THE PRIEST (ПОП): RUSSIA & RECONCILLIATION

Last night my wife and I decided to watch a movie together. Not a small mission with three kids! We chose to watch “The Priest,” a Russian movie from 2009 (with English subtitles) that we downloaded from YouTube. The main character is the Russian Orthodox priest Alexander, and the setting is 1941 when the Nazis invaded the USSR. Father Alexander is the priest of a small town in Latvia at the opening of the movie. He is sent to a mission in the region of Pskov in Russia.

The Nazis successfully invade the region and take over the town. They allow Fr Alexander to restore the church that the Soviets had turned into a community center, where they played movies, held dances, etc. The relationship with the Nazis is ambiguous in that they let him conduct the Liturgy, minister to the members of the community and even be involved in some limited ministry to the POWs in the small concentration camp nearby. One particular poingnant moment in the movie is when the Nazis allow the prisoners to come to the Pascha (Easter) service and participate in the Procession of the Cross. The leader of the Nazis is Orthodox. On the other hand, the Nazis are cruel and one young teen girl is senselessly murdered in the very beginning of the movie. There are other acts of violence committed against the citizens by the mocking Nazis. Fr Alexander tries to work with them without compromising his faith. Ultimately the Soviets return in victory. Without giving away the ending, when the Soviet troops arrive it is “out of the frying pan and into the fire” for the believers.

As we watched the movie I found myself responding at a very emotional level. I looked over at Oksana, however, and she was silently sobbing—sometimes not silently. Her reaction was at a much more profound and visceral level than mine. As many of my readers know, Oksana was raised in a Communist home here in Luga, although her dad was stationed in East Germany for several years, and they lived in a Russian military community there. Her atheistic childhood was basically happy. Her memories are not of a cruel and heartless Communism. Her parents were and are very loving and happy people. They believed in the principles of Communism (some of which actually came from the Bible unbeknownst to most Russians) and sought to live them out as best they could. Oksana was a little Octobrist and then a Pioneer. Summers usually involved going to Pioneers’ Camps.

Luga was occupied by the Nazis. The “Seige of Lenningrad” was not too far from outside the city limits. I have mentioned before the old Orthodox Church here still bears the mark of the Nazi era. It also bears the scars of Stalinism. It was turned into a dance hall and then a theatre. Many have pointed out that the numbers of Stalin’s executions were inflated by most Western historians. Nevertheless, you won’t find many here who will vouch that he really was a good guy. The history of the Orthodox Church here records he had all the priests murdered. This is not the corrupted history of Westerners; it is the record of those Russians who lived here and saw what his henchmen did. Still, much of this was hidden from Oksana and her family until much later.

As I observed her tears I thought how difficult it is for an American to get inside the thinking of those who were born and raised in this country. Our history is not just incredibly shorter, it is also largely devoid of many of the horrors. We’ve had our wars, and we’ve had our hard times to be sure. But more Americans died during the War Between the States than in any other war we’ve had. In WWII about 450,000 American lives were lost. That seems a lot, and clearly a lot of people suffered. Russian lost about 27 million, not to mention the suffering, the shame, and the horror of the Nazi occupation and the atrocities that took place. There was no family in Russia that was not impacted by that war. When I first came to Russia some of the “grandmothers” in the Baptist church here tried to speak to me in German. Those of that generation who had not been deported to slavery there had experienced the daily presence of the Nazis. “Foreigner” to them meant “people who speak German” I guess. I wanted to laugh when they concluded that if I didn’t speak Russian, then surely I spoke German! But as I looked at their faces I realized I could not fathom what they had experienced. Since the Revolutionary War my country has never been occupied. Its citizens have never been deported to serve as slaves. We took the land and then later we, in fact, imported human beings from other countries to serve as slaves. So looking at the wrinkled faces of those old “babushki” made me painfully appreciative of their smiles. They accepted suffering as a part of life. The Russian people have been a многострадальный народ (a much-suffering people).

While Russians feel their history more deeply than many of us, they do not stay locked in it. Oksana is no longer a Communist. She enjoyed her life in America, and we enjoy the freedoms we have now in Russia. Both she and I converted to the Orthodox Christian faith. We laugh about idiosyncrasies in American culture and in Russian culture as well. We both have been shaped by the culture and history of the other.

That understanding would be our hope for the relationship of our countries. As an American who has lived in Russia almost four years now, I have to say I do not think there has been much of an atttempt at a political or social level overall to understand Russia, its culture, and its history. On the other hand, we formed some very close friendships while in America with folks who were interested, who did care, and who came to appreciate Oksana’s homeland. And I find many Russians interested in American language and culture. It seems a bit idealistic, but some of our American and Russian friends have given me hope. So as a non-objective observer, I would like to offer some suggestions on certain things any person—at any level—has to understand about Russia before forming judgments.

First, as I have mentioned above, we Americans must recognize that their history has been far more tormented than ours. This October (actually November by the new calendar) will mark the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Tsars and the beginning of 70 years of Communism. “Outsiders” like me need to remember the horrors that that era brought to Russia, but not to all Russians. As I said, Oksana had a happy childhood and a more loving family than many in America will ever know. She remembers many good people growing up who were loyal to their families, good providers, and good moral people. We must recognize both the horrible acts, as the ones portrayed in the movie, perpetrated by the government on religious persons as well as the strong moral stand of many who were not believers.

Second, Russia has endured the collapse of two governments in one century. The old Orthodox Tsars were toppled by the Communists. Then Communism collapsed under the weight of its own abuses and stagnation. America now is in a political and social whirlpool. I’ve never seen it this disjointed or divided. But it is good to remember our country has never had a coup; we’ve never been forced to completely reorient our loyalties. Russians have been through this twice since 1917. I believe and detest the fact that some American politicians resent the fact that Russia is, comparitively speaking, a much more stable country now. They seem determined to twist reality to convince the tax paying populace that Russia is just the way it used to be—and thus we really need to spend a lot of our money on weapons. Unlike what the Western media and some politicians suggest, there is some dissension here but people feel free to express their disagreements with the current administration. The truth, however, is most Russians realize that the disagreements with each other are miniscule compared to their past revolutions. They have a leader that, according to almost all polls (both Western and the ones taken here) approve of. That does not mean they approve of everything Mr. Putin does! They complain about things. At the same time many believe and appreciate that they have a leader who loves this country and has worked tirelessly to make it better. So even those who disagree with him are by and large civil. Americans must come “to the table” understanding that most Russians like the general direction in which their country is going. I don’t sense that same shared unity of vision from Americans about America. Nevertheless, we can’t resent Russia because it is not in turmoil like we are.

Third, Americans should investigate for themselves what is and is not true about Russia and its leaders. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill O’Reilly have casually referred to Putin as a murderer. From their comments and their writings I see no evidence they have actually researched this charge. One has to go outside the pale of reading Western press releases to study the charges. I have thought of devoting one blog to this topic simply because it has become a part of the polemic of some American leaders. The trick is to keep repeating something enough times that you can slip it by the public as an accepted fact without really having to prove it. For example, when Boris Nemtsov was murdered (and Putin was assumed guilty by the West), Putin had an 86% approval rating. So he murdered Nemtsov because he was insecure of his political standing or future? Name one American politician who comes close to 85% approval. Trump was ecstatic over 55% this week. Putin took over when Boris Yeltsin appointed him as his successor. As Gleb Povlovsky said, “Yeltsin didn’t build a government; he led a revolution for ten years.” There were a lot of bad people in power. Some journalists and political operatives were murdered. Since Yeltsin appointed Putin I guess it became convenient for Westerners to pin the murders on him. The idea that no one here actually investigated these murders is simple ignorance.

