to say that all 83% fully approve of Putin’s leadership in my opinion. I know several folks who basically think he’s done a good job, but they believe Russia could do better under different leadership. Russians, at least the ones I talk to, do not jump to the “all or nothing” evaluations of leaders or people in general. We humans are usually a “mixed bag” of virtues and vices—the percentages of each vary from person to person. What I want to discuss is how Putin is leading the country in dealing with its history.

A lot of my information comes from Stephen Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University and New York University. I have mentioned him on several occasions because he has spent years living in the USSR and has made frequent trips to Russia since then. His career was and is knowing Russia. He now has a strong relationship with various leaders of this country—although he was kicked out of the USSR for a few years over things he said and wrote. Cohen recently returned to the States from Russia and, after listening to his podcast on his trip (and also finishing his book on the Soviet Union this summer), I decided to reproduce and enlarge upon his reflections on his trip to Russia in light of the recent events in America and coming events in Russia.

One thing Putin has done is open up Russia’s historical archives to professional historians. While some (e.g., New York Times) have suggested this is not true, Cohen himself speaks from personal experience. With his credentials he was allowed to view all historical documents he needed to see for extensive research. The significant historical documents are available for study now which were kept secret both in the Romanov and Communist period. Khruschev attempted to have at least some released, but he was never successful. Putin, over the years, has released them for professionals, even from America, to study. His only directive, according to Cohen, was that they had to be academic and professional and not engage in nasty polemic with each other.

Cohen was also able to meet with the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation while he was here. (He did not say who, but I assume he meant either Gennady Zyuganov or Ivan Melnikov.) Since this is the centennial of the Revolution, the leaders of the party went to Putin and told him they wanted to have very public celebrations and commemorations of the Revolution in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin consented and said they would be granted official permission, asking only that they keep things peaceful.

The feelings run very deep about these events here. The focus is often on Stalin, as I said. On the one hand, some view him as the one responsible for the great victory over the Nazi invaders. He was the leader and in times of war leaders get the credit or the blame. Many credit Stalin with the victory. They also believe Khruschev inflated the horrors done by Stalin. Stalin has been “rehabilitated” in the eyes of many here. Others believe that had he not gotten rid of so many great military leaders before the Nazis began their invasion, the USSR would have been much better able to defend itself. There are also quite a number of people who had relatives who were sent to the Gulags or were murdered during the “purges” and still harbor great animosity.

Thus, in 2004, after Putin had held several meetings with Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, The State Museum of the Gulag was opened in Moscow. It provides graphic glimpses of what life was like for those political prisoners. It has been enlarged several times and was moved to its current location in 2015. Unlike in America,where there has never been a museum that deals directly with slavery in America, Russia does face the horrors of its past head on, even if there are strong disagreements over what really happened and why.

Further, some time ago Putin began accepting bids and proposed plans for a monument to the victims of Stalin’s purges. Thus, this year on October 30, The Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Oppression, the monument will be unveiled by Vladimir Putin himself. So those who wish to celebrate the memory of the positive changes they believe were brought by Communism in general and, yes, Josef Stalin in particular, will have the freedom to celebrate and observe with memorials to him or any leaders they so choose. At the same time, the President will be present with those who wish to memorialize victims who suffered much under this government. Of course, there have been articles in the U.S. press trying to portray Putin as a Stalinist. He clearly is not, but it does fit the impression of him the West seems to need.

My point here is not to say Putin or his “solution” is perfect. I don’t know in such cases if there is a “perfect solution.” And I do not know enough to render an ultimate “verdict” on his presidency. I am not a Russian, and I am not a professional historian or politician. I do, however, want my American readers to see a different, and I hope fuller, view of what goes on here. While I’m not an expert and my views are somewhat limited, I do take the trouble to educate myself as best I can in reading “real” scholars and having discussions with people of different perspectives. Criticisms of Putin from America are usually simplistic and ill-informed and intended to tear down this country. The purpose of attacking Putin is usually to put down Russia itself. My Russian friends who disagree with Putin do so because they want the country stronger and more caring. Russians are quite capable of looking at their own history, drawing their own conclusions about their history and their politicians, and then allowing that their fellow Russians may come to very different conclusions. When did America lose this capacity?

What I like about the discussions here is that they are civil, usually based on the facts and how they should be interpreted, and are ultimately about what is best for the country. What I find quite bothersome about the processes going on in America is that in the name of tolerance we are becoming, well, completely intolerant. Further, I don’t get the impression the multiple “sides” or the media groups reporting the events are really out for what is best for the country. I’ve seen more clearly living here that many news outlets have no intention of researching and reporting truth. What I find most baffling is how it got like it is, because I still do not believe the majority of Americans are like the people I see “leading” the crowds there. In my part of that world, I worked with people of different races, perspectives, political backgrounds, and yet we worked together, worshipped together, ate together and, yes, disagreed on some things, but in the end we got along. Those motivating the antagonism and violence and those reporting on the antagonism and violence must be forced to tell the truth for better days to be ahead.

Now, will Putin’s solution work out perfectly with the Stalinists and the descendants of the victims coming together in a “kum-ba-ya” moment? I don’t know about that, but I am impressed by the confidence Putin seems to have in the culture here. He believes granting different sides freedom to express their historical loyalties is a good thing. I am hopeful that America will again reach the point where they can appreciate the complexity of history—our “histories” come to us from from folks who were fallible and virtuous.

Yesterday someone posted pics of a few old TV series from years ago. I saw one of the Friday night program from decades ago, “Dallas.” The main character, as all of us old enough to recall the program know, was the despicable J.R. Ewing. J.R. was the worst when it came to cheating, lying, dividing and conquering in the mythical Oil Man’s world of Dallas. In one episode wherein he sunk to a new low of lying and cheating even for J.R., I think it may have been his brother Bobby who in exasperation asked him how it was possible even for HIM to stoop to such despicable and dishonest behavior. In what is probably his most memorable line, he smiled back and explained, “Once you lose your integrity, the rest is easy.” Until the political leaders who have some control over events and the media that control the spread of information about the events and perspectives recover their integrity, I fear the multitudes of Americans with higher values and a stronger sense of unity will suffer even more from the loss.

