About Hal Freeman

I am an American living in Russia with my wife, Oksana, and three children. We lived in St. Petersburg, Russia 2005-2008, and then moved to America. We lived in my home state of South Carolina for 8 years before returning to Russia in June of 2016. I took early retirement after spending most of my adult life teaching in a University in S.C. While we were living in America I became very interested in reading Russian history, politics and studying the Russian language. Our family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2014. I have two grown sons who are married and have children. They live in South Carolina. We miss them very much, but we firmly believe we are where we should be.



I have mentioned before that when I started writing this blog it was for my friends in America who wanted to know what life in Russia was really like. I have since discovered there are quite a number of people interested in Russia and some of them are considering moving here as well. I tried to answer several common questions I have received about the practical aspects of moving to Russia in my last blog. Other than the logistical, linguistic and vocational issues I discussed, the possibility of moving to Russia can also create tension or misunderstandings with family members and friends. Why is that so? How will family and friends respond to their leaving? How does one establish new relationships in another culture?

It isn’t hard to understand those who transfer here because of work. It doesn’t happen often since the sanctions, but some companies still do business here. Some of us have married a Russian. That doesn’t make it likely we’ll live in Russia, however. I’m fairly certain there are more Russian/American families who choose to stay in America rather than settle in Russia. Having a Russian wife made me more interested in Russia, but it was far from being a factor that led us to move here. But what about those who just “pick up and move”?

The first thing anyone who starts talking openly about it will notice are the reactions they get when they tell people that they are thinking of moving to RUSSIA. If you suddenly inherit a large sum of money or win the Lottery, and you tell everyone your family is moving to the Caribbean or the Bahamas or to France, people understand that. (They’ll likely be envious!) If you tell friends you are moving to Canada because you’ve had it with Donald Trump and the political craziness in America, they may not agree, but they’ll understand. But when you say, “We’re thinking about moving to Russia,” they usually don’t understand—at all.

I mentioned in my last blog that one of the things that irritates me most is the wrong information being spread about Russia. Almost all you hear about Russia is negative, whether it comes from the news, politicians or movies. Much of it is also wrong. I still have friends and relatives who are absolutely convinced I am either lying or have been brainwashed when I tell them Russia is a nice place to live. They have never read one speech by Vladimir Putin or listened to any of his press conferences, but they are absolutely sure that he is an evil dictator. They’ve heard it on the news many times. How did we get to this point? Most people who follow closely know the Military Industrial Complex has its agenda. They know painting Russia as a threat helps get the defense budget high enough to buy and sell more weapons. They have lots of money and influence which they can use to demonize Russia. Most also understand that some politicians try to paint Russia as evil to generate votes or blame an election loss on. I’d like to do a brief background going back further, however. Why is there such a disconnect between what people hear daily about Russia and what people like me who live here say about it?

First, there is, of course, the history of the Cold War. Everything I heard growing up about the USSR (or just “Russia”) was about how awful it was. The leaders were dictators who didn’t care about their people. There was no free press because those despots censored the news to fit how they wanted the people to think. In my home region back in the “Bible Belt” we heard a lot about how “the godless Communists” excluded God and religion from public life. I still hear from people who carry this image of Russia in their minds today.

After the “fall” (or “dismantling”) of the USSR things changed for a time. Boris Yeltsin was elected, and American leaders declared brighter days were ahead for Russia. During the decade of the 90s (about which I have written), the U.S. stepped in to show the Russians how to do democracy. President Bill Clinton convinced the IMF to pour a lot of money into Russia, and he sent American experts and advisers of all sorts into Yeltsin’s Russia to “help” the country become a democracy—just like America. The reports from people who were supposed to know were glowing. The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, David Remnick, said in 1997, “The Russian prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before in history.” The economist, Richard Ericson, said in 1998, “The guarded optimism of the economists….seems justified; the ‘holistic’ transformation of Russia will continue.” In March of the same year, Vice-President Al Gore said, “Optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia.” (The quotes are all from Failed Crusade, by Stephen F. Cohen. The first part of this book is a thorough discussion of these wrong evaluations.)

The quotes above come from less than a year before the Russian economy completely collapsed in 1998. A lot of Russians were literally starving. Despite Clinton having convinced the IMF to send $10 millions to Russia in the mid-90s when “my friend Boris” (as Clinton called him) was running for re-election, over 50% of the Russian population lived below the poverty line, which was $45/month in 1998. The majority of American journalists, politicians, economists, and scholars were completely wrong about Russia. When confronted with the truth of how bad it was going they indicated it was temporary and were dismissive of the awful suffering of the Russian population, repeating and old saying from Joseph Stalin: “You have to crack eggs to make an omelette.” It didn’t seem like “cracking an egg” to Russians living here; it was “the collapse of modern life for us,” as one Russian writer put it. I’ve talked to many Russians personally. Their experience of the Americans “helping” Russia was awful.

President Boris Yeltsin had done everything the Americans asked, but American democracy did not work in Russia for a lot of reasons. First, most of the money received went into the pockets of a whole new generation of “oligarchs,” not to meet the needs of the Russian people. Another factor was the “experts” often lacked knowledge of Russian history, traditions, and character. Russia could not “jump out its history” and be like America. Cohen points out that many journalists who came here then to report on what was supposedly happening didn’t even know the language, let alone the history of the country. They saw rich people in Moscow doing well and thought the whole country was like that. Authentic investigative reporting on Russia was a rarity.

Vladimir Putin was initially praised by Clinton when he became president. With the passing of time, however, Putin came to trust American leaders less and less. He would not follow their dictates. He moved the country in a different direction, especially after George W. Bush deceived him and pulled out of the IMF treaty. To make a long story short, Russia did much better in every way when it stopped doing the bidding of the Americans. Better days for Russia did lie ahead, but that was because Putin pulled the plug on American paternalism. Those experts, journalists, and politicians either had to admit they were wrong OR they could make “Putin’s Russia” and even the Russian people look as bad as possible. Most chose the latter option, and they still stick with it. The campaign to demonize Russia was and is a coordinated effort.

There is also the issue of nationalism. I have just finished reading, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated Edition), by the eminent political scientist John Mearsheimer. He is a proponent of “offensive realism” in understanding international relations. One subject he devotes a lot of space to is nationalism. We are social creatures by nature. We tend to think in terms of “our group.” At an international level many of us who live in powerful countries tend to think our country is powerful because, well, its government and perhaps its people are better. Many citizens in the United States have come to believe that, despite our problems, we are “exceptional.” Meirsheimer points out that by exceptional we really mean “superior.” Our belief in individual freedoms and unfettered capitalism sets us apart in the minds of many Americans. If we go to war, it is for a good cause. We “won” the Cold War because our capitalism was superior to their Communism or socialism (unfortunately many use those terms interchangeably). We were also more virtuous than the amoral Communists.

Mearsheimer reminds us that before all the current Russia bashing we had joined with the Communist leader, Joseph Stalin, during WW2. Roosevelt started calling him “Uncle Joe,” so it would be acceptable to the American people for him to work with Stalin. FDR admitted he actually gave in to several of Stalin’s wishes to get what he wanted from Stalin. That frequently is the nature of political diplomacy. Russia is no longer Communist, and Vladimir Putin is nothing like Joseph Stalin, but many politicians and members of the press must convince the American people otherwise. Roosevelt got along quite well with Uncle Joe and met with him on several occasions. FDR was elected four times as president of the United States, and his popularity was still in good standing after meeting with Stalin on several significant occasions. Donald Trump recently had one summit with Vladimir Putin, and he was roundly condemned by the press and even called “treasonous” by the former CIA director. Ideology has nothing to do with the way Russia is portrayed in the American press or political circles. It’s a different agenda altogether. If one considers it appropriate to join hands with Stalin and totally impermissible even to talk with Putin, then ideology isn’t the key ingredient.

Many Americans want to feel a sense of pride in our country. That is not uncommon or necessarily wrong. Yet, in my opinion, there is a lot of “cognitive dissonance” among Americans right now. We have trouble finding consistency between what we have always believed about our country and the reality we are experiencing. I think that Donald Trump was elected, in part, because many Americans found “traditional” politicians out of touch and unresponsive when it came to what they cared about. Further, there is little doubt that many now distrust the mainstream media. There is no longer a Walter Cronkite who can convince us “and that’s the way it is” at the completion of a newscast. Liberals decry Fox News as “unbalanced and unfair,” and conservatives cry “fake news” at other MSM outlets. Both groups believe censorship and distortion are alive and well in the American media.

I know many religious people in America who are fearful that one can no longer talk openly about matters of faith in “the public square.”A high school football coach near Seattle, Wa. was fired for refusing to stop taking a private moment for a quick personal prayer on the football field after games. They aren’t asking Congress to establish their religion; they just sense “the free exercise thereof” is being taken away. The Soviet Union believed it was the responsibility of the State, not the parents, to decide the values children were taught. One of the reasons homeschooling is becoming more popular in America is because some parents see this philosophy at work in America. In short, many fear what was so wrong with the USSR has invaded their American experience. Thus, the “powers that be” have to work harder to make Russia even more evil. Russia is a convenient distraction from the domestic divisions. It has proved to be one topic that unites most Republican and Democrats.

In an age with the communication capacities like we now have, it is hard to keep intellectually curious people living in the dark, however. The people I know who are interested in Russia, whether they want to move here or not, are doing their own research. They seek out and find sources that they believe are providing trustworthy information. They’ve concluded that most of what is said about Russia is wrong, and they’re not afraid to face the situation in America as it really is.

So what does all this information mean to people who want to move to Russia or who are open to learning more? It probably means that some friends, co-workers or even members of your extended family will look at you differently. There are also some Russian ex-pats who left Russia many years ago who will tell you how bad it is. Clearly many won’t agree with or like your conclusions. Some simply will not understand your possible move or your views no matter what you say, and some of those will express their disapproval strongly. Others will understand to some degree, but still can’t grasp how a family just leaves what they have in America. I have had people who have never lived anywhere else but America tell me emphatically that America is the greatest place on earth to live. Families and friends vary, of course. Nevertheless, most I talk to who are seriously considering moving here have had “blow back” from some of the people they care about. So be ready. Furthermore, know that if you do move, the longer you’re gone, the more distant you probably will feel. The pulse of everyday life in Russia is not the same. It will be hard to convey that to some good friends back in America.

On the other end of the move be prepared that friendship with Russians won’t happen overnight. Again, there are exceptions, but “friendship” to Russians describes a very close relationship. They do not use the term casually like we Americans do. Becoming friends among Russians takes time and trust. If you are not fluent in Russian, it may take even longer. I also mentioned at the end of my last blog that one of the things I miss the most is having long comfortable conversations with my old American friends. While we were home for those three weeks in August I got to meet up with several of them. I indicated I didn’t get as many questions about Russia as I had expected, but we chatted for long periods about a variety of subjects. When we got back here, I realized how much I have missed that. Here is the quandary: I can’t talk to Russians about college football or a number of my favorite subjects. My alma mater Clemson is undefeated and among the top teams in the country right now! That means absolutely nothing to my Russian friends. On the other hand, there are a number of my American friends that I really can’t talk to about Russia and my life here. Living outside the United States is simply not something they can imagine or about which they have any interest in learning. My point here: be prepared to feel something of an “outsider” in both places.