Fourth, appreciate what could come of good relations between Russia and America. I confess feeling more than frustration that Donald Trump’s foreign politicy seems to lack a “center.” He fires Flynn, says Crimea should be returned to Ukraine, then insist in the following press conference that having good relations with Russia is a good thing. What I do like about what he has said is that there is potential for good if both countries unite in fighting ISIS and all forms of terrorism. I clearly remember the tension of the Cold War days. But there was a shared conviction ultimately that, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Terrorists do not care about the ramifications of their actions. If Russia and the United States can join together, then I think the terrorists will be on the run.

Finally, I would offer the Ronald Reagan model of leading the relations between the two countries. Now, I realize I have good American friends and good Russian friends who think that is a terrible suggestion. Reagan did refer to the USSR as “the evil empire,” after all. I contend, however, as with Jack Matlock and others, Reagan hated Communism. He thought it was awful. He didn’t hate the people living under it. Reagan chose Jack Matlock to be his lead diplomat in working with the Soviets. Matlock had studied the Russian language, culture, and politics all his adult life. He had immersed himself in it. He spoke “their language” in the fullest sense of that phrase. He appreciated their good points and separated political and personal differences. Then Reagan got to know Suzanne Massie—of “trust but verify” fame. She had studied the language and the culture since she was a child and had written a profound book called Land of the Firebird (which even someone with my extremely limited artistic abilities can enjoy). Her area was more the religious, artistic, and cultural aspects of Russia. She traveled to Russia whenever possible even in the Cold War era. Reagan, she said, would call her in for lunch from time to time and the conversation would often begin, “So tell me how the real Russians are doing?” He wanted to know what life was like for them—especially the religious ones. (Both Massie and Matlock were Democrats, by the way. They were chosen for their expertise not the potential political donations they would bring to the president.) Russians were not cogs in some political wheel or tools for some political game as far as Reagan was concerned. So he took the abuse he got from the right wing of his party and went to Russia to meet with Gorbachev. I was a child, but I remember Krushchev and the reaction of adults to his banging his shoe, claiming (supposedly) “we will bury you,” and the Cuban missile crisis. The animosity between the two countries, the nuclear proliferation and all of that were a part of life for us. I never thought I would see the end of it. If you had asked me (or most members of the CIA) in 1990 if the USSR would fall the next year the answer would have been, “No way!” But it did fall. The number of nuclear weapons was drastically reduced, and the world was safer.

Last Sunday we went to Liturgy at the downtown Orthodox Church. It was very uncomfortable, primarily because the church was packed! It was hot inside, and I couldn’t move! Everybody stood there for two hours with their big coats on! I reflected on that later, however, and again as I watched the movie. Back in those days of that occupation and what followed, one could be risking freedom or even one’s life by faithful worship. Now, Russia is—despite what you hear—a free country. Some worship; some don’t. Some like the President Putin and brag on him. Others don’t like him, and they let you know. Reagan reminds me that change is possible. Things, cultures, politics can be made better. I hope sooner rather than later.

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MY “DOCTOR-WEEK” IN RUSSIA

This past week has been my “doctor week.” Last Monday I went to an ear, nose, and throat specialist; Wednesday I went to the physician who treats my neck/discs problems; and Thursday I went to a dermatologist; this morning I went to a surgeon to have a large mole removed. So I thought I’d give an update and a few more details on the medical care here in Russia.

The first difference I noted between the way we do things in America and here in Russia was the way “appointments” are made. All three physicians had been recommended by friends who gave us the doctors’ phone numbers. The dermatologist scheduled the appointment with the surgeon. Oksana called the doctors directly, and and told them the days we could come, and they told her when we should show up. They didn’t give exact appointment times but just told her when they start seeing patients. Now, since we go to the neck doctor each week, we set up a standard weekly time. With the others we showed up and essentially took a seat in line. When we arrived we asked, “Who is last?” That way you know when you are next. You do not sign in since you do not have a set time. That seems like it would lead to problems, but everyone understands the “system.” Frankly the wait was less time in both cases than it was most times I had an “appointment” with my doctor in America.

From the time I was a young man I have had ear trouble in that when the weather changes or just gets very humid or cold my ear canals clog up. In northwest Russia, since we are so close to the gulf of Finland, the weather is often quite humid and since we are so far north it is very cold. Of course, that means a lot of snow, but it also means I feel like I have cotton in my ear a lot. When I got to her office I realized the ENT was actually Svetlana, a lady I had taught when I filled in for another teacher at our school. Russian doctors frequently try to study as much English as possible since most of the medical information on the internet is in English. She treated my condition well with the same kind of “machine” my doctor in America used. She also asked about my overall health, any joint issues, etc. When I told her about my neck and TMJ she offered as much information as she could. Then we discussed a hearing test because I think maybe I don’t hear as well in my right ear. They’ll let me know when there is an opening. The treatment gave me immediate relief, but she graciously refused payment. When Oksana tried to pay her, she smiled and said, “You need to leave now.”

Then Wednesday I went back for my usual appointment with the doctor who treats my neck problems. As I mentioned last time, during my treatments I get to practice my Russian, and the doctor practices his English. This time, however, we mostly spoke in Russia. Since he speaks more slowly and distinctly for me I like talking with him. The treatments, which consist of massage as well as manipulation of the joints, last forty minutes. When I took my shirt off he saw I had a large, irritated mole on my back which is looking kind of bad. He went and got a different bandage (he didn’t like the one Oksana had put on it) and then insisted I go to a dermatologist and get him to look at it. After the treatment, I thanked him and paid the lady the $8.45 after he reminded me again to get the skin problem checked because the mole was so large. Oksana had her appointment with this same physician that afternoon, and he made sure we had made an appointment with the dermatologist. He also asked her questions about how I was handling Russia, how are my moods, if I am I doing fine emotionally during my time of adjustment in Russia. She assured him I am fine. (She may or may not have told the truth.)

The next day (Thursday) I went to the dermatologist, whom I had met when I had my physical for teaching at the school. He examined my back and said it does not look like anything that is malignant, but if I do not have it removed then it would continue to grow and get in the way and bleed. He said that normally they remove moles with a lazer, but given the size of this one it would have to be removed surgically. He called his friend who is a surgeon and scheduled me an appointment to have it removed Monday morning. Oksana was there so he was interested in chatting about America and how we saw some of the political changes going on. As with Svetlana, he would not take any money for his services. So I left with with a hearty hand shake and smile.

My appointment with the surgeon was this morning at 8:30. I have been to this facility before, and it is very nice, modern, and clean. We got there a little early but after a short wait he was ready for me. He looked my mole over and measured it. Then he took me back to his operating room. He asked Oksana to wait a few moments until everything was sanitized. He made sure I knew how to say, “That hurts!” in Russian. I assured him I know how to let people know I am hurting. He warned me the injections to numb the area usually hurt some, but they were not bad. What surprised me is how quickly they took effect, yet I could tell from his touch that the area an inch away was not “dead.” The surgery turned out to be a bit more complicated than any mole removal I’ve ever had. It took him over thirty minutes. He said the problem was it was also quite deep. He put in two layers of stiches. He used cat gut to sew inside the incision, and then a kind of metal surgical thread for the outer skin. He was very careful, and his nurse was at my side the whole time. Oksana watched him sew me up and said he put the stiches very close together, and there were a lot of stiches. I asked him how many, and he smiled and said, “I wasn’t counting, but it was three packs of surgical thread.” I was hoping to find out so I could brag and get a lot of sympathy, but that has not worked out for me so far!

The nurse went downstairs with us to explain what the doctor did to the folks who do the paperwork. That took a while, since Russians consider every little detail of paperwork of great importance. Given the current exchange rate the cost for both the surgery and for the test for my tissues to make sure there is no cancer was just under $70.00. The surgeon charged me $51.00 for his services and the rest was for the histological tests. I’ll have to pay $20.00 for two follow up visits including the one to remove the stiches.

