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.

SAYING GOODBYE TO 2020 FROM RUSSIA

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.

RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE & NAVALNY

“We will know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” William Casey, former Director of the CIA.

I read that quote long ago. I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek remark that need not be taken seriously. I have since changed my mind. I think he was dead serious. I don’t enjoy writing blogs about politics. It’s similar to a compulsion to work out. Back when I used to run several miles a day someone asked me if I enjoyed running. I answered, “I enjoy having run.” I didn’t really look forward to it, but I was glad to get it over with. Same with writing about politics.

I was asked to start writing this blog over four years ago by friends in America who wanted to get a perspective on life from here in Russia. Coming back to Russia after being gone for 8 years has changed my perspective on what it is like to live in Russia, but the process has also changed my outlook on life in America.

I decided to write about two political topics I have been asked about. In some ways it is a continuation of my last blog. First, I’ll discuss the reports that are already being circulated about Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. elections. Then I’ll move to the report about Alexei Navalny. I apologize that this blog turned out to be longer than usual. I did omit some sections, but it is still too long.

RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE. I have used as a starting point for the discussion of Russian interference an article by someone I regard as a real expert in these matters, Ray McGovern. I essentially follow his points and then add observations based on what I see from living in Russia now. https://consortiumnews.com/2020/08/21/ray-mcgovern-catapulting-russian-meddling-propaganda/?fbclid=IwAR3bwDDVBdAxIl88HRDINF2McQWpSxIca1psJ2b3UIZBtKhYpvqzwCsYaTA

The coming November election in America looks scary to me. The violence and division in the country are bad already. And now The New York Times, as well as other MSM outlets, are already declaring Russia will interfere. They believe since Russians successfully swayed the 2016 election for Trump, they will surely try it again. I want to review why I believe that the claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 has been proven false. Then I’ll include my own questions about what I call the Russian Interference Narrative (hereafter RIN).

The first component of the RIN is that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails which were then published in Wikileaks. The information in these e-mails exposed some unethical activities by people in the Democratic Party hierarchy—including candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The media did not focus on this damning information, however. They focused on the claim that Russian hackers were responsible for the leaks.

The cybersecurity company, Crowdstrike, which turned out to be paid by the DNC, claimed that they found Russians had hacked into the DNC server. The claim looked to be based on some flimsy evidence from the beginning, e.g. Cyrillic letters were used by the alleged culprit. Nevertheless, America was flooded by confident news reports on Russian hackers.

What was not reported was that on December 5, 2017 Shawn Henry, president of Crowdstrike, was placed under oath by the House Intelligence Committee. The results of this investigation were not to be made public—or so the committee thought at the time. After a long legal battle, two and a half years later the courts ruled the minutes of the Committee had to be released. Only then did we learn the real story. The following exchange was made public:

Ranking Member Mr. [Adam] Schiff:  Do you know the date on which the Russians exfiltrated the data from the DNC?…when would that have been?

Mr. Henry:  Counsel just reminded me that, as it relates to the DNC, we have indicators that data was exfiltrated from the DNC, but we have no evidence that it was exfiltrated (sic). … There are times when we can see data exfiltrated, and we can say conclusively. But in this case, it appears it was set up to be exfiltrated, but we just don’t have the evidence that says it actually left.

Mr. [Chris] Stewart of Utah:  Okay. What about the emails that everyone is so, you know, knowledgeable of? Were there also indicators that they were prepared but not evidence that they actually were exfiltrated?

Mr. Henry: There’s no evidence that they were actually exfiltrated. There’s circumstantial evidence, but no evidence that they were actually exfiltrated.

This information was released on May 7, 2020. Thus, based on this testimony Chairman Schiff knew that there was no proof that Russia or anyone hacked the DNC computers in 2017. Schiff never willingly released that information, however. It was just the opposite. As Marc Theissen of The Washington Post wrote, Schiff went on the news shows and “repeatedly claimed he had plenty of evidence of collusion.” It only became public knowledge two and a half years later because the courts forced it. Even then, the majority of major news outlets kept it quiet. We know Schiff repeatedly lied to the public, but neither the MSM nor anyone else has held him responsible. It is illegal for U.S. citizens to lie to Congress; apparently it is not illegal for them to lie to us.

No one is more qualified to speak on the technical matters than McGovern’s colleague William Binney, former Technical Director for the CIA. Binney has stated many times the speed of the transfer done on the DNC computers indicates clearly it was downloaded to a flash drive. No remote server could have downloaded the material at the speed with which it was done.

The second component of the RIN was the widely reported claim of January 6, 2017 that there were 17 intelligence agencies that all found evidence of Russian interference. The implication is that all of these agencies did formal investigations and reached the same conclusion. Ultimately that scenario was revealed to be false. James Clapper, then Director of National Intelligence, later admitted he chose representatives only from the CIA, FBI and his own National Intelligence Agency to investigate. The other 14 agencies did no research. Nevertheless, it continued to be widely reported that all 17 agencies had found the interference even after Clapper’s testimony was made public.

Clapper testified before Schiff’s committee on July 17, 2017. Under oath and in private he stated: “I never saw any direct empirical evidence that the Trump campaign was plotting (or) conspiring with the Russians to meddle in the election.” Yet he later appeared on CNN and said, “What a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he is doing with our President.” So under oath he said he knew of no evidence of Russian collusion. On TV he said Trump was Putin’s asset. The hypocrisy and dishonesty could not be more glaring. He has never been held responsible for his deception.

The third component of the RIN was supposed to be the death knell for Donald Trump’s presidency: The Mueller Report. It did not go as expected. Mueller had to admit under oath that his investigation, which used about 40 FBI agents and 30 million tax-paid dollars, came up with nothing. Further, Mueller looked extremely confused as he testified. At times he had to be reminded of what was in the report.

Mueller (and others) still insisted there was evidence Russians interfered even if there was no collusion. Mueller had indicted 13 Russians for their supposed election interference as part of the Russian Internet Research Agency. As I said in an earlier blog, he knew he could not extradite them from Russia so he could claim they were guilty and no one would know any different. There would never be an actual trial. Trouble is, the Russian company, Concord Management, hired American lawyers to go to court representing those13 Russians. Mueller’s lawyers were shocked and unprepared. In March of 2020 the federal prosecutors finally dropped the charges. They waited to do so on a day when the stock market plunged, and the U.S. was well into the COVID pandemic. Thus, this plank of the RIN collapsed without the American public noticing.

The last component of the RIN to fall was “The Steele Dossier.” Christopher Steele was touted as a British expert with MI6. He served in Moscow from 1990-1993. He remained in London with MI6 until 2009. Despite the fact he had not lived in Russia since 1993 and had not visited Russia since 2009, he supposedly still had Russian contacts who gave him juicy information on what Trump had done while in Russia. He included some risque accounts which led to the dossier being called the “pee” dossier. This would make it look like Putin had compromising information on Trump with which he could leverage him.

It turns out that Steele, like Crowdstrike, was paid by the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Steele testified in his home country about the dossier and admitted he could not substantiate the claims in it. The British judge concluded the dossier was no more than “an attempt to get Hillary Clinton elected.”

One question that is never addressed concerns the details of how Putin was able to control American elections in the first place. We were told it was a national security issue—some politicians said the collusion was an act of war! The Defense Department’s budget is $738 billion. They don’t have enough money to hire people who are smart enough to defend the electoral process? We are supposed to believe Vladimir Putin, who has a shoestring budget compared to the U.S. Defense Department, has surrounded himself with personnel who can dictate who becomes President of the United States. Barack Obama was president for 8 years leading up to the 2016 election and Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State for almost 5 of those years. They left us with an extremely vulnerable electoral system and Information Technology personnel substantially inferior to Russians? Nothing about the RIN is convincing.

THE NAVALNY POISONING. In my last blog I mentioned Senator Lindsey Graham’s August 21 tweet:

“How does this (Navalny incident) eventually end? The Russian people will reach a tipping point where they tire of Putin and his cronies plundering the nation and sowing discord throughout the world—all at the expense of the average Russian.”

Graham posted this in the context of a larger declaration of his support for Alexei Navalny standing up to evil Vladimir Putin. Graham apparently would have us believe he knows all about the “average Russian,” although listening to his comments about Russia over the years has given me no indication that he knows much at all about Russia or average Russians. Let’s be clear: He likes Alexei Navalny because Alexei says nasty things about Putin.

Navalny has been involved in Russian politics for about 10 years. His primary means of communication are his blog and his videos. At first he became fairly popular, especially among young people, although I have never seen a poll showing his favorability ratings in Russia higher than single digits. He spoke out against Putin on Ukraine in 2014, and that was not well received by many Russians. Over time his popularity has dwindled to about 3%. He is far more popular in the West. I rarely hear people here even mention him. He is not a major player on the Russian political stage.

On August 20 Navalny felt sick on a flight, and the plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk (Siberia). Navalny lapsed into a coma and was put on a ventilator. An early report I read said after initial broad based testing to rule foreign substances, they thought the problem was diabetes and a drop in his sugar level that may have put him in a diabetic coma. Then I read a clarification that said it was not diabetes, but they suspected a metabolic problem could perhaps be the cause. Before they could do any further analyses his family wanted him transferred to Germany. The Russian doctors advised against it, because he was in a coma. The family persisted, however, so on August 22 he was transferred to a hospital in Germany. Later he was moved to a military hospital there.

After he was transferred to the military hospital, the German foreign minister (not the doctors) reported that Navalny had been given the nerve agent Novichok. Novichok is supposedly a highly fatal Russian nerve agent, although Russian officials say they eliminated it from their reserves in keeping with OPCW regulations long ago. I am no chemist, but sources say the name refers to a “family” of nerve agents easily produced in many countries, including the U.S.

Russian health officials say Navalny tested negative for any poison or nerve agent while in their care. Several times Russia has made official requests that the German doctors confer with the Russian doctors who examined him to discuss the tests results, but the Germans have thus far refused to speak with the Russian doctors. As of now, Navalny is recovering. He gets up and moves about. He is breathing on his own and plans to return to Russia when his health allows.

First, Navalny’s entourage said he was poisoned by some tea he drank at the airport. Lindsey Graham, like many in the West, went with that narrative even before anyone had announced any test results. Now the story is that they found it in a bottle of water he drank in his hotel room before he left. For a more thorough discussion of the logical problems with both scenarios, as well as reasons both the governments of Russia and Germany need to be more objective and aggressive in the investigation see Paul Robinson, https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2020/09/17/cups-of-tea-and-bottles-of-water/?fbclid=IwAR0iKecwDTrlplV76JR8DdbHH6i0SORXbSleUBuzKxryojmiq_9rtEfZlqM

I began writing this blog entry not long after the incident. I thought maybe there would eventually be some kind of closure or conclusion, but that does not appear to be happening. A very good article I have read on it is by Craig Murray. I already had plans to make some of the same points Murray made, but he made them before I got to publish my blog—and he also made them more effectively than I would have. https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2020/09/novichok-navalny-nordstream-nonsense/?fbclid=IwAR1GzVr9agpx7XY14i7_-6N7S0h4wJltCaHFXa5__1XWK3DNFaKL3lcpV4Y

I will simply summarize my own reasons for believing neither Putin nor anyone within his circle ordered Navalny to be poisoned.

First, I agree with Navalny’s own words. The day before his flight Navalny was asked by a group of supporters why he had not been killed (since Vladimir Putin ostensibly feels so threatened by him). The interview was covered by The Sidney Morning News from Australia, but was largely ignored in the English language outlets. https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/my-death-wouldn-t-help-putin-rival-said-before-suspected-tea-poisoning-20200821-p55nul.html?fbclid=IwAR2CPLZuVkb6T9cNw9RHyZWIyyF5PhaOAbJHcCM3GqDPBYR1KM7uVjzJyq4.

Navalny responded that it would not help Putin if he (Navalny) died. Navalny said his death would make him a hero, and that could create more problems for Putin than if he remained alive. I agree that he would be more of a problem to Putin dead than alive. He has been been an irritant to Putin, but he has never been a serious political threat. That is a figment of the Western imagination.

Western neocons have a wish-fulfillment complex about Putin. They want so badly for people to hate him that they let it contort their view of reality. I mentioned in my last blog how I found it surprising to read months ago of how Putin’s support was “collapsing” as a result of coronavirus. One such article by Barnini Chakraborty appeared on the Fox News site back on April 22. https://www.foxnews.com/world/russians-frustrated-putin-coronavirus-deaths-grow

Like many who write for Western outlets her claims were devoid of evidence. Again perusing Paul Robinson’s site I learned the belief that COVID would doom Putin’s presidency was widely accepted in the West. How is it that Western “intelligence” knows so little about Russia? Putin’s poll ratings in August went back up to 66% according to Levada. In the elections this past Sunday in Russia the United Russia party (Putin’s party) did well. https://www.rt.com/russia/500748-navalny-poisoning-saga-russia-elections/

Second, I agree with Murray that if Putin wanted Navalny dead then he would be dead. Remember the Skripal “murders”? They were the father and daughter in England who Putin allegedly ordered to be killed with Novichok. But they survived. Apparently, British authorities never allowed them to give interviews after their full recoveries.