The good news is things do improve here with time. As I said in the last blog, Russians will be interested in you. It is not that they, as a group, simply do not want to get to know you. They will want to ask you questions about America. They are very interested in learning your thoughts. Eventually they will want to “pick your brain” about what you think of Russia and other topics. These conversations can be quite fun and often lead to a lot of laughter. And Russian friends are very dependable and will want to help you in any way they can. Most are honored that you’re here. Just be prepared that it may take a while. Also, you can find friends from the “homeland” here. We communicate on-line and many get together as they discover those living nearby. Don’t try to set up an American “commune,” but don’t be afraid to reach out to other Americans for advice and friendship.

There is another kind of problem with moving here. When you live here you see news reports unlike what one gets from most American news outlets. I’ve mentioned how my own understanding of Syria and Bashar al-Assad has totally changed by seeing reports from other Westerners actually on the ground there. I have also seen how America’s friend Saudi Arabia is doing its best to slaughter the people of Yemen with American weapons, while we paint Iran as evil. Iran has nothing like the history of the Saudis when it comes to violence and oppression. I want my Russian friends to believe the best about America, but the more I learn the more difficult that gets.

The truth is, however, most who are seriously considering moving here already know of most of these potential pitfalls and problems. I rarely hear from anyone wearing “rose colored glasses.” They know there will be difficulties. Many are cautious and even afraid. But they are more afraid of the soaring debt and tumbling ethical and educational standards in America. They have to think through how to make a living and how to form networks here. Yet they also sense something shocking: they sense freedom when they think about moving to Russia. So they’ve started studying the Russian language and learning about life here. Those who can make trips to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what it is like in Russia. It’s not for the faint of heart to be sure. Nevertheless, they are people who are willing to take risks. If Russia is what many of us who live here claim it is, then it may be worth the sacrifice to live in such a place and raise families in such an atmosphere.

Clearly, huge numbers of Americans are not interested in moving to Russia. We think no less of those who choose to stay. That is what sometimes gets missed. Many Americans are aware of the problems there but want to stay and work for change. They want to build on those great aspects of America, some of which I have written about in previous blogs. I admire that, although I admit my pessimism. My wife and I concluded that staying and working for change was not where we believed our efforts were best spent. A family will have to sacrifice in order to come to Russia, but other sacrifices will be demanded of you if you stay. I honestly believe a significant number of people are going to be making the same decision we did. For those who will never come, however, I am hoping that you will still have an appreciation for this country, this culture, and these people.


Life in Small Town Russia: Q&A


Periodically I take a break from the heavier topics and write a blog in response to questions I have been asked about life here or details on moving to Russia. The questions usually come from folks who are either interested in moving here or others who are very interested for other personal reasons. So I try to think about the most frequently asked questions and respond. Of course, I am repeating some things I’ve already written. I hate doing that, but my readership sharply increased in January of this year for some reason, and many are Americans interested in details about a move to Russia. I can’t just tell new readers, “Oh, go back and read some of my old blogs—I’ve answered that question at some point.” Please forgive the repetition. I remind you (again) that my life in Russia is small town Russia. Things are different in cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow. Some of my friends here in big cities may want to inform us of some differences.

What do Russians think of you?” I obviously have to generalize. When I say “Russians,” clearly I don’t mean every single Russian. I am only describing in general what I have noticed as trends. Russians tend to be what I call “quietly inquisitive.” That is, rarely if ever do Russians start asking questions when they first meet me. They like to look, listen and get to know me first. Even then most want very much to avoid being pushy or forward with a foreigner. It would be impolite. But they are incurably curious. Something happened a couple of weeks ago that illustrates my point.

We were taking a taxi back from church. Often we try to speak in Russian, but we were tired and we’d just been in America so we were speaking in English. I was sitting beside the driver, whose expression never changed, and Oksana and the kids were in the backseat. When we arrived at our apartment building Oksana got the credit card out to pay while I took the kids and headed for the door. In a couple of minutes Oksana came and told me to take the kids on up. She’d be there in a few minutes. Sometimes the credit card machine has trouble reading the card in certain locations, so I thought that was it. We were in the apartment some time before she finally came up. I asked why it had taken so long. She told me the driver wanted to talk. He had questions.

He asked why we were speaking English. Oksana told him I was American and we had lived in America 8 years. He said, “Is your husband, uh…is he…” Oksana interrupted and said, “Yes, my husband is a good bit older than I am.” He replied, “No, I don’t care about that. Is your husband a REAL American?” She told him that yes I was born and raised in America. Driver: “Where did his people originally come from to America?” Oksana said, “Well, Great Britain, but that was many, many years ago.” He paused before continuing: “How did you convince him to come live in Russia?” She said, “Well, it was his idea. He brought it up first. We lived in St. Petersburg before we moved to America, so he’s been here.” She said the he had a look of stark confusion for a moment. The idea that an American with no Russian ancestry wanted to live in Luga was a bit much for him. He still wanted to know why. She said, “A number of things. It is very expensive to live in America; health care costs are way beyond what Russians can imagine; the political situation is always stormy, and the kind of values and morals being pushed on kids now by the system is not what we wanted for our children. You know, like all the LGBT stuff.” Then he seemed to understand. He smiled and thanked her profusely for talking with him. It seemed to have made the driver’s day to find out some American guy wanted to move his family to his hometown!

That doesn’t happen every day, but it is not atypical in a small town. Russians, to me anyway, seem torn between the need to be polite and even distant and, on the other hand, they want to know the details about our family. If at all possible, they will usually try to go around me and question Oksana, to make sure they won’t offend “the foreigner” with their curiosity. In our experience this questioning has never been with negative intent or with bad feelings toward us. When they find out I’m an American who wanted to move to Russia, who studies the Russian language and who is Russian Orthodox, they’re very interested.

Your wife is Russian. What about those of us who don’t have a Russian spouse?” I think it would be harder in some ways, of course. The “bureaucracy” would be the main problem. I mentioned I’ve applied for Temporary Residency since my three-year visa runs out next year, and I’m tired of having to go outside the country every six months anyway. The application process was a pain. Russians love documents, stamps, and anything that looks official. And God forbid you make a mistake and correct it on the form! And the lines you have to wait in to get them to look at your application are awful. Obama once said no one wants to emigrate to Russia, but then Barack Obama never had to wait in line at Immigration Services in St. Petersburg! According to the UN in 2013-15 Russia ranked 3rd in number of immigrants.

On the other hand, there is help. There are plenty of agencies that will assist you with filling in your forms and translating and notarizing your documents, although there are reasonable costs involved. A notary here is quite different from America. Here they are legally trained, and the one we go to worked as a lawyer for some time. They know how to write up any kind of document and secure the proper stamps.

Naturally, a lot is related to how well you and your spouse speak the language, but there is help if you are not fluent. I have an account with Sberbank, the main Russian bank. The local branch called the other day because Oksana had tried to pay her phone bill directly from my account. I had to verify it. They had someone in the office who was fluent in English speak with me. If you don’t speak any Russian at all, it will be a big problem, of course. But they will work with you even if you struggle and converse at a very basic level. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t speak Russian well. In some circumstances I start by explaining I am a foreigner and sometimes have trouble with my Russian. It works. The Russians go into “help the poor foreigner” mode, and it usually ends well. I personally have never had anyone act frustrated because I am not fluent in Russian. Just the fact that I can express myself and what I need in Russian impresses them actually. They don’t expect an American to be able to say ANYTHING in Russian. But the principle remains: the better you know Russian, the easier it will be. This is especially true if neither husband or wife is Russian. You MUST be involved in studying the language, but you do not have to wait until you’re fluent.

If you are not comfortable with your Russian I would say do not move to a town where you don’t know any English speakers. If you move to a large city, it might be easier for you in terms of language. I had no trouble when we lived in St. Petersburg because there was usually someone around who spoke English. I frequently was out in the city going to different businesses to teach, and Oksana was never with me. I only knew very basic Russian and did fine.

I think if husband and wife are both learning Russian together that is an advantage. You struggle together and correct each each others mistakes. I have mentioned before I am very comfortable speaking Russian with my doctor because his English is so bad. I don’t mind making mistakes so I speak freely in Russian. When Oksana’s parents were here the other night I understood what was being said, but I held back from speaking because I knew it would slow down the conversation and Oksana can easily translate. So it does help having a spouse who is Russian and is fluent in both languages. Yet it has probably caused me to use her as a crutch and not get more practice.

How have you adjusted to the climate?” Since I’m from South Carolina both Russians and Americans ask me this question. Actually it is the easiest to answer: It hasn’t bothered me. I sometimes think people don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true. I told my wife last week Sept. 22 always feels different for me in Russia. It is the first day of Autumn, and it actually feels like Autumn. It was mid-50s (F), kind of gray, and the leaves are changing colors. When it turned Fall in S.C., it never felt like Fall. Summer doesn’t let go that easy! As far as the winter in Russia, I prepare myself emotionally. It’s Russia, and it’s winter—therefore it is cold. They have nice warm winter clothes here, so it’s no big deal. I loved the climate in S.C. I used to water ski, swim, stay on the lake or at the beach as much as possible. But I always got excited those few times it did snow. And even after all these years in Russia, I’m still like a kid at the first snowfall. I love walking in the snow, playing with the kids in the snow, and then coming in to a nice warm apartment and watching it snow more.

If we move, should I try to move furniture, car, etc., or just buy when I get there?” Shipping things can be expensive and difficult. The difficult part is finding a company in America that actually knows Russian laws and regulations. When we were flying here, for instance, we could have declared “unaccompanied baggage” at customs and saved a load of money. (We’d shipped a pallet of stuff here a couple of weeks before our move, mostly books and some household items.) But nobody told us to declare and we had no way of knowing, so we ended up paying through the nose. Also if the paperwork on the American side is wrong, you’ll end paying a bundle in customs charges when your cargo arrives to Russia. So if you do ship, ask the company if they have ever shipped to Russia. It doesn’t matter how many other countries they’ve shipped to. Ask tough questions, and it will save you money. Also, we did not ship our car, but I was told by a friend who did that he could’ve bought a car the same make and model here for less than he he paid to ship his from America. The truth is Russia wants you to buy a car here, so custom fees are such that you may come out better buying here. We have not purchased a car because taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. Furthermore, Russian drivers tend not drive defensively. If you do choose to buy a car the options are numerous, but the prices are no lower than in America. My general suggestion is that unless it is something you really have a strong emotional attachment to or something you know you cannot get anywhere else, then don’t ship. As I said, we live in a small town, but there was nothing we needed that we could not get here. It took some time on a couple of pieces of furniture because we had them built, but we got what we wanted.