Health care in Russia is a very different system than in the United States, and I cannot give an in-depth analysis of it because I don’t know all the different aspects of it. There are a few things I’ve learned, however. First, the socialism of Russia’s past and its current democratic system has left basically two “paths” of health care. There is the free, government supported health care. Citizens can choose to be treated in free clinics. Non-citizens like me or other Russians who prefer and can afford private care opt for what many think is the superior care you get for private care. Many of the physicians, however, just work different locations so I’m not sure private care is all that superior. It clearly is more convenient, however. You call the doctor, as we did, and show up and you get treated ASAP. But compared to America, the government is far less instrusive—or so it seems to me—and there really are no large health care companies involved. Thus, even in the private systems the costs are much lower than in the United States. I do not get the sense the doctors are under any pressure to see “X” number of patients to make a profit for a health care company or hospital system as sometimes happens in the US. They also want to take time to get to know you. And as a matter of courtesy two physicians did not want to take money from a “foreigner” who is adjusting to the rigorous winters of Russia.

I am somewhat baffled by the changes in health care in America, and I certainly am not qualified to offer expert analysis. I offer the following observations only as a “consumer” who tried to keep up with changes in health care from various news outlets and a few conversations with friends who work in the medical field. While it is not expert analysis, I can explain how the way I and my family were treated changed. I went to the same medical clinic for many years in our small town in South Carolina and saw the same doctor for almost all of my visits. He treated all members of my family. I had good affordable health insurance, so costs were reasonable both for medical treatment and for medicine, which we bought at a pharmacy that adjoined the medical clinic. I could not have been more pleased with medical treatment in America. It was excellent. Then a larger hospital system/health care company bought out the clinic a few years back. After that I had to take whatever doctor was available. I think the care I received was good, but there was a distinct changes from before in the way I was able to interact with the physicians. I rarely got to see the same doctor. There was no small talk; no asking about other members of the family and, frankly, very few questions about my overall health. They treated the immediate problem, and I was sent on my way. I finally changed doctors and upon his first evaluation he concluded that I had had an undiagnosed thyroid condition probably for years. I do not fault the doctors. I think the system created the pressure which led to poorer care. Further, with the health care changes and the government getting more involved under “Obamacare,” the financial strain on a family of five like ours was very intense and our care became, frankly, inadequate. The question when one of us got sick was, “Do we want to pay $150 for an office visit? Is it that bad?” The deductable was so high it did not help cover most expenses. Thus, it has been refreshing to be able to address some health concerns of our family in Russia without the undue financial stress. We remain confident we are receiving excellent care here. One of the odd things is that some friends and family have encouraged us to go to St. Petersburg or another big city for treatment like I received today. I can say for those who are considering moving here or spending time in Russia, medical care even in a small city like Luga is above what we expected and, to be honest, above what we received the last couple of years before we came here. On the other hand, there is still poverty in Russia and many people in Luga cannot afford the kind of care we receive. The average wage is still quite low so the perspective of some here would be different from ours. What I regard as extremely affordable care is, for some residents here, not within their financial reach.

In all of the appointments here the doctors all seemed very concerned about my overall health and wanted to discuss aspects of what could be causing the various problems. They all took quite a bit of time with me and wanted to get the “total picture.” Also, they all were concerned about how I, an American, am adjusting to life here in small town Russia—especially knowing I come from the very different climate in the southern part of the United States to live in northwest Russia. There was absolutely no “prejudice” or animosity shown toward me. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I was conscious while interacting with them, as with many of the people I deal with here in Luga, that I may be the only American they have ever met—probably the only one they’ve ever gotten to know personally. I want to let them know I have great respect for this town and its residents. I also sense that they really respect the fact I am living here. Another friend tells Oksana frequently how much he and others admire me for living here. It is nice to hear, but I really do not think I deserve any special admiration because my family and I chose to live here. I appreciate their respect, but I also appreciate their kindness and generosity towards me and my family.

OKSANA’S FIRST BIRTHDAY BACK IN RUSSIA

This past Wednesday was Oksana’s birthday—the first, of course, since we’ve been back. It was an interesting day and provides a bit of a window for understanding more of Russian culture and our experience here, so I decided to let my readers in on it.

The day began well for me. For some time I have had pain in my neck—literally. I went to a chiropractor in S.C before we moved and got relief. There are far fewer chiropractors in Russia, however, and none in Luga. Roman has back problems, and through his visits we discovered a medical doctor who does focus on joint and skeletal issues. My x-rays revealed some alignment problems in the discs in my neck and a slight herniation. Oddly enough, Oksana’s neck has also been giving her trouble. The x-rays showed three fused discs from birth. So we both go for treatments once a week, as does Roman. It’s less than $8.50 a treatment each, so it is not a financial strain really.

Wednesday was my first day going by myself. Oksana had always served as interpreter through my first two visits, but her appointments have to be at a different time. So I admit to being nervous about the language part. I went over some medical vocabulary before I went, of course. When he started I decided to “dive in” and start speaking Russian and hoped we could communicate. He understood pretty much all I said. After a bit he told me in English that he had studied medical English at his University and medical school years ago. I guess he decided that since I was willing to speak Russian, he would speak English. So we conversed for the rest of the time (the appointment last about 40 minutes) with him speaking English while I spoke Russian. There was this “comaraderie” of having someone who was also struggling, but when he reverted to Russian he spoke slowly for me. He ended up telling me about his experiences in Libya years ago, and how he actually had met Gaddafi. He had to speak in Russian for the non-medical part, but since he spoke slowly I understood.

We have noticed that some Russians who will not speak any English when Oksana is with me, try to speak English with me when she is not there. I guess it’s just easier to use her if she is there, but my hunch (based on their comments) is that they are a bit afraid of speaking English in front of her because she is so fluent. Since they know I am struggling with my Russian, they don’t mind struggling with their English!

After my appointment I went by the market and bought some dairy products from our friend there. I love going there because her family has this dairy farm in a nearby village called Mezhozyorny. They sell wonderful milk, cheeses, sour cream, etc. And I’ve been going there by myself long enough now that she is accustomed to my speech. We were able to chat just a bit. I went home feeling very good. My “solo trip” went well!

Poor Oksana had so much to do Wednesday! Then there is the cultural difference that greatly impacts a woman’s ability to enjoy her birthday unless you are really into this aspect of Russian culture. In Russia, as I have mentioned, you are expected to prepare for your own birthday. I had decided that with all Oksana had on her right now, we would not have family and friends over and make her do all that cooking, plus the stress of three semi-lazy males having to help clean. We would take her parents and another couple out to eat. (Yes, the birthday family has to pay!) We would reserve a small room at a nearby restaurant. Her folks believed the kids should go, however. How can children not be present for mom’s birthday meal! The problem was our kids know that big “official” Russian meals take forever. They don’t just bring everything out, and you eat it. You start with a salad. And then another salad of a different kind; then another. One may be fruit, the next more vegetables, then the other some mixture of meat. Then there is the soup, then some other veggies, and only THEN the entre. The the dessert(s) follow. It is a long process. Our kids would die!

Let me just insert here that when I say “salad,” in Russia you are not talking about some lettuce thrown in with some carrots, cukes, and tomatoes you’ve sliced or diced. We talking major creations of such complexity that I have no idea all the things that are in them. I never knew salads could be so complicated! The same is true with soups. The Campbells soup people would bow their head in shame if they saw the soups a Russian housewife makes! Anyway, we finally resolved the disagreement with her folks by telling them we would buy a cake and our immediate family would observe Oksana’s birthday here on Wednesday and them take them and our other friends to a meal Sunday afternoon. Problem solved. Or so we thought.

Oksana’s parents are very loving, however, and decided Wednesday they could not let the day pass without coming in to join wishing Oksana birthday greetings. While their motives were entirely loving, our response was, “So this means cleaning and cooking for the parents as well.” Things like this did not bother Oksana before she was “corrupted” in America. When she had a birthday in America usually my sister-in-law, daughter-in-law or other friends would organize the meal. If it was at our house my son and his wife would bring in the food. Or my son and his wife would pick up a lot of pizza and all the kids enjoyed it as did we. No pressure. After spending eight years in America, Oksana somehow adjusted well to this “it’s your birthday…sit back, do nothing, and let others cook for you and bring presents” approach.