One can argue about Putin’s motives and methods, but he is clearly not stupid. The earlier attempted murder with Novichok failed, so he tried the same method again? We are supposed to believe Vladimir Putin could control the outcome of the election of the President of the United States, but he botched the murders of both the Skripals and Navalny in a way the whole world would see how incompetent he is.

Third, if the Russians had tried to poison Navalny, why did they allow him to be transferred to Germany? Several writers have asked how it is that no one had time to turn off the respirator a few minutes during the two days he was in Russia? Certainly someone in the hospital security detail had opportunity. That the Russian doctors gave him good medical treatment and then allowed his transport to Germany so soon leads me to believe they had nothing to hide.

Additionally, I think the Nord Stream II dispute may be an important factor in the discussion. Since Murray discusses that in depth and my space is limited, I will move on to my own prejudices against Navalny. He irritates a lot of people. He irritates many rich people. But I’m not rich so that does not bother me. He vilifies Putin, but that gets him support from the West. I get it. What I find strangely missing from reports on him from the West is his attitude toward immigrants to Russia.

If he did not hate Putin, the West would probably call him a racist. He shows videos with pictures of people who are what Russians call “Caucasians.” This term in Russian does not refer to white people, as it does in English. It refers to people with ancestors from the Caucasus mountains who frequently migrate to Russia.

Navalny is a strong Russian nationalist who advocates a “pure” Russia. He has done videos of his skits where pictures of Caucasians are coupled with references to cockroaches, flies, and in one video skit he plays a dentist who gets rid of these “rotten teeth.” In another he is a pest exterminator who ends by saying you get rid of cockroaches with a slipper and flies with a swatter, but for these other invading pests you need a pistol. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyqAWCx-I38&t=35s

(He is a strong advocate for gun-rights.)

Since I am not an ethnic Russian—I have absolutely no Russian ancestry—I’m not sure how Navalny would think of me and my half-breed children residing here. But that side of Navalny is never seen by the West. We ought not, however, think that some of those “cockroaches” and “rotten teeth” types he refers to have not seen his videos. He is a leader who advocates violence. Chickens do come home to roost.

CONCLUSION. As far as I know there have been no marches in Russia protesting what happened to Navalny―at least none around here. As I indicated, Sunday was the regional (Gubernatorial) elections, and things went peaceably as far as I could tell. There were no riots; no police were attacked; no stores were looted. My 12 year old son went for a long Sunday afternoon bike ride with his buddies.

It is not like that in America. Last month a 5 year old boy was intentionally shot and killed in his own backyard while riding his bike in Wilson, N.C. His killer said he was opposing white privilege. I saw the recent video of a police officer in Los Angeles shot in the face and arms while sitting in her squad car. As she stumbled from the vehicle with blood pouring from her face the crowd across the street cheered the shooting. By the time other officers were able to get her and her partner to the hospital, a crowd of protesters had assembled and blocked the entrance to the hospital. Then I saw a video of the man attacking a police officer in Lancaster, PA. A still photo showed he had a large knife raised as he rushed the officer. The officer shot and killed the man in obvious self-defense. Destructive riots protesting police brutality followed in Lancaster. I have been through Wilson, N.C. several times. I used to occasionally visit relatives in Lancaster, PA. years ago. I went into L.A. a few weekends when I was stationed at 29 Palms. These three cities differ from each other in a lot of ways, but all three have now suffered from the violent turmoil in America.

Lindsey Graham, however, informs the world that Russia is at the “tipping point.” The people are ready to rise up against the evil President Putin for “plundering the nation and sowing discord throughout the world.” So American politicians are not plundering the hope of America? America is not the one sowing discord around the world? It seems to have become the modus operandi of American politicians to divert attention to other nations. We had Qaddafi killed, and today Libya is a slave market. We backed the coup in Ukraine to remove Yanukovich and install Poroshenko, and now their economy is the worst in all of Europe and thousands are dead. Then the U.S. went on to intervene in Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. But we are assured it was Putin’s fault. He is the one spreading discord in the world.

Somehow our leaders have convinced themselves and others that they do such a great job of leading America they have the right to choose the best leaders for other countries. It may not look like they’re spreading democracy when they oust elected leaders, but trust your politicians, America.

Adam Schiff obviously decided he is the one who dictates what Americans are allowed to know. But there were other members on that committee, both Democrats and Republicans, who silently went along with him. Lindsey Graham tells the American people where the tipping points in the world are. He’s not alone. I hear the same line from many of his neocon Beltway kin. Why don’t our leaders focus on telling Americans the truth and then working on America’s problems? Right now it looks like America is the nation close to the tipping point. Fabricating stories about evil Russia won’t make the situation any better in America.

I talked with a friend yesterday on Skype. We talked about the old days when politics could be discussed without the shouting and shooting. While there were exceptions, in general you could rely on the media to give you at least two sides of every story. I miss Walter Cronkite. There really was freedom of speech.

Rest in peace Mr. William Casey. The success of the disinformation campaign you longed for is on the verge of being realized.

UPDATE FROM RUSSIA: COVID AND THE CONSTITUTION

Painting by Luga artist Sergei Yudin

The summer is coming to a close here in Luga, Russia. When I went on my walk this morning it was 56 degrees (F). These kinds of temps still seem odd to me since in my native state of South Carolina the last couple of weeks of August are often the hottest of the summer. I’ve had some questions on how things are going with COVID, and also I wanted to update readers on the revised Russian Constitution.

I am also bothered by the continued extremely negative treatment of Russia that I’m reading in the Western press and wanted to address the misinformation about interference (as usual), Navalny and a couple of other issues. There simply was not enough space to address everything, however, so the latter issues will be in my next blog—which I’ve already started writing.

COVID 19. Before I discuss any specific numbers I want again to state that in my opinion there is no way to determine how accurate the figures are from any country. I personally think that in the case of the U.S. it is impossible, given what the health officials themselves have said. Russia has been accused, as I mentioned a couple of blogs ago, of altering the figures here. I’ve heard that from America, and I’ve heard it from some Russians. Unlike in the U.S., however, no evidence for that accusation has actually been presented. I will give the recent “official” figures with the understanding there are probably some inaccuracies. I think the numbers do help us understand the general situation in the countries.

In my last status report I indicated I am a bit obsessed with checking all possible numbers daily from at least two or three sources. There has been a steady, albeit gradual, decline in the number of new cases in Russia since early May. (See https://www.coronatracker.com/country/russia/ ) The figures don’t look like they are being altered to me—at least not on a grand scale.

Russia ranks fourth in the world in terms of highest numbers of CV cases, but that is a misleading for two reasons. First, there is a large gap between the top four. The United States has had over 6 million total cases and now has 2.5 million active cases; Brazil (#2) and India (#3) both have had well over 3 million cases, and both currently have around 700,000 active cases. Russia has had a total of just over 975, 000 cases and currently has 165,025 active cases, so Russia is far below the top three. The second reason the raw numbers are misleading is while Russia is ranked fourth in total numbers, per capita it ranks 33rd. 81.4% of Russians who have had CV have already recovered. The fatality rate is 1.7%.

Russia, like almost every developed country, has suffered negative economic and employment consequences from COVID. Nevertheless, given the positive trend in the numbers, restrictions have been greatly eased in most cities. Restaurants have been open for several weeks for inside dining here in Luga. I rarely see people wearing masks on my walks, although there never was anything close to a majority of the people wearing them. I had a dental appointment this week, and most people wore masks when entering but then removed them after a while inside. Children will go back to regular school on September 1, although there are rumors they will switch to “e-learning” at the first sign of problems.

I have a number of Orthodox Christian readers who have asked me about the impact of COVID on our Liturgy and church attendance. So I’ll add a caveat to address that issue. My understanding just from what my readers said is that the Orthodox Church in America, of which we were members, has been rather strict in terms of numbers of people who can attend Liturgy, the wearing of masks, and even changing the way the Eucharist is observed.

During normal times the Orthodox Churches (at least the ones I’ve attended) observe Communion in way that shocks my Protestant friends. The bread is placed with the wine in the chalice. At the proper time toward the end of the Liturgy we go forward in a line and the priest gives us the bread and wine in a spoon from a common cup. We also kiss the cup, kiss the priest’ hand, and kiss the icons as acts of veneration. Even before the pandemic some of my non-Orthodox friends cringed when I told them that the same spoon is used for all of us. I won’t go into the Orthodox understanding of the body and blood of Christ that explains the practice, but the phrase, “Communion is the medicine of immortality” sums it up.

Some of my Orthodox readers from America say it is now done differently there, but I really did not understand their explanation, so I won’t comment on how it is in America. Practices in our church here have changed very little. There are no limits to the number who may attend (last Sunday, for instance, we had a larger than normal crowd). People stand maybe a little further apart during the Liturgy, but clearly not 2 meters. We say the Symbol of Faith and the prayers the same as always without wearing masks. The priest in our church here in Russia continues to administer the body and blood of Christ the same way. He uses the same spoon from the same chalice. So COVID has not really impacted the Orthodox here in small town Russia very much.

I stick by my earlier explanation for why Russia’s COVID numbers are so low even though its guidelines were not as strict nor as clear as in other countries. First, early on Russia poured a lot of effort and money into giving large numbers of tests. Thus, I think they were able to stay on top of things and knew where the danger areas were. Second, despite differences of opinions between various mayors and governors, there was not the over-the-top political infighting I saw in America. It seemed to me whichever position Trump took, the Democrats took the opposite. Trump’s tweets were nasty and personal, and his opponents responded in kind. I just did not see that here. I watched the video conferences on the Kremlin web-site. Moscow handled things in a much more strict manner than St. Petersburg, but the officials didn’t argue about it. I don’t agree with everything Russia did, but hindsight is always 20/20. I didn’t have the weight of the decisions on my shoulders so it is easy for me to second guess.

Nevertheless, the borders of Russia are still closed to most countries. They are open to the U.K., Turkey, Tanzania and Switzerland. I saw articles in July that there were those in the Kremlin who wanted to open the borders to everyone in mid-August. That did not happen. There is still no official word on when the borders will open. A couple of days ago Putin did sound a bit optimistic about opening them, but he said it is going to be gradual.

This is very frustrating to us because I have been contacted by two families who are wanting to plan a visit here in view of possibly moving to Russia. They are trying to get their passports and visas ready, but it is difficult. There is another American family I have mentioned before who is currently in Serbia wanting to join us permanently here in the Luga district as soon as they get permission from the Russian Consulate. We are anxiously awaiting some kind of official word. So overall, there are still frustrations, but life in general is pretty much back to normal in Luga. Our kids have had a great summer playing with friends and enjoying the mild temperatures.

THE CONSTITUTION. I wrote a blog back in February about a speech President Putin gave in which he mentioned revising the Russian Constitution. I didn’t really deal much with the possible changes, because his speech contained only vague comments about them at the end. He focused on his frustration that not more had been done for families with children, health care, etc. The Western press jumped on the speech and ignored the issues he focused on and said the speech was an attempt by Putin to become president for life. My point was whatever his plans are for remaining as president, they were not revealed in that speech.

The new Constitution was revised with the referendum taken from 25 June to 1 July. It was approved by a vote of 78%, with voter turnout of 65%. Obviously I have space for only a few points that are commonly mentioned. (For a full version of the Constitution in English see http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-01.htm.)

1 The Russian Federal government has authority over all territories and structures, as well as national policies. No international laws or treaties may supersede Russian federal law. The point here is that Russia clearly stands against “globalism.” There is a strong belief here that every country has the right to dictate its own policies and write its own laws without interference from foreign actors.

2 The Russian Federation has a unified 1,000 year history. It has a culture with a belief in God which has been passed down from its ancestors. The mention of God was quite different from the negative language on religion in the 1918 Constitution which was interpreted to allow the government to confiscate all Church property.

3 Marriage is only between a man and a woman. Same sex marriage in Russia will remain illegal and is now officially unconstitutional. This point, coupled with the statement on belief in God, pleased the Russian Orthodox Church and all believers. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/blog/2020/07/russia-affirms-and-defends-traditional-marriage-rejects-lgbtq-delusion/ I have stated before that in Russia same sex relationships are not illegal. Same sex marriage is. It is also illegal for same sex couples to flaunt their affections in public places where children may be present.

5 Another significant change was powers of the presidency were reduced. While many American politicians and media outlets have criticized Putin for having had so much power, they neglect to mention (or are simply ignorant of) the fact the extreme powers of the presidency in Russia were granted by the 1993 Constitution which was certainly shaped with help from American “advisers.” Boris Yeltsin was president. He did pretty much what America said, so America wanted the Russian president to have a lot of power. Now that Putin refuses to submit to their authority, they call him an autocrat with too much presidential power. The reductions in Presidential powers were primarily in the area of appointments the president can make, e.g., Prime Minister.

6 The president is limited to only two terms. Before the president was limited to two consecutive terms. Hence, Putin served two four year terms. The length of a term was expanded to six years after the next President, Dimitri Medvedev, had served one four-year term. Putin was then elected to two more six year terms. He could not do that under the revised Constitution.

Nevertheless, events which followed the adoption got the most attention. Former Russian cosmonaut and current member of the State Duma, Valentina Tereshkova, proposed that Putin’s terms would be “restarted” under the new Constitution. She was the first woman in space and is quite popular in Russia. Her motion carried with little or no opposition. Thus, when Putin completes this term in 2024, he will be eligible to run for two more six year terms if he so chooses.

