A few months have passed since I wrote my last blog, although I did post a couple of videos from my interviews with my friend Regis Trembley. Since then significant events have happened in my two worlds. I will do an update on things I have covered earlier, and then I’ll move on to offer some observations on more recent events.
First, however, I would mention the passing of Stephen Cohen on September 18. I never met Dr. Cohen and never communicated with him in any way. Nevertheless, I felt like a friend had passed. When I began reading Russian history, Cohen was the first author I read on the USSR. Since he spent a lot of time here during that period and developed a lot of friendships and connections, I found his work extremely helpful. Cohen’s primary sources were those who were involved in and lived through the events. That really impressed me. Further, his descriptions of life in the USSR were consistent with those of some of my Russian friends who lived through that period. Of course, as a scholar he went into the issues more deeply. He covered “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Later I tuned in to his interviews done with John Batchelor. They were usually weekly broadcasts, and I always looked forward to them. Batchelor was consistently well prepared. His questions, unlike most you hear from Western reporters on Russia these days, were clearly from a man who had studied the subject of Russia himself. So over the years I began to feel as if I knew Cohen. I miss those weekly broadcasts very much. More importantly, the field of Russian studies has lost a voice that desperately needed to be heard.
UPDATE. We are now in the final month of 2020. Like many folks, I am glad to see it go. This year began with my son, my daughter and me recovering from pneumonia. My wife also had some health issues which required her to go see doctors in St. Petersburg several times. In spring Gabriel had to be hospitalized with a kidney stone and a bad infection. I wrote a blog back then on Russian health care. I continue to believe that the health care we have received here has been superior to what we got in the U.S., and it is at a small fraction of the cost. It would have taken a long time for us to recover financially from these illnesses in America. Fortunately that is not the case in Russia.
COVID 19 cases have continued to increase in Russia since the summer ended. Of course, that would be true of most flues and other viruses every winter. While the number of cases has gone up significantly it is still not close to the number America has—or claims to have. America has had almost 12 million more cases than Russia. America has about 2.5 times the number of people Russia has, but the U.S. has had about 6 times the number of CV-19 cases.
COVID still has not become politicized in Russia to the degree it has in the U.S. in my opinion. Directives like the one requiring the wearing of masks continue to be selectively followed here in my part of Russia. About three weeks ago we were told we had to wear masks. So on my walk I took my mask with me, although I did not put it on. Since most people were wearing them only when they went in stores, I never bothered putting mine on while I walked in the fresh air. People here still go to restaurants and other public places. Public schools are open.
I’ve read evidence from professional medical authorities who have carefully studied this issue, and yet they come to very different conclusions. If people with doctorates in the study of communicable diseases and epidemiology can’t agree, then a bit of humility is required by all of us. Generally speaking, here in Luga the attitude is if you believe you are safer wearing a mask, then by all means do so. Some here are diligent about wearing masks in public; others are not. What I do not see here is people lecturing one another on whether to wear or not to wear. Russia had 70 years of doing what they were told to do by a government that said, “It’s in your best interest.” I can’t speak for all of Russia, but most of the Russians in my town don’t fall for that line anymore.
Again, I’m describing how it is here in small town Russia. Moscow and other places may be quite different, but I’m not hearing as much complaining from my friends there. My hunch is that the mayors and governors are reluctant to push the citizens too far with too many restrictions. After observing the blatant hypocrisy of leaders like California’s governor Gavin Newsom and a number of other politicians in America, they are probably wise.
Despite the fact some in America still feel the need to inform those of us living in Russia that we live under the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin, my freedom to worship, go out to eat with my wife or to the park with my children is still in place. I am not implying that people here in Luga violate common sense health precautions. They wash their hands; they stand a respectable distance from strangers at the market, etc. My point is COVID is not tearing apart friendships and groups the way it seems to be doing in America.
Russia has developed and is now beginning the use of a CV-19 vaccine. I tried to read up on it as much as I could, but I admit my doctorate is not in medicine. It was difficult for me to understand everything! The major difference I saw in the process here and in the West was that the Russian researchers did not “start from scratch.” They focused on other similar viruses and the vaccines used for those viruses and then modified already existing vaccines to protect against the coronavirus. They developed a vaccine more quickly because they took a different approach.