Catherine, Lenin and Robert E. Lee

     We are approaching the end of our second summer back in Russia. Life seems pretty normal here compared to the news we hear from back in the States. I have not been able to keep up with all the events of Charlottesville, so I am not informed enough to offer any in-depth insights. I have only picked up fragmented reports. I thought America seemed so divided when we left last summer. The political race was heating up; it seemed like it was a different campaign from what I had ever observed in that there was a deeper bitterness dividing the “sides.” I vaguely recall past elections when the former adversaries would come together for a hand shake, or congratulations would be sent to the victor and usually there was an assurance by both sides on the need for all to work together for the good of the country. It seemed this time the election was barely over before the cries of Russian hacking and Russian collusion started. I still thought that, while it was taking longer, eventually the healing would begin. Clearly I was wrong. The divisions now seem deeper than just political differences given the brutality of the last week of news. The nation seems more fragmented than simply divided. I really do not know how to explain these things to my Russian friends, because I do not understand what is going on in America myself.

In Russia life goes on at the same pace. This past weekend was the celebration called “Day of the City” in Luga. Many cities in Russia have a day set aside around the anniversary of their founding to celebrate the good things about the city. In the weeks prior to it the workers clean up, repaint and “spruce things up.” Luga was founded in 1777 by Catherine the Great. So this year there was an unveiling of a monument to her. It is a very nice statue. My understanding is that the violence in Charlottesville began in protest over the removal of the statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Then it devolved into other issues of rights and free speech over which there was no agreement. Russia went through its own days of violent disagreement especially after the fall of Communism. In the 90s Boris Yeltsin was essentially selling off the resources of the nation to the highest bidders. He was widely disdained here but supported by the West, especially America. Statues were destroyed, buildings vandalized, and crime soared. It is quite different in Luga now. There is a statue across the street from our apartment of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution and the first clear leader of the change to Communism. Go down the road and there is the new statue of Catherine the Great who was empress of Russia 1762-96. A recent history I just finished calls her reign “The Golden Age.” Some people here still revere Lenin; others loathe the violent and atheistic regime they believe he led. Others have great admiration for the Romanov dynasty, while some point to the lavish and hypocritical life many believe she lived. Somehow folks in Luga have learned to accept their history, and most would agree both leaders had their flaws. No one seems to think a statue in their honor indicates moral and political perfection. Both, the Romanov dynasty and the Bolsheviks, have their place in Russian and Lugan history.

The celebration is about food for adults and games for the children for the most part. We enjoyed walking around and seeing folks. There were huge agricultural and military vehicles and machines on the street outside our apartment, as well as some small arms for kids to see and feel what a real Kalashnikov is like. The agricultural machines represent the work to be done in peace, and the military vehicles represent the protection of the people. They were quite impressive.

I don’t recall cities of this size in America celebrating their anniversaries like here. Why bring in the huge vehicles and arms to the celebration? Russian history is very different from American history, as I have discussed before. After church on Sundays we often go to the little cafe across the courtyard from our apartment for lunch. We all five can get a pretty good meal and ice cream for dessert for a little more than twelve dollars! The first time we went there I saw a picture on the wall in the dining room of downtown Luga from many years ago. It was one with the old cars from back in the forties on the street. I thought if you switched out the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the picture and photo shopped in a First Baptist, it could have been of a small town in South Carolina in the forties! But then something caught my eye: the street sign. It was forbidding parking in the street as best I could read. Nothing strange there, but the sign was written in German. It was taken when the Nazis had taken over the city. I thought what would it be like to see an old photo of the town in which I was born back in Pickens, S.C. if the street signs were not in English. How would I feel if my grandparents had shared stories with me of when the Nazis ran their lives and made them learn their language? When I was growing up I heard folks talk of men (and some women) who “went off to war.” That was always the phrase. All my ancestors in the last hundred years went off to fight wars in other lands. In Luga, one fought for your own city. Luga was granted the status of “Hero City” by the Russian government. They eventually were overrun by the far more numerous Nazis, but they held them off long enough for St. Petersburg to get prepared to some degree for the coming seige. They also maintained a militia which pestered the Germans who beseiged St. Petersburg with what was essentially guerilla warfare. War is awful. The older I get the more I hate it. But I think it is different when you know you are fighting for your land, your family, the land of your friends and extended family. You are fighting for your life and the kind of life you passionately want preserved. The ancestors of Luga didn’t “go off” to war; they fought for their farms on those very farms. Celebrations of present freedoms mean a lot more, I think, when that is your history. It’s games and food, but at a deeper level it is more than that. I shudder to think it could take war on our own land to make Americans more appreciative of the freedoms we now have. Maybe freedom of speech would be exercised with more discretion if we saw first hand the alternative of speaking a foreign tongue in our own land.

On a personal level we continue to adjust. I still do my walks around town, practice my Russian as much as possible and enjoy family time. We finally found a church where we belong. I have mentioned in a few blogs that our church was an important part of our life in America, and we have not been able to find a Russian Orthodox church that seemed, well, a good fit. But a taxi driver recommended that we go to one in a small village about 15 minutes from here called Tolmachёvo. Our first Sunday there we were surprised to see a relatively new and very attractive Orthodox building. We learned the old church, which was built in 1899, burned down in 1999. The new one was completed in 2007. The priest conducted the Liturgy in a way that made us feel, well, more at home. The singing was beautiful, as it has been in every Orthodox Church I’ve attended. After the Liturgy the priest was presented flowers by the congregation for his birthday (which was the day before). A lady spoke on behalf of the whole group. He has been there fourteen years. He came there when he was 29 years old. She told him they appreciated the way he had walked with all the families through some very difficult years. She added very sincerely, “You have taught us to be kinder to each other, to be more patient with others. We are better people because of you, and we thank you for that.” You could see her words were sincere, and the congregation kept nodding in agreement.