Of course, many believe Tereshkova was prompted by Putin to make the recommendation. Others believe she and other members (with whom she almost certainly conferred) simply wanted to give Putin the option if he wants it. There are those who believe Putin was behind this all along; others believe the lower Duma was doing what the majority of Russian citizens want. I don’t know who talked to whom, and I don’t see any minds changing.

Despite what I’ve seen both in uninformed articles on Fox News and reports on CNN, reliable polls such as Levada and Gallup, show the majority of Russians want Putin to stay on as president. Approval ratings did drop during the earlier stages of COVID, but it was not nearly the “collapse” I read about in the Western reports. The lowest I saw Putin’s approval numbers drop to was 59%.

There are various reasons for these high numbers in my opinion: many remember what life was like when he became president in 2000. Whatever flaws he has, they like the way he has guided Russia to where it is now. Many of my older friends remember what is was like going without pay for months and months in the 90s. Others like his traditional values and support for the Russian Orthodox Church. Since I am Russian Orthodox, I have heard this stated several times. Others simply do not see a better option. They are not strong supporters of Putin, but the experience with Medvedev leaves them reluctant to take a risk with someone else right now.

I also have friends here who hope Putin is defeated. They are struggling financially and believe new policies and a “fresh” perspective on the economy are needed. A number of individuals are not so much against Putin as they are tired of him. They want new blood. They appreciate what he has done; they believe he has served well; but it is time to step aside.

The good news, as I have said many times before, is people here express their views in a way that—at least from my experience—does not lead to screaming and ranting. It is NOT like the nastiness of American political discussions which often end friendships. As much as the American political and media establishment don’t like it, the move to allow Putin to run for two more terms was in accordance with the will of the majority of Russians. Sounds almost like a democracy.

I don’t know if he’ll run again or not. This term does not end until 2024. A lot can happen. He’s 67 years old, but he is in very good health so my hunch is he will run again. I may be reading into it, but he seems to have this sense of mission. It does not appear to me like the “addiction to attention” I’ve seen in so many politicians.

Since bloggers are supposed to be brave I’ll state my own view: I hope he runs again. I really do understand my Russian friends who disagree. And I am not Russian, so I certainly do not overestimate the importance of my views on Russian politics. My perspective is as an American living here. I am not a citizen and cannot vote. For what it is worth, here are my reasons.

First, I remember what it was like here in 2002 when I first came to Russia. That was after things started to get better, but I was shocked at how “backward” this country was. It isn’t like that anymore. I mentioned my dental appointment. I have never been in a dental office in America with so much modernized equipment. From the fancy CT machine, to the ultrasonic dental drill that works using high frequency ultrasonic vibrations, to the little device that tells you if you reached the end of the root canal… My dental problem was complicated and I won’t go into it, but after 3 hours of working on me she regretfully said she could not completely repair the problem and referred me to a dental clinic in St. Petersburg that uses a microscope when drilling. So she charged me nothing. She refused payment: “If I cannot fix your problem, I do not take your money.” At my last physical examination, my doctor did ultrasounds of my internal organs and did numerous other evaluations far beyond what I had ever received in a physical examination in America—and charged me far less.

Second, I have heard and read some of the nastiest things possible said about Putin from American politicians and the mainstream media. He has been openly called a thug, another Hitler, a murderer, and many other nasty things. He has been blamed for almost every problem America has. As Nancy Pelosi said, “All roads lead to Putin.” America has essentially surrounded Russia with missiles, and then Lindsey Graham recently said it is really Putin who is sowing discord throughout the world.

Putin has NEVER descended to their level. He has remained calm and diplomatic. When he speaks about America to his Russian audience he does so with class. I fear another president would not exercise this same discipline. We live in a nuclear age and the “new cold war” is far more dangerous than the old one according to most experts. I have never seen a politician who has set aside his own ego in the way Putin has. As an American living in Russia, I fear what could happen between my two countries if someone else sat behind that desk in the Kremlin without the same demeanor and self-control.

My third reason is more general—and a bit negative. When I look at America and see the news, I know I can’t go back to that anger and violence I see in the streets. The violence is not just in the big cities anymore. As I’ve said before, I don’t wear a MAGA hat, but if Trump makes decisions that lead to bringing troops home and ending American interventions then I applaud him. I’m glad he has not started any new wars, but not starting a new war is a low bar of foreign policy accomplishment. I repeat my oft stated animosity for his Secretary of State’s intrusions into the affairs of other countries and violations of international law. So I just can’t jump on the Trump bandwagon, but neither do I trust the likes of Pelosi, Schumer, Biden and Schiff. In an atmosphere filled with polemic, people expect you to choose a side.

Here in Russia I believe the values that we as a family hold—both cultural and religious—are respected and encouraged. Yet, Russia was an atheistic country for 70 years. Thus, I have good friends here who do not hold to my religious or moral views. But we still share deep common values on freedom and the need for peaceful international relationships. I’m not looking to live in a country where all my beliefs and personal morals are imposed on others. I have found Russia to be a place where different views can be respectfully and freely expressed and those differences appreciated.

Russia is a great place to raise a family. And being an American has never been a problem here for me or my kids. My children still speak English, but they have gotten more used to speaking Russian. The fact they speak English is regarded as a positive thing in Luga. Being Americans makes them interesting to people here. Nobody expresses animosity to us or toward America. My kids also feel patriotism toward Russia. Given the atmosphere in America after four years of Russia-bashing, I’m not at all sure how we would be treated if we went back.

Is Putin responsible for all the positive developments here? He is certainly not solely responsible. I think it is also—perhaps primarily—the Russian people and Russian culture who should get the credit. But as the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk said: “The buck stops here.” On the one hand, he meant the president ultimately gets blamed for whatever happens. He cannot “pass the buck,” i.e., blame others. On the other hand, presidents sometimes get praised for things they accomplished with the help of a lot of other people. I don’t know how much Putin is responsible for. But I have seen my native country change from what it was into something very different. During my lifetime America never was perfect for sure. Now, however, it has reached a deeper level, gone into a deeper descent. It is far more menacing—beyond what I ever dreamed. I’d like Russia to stay the way it is. That’s a bit self-centered I know. But politics is always local first.

RIOTS, RACE AND RUSSIA

I have never seen events in my native country like the ones that have transpired since my last blog. I recall things getting bad back in the late 60s. We had protests that sometimes turned violent. Most people in my age group can remember the Democratic Party convention of 1968 or when the National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University, killing 4 of them in 1970. Yet these never reached the sustained level of violence of the recent riots in America, and never did we see law enforcement prevented from responding. Further, the protest back then were rarely, if ever, intended to destroy small businesses or private property. They were mainly to oppose the war in Vietnam and promote peace among nations. And no one recommended defunding the police or National Guard when some of their members responded in inexcusable ways.

The recent violence in America was triggered by the death of George Floyd and the protests were ostensibly against systemic racism. Yet quite a number of the police members who were killed or injured by the protesters were black. Small businesses were looted and destroyed, and many of the owners were black. Protesters were seen gleefully running out of stores with new sneakers, and grief or anguish over the death of George Floyd seemed to have nothing to do with anything. Thus, it appeared to many of us that racism—or George Floyd’s death—may not have been the real motive.

In many cities the police adopted a submissive attitude, symbolized by them taking a knee in front of the rioters, kissing black people’s boots or washing their feet. Many of us saw videos of police cars driving past scenes where violence was in progress or heard tapes of emergency calls wherein the 911 operators told the people in danger the police could not respond.

My own belief is that these were not spontaneous riots that got out of hand because of grief or anger over George Floyd. But this blog is not about life in America. I focus on life here in Russia and how my “two worlds” of Russia and the U.S. are connected—or disconnected. So I’ll deal with the way the subject of Russia has been brought into the events and then offer some reflections on life here.

THE RUSSIA CARD. It wasn’t long before Russia was connected to the events in America. The first person I heard make the connection was Susan Rice, former National Security Adviser to President Obama. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN she did not blame Russia for provoking the riots. She said Russia “hijacked” the protests and turned them into something very different. It was Russian interference that caused the worst of the violence. She said this was, “right out of the Russian playbook.”

Blitzer did not raise the issue that I did in my last blog. He did not question the disparity between what Rice had said in TV interviews about Russian interference in the 2016 election and what she said under oath to the House Intelligence Committee. For example in an interview on “ABC News this Week” Rice contradicted Vladimir Putin’s denial that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. She said, “Frankly, he (Putin) is lying…The reality is all our intelligence sources have come together to affirm with high confidence, the Russian government at the highest levels, was behind the very unprecedented effort to meddle in our 2016 presidential election.” (For the full article summary in Newsweek see https://www.newsweek.com/putin-lying-russia-election-national-security-adviser-susan-rice-620699) That was in 2017, and she continued to maintain that claim publicly until the release of the Mueller report. Nevertheless, when she was put under oath privately and asked whether or not she had had seen actual evidence that confirmed Russian interference she responded, “I don’t recall intelligence that I would consider evidence.” And she claimed Putin was lying?

In the recent interview on Russia “hijacking” the protests she offered no evidence at all. Her appeal to “the Russian playbook,” which unfortunately neither she nor any of us have actually seen, was a safe distraction from having to say she knew of no evidence. Of course, Blitzer did not confront her with either her past contradictory statements on Russian meddling or with her lack of evidence now. The spineless journalist responded, “You’re absolutely right,” and then he brought up the actions of the USSR as “evidence” that this is the way Russia does things.

It was not just Democrats, however, who blamed the Russians for intensifying the riots. Nikki Haley, former Ambassador to the UN and governor of my home state of South Carolina, tweeted on June 20, 2020, “(Russian Intelligence Agencies) have encouraged and spread hateful rhetoric by extremist groups, and played up allegations of police abuse in America.” She provided a link to the New York Times article (March 10) that claimed Russia was linked with almost every extremist group in America. Again, there was no actual evidence of the accusations against Russia in either her tweet or the Times article.

I also offer one caveat on another tweet two days later by Haley on an event unrelated to Russia but which demonstrates her attitude to evidence. Bubba Wallace, a black NASCAR race driver, claimed someone left a hangman’s noose in his garage as an attempt to terrorize him apparently over the fact that NASCAR had supported Black Lives Matter. The FBI sent 15 agents to investigate this act of “terror.” In an obvious attempt to endear herself to BLM, Haley tweeted, “We all should stand w/ @Bubba Wallace today against the cowards who secretly put a noose in his garage stall.” Then she threatened, “Watch your backs you cowards. Bubba has a bigger army than you do.”

The FBI investigation concluded that it was not a noose at all. It was a rope with a loop used to pull down the garage door. It had been there since the previous October. Again, the point is Haley, Rice and others simply do not wait for or care about evidence. It’s the rhetorical and political impact, not the facts, that matter.

Fortunately, it appeared neither the accusations by Rice nor Haley seemed to gain much traction with the American people. Russia did not seem terribly bothered by them. Russia U.N. Deputy Ambassador tweeted in response to Haley, “thank you for showing the U.S. is innocent of any of its troubles or wrongdoings.”

Before I could breath a sigh of relief that accusations against Russia were ineffective, however, the New York Times published an article on June 26 stating that American intelligence officials had concluded Russian military intelligence units had paid bounty money to members of the Taliban to kill Americans. The article stated Trump had been briefed on this report last March but had done nothing except “deliberate” as to what should be done. Immediately the story was picked up by CNN and MSNBC and then other networks and news outlets. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/us/politics/russia-afghanistan-bounties.html

Russia immediately denied this ever happened and ridiculed it as evidence of lack of intelligence by reporters. The Taliban also denied the report and seemed offended that anyone would assert they had to be paid to kill Americans: “We have done target killings for years with our own resources.” Both the present and former Directors of National Security emphatically asserted Trump was never briefed contrary to what the Times had indicated. Upon further study intelligence officials said there was no evidence of the testimonies which were in the Times report, but as I write this blog the debate is still going on.

The report did not pass the “smell test” as far as I’m concerned. First, the Taliban makes a lot of money from the sell of heroin. It is not financially strapped. Further, the Taliban, as they themselves claim, having been killing Americans for nearly 20 years. All of the sudden they want money to do it? Russia has never had a good relationship with Taliban. Further, the information was said to come from, at least in part, captured Afghan militants and criminals—hardly sources anyone would consider reliable without further verification. As we all know, prisoners of war sometimes say things to get themselves “off the hook.” (We actually had a class on how to lie like this in captivity when I was in infantry training in the USMC.)

More problematic was the fact the Times had relied on “unnamed sources.” I followed the Russia meddling story (hoax) very carefully from the beginning. As I documented in my last blog we now know that the accusations had no basis in fact. That phrase, “unnamed sources” is a flag. It means no one can be questioned further or be held accountable. We must trust the Times‘ reporters. Back on May 5 of this year the Russian embassy ridiculed the Pulitzer awards for 3 articles in the New York Times that were found to be “Russophobic fabrications” for which the paper received Pulitzer prizes. https://tass.com/world/1153055 The New York Times has a history of fabricating stories about Russia.