Here we all cleaned like crazy and Oksana cooked the meal. I say she cooked the meal, but what I mean is she went to the grocery store(s) on foot, chose the food, brought three bags of groceries home by hand and hauled them up to the fifth floor. She did decide to buy a cake instead of making her own from scratch. She saw a chocolate one just dripping with rich chocolate. The lady there told her they rarely sold those—they were so sweet and had so much rich chocolate glaze that it was messy. In general, Russian desserts are not as sweet as American desserts. We like that, but sometimes you just have to have a rich, sweet, chocolate dessert. She brought it home for the meal. Oksana and I were the first to taste it before the kids did. She whispered, “Just like in America!” The funny part came with 8 year old Gabriel started eating it. He immediately exclaimed, “The Russians have hacked American recipes and stolen the way to make chocolate cake!” He came up with that one on his own, so I think he’s heard too many political discussions around the house about Russian hackers! Darn Putin, he gets into everything! Of course, I don’t mind a bit the Russians stole the American cake recipes! Keep up the hacking!

Oksana was exhausted from her birthday. Marina Grace was not sleepy, so that made it worse. The next day, however, she got up and read the birthday greetings and wishes sent on facebook, skype, and WhatsApp, and they all meant so much to her. The greetings came to her from people from different “stages” of her life and our life together. They literally came from all over the world. She was pretty much in tears (in a good way) as she read them. They were a great encouragement! Then she was given gifts and flowers by co-workers at the school and received many words of support and gratitude. She received four different flower arrangements for her birthday! She loves them. Now we’ll see how the Sunday afternoon birthday dinner goes…. Should be less of a hassle—maybe.

FORGETTING THE THINGS BEHIND…

I am not sure January was named for the mythological Roman god, Janus, but his name and the fact he had two faces—one looking backward and one looking forward–makes it likely. I think it is appropriate for all of us to look back occasionally to gain perspective before we look forward. Perhaps the beginning of a New Year is a good time to do that. There are dangers in looking back, of course. One’s successes can deceive a person into thinking everything will or should turn out positively; or accomplishments may cause a certain haughtiness that leads to an overestimation of one’s own abilities. On the other hand, failures can leave us trapped in a defeatist or even depressed mindset. Fear of failure grips some of us when we think of our pasts. So with a mind toward avoiding those dangers I want to look back at the good, bad, and maybe even the ugly from 2016, before a short look forward at things hoped for. I have found that some things in my past I thought were really good actually were harmful in the long run. Conversely, some of the really bad things that happened to me (or seemed so at the time) made me a much better person. Obviously, I will repeat information from earlier blogs because I am trying to sum up things from the whole experience of our life in Russia through this last year.

By the beginning of 2016 we had already formulated and, to some degree, finalized our move to Russia. I had “turned in my notice” to my brother, who was also my boss, in September of 2015. This time last year Oksana and I had firmly decided our family would move to Russia. So the first half of the year was spent getting ready to leave. How does a family of five prepare to move from America to Russia? Of course, we spent time with close family and as many friends as possible. While we tried to see as many folks as we could, we missed several we wished we could have visited with “just one more time.” We also prepared to get rid of most of our possessions. Oh, we took some things and shipped other items of course, but we knew we could only take a fraction of our belongings. We spent time deciding what was important. Moving to Russia makes you think through what is really valueable to you for the future. The hardest part for me was getting rid of my library. The bulk of my adult life had been spent acquiring more books! I had taught in a university and seminary for 14 years. Books were both a valued part of life and essential to my profession. If you are serious about moving to Russia, however, you must determine what you have to let go of. I kept my books on Koine Greek, my favorite subject to teach during my academic years. I also shipped works on the Russian language, Russian history, and Russian Orthodoxy. Most of the other components of that library I gave away, donated, or sold to a former colleague who insisted on paying me for them. There was sadness, but there was also a strange sense of freedom in leaving things behind. I never felt any sense of freedom about leaving behind those people so dear to me, however. I’m trying to remember that lesson.

SURPRISES, BATTLES, AND BLESSINGS

There have been many surprises since moving. In more than one area our expectations and reality did not match. We knew family life would be very different in Russia than it had been in America. We anticipated some positive changes, but we were also concerned. While there are many common traits among Russians and Americans, the cultures are different. We thought the move and the adjustments would be hardest on our two boys.

Gabriel. Certainly, we believed it would be hardest for Gabriel, who turned 8 about a month after we moved here on June 7. He knew no Russian, and he had never been here before. South Carolina was the only life he had ever known. Elementary school can be a tough place even around kids you already know. When we arrived in early June we got him a tutor to teach him to write in Russian. She did not know English, however. We tried to teach him some Russian, but he did not seem interested. So when we took him to school in September, we were quite worried. We knew, however, the students had been “coached” by their teacher on responding to the arrival of the new kid from America who knew no Russian. She had actually taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! Also, Oksana’s mom has worked in the school system here for years. Still, we feared what kind of reaction Gabriel would receive and wondered how he could possibly learn anything.

Their regular school building was still being renovated, and in the old school where he started they still had the “double desks” so common for so long in Russian schools. Everyone shares a desk with someone else. (Russian readers will know exactly what I am talking about.) Gabriel’s “desk partner” was Alex. Sharing the desks made it easy for Alex to show Gabriel what to do even before Gabe could understand what was being said. Further, rather than making fun of the new kid from America, the other students helped out as well. When Oksana and I would go pick him up from school, other students would report to us on his progress! Alex became a close friend. Alex is a bit older than the other kids in the class, as is Gabriel. We were informed Alex had been diagnosed as autistic. Perhaps Alex knew what struggling in school is like, so I believe he was more sensitive to Gabriel. Also, Alex speaks Russian very distinctly. He came over during New Years, and I could understand him much more easily than I can understand most Russians! There have been a couple of times when Gabriel has felt left out because some kid did not want to include him in the group, but these times have not diminished his fondness for his friends and school. He loves it when he can hang around after school and play with his friends. It is interesting that Gabriel learned fairly quickly how to understand Russian—before he was able to speak much at all. He has done well academically. My suspicion is that Gabriel speaks more Russian around his friends than at home. At home he knows Mom will correct his mistakes. I think the boys he plays with understand he is learning and don’t worry about his mistakes like we do!

Roman. Roman is our 16 year old, and he was born here. We left Russia when Roman was 8 years old. He was excited when we told him we may move back to Russia. He did well in school in America; he also played football and was on the wrestling team. He was an altar server at church as well, so it was not that he was unhappy in America. Nevertheless, he was always “the Russian kid” there. Roman started practicing his Russian again even before we told him we were going to return here. So he could speak Russian well enough to communicate when we arrived, but he has an American accent. Further, he simply did not understand Russian grammar or have a vocabulary equal to his fellow students. Moreover, he had not had courses in America that kids in his grade already had in Russia—especially chemistry, physics, algebra, and, of course, Russian grammar. This is a common problem for kids moving from America to Russia. We knew it, and we immediately secured tutors for him. We have friends who homeschool, and I cannot say how it would be for those children. We decided on public schools because we felt it was the best way for them to learn to socialize in small town Russia and learn the language. Maybe if we had moved to a large city like St. Petersburg or Moscow we would have gone another route. I have said plenty in earlier blogs about the fact that we see the focus of Russian education on preparing the children academically without the strong emphasis on inculcating them with whatever the popular cultural or moral “values” in vogue are. Both our boys have told us Russian schools are harder than American schools academically, but they have simply adjusted.

Roman is by nature an introvert, but he has also been able to develop frienships more easily here than in America. He became a bit of a celebrity at school as we understand. Kids who did not even know him or have classes with him would come up and want to practice their English. All his teachers have told us he acted mature beyond his years. Additionally, a few girls asked him from time to time to join them for walks home or to get together for “tea” on Saturdays, so I am quite sure that helped! We have seen Roman “blossom” in terms of his willingness to interact socially. Now if we could just get him to clean his room it would be even better!