What are the hardships of living in a small town in Russia?” I can’t really think of any hardships when it comes to living here. I mentioned the bureaucracy. That is my biggest problem, but I don’t call it a hardship because it isn’t like I have to do major paperwork all the time. Russia has changed in that we have plenty of grocery stores that have all you need at affordable prices; I love going to the open market for food and clothes; there are plenty of regular clothing stores as well. I know the Western media say sanctions are choking Russia and people are struggling. I’ve read several polls here and read a couple of fuller treatments that were carefully researched. In general about 2/3 of Russians say sanctions have not impacted them at all. Some in the lower poverty group (pensioners) say they have been negatively affected, as well as some who are very wealthy (foreign investors, etc.). Russian farmers love the sanctions. Farming is booming in Russia, and prices on produce remain low.

What are the best things about living in a small town in Russia?” There are several things that come to mind. First, I like the pace of living in a small town. We walk to the market or store or to meet friends. We enjoy our small church. We decided to put our children in public school. There are no Orthodox or private schools here, and we did not know at the time that you can homeschool in Russia. We do not regret it putting them in a public school, however. We have found the school does not try to take over our role as parents. There is a LOT of communication between Gabriel’s teacher and Oksana. Oksana can call her literally anytime she has a question. Gabriel can call us from school if he has a problem. The teacher keeps us well informed. For example, last week he had been sick, but he needed to take a test so we sent him back after missing a day. He did well on the test, but his teacher called Oksana and kindly said, “Gabriel still looks weak to me. I don’t think he needs to be here until he really feels better. I’ll get with you on all missed assignments.” Maybe he would get that attention in a big city school, but I know here he is watched over. He gets home no later than 1:30 (12:30 if there is no P.E.), so he isn’t gone all day. The big payoff was he learned the language so quickly! We also personally know two families here who homeschool. That is becoming more popular here in Russia and is possible in a small town.

Second, the medical care is high quality and low cost. I’ve written praising medical care here several times in my blogs and have answered a lot of private e-mails. We don’t have health insurance because we don’t think we need it. We pay about $7.50 for a regular appointment. Appointments are scheduled for 40 minutes. I have never had to wait in line more than 5 minutes. I’m in an on-line group of Americans living in Russia. I have known one American who had cancer surgery, another one who had major surgery, and both said they couldn’t believe how inexpensive their surgeries and treatments were—not even in the same ballpark as what it would’ve been in America. They were completely pleased with their care. I recently talked on-line with an American in St. Petersburg. We were trying to get together at some point and meet personally. He was recovering from a kidney transplant. It cost him NOTHING! I thought when he said it was free he meant the attending physician or surgeon. No, everything was free. He was applying for citizenship, but it hadn’t come through when his treatments began. I told him in America it took me forever to get the emergency room visits paid for when I had birthed two kidney stones. He got a TRANSPLANT and paid nothing. Also, emergency medical care is free for everyone. The quality and cost of medical care here is a huge benefit.

The other advantage of small town life is the low cost of living in general. We checked on an apartment in St. Petersburg when we moved here because we thought we might want to live there. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was about four times what we were paying for the same square meters here. The “dachniki” are the people from the big city who come here on the weekends (mostly in the summer). They frequent our grocery stores and market and buy all they can. We have heard them comment on how much cheaper it is here to buy groceries.

I think the adjustment has gone better for us here in a small town. We visit St. Petersburg on business sometimes. I loved living there when it was just Oksana, Roman and me. But with two small children we found it tougher getting around there. Maybe it is just that both Oksana and I were raised in a small town. I’d have trouble in a big city in America! Internet, medicines, and housing are much, much cheaper here than in America.

How much does it cost to live in your small town?” We live in a two bedroom apartment. It cost about $300 for the apartment and utilities. It is too small (about 60 square meters), but we’re OK for now since Roman our oldest son has an apartment in St. Petersburg. Since we don’t have a car we don’t really have any other major expenses. It is hard to give a figure on how much it would cost a family per month, because different families have different kinds of expenses. For instance, we know a family of six (husband and wife, a grandma and three kids) who live on $700 a month here (they own their property, so they have no mortgage or rent payments, no car payments either). It’s very tight and they have to be very wise about how they spend their money, but they’re managing. A decent house in Luga for a family our size cost about $50,000. Remember: Homes here tend to be smaller than in America. A new house about 1,500 square feet would probably be no more than $60,000. They told me since I am not a citizen I can’t get a loan, however. I took out part of my IRA for when we find the right house.

What kind of job could I get in Russia to support my family?” Since I don’t actually have an official job here, I’ll preface my remarks with saying my response is based on people I’ve talked to here. The two main areas that seem the most “convenient” is either teaching or some area of information technology. Native speakers of English find it easy to get students here. Here in Luga I could teach several classes at the private English school if I wanted to, and I could get as many private students as I wanted. The downside is the pay is sometimes not all that great, although if you build up your clientele of private students it can be pretty good. Also the i-net has opened up many more opportunities for teaching. Some people in Russia teach students in other countries in addition to their Russian students. I have a couple of friends in IT who moved here from America and still kept their overseas clients. They seem to do fine financially. Those are the two areas I know of in which you don’t really need to be fluent in Russian. Obviously, if your Russian is very good then you have more options with companies.

Does Putin or the Russian government in general make life hard on Americans there?” No. Some Russian laws are tough as far as immigration goes. Getting residency is aggravating, as I said. If I get my Temporary Residency I’ll be good for 3 years. Then I’ll apply for Permanent Residency, which is good for 5 years. After those 5 years I’d be eligible to apply for citizenship if I’m interested. If one wants to work here, then you have to get a work visa to start with and you have to pass your Russian exam! (There are agencies that help you do that). You’ll also have to live in the oblast (region) where you work. I didn’t bother with a work visa, since I’m retired, so I do not know all the issues involved. I’d think you’d have to have a Russian employer who takes care of things on this end. In general, however, the Russian government does not try to interfere with people’s lives nearly as much as the American government does.

What is irritating about life in Russia?” The lies told by Western journalists, reporters, and politicians about life in Russia, its government and its people.

What’s the worst thing about living in Russia?” Missing our family and friends. I have two grown sons living in America. Saying goodbye to them and their families when we came back here after our visit was very painful. I use to work for my brother, so we saw each other a lot. I don’t miss having to go to work, but I do miss our times together. He and his wife were so great to us on our recent visit back home. I miss being able to sit down with old friends and chat in English about everything from college football to the meaning of life.

Nevertheless, we enjoy living in this town and in a culture wherein the values and beliefs we teach our children are not berated by the larger society. Despite what they say, the political situation here is far more stable than in America, and despite what you hear it isn’t run by a dictator. I sincerely grieve over the political and societal fragmentation in America. Mostly I think it is good for me to be here at home for my two younger children. I can do that on my Social Security without all the financial struggles we had in America.



As I mentioned in my last blog we went back to America for a three week visit. It was the first time we had been back there since we moved to Russia on June 6, 2016. We were able to get together with a lot of family members and quite a few friends. Unfortunately, we couldn’t work it out to visit as many as we had hoped. I couldn’t help analyzing things there as well as doing some “self-analysis.”

Arriving in America after being gone for two years was a bit eerie. We were very excited, but we know the political relationship between our “two worlds” has gotten even more tense than it was when we left. As is commonly known, Russia has been blamed for a lot of what is wrong in America. I wondered how my American friends would respond to us. I’ll sum up some observations on our visit back with friends and family and then go on to some broader “cultural” observations.

First, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting with family and friends. I was prepared for a lot of questions about Russia, but in many cases the questions were very general, e.g., the Russian weather, kids and school, etc. Perhaps I was being overly analytical, but a few friends seemed to steer the conversation away from Russia completely. I was uncertain if that was because they feared it could cause tension if we got off on politics or they were just more interested in talking about old times and how things have been since we left.

On the other hand, we had some friends who were very interested in talking about Russia. After Liturgy at our Orthodox Church, we had a number of people ask a lot of questions. Some were ethnic Russians who left years ago and wanted to hear how things in Russia have changed. Others just wanted to chat about our life here. As I’ve said before, in general Orthodox believers tend to be quite interested in Russia.

One evening I was invited to a friend’s home to meet with “some of the guys” from the church just to let them ask me questions about Russia—about living conditions, politics, or whatever. They were friends who are well read on the issues, and they had some very challenging questions and insightful observations. I don’t know how they felt about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. It was so refreshing to participate in such an informed discussion and be able to speak freely.

On the political scene I was interested in watching more of the news in America. When I’m in Russia I can view isolated interviews or commentaries on world events, but I can’t just sit down and spend an evening watching different news programs. Watching news and related programs reminded me of how different things are presented in America from here in Russia. The major differences I noticed were:

First, the reports on international news events were often presented with no reporter actually at the location on which they were reporting. The Syrian conflict was covered more than anything else, but I never saw an American reporter actually in Syria. Obviously I couldn’t watch every network, but the reports would show film clips without interviews on location. Further, the different networks I did watch pretty much followed the same “line” as far as content and commentary. There was little to nothing in the way of trying to get more than one perspective on what was happening.

From here in Russia I’m used to seeing reports on events as they are happening. I follow some English speaking news from people actually there, and the impression I get from Syria is very different from what one sees in America. People in places like Aleppo and Damascus are filmed moving about freely. Frequently I see reporters do random interviews in the streets. What initially surprised me was the fact that their clothes (especially the women) were quite western, not what one usually sees in a middle-eastern, predominantly Islamic country. I’ve also seen interviews with Christian leaders there who are quite relieved that Assad is still the leader of the country. I’ve never seen that view presented on American TV. The only network from America where I have ever seen local interviews were with Pearson Sharp of One America News Network, a network that started in 2013. The only way I could watch it was on youtube, however.

In reporting on domestic news the primary story involved the on-going discussions about Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. One doesn’t have to be a consistent watcher of the news to know that is a very divisive story. I think after being in Russia the nasty ad hominem attacks against him and President Trump seemed even sharper to me (as I explain below). Some of the verbal attacks seemed to have nothing to do with his qualifications. I admit I knew nothing about him, so I liked the few reports I saw of interviews with people who actually knew him and his work. It wasn’t just reports about Kavanaugh that seemed so polemical, however. On almost every domestic issue there seemed to be extreme division, especially if it concerned President Trump in any way. I remembered a quip I recently saw on Facebook, “America has become one giant Jerry Springer show.” It really did seem that way at times! This all seemed different from what I’ve gotten used to in Russia.

It wasn’t just the manner of debates, however. I still heard arguments about the transgender and other “sexual identity” issues. These were being discussed, of course, when we moved in 2016, but they seemed much more prominent now. I saw clips discussing how to refer to “babies” avoiding anything that smacked of imposing a gender on them before they have reached an age when they can decide for themselves. If all you knew was what was on the news one would think proponents of this perspective are the majority. And they believed this issue is of ultimate importance. Not to agree with them on issues related to sexual identity or expression meant complete division. There seemed to be no “middle ground.” It was clear from some comments that for many if there is no agreement on gender or sexual identity and rights, then there is no reason to look for other areas of shared values or ways to work together on anything.