It now appears certain Trump was never informed of the “bounty” information. In fact, there is no evidence the information was ever taken seriously by anyone in American intelligence. I will not go into the details any further, but more information can be found in articles by men who have an abundance of actual experience in Eastern European intelligence. See Scott Ritter https://www.rt.com/op-ed/493174-nyt-report-russia-afghanistan/ and Ray McGovern https://consortiumnews.com/2020/06/29/ray-mcgovern-russiagates-last-gasp/

The New York Times made up the story and many naive “sheeple” will read it or hear reports on it on CNN and do no further research. Thus, for the Times, it’s “mission accomplished.” Their purpose is not to convey factual information. It is to mold the way people think. It’s called propaganda. Russians know a lot about that. The difference is people in the USSR never really believed all the propaganda in Pravda.

The Embassy Flag Controversy. On June 25 the U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced it was displaying the LGBTI Pride flag. (See photo below.) I get the embassy Facebook posts. In addition to displaying the flag I saw two posts by U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan on that same day. In the first post he essentially “lectured” the Russian public about how important it is to recognize “Pride month.” In the second post he “celebrated” the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating the recognition of same sex marriages.

It seemed to some of us more than a coincidence that this happened toward the end of “Pride month.” Why was it not at the beginning of June? My hunch is that it was because Russia was getting ready to vote on its revised constitution. The constitution affirms marriage “as a union of one man and one woman.” Further, Russian law already prohibits recognition of same sex marriages. Open displays of “gay propaganda” are not allowed where children may be present. Since children may be present at most public sites, this law severely restricts any public displays. As I have said before in earlier blogs, homosexual and lesbian relations are not prohibited in Russia, but same-sex marriages are not recognized and generally speaking public displays of same-sex affection are not permitted.

In response to the display of the rainbow flag on the US embassy building, some Russian artists beamed a light show using the embassy building as the “screen.” The message said “1993 – your constitution; 2020 – our constitution.” The point was that in 1993 when the constitution was written, America was heavily involved in shaping the new Russian Constitution. Boris Yeltsin pretty much let the Americans take control at points. The day after the Embassy unveiled the flag someone placed a small LBGTI flag on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Embassy. Videos were made of Russians passing by making a point of stepping on the flag and wiping their feet.

The Fallout. Clearly my two “worlds” or countries remain in a tenuous and stressed relationship. America seems congenitally incapable of not blaming Russia for its problems. Many powerful people did not want Donald Trump elected, and they blamed Russia—and made up evidence as they went along. This went on for three years. Now, after all their supposed evidence proved non-existent, they blame Russia for America’s domestic riots and social unrest. They seriously claim the deep divisions between Americans are because of Russian manipulation of social media. America invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and now almost 19 years later the most well known paper in the U.S. suddenly claims Russia paid money to members of the Taliban to kill Americans. And many news outlets follow their lead despite the fact no evidence was presented and no names of the accusers were given.

I realize a part of the attacks on Russia are because from even before he was sworn in as President, Donald Trump was linked by his opponents with Russia. I think that is unfair. Trump has actually leveled more sanctions on Russia than Obama did. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, clearly understands little about Russia and has neither the desire nor the intellect to do normal diplomacy. His recent comments on Nord Stream 2 illustrate this unfortunate truth all too well. So this idea that Russians love Trump and Pompeo because Putin controls them is ridiculous. Somehow, however, Trump’s opponents have succeeded in portraying him as Putin’s puppet. So now if Trump talks to Putin on the phone it is an international scandal.

Life in Russia. On a brighter note, we are more convinced than ever that Russia is where we should be. Several people have asked me how the situation here is. One friend asked me if the riots are as bad here as they are in America. I responded that we aren’t having riots in Russia. I guess people see they have spread to Canada, Great Britain, and other western countries and assume we have them as well. We have noticed that when something happens in America, we see FB posts talking as if the whole world is going through the same thing. It isn’t. Things are quite peaceful here, especially compared to America. Russia has political and social differences, but rarely do people get violent over their differences.

The rate of COVID 19 is decreasing. Russia still has closed borders, but there is talk of opening up before the end of summer. As a part of my morning ritual, every day I read the stats, e.g., new cases, recoveries, etc., from the previous day. The rate on new cases has been going down steadily for well over a month. And today on my walk things looked normal. It is the first time I noticed that the restaurants are open. I’ve even heard from a couple of friends in Moscow that things are getting much closer to normal there.

I have received a lot of e-mails and messages from friends and acquaintances in America who read my blog or keep up with our lives here in Russia. They are so upset and, frankly, scared. Some are in areas away from danger, but others are not. They are afraid to go out. Here our 12 year old son goes bike riding with his friends all over town unattended, as do many kids here. As I’ve mentioned we live not far from several lakes so they sometimes ride to the lake and go swimming. They all have phones and we keep up with them, but we don’t live in fear of them getting out of our sight like in America. Five year old Marina Grace plays out in the yard with neighbor friends who come over or she goes to one of their homes. We know the parents, and it is great that our daughters can enjoy little girl games together. As I’ve said many times, the cost of living here is quite low compared to America so even on my Social Security income we were able to have a small basketball court and playground set built in our yard recently.

Two weeks ago on Sunday morning we watched a three hour Liturgy on TV here. The Liturgy was on the military channel because it was the dedication of the new Military Cathedral. It was built to commemorate the victory over the Nazis 75 years ago. The Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, said historically all the major cathedrals that had been built in Russia had been built in memorial to great victories in battle to give praise to God. For example, most people who have visited Russia or have just seen pictures of Red Square have seen St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was built in honor of the defeat of the Mongols and the end of their long control over Russia. Since the Nazis were defeated during the Communist era in Russia obviously no Cathedral was built to honor or thank God for it. Shoigu and others believed one should be built now that Russia has returned to Orthodox Christianity.

The dedication service and the Cathedral itself were absolutely beautiful. I suspect that some of my American friends will be upset about the fusing together of “Church and State.” I understand. Government money (along with donations from the faithful) was used in the building of the great Cathedral. The Cathedral is clearly and specifically for Christian worship. The service had extensive references that we would call a “God and country” theme. During the televised service someone was quietly explaining the Liturgy and what the priest was doing.

As I watched, my mind wandered back to my childhood in the southern United States a couple of generations ago. Religion, particularly Protestant (usually Baptist) religion, was a part of the fabric of that world. It wasn’t that everyone was a Christian, but even most of the “happy pagans” thought religion had a good impact on culture and respected it. Russia (or USSR—they were interchangeable to us at that time) was godless. We were told how worship was despised and the religious values we cherished were denigrated here.

As I watched the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation bow his head and slowly and reverently make the sign of the Cross over his chest at the end of the service, I remembered the images of rioting and hate I had watched on the American news the night before. The language was filthy; the attacks on the innocent were revolting. The old statues were crushed. Political leaders, however, made sure they did not offend the protesters. The contrast with what I was seeing on the Russian military channel was stark.

Life is a “crazy ol’ dog” as the old folks used to say. I’m scared for my native land. Whenever all the smoke clears from COVID and riots and so-called race wars, I don’t think things will go back to “normal.” The police have bowed the knee; political leaders have encouraged riots while stating worship is non-essential and prohibited. I fear life in America will be permanently reordered and the shared cultural values will be different altogether. I admit I could be wrong. Maybe I have misread the situation. I passionately hope I am wrong.

I want my Russian readers to know the majority of Americans are not like the ones they see on the news. I think race relations are terribly misrepresented in all this rioting. Of course, there is racism. Systemic racism? I lived through that time in the Jim Crow south. Despite the emphasis on Evangelical Christianity, blacks and whites went to different schools, different churches, and even different grocery stores. We drank from different water fountains and had to go to different public bathrooms. I remember as a child in my Southern town seeing “White Only” in windows of restaurants. People of my generation—black and white—don’t need young white liberals to explain racism to us.

I lived through the change. And things really did change. Black people and white people work together, go to school together; they regularly worship together, play sports together, and share each others burdens. I see these riots and I want to scream, “This is NOT what it is like for the majority of Americans!” What the so-called leaders want to do now is create and exploit divisions for their own interests and twist anything that is said into something racist. And the American media helps them avoid accountability by putting all the blame on Russia. Instead of starting with trying to solve remaining racism, they first want to shift the blame or divert the focus.

I don’t have the right to tell Americans how to live. The Americans who live there must choose their own way. They are the ones to decide what is honored and what is forbidden. Those Americans are the ones to determine how to define family, how to govern relationships and property and such.

But Russians have the right to do so here as well. I say to American political and media leaders, leave Russia alone. It’s not your decision how Russians define family, promote religious and cultural values, or who they elect for president. And quit blaming America’s problems on Russia and accept responsibility for what you have made life like for the people of America. No, Russia is not perfect or ideal or crime free. But life here is not crazy and immoral and devoid of reason. The main point being missed, and one which I believe from my many experiences in Russia, is that Russians—including Vladimir Putin—do not want war or any conflict with the U.S. The idea that Russia is stirring up chaos, meddling in the affairs of America, and wants war comes from people there with another agenda. These people do not understand Russia, nor do they care to. They are projecting their own agenda and methods onto Russia.

So on this Independence Day I feel more alienated from my country than ever. But many of my American friends living there have said to me that they feel the same way I do. Some have told me that they have trouble celebrating freedom when they have been locked down, locked out and basically told by local politicians what constitutional freedoms they may or may not exercise. My hope is that there will be a new uprising in America. Instead of allowing the powers-that-be to divert attention by blaming Russia for all the problems, a new level of accountability would be enforced.

I saw an interview done in Russia a few years ago wherein Putin was asked who he wanted the new U.S. president to be. He has since been asked that many times, and he has essentially expanded on what he said back then. This was an old interview back when Obama was in his last term, and as I recall a leading candidate had not yet emerged. Putin said it didn’t matter to him. He explained that he did not believe that it is the president who has the real power in America. The interview was in Russian and I can’t remember his exact words, but essentially he said, “America is run by the people in black suits behind the curtain.” I hope Americans will rise up and pull back the curtain.

FOUR YEARS BACK IN RUSSIA

Four years ago we were in what felt like an emotional whirlwind. I had officially worked my last day at the small company where I worked for my brother and taken early retirement. We had our passports, visas, and airline tickets in hand, awaiting our departure from America on June 7. We were still in the process of selling or giving away almost all our possessions before we left for Russia. While she was packing, my wife was nursing our 17 month old daughter, helping our other two kids finish the school year, and supervising what was to stay or go. Our house was almost empty by this time. We were also trying to spend time with as many family members and friends as possible before we left.

Oksana had had two babies in America. When we arrived in America in 2008, she already spoke English fluently, and she had met many Americans in Russia. So there was no real “culture clash” for her when we moved to America. I have outlined our reasons for moving to Russia in several blogs. I was an older father and wanted to spend more time with my young children. We both were concerned about the attacks on traditional values that were taking place even in our small southern town and the impact growing up in such a culture would have on our children. While we were happy in our community and church, the larger changes on the cultural and political horizon in America concerned us.

Still, the decision to move to America had been a long process. What would it be like moving a teenager, a 7 year old and a young toddler half way around the world? Over time, we became convinced this move was right for us. Although Oksana was born and raised in Russia and I had lived here 3 years, we still felt like we were headed into uncharted waters. We were a family of 5 now. We were excited and scared.

Our arrival here went pretty smooth. I read my early blog on our arrival the other day and remembered how shocked I was at the nice roads and homes we saw on the way from the airport to Luga. Since we moved in early summer we had a chance to “settle in” before school started in the fall. We eventually found a nice, although small, apartment. Our boys adjusted to Russia much more easily than we had thought they would. What we did not see coming was the political storm swirling around Russia and the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

POLITICS AND “RUSSIAGATE.” Many people probably got tired of hearing of “Russian interference” on the news in America almost every day for three years. Things now have come to light, even in the last month or so, that allow us to see the Russia hoax more clearly, however.

The Mueller Report (May 17, 2017-March 22, 2019). Robert Mueller used 40 FBI agents, issued over 2,800 subpoenas, and spent somewhere around 35 million tax dollars investigating the alleged collusion between candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t just that Mueller had 40 FBI agents. We now know, largely from Peter Strzok’s messages to his extramarital lover and FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, that these agents despised Trump. They were looking for dirt, and Strzok spoke of an “insurance policy” to make sure Trump did not get elected. Nevertheless, even after assurances from people in high places to the contrary, Mueller was forced to testify before Congress in July of 2019 that his team found no evidence of collusion.