After people dispersed we were waiting for a taxi to come pick us up, and that gave us an opportunity to talk to Father Nikolay with no one around for a few minutes. Oksana explained we had moved to Luga after eight years in America, that I was American and while I speak some Russian I am not (yet!) fluent. He leaned over and focused his gaze on me, as if for a clearer look and said, “Did you play Santa Claus in the Christmas play at Erudite school?” I confessed that I was in fact Santa. Unbeknownst to us his younger daughter attends the school where we teach. He then explained that the Church has an “American connection.” It was founded by General Zherbin, who was from a well-to-do family back in the late 1800s. After the revolution about half the family was able to leave Russia for America. They settled in Seattle and became very successful there. One lady became a prominent member of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Another member of that family worked for NASA and was, in fact, the supervisor of the Space Station project when America and Russia worked on it together. It is my understanding that all the American members of the family have passed on, but they kept in touch with the church throughout their lives. I told him I was shocked that an Orthodox Church in this small village had such a connection with America. He added that the Reader (the young gentleman who had read the Gospels and other readings during the Liturgy) had lived in America for three years and spoke fluently in English. (We have since joined with him and his wife for a few meals and have formed a quick and meaningful friendship.)

Eight days from our first visit the church had reserved a bus to go to St. Petersburg to venerate the relics of the original St. Nicholas. We thought it would be a good chance perhaps to meet folks in the church and get to know the priest better. We showed up Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. and were in line by 8:30. We had plenty of time to chat! It was five hours later when we exited the Cathedral after quickly viewing and venerating the relics! Thousands and thousands of people were there—on a Monday morning! But we did get a chance to chat more with the priest. We did feel like we got the chance to know Father Nicolas very well. He even asked Oksana to consider teaching in the children’s Sunday School. We were very pleased to feel a part of this rather small congregation with the “American connection.” Somehow we sensed this was a place for our family.

All of us on Facebook see the various “memes” that pop up from time to time. Some funny, some thoughtful. I saw one on a page from a friend about my age the other day that made me laugh—and think. It said, “If I could sum up my life in one sentence it would be: ‘Now that didn’t go as planned.’” My life certainly has not gone as planned. I was born in a small Southern town during the Cold War. Robert E. Lee was much revered in my part of the country. But at 18 years old I joined the Marines as a loyal American and was ready to go fight Communists in Vietnam—or anywhere. Thankfully, I never was sent. Not only did I not plan on living in Russia one day, the thought would have seemed pathetically laughable to my young self. But here I am. One of my sons in America turned thirty-five this month, and my little daughter here in Russia turns three next month. I’m still trying to weave the strands together from the different stages of my life, but the tapestry still needs a lot of work. As my blog indicates, living here has made me think more about history—personal and national. It has made me think more deeply about the ways in which the two “worlds” of my life differ and the values they share. I guess it is natural that the differences attract most of the attention, and the differences between Russia and America are quite real. Nevertheless, after spending a typical day reading the news from America, then studying Russian grammar and history, then walking to the local market with the family, I still think my friends and acquaintances from my two worlds are more alike than different. I also believe both can learn from the flaws and strengths of the other. Maybe the blog can help with that, but I may be aiming too high.

LIFE BACK IN RUSSIA AFTER ONE YEAR

On June 8 we celebrated our one year anniversary of being back in Russia after having lived in America for eight years. I decided to write some reflections on how things have gone. Writing about such things helps me organize my own thoughts. I think after one year we have a better perspective on things. I have to say that some of what I write now in reflection is simply confirmation of what we had already begun to realize. I regret the repetition. What I add is my perspective on how the things we have seen and experienced have impacted our thinking and relationships here. Another reason for some repetition is the increasing number of people I hear from considering moving here. I thought we were really odd when we made the decision to move to Russia. Turns out, that is far from the truth. Since several of these individuals have not read my earlier blogs I have answered some of their questions here. What has life been like in Russia?

First, in general, we confronted no major obstacles after we got here, but neither did we find the adjustment easy. It was a mixed bag. We eventually found the right apartment, got all the furniture and appliances we needed, and finished the essential paperwork. What I had to “relearn” is that generally speaking Russians do not expect to have everything quickly. Most stores in a smaller city in Russia like Luga do not have a large inventory of furniture, kitchen appliances and other household items. We had to order things and wait for a shipment to come in or until a piece could be custom built. Further, official paperwork does not usually get processed quickly. Local apparatchiks here seem to derive pleasure from demonstrating that while Communism is no longer in vogue, government employees still have power over your life—even if we’re just talking about small town government. And no detail is too small for such a demonstration. For example, we turned in one set of papers and under the address blank for “Oblast” Oksana wrote “Leningradskaya Oblast.” No, the form already had “Oblast” so you should not have written the word “Oblast.” And you may not “white out” or cross out “Oblast.” Hence, we had to leave, fill out another set of papers completely, return, wait in line (again!) and resubmit. Our American “immediate gratification” mindset had to be purged from our mental systems.

The process was painful, but I think the results were good. Tribulation brings patience. We had become conditioned to “fast and easy”in America. Note how many times that phrase or a similar phrase shows up in ads in America. Any product or process that is fast and easy must be good, right? I think now this approach sucks you in to a certain kind of mentality. Life has to happen fast—and easy. Nevertheless, no matter how “fast and easy” things were supposed to be, there was always something else for which we had to wait. As Patrick Henry Reardon said, “The life of faith is pretty much evenly divided between serving and waiting. (It is curious we call those who serve us ‘waiters’).” It’s how you wait that reveals the faith part. Further, I don’t think Holy Scripture teaches that character comes from “fast and easy.” I’ve learned here that if you have to wait for that chair to be built or that paperwork to get processed, life still does not lose meaning or fall apart in the meantime. In fact, the waiting helps you discover the value of what you already have or what you can do without. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. That’s called perseverance. I do not get as frustrated with roadblocks and detours near as much as I did before Russia.

I wrote along the way that our boys were adjusting well in school. Fortunately, they persevered and finished their first year well. It was a lot of hard work! Roman, our ninth grader, had not had chemistry, physics, biology and as much algebra and geometry as his Russian classmates. He could speak Russian, since he lived the first eight years of his life here, but he was way behind in grammar and fluency. After the first quarter he had “C”s on most core subjects, but improved throughout the year. He worked hard and finished with a “4” (B) in Russian. Gabriel knew no Russian. He is our extrovert, however, and with both classroom work and playtime with his friends after school, he learned to function well. I can speak Russian fairly well—at least well enough to communicate what I want or need in most situations. I have a lot of trouble understanding “native speakers,” however. Gabriel can now speak as well as I can (and he knows all the slang expressions which I do not know!); he also understands Russians far better than I do. Both boys got nothing but “4”s and “5”s (equivalent to the A/B roll) in the end of the year, so we were pleased.