In Russia there are certainly debates and disagreements on political matters and leaders. In comparison to America, however, persons usually stay on the issue and not attack people. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the main exception.) Ad hominem attacks are still regarded as weak arguments (as they were in my university philosophy class in America years ago). That isn’t to say Russians don’t ever get angry or emotional over issues, but I sense a stronger attempt at maintaining respect and decorum in public discussions.

My regret in this regard is this tendency has bled into the diplomatic language used by American leaders in discussions about Russia. The late John McCain was highly lauded by invited leaders of both parties as a great man and a “warrior for peace”at his funeral and other memorials recently. I looked up the ways he had described President Putin: “thug,” “killer,” “murderer,” “butcher” were common. Champion of peace and democracy? Nikki Haley, our Ambassador to the UN, has said of Russia (among other things), “Russia will never be our friend, we’ll slap them when needed.” This sounds like something one would hear at recess on an elementary school playground, not in a diplomatic setting. What makes it worse is many people with diplomatic responsibilities speak this way and yet give no evidence of having really studied Russia. Just using the word “friend” indicates an ignorance of what Putin has said and written about international partnerships.

This kind of language is effective in impressing the hard right neocons and other liberal interventionists in America, but historically diplomats have tried to understand other countries and seek ways to solve differences without inflammatory language. The ultimate goal is to solve differences without loss of life. Early on, Ronald Reagan referred to the USSR as the “evil empire.” Later he studied more on Eastern Europe. He sought Jack Matlock to help him understand more of the political and diplomatic world here. He brought in Suzanne Massie regularly to help him understand more about the culture and religion. In a recent article Patrick Buchanan pointed out that before Reagan left office he had walked down the streets of Moscow being cheered and patted on the back. As a result of his authentic and informed diplomacy there would be massive reductions in nuclear arms. The world became a safer place.

Also there is in Russia, compared to America, a greater degree of agreement on just what major issues are. How one “identifies” in terms of sexual orientation or gender identification does not fit in the category of what most Russians consider a “major political issue.” I have read accounts from gay or lesbian persons here who say that if one wants to live such a lifestyle quietly there are usually few problems. The problems arise when the gay community or an individual wants to have a parade or stage public appearances to flaunt their lifestyle. It is often not permitted, especially if there are children around. There is no question that Russia is far more traditional in terms of acceptable public morality than is America. Some people will see that as a positive trait, and others believe this is an example of a backward and intolerant Russian culture.

I return to the evening discussion with my friends from church. Toward the conclusion of the evening, I told them I had tried to be very honest and open about Russia. I had described the many positive developments here, while admitting there are problems yet to be resolved. But, overall, based on my experience here I really do see Russia headed in a direction that will make the country stronger. Polls show a strong majority of Russians see even better days ahead. Social, economic, and political differences are here, but there is in general a larger shared cultural perspective. American reports often focus on the fringe groups in Russia, but this is a misrepresentation of how it is here. I heard Ksenia Sobchak referred to as an “opposition leader in Russia” by more than one American news outlet. She received 1.68% of the total vote in 2018. A person receiving that percentage in America would hardly be referred to as a “leader of the opposition.”

I then told the group I wanted to ask them a question: What about America? I stated very honestly my impressions from our visit. I sensed fragmentation on a number of fronts without an overarching unifying principle. People seem more worried about offending or being offended than finding common ground. I asked them if my perceptions are wrong. If not, what is the solution? As I said, this group was a very thoughtful, well-informed group. But there was a moment when no one spoke. No one contested my perception on the condition in America. Of the responses that followed, there was very little optimism expressed about a good outcome. Some offered that they saw it only getting worse; a few others said a cultural or economic collapse will be the only way toward rebuilding. Someone brought up Orwell’s 1984 as America’s destiny.

The last couple of days of our visit were incredibly enjoyable. We went to the pool; our kids got to enjoy the outdoors of South Carolina. Before we left on Sunday afternoon we thoroughly enjoyed one more Liturgy in English at church and a delightful meal there afterwards. So it was with sadness that we left, although I admit I was anxious to get back to my “routine.” Coming back was hard on our children as well. We all remembered so many good times from our trip and from when we lived in America. We discovered that we tend to remember the good times. Our minds let go of all the struggles we were also enduring during the time we lived there.

You don’t have to go visit America to see our debates, our fights, our values or lack thereof. The world can go on the i-net and see what we argue over and how we debate. They know who Peter Strzok and Brett Kavanaugh are. They’ve seen our justice system at work—with all the corruption and screaming. Many Russians would love to visit America. They see many positive things about it, but they have no desire to have our form of democracy. They will fight to keep it out. Who could blame them?

And now for my opinionated conclusion. I followed as carefully as possible the track of hurricane Florence as it headed toward the Carolinas. Fortunately the damage to the property of my family members living on the coast and other parts of S.C. was not nearly as bad as had been earlier feared. Still, many residents of the Carolinas were hit pretty hard with flooding and now see even more of it as water levels continue to rise. A friend of mine in the S.C. State Guard posted videos of him and his comrades in uniform responding to the needs of those in distress. I saw U.S. Marines from my old duty station, Camp Lejeune, out helping in the same way. I watched other videos posted of many other volunteer organizations and individuals doing whatever they could to help those who experienced the worst of the storm. That is what is great about America.

What cultural refugees like me believe is that if America wants to spread democracy and stop evil empires from arising, they should do it by exporting more of the kind of help I saw after the hurricane. No one discounts the need to have a military prepared to fight to defend our borders. But we have active duty troops stationed in almost 150 countries. Estimates are we have 170,000 active duty troops serving outside the borders of the United States. It is very hard to get concrete figures, but estimates are that America is involved in conflicts in 76 countries. We average dropping a bomb somewhere in the world every 12 minutes. I know the U.S. does humanitarian work and sends aid, but when you’re dropping a bomb somewhere every few minutes that noise drowns out everything. Nations don’t perceive this as “spreading democracy.” I’ve seen first hand how both our media and our leaders distort, twist and lie about life in a country that “is not our friend.” It’s about spreading American hegemony, not democracy. You don’t spread democracy at the point of a gun.

I came to Russia the first time as a part of a group of people who were helping Russian orphanages and churches. They had started back in the dreary days of the nineties. That same group continues to come. Group members collect money and dispense it to the needy children and causes in Russia. They also come here to help build churches and join together in worship. There are no strings attached to the help, and they don’t ask to control anything or anyone. Unfortunately, the majority of the power brokers in America believe that in order for other countries to see the light of American democracy we must threaten to slap them or even bomb them. Somehow in this twisted logic they think if we’re nasty enough and confront them aggressively enough, they will kowtow to us and look gratefully to “the city set on a hill.” I remind people that old vision of America was of a city set on a hill, not a weapons complex. Meanwhile America’s inner turmoil, rage and intellectually vacuous infighting are laid bare for the world to see. My own belief is that getting involved in working with those outside its borders in a way that saves lives may be the only way America can actually save itself.


It has been quite some time since my last blog. In the realm of politics Presidents Trump and Putin met in Helsinki. On a personal level our family made our first trip back to the United States since we moved to Russia over two years ago. Now I have taken time for reflections of both a political and personal nature.

The Political. I was a bit excited when I first heard about the summit with Putin and Trump. I realize some don’t care about political events or reflections. I, on the other hand, admit to being slightly on the “political junkie” side of things. More than that, however, decisions between the leaders of these two countries can impact families like us directly—travel plans, financial transactions, etc. So it really isn’t responsible for me to adopt the “I just don’t get into politics” perspective. If you’re an American living in Russia, politics matters.

I actually had prepared a blog before the summit, but I was waiting until after the leaders met before I completed it. Just before the summit I watched how the news outlets in America were preparing the nation. On June 29 I watched an interview with Sebastian Gorka and Daniel Hoffman on FoxNews on how they thought Trump should handle the meeting. It went worse than I feared. Hoffman quickly dispensed with any talk of common objectives and said Trump should look for leverage against Putin. Gorka then assumed the mantle of “expert Russian analyst” and used statistics from at least 12-15 years ago to describe Russia, e.g., male life expectancy, birth/death rate comparisons, etc. Then he said Russia is in “a world of hurt” and “a death spiral.” His figures and general description of Russia were terribly outdated as anyone who casually keeps up with Russia knows. He portrayed Russia and Putin as helpless and vulnerable. The point was clear: Trump needs to exploit a very weak Russia.

Gorka’s reputation as a researcher has been criticized severely going back to when he got his Ph.D. from Corvinus University in Budapest. A quick Google search will show that there are a number of analysts who say his dissertation wouldn’t make a good Bachelor’s thesis. Further, Gorka was brought on by the Trump administration as deputy assistant to the president in January of 2017, but was gone by the end of August. He said he decided to leave because he was undermined by people who were not true believers in the “Make America Great Again” campaign. White House sources said he was told to leave, and security was instructed not to allow him to re-enter the White House. You would think a guy like that would buckle down on his research, but apparently shoddy research does not prevent one from being treated as an expert on American news shows these days. There is a plethora of evidence on Russia’s growth in economic and military strength, as well as positive news on the vast improvements in the health of Russians, as I documented in a recent blog. The two points I got from this interview were: 1)There is no real reason for working with Russia or Putin on shared or mutually beneficial goals. It is all about leverage and control. 2)Russia remains the way it was in the 90s. That is what many like Gorka and Hoffman want America to believe. It’s a lie, but it must be maintained despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, Trump was better prepared for the summit than they were for that interview.

A few days later I got even more upset. We were getting ready for our trip to the States, and I was also working on a new Russian language lesson. I went into the kitchen for something, and on our TV was a report by CNN International. I recognized immediately that the person being interviewed was David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. Remnick was in the middle of a rant describing how bad it is in Russia. Then he launched a broadside against “dictator” Vladimir Putin. Completing his litany of awful things about Putin he then stated that no one in Russia is allowed to hear bad things like he had just said. Putin controls the media, and Russians can’t hear these truths. Now get the picture: I’m in my den in Russia listening to David Remnick tell the viewers that people in Russia can’t hear the points he is making about Putin. I don’t have a special satellite. I get my i-net and TV from the little place across the courtyard which feeds 90% of the people in this small Russian city. One doesn’t need to be an academic to know Remnick is either lying or is totally uninformed.

I should’ve stayed and watched to find out when this interview was made. How recent was it? It really doesn’t matter because when I came here in 2005 I frequently heard Putin criticized on Russian TV as I do now. Remnick and other Western writers like to portray Putin as an old Communist dictator who will not tolerate public criticism. I have a copy of last month’s issue of Pravda (August, 2018), the official publication of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. They strongly criticize Putin right there on the front page. The interview with Gorka irritated me simply because I know a lot of people who listen to Fox and trust Gorka. On the other hand, I realize many know of Gorka’s reputation as a sloppy researcher. But David Remnick is a great writer and thinker. I remember reading Lenin’s Tomb (and later Resurrection) which were reflections on his time in the USSR when he was with The Washington Post (late 1980s). He is fluent in Russian and has lived here. His observations from that time were quite impressive, and I loved his humorous anecdotes about daily life that I definitely could relate to. How can a writer that sharp be so out of touch? Are he and Gorka just lying because they know that describing Russia as a really horrible place is what is popular these days? Is it just the old J.R. Ewing approach that “once you lose your integrity the rest is easy”? Or have they just gotten lazy and do not want to engage in the complexity of Russian politics and culture as it is today?