The House Intelligence Committee. After Mueller’s testimony Adam Schiff assured us that as Chairman of the House Intelligence committee that did their own investigation, he knew of concrete evidence that there was collusion with the Russians. Others that testified to this committee took to the mainstream media circuit and assured everyone that Schiff was correct. The list of people who told the American public they knew from evidence presented that Trump had, in fact, colluded with Putin was impressive. It included James Clapper, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Loretta Lynch, and Evelyn Farkas. Regretfully, they said that due to national security concerns they could not release the information. We had to trust them. But then those over national security recently told Schiff sufficient redactions had been made, and he could release this information. At first he refused to do so, until he got the response, “If you don’t, we will.” We now have learned all those folks I mentioned above who went around telling the networks they had hard evidence on Trump’s collusion told a different story when they were in private and under oath. All 57 people interrogated replied unequivocally that they neither had nor knew of such evidence. In short, they lied to the press because they thought no one would ever release their testimonies. https://video.foxnews.com/v/6155408182001#sp=show-clips

Concord Management. Mueller had continued to assert Russia really did interfere. Apparently he was talking about the 13 Russians who worked at Concord Management in St. Petersburg. He had indicted them for crimes, although events would show he clearly did not anticipate them fighting back. He could say they did it, but he could not extradite them to America so nothing would come of it. Trouble is, they hired a lawyer. The original judge castigated Mueller’s lawyers for indicting people and yet the prosecuting attorneys were not prepared to go to court. The prosecutors later quietly dropped the charges. The American media let it die unreported.

https://sputniknews.com/us/202003171078588936-us-prosecutors-drop-charges-against-russias-concord-management/?fbclid=IwAR3nR_f-p1QA_my_2jK1TbTcmi5voP4a7qyCoth7bTpdfQJ4eDaPHCGl3Yw

Still, the Russia narrative continues. The U.S. media do not retract stories about Russia that are later found to be inaccurate. The Russian Embassy pointed out recently that the NY Times won three Pulitzer prizes for reports on Russian meddling and trolling that later proved to be wrong. https://www.rt.com/usa/487842-new-york-times-russia-pulitzer/ There was never a retraction. American media can accuse Russia of anything from election collusion to cheating on COVID-19 figures. They don’t need evidence to charge Russians with anything. And they know they won’t be held accountable when it turns out the info is not factual.

THE PERSONAL. I admit all this Russia hoax has impacted me. There are so many misrepresentations in the American news of life here and what Russia is like. I still see these articles and interviews by those who know nothing about life here. Oksana and I have lost a few of our American friends (“acquaintances” might be a better word). The suggestion that in some ways life is better in Russia offends some Americans. Politics becomes more important than friendships.

It is not just the misrepresentations of life in Russia. I have gotten to meet ex-pats or folks who have spent a lot of time in other countries. I’ve learned the American government has lied about those countries as well. They share the same sense of frustration that we feel here. Right now, China is a possibility for taking from Russia the top-spot in the list of countries America hates. Someone asked me what I thought of how China handled the COVID crisis. I have no idea. I don’t know anyone in China. I read things in the American press that paints them as deceptive, but these are the same media sources that I am absolutely sure lied about Russia. I did hear one Russian medical person who went there to study the situation in China when it first broke. He said the portrayal in the Western press was completely wrong. After what I’ve seen here, I don’t doubt it.

Life this last year. Despite the stress of the American press lying about Russia, we really like life here. But this past year has been far from ideal. We moved into our new home a year ago. Moving is horrible whatever country you do it in. People think I’m joking when I say it was easier in many ways to move to Russia than to move across town in Luga. When we moved here we sold stuff, we gave it away, we threw it away, or we packed it. Very simple. There is only so much you can take. It is not that way when you are moving two miles away.

Then school started. Gabriel started middle school, and it was so much more difficult. He has different teachers, and the subjects were much were harder. The home room teacher plays a bigger role here in the adjustments of the students than in America, and his homeroom teacher was not helpful. I don’t mean just to Gabriel. All the parents were unhappy. So it was both that the subject matter was more difficult, and that he got less help from his teachers during the adjustment.

When Oksana and I started our teaching at the English school this past September, they had added quite a number of students who were really not at the level of the others already signed up for the class. This created a lot of havoc. Eventually they had to change things, but it made teaching much less enjoyable for us. We honestly don’t do it for the money. We like working with the students, because they are very serious about learning English. Having students of various levels in one class takes away the enjoyment of teaching a language, however. Eventually with the COVID-19 crisis shutting down classes, we left and did not do the on-line teaching. We have decided this was our last year teaching. We love the students, and the Director and his wife are nice people, but we have a very different philosophy of teaching, and we decided it would be best not to return.

Finally, on the bad news, we were much sicker this winter. That’s a bit strange because the winter was one of the mildest Luga has ever had. But, as I mentioned in a previous blog, Gabriel, Marina Grace and I all got pneumonia. Actually, like a lot of people, we wonder if it was really the coronavirus. My stepson Roman works in an international hotel in St. Petersburg. He is full time in the summer and part time during the school year. He came home coughing badly one weekend after having worked there over his break. Then a couple of weeks later Gabriel got sick. Our pediatrician diagnosed him with pneumonia, but she didn’t do the tests determining the pathogen as it would’ve taken too much time. The three of us were sick with it for well over a month. Oksana also had some sicknesses unrelated to our pneumonia. Her doctor says her immune system is still not completely recovered.

COVID-19. The coronavirus continues to impact our lives here. Russia took a break between May 1 and May 9. May 1 is a national holiday, similar to Labor Day in America. May 9 is the big holiday—the Day of Victory celebrating the victory over the Nazis who occupied this country for so long. On May 11 Putin announced the end of the “no work days.” Schools resumed their on-line studies and folks all over the country went back to work. More stores were open, although I think the restaurants are still closed. I thought we might have a bit more freedom of movement here in Luga, but it was actually the opposite for me. I went for my regular walk, and there were very few people out. The public address system on the square was announcing we were to stay home. Since I was about the only person down there I assumed they were talking to me.

The rate of new cases has been dropping slightly now for about a week. It looks like Russia has plateaued. Russia has only had 2,837 deaths from COVID-19, compared to 91,981 in the U.S. Despite assurances from WHO representatives here, the NY Times and others continue to assert Russia is lying. Again, they offer no evidence, but they have never needed actual evidence to bash Russia. CNN made some ridiculous claims about how it is here. No surprise there.

Other articles portray Putin as out of touch, passive, or on the brink of complete failure, so I’d like to address that. For my information I check TASS and then the Kremlin web-site most every day. I have continued to watch videos of meetings Putin has, and the Kremlin posts the actual texts of his meetings and addresses on-line. He is far from passive or out of touch. I don’t agree with all his policies, but he goes over every significant detail in their meetings. For example, not all the money allocated as bonuses for health care workers was spent last month, and he wanted to know why. He was obviously very familiar with what the leaders were doing. I think there is a developing tension between him and the Mayor of Moscow, who seems to be using COVID to expand his powers in the way many leaders in America are doing. (See the lengthy article https://southfront.org/russias-covid-game-of-elites/?fbclid=IwAR1QQIeNznVthPpaos7QASt19hKxop2-2zSi_SU5-jv9JSVc3nva8LVnrZ4)

Russia, like many countries, closed its borders. This has been frustrating for friends of ours. One family was completely ready to move from the U.S. to Russia when this happened. The husband had already quit his job. Now they are stuck. Another family who visited with us for a couple of weeks last year was in the last stages of making preparations to move to a home about 10-15 minutes from us. Fortunately, they had not quit working, but they had sold their home, a lot of their furniture and other items. We have been greatly looking forward to having another American family nearby. So we’re very anxious for the travel ban to be lifted so these families can resettle here in Russia.

Although we have been here four years now, I still miss having friends I can sit and chat with in my own language from my own culture.

The good news. I have mentioned several times the positive aspects of living here, so I’ll briefly review. The cost of living is much lower. We took some money out of my retirement to buy this home in cash. I could not have done that in America. When we sold our home and car in America, we paid off our credit card and other debts. We are a family of 5 with one in college in St. Petersburg where we rent an apartment. We’re still out of debt. There is no way that would have happened in America. Health care is so much cheaper in Russia, and the quality of the care is better here than what we were getting in America. One of the bills we paid off when we sold our house in the U.S. was our hospital bill from the birth of Marina Grace. It would have been free in Russia.

We are a traditional Orthodox Christian family, and traditional morals are still honored here. Now, I do not mean everyone here thinks like we do or agrees with us on religion. I mean that the kinds of values and standards we want our children to grow up with are respected here. That was not true in America. We saw the American government becoming more invasive as far as telling families how to live. A conspiracy theory is believing something to be true, even though there is no evidence. Something is a theory when it is not based on real evidence. We saw the evidence.

Russia is more peaceful than America. I mean that in two ways. First, people here disagree over politics or a number of other issues without becoming emotional or offensive. There are some radicals (usually very pro-Western) who have their marches and get angry, but they are a small minority usually in larger cities. Politics is not something friends cease being friends over in Russia. We learned the hard way that is not true in America.

Second, this is not a nation that relishes war or conflict. Oh, I heard one American politician, whose name I do not recall, say that Putin gets up every morning thinking of how he can disrupt the situation in America. I think many people in America think that. I think it is an empty-headed, narcissistic view. It really is a conspiracy theory. Putin is focused on Russia. Russia does have an unbelievable array of weapon systems. I admit, as an ol’ U.S. Marine I love watching the videos and reading about them. Russia does not park them on some other country’s doorsteps, however. They really are for defending Russian borders.

I’m quite aware many Americans are absolutely convinced what I said about Russia being defensive only is completely wrong. American politicians love telling people how Russia is out to wreak havoc around the world, and especially in America. Putin, they say, is a sly, devious and dangerous politician. I majored in psychology in my university studies. You don’t have to be a psych major to know who Carl Jung is. Jung did a picture-book illustrating his views on the way the human mind works. One was a picture of Adolf Hitler. I don’t have the exact quote, but the line below it essentially said, “This man is going to set all of Europe ablaze with his incendiary dreams of world domination.” At first glance, one thinks it is a quote about Hitler. Upon closer examination you learn it was actually what Hitler said about Winston Churchill. This is Jung’s illustration of the psychological concept of projection. Politicians often project onto another leader their own deep seated machinations. I think American politicians project onto Putin what they are trying to do with their 800 bases on foreign soil and missile launching systems within range of the borders of Russia. Before you write and make sure I know how devious Putin is, please watch that link to the Tucker Carlson video I posted above. It clearly shows the line of D.C. leaders lying to the American people about evidence of collusion they knew of, while quietly admitting under oath they had seen no such evidence.

It is America that is looking for war. You don’t build 800-900 military bases outside your borders and put weapon systems as close to the borders of other countries as possible because you’re peaceful. You do that to provoke. “National security” is when you protect your own borders. I’m not saying most Americans want war. I’m saying the American government is funded by people who want war. It is not like that here.

So after four years our perspective has not changed. We still miss our family and friends in America. We still talk about fun places we use to go to as a family when we lived in America. But we do not miss America. We do not regret coming to Russia. We are very glad we did. And the more we see events unfolding now as a result of the COVID controversy we are even more relieved. There are restrictions here that I really don’t like, but they are not unreasonable violations of the Russian Constitution. I cannot say that of what is going on in America. I deeply, deeply grieve over what I am seeing both domestically and in terms of foreign policies and practices in my native land.

Given my criticisms of America, I have been asked if I have lost my love for my country. There is an old article by Randolph Bourne, wherein he distinguishes between “country,” “state,” and “government.” The country is “the non-political aspects of people.” It includes “the loose population spreading over a certain geographic portion of the earth’s surface, speaking a common language, and living in a homogenous civilization.” A country is the people, the place, the land and language. Yes, I still love my country. The State is the country acting as a political unit; it is the group “acting as a repository of force.” A significant part of its focus is international and is involved in “power politics.” The Government is the “machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions.” At present I have no love for this group which is acting as a repository of force. I think they are the ones who have lost their love for the country as Bourne defines it.

COVID-19 STATUS UPDATE FROM LUGA, RUSSIA

My last blog was written during the early stage of the coronavirus crisis. Since it continues to dominate the news and since I have received several inquiries from America on how it is here, I decided to give an update. I’ll discuss the differences in numbers between Russia and America and offer some reflections on the differences. Then I’ll give some details on life in this part of Russia during the crisis. Again, it is a “worm’s eye view” based primarily on what I see and read here in this part of Russia and what my contacts from America send or tell me. I am quite sure if I lived in, say, Moscow this blog would be very different.

THE STATS. First, before getting into the actual statistics, etc., I want to point out that while the tests used in America and Russia are similar, the two countries gather the raw data based on different criteria. America, like many countries, tests only individuals who show clear symptoms of the virus. If a person shows no symptoms or only general symptoms, they do not get tested. I suspect this is because the numbers they were predicting early on in the U.S. seemed overwhelming. Russia includes persons who are asymptomatic in their tests. In Russia if a person tests positive for CV, then they try to test persons in that family and any persons with whom the virus carrier has been in close contact whether they show symptoms or not.

Also, if you want a COVID test in Russia you can go to certain clinics and get one. The health care authorities here do not decide who can or cannot get the test as they do in America. Oksana had to get a test because she needed a certification that she was negative. It was back when she needed to visit the hospital in St. Petersburg. She could have gone to the state-funded polyclinic here in Luga and be tested for free. They send all the swabs they take here to a lab in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately that lab is so overwhelmed with all the tests they have to do daily, they do not provide certification if you are negative. They only get in touch with you if you tested positive. She was in St. Petersburg and needed the test done pronto and, if negative, a statement of verification. She found another clinic that would come out to the apartment we rent there and test her for $67.00.The results were negative, and she got the statement she needed by email a few days later. This certainly would not have been possible in America. Again, America limits who gets tested to those with very noticeable symptoms.