We get questions from both family and close friends about our boys frequently. We are glad they shared our concerns and have been praying for them. We also knows folks who are thinking of moving here, and they were quite interested as well for obvious reasons. So we are happy to report that, while there have been struggles and adjustments, both boys are doing well. We were, of course, quite pleased that the negative “atmosphere” between the two countries did not impact how students received our boys.

Marina Grace. We did not worry so much about Marina Grace adjusting. She wasn’t even two yet when we moved. She didn’t even speak English plainly so we didn’t see a language issue. My wife had stayed home with her in America and has continued to do so in Russia. It took a while for Marina Grace to adjust, however. She clung to Oksana constantly the first few weeks. Oksana could go out of the house without her only when Marina Grace was napping. I do not know why, but the move really upset her. She obviously felt very insecure because of the new surroundings. I think it took about two months before we began to see a sense of security settling in with her. She does much better now, although she still needs mom’s attention. She does well when Oksana has to go out, however. She enjoys going to “Baboolya’s” (grandmother’s) house. She loves her grandparents, and seems really happy at home now.

Also, our children have been quite healthy since moving here. Some sniffles on occasion and Roman has had some back problems that are being addressed, but their “systems” had no trouble adjusting to Russian food, water, and even the climate!

Oksana & Hal. Both Oksana and I have had more trouble adjusting to life here than we thought. I don’t mean anything that makes us regret coming here or even have doubts. We both were and are convinced that this move is the right move for our family. We were concerned about the kids! We thought we would have little or no “adjustment issues” since this is Oksana’s home, and I have lived in Russia before. Perhaps eight years in America had left us more “Americanized” than we thought. As I mentioned in other blogs we spent months thinking, analyzing, praying about, and discussing this move. Yet somehow that did not mean we just settled in easily and adjusted with no problems. I can’t really say there was any one specific problem that caused this delayed adjustment. There were actually more conveniences here than we anticipated; no one treated us poorly; the cost of living was such that we did not have financial concerns. We had, however, formed very close family and friendship bonds in America, and these could not be replaced. We had Oksana’s parents to help out, but otherwise we had no “social network” in Russia. We were on our own. In America, we had family and friends from church who we could call at any time even if it was only to chat about minor things.

I’ve tried to analyze our adjustment. A part of this blog was to help ME! The line that comes to mind is Thomas Wolfe’s “you can’t go home again.” I now recall when Oksana, Roman, and I moved to America in 2008 how difficult it was for me. I no longer was part of the same circle of friends I had known. Some had just moved or lost touch; others chose not to “re-include” me because of my past. It was a very difficult time until we both—as a couple—formed new friendships or reconnected with a few of my old friends who wanted to renew the relationship. And Oksana made many new friends in America. I think maybe some ladies just wanted to meet “the Russian” at first out of curiosity, but for whatever reason it “clicked.” But Oksana had left Luga in 2006. She of course came back to visit until 2008 when we moved to America, but you can’t be gone from a place for that long and expect to come back to life as it was. We both have had to adjust to that. In some ways, it is perhaps easier in some ways for those who have never been here. You know coming in that everything is a clean slate. We made the mistake of thinking that because we had lived here before things would go smoothly.

There were other factors. Here Oksana has had to spend an enormous amount of time helping the boys, especially Gabriel, with homework. Russian schools give more homework in general than in the States, but then added to that is the need for Oksana to translate some things and to stay close while homework is being done. Even though both of us only teach part time, we both are teaching out of areas we’ve been accustomed to. We both taught adult learners in St. Petersburg who were self-motivated and wanted to focus more on formal relationships and business. Here Oksana teaches first graders, and I teach teenagers. So it has taken more preperation than we anticipated.

The fact that we have a two year old daughter who is high-maintenance has added more “fatigue and time pressure” to the stress of daily life. Roman used to help out with childcare, but he goes to a tutor most days after school and then has homework at night. We do not have a car and so we either walk or call a cab. Again, this takes a bit more time, and we’ve been frustrated because we came here to achieve a slower pace with less time pressure.

Language. My biggest frustration has been the language issue which I have mentioned in several blogs. Again, expectations got in the way. Oksana had been complimenting my vocabulary and pronunciation for some time. We thought all I needed was immersion. I had been working on my Russian for a long time, but rather than making it easier, the move made it harder for me to focus on improvement. I started teaching, and when you are hired as a native speaker, they really don’t want you trying to impress them with your Russian. You are there to speak English! Had I gone into a job requiring I learn Russian I am sure things would have been different because of the external pressure and help to progress.

Furthermore, it was more difficult to speak Russian in our home than we thought. Oksana is completely fluent in both languages. Russian is her “native tongue,” but she had gotten used to speaking Engish in America for EIGHT years. We spoke English in our home and with our friends. So it is natural for her to speak English to all of us—she “defaults” to English with us. Roman, as I said, can converse in Russian fairly comfortably in Russian (and he likes to), but he does make mistakes and has to have clarifications or corrections from her occasionally. I cannot speak Russian as well as Oksana (obviously) or Roman. I’m slower. I have to think about grammatical consistency (What case? Gender? Verbal aspect?) before I speak. It is just more combersome when she has to stop and clarify a word or concentrate on speaking slowly when talking with me. A smooth conversation with me in Russian takes time. Additionally, Oksana and I have always communicated in English so it is hard for her to remember to speak Rusisan with me. Then since Gabriel didn’t know any Russian we had to speak English to include him in our conversations. So it is hard for a family to speak in a language they have not been speaking in, especially if the level of differences is so wide. Many people think immersion is best, but there are road blocks. Moreover, it is not easy to be immersed when you must speak English at work and the Russian at home is uneven. Again, I think it would actually be easier to improve if everyone in the home is learning at roughly the same level and pace. While having native speaker in the home is convenient, it means no one is forced to learn in order to be able to handle daily life.

Church Life. We are also disappointed that we have not been able to find a church where we “fit in.” We are Orthodox and, again, we did not think there would be a problem making the change to the Russian Orthodox Church, since our OCA church uses pretty much the same liturgy. The shift to hearing Slavonic made it more difficult than we thought, however. Only Oksana can understand old Slavonic. Standing for the entire Divine Liturgy was not a problem for any of us in America, but when you really can’t keep up with what is being said, it makes it more difficult obviously. I don’t mean for a service or two. I mean when week after week you don’t understand, then it is hard—especially for the kids. Furthermore, it has been very difficult to get to know the other folks at the church simply because that is not what Russians see as a part of the Liturgy or even after the Liturgy. There is no meal after the Liturgy, as we enjoyed each week in America. One priest at a village church was very friendly toward us, but he is a monk and there was no contact with him otherwise. This is the primary problem we are going to focus on for 2017.

Politics & Friendships. I guess the major strain we were not expecting to be so strong concerns how intense the political tension between Russia and the United States have become since we have been here. There were tensions before we moved, to be sure. We had cause for concern, but as the election year grew more intense we did not expect how bitter things would become. I was shocked and disappointed at the new level of McCarthyism that raised its ugly head in America. We did not expect these differences to get in the way of our personal relationships.

I also realized pretty soon after we got here that the Western Press in general, and the American Press especially, were misrepresenting Russia either out of willful ignorance, malicious intent, or just plain journalistic laziness. It started with articles I read on what “life in Russia” is really like. Since I have lived in Russia for a total of over four years, I think I’m a pretty good judge of that. It wasn’t that there were some differences that could be accounted for by focusing on a different geographical area in Russia or a different perspective from the West; there were total distortions in pieces on generalized descriptions of life here. Russia is often portrayed as this economically choked country with a populace ravaged by poverty and essentially ignorant of truth since the leaders have totally closed them off from an open press. This perspective is far from the truth.