One article I read in TASS that was interesting described how they began the testing of the vaccine. After the research team presented the vaccine as safe and effective, the head of the research team was the first to receive the injection. Afterwards, the whole team did. I think it was after 3 weeks they then moved to test others.
There is still talk of a lockdown and a travel ban in the parts of Russia that are experiencing higher incidences of CV-19. This past week, however, spokesman Dmitry Peskov, commenting on reports from the Russian Health Minister, released the following statement: “There is a prevailing opinion that the current level of organization of counteracting [the pandemic] and ensuring that people get access to medical services is enough to avoid introducing lockdowns, shutting down travel between regions or switching off the economy. We still think that there is no need for this.” https://tass.com/politics/1232109 The administration seems to be trying to keep life as close to normal as possible.
Since Russia was the first to develop a CV-19 vaccine many countries contacted Russia about how they could get it, and several announced they were going to use the vaccine. Unfortunately, that attracted the attention of the “vaccine pushers” in America, and the U.S. promptly sanctioned Russian medical research labs and personnel involved in the production of the vaccine. https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2020/08/29/us-sanctions-russian-research-institute-that-developed-covid-19-vaccine/.
While American companies pretend there is no profit motive in producing their vaccine, clearly their actions indicate otherwise. What other possible motive than greed leads a country to sanction medical facilities in another country which is working against the virus? All that talk in America about capitalism and “free market enterprise” is nothing more than talk. The U.S. is still trying to bully other countries in their attempt to shut down Nord Stream 2, and now they bring the same approach to universal health and safety. America wants to be the one and only supplier of natural gas to Europe and the one and only supplier of a vaccine to the world. They will make more money that way.
Russia has made it clear that taking the vaccine will be optional for its citizens. Yet I have been questioned by several blog followers as to whether it will be required for international travel. Several of us are not sure we want to take any vaccine. My guess is that this will involve dialogue between the leaders of various countries. I have heard nothing on a plan for this in Russia. Right now, those people I know who have come to Russia during the pandemic are only required to take a COVID test before they enter or upon entering.
THE ELECTION IN AMERICA. I will now discuss the central political event that occurred this year in America: The Presidential Election. Before I do, I want to say a personal word. I have dear friends who voted for Biden and deeply believe he needed to be elected. I have friends who are just as dear who are fully supportive of Trump and believe his defeat was fraudulent and should be overturned. For them, Trump is making America great. I respect my friends’ views. And I know both “sides” will not agree with much of what I am about to write. But if a friendship cannot survive expressing different political perspectives, it wasn’t really a friendship.
The election in America certainly delivered on everyone’s expectations for controversy. I got up early (Moscow Standard Time) to find Trump was comfortably in the lead in states I was not expecting. Then about mid-morning the newscasters stated the vote count had stopped. It was in the “wee hours” of the morning in America. I don’t recall that ever happening before. They just stopped counting? When they started counting again, Biden’s numbers went up dramatically. Immediately the cries rang from the Trump supporters that the election was rigged. So for the second consecutive time the U.S. presidential election is in great turmoil.
I am not going to get into the details of weighing the possibilities of fraud. In general, two things made me suspicious. First, some of the same people who have spent four years blaming “Russian hackers” or Vladimir Putin or Russia in general for “fixing” the 2016 election were now saying there was no way an American election could render fraudulent results. Second, they followed up by strongly criticizing Trump’s followers for sowing doubt about the integrity of American elections. The same ones who insisted for 4 years that “Trump is not my president,” now cried Trump should just accept the results. So I am certainly open to the claim that there was dishonesty.
Nevertheless, I won’t go over the possible evidence of fraud or if there was fraud was it enough to alter the results. I’ll let the Americans who are still in America live through that debate. I followed the “Russian interference” narrative very closely from 2016. I often wrote about it in my blog. I saw the mistranslations, distortions and outright fabrications in the attempts to show “Russia did it.” In the end the Mueller investigation found no “collusion,” and later the charges against the “Russian hackers” of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg were dropped. That didn’t stop the mainstream media and the old guard folks like James Clapper, John Brennan and others from continuing to report it was Russia who got Donald Trump elected.