The numbers listed on worldometers.info for Russia include tests done on people who are asymptomatic. In Russia I first heard that 60% of those who had tested positive for the virus never showed symptoms of having it, and 30% showed only minor symptoms, like having a cold. Now I have read the statistics are showing that that percentage is increasing. Many people test positive for the virus, then later test negative when their immune systems get rid of the virus. They are listed as “recovered,” even though they were never actually sick. Clearly there are asymptomatic people in America who have the virus but are never tested. So although the posted records indicate that the U.S. has far more cases of CV than Russia, the actual difference in numbers between the two countries is even greater than what is indicated.

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone doubts that America has overstated the number of deaths from COVID-19. The cause of death is listed as COVID-19 even when there may be more serious comorbidities present. For example, here is a very short video of a press announcement by Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of Public Health for the state of Illinois, explaining that no matter what the actual cause of death is, when a person dies who tested CV positive the cause of death is listed as COVID-19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4i3Krs5aL0&fbclid=IwAR3zdrqnVIgxnRtrgWlA-FVleT2td9KK0JSosv_V8ROcMoxB8BroSq4Q0so

Now I will discuss the actual numbers. As with my last blog, these numbers are a “snapshot.” Obviously they change daily, and some figures are dated. I kept updating my numbers, but finally decided I just have to stop and list what I found.

On the day that I did my research the US had 855,492 active cases of CV, whereas Russia had 93,806. Clearly a difference of 761,686 is very significant. The U.S. list total deaths resulting from CV 61,699, while deaths in Russia are at 1,073. Obviously the virus has had a far greater impact on the U.S. than Russia. Since the differences are so striking, there are those who claim Russia is cheating with its figures. They offer no evidence, but journalists and politicians in the West rarely feel they need to gather evidence to make charges of any kind against Russia. You can’t argue the evidence with them because those who make the charges present no evidence. The population of America is much higher than Russia, so that is one factor. Still, factoring in for the population difference does not come close to explaining the current disparity between the two countries. Why are the rates so much lower in Russia than America?

I certainly do not claim to have the definitive answer. I suspect there are a number of factors, and I personally believe it will be a long time before we know the full story on what has been going on with this virus. Several things are amiss. All I want to do here is to note the differences as I watched the news in both countries daily. It seemed to me that the leadership here in Russia was far more focused on and united in what steps to take against the virus from the beginning. From the newscasts I watched of the meetings in Russia, the discussions were rational and non-combative. I did not observe anyone that I thought was trying to grandstand or make “political points.” Input was given by a number of individuals with expertise in various areas. The areas of responsibility were clearly delineated by President Putin. Everyone was on the proverbial “same page.”

In the U.S., I personally think the polarization that has existed in Washington since Trump’s election hindered an efficient early response to the virus. The divisions there run deep. Further, Trump was impeached on December 18, 2019 and was not acquitted until Feb. 5, 2020. China made their announcement about the virus on December 31, but the focus in America was clearly elsewhere throughout January. This isn’t to say no one did anything about it in America or the nation was not aware of it. I’m saying that when I turned on the news from America I heard both sides ranting about whether Trump should be impeached or not. The Senate trial was where the “political energy” was being spent and the national interest was being focused during a crucial time.

I have friends who blame Trump for the bad start, and I am seeing politicians do the same thing. I’m no Trump apologist. I think he has terrible advisers both on foreign and domestic issues. I also think he often expresses himself in an adolescent manner which antagonizes his opponents, but does not solve problems. Nevertheless, he was blasted as a racist when he first said we must close down the borders with China. Now they are saying he should have done it sooner. Go look at videos of what Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo said when news of the virus hit. They assured people it was great to get out and attend parades and other public events. Meanwhile, Adam Schiff was before the Senator and the nation railing that the great existential danger to America was Trump possibly selling Alaska back to the Russians. I have not seen CNN show any of these old videos when these same people now claim it was Trump’s fault from the beginning.

As soon as China made the announcement, Russia started checking travelers returning from China, although clearly they did not have a test at that point. By the end of January Russia’s border with China was closed and a plan was being put in place. In America even after the dangers of the virus were becoming more publicized and the U.S. borders were closed with China, the political polarization in D.C. still seemed to keep the parties from working together to agree a comprehensive plan to combat the virus and the funding for it. It just seemed that this virus was only one facet of larger and more important political battles in the U.S.

As things progressed, I also was struck by how Putin stayed in control of the discussions and questions. It seemed Trump let “experts” like Anthony Fauci take over at times. The so-called “experts” seem to be setting national policy. And it became clear over time that Fauci’s predictions were horribly wrong. Policy had been based on his “models,” but obviously the models were bad—very bad. Actual case numbers turned out to be no where near what he had predicted. The policies, however, remained in place. Worse, Fauci never admitted or explained the huge discrepancies between his earlier predictions and what was actually happening. Now I hear there are suspicions about Fauci’s ties with vaccines, Bill Gates, and the profits involved. Was he objective? Clearly, he was terribly wrong on significant points. Yet he continued to be the “voice of science” at the press conferences. Bad data usually lead to bad decisions and policies.

This virus seems unpredictable, especially to a non-medical, non-scientist person like me. There were experts who cited evidence that showed lockdowns were essential. Then I watched interviews with people who had as many medical degrees and years of experience in epidemiology who said getting outside in the sun and building a “herd” immunity was the better route. Both groups cited data that supported their opinions. Who should we “common folk” believe? Leaders of all the countries need specialists who will give them all the data. In my opinion, Putin had better specialists who gave him raw data without an agenda. My opinion is based on the fact that things went much more like what the Russian advisers had indicated. Of course, being more accurate than Fauci is a pretty low bar to hurdle.

Public Life in Luga. Putin gave quite a bit of leeway to local leaders of the various regions in how far to go in restricting the movement of the citizens. He did not go “one size fits all.” The Leningrad Obast, in which we live, had 769 active cases and one death on the day of my research. (This Oblast covers an area a bit larger than South Carolina.) Neither I, Oksana, nor any of our family and friends personally know anyone who has had it.

My father-in-law told me 3 weeks ago that the authorities would allow people in Luga to get out in town only for food or emergencies. So I went for my walks in the forest near our home. But then Oksana and I went to get groceries, and I saw a good many folks about town. So I have resumed my walks through the streets in town, and I’ve had a good chance to observe people. Some, mostly older people, wear masks. People generally keep their distance.

When Oksana and I went to the grocery store it looked like the usual number of people. We saw some wearing masks, but the majority were not. Some grocery stores here are too small to allow much personal distancing. I saw no evidence of hoarding. There was plenty of food and other supplies in the stores. The “atmosphere” felt normal. We later went to a larger store here and the floor was marked with ductape strips showing how far to stand from others, and there were signs reminding everyone checking out to keep a distance. The cashiers have plastic guards between them and the customers.

Most small businesses and restaurants are closed, although some restaurants are open for take out or delivery. We ordered pizza delivered one night, and another night we got burgers and fries delivered. We can also order vegetables and meat from the local farmers that will bring them to our door. We did that even before the virus. We have continued going to the open market and buying dairy products. The vendor there, my “girlfriend” as Oksana calls her, wears gloves and a mask. Other than that, it is business as usual.

Government offices. Local government offices are open but with limited hours. One must make an appointment, rather than the usual practice of showing up and taking a ticket with a number. It was time for me to provide my annual income report for my residency. Making an appointment actually worked out better. Instead of waiting in line we went in the lady’s office promptly at the time of our appointment. She carefully went over the form, and we were out in just a few minutes. She was wearing a mask when we first came in, but as we chatted she pulled it down. A lot of people do that here.

I also needed to go to the “Pension Office” as well. Since I am a resident of retirement age in Russia I have an ID number—much like a social security number. When I get my permanent residency in Russia, I will start receiving a minimum “pension,” which will probably be about $100 a month, but I think that is not bad for someone who is not even a citizen. We went to the office because we had a problem registering online to handle my immigration business. The lady quickly helped me to set up an account online and we were on our way. She did the same thing with pulling down the mask to talk with us.

When I first started back walking downtown I saw very few city workers out. Last Monday I was shocked to see all crews out full force. There was a road crew doing repairs, a clean up crew sweeping, and a paint crew freshening things up.

Daily life in the home. The biggest issue we have had to deal with during this time is that the schools closed and all work has to be done online. This has been very difficult for Oksana and Gabriel. Gabriel has 14 classes total. Every day he has to do classwork and homework for 6 different subjects that the teachers have posted online. In general, Russian students have much more homework than American students—at least based on our experience. While Oksana has been helping Gabriel with his homework all year, she now has to go over and explain all the material, then the classwork and then all the homework. It is very time consuming!

Neither parents nor teachers here like the setup. The teachers have to go over all that work after the parents send it in. They say they are up till around 2:00 a.m., grading papers, watching videos, and preparing all the information they have to post for the next day. Without question, this has been the most difficult facet of the corona crisis for us.

Other than that our lives have been pretty normal. We have not been able to go to church simply because with all of our recent sicknesses (not related to CV) our doctor advised us not to. We should be back soon, but we missed Liturgy during Great Lent, and we were terribly disappointed. Pascha is the high point of the year for Orthodox. Our priest came to our home for prayers and to administer communion. My stepson Roman is home from college, since they also have gone online. He is able to do his work on his own, however, and he also helps around the house.

I read that 38% of the people in Russia really don’t think the lockdown approach helps. Yet, I don’t hear a lot of complaining, although some are clearly concerned as to whether the promised financial relief (especially for small businesses) will be coming. The emotions don’t seem to run as high as in America. I think since the enforcement of the rules is restrained confrontations are rare. If you are not doing something flagrant here, the police really don’t get involved. On my walks I see the same police van patrolling the streets every morning. Yet I’ve never seen them stop anyone. In general, people use common sense in pubic. It seems to be working.

Life in Big Cities. I will comment on a couple of other places in Russia where I have acquaintances and friends. St. Petersburg is about 90 miles away. The latest figures I could find list 3,254 active cases and 29 deaths. This is in a city of almost 7 million! I have an American friend there who, like me, takes walks. Technically they are forbidden, but, as in Luga, the police there are not stopping people. He and I both have had the experience of walking right by the police, and they say nothing. I heard from another source that people jog there just like they do in Luga. I suspect in a city that large there must have been confrontations, but it does not seem common from what I have heard. Here in NW Russia “lockdown” is definitely not the right word to describe the general restrictions. Putin calls these “non-working days.”

My contacts in Moscow paint a very different picture. Moscow has about 3.5 million more in population than New York City. It has 11,187 active CV cases and 611 deaths. Moscow has by far the highest number of cases in Russia. The rest are scattered over 11 time zones. Still, I have seen stats that show that well over 60% of those who test positive for CV in Moscow have been asymptomatic. Some said the figure now is as high as 90%.

While these figures are low compared to New York, the restrictions, according to my facebook friends in Moscow, have been “draconian.” The mayor of Moscow has been enforcing a strict lockdown. One friend says they only allowed people there to go out for groceries. Schools are closed, of course, as are churches and other meeting places. I was told they were even using surveillance cameras to track people earlier, although I understand they are letting up a bit. My latest contact said it was not quite as bad. Moscovites, according to what I’ve heard, have not been happy.

It does not seem to me the strict measures are helping, but I can’t prove that. It’s based merely on observations of “my two worlds” and following the news. I often tell my wife, I have a doctoral degree, but I can’t write prescriptions. As I mentioned above people from both perspectives present their views with evidence to support their positions. I only ask of those who argue for stricter enforcement that you not write me telling me I’m responsible for the deaths of people because I don’t obey all the strict lockdown rules. I’ve read the same evidence you have, and I’ve also read other evidence that says you’re wrong. It’s a confusing issue. People with medical degrees and years of experience disagree with each other. I think that mandates humility from all of us on both sides.

Poverty also tends to be linked with poor health and a number of other problems. As someone whose income is not impacted by a strict lockdown, it would be easy for me to insist everyone should stay home and keep the small businesses closed. Nevertheless, I have thought: What if this had happened while we were in America, and I was still working at that same small company? The answer is we would be experiencing financial disaster, as are so many Americans right now. That small company where I worked would probably not have survived a long lockdown. I would have been one of the millions of Americans unemployed—with a wife and three kids to support, a mortgage and a car payment.

I care deeply for anyone who contracts this disease. I was saddened to learn just this morning that a friend of mine in America lost someone very dear to her to COVID-19. I also care deeply for that single mom with kids who needs to wait on tables at the local diner to support them. Her job is not “non-essential.” I don’t think my opinion makes me especially noble. I believe most people feel the same way I do.

Further, there is evidence indicating CV is not nearly as deadly as Fauci and others said. What it has done is allow some politicians to exploit the fears of their constituents in order to increase their own power. Then you have the American oligarchs like Bill Gates who has no medical degree but is now a viral expert, pumping up his influence and bank account.

As I hear from my family and friends in America, I realize the change this crisis has brought to our lives in Luga is minor compared to what many of my American friends are going through. I can’t imagine how it is to really be in a lockdown there like they are. I have seen many videos they post of physical confrontations with police because people protested against the measures taken. I came of age during Vietnam. Protests were part of the cultural landscape. What does freedom of speech mean if you can’t protest?