People here have access to news from all over the world. They read both sides of most issues and are quite aware of criticisms of the government here from both Russian and Western media. My belief is that Russians actually are more willing and able to access different perspectives than most Americans. Then during the campaign when Trump said he would like to work with Russia to fight ISIS, he was called a Putin “stooge,” “puppet,” and a whole lot worse. Then John McCain proclaimed him a murderer and thug and said anyone who disagreed with him (McCain) is a liar. This is the same McCain who was on stage in Ukraine with Neo-Nazis. This was very distressing because to say anything positive about Russia was taken as a sign of disloyalty—even if it was the future president of the United States who said it. Thus, some contacts believed we were the same way when we spoke positively about the political situation here. I really did not forsee the political relationship between “my two worlds” collapsing as it did. There is no attempt on the part of these politicians to understand the situation here. Thus, Oksana and I feel very frustrated that the questions about Russia are often impregnated with so much wrong information that we really cannot make clear how things are without conversations becoming divisive.

When I came to Russia the first time in 2002 I did not like Putin. I didn’t like any Russian politicians. I loved my Russian friends, but I thought the worst of the political system. Things have changed. First, to some degree, the political system here has changed. When I first came the country was still reeling from Boris Yeltsin’s horrible leadership. Yeltsin sold out to the West, and the West took advantage of it with no concern for what could be mutually beneficial for the two countries. So when Putin came to power in 2000, it was a far different situation than now. Some say he was ruthless; I say he had to be a bit ruthless to get the country stabilized. Second, I can now see the bigger picture of what Putin was doing. He really did want to attack the dishonest oligarchs (and eventually did), for example, but he had to “eat the elephant” one bite at a time. He needed to restore the pride in the Russian people for their country. When I came here then there were very few flags on display except on government buildings, and patriotism was very low. Now, however, flags are frequently on displya in public places and a strong sense of Russian patriotism has clearly returned. Third, as I alluded to above, I have seen that I, and many Americans, were misled by the American news and information outlets. There have always been distortions in reports I am sure. Now, however, reports are so far from what both other Americans who live here see and what bonafide and seasoned scholars on Russia are saying that we don’t even recognize the Russia these people are talking or writing about.

Fortunately we have not experienced any problems with our legal status here in Russia because of the tensions between the two countries. There have been some points of tension with Americans, but hopefully nothing serious. The stress is more over where the tensions will lead. From here I regretfully have to say the aggression is clearly more from America. Four thousand troops (3rd Army Brigade) just arrived in Poland to patrol the Suwalki gap. NATO has German troops close enough to St. Petersburg, Russia that they are within the range of conventional weapons. US Marines have recently landed in Norway, in another obvious attempt to irritate Russia. With all these movements going on from NATO and the US, this week I heard Senators lecturing Trump’s nominees to various cabinet positions about how RUSSIA must be made to change its aggressive behavior. There are 70,000 US troops in Europe. Russia has no troops in North America. If Russia brought troops anywhere near as close to the US as America brings both troops, weapons and missles to Russia’s borders, politicians and many people there would go—well, for lack of a better term—ballistic. In 2016 the final tally reported indicates the US dropped 26,171 bombs on five foreign countries. Actually, the figure is certainly lower than actual, since the Defense Department can count a “single strike” as one bomb—only on very rare occasions is a single strike one bomb. So there is no reluctance on the part of the US to resort to military action. When Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan in 1941 that was the last time America officially declared war on a foreign country. Clearly the US has settled in to sending off men and women to die without anyone really being held accountable for such decisions. Since I live in Russia, I have to be careful in expressing great disagreement with the policies of my home country without being portrayed as anti-American. Perhaps it is some of the “70s” left in me, but I believe one ought to be able to express disagreement—even disgust—at US policies without it jeapodizing relationships. Not all believe this way, however. For many, these political issues remain a kind of vague hypothetical debate. To families like us who live here they are a source of great and existential concern.

GRATITUDE AND LOOKING FORWARD

Despite the battles and struggles we are grateful for the blessings. We have the deep sense that we are all better for having lived in both cultures. We are glad to be living here, and in many ways we consider ourselves quite fortunate for the richness it has brought to our lives and to our family. We have a modest income from my retirement which we could not live on in America, but provides plenty of financial resources for life here in Russia and frees me up for more family time. While learning the language, making friends and getting into our “routine” has been difficult and slow, we can see the changes. We have been able to establish some on-line friendships with Americans in our “Moving to Russia” group who either have come here, are planning to come here, or are considering it. We look forward to meeting some of them in person in the coming year. I am discouraged that it has taken as long as it has for us to adjust, but I have no doubt that God has a purpose for us here and that in the coming year we will all be better at communicating in Russian, interacting with people and new friends here, and that our lives will continue to be greatly enriched by the people and the experiences. Obviously, no one knows tomorrow, and I have learned not to “assume upon life.” We don’t know if we have a tomorrow or a next year here on earth. What I am saying is our attutude now is that the future looks to us like a more pleasant time of gathering fruit from our present labors.

As I have mentioned above, in one of my “former lives” I taught Koine Greek and New Testament. The phrase that came to my mind as I closed out my reflections on the very eventful and sometimes “mean” year of 2016 is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Forgetting the things behind…” I always explained that forgetting in that world did not mean to remove from conscious awareness as it often does with us today. Paul had, in fact, just reflected on his past in this very chapter. “To forget” meant a choice not to allow the past—failures or accomplishments—to be brought into the present in a distracting or destructive way. “To remember” meant to bring something into the present experience from the past to make us stronger and better—more aware of who we are as people of faith. When God promises he will “remember our sins no more,” he means that our past moral failures will not form a barrier to our present relationship with Him. When Jesus told his disciples at the Supper to “do this in remembrance of me,” he meant participation in the Eucharist was a means by which his very presence would be brought to us and experienced by us. So we forget the things behind in the sense that we know our failures and struggles here can be removed from our future growth, maturity, and joy. We remember the past relationships, struggles, and, yes, failures in the sense we know that they work together for good. We’re glad that we’re here. We look forward to and press on toward what is ahead.

HOLIDAYS & THE RUSSIAN WINTER

In my last entry I wrote about the elections in Russia and in the US. The purpose was to give ideas (in general) about what the election meant for Russian and American relations per my perceptions here in a small city in Russia. This present entry is more for those also interested in the practical dimensions of life in Russia as we face the coming winter. My family and I moved here just over six months ago, and now the Russian winter and the “holiday season” are approaching. Those elicit various emotions and plans on how we are continuing to adjust. So how is our “mixed” Russian/American family adjusting and how can this help those who are considering coming to Russia or those who just like to learn about what life is like here.

When I told people we were moving (back) to Russia the most common response was usually a question or comment about the climate. Does it really get that cold? How does someone from South Carolina survive there? Why does one from such a great climate like South Carolina even consider giving it up for Russia? I was raised where the summers were long and the winters were mild. We sometimes got snow in the winter, and sometimes we didn’t. Winter days were often bright, sunny, and not all that cold—at least not for long periods of time. Here in the Leningrad Oblast of Russia winter gets a head start on the December 21 official start of winter. The first snow started falling here the last week of October. The first week or so of November we had fairly deep snow. Then it warmed up to the mid to upper 30s (3-4 degress C) and most of it melted. Since then snow has been on the ground most days. Temperatures sometimes get above freezing, but that’s not good news. That is when the snow melts some and you have to walk in a muddy mush. So I prefer it to stay a bit under freezing. Today it is 23 F (-5 C), but we did get some sunshine. So I offer a few observations on how one raised in the American south deals with Russian winters.