Of course, after the summit I heard the rage and broadsides against Trump over the fact he even met with Putin. He had a few defenders, but they were mostly drowned out. In the reports I heard there was no mention of the fact that Trump was doing what U.S. presidents have done since Eisenhower. He met with the President of the country which is the only other major nuclear power, and they had a civil discussion. If Donald Trump was guilty of “treasonous” or “outrageous” actions in doing that, was John F. Kennedy “treasonous” for meeting with Nikita Khrushchev? JFK certainly came out of that summit looking much worse than Trump did with Putin. I knew beforehand Trump would be criticized for meeting with Putin, but I had no idea the reactions would be so ludicrous. The week before the summit I had listened to how Peter Strzok, who had been put in charge of investigating Trump and Hillary Clinton, described Trump in the most vulgar and prejudicial language possible BEFORE his investigation of the election began. He was the FBI’s man in charge of those investigations. And then Trump was denounced for not defending our “intelligence agencies” in the post-summit news conference.

I retreated. As I said, I think I need to keep up with news and politics, but I had reached the end of my proverbial rope. I shut it off. As I have mentioned before I spent most of my adult life in an academic setting. So I decided to turn off the news with its “pseudo-experts” and read something more responsibly academic. I chose Richard Sakwa’s newest book called Russia Against the Rest. I’ve read Sakwa before, and he carefully cites his sources and is very logical in his observations. I needed that.

I got no further than the opening lines to the first chapter (p.11) when I had one of those “Aha!” moments. Sakwa’s observations on those who analyze Russia struck me.

Competing Cold War narratives have taken on the character of foundational myths. A political myth is a way of freezing a moment in time and imbuing it with permanent significance. A myth in this context is not a falsehood, but a fiction or constructed narrative that provides a certain interpretation of the evidence.”

This insightful section helped me to see that Gorka, Remnick and the rest of their journalistic kin are not really lying, at least as they understand things. There is no “falsification” going on because they really do see Russia as the same as it was during another era. For Gorka, the statistics from the 90s are frozen. There is no need for new research; for Remnick, Russia is still the USSR of 1988 and Putin is just like all the rest. Authentic research runs the risk of creating cognitive dissonance that could be unmanageable for them. Gorka and Remnick represent two opposite ends of the American political spectrum. Gorka is a conservative who appears on FOX and, despite his past run-ins with the White House, is very supportive of Trump. Remnick, who is a typical CNN liberal, sees a monochrome Trump: he is all bad. What joins them is the shared myth of Russia. And they really do believe the myth.

The Personal. When one actually lives in this country you can’t live by myths of any kind. You live in the world here as it is. The “true expat” has to live with the good and bad. By “true expat” I exclude those few, like a couple of families I encountered in St. Petersburg years ago, who did all they could to live in a “bubble” shielded from everyday Russian life. They had jobs around Russians, but really hung out with other expats, had their kids in English schools, went to church or local pubs with others from outside Russia. By true expats, I’m talking about the majority who are folks like me. (As I said in an earlier blog, I prefer the term “cultural refugee,” but it’s a bit too cumbersome.) We choose to live as others in Russia. Some were sent here by an employer, but we’ve all chosen to be a part of Russian life, not establish a quasi-colony from the homeland. We struggle with learning the language; our kids are around other Russian kids at school or church. We don’t pretend to be Russians, but we do try to immerse ourselves in life here. Many of us are married to a Russian spouse, but we all want to be a part of this culture. We loved our lives in America, but our lives are here now.

So now I go to the question which I posed in the title to this blog entry: Does being an expat make one an expert? The short answer is, “No, but…” Obviously I must explain. Simply living here does not make you an expert on Russia in the full sense of that description. You may not be perfectly fluent in Russian or be able to name all the members of the Romanov dynasty. In fact, you may not know the GDP, present military involvements, or inflation rate. Nevertheless, if one is an expat in the sense I have described, you keep up with the news in general, what is available at the store, and how the prices on products vary from week to week. You have a general idea to what degree Vladimir Putin or the Russian government is or is not involved in your life. Thus, you are able to sense the fallacies of the descriptions of Russia by those who are regarded as experts in the West. You don’t need to know the specific statistics to know that Gorka’s description is absurd. I’ve been coming to Russia since 2002 and have lived here for over five of those years. I don’t need to do research to know this country is not in a “world of hurt” or a “death spiral.” Of course, there are problems and poverty, but there are too many new stores and homes being built to call it a death spiral. Living in a small town I can see improvements being made in this city almost every month. Conversations with locals have a far more positive “tone” than before. I know David Remnick is wrong because I have watched a number of programs where those who want to criticize Putin are given plenty of opportunities. Remnick is describing something he wants or needs to be true. Nevertheless, given the fact that so many have so much invested in his analysis being correct, he gets to be the expert.

People like me and my friends do not have a message most of the political and media wags of the larger Western world want to hear. Nevertheless, I still think it is important to do what we can to let people know what it really is like here. I had no idea when I started this blog it would go the way it did. I thought I’d describe personal events and struggles. I intended to talk about politics some, but I figured Russia would fade from the American political scene. I had no idea Russia would remain a featured segment of American political life. So I don’t claim to be an expert, but I know who the experts are. I’ll keep reading Sakwa, Cohen, Doctorow and others whose descriptions and interpretations of Russia are consistent with the experiences of those of us who live here and are helpful to us better understanding what is going. I keep up in general with the Russian stock market, the GDP, export/import figures and the like. I’ll plod along learning the language as best I can. And I listen intently to the “common folk” here. How are their spirits? What do they say about their lives here? Doesn’t make me an expert, but I do believe with work I, and many others like me, can be honest and informed observers and participants in life in Russia who pass on how things really are.

I fully realize that the audience I will reach is not just smaller than those of Gorka and Remnick; my audience is minuscule compared to theirs. So what does someone like me really accomplish? Why bother? After I finished Sakwa’s book I was able to get The Power of Impossible Ideas, by Sharon Tennison (2012). Sharon had contacted me by e-mail several weeks ago. She commended me on my blog and encouraged me to keep it up. I did not know who she was at the time, but we have since corresponded on several occasions, and I have become much more familiar with her work. I hope to meet with her personally next week in St. Petersburg. Back in the 80s Sharon became very concerned over the issue of nuclear destruction. Her book documents her efforts and journey to change the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. She began doing “Bottom Up Diplomacy.” She founded an NGO which is now called “Center for Citizen Initiatives.” Her book does not paint with a broad brush. She gives details of places, times, names, even sometimes what people were wearing! As I read her accounts of how many Americans joined together with Russians and other Soviets to learn about each other and then after the USSR collapsed how those Americans helped the Russians rebuild their lives, I was amazed. The accounts of “coincidences” of her meeting by chance individuals both in Russia and America who became crucial to her efforts boggled my mind. She met so many people, and so many lives—both Russian and American—were changed. Vladimir Putin would include suggestions from her organization in some of his addresses to the nation. I do not have the energy, ingenuity, or certainly the organizational skills to rise to the level of Sharon Tennison. The book was a tremendous encouragement, however, to do what I can. I have mentioned before living here has impacted me even more on how I view war. War happened here. The Nazis came and took over this town. You can see the places, the pictures, and hear the stories of lives that were destroyed. The next war, if there is one, won’t remain here. The weapons are different. It will include American soil.

I want things like trade and student and cultural exchanges between my two worlds to get back to what they could be. I’d like to see the nations join together to fight the real terrorists. But the thought of a war happening between Russia and America because lies are allowed to drown out truth is not acceptable. I am grateful to Sharon Tennison for reminding me that one person’s efforts are important.





I am not sure how closely my American friends have been able to follow the World Cup and the impact of the games on life here in Russia. It has been big! Frankly, I know very little about soccer, aka “football” over here in Russia. (I hate calling soccer “football,” but I’m a minority of one here.) The only soccer games I’ve ever watched was when one of my sons was on the high school team back in South Carolina. I went to every game I could, but I learned almost nothing about the game. My son got a team trophy, but I couldn’t even figure out what “offside” meant. They all were running back and forth all over the field! I guess “football” for me will always be the American version.

The games, however, have had a tremendously positive impact on Russia on more than one level. First, the Russian team was not expected to do well at all. I read one article that said they were something like the 68th ranked team in that writer’s view. Yet they made it to the quarter finals—and almost won that game. I watched their match against Spain and became a nervous wreck. They won on an unbelieveable save by their goalie. Thus, I did not watch their game against Croatia because it was at night, and I knew I’d get too nervous and lie awake too long. Despite the fact they lost that very close game, the people here were still very proud of their team. Russia had something else to cheer about. In addition to the unity created by pulling for their team, however, there are other “victories” or benefits.

First, there have been financial benefits for Russia. There were some rumblings in a few circles that the government was having to spend too much money on preparing for the games. They suggested the cost was too big a burden on the budget. Most countries, they pointed out, actually lose money on hosting such events. I watched a video of an interview with Sergey Budrunov, the president of the International Union of Economists, as he explained the cost and benefits of the game. (The video can be seen w/ English subtitles and transcript at https://russia-insider.com/en/politics/host-countries-usually-lose-money-world-cup-russia-scores-250-return-russian-tv-news-video). It cost Russia between $10-$11 billion to provide 12 new stadiums, 5,000 miles of new roads, upgrades to already existing roads and making sure airports and other public service locales were ready for the expected crowds. That’s a lot of money and the Federal Govt. would have to provide well over half of it. Big crowds came, however, and the revenues from ticket sales and associated prices to customers will pay for the cost involved. Mr. Budronov said that by the time the games are over the costs will have been recovered. Profits stand to be substantial from the future revenues that will come in through sales tax on shirts, souvenirs, hotels, food, etc. Judging from the clips I’ve seen of fans eating, buying clothes, gifts, parties, etc., that profit should be substantial. Some estimates say Russia will recover 5 times what they spent. Also, the new stadiums, new roads, and upgraded infrastructure will still be in place after the games are over. There will be future profits to be added from these improvements in the years to come.

Second, the bigger pay off, in the opinion of many, is in the area of what I’ll loosely call “Public Relations,” although “International Relations” may actually be more appropriate. There have been many interviews shown here with fans from many countries who testify to how different their experience in Russia has been from what they were told to expect. Most admitted they came here with a significant apprehension because of what they had heard about Russia. Many from the Western countries said they were warned not only of criminals, but also maltreatment they would probably receive from the Russian police and the Russian “hooligans.” In interview after interview we heard from visitors from all over the world praising Russia and the treatment they received here. Some said police did check their documents, but usually with a friendly smile. Several recounted that when taxis were overwhelmed by the crowds they were given free rides from “regular” folks who did not charge them anything and would not take money when offered. Our son Roman went into the “center” of St. Petersburg and said the atmosphere was great. He said from the languages he heard there were more “foreigners” than Russians out in the streets and all seemed to be having a good time. My FB friends who are “real” European football fans reported the same in their experiences at the games and the parties after the games.