The facts seem not to matter in the American electoral system right now, and a large segment of the American population no longer trusts it. I personally believe that means the end of any genuine democracy, but, again, I’ll let the Americans across the pond debate that. Maybe the courts will rectify the wrongs and people can trust the results. I don’t think that will happen, but I hope it does. My own opinion is that the debate will rage between the two camps as it has for the last four years. I fear that it could lead to more violence than we saw in the summer of 2020.
I’ll respond to questions I have been asked about how this election news is playing out in Russia. The first question I usually got during the campaign was about who did the Russian people want to win the presidency. A Levada poll I posted on FB as the election neared showed 16% of Russians wanted Trump to win; 9% wanted Biden to win; the other 75% either did not think it mattered or did not keep up with it enough to have an opinion.
Apparently, most Russians agree with Mr. Putin: It really does not matter who wins the U.S. presidency in terms of international relations, because he or she will not be calling the shots anyway. Trump’s inability to work with Russia to fight terrorism or pull all troops out of Afghanistan and Syria, as he promised in his first campaign, served to confirm the belief of many here in the irrelevance of the U.S. presidency as it pertains to foreign policy. Those policy decisions are made “behind the curtain” by people who were not elected to office.
The second question I get is related to the first: Who do you think Putin and the other leaders wanted to win? Comments that I heard or read by Putin and others, e.g., Sergei Lavrov, were very reserved. Putin did not congratulate Biden, but he said this was because the results were challenged in court. Unlike in 2016 when Hillary Clinton sent out someone to concede defeat, Trump did not concede. Obviously I have no contacts in the Kremlin, so I cannot say for sure. My opinion is that it really didn’t matter all that much to them who won either. Trump said some very positive things about working with Russia when he was running in 2016, but he ended up levying more sanctions on Russia than Obama did. Every time Trump tried to reach out to Russia he was so severely criticized that he apparently felt he had to show his detractors how tough he could be on Russia. I think it was a bad move. His opponents hated him and criticized him no matter what he did. They completely ignored the sanctions he added and continued to call him Putin’s puppet. Again, the facts did not matter.
The other problem (again—in my opinion) for Trump and Russia was Trump’s “team” of advisers. I have discussed this before in my blogs, so nothing new here. Trump seemed at times to have good instincts, and I think if he had brought in women and men with true diplomatic insights and skills, the world would be a safer place and fewer American military personnel would be dying in countries we Americans know nothing about. But Trump surrounded himself with losers. John Bolton was his National Security Adviser for two years. Bolton, despite being too cowardly to fight in Vietnam himself, was constantly looking for a war to get the U.S. in. And even Trump said as much. After two years, Trump finally fired him, but he brought in Robert O’Brien who basically shared Bolton’s pro-war positions.
As I have said several times, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was equally as incompetent. Pompeo was more careful and did not cross Trump in public as Bolton had, but he is no more intelligent or savvy about diplomacy. His Standard Operating Procedure was to sanction anyone who did not do what the U.S. said to do. He really seems incapable of doing actual diplomacy. I still cannot say with any certainty why Trump brought in so many advisers who were either incompetent, not on board with his mission, or both. I don’t dislike Trump. I just think as far as foreign policy goes he was in over his head and reached out to the wrong people for advice.
What I regret most of all is the popularity of sanctions now. One of the presuppositions behind sanctions is the belief that if you deprive another country of the basic necessities of life then the common people will rise up and insist their leaders change their ways or be replaced. It seldom, if ever, works. The common folk often feel a deeper sense of loyalty to their leader because of the sanctions. It only increases their animosity toward the U.S. I have heard it said frequently in Russia that Vladimir Putin would not be nearly as popular as he is among Russians if the Americans had never sanctioned Russia. Many Russians saw their country under threat by the U.S., and Vladimir Putin was willing to stand up for them. I have heard that myself from Russians who really didn’t like Putin all that much. They support him because he refused to submit to the bullying tactics of the U.S. They still remember how Yeltsin cowed to the U.S., and it practically destroyed Russia.