First, I tell myself that “it is Russia” frequently. What did I expect? In SC if it got really cold, you would just hang on because in a couple of days or a week there would usually be a warmer break. There are no real “breaks” in the cold in a Russian winter, although some days are worse than others of course. For people in the US raised in colder climates the adjustment would perhaps not be so radical, but for me it has been a “learning curve.” And I’ve lived here over three years counting our time in St. Petersburg! Obviously, dressing warmly is a first priority. I thought it got cold when I lived near D.C., but “Russia cold” is a different dimension. Good winter clothes are readily available here in Russia. Make sure you have good boots! Then there is the obvious: heavy coat, two to three layers under that, etc. Then, we make sure we take vitamins, especially vitamin D. And despite the cold, we try to get out and walk as much as possible. Of course, the problem with going out as a family is it is a time consuming pain to get everyone ready. Make sure everyone has the right socks, boots, shirts, coats, etc., and then dressing a two year old is a monumental task that, frankly, my wife usually does. Pulling the covers up over your head in the mornings and staying in the apartment is the easiest, but not the best, response to the Russian winter.

Sickness is a part of life in the Russian winter. You probably are not going to make it through the winter without colds and flu making at least one “run” through the family. You have to accept the fact that the cold here in winter can be dangerous. A couple of weeks ago I came down with a cold. We had to make a trip to Riga, Latvia that week because of my visa renewal. I did not take my heaviest coat. I had checked the weather forecast and packed accordingly, but it turned much colder than the weather forecast predicted with continuous snow. We were outside walking around looking at the beautiful city and then spent all Sunday afternoon at the zoo. We enjoyed it, but I ended up feeling terrible with a horrible cough. I tried to go back to teaching, but after another week I finally gave in and Oksana called the doctor. He thinks I have pneumonia, although the radiologist said he thinks there is infection but it is not clear that it is pneumonia. Both agreed I need to be on strong antibiotics as well as other meds. I should have not gone out in the cold when I realized I did not have sufficient clothes. I should not have gone back to the school and my normal activities before taking care of my illness. I should have called the doctor when the cough kept getting worse. You don’t “challenge” Russian winters with your toughness. Just ask Napoleon or Hitler—or me! You would think I would have learned that by now.

While you can mollify somewhat the problems with the cold with appropriate clothing, there is nothing you can do about the winter clouds. I can’t speak for everywhere in Russia, but where we live in northwest Russia you do not see the sun very much in the winter. I saw the sun for the first time in a week today. Sunny days are not frequent, but even when the sun does shine, it does not last long. We are not too far from the Gulf of Finland, so maybe it is the humidity and currents. Further, official sunrise was 9:49 am today, and sunset is 4:05 this evening. This is not to say the cold is not hard to endure. But the combination of clouds and cold makes seasonal depression a real problem. And I am not speaking of just us “foreigners.” Many Russians confess they hate the depression that comes from lack of sunshine and constant cold. My wife and I both realized that our “moods” were much gloomier recently. I don’t mean that kind of clinical depression that leaves you suicidal. You just lose the cheeriness, and your system seems to slow down and even small tasks seem monumental sometimes. You have to accept that and talk about it. Also, we believe diet is important. Vitamin D supplements and as many green vegetables as possible are needed. Interaction with others is also helpful. Understanding that this is often a part of life here is the first step. Then you formulate a “battle plan” with your family to combat it. Every family differs in how they can best survive and even thrive in the Russian winters.

Now that the holidays are upon us there is the added dimension to life without family and friends in America. Holidays are a great time of sharing joy; they are also a time when we feel the absence of those who are not with us for whatever reason. I remember the first Christmas after my dad died. We had a really good Christmas with a lot of joy, but I felt his absense more strongly than I had up to that point. There is that “spirit of joy” in the air during these holidays in America. Thanksgiving was always when “the holiday season” seemed to begin officially. When we moved to America, Thanksgiving quickly became my wife’s favorite American holiday, because she said she did not know of anything equivalent to it in her country. It is not commemorating special national events, battles fought, or wars won like Independence Day (US) or Victory Day (Russia); it is not specifically to commemorate a religious event, like Christmas or Easter. It is “religious” in the sense it is the day our nation long ago sat aside to thank God for the blessings the country has received. Of course, Thanksgiving, like Christmas or any holiday, can be corrupted by the excesses of individualism and capitalism (Black Friday here we come!), but that doesn’t mean it has to be. Families get together and reflect on their blessings from God. Here in Russia this year, however, Thanksgiving Day was a work day for us. So what did we do? We had a late supper eating Turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce (homemade), and cake. And we thanked God for blessing us in Russia. It wasn’t like the big feast we had with our extended family in America, but it was the best we could do.

Christmas here is not until January 7, and it is solely a religious observance. The gift giving and parties happen at New Years. In the days leading up to Christmas back in America we usually went to more than one party or meal at someone’s home. We never were big into the “Santa” thing so that is no big deal to us, and they have “Ded Moroz” (Grandfather Frost) here in Russia at New Years. We will still miss riding up to the “farm” above our home in Greer, SC and looking at The Turner Christmas Lights. Our family loved that. Then we would come back and walk around our neighborhood and look at how the different houses were decorated.

There are activities here we can get involved in, however. I have been asked to play Santa Claus and give gifts to the smaller Russian kids that study English at our school. I played Santa before when we were in St. Petersburg, and I loved it. Russians here have seen many of our Christmas movies and have heard our Christmas songs, and they love finding out more about them. I have not found that Russia has the quivalent of “Christmas carols.” So I play Christmas songs in my classes this month and let them learn the words. We are aware of and thankful for that fact that we will be bringing some celebration to adults and children here who only see these things on TV. Having an American “in the flesh” seems to make it more enjoyable for them. Fortunately this year Western Christmas is on Sunday so we won’t have to work. Some friends have invited us over for a December 24 Christmas party. Then on the Western Christmas morning we will get up and exchange gifts as a family. We will probably invite some family and maybe friends over to join us for an “American Christmas.”

While we have great Christmas memories of our time in America, we also realize how memory can often just bring to mind all the good things you had in the past that you do not have now. The good ol’ days were often not as good as we recall. We will remember the good about Christmas in America, but we won’t forget the materialism that seemed lurking around every corner. While in America, we loved going to parties and having friends over and exchanging gifts and singing. We, like many Americans, were also burdened with the financial concerns and stresses the holidays left us, however. There is that subtle competitiveness about gifts that creeps in. Frankly, Christmas strained our limited budget, and I know we are not alone in that! We live debt free in Russia. We will share some small gifts with the kids and send gifts to family in America. But we will not have to worry about the credit card bills that come in January and February that would set our budget behind so far. We’ll get together with family and friends for New Years, and there will be big parties. Then we plan on observing the Christian holiday that commemorates the incarnation of Jesus the Christ on Russian Christmas quietly in a house of worship.

Since we have been here over six months we’ve had to adjust to other aspects of life. After you’ve been here for several months, as someone (can’t remember who) said to me some time ago, “It’s like watching people (back home) get over your funeral.” When you leave the country there are a lot of words of support and affection, and folks really do hate to see you go. But then they get on with their lives. You’ve moved and you may have been a very important part of their social lives, but they have to return to their routine. I think our experience is fairly typical. You continue to hear from some friends and family members, but with others you just fall off their radar. Some people just do not write e-mails or make phone calls. We still treasure communication from our American family and friends, but we have to focus on how to adjust to life here and now. It takes effort to establish relationships in Russia, and you cannot be taking constant trips down memory lane and adjust well. With e-mails, Skype, FB, and a host of other social media if people want to stay in touch they will. If they don’t then that’s a choice no one else can control.

I have mentioned before the interest Russian people tend to have in people from the West. They want to get to meet you and learn about you. Nevertheless, building true friendships takes time—especially in Russia where people can be rather suspicious of strangers initially. After they get to know you and trust you then they will become friends like you never had. But a cultural difference is Russians tend not to form superficial relationships. They “size you up.” Once that trust and friendship is established, you can ask them for help in any area of life. But, again, that takes time. For us, that was cushioned somewhat by the fact my wife’s family was already here. So we knew some people from before. Still there was that time of readjustment for us. When you arrive here there is excitement at being in a new place, a new country, so much to see and do. Over time, however, there is the reality that the old friends are not here and e-mails and facebook can only do so much. It’s only natural that e-mails from America become less frequent. You look for new friends here, but it cannot be hurried. Again, friendship in Russia is very important, and you don’t become friends overnight….or over a month! A friend here is someone very close who you can trust completely.