I saw this morning that Youtube took down a viral video made by two emergency room doctors in California that had had about 5 million views. The doctors gave numbers that they claimed showed the virus is not nearly as lethal as we had been led to believe. The CEO of Youtube said that nothing which contradicts the information or suggestions from WHO would be allowed. This is despite the fact WHO has already been proven wrong twice. https://video.foxnews.com/v/6152742822001/

I watched the press conference where the governor of Michigan declared, without explanation, what she would and would not allow to be purchased in stores. Yes, you can buy junk food and liquor, but you cannot buy garden supplies or seeds. In other words, the candy and alcohol will help you, but you can’t have anything that would allow you to work outside and plant vegetables. The random and capricious exercise of authority is disturbing. The precedent this crisis has set for politicians to abuse power is what I fear most for America.

Next Blog. I hope to write my next blog soon. Putin just extended the “no work days” until May 12. I think his next presentation will be very important. Also, I want to address the completely false and deceptive information I have seen in the American media about Russia. I don’t mean distortions or exaggerations. I mean lies. From the New York Times to Fox News, I have read information that is completely wrong about the situation here.

THE CORONAVIRUS, HEALTHCARE & POLITICS IN MY TWO WORLDS

I have been working on another blog to follow up on my last one about Putin’s speech and Russia’s proposed Constitutional changes. Quite a number of people have written, however, asking me about the coronavirus situation in Russia and how it has impacted life here where we live. So I will put the other blog on hold and give some observations on things here in Russia. Clearly, the situation is changing rapidly worldwide with COVID-19, so this is just a “snapshot” of what it is like here now. Obviously the description and numbers I give today could be completely outdated by the time I publish the blog. Also, I found different organizations actually give different numbers. For better or worse I relied on the WHO and the CDC. Despite discrepancies in the numbers, I think they are accurate enough to get an idea of the situation.

I will also include how our family faced a medical emergency this week, although it was not related to the coronavirus. It may give readers an even better idea of life here. Then I’ll conclude with some observations of the politics involved (okay, a bit of a political rant) in my home country.

Some opinions I’ll keep to myself. I’m not going to debate 1) the origins of the virus. I have my suspicions this was man-made, but I can’t prove it and don’t have enough information yet. 2) Neither can I give an informed analysis or prediction on the future severity of the viral crisis. I have noticed that different experts with equal qualifications disagree among themselves. I’m giving my “worm’s eye” perspective on the situation from my location in small town Russia.

We have the saying, “Hindsight is 20/20,” so all world leaders probably would do things differently in retrospect. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization representative to Russia said this week that Russia had prepared for and responded well to the COVID-19 crisis. https://tass.com/world/1132161 On Wednesday, March 18 he said Russia had complied with all WHO recommendations, and the number of beds and instruments for treatment were acceptable. In Russia 116,061 tests for COVID-19 had been administered. As of that date Russia had 147 confirmed cases and no deaths. Of the 147 cases, 86 were in the city of Moscow and 12 more were in the Moscow Oblast. The next highest number was in St. Petersburg with 9 cases. No other region had more than 5. So it is scattered throughout the country except for the concentration in Moscow. So I’m sure that my observations are quite different from someone living in the Russian capital.

Nevertheless, even 98 cases for a city and region of 20 million people is quite small compared to what I’m seeing in other countries. The worldwide figures I found vary. The latest I saw for March 18 according to WHO were 191,127 cases with 7,807 deaths. The number of those tested in the U.S. was 82,571. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. according to the CDC web-site on March 18 was 7,038 with 97 deaths. Another more recent report I read said the figures on March 19 were 8,131 people in the U.S. tested positive for COVID-19 and 132 had died from it. America has well over twice the number of people that Russia does, but Russia has tested far more people than has the U.S. It has substantially fewer cases and, most importantly, no deaths as of yet.

Caveat: After writing this on March 18, I checked the latest figures on March 20. Russia’s number of cases increased to 199, and there was one death. The U.S. number went up dramatically to 14,250 with 205 deaths according to a FOXNEWS report. Of course most people who get the virus recover from it. I just could not find consistent figures on recovering rates in the stats I examined.

The reasons given for Russia’s comparably low count vary. As I expected, some see some sort of nefarious Russian conspiracy (of various sorts) at work. According to more than one report, Russia is actually using the virus to control the West. I will not be able to convince those Russian-haters of anything different, so I won’t even try. Their minds are made up, and I do not wish to confuse them with facts. It has to be so emotionally comforting for them to be able to blame all problems on Russia.

I knew that Russia had to have taken some proactive steps. Russia has a huge number of Chinese tourists. The last time I stayed in St. Petersburg for any length of time was when I took my Russian language immersion course. On the afternoon my teacher and I visited The Hermitage we could not see all we wanted because there were so many Chinese tourists groups present. The place was packed with people speaking Chinese. So given the huge numbers of Chinese people who come to Russia, it was surprising to me that the number of Russia’s COVID-19 cases was so low if China was, in fact, the source.

The more reasonable explanations I have read focus on the fact that compared to other countries Russia reacted fast in closing off travel from China. They started screening those coming in from China on the same day that China announced the presence of COVID-19 there. Then Russia also responded quickly to the news from Italy. Russia is bordered by 14 countries, compared to the continental U.S., which is bordered by two. Thus, I think from the beginning Russia knew it had to be diligent and watchful.

Second, Russia did not struggle with getting COVID-19 testing in place like in the U.S. I do not know all the reasons the United States essentially fumbled the ball on early testing. The response there seemed cumbersome and uncertain. From reading the news here it seems those in power were more concerned with propping up the stock market than getting proper testing for the virus in place. Trillions of dollars went to the Federal Reserve in a futile and losing attempt to stop loses on the stock exchange. Only later, after heavy criticism, did they focus on and fund COVID-19 testing.

It was different in Russia. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin authorized $4.05 billion dollars to be released to cover costs of responding to the virus. This money covered not only the costs of things like the tests needed, supplies to hospitals, etc., but pay to those who needed to self-quarantine. Knowing they would be paid, in my opinion, made it more likely that people would accept the quarantines.

Life here in Luga has remained much the same. People are cautious, but they are not in a frenzy. I have continued my walks around town, and the same number of people and the same number of cars are on the streets according to my unofficial survey. I have not seen anyone wearing a mask. We stopped in a few stores Sunday afternoon to pick up some things and the atmosphere was the same as usual. However, today a friend said he had to go to three stores to find sugar and salt. It is unclear if that is caused by people “stocking up” because of that virus. People are still going to restaurants, church and getting together with friends.

I have heard there was hoarding and some frenzy in Moscow, but nothing on that level here yet. Some schools have closed, or they at least allowed attendance to be voluntary, and others are still open. My English students tell me that their schools had programs on how to prevent the virus from spreading. The rumor is that the schools will alter the scheduling or may schedule spring break early. Nothing definite as of yet. Our older son is in college in St. Petersburg. It looks like they will go to on-line studies. I think this is pretty common in the big cities in Russia. They’re very strict on who is allowed to visit in the hospitals. My son was in the hospital this week (more on that below), and my wife said the authorities there were extremely cautious. They were questioning all visitors, taking their temperature, as well as requiring masks and application of sanitizer.

Yet, as I said, compared to the frenzy I see in the videos from friends in America, life here seems relatively calm. I can think of two possible reasons for the different reactions from the people: First, the number of cases here is so much lower than in America. Again, today the U.S. has 14,250 while Russia has 199. Second, most people in Russia remember the 90s. It was a different scenario than a health scare to be sure, but the stores ran out of EVERYTHING—not just toilet paper. They learned that frenzy really does not help. I think some mistake Russian passivity for carelessness. Russians’ stoic spirit in the face of a potential crisis is something born of Russia’s tumultuous history. Most people here know what it is like to do without things. In general, most Americans don’t. It scares Americans to think they won’t have all they usually have.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH RUSSIAN HEALTHCARE. In the midst of this coronavirus situation, our family had our own medical crisis unrelated to the virus. Our 11 year old son Gabriel has been struggling with pain and a general sense of malaise for some time. We thought at first it was the stress of being in a really difficult school year. Eventually the pain in his back and abdomen became worse. Last week I told Oksana to take him to the doctor and tell them to get to the bottom of the problem. They had been treating the symptoms, but the problem kept returning. So they did a number of tests and said he had small kidney stones, too small even to be seen on the ultrasound they had taken earlier. They also found blood and infection in his urine. Monday they sent him to a pediatric diagnostician in St. Petersburg. They did tests on him at the clinic there and immediately sent him by ambulance to the childrens hospital. They said he had a stone lodged in his ureter between the kidney and bladder. They admitted him and told Oksana they had to resolve this or the kidney would be enveloped in urine. Only one kidney was functioning, but urine was backing up as a result of the stone blockage on the other side. We felt overwhelmed! We did a lot of praying.

The next morning the doctor called Oksana and said their tests that morning showed no stones and no blood in the urine. The doctor was so shocked she called in 3 different specialists to do their own testing. Then later she called in one more. They all did their own tests and said the same thing. Our doctor said she had no explanation. We believe the explanation is divine intervention and prayer. Of course, it’s an old scenario. They doctor thinks there is a scientific explanation, but she just can’t find it. Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Believing family and friends see it otherwise. To paraphrase William Temple, “Coincidences happen more frequently when I pray.”

The doctor talked to her boss, and he said to put Gabriel on a 24 hour watch. Measure his liquid intake and measure the output of his urine. They would compare input and output to check kidney function. She said they would also send the urine for a breakdown of content. This is not a test for blood or infection. It is for a chemical breakdown of what his body is producing. Is there something in his body’s urine that tends to create these stones? She gave Oksana guidelines for a change in diet. We believe that they were very thorough in treating Gabriel.

After that 24 hour period they let him come home. All the tests results are now back and normal, his kidneys are functioning fine, and there is still no blood or infection. We received the statement:

–Ambulance transport to the hospital

–Emergency room stay for 3 hours for testing

–X-ray

–4 ultrasounds (each done by a different specialist)

–blood tests/evaluations

–urinalyses (didn’t list how many, but it was several)

–4 specialist consults

–attending physician

–4 day stay in hospital

TOTAL: NO CHARGE

Gabriel is a Russian citizen, so he is eligible for free healthcare. But anyone in an emergency situation in Russia gets free healthcare even if they are here on a visa. Healthcare in Russia is not seen as something to be exploited for profit. It is enough to worry about health without the financial stress.

With the insurance I had in America, we would have been in debt for years. I frequently see posts condemning socialism (usually implying I am one), and some lecture me that Russia is still socialist. They tell me Russia doesn’t charge for healthcare because it is socialist. I am not a socialist. Russia is not a socialist country.

I regard capitalism and socialism as theoretical polarities. In truth, based on my experience, both Russia and the U.S. have a mix. For example, we live on my social security check. In addition to regular income taxes, the U.S. Government started taking money out of my pay from the time I started working at 16 years old. They decided how much they would take to be placed in a government fund. I had no voice in it. They kept the money until I reached the age the government determined I could start withdrawing the money. They also decided what my monthly pay would be. I had no say in any of this. What part of that is capitalism? The government takes what it wants when it wants, puts it where it wants, and gives it back many years later at a rate it determines. That doesn’t mean America is a socialist country, but what I just described is not rooted in capitalism.

Americans and Russians are both taxed by their governments, of course. The largest amount of U.S. tax dollars by far goes for “defense ” That covers a lot. Much of the money goes to funding wars, like the one now in Afghanistan that has been going on for 18 years. As I have pointed out, the “Afghanistan papers” showed that even generals were not sure how to determine who was ally and who was enemy. They confessed they had no idea what the mission was or what “victory” would look like. Trillions of tax dollars have been spent there.

The “defense” money also goes to build and fund U.S. 800 military bases outside the United States. Do we have that many “existential threats”? Some large numbers of troops are in countries we went into during conflict years ago. The U.S. military moved into Germany after WWII, but why are we still there? Who are we protecting? South Korea is much stronger than North Korea in many ways, but our troops are still in South Korea. I have never heard any rational explanation given to the budget committee as to why the U.S. must fund 800 bases outside U.S. territory. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone on the committee ask.

More than 200 countries receive foreign aid from U.S. tax dollars. Afghanistan receives $5 billion from the U.S. in foreign aid, not counting what we spend on our military there. Israel officially gets $2 million. (It’s way more than that. See “The Israel Lobby,” by Walt and Mearsheimer.) Supposedly that is for their defense, even though they have more conventional and nuclear weapons than any of their supposed opponents (most of whom have no nuclear weapons), and their economy is doing fine. Egypt and Iraq get $1.3 billion each. Those are just the top recipients—out of 200.

What many politicians from both parties tell us is that if the U.S. Government pays for our healthcare from our tax dollars, it is socialism. But if they send our tax dollars all over the world, then it is free enterprise making the world safe. Living in Russia has helped me to realize the convoluted logic of that way of thinking. Russia is not socialist; Russian leaders simply decided the health of the citizens comes before putting out conflicts and building military bases all over the globe. Yet, despite all the evidence, Putin’s Russia is still described as the world’s aggressor in much of the Western Press.