Here was a very valueable lesson for us and our boys. They HAD to work hard. Our boys had good teachers and good experiences in the schools in America. Honestly, however, they did not work hard. They could just coast and still “get by.” You can’t coast when you barely know the language. You can’t coast when everyone else has had the prerequisites that you have not had. They both responded well. They set their minds to work—well, most days. And the work paid off. Both Roman and Gabriel got academic awards at the end of the year. Of course, we parents were proud. But for me it really wasn’t the award as much as the joy I felt that they had worked hard and saw that was key. I am sure my pride was of a different sort than when they got recognized in America. They ended with a confidence not that they were smarter than other kids; their confidence was in the value of disciplined work. That lesson will last longer than the certificate.

Our biggest surprise is that there were no problems with them being bullied or made to feel as outsiders because they came from America. Our fear was that there would be fallout from the current negative relationship between Russia and America. They did not experience anything like that. Oksana and I did not experience any unkind or rude treatment from the Russian folks either. (Well, she did get a little offended that a few folks thought she had an American accent!) Russians have long lived with the reality that one cannot assume what people are like based on what those folks’ government or media say. People who found out I was American were more curious than anything. I do a lot of walking around town. Most days I go for a long walk, and my route is all over town. I am frequently asked directions or where a certain store is. I explain that I am a “foreigner” and not that familiar with the stores. The responses are always kind and understanding. No one has ever gotten frustrated with me.

The lesson I took from that was a sad one. I realized in this hot political year the truth was the only disparaging talk I heard came from Americans in references to “the Russians.” Politicians, journalists, and other folk who have never formed any kind of relationship with any Russians or had any real knowledge of Russia or Russians—a la James Clapper and James Comey—could still evaluate their character and motives. I learned a deeper respect for those Russians on the street who did not know my name or any details about me other than that I was a foreigner and yet treated me with kindness and respect.

On the other hand, Russians do not make friends quickly. Russia has a long history, and for most of it opening up your life to the wrong person could cost you dearly. While you should not come to Russia expecting to be treated unfairly or rudely just because you are an American, you should not expect to make intimate friends without the time needed for trust to develop. I’ve learned more about friendship here from, well, not having many friends. Authentic friendship takes time and trust. While I still wish it was easier here, I have come to understand trust better. Familiarizing yourself with Russian history helps one to grasp the reasons. Friends here are not just people you enjoy socializing with or folks you like to see at work or church. It’s deeper than that. I see now most of the people we Americans call “friends” are really folks with whom we have a superficial, albeit cordial, relationship.

As far as the language goes, I really wish I could progress more quickly. I’ve been studying Russian on my own for five and a half years. Yet, as I said, I still struggle with understanding the native speakers. The particles, the little phrases, the slang and especially the speed make it difficult. I still am very uncomfortable speaking in social settings when a number of people are talking or in public when people are speaking fast. I find I can practice better in one-on-one conversations with people who know I am learning. My doctor who gives me neck treatments weekly remains my great help. He lets me struggle for the right word, take pauses before speaking, and if I get the wrong case or repeat myself there is no embarrassment. Fear of failure or of making a mistake is a terrible roadblock to fluency. I think that is a major reason Roman and Gabriel have made progress more quickly than I. Mistakes don’t bother them. I get the paralysis of analysis before every sentence! Oksana has taken a course from Moscow on teaching Russian to English speakers, and that is helping immensely. I can open up to her, of course, with my silly or obvious questions. I’m trying to be patient. I read on average it takes ten years to become fluent in Russian. I think I’ll beat that for sure!

While learning the language is important and helpful, I stick with what I said when we first moved here: Russians appreciate any attempt you make at learning their language. If you get it wrong and your pronunciation leaves them unable to hide a smile or even laughter, they really do like it when Americans try to speak their language. They respond very readily to any Westerner who tries to understand their culture, their language, their history or their religion. I remember several years ago being on a city bus in St. Petersburg when a group of Americans got on. They were loud, rude, and basically unconcerned about the people already on the bus. Although adults, they were poster children for the stereotypical “arrogant Americans.” So if you display genuine (and I mean authentic) respect for this country—its people, its language, its culture and history—you will be well received. And those who don’t make that effort should have the integrity not to criticize Russia based on what you heard from a newscaster who also knows nothing of this language, culture or history.

Three practical observations: First, we have been able to find pretty much anything we need for food, clothing and daily needs at very reasonable prices. (Caveat: the pizzas in Luga are not nearly as good as the ones from Papa Johns in Greer, South Carolina.) When we left in 2008 there was one “chain” grocery store in Luga. Now there are several, and they are all superior to the old “Dixie” store that is still here. There are far more products available. When we left you could not use a credit card in stores to buy food or clothes—or anything else. Now, we make most of our purchases on our debit card or go to the ATM for cash.

Further, exchanging money is far more convenient than when we lived here before. I still have a bank account in my American bank, and it really is no trouble to tranfer money for our use here. I have found Capital 360 makes things easy. My pension is deposited directly into my bank account, and we can transfer it to 360 without charge. As I said above, I can go to the ATM here in Luga and withdraw rubles, again without charge. I am identified immediately by e-mail when any money is withdrawn from my account. I can be here on my computer and see within one minute when Oksana has made a purchase for groceries or whatever she went to get (and pretty much calculate when she’ll be home). It also allows for me to watch for any “irregularities” of course.

Another factor I have commented on in previous blogs is the excellent medical treatment we have received. I can expand that to dental care as well. The medical and dental clinics are very nice, clean, and the medical staff has always been helpful. Our family has had the “bugs” that go with winter. I’ve had a benign growth surgically removed from my back, weekly treatments for a bad disc in my neck and a thorough physical, including blood work and an ultrasound of all internal organs. I’ve had a tooth pulled (which had a bony cyst attached), two fillings, and one severely chipped molar repaired. I could not be more pleased with the care as well as the cost. We can get medicines that were expensive and prescription only in America at a small fraction of the cost here in Russia usually without a prescription. I have seen Facebook comments still bashing Russian health care, but our experience of care here is that it is at least as good as in America and, as far as our medical clinic, it’s much better and more modern than the one in Greer we went to. And I pay under $9.00 for an office visit.