It hasn’t been just the fans talking about the dissonance between what they were told to expect and what they actually have experienced, however. I read many reports filed by journalists from outside of Russia reporting on the same phenomenon. The one that surprised me the most was by Steven Goff of The Washington Post. The Washington Post has been one of the “lead dogs” in anti-Russian propoganda production. Goff admits even up until the last moment he was wishing he did not have to go to Russia. His experiences here were not at all what he expected, however. It turned out to be a wonderful experience and his description of Russia is quite different from what one expects to find in The Washington Post. (See https://m.sfgate.com/news/article/After-seeing-Moscow-I-understand-why-FIFA-gave-13004407.php?utm_campaign=fb-mobile&utm_source=CMS+Sharing+Button&utm_medium=social). I have no doubts that the anti-Russian propoganda will continue, but for those who have been paying attention it will be a harder sale. It was gratifying to me and to other Americans living here in Russia to see and hear of the experiences of others who discovered the truth of what we have been saying: the Russia you read about in the main stream Western press is a creation motivated by the political and/or social agendas of the writers.


President Trump is to arrive in Helsinki, Finland soon for his summit with President Putin, so the attention here will move immediately from football to politics. The two leaders have met before, but it has been at conferences or gatherings when leaders from other countries were present as well. This will be the first meeting with just the two of them, their staffs, and the interpretors. On July 16 they have a meeting sheduled between the two of them without aides present. I do not know what to expect. In my next blog, which I’ve almost completed, I will address the issues of how this meeting has been discussed in the Western Press. I will focus on one particular interview. For now, however, I’d like to offer my observations on how Russians and Americans (not politicians, just the women and men in the street) differ in respect to how they carry out political discussions. These are based totally on my experiences and I have no studies to back them up.

First, Americans, as I have said before, tend to get more emotionally involved with a particular politician or leader. They will often ask, “Do you like Trump (or whomever)?” Or say, “I can’t stand him!” Generally in a discussion on politics, Russians are more comfortable talking about the issues with which one may agree or disagree, rather than whether you like the politician. Further, Americans tend to be “all or nothing” about a candidate. If they like Trump, they will support him no matter what. I have several pro-Trump friends. When Trump indicated he might not sign a particular spending bill, one friend told me how bad the spending bill was. Trump changed his mind at the last moment and signed it. My friend responded to someone else criticizing him by showing how the bill was essential to keep the government running. In other words his one point of consistency was his support of Trump. I think Americans see this as loyalty. Others, the “never Trumpers,” are going to be against whatever Trump recommends. This was clear when Justice Kennedy recently retired from the Supreme Court. There were people in the streets, in interviews, on FB, Twitter, etc., before anyone had actually been nominated, proclaiming their opposition to the nominee. Trump would be nominating the person, that was all the information needed.

Russians tend to keep a little “distance” between themselves and any politician. I’m not saying there aren’t people here who feel strongly for or against Putin or other politicians. In general, these feelings are kept “close to the vest,” however. Most people I know voted for Putin. Most people in Russia voted for Putin. The idea, however, that those people agree with him on every point or fall in line with whatever he says is a completely inaccurate interpretation of how things are here. For example, I chatted with my doctor again this week while he was giving me my neck treatment. He’s a great guy, but he would really like to go back to Communist days and the USSR. He was fondly recalling the times of being a doctor and not worrying about having to charge patients for whatever treatments they needed; he cherishes the memory of the comaraderie among the people here that he believes has been lost. He also “lectured” me (he knows I don’t agree with him) about the labor laws which he believes were far superior then. (Unfortunately, he got excited and starting speaking so fast that I missed a couple of his main points due to my inferior Russian listening skills!) He voted for Putin, however, not his Communist opponent. He said he believes Putin has been more effective in implementing correct economic and social policies that have helped Russia come out of the disaster of the Boris Yeltsin horror of the 90s. His heart longs for Russia to return to Communism, but his head realizes that would not be the best route.

My opinion is that there has always been this basic difference, with Americans becoming more animated in political discusions than most Russians. We Americans have always loved our political debates. The election of Donald Trump, however, has intensified it in a way beyond anything prior to 2016. Now it seems every political decision is a “bone of contention.” This was brought home to me when an old friend I had not seen in years contacted me through Facebook. He and I never agreed on politics and would constantly rib each other in a good natured way when we were young men. Now, however, after we talked about the old times a bit, he said some very negative things about Russia and added, “And I don’t like Putin!” I probed him on where he got his information. He became very angry, said I was calling him a liar, and jumped me like I was a Trump troll or something. My own political views on Trump are that when he makes a decision I agree with I’m not ashamed to commend him, but when he makes one I don’t agree with, I’ll blast away. I guess I’ve become more Russian. I neither like nor dislike him. (Although I admit the hair still bothers me.) It became clear to me through this very unpleasant conversation with a friend from over 30 years ago that things are different in America. I think I realized it before, but never reflected on it. I have American friends I really like but with whom I avoid any political discussion at all. You go there with them, and you better be prepared to fight. I go to my Russian doctor every week for a 40 minute treatment and we talk about everything—including politics. He’s an old Communist, and I voted for Ronald Reagan. Yet, we still can have sane and helpful conversations–even if my Russian is not quite fully up to the challenge.

Russians also usually stay on an even keel about political events. They tend not to get to excited when things go bad and neither are they euphoric when events look good. No one here in Luga was riding around blowing their horns or shouting in the streets when Putin got re-elected. Most here were in agreement, but Russians have a history that teaches them not to hope (or despair) based on one leader or one election. Last night I watched a string of Americans (politicians and activists) at some rally deriding the nomination of perspective Justice Kavanaugh. His confirmation, they made clear, would end democracy as we know it. They launched into a string of catastrophic events that would surely follow if he is confirmed. I think the persons who are selected to serve on the Supreme Court are very important. But I’ve lived long enough to see both liberals and conservatives put on the Court, and not one of them has ever had the power to dethrone democracy. I personally think democracy is being dethroned in America, but it is not by any one Supreme Court justice.

Finally, Russians tend not to let one issue impact everything, and they listen to “the other side.” Again, the events surrounding the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh reminded me of this difference. The main issue or point of contention in America based on what I have heard talked about for some time is what his nomination will do to abortion rights. Then it went from, “if he’s confirmed then women can’t have abortions, then it will mean no contraceptives, then all rights of women will be essentially taken away.” That isn’t an exact quote, but—believe it or not—that is essentially what one activist said, and she received cheers and applause for her insights. Abortion is still legal here in Russia, although I pointed out in my last blog it is becoming more infrequent. The Russian Orthodox Church is taking the lead in the trying to stop or at least reduce the number of abortions. They provide financial and other forms of assistance to help women who are thinking of an abortion go ahead and have the baby. Surprising to us they even run anti-abortion commercials through their television network. They don’t attack anyone over the issue. But they make their goals clear. I don’t know if they could do anti-abortion commercials on American TV. The persons who are for abortion here don’t get offended or angry when the other side sets forth their alternatives. They have their reasons, but they are quite willing for both sides to “have their say.” Who would have thought? Freedom of speech is alive and well in Russia.

My hope is that on “the other side” of all this political rancor we are going through in America we will come again to recognizing the ideals which once bound us together. Despite what is shown on TV, I do not believe the majority of Americans want things to be the way they appear on the nightly news. Those people ranting and raging do not represent the Americans I know. To some degree I blame the current leadership. Trump’s tweets get people’s emotions going, and I don’t think they change anyone’s mind. They are calls to the already converted. Then Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Shumer rejoins with responses impregnated with animosity but devoid of intellectual content; now Maxine Waters has given encouragement to harassment and physical confrontation toward those with whom her followers disagree. If Trump says anything positive about Russia and the need to work together one can be sure that Adam Schiff, Lindsey Graham or even the ailing John McCain will make sure people understand that means our President is working for Putin. That is not what I believe most Americans believe or would believe if they had the facts presented to them.

During the World Cup games a reporter happened upon an old Russian man with a basket of crocheted items, e.g., little figurines of football players and other small tokens. He said he had learned to crochet from his grandmother when he was a little boy. He had made these little items to come and give to the people visiting from other countries so they would remember Russia. Another young man brought little jars with jelly his grandmother had made for the same reason. Americans, they won’t show you that on the evening news. Somehow even with 24 hour news coverages, there is no time for stories like these to be shown in America. Those media types and the politicians want to convince you of the evil that is here in Russia and the evil that is in those on the other side of the political debates. They want to appeal to a darker side. I am no Pollyanna. There is evil in the world. But the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who suffered more than I can imagine, reminds us of the true nature and location of evil:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”



According to my calendar June 20 is the last day of spring. It has been a good one in Russia! When I was a kid growing up in South Carolina, I never understood the “solstice” explanation. I had no idea why they said summer started the third week in June. Most years, I had been playing outside barefoot, dressed in tee shirts and shorts for two months. Not every year was like that, but by June it was always HOT. Spring is not nearly as dependable here in the northwest section of Russia. Last year I thought the winter would not end. We even had a couple of significant snowfalls in May. This year, however, May was beautiful and warm. We had to get out our fans to cool our apartment. June is usually quite wet where we live in Russia, but this year we’ve had only a few rains, and the weather is actually cooler than in May. This morning it is 62 degrees (F). That is what it is most mornings when I walk. I love it.

Russians really appreciate good weather. You can almost sense the better mood in the streets. This year the World Cup is in Russia, and that has added to the excitement. I’ve read a few reports from journalists on how surprised they have been at the way things are here. Thus far the games are turning out to be the positive exercise of what some call Russian “soft-power,” or showing the world that things here are quite different than what they have been told. Despite the fact no American team is participating I saw a report that there are huge crowds of American tourists who came to Russia despite Homeland Security’s baseless travel warnings. I am quite sure there are those at work in the West trying to undermine this very positive view of the events. Many of us fear some kind of international incident designed to make Russia look bad.

Apparently the optimism of the Russian people is not totally (or mostly) generated by the weather. According to a recent TASS poll 83% of Russians have a positive view of life here. Most consider themselves “lucky.” (See http://tass.com/society/1002802) The main factors are family, parenthood and work. I was surprised that even among the over 60 age group and those in the lower income categories a majority of respondants feel good about things here. Health was also a factor. Russians are drinking and smoking less and also watching TV fewer hours since the last poll they did. Since 2000 the average life span in Russia has gone up by six years to 72.6. Obviously there are still unhappy and unfortunate people in Russia, but things are looking up.