I included the personal part on my son in the hospital to make a point. In America I saw good, generous, hard-working people labor under the burdens of heavy taxes and healthcare costs beyond their ability to pay. Polls show 40% of Americans could not afford a trip to the emergency room that cost $400. I can tell you from experience, a simple trip to the emergency room will cost you a lot more than $400. In my opinion, it is not socialism to spend tax money on your own citizens. It is not socialism to put the health of your people at a higher priority than political conflicts around the world. It amazes and saddens me that the same political leaders in the U.S. who complain so loudly, without any actual evidence, about how awful it is that Russia interfered in our election, vote to spend so much of America’s money interfering in the lives and leadership of countries all over the world.

In a worst case scenario, the health of many individuals around the world could be destroyed by this virus. Sadly, it is possible that many nations will face dire economic and health crises like they have not experienced in a very long time. It would be no small comfort if, as a result, the American people would be allowed more input in how their tax dollars are spent. Maybe Americans would start getting “no charge” notes for their healthcare like the one we received here.

I have no idea how this coronavirus crisis will develop. I do feel safer riding out the storm here in Luga, Russia than in Greer, S.C. I hope when the dust settles on COVID-19 some difficult decisions will be made to change the priorities of my government that can’t seem to hear the cries of its people.

PUTIN’S SPEECH TO THE FEDERAL ASSEMBLY

On January 15, 2020 Vladimir Putin delivered his speech to the Federal Assembly that attracted quite a bit of attention. I was reluctant to write a blog on it. First, I was recovering from pneumonia, which invaded our house over the holidays. Both my kids and I came down with it. Second, there were many articles that appeared in English which focused on the speech. Fortunately, we all have recovered fully from the pneumonia, thanks to excellent and inexpensive medical care here.

More importantly, most of the articles I read on the speech focused only on his comments at the end of the speech about proposed changes in the Constitution. Actually they didn’t really focus on what he said. They focused on what they thought he meant by what he said. The overwhelming number of articles in the American press tried to read into the speech that Putin was setting up how he was going to sustain his political control over Russia after his present terms ends in 2024. A good example of what I’m talking about is the short article by Jonathan Wachtel from the Fox News site. https://www.foxnews.com/media/jonathan-wachtel-vladimir-putin-making-moves-russian-president-for-life. I think Gilbert Doctorow analyzed well articles such as Wachtel’s.

“Hence, the flurry of articles following Mr. Putin’s address to the bicameral legislature a week ago which sought to portray the constitutional changes he promised as serving only one purpose: to perpetuate his dominance and control over Russian politics after his presidential term ends in 2024. That was so despite the fact that nothing whatsoever in his proposed reforms would facilitate the stated objective and despite the fact that the changes, which diminish his power when implemented, would come four years before he has to relinquish his office.”

In other words, their conclusions have nothing to do with what Putin actually said. But this is not the point of my blog. I agree with Doctorow that there are things that were seriously distorted by most Western writers. More importantly, however, I think the major focus of the speech was ignored even by well-informed writers. I think this speech was extremely important for understanding Putin and what he sees as the priorities for Russia in the coming years. The articles I read focused on his proposed Constitutional changes and the impact those changes may have on Putin’s future role. If you read or listen to the speech you will discover the changes are not mentioned until the end of the speech, and they are quite general in nature. So I’m not going to address the political and constitutional issues surrounding the speech in this blog. You can go to Doctorow’s website and find several articles by him on those issues which are far more informed than what appears in more popular western outlets. https://gilbertdoctorow.com/

If you are interested in the specific recommendations in his speech, see the article by Natylie Baldwin, who also sticks to what Putin actually said. http://natyliesbaldwin.com/2020/01/putin-submits-draft-law-amending-constitution-to-parliament-pm-mishustin-has-new-cabinet-new-spending-order/

To access the official English text that I used to review the speech see: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62582 This text summarizes at several points and is not an actual translation of the speech. Putin expounded on some points and these comments are not included in this English text. Yet it is the “official” Kremlin English rendering of his speech, and nothing of importance is missing.

Putin began by addressing the demographic problem in Russia. Russia needs people. Russia is almost twice the size of the U.S., but the U.S. population is about 326.6 million while Russia has about 147 million residents. Life expectancy in Russia has increased by 8 years since Putin has become president. The birth rate has also been going up and has been about average for European countries in the last couple of years.

Now, however, there is a crisis. The 1990s were awful years for Russia. This was the decade after the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was a horrible president, although he was able to stay in office with the huge financial backing of the United States around re-election time. If you want to talk about election interference, America interfered big time and bragged about it. The Yeltsin presidency that the U.S. poured big money into brought Russia to a poverty level worse than the Great Depression in America. In his speech Putin pointed out that the birth rate during that decade was lower than the birth rate during the Great Patriotic War (WW2). I was shocked.

The babies born during that decade are now in their child bearing years—and obviously there are few of them. There simply are not enough people in their prime child bearing years to sustain the population at the current rate. Thus, Putin proposed several ways of increasing the financial support for those who want to have children. He does not just want higher numbers, however. He said that Russia’s future depends on “how many children are born in Russian families in one, five or ten years, on these children’s upbringing, on what kind of people they become and what they will do for their country, as well as the values they choose as their mainstay in life.” Thus, the speech outlines where he believes Russia must focus its resources for these families and the children all the way through college.

Seventy to eighty percent of low-income families in Russia are families with small children. In January of this year monthly benefits to these families were extended until the children reach the age of 3. Previously it was 18 months. They will receive 11,000 rubles per child per month. That is a bit over $170 at the current exchange rate. Putin expressed his desire that payments of 5,500 rubles ($86) per month be extended until the children reach the age of 7 if the family is below the “subsistence level.”

Remember that the buying power of that money is greater in Russia than in the U.S. For example, our income is my Social Security checks. As a family of 5, with one in college, there is no way we could survive on what I am paid through Social Security if we lived in America. Nevertheless, in Russia it provides plenty for us to live on. We actually have a much higher income than the average family in Luga, whereas in America we would be considered poor. Thus, the amounts he wants given to families with children is quite significant. On the differences in buying power in America and Russia see https://www.awaragroup.com/blog/russia-vs-america-real-income-comparison/?fbclid=IwAR3aCIglOObge7IfzaqdlSNqdDQL8AHVux5akED954OPdp1WmX5O7Ah9xA8

Russia also offers “maternal capital” to families with children. This is money given by the government when families make significant real estate purchases or pay for higher education for their kids. For example, when we bought our home we received approximately $8,000 from the government toward the purchase of our home because we have two minor children. The exchange rate is down from then, but it is still over $7,000. Putin wants to increase it to 616,617 rubles (over $9,600). He made it clear that he wants the application process to be simple for the families. All they have to do is provide official documentation of their salaries. They should be able to do it on-line he said.

Putin is particularly concerned about families in the Urals, Siberia and Far East. In addition to financial help, he wants increased help in housing and schools. He proposes making mortgage loans available to families in those regions through the state banks at 2% interest. At this point Putin became more animated because he made similar suggestions last year and little was done. Budget allocations were made for the building of new nurseries and schools in these areas. Only a fraction of them were built and many of those that were built did not receive licenses to operate. “Come on!” he told the audience.

Russia is able to provide this help because, unlike the situation in the U.S., they have a budget surplus. When Putin became president the economy was in terrible shape, although it had recovered a bit from the 1997 disaster. So they started putting aside money each year in a reserve fund. Now, the government is “in the black,” and has money in the reserve fund to stimulate the economy in the ways he is suggesting. He has also accumulated a lot of gold and other stable resources for the national treasury. The problem is not a lack of funds. The problem, as some suggested, appears to be the lower level bureaucrats. Putin wants the governors to be more active and make sure action on the proposals already agreed on is taken. Putin has been meeting for a long time with various leaders, and he was clearly frustrated so little has been done.

Putin went on to address the need to increase money available to schools. He wants free hot and healthy meals for all children in elementary school. He said he had had some heated discussions with ministers over this, because even in Soviet times the schools did not provide free meals to all children. Putin’s response was respectful, but firm. In those days you did not have the income disparity you now see in Russia. Further, poor children who are already receiving free meals usually have to sit at the same table to make it convenient to bring them their meals. He said it is not fair to poor children to be singled out from their peers from wealthier families.

He also called for an increase in teachers wages. Additionally, he outlined ways scholarships should be made available to these children all the way through university studies. Poor families must be sure that if their children study hard, they will receive a good education as they grow up in Russia. At the 20 minute mark into the speech he stated,

“It is very important that (students in primary schools) adopt the true values of a large family—that family is love, happiness, the joy of motherhood and fatherhood, that family is a strong bond of several generations, united by respect for the elderly and care for children, giving everyone a sense of confidence, security, and reliability.”

Putin then turned to medical care. He wants more doctors and more clinics in the poorer sections of Russia. He proposes completely funding residency cost for those going into the medical profession. He also said there needs to be more medical clinics in those areas he mentioned in the east. Putin said he knows people tend to complain about medical care no matter what is done. He believes there is quality care here, but poorer regions simply do not have enough clinics.

As I personal aside, I will say here in the western part of the country where we live, we have plenty of clinics with modern medical equipment. I would add I cannot believe how many Russians here complain about medical care. They need to learn more of medical care in America to appreciate what they have. If they think the waits and the costs are bad here, they should try getting sick in America. I would wait at least an hour past my appointment time to pay the equivalent of almost 10,000 rubles for a 10 minute meeting with the doctor. I am not exaggerating. My prescriptions would typically cost at least 10 times what they cost here.

A long and extensive study recently published by the American Medical Association stated that 42% of people in America diagnosed with cancer lose their entire life savings within two years of the diagnosis. The same study found that 62% of cancer patients in the U.S. are in long term debt because of their medical bills. https://www.insider.com/half-cancer-patients-lose-their-entire-life-savings-2018-10?fbclid=IwAR2e-_i32waHecvho64v0juzPFs9gfI5a7yLHrQh6zobgxL1X1B8hFrXnO0. In Russia free medical treatment is still available, and cancer patients receive chemo therapy for free.

There are other “perks” Putin suggested which I will not go into here. I think I covered the main points. He reiterated in his comments on the budget that the federal government does have the money to make the needed improvements. He further stated that he believes these provisions will stimulate the economy even more.

The speech lasted one hour and eleven minutes—not counting some introductory comments. It was not until the 48 minute mark that he turned to foreign policy. He did not get to the section on the Constitution until the 51:45 point. Further, his comments on the possible changes in the Constitution, which were the focus of so many articles on the speech, were not nearly as specific as what he stated about families and children.

The present Constitution was adopted in 1993 after Boris Yeltsin literally attacked the state Duma. There are those who complain that Putin has too much power. I remind my readers that the Constitution giving the president so much power was adopted when America was in full support of Boris Yeltsin having all the power he wanted. I may address the details in a later blog, but Putin is really calling for the Constitution to be modified in such a way as to reduce the powers of the presidency. As far as the controversial provision that the president cannot hold the post for more than two consecutive terms he said, “I do not regard this as a matter of principle, but I nevertheless support and share this view.” His comments on possible changes to the Constitution were very general compared to his very specific proposals for helping poorer families and didn’t take nearly as much time.

Obviously, that did not stop American journalists from psychoanalyzing Putin. They were so sure that this speech was about him trying to hang on to power that they decided to make the speech “fit” their predetermined analyses. I will say this about Jonathan Wachtel and others like him: I don’t think they watched the speech. I don’t even think they read the speech. I think they pooled together their ignorance from brief and inaccurate summaries.

I also noticed in the comments by Russians on the youtube video of the speech that many of them did not like the speech. As one said, “All he talked about was the family.” So Putin received criticism in the American press for using the speech to outline how he is going to stay in power for life. Some young Russians, who actually watched the speech, complained he only cares about multi-generational families. Putin just dreams of grandparents, parents and children living a happy, traditional family life. On the other hand, I think there are more Russians who agree fully with his proposals. The point is: Russians are free to discuss, argue and comment on what Putin proposes. No one lives in fear here that they cannot speak freely.

Putin ended by saying he has confidence in the leaders of all the political parties and their “maturity.” He wants input from and discussion with all of them. He insisted that the final draft must be put to a vote of the people.

I could not help but note the different tone in this speech from political discussions in America. I watched a chunk of the impeachment hearings. It is hard to imagine any rational and fair discussions on any issue emerging from the current political muddle in America. Trump’s State of the Union Speech was well received by his followers, and Nancy Pelosi tore it up. That does not happen in Russia. Different views are aired respectfully. And here the discussion is focused on what the best way is to help poor families. Maybe if in the past three years, the Democrats had focused on proposals and policies that would help poor families and bringing soldiers home from pointless wars instead of the Russia interference fantasy then some of us could have been won to their side. Apparently we’ll never know, because I see they’ve started the Russian interference chatter about the 2020 election before it has even happened. This speech focused on solving real problems in Russia.

I cannot give expert analysis of the inner workings of Russian politics. As an American I can only look at the big picture. I can speak as one who has raised a family in both America and Russia. Right now, for a family of traditional values and goals like ours, Russia is a lot better fit than America. That does not mean that there aren’t Americans who have wonderful families and are doing wonderfully training and loving their children. But after watching the impeachment hearings and seeing the infighting over what basic virtues and morals are, I see more difficult days for the traditional families in America. At least the discussions and differences here are rational and meaningful.