So after one year I can’t say we’re totally adjusted. But I can say we’ve had no major problems and have learned a lot. Life in this culture is quieter and without the rancid political vitriol which has become typical in America. Society is, for the most part, unapologetically traditional, and politicians of different parties seem focused on the goal of continuing improvement in Russian life. People here disagree as much and as often as they like. Political debate is not stifled on TV or in the street. As I turned off the street toward our apartment building today the nice old Communist man was standing there beside his little tent offering me the latest edition of the old Communist newspaper Pravda, as he often does. No shouting in my face, no posters condemning anyone. I took the paper, thanked him, and he quietly responded, “Пожалуйста” (“you’re welcome”) with a soft smile. He and I come from different “worlds,” but despite missing family and friends in our American world immensely, we’re glad to be here in this one.

“HACKSAW RIDGE” AND VICTORY DAY

I have not written a blog entry in two months. First, things tend to get very busy at the end of the school year. Our time at the English school got more hectic, and our boys had a lot of preparing for exams. Then I had some problems that were thought to be neurological with my neck and jaw. It actually was a cyst that had formed at the base of one of my molars, which was complicated by an abscess. I’ll skip the details, but it was not a pleasant tooth extraction. Thus, I have wanted to write an entry on the events of May for some time but time pressure and tooth pain hindered my work.

My wife and kids watched the Mel Gibson movie “Hacksaw Ridge” just after Memorial Day (in America). What a compelling movie based on events of a “real” soldier during World War II in the Pacific! Earlier in the month, May 9, we had observed what may be the biggest holiday in Russia: Victory Day. It is holiday commemorating the surrender of the Nazis which concluded “The Great Patriotic War,” as it is called in Russia.

I was taught in my history courses in high school in America about the war from what I now see as a decidely American perspective. We defeated Japan in the Pacific and we, along with our western European allies, defeated Germany in Europe. I do not recall much being said about the USSR, other than we were on the same side against the Nazis. It was if the USSR was a bit player in that awful drama. I don’t know for sure that my education was typical, but I think it was. I am firmly convinced now that what I was taught was distorted to the point of being deceitful.

When we celebrated Memorial Day living in America I will admit to some guilt. I always thought it was important to remember our fallen soldiers. And I would spend time reflecting on those who paid the ultimate price. In America, however, it was always a holiday that at a cultural level marked the beginning of summer. We usually went to the lake, beach, or some bar-b-que. After a few words of gratitude for our freedoms and those who died for that freedom, we’d get the party started. Of course, sad to say, many in America would just get the party started right away without the words.

There is no such ambiguity to the observance of Victory Day in Russia. It is a “holiday with tears,” as they call it. All schools and most places of employment are closed. Residents of Luga gathered at 9:00 on the square assemble and then march to the “Memorial” on the outskirts of town. The procession actually started a little early and we had to catch up. I was shocked at the number of people participating in the march. It was in the thousands. The crowd went as far as I could see. It is called the “Immortal Regiment,” to emphasize that the memory of these brave persons will not die. It is a tradition to carry posters with the pictures of your family members who fought in the war. Both of my wife’s grandfathers fought so Gabriel and Roman carried posters with their pictures. Patriotic songs were played over a loud speaker mounted on a van as we walked. This same observance is carried out in cities all over Russia. Moscow had 850,000 and reports were that St. Petersburg had 750,000 participate. I don’t know the official numbers for Luga, a much smaller city of course, but it was far more than I have ever seen at a parade in America.

When we got to the Memorial there was no big fanfare. Some words were spoken in gratitude for those who fought and especially those who died. At the Memorial there are graves of the soldiers who perished fighting for Luga, then a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, and also a space where the remains of those who were not found until much later have been placed. An Orthodox priest performs a brief memorial service at that location every year. I began reflecting on why the observance here is so different than in America.

First, the war was fought here. We (Americans) sent brave men and women to fight, but the battle was across one ocean or the other. Luga was occupied for almost three years by the Nazis while they beseighed Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Luga was awarded the status of “Hero City,” because it did hold off the Nazis for three weeks giving Leningrad a little more time to prepare. Remarkably, 1 in 10 citizens of Luga were awared medals for bravery. When I walk the streets of Luga I can see monuments on walls of buildings describing what happened there during the occupation or where the Nazis had their offices. A few weeks ago we flew to Finland for a long weekend. When we flew back my father-in-law picked us up at the airport in St. Petersburg. As we were driving back to Luga, he pointed to the exact point where the Nazis camped—and ultimately were stopped. We knew that road, that specific place was where it happened. There is something about seeing such sights on a daily bases that makes the war more “real.”

Second, almost everyone here has a relative who fought in the war. The official archives show that 27.5 million soldiers and civilians from the USSR died. Of those, 70% were ethnic Russians. So just under 20 million Russians died during that war. Most estimates indicate around 415,000 Americans died. Now, that is a lot of Americans, and no one takes their sacrifice lightly. But I, like many Americans, did not have any relatives who died in the war. I did have a couple of uncles who were in the war in the Pacific, but there is almost no one here who does not have someone who fought in the war and most Russians have some family member who died. Oral history is quite powerful.

Another factor in this region is the horror of the seige of Leningrad. It went on for around 900 days. People starved to death; many bodies would be left in the street; diseases of various kinds were rampant. President Putin, for example, had an older brother to die from diptheria as a child. His mother almost died. He had two uncles who were killed in combat, and his father was left with a permanent limp from being injured in battle in Estonia. As an aside, this made it extremely inappropriate for papers such as the Washington Post to editorialize (as if it were real news) that Putin was manipulating the situation for his own political ends in his moving Victory Day speech. The Post’s articles on Russia justify Stephen Cohen’s reference to our views of the old Soviet news reports of a bygone era, calling the Washington Post “Pravda on the Potomac.”

There is also a lot of pride here, however. While exact figures are illusive, the estimates are that 13.6 million Nazis died during the war, and that somewhere between 85-90% were killed by the Soviets. So almost 9 out of 10 German soldiers were killed by Soviets. I loved the movie, “Saving Privte Ryan.” But the truth is our image of the Americans landing at Normandy and marching straight to Berlin to end the war is, again, a severe distortion. The Allies faced 11 German divisions on that march. The Russians fought 228 German divisions from Moscow to Berlin. All this led Winston Churchill to state:

“I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.”

—Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 2 August 1944, “War Situation”

Russians know that the West tends to ignore their central role in the war, especially in educating our children. Now, more than ever, it seems vitally important to many politicians and media members to portray Russia as an evil nation. Apparently some have thought it better to redact the historical accounts in a way that would not lead anyone to appreciate the Soviet war efforts. My purpose is in no way to undermine or discount the contributions to the war by the Allies or the bravery of those who fought and died in the war. It is, however, to make what readers I have aware of the noble and brave efforts of the Russians and other member countries of the USSR. No good comes from our historical distortions. My desires are the same as those stated by President Ronald Reagan in his State of the Union address in 1984. Please go to the link below for two crucial minutes of that speech.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gzg9TMSBBk

RUSSIA’S FAVORITE DRINK

самовар

A reader recently asked me to write about tea drinking in Russia. It’s an appropriate topic. Contrary to popular belief, the favorite beverage in Russia is tea, not vodka. Drinking tea has been going on in Russia for a very long time; thus it is woven into the cultural experience. Russians love drinking tea, and, of course, there is also a social dimension to it. Just as in America when someone says, “We need to get together for a cup of coffee,” that person is probably not just wanting to have someone sit across the table while he or she drinks coffee. Before I get into the specifics of tea drinking in Russia, however, I would like to add a couple of observations.

My blog is about my “two worlds,” small town southern America and small town northwest Russia. Drinking tea was also an integral part of the southern culture of the United States where I was raised. I could scarcely imagine going through a day without drinking tea. Of course, the tea there was different in the sense that all the tea we drank in our house was iced and sweet. You had to put the sugar in while it was being made, not after it was cold in the glass. Growing up I was aware that some people in other places actually drank hot tea. In South Carolina, however, we liked most of our beverages cold. One could buy cold lemonade, iced tea, cold beer or whatever. The only hot drinks we drank were coffee and–especially on those rare occasions it actually snowed–hot chocolate.

Russians, however, rarely drink liquids that are cold. I noticed when we lived here earlier that it was more than just not choosing to drink cold drinks. It seemed to me there was a mysterious aversion to it. It became more clear to me after we moved back to America. My in-laws came to visit us from Russia. We noticed the milk was being left out of the fridge frequently. At first we thought it was our older son Roman being careless and forgetting to put it back in the fridge. But then my wife saw her mom actually taking it out of the refridgerator well before meal time when we were going to give the boys milk to drink. There is this idea among many Russians that cold drinks are not healthy. The culprit for a cold or sore throat is often traced back to the fact that the person must have consumed a cold beverage… straight out of refrigerator – gasp!!! Every time my father-in-law gets a sore throat he seems to be able to recollect the fact that he foolishly drank something cold from the fridge at some time. Now, as someone from a very warm climate I find this odd in a country where many Russians observe Epiphany, a holy day in Russian Orthodoxy marking the birth and baptism of Jesus, by taking a dip in the frozen waters of the Russian winter. Epiphany is January 19! I have seen them literally cut through the thick ice to be able to get in the water! Another belief in Russia is that running out in the snow with nothing on but your speedos will build up your immunity to sickness. Some children here are encouraged to go out in the snow in their bathing attire and roll around and play in the snow. Of course, as is well known, folks here love going to the banya to take a steam bath. After sitting in temps around 120 F, they then run out into the snow wearing, well, little or nothing at all. These things are done to build up the immunities for the cold here. Now, I am not able to say whether or not exposing oneself to the winter elements in such a manner either does or does not build up immunities. It does seem a strange to me that the people who think drinking a glass of cold milk from the fridge will make your kids get a sore throat are the same ones who believe “Junior” needs to head out into the snow with nothing but his bathing trunks on so he’ll be healthy. Obviously my American prejudices come through sometimes!

Tea was brought to Russia probably in the 17th century. Apparently over the years it came mostly from either China or India, but my understanding is that it was also grown in the old Republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan or the Krasnodar Krai. Just based on my perusal of the teas available and purchased here in Luga, it seems, at least where I live, that Indian and “Ceylon” tea is the preference. For many years tea was brewed in a samovar (самовар or ‘self-boiler’), which was a metal container used to heat or boil the water. It had an attachment around the top to hold the teapot which was filled with tea leaves and thus eventually the tea concentrate. The samovar became extremely popular in Russia. I saw many when we visited my wife’s family in Tula (my wife was actually born there). Back in late 1800s there were 28 samovar factories in Tula! This gave rise to the old idiom about avoiding taking something not needed to a place where it is in abundance, “В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят.” (“You don’t take a samovar to Tula.”) Today, however, the samovars are not really used anymore unless you just like the feel of making tea the really old fashioned way—or perhaps to impress friends. In Tula today there is a Samovar Museum which is absolutely fascinating. One can find samovars bearing the images of the Tsars and others with the Soviet leaders or scenes from life in old Russia.

Black tea was probably the only early choice. It still is probably the most common preference, alhtough green tea has become increasingly popular. There are, however, a multitude of choices. Our family does not drink as much tea as most Russian families, since we are somewhat “Americanized.” When I went to look at our “supply,” however, I found we had at least ten different kinds of tea on top of our convection oven. In addition to the usual basic black or green teas (and more than one “brand” of each), we also have have “ginger and orange green,” “Moroccan mint,” and a couple of other flavors I don’t readily recognize. In restaurants you can get a variety of “mixes” as well. “Fruity” flavors are now available, and the herbal teas, which have a long history in Russia, are increasing in popularity—or so it seems to me.

Tea is usually drunk here with lemon and sugar, but obviously not everyone drinks it the same way. A very old method was to drink the tea and take a small bite of sugar, but I personally have never seen anyone drink it that way. Tea is consumed at any time of the day, but it is traditionally always served at the end of the meal with the dessert. I have never been to a meal in anyone’s home that did not end with tea. This is the social time when people really chat and reflect on things going on in politics, the community, or with the children. The last time I had tea at my in-laws it led to getting out a lot of old pictures from the old Soviet times when Oksana was small. This time is truly Russian tea time, and this is how you get to know each other better.

Even when drunk during the day it is usually with something that is sweet: some home-made preserves (that a lot of Russian women pride themselves in!), honey, some chocolate candy or cookies. (Generally speaking cookies or other desserts here are not as sugary as in America.) The Russian expression “something for tea” means something sweet. If my wife told me to pick up “something for tea” when I go to the store, I would get a small box of cookies. The tea that is poured in your cup is often very strong, and then hot water is provided so that you can make it to your desired strength. Tea is very important and each person determines how he or she prefers it.