I realize this is not the picture most people get of Russia. I somehow unintentionally got linked to a site called Quora. I was doing some research and ended up on the site. It is a site where people ask questions on pretty much anything. I saw that in response to a question about life in Russia, someone had posted a link to my blog. After that I immediately started getting feeds letting me see questions about Russia. The questions are sometimes ridiculous and betray a complete ignorance of Russia. Most of the answers, however, are quite insightful and thorough. One question from May 29 caught my attention: “Why do Russians still overwhelmingly support Putin even though their living standards did not get any better under his rule?” Fortunately the responder was able to show things have gotten much better. I will give my “take” on the increasingly positive attitude among Russians. Whether one wants to give Putin no credit, partial credit, or most of the credit is not my concern. Also, my list is partly based on a few statistics and partly a “worm’s eye view” from my life here, meaning life here on the ground.

1 “The economy, stupid.” That is a phrase James Carville, who was a leader in Bill Clinton’s campaign, came up with when Clinton successfully challenged George H.W. Bush for the presidency in 1992. (Usually stated, “It’s the economy, stupid.”) In early 1991 after the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s popularity soared. Clinton was able to direct people’s attention back to the rather bleak economic situation and win the election.

I have stated before I’m no economist. But I look at numbers that are easy for people like me–like the stock market. The Russian stock market has blossomed of late. It is up around 2,300 most days. Back in April it took a nose dive when another round of sanctions was announced. Apparently the “oligarchs” were going to be hit hard. It quickly rebounded, however, to breaking the “highest ever” notch. Now, I’m not one who believes the stock market is the best or most reliable indicator of a nation’s economy. But it is relevant. In 1998 Russian stock stood at 18. That’s eighteen, not 1,800. Poverty in Russia has been reduced by over half since then, and the GDP has grown by leaps and bounds. Pensions in Russia have risen by 10 times since 2,000.

Observations from the eye of the worm. My wife has been going to a masseuse lately. This lady says she works over 12 hours a day. It is her own private business, and she has more clients than she can handle. Oksana asked her how does she do it physically. She says she is also a manicurist and she alternates times of doing the heavy work of messages with doing pedicures and manicures. She said she is amazed how many ladies in Luga now can afford to come weekly for those. Her description of her small business demonstrates how differently things are from when I came here in 2002.

It’s not just small businesses, however. We’ve got a new grocery store right next to our apartment! “Spar” has opened a nice new store with a wide variety of foods and other items. I personally know of at least four new large grocery stores and one small mall that have opened in this little town in the two years we’ve been here. That does not include the numerous other businesses that have opened.

Who or what is responsible? As I read Western reports which actually admit things are better, they most often somehow weirdly blame (not credit) Putin. He’s corrupt; his government is a bunch of oligarchs; he got lucky with oil prices. Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia, tries to make Russia look more pitiful and evil today. In his recent debate with Stephen Cohen, I even heard him praise the 90s again (although he tried to quickly qualify his remark). The 90s was good for “master America” and the oligarchs they were funding. Oddly I hear a lot of bad things about “Putin’s oligarchs” these days. Do people not realize the U.S. help create those oligarchs when Yeltsin was president? And when Putin fights them, he’s called a dictator. If he works with them, it’s “Putin’s oligarchs.” If he reins in on them, he’s a dictator. Makes for easy reporting. The bottom line is despite sanctions and despite so-called corruption, the people here are doing better economically. Still, it seems America will continue to level more and more sanctions because…well, if you can’t think of a good policy, issue more sanctions. Maybe the “oligarchs” are hurting. But from the worm’s eye view, sanctions have not impacted regular folks’ lives.

Another factor worth considering is the fact Russia’s sovereign debt is $575 BILLION. By comparison Britain’s is $7.5 TRILLION; France–$5 trillion, and the U.S. debt is 21 trillion dollars. Since Russia has $450 billion in foreign reserves, this makes the picture even more positive for Russia.

2 People feel safer. Despite the fact that NATO continues to flex its military muscle and inch closer and closer to Russia, people here feel more secure. The reason Russia had to suck up to America in the 90s is because it had no options. The military was in shambles. The Rand Corporation is a think tank started by Douglas Aircraft Co. to offer research and analysis on armed forces, among other things, for the U.S. Government. In 2014 at the time of the Ukrainian crisis, they reported on the Russian military and, in essence, said Russia was more bark than bite. While stating advances had been made by Russia, the overall gist of the report was the U.S. had little to fear if there were a direct confrontation. The 2017 report read quite differently, however. Based on its observations of the Russian military activities in Syria they stated, “Starkly, assessments in this report will show US forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called on to fight.” They also cautioned this was simply based on what they had observed in Syria and believed Russia had other superior armaments that they had not displayed.

In his speech back in March of 2018, Vladimir Putin showed a video of new long range missiles (among other things) with startling capabilities. While the immediate reaction from many in the States was that he was bluffing, some older “grey beards” from the Reagan era cautioned he was not. No evidence has been produced showing his claims are not valid. Several have confirmed they are. Space does not allow me to discuss each of the points of his presentation, but the overall conclusion was that there are valid reasons Russians do not feel like an inferior opponent as they did in the 90s.

Donald Trump immediately said we don’t need another arms race. Putin’s response (to the Russian people) was that Russia does not want or need to escalate defense spending. He announced further REDUCTIONS in military spending and said the money is being redirected to pensions and other needs in domestic affairs. While well over half the Russian people say they are glad for the military strength of Russia, almost 45% said they believed Putin should spend more on help for average Russians. There are still people struggling here. He has responded and agreed with them. The reason Russia can do so well militarily is because it rarely goes outside its own borders. Putin sent military help to Syria because he was invited, and because the West, specifically Donald Trump, had said earlier that Russia should join in and fight terrorism. Oddly, Putin was critisized by the West for fighting terrorists in Syria. Until 1947 the name was “War Department” in America. It eventually became, “The Department of Defense.” It really still is a war department. America has not had to defend itself since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus, the U.S. spends over 10 times what Russia does on its military and now, by its own research, has an inferior military to Russia.

3 “Family Values.” The main factor Russians listed for their positive feelings about life was the family, not the economy or military. For 70 years Russians were taught that the family was not the focus of life. Socialism shifted the attention to labor in the name of “the bright future.” The traditional Christian values of Russia’s long heritage could no longer be taught. Children were the responsibility of the state. A recent Levada poll indicated that on most family issues the trend in Russia is back to more traditional values. (http://www.pravmir.com/poll-christian-values-on-sodomy-abortion-surge-in-russia-83-reject-homosexuality/) Since this includes negative views on homosexuality, trans-gender issues, as well as abortions, many in the West use this as a point of attack. Again, it does not mean homosexuality or abortion are illegal here. It means the trend in public evaluations are toward a stronger family unit and more Russians now disapprove of these practices. Of course, there is far more involved in “family” than the values I mentioned, so one ought not to miss that basic point in the discussion of specific values or morals.

Problems remain, of course, but in general Russians feel better about life here. They believe their society is becoming a better place for work, family, and one’s health. Whether deserved or not, Vladimir Putin received 77% of the vote in the March election so many Russians must give him credit. When I turned on the first reviews of the election from America I heard Howard Kurtz from FoxNews ask a guest to talk about “the Russian election” (eye-roll), “the so-called election,” he clarified. I like some of Kurtz’ reports on the media. Nevertheless, he has no idea what goes on in Russian elections, but obviously he felt obliged to act like it was fraudulent. Evidence is not important when you bash Russia, and more of your media buddies will approve of you. I switched to other outlets and the descriptions were worse, e.g., “sham election.” It wasn’t a sham election. There were plenty of international observers here. (For an analysis from a true Russian expert who was a part of an international team of observers see Gilbert Doctorow, https://russia-insider.com/en/what-i-saw-official-observer-russian-elections/ri22879.) On the other hand, I saw a report yesterday that a Federal judge in Kansas had blocked a new Kansas law that stated one had to be able to prove one is an American citizen before voting in an election. Judge Julie Robinson said the concern for non-citizens voting did not “outweigh the burden of proof of citizenship.” I find it sadly ironic that America condemns Russian elections while it believes no one in America should have the “burden” of having to prove they are legal before they vote.

I saw another headline on Fox this morning: “Americans’ satisfaction with direction of country at a 12 year high!” I clicked on for more information. It said 38% of Americans are content with the way America is headed—and that’s a 12 year high. Ironically, the number is the inverse of the 83% of Russians who are pleased with the direction their country is headed. Perhaps it is time for America to get the plank out of its own economic/political/military eye before seeing clearly enough to remove any specks from Russia’s cultural corneas.




Two years ago today I wrote my first blog, which I published a couple of days later. We had most everything in our home packed up and ready for our move to Russia. In these two years I’ve learned a lot more about Russia—and about America. That first blog picked up a handful of readers, mostly friends from church and a couple of family members. My blog last month was an interview a Ph.D. student in Bucharest did with me on my conversion to Orthodoxy. A website editor asked me to add a section on the impact the move to Orthodoxy had on our relocating to Russia. That blog got more “hits” by the thousands than any early blogs. I also received a lot of questions and feedback. So this “two year review” summarizes observations I’ve made all along since our move to Russia. I beg the indulgence of regular readers, because it does repeat many points I’ve made along the way. Nevertheless, I thought I needed to respond to some of the questions I was asked.

I do not believe the increase in readership is because I’ve become a better writer (as much as I wish that were the case). The reason is, based on the responses I’ve received, there is a growing number of people who want to know more about what life is like in Russia and others still who are seriously considering moving here. I write as one whose family came here not because I was sent here by an employer or any other external reason. We didn’t have to move to Russia; we decided for personal and idealogical reasons it was the best move for our family. My biggest surprise is how many people found some of our reasons very similar to their own concerns.

Caveat: A couple of times I have heard from Americans living in St. Petersburg or Moscow who kindly say my summaries are not always consistent with their experience. I forget or simply fail to mention that when I say “in Russia” I mean “in small town Russia.” My blog is about life outside the more usual locations for “ex-pats.”

The majority of the inquiries I received were from Orthodox Christians, several of whom are thinking about moving from America. They indicated it is not that other Americans do not share their moral or spiritual convictions. They sense a popular hostility towards those convictions. Under the cover of “politically correct” Christian views will be or already are being silenced. As one mom told me, “Yes, we can do homeschooling and we have our friends at church. But if we stay we will have to live a relatively cloistered life and hope things get better.” They do not want their children to grow up that way. Certainly Orthodox Christians are not the only people who are concerned about what they see as moral decline in America. Orthodoxy, however, traces most of its major historical developments outside of the West and, it seems to me, Orthodox folks sense a stronger bond with believers in countries like Russia where Orthodoxy is the numerically dominant faith. There is a greater openness to non-Western thought and practices.