There are two other more likely results of sanctions: First, if the sanctions are successful in depriving the nation of necessities for life, many of the poor in a country die. Apparently U.S. leaders think it sounds tough to sanction Syria or Venezuela or any of these other countries the U.S. leaders tell us are awful. U.S. citizens are made to believe the sanctions really hurt those terrible dictators or socialists. Actually, it is the poor and the children who die. And, as in Syria, the leaders are not at all the way the U.S. politicians and media describe them. The U.S. fabricated stories about Assad because he would not kowtow to their every demand. Syrians are not clamoring for him to be replaced.
I frequently see memes on Facebook showing the starving poor in Venezuela with a caption that says something like, “This is what socialism does to a country.” Poor Venezuelans are not suffering and dying because of the socialism of their leader. They are suffering and dying because America is doing everything possible to cut off their supplies. That’s American foreign policy. It is horrible in and of itself, and, secondly, it rightly makes America look like a criminal country to the rest of the world. Causing the deaths of innocent children in Yemen or Venezuela when neither of those countries presents any kind of threat to America is horrible. I describe America by paraphrasing Pogo (with a twist of Ronald Reagan): “We have met the Evil Empire and it is us.”
Another possible result of the sanctions is they just don’t work as planned. This is what happened in Russia. Before Barack Obama sanctioned Russia in 2014 over the “invasion” of Crimea, he convinced many Americans that Russia was a second rate power who had only some gas and oil reserves. He would bring Russia to its knees with the sanctions. It didn’t work. I don’t mean there were no bad results of the sanctions in Russia, but Russia responded proactively. In some areas they diversified. I’ve pointed out before Russia’s grain exports have led the world the last three years. In other areas Russia found other suppliers and customers. Russia and China have had a lot of obstacles to forming a good relationship. Now, however, U.S. policy is pushing them much closer. The old adage, “If your enemy is my enemy, then we can be friends,” may be coming true in a way the U.S. will regret.
I have to admit I am very worried about my native country. The division there that developed after Trump became president became so deep and bitter. Now, I think it is worse. As I have indicated, the “acceptability” of violence with BLM, ANTIFA, and other movements that came about during the spring and summer make resorting to violence more likely in my opinion. My friends who are Trump supporters are not going to “roll over” and accept Joe Biden’s victory. They are furious. On the other hand, if the courts were to conclude that the election was fraudulent and declare Trump the winner, then I think violence is going to break out. BLM, ANTIFA, et. al., will hit the streets.
We’ve been gone from America for just over 4.5 years. It was changing in ways that left me feeling as an outsider even back then. After this year, I no longer can imagine what life would have been like had we stayed. Nevertheless, I’ve missed it. I miss being able to go to a hamburger joint and order stuff in English. This year I again miss so much getting together at Thanksgiving and Christmas with my two sons and their families in America. I love our church here, but I understand very little of the Liturgy in Church Slavonic. I’d love to worship in English.
In 2019 we had so many American friends come see us, and that helped me a lot. One family had planned to move here and spent a couple of weeks with us early in the year. Then a large Orthodox family from America came to Russia to travel and spent a few days with us. Subsequently, a former student of mine (from my days as a university professor) who had married a Russian lady came with her and their daughter for a few days. We also had American friends who have a connection with the Baptist church here in Luga come visit. All those visits refreshed my soul.
With COVID, we had no visitors in 2020. We have also had fewer opportunities to get together with Russian family and friends. It’s been a mean year. But with all that has happened in the States I decided to apply for Russian citizenship. The laws are changing. I no longer have to disavow my U.S. citizenship. The fact that I am married to a Russian, have children by that marriage and we all reside in Russia meant I could skip applying for Permanent Residency and go straight to citizenship. Last week we got all the paperwork done—well, uh, my wife got it all done—and we turned it in to the immigration office here in Luga. After a few alterations, it was done and sent in. One never knows about Russian bureaucracy, but the lady who worked with us was very helpful and believes that in 4 months I will become a Russian citizen.
I never intended to become a Russian citizen when we moved here. Nevertheless, I can’t see taking my family back to America to live. My kids speak Russian more than English now. They love being both Russian and American. How would they be treated if we went back to live in America with all the Russian paranoia being promoted there? I have stated many times before I do not believe I have the right to dictate the standards and morals that American culture chooses for itself—whether international or personal. But I do have the right and the opportunity to live in a country that is more open, accepting, and respectful of the values I believe are important for a nation and for an individual. For my family and me, that country is Russia.