I came to Russia not really caring for hot tea of any kind or color. At first, I would look for Lipton tea in the small bags for hot tea since lipton was the brand I recognized. Further, it tasted like “regular” tea (that is, tea I was used to) that was just heated. I now have learned to like other teas here very much and will not return to Lipton. I still don’t drink a lot of tea compared to most Russians. When I first started drinking it I would normally put a small amount of sugar and a little lemon. When eating something sweet I just put the lemon slice in the cup without sqeezing the juice into it and leaving off the sugar. Then I was given tea as a present from my mother-in-law for “Defender of the Fatherland” day. It is Richard Royal Ceylon Black, and it is the best I’ve had. It is “loose leaf tea,” which I now prefer to the tea bags. We, as most Russian households, have an individual “tea cup,” which has a metal filter which fits inside the cup. I boil the water, and then pour it over the tea in the filter which, in turn, is in the cup. I let it “sit” for a few minutes, then remove the filter and tea and add more water to make it the strength I want. When I drink loose leaf black Ceylon tea I do not add lemon and usually avoid the sugar as well. After drinking this “classic” black tea I have no desire for the green or fruity teas.

Something I have only heard of and read about is “tea mushroom.” I’m still not sure of the details, but it is a combination of yeast and bacteria that many believe has medicinal qualities. According to folks here, drinking it aids in the healing of a cold or sore throat or pretty much anything. My wife says it looks kind of like a small jelly fish in a sweetened tea/water solution. It isn’t moving, but it does look like a living organism. You have to “tend” it. Oksana wants one, but says we’d have to get someone to look after if we took a trip, because you have to change the solution on a regular basis. Otherwise, it’ll become too acidic and the “organism” will die off. I’m still a bit confused on the care of something called a tea mushroom. Oksana says in America it is known as “kombucha.” Never heard of it.

Most Russians drink tea out of nice tea cups, and there are some very beautiful tea sets you can buy here in Russia. Of course, around the house we just drink it in whatever cup is available. The most impressive “utensil” I have seen is the crystal glass usually placed inside a holder called a “podstakannik” (подстаканник), a word that means literally “under the glass.” These can be quite elaborate. If you watch old Russian movies of people on trains you most likely will see them drinking tea from one of these glasses with the holders. Nowadays Russians tend to think of them as too old fashioned or “quaint” at best. I love them and want one just for the “snob factor.” They don’t understand why an American would want one, but I think it would be pretty cool to drink tea out of a crystal glass in a fancy silver holder. If you go on Amazon and type in “podstakannik,” you can see a variety of designs, even some dating back to the Soviet times when they were so popular. Despite my political leanings, I love the old Soviet ones.

The longer I have lived in Russia I am amazed at how Russian and American cultures are both so very similar and yet, in other ways, so dissimilar. Obviously, my family has a great desire for both “sides” to see the similarities and appreciate the differences. Foods and drinks are important for understanding most cultures, and it is no different in this case. It is very hard for me, as one who was raised in small towns and rural areas of South Carolina, to explain what drinking ice tea meant and means to people of that culture. But if you are from that culture you understand. “Sweet tea” is more than something you drink. There is a bond there. I now feel the “connection” with Russian tea drinking. I transposed those old feelings from my “other” world to a different culture. Will it stop any wars or end the “Putin did it” explanation of every thing bad that happens which is so popular now? No, I don’t think so. But for those who like learning of other cultures or want to visit or maybe even settle down in that culture, it’s a good start.

A DAY (OR TWO) IN THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN LIVING IN RUSSIA

feb-23rdThis blog is a bit more personal than usual. For folks to understand life in Russia, however, I think some personal details are essential from time to time. There are some things about living in another country that you simply cannot prepare for. One main issue is being away from family and friends you love. I was reminded of this fact Thursday night (night here in Russia anyway). I made several phone calls back home. I called my brother because I had not talked to him in a couple of weeks and wanted to check on things. He is very busy because his business is going so well, and now, since we moved, he and his wife have been left with taking our mom to all her appointments, church, and events. She’s 86 and has lived by herself since dad died in 2014. She won’t hear of going to assisted living or “an old folks home” (her phrase). She’s healthy, but she doesn’t drive anymore. So my brother had a pile of work, but he had to take mom to the dentist. Then she needed groceries. Then she wanted to go out for supper. So I hung up feeling a bit guilty I’d left him with all that extra responsibility.

Then I called mom. I was going to suggest gently that maybe she could find other neighbors to help out. But she started telling me all about her life. She gets lonely. Her and dad were married over 65 years! She told me her neighbor had given her some pizza they had left over. Mom let it sit a couple of days in the fridge before eating it. She got food poisoning. So she had been up all night with diarrhea and vomiting. She said dad always took care of her when she would get sick. So, again, I had that terrible feeling. One light moment was after she said she was in such bad shape and was praying but still was sick. Then she said, “I know Baptists aren’t supposed to do this, but I was in such a mess that I called out to dad and said, ‘Clarence! Pray for me! Tell God I need some help!’” The thought of my “Baptist-to-the-bone” mother praying to the departed seemed strangely ironic and a bit funny to me–her now Eastern Orthodox son! I assured her there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. You’re just asking for intercession from them just like we ask our friends still living on earth to intercede for us.

Then I called my friend I taught with at North Greenville University for 13 years. We’ve known each other much longer than that. The university had a post on FB that it would announce the new president at 2:00 that afternoon. I called hoping to find some inside scoop. He didn’t know many details, but as he talked my mind went back to my days there. I’ve mentioned a couple of times in blogs I loved teaching there. I enjoyed my colleagues, my students, the courses I taught. The former president had been very good to my friend and me. I think he signed my friend and me to our contracts to teach there the same day. I know it was time for that president to leave, but as my friend talked on I realized how few people I knew there. Of the “old timers” still there, my friend is the only one with whom I can talk. There was much talk of the “new era” on the university’s web-site. I realized I no longer have connections to that place that was so much a part of my life.