The moral or religious concern is often coupled with fatigue about the political situation in the U.S. It is not about liking or not liking Donald Trump. I have heard from some who voted for him and some who did not, but they reflect the same frustration at the intransigent nature of the political system in the U.S. Substantive policies do not seem to change no matter who is elected. Lowering unemployment and raising the stock market are important, but these are not the types of changes many people believe should be substituted for a healthier, more traditional, philosophical and moral foundation. They are frustrated that the political fights have become more intense, but they tell me they foresee few changes at a deeper cultural level. America continues to fight in wars all over the world. Their sons and daughters may be sent to places few Americans can locate on a map to “fight terrorism” or “spread democracy.” Rightly or wrongly, apparently many Americans are like me and believe these phrases are meaningless. The U.S. is very selective about which terrorists we fight, and we only want democracy in places that will elect a leader the American political establishment approves of. If our own meddling causes the continuation of war and strife, then so be it. When we sell them weapons some people will make loads of money and some of that money will end up in the pockets of cooperative politicians. Far more children than terrorists have died in most countries where we are “spreading democracy,” but the concern among the weapons dealers seems to be that nagging fear that world peace will break out. The people I hear from are not disloyal Americans. They are heartbroken Americans. I heard from one retired gentleman last week who had come across my blog and said he would move here too if he could afford it. He lamented the money we pour into wars taking place where American security is not at stake, but he and others go without reasonably priced medical care.

Now to some specific questions. “How are you and your family treated in Russia?” The foundation for the question is the recognition of the many negative or downright nasty things said about Russia by American politicians and media outlets. That was of some concern for us when we moved, but the animosity toward Russia was not nearly as sharp then as it is now. Nevertheless, we continue to be treated well by the Russian people. In fact, I think most Russians are quite happy to know that the “real” Americans they meet do not view them or their country in a negative way. No matter how obnoxious, uninformed or venomous John McCain and his kin are in their rants about Russia, no one here holds me or my family responsible. As my regular readers know, taxi drivers are a great source for local “inside scoop.” Yesterday the driver asked us, “Do Americans really see us Russians as a threat to them or the world?” Russians are more baffled than angry over the way they are portrayed in American news. They are certainly aware of what is said, but neither I nor any member of my family has ever been mistreated or even had anything negative said to us because we are Americans.

What about the political situation in ‘Putin’s Russia’?” The political situation here is far more stable than in the States. That does not mean there are no disagreements. Contrary to what some in America believe, political debate goes on here in a lively public manner. Despite what you read in the U.S., other candidates are often very openly critical of Putin. There is simply more common ground and a stronger sense of decorum among the various parties and persons in Russian debates. I try as best I can to keep up with the news here. I think I need to know in general what Putin says to his own people. I am convinced he has no aspirations to engage in unprovoked military action against any country. He does not send any signals to his own citizens to prepare them for a coming conflict he is supposedly looking for. Also, I do not believe he has any intent on extending the borders of Russia into Ukraine or the Baltic states or anywhere else. I don’t say this because I think Putin is such a nice guy. The main reason I and others think this way is that even cursory research shows that many of the countries he is accused of wanting to take over are economic and/or political disasters. Even among those who do not like Putin, I have found most believe he is an intelligent leader. He is far too intelligent to put the economic stability of Russia at risk in the interest of taking over some other country that would be a huge economic drain on Russian resources. Ukraine is drowning economically and socially; the populations of Latvia and Lithuania are shrinking rapidly—especially among younger workers. Why would Putin want to risk sinking Russia so he could control struggling Latvia? Russia is already the biggest geographical country in the world. Further, I continue to hear the ignorant claim that Putin wants to return Russia to Communism. There is still a Communist party here, but I see no evidence that Putin is secretly working for its success. Russian school children would not be required to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn if Vladimir Putin were planning a return to Communism.

How has the adjustment process gone for your family?” Our sons Roman (18) and Gabriel (9) have had to study hard, especially given the language issue, but they have done well academically and socially. Our big surprise this year was that Gabriel not only won the math award for all third and fourth graders at his school, he placed second in the major Russian language competition. He knew no Russian at all when we came here two years ago. He has worked hard, but his scores also indicate how hard and how well his teacher has worked with him. All parents know that if your children are doing well then any adjustment is much easier. Roman is happy and doing well in college, and Gabriel enjoys his school and has many friends. They really have not missed much in terms of “stuff” from America. Marina Grace (3) speaks English primarily, but she also uses Russian. We continue to get more involved with our church, and it is the place where we have met most of our new friends since moving here. Since things are so much cheaper here we can afford to “splurge” and go out to eat or order pizza to be brought in for our “family nights.” I am grateful that my social security is sufficient for us to afford living here. We don’t have a car, but the taxis are cheap and always available. As I said above, the drivers are a great source of info!

We still have things left to do and goals to reach. We like our apartment and its location, but we’re coming to realize it is a little too small for our family needs. At some point we are going to need to move, and we dread it (of course). The questions are the same they would be in America. Do we buy or rent? Should we continue with apartment living or try to find a suitable house? Should we stay here in Luga near Oksana’s folks or move to the village where we go to church and know more people?

How well do we need to know the Russian language?” The simple response is the more you know the better. Russians will appreciate any efforts you make at learning their language. In general people will be patient if you are trying to explain what you need at the grocery store or wherever when they realize you are a foreigner who doesn’t speak Russian well. Neverthelss, it is difficult to become close friends with those with whom you cannot communicate. Anyone interested in coming here should obviously see learning Russian as “part of the package.” Learning Russian is slow. The grammar is quite complex for most English speakers. I’ve been at it a long time, but I have decided to reduce my responsibilities at the private school in order to devote more time to studying and writing. I’ll stay on as the “English Consultant” on an as-needed basis. I need to focus more on my Russian language skills, however. I have improved since coming here, but not nearly as much as I would like. When you are around people who are trying to learn English, no one cares about you speaking Russian. They want to hear a “native speaker” speak English! Since I have never taken classes in Russian or worked in an environment of total immersion, I feel I’m lagging too far behind. I am currently taking an on-line course that is very helpful. There are resources for those of us who cannot take classroom courses, and I advise anyone coming here to take advantage of them. Don’t be too impatient with yourself, however. Better to see it as a process, rather than, “I have to learn Russian right now!” Slow progress is better than constant worry and frustration.

Other suggestions:

Learn some Russian history. I enjoy reading Russian history—ancient and modern. (I finally got my hands on Stephen Cohen’s book on Bukharin that I had missed, and it is fascinating!) More than personal enjoyment, however, I believe that understanding a nation’s past always enables one to comprehend the present better. I would encourage anyone moving here to at least familiarize yourself with the basics of Russian history. There are a few one volume works that are very helpful. Of course, if you really want to impress your Russian friends, then learn more about their cultural “heroes” in ballet, literature, theatre, and such. Since I’m from what at one time was the rather “culturally impoverished” American South, I don’t even try.

Another suggestion is obvious: No matter how much history you know or current news you read, you have to check your sources on what the economy, political situation or life in general is like in Russia now. More difficult than learning about Russia’s past is getting accurate information about the present. The biggest frustration I have about “the news” from America on Russia is the profound ignorance of the people who do not let their ignorance silence them. One guy on a Facebook thread wrote all kind of nasty things about life in Russia and challenged people to “go there and see!” I responded and asked him where in Russia he lived, because it is not like that where I live. After a couple of evasive answers he finally admitted he had never been here, but had a friend who visited here in the 80s and he saw his photos. He said he could tell a lot about how bad it was just by seeing the drabness of those photos. He actually said that. But it is not just some guy on FB. I frequently hear from people who have never been here or only visited briefly who rant about Russia and talk as if they know far more than I and others who live here. Worse still, politicians and media folk with hidden political and social agendas will say whatever they need to say whether it is based on facts about Russia or not. The frequently heard protests in America against ethnic prejudice or racism are not violated if you’re talking about Russia or Russians. If you’re anti-Russian you’re safe.

Life here is very different (in a good way) from what it was like when Oksana, Roman and I moved to America in 2008. Oksana says it is nothing like the Russia of the 90s. If I were to describe Russia based only on my experiences living in Russia from 2005-2008 a lot of my descriptions would be wrong. Factor that in when you hear someone describe life in Russia. Even ex-pat Russians currently living in America may not have an accurate view of how it is here now unless they travel here frequently or keep in close touch with relatives still here. The Russia most ex-pats left twenty or thirty years ago has changed dramatically as far as daily life and opportunities.

What are the main problems you face?” The main problems are more emotional than physical. I miss my family and friends in America, as does Oksana. We were very close to my grown kids and their families there. We have not been back in two years. We hope to visit in August, but nothing can take the place of regularly being near people you love. I firmly believe this is the place where we should be, where God wants us to be, but I still have to fight not only missing my family but feelings of guilt for not being there. While Roman is now 18 and pretty much independent, I remind myself that I am here with our two small children. I have far more time with them now. As much as I miss my two sons in America, the fact is they are grown and have their own jobs and families. I love them, and I know they love me. But they don’t need me around as much as my little ones here depend on me. We made a decision that it would be better for our children to grow up here. Our two years here have confirmed that decision I believe. I have received e-mails or messages from parents struggling with the fact that a move would separate their families. I completely understand that struggle!

The other difficulty I have is the low level stress of always being in another culture. There are no Americans here. I miss hearing my own language in the streets, in the stores, in church, in the homes of friends here. I miss the ease with which I knew the right things to do and say socially without thinking. You don’t notice those little things until you’re in a very different environment. As I have said many times before, however, the culture in America is vastly different from the one in which I grew up. I had to trade getting to hear English all the time for the larger advantages of life here for my family and me.

Summary. In addition to the above, what are the other advantages or disadvantages of life here based on our experience in this small town?

1 Excellent medical care at a small percent of the cost of what it is in America. If one of us gets sick we pay $8.07 (at today’s exchange rate) for an office visit, and office visits will last as long as it takes for the doctor to be thorough. I can pay double the $8.07 and a doctor will come to our apartment. We go to an excellent modern clinic where the staff and most of the medical personnel there know me and are very helpful. Emergency care is free. I know some Russian friends will want to respond and explain to me a lot of Russians think health care here is too expensive (although socialized medicine is always an alternative if you can’t afford a private clinic). I am aware it is tough especially on pensioners. But you have no idea how expensive it can be to get sick or have a health crisis in America if you haven’t lived there.

2 The cost of housing is, in general, far less expensive. We’ve been given some general pricing on how much it would be to build a new house, and it is far cheaper per square meter (or foot) than in America. Our apartment, as I said, is small by American standards (two bedrooms, den, tiny kitchen area), but it is nice and our rent is only about $200/month (utilities not included).

3 Public transportation even in this small town is excellent. It would be nice to have a car, but I’ve already mentioned the taxis, and there are city buses or vans readily available even in small towns like Luga. To give some idea of cost, we take a taxi to church in a village about 15 minutes from here, and the cost is about $3.50 each way. To go across town is about $2.00.

Disadvantages I have not mentioned:

1 Bureaucracy. This culture is addicted to paperwork and documents, and they all have to have “official” stamping. The hours here for most government offices fluctuate. And “Technical Break” apparently covers any time they just don’t feel like working. Our children just got their Russian citizenship, but the paperwork was a nightmare for my wife. Another frustration is that it is hard to get direct and dependable advice from anybody in those offices.

2 If you don’t like snow and cold, the winters will seem very long.

Overall we are pleased with our decision to move here. I realize we are different from some considering the move in that my wife is Russian and I have lived here before. Still, after eight years in America we had to readjust. We had become a fairly traditional American family. We miss some of the conveniences of America, but Russia is modernized and has all we really need in terms of material things. And the non-material “things” are even better.