After that I still had to call my oldest son. My second born son was having his gall bladder taken out that morning. I had talked to him the night before, and it was supposed to be laparoscopy, and they were not anticipating any problems. There is still anxiety when it is your child and especially when you live half way around the world! My older son told me he had received a text and apparently all was okay. But as we talked on and he told me about how things were going with him I felt that helplessness that comes from not being able to actually be with that person as you talk together. Nothing can take the place of actually being with a person when you talk about things. I went to bed with a very heavy and somewhat lonely heart that night.

Yesterday we got up and I saw we had a nice new blanket of snow. The sun was shining, which is an odd thing in northwest Russia in the winter. The weather was still well below freezing. That is perfect winter weather here. I hate it when it gets up to or just above freezing. The snow melts and mud and slush are everywhere. Andrei, a gentleman who had put in our internet when we moved in, came by. He is very involved in a church in a nearby village and collects toys, food, clothes, etc., for the poor. Oksana had seen on a Russian social network “vk.com” that he was taking up money for a family with four children who were about to have their power turned off. The wife is pregnant with the fifth child; the husband has a job but is poorly paid. Oksana called him and told him to come by and we could pay for it. I don’t say that to draw attention to us. I say that because there were times when we lived in America we went through some very hard financial times. We were the ones who needed help. We determined that if we ever got to the place where we could help others financially we would remember our times of distress. Even with a decent income you can still live under financial oppression in America with a mortgage, car payment, and credit card debts that seem to have become a part of life there. My income is much lower here, but we are now debt free and the cost of living is so much lower. Jesus said, “It is better to give than receive.” It really is! We are approaching Orthodox Lent. One main facet of Lent for Orthodox is to focus on helping the needy. We had prayed for that opportunity, and it came!

Then we went shopping. We had to walk almost from one end of Luga to the other. But the sun was bright, the air was cold and clean, and the snow was crunchy. It was just the two of us! We left Roman in charge of his little brother and sister. We could actually talk while we walked and carry on a full conversation without interruptions! (Every parent will understand the blessing that is!) My favorite part was, as always, the open market. We bought the last big dairy supply until after Lent. (Orthodox do not eat meat or dairy during the 7 weeks of Lent.) Chatting with the lady there who sells all this completely natural, organic, and local dairy is always pleasant. She always brightens up when she sees us, and we love chatting with her.

Then we came back and quickly got ready to go to Oksana’s parents. Thursday was “Defender of the Fatherland” day in Russia. It was originally started to honor those who fought in the Red Army against the Whites. Over time it really became a day to honor all “potential” defenders of the family and the Fatherland, which is any male. Even I got gifts! It is a great day for Oksana’s dad, since he is retired military. But he had worked Thursday so we celebrated on Friday. (The kids were out of school Thursday and Friday.) We got there, and Oksana’s mom had prepared a full table, of course. It was really pretty.

We began with her toasting her husband, but as she began bragging about how his commanding officers would always say what a great soldier he was, he waved her off. He said, “We aren’t together to talk about me. We are here to toast our wonderful Russian-American family being together!” Wow. He actually said our “Russian-American family” with pride! It was a great meal, and as we were concluding it they brought out some old pics from Oksana’s childhood. (Okay, full disclosure, I had a little trouble “concluding the meal” with conviction because Sveta brought out this big plate of homemade cream puffs she had prepared. “Just one more” went on many more times than it should have!) The pics were primarily of Oksana and awards she received back in grade school. Most of them had a picture of the stern looking Vladimir Lenin looking down with approval. They recognized her academic accomplishments as well as her citizenship as a good littleCommunist. I was not familiar with the injunction until last night, “Proletariats of all countries–Unite!”

The television was on, and the program was about a Russian who was an expert at finding and disarming old mines. I wasn’t paying much attention, but as the ladies were in the kitchen cleaning up, Ivan (my father-in-law) and I started paying more attention. The mine expert went to Angola on a big and important mission. Apparently there were still dangerous mines in the ocean near there. Somehow, as best as I could understand, he joined up with an American, and the two of them worked together to disable many of the mines. He said he could not have done it without having such great help. They became friends and would call his mother back in Russia. The American could only speak English, but he would assure “mama” that her son was safe and they were taking every precaution to remain safe. After the mission was over the American went to Russia to see his friend again and to take flowers to the mother with whom he had spoken by phone. It ended with the Russians and the American reaffirming their friendship. What a great and surprising program to see on a weekend devoted to remembering the Russian military. Ivan looked over at me as the program concluded. Neither of us said anything. But we didn’t have to. It was a powerful scene watching the Russian and the American embrace.

As I said in the opening to this blog, living away from family and friends is tough. The phone calls reminded me that living separated from your past is also painful—those people, that job, or that special place. I am fortunate that my family in America, while not glad to see us go, were supportive of us and continue to be. “Supportive” means more than just wishing us “good luck.” Supportive means they understand and accept the fact we are here. There is no resentment from them. That makes my guilt trips a little shorter! I am thankful for their support and understanding.

The events of that next day, however, reminded me that I also have some of my family here! I still get to see the my little ones play at “Babushka’s.” I see them growing in a country that is not filled with the animosity and division that seems to be choking America. I miss being able to impact the lives of students like I sensed when I was teaching in America. But “that was then, and this is now” has to be my attitude. The people here see me, know I’m American, and form impressions based on how I live here. They see the hypocrisy of Lindsey Graham and John McCain shouting to Ukrainian soldiers that they must “go on the offensive against the Russians in 2017,” then US politicians lecture the Russians on how they must honor the Minsk cease fire/peace agreement. So the Russians must honor, but American senators can go there to encourage and support war? They watch American politicians work with our media to blame Russia for just about anything and everything that happens that they do not like. The former U.N. Ambassador, Samantha Power, who was no friend of Russia, tweeted a message about the Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who died suddenly recently. She called him a “diplomatic maestro and a deeply caring man who did all he could to bridge US-RUS relations.” She was ravaged by many Americans for her kind comments about her recently deceased former colleague. That is what Russians see on TV as “America.” At least in my “little world” I get to show them a different “face,” a different attitude. That is the impact I can and must have. We were laughing about me getting presents on Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland,” but someone quipped that they had read my blog and felt I was defending the Fatherland. I greatly appreciated the compliment! I am not an ex-pat; I am a cultural refugee and see myself as an ambassador minus the political influence. It entails the heartache of missing some joys of family and friends back in the States. But this is my home now. I should live as faithfully as possible to the reasons God put us here.