My purpose here is two-fold. First, for those who are planning or are thinking about moving to Russia, do not be naive. America is in a tremendous time of political and cultural division. I cannot really say how many sides there are to some of the debates, because they seem to be splintering. There does not seem to be a shared moral, political or social consensus in terms of what America should “look like.” Some want to work within the existent “structures” to bring about change, while others want to form new structures and still others want to live as what I guess could best be termed “separatists.” Then there are those who want to leave. Obviously I speak as one who left, although our reasons were had a strong personal dimension as well. Life here just seems more, well, stable somehow. The differences are clearly here of course—political, social, religious–but I don’t sense the divisions are as viceral and even rancid as they are in America right now. Nevertheless, that does not mean life in Russia is smooth. Do not get so focused on the problems with America that you think moving to another culture would be ideal. You will miss things about America—some really good things that go unnoticed in the political and cultural “fuss.”

So I think it is important to ask whether the “pay off” is enough for living in Russia. I have tried to paint a picture that includes the negatives of living here. At the same time, I have commented all along that there are things about living here that I have gained which I cannot imagine having lived my life without. There is something about being around different people from a different culture who speak a different language that, while sometimes frustrating, enriches one’s life and has helped me to see the narrowness of my own views beforehand. You realize it is not the material things that give joy and depth to life. For example, we really miss our car, but not because of having access to transportation. We don’t miss the vehicle itself. We miss the family times spent together chatting or singing in that car. We can still do that without having a car, but the chatting and singing still need to be present and you have to be more intentional about it. Further, there has been an intrinsic reward in realizing Russians and life in Russia is not at all like the way it is portrayed in America. I’ve given up on main stream reporters presenting anything like an accurate picture. Life here, as I may have said before, is just “closer to the earth” with far less pretense. And sometimes life is just funny here. You see some things and think, “Hmmm…only in Russia.” Visiting here or taking a tour would have opened me up some to that discovery, but living here gives a depth to it not possible otherwise. When I go to the market I see people doing business differently; going to church reveals people who exercise their right to worship differently; having chats at parties reveals the stories of people far beyond what I could have read about if I had stayed in America. An example from this past weekend, I was sitting across from Vitaly, whom I had just met, at a birthday party. As the party wore on we chatted and laughed. He had just come here from working in a Ukrainian coal mine in Luhansk for five years. Here we were joking around about our countries and sharing stories on how to get Russian citizenship. So it is not that the cultural divides or ways of seeing things are not there. But life here is for people who like hearing from others from “the other side” and realizing those people really love it when they hear your story–because they really are interested in you. It creates a different kind of friend.

Being here in Russia as winter and the holidays approach comes with a cost. I’ve already blogged about why we came to Russia. But at some point you ask yourself why do we stay. It has brought about so many changes in our lives. But change happens anyway. Life would not be the same in America if we had stayed in America. Some family and friends will move away. Friendships change, evolve; situations change; kids get older. If we stayed in America I’d probably be whining for the days when the kids were younger—or easier. That is just human nature. We look forward to what is ahead of us in Russia.

ADDENDUM ON HEALTH CARE: I want to add a comment about my sickness and the care I received. As I mentioned it was my fault I did not seek help sooner. A friend of ours recommended a good doctor and Oksana called him. He could not see me that day, but said he could come by the next morning. They still make house calls in Russia! The price was double: he charged us $20 for his visit. He spent a lot of time with me and pretty much gave me a physical. He asked about my past health issues, surgeries, medications, etc. He was concerned I have been on anti-reflux medication for so long without a thorough inspection of my esophagus, but he said we would deal with my current problem now and talk about that later. As I said he was very concerned about my breathing and believed it was pneumonia, although he sent me for a chest and head x-ray. He tapped some places on my skull that were sensitive without me even realizing it beforehand. He also scheduled his nurse to come out in the evening to take blood and urine samples. He prescribed a number of medications, especially a strong antibiotic for all the infection I have. I am suspicious of antibiotics and do not like taking them. Without me mentioning that, he prescribed two other medications (a pro-biotic and an enzyme) to counteract what he said are the negative impact of antibiotics on our systems. I was very impressed that he was the one who brought up the “downside” to antibiotics. I have never had an American doctor mention that issue. We were treated very well at the hospital where they took my x-rays. It was very modern, clean and everyone was very professional and kind. They thoroughly explained what they did and what they found. Then today the doctor called back to check on me and to reassure us it would take a few days for the medicines to reach full effect. For the doctor’s house call, the nurse coming out to take my samples, the x-rays and conference afterwards and the medications our cost was just a little over $100. We could not have been more pleased with the care I received.

REFLECTIONS ON THE ELECTIONS

This fall both Russia and the United States held their national elections. So I decided to devote another entry to the political issues related to living “between” the two countries. The Russian election was a parliamentary election only, and it occurred on September 18. The US election, however, was for the presidency, as well as a number of House and Senate seats. Thus, the American election drew far more global attention. My purpose here is not a full fledged analysis of either election. I will focus on those aspects of the elections which may better inform the relationship of Russia and the United States. So I’m not going to deal witth Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico or who he may or may not appoint to the Surpreme Court or other domestic issues unrelated to a relationship with Russia.

THE RUSSIAN ELECTION. After the election I scanned the news for the observations of persons whom I know have far more experience in and knowledge of Russian politics than I. I have my ideas from reading and listening to news both in Russia and the US, but I do not pretend to understand the intricasies of Russian politics. The first article that caught my attention was by Gilbert Doctorow, whom I have mentioned before. Doctorow’s article addressed the issue of why his predictions about the Russian election were wrong. Now, if the NY Times or the Washington Post gets Russia wrong I don’t pay it much attention, although I don’t recall they have ever actually admitted getting anything wrong about Russia. Gilbert Doctorow has spent a career working in Russia and a lot of time studying Russia. He continues to travel to the country frequently. If he gets something wrong, then it is newsworthy, and thankfully he is confident enough and honest enough to state simply he was wrong and evaluate why. He believed United Russia, the party of President Putin, would lose its majority in the lower house. He was not alone; many astute observers within Russia predicted United Russia would get between 30-40% of the popular vote. United Russia got about 55% of the popular vote. The next two contenders were the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia which received about 13.5% and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation which received just over 13%. Another party, Just Russia, got about 6%, and the other parties did not receive the necessary 5% to receive any representation. In other words, no party came close to United Russia in the popular vote. Further, the election was declared a clean one by almost all observers, and the usual suggestions of voter fraud were not forthcoming. Even the New York Times admitted it was a fair election stating, “Over all, analysts said, the Kremlin seemed to have kept its word to run a clean race.” Why were the prognosticators wrong about the results?

I would like to elaborate on the first two reasons Doctorow mentioned that he says led to his incorrect prediction and, I think, the reason others missed being accurate as well. Now that we all have the advantage of hindsight, what can we learn? First, he thought the populace would “punish” United Russia for lacking the strong nationalistic and populist themes of the Liberal Democrats and the Communists. Many believed United Russia would not be seen as strong defenders of Russian interests and reputation by comparison. While many in the West think Putin and his party are a bunch of chest thumping nationalists, this is not the perception I have gotten from living in Russia. I have found Putin comes across more cerebral, and his language is usually non-confrontational when talking about the West. Putin rarely uses demeaning or unkind language when addressing his differences with the West, despite the fact he has been compared to Hitler by Hillary Clinton and called a “thug” by more than one American politician. Russians are well aware of what American leaders say about Russia, and they know how unkind and undiplomatic they can be. For example, a collection of a few descriptions of Russia by Barack Obama.

Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.

Netherlands, 25 March 2014

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.

Economist interview, 2 August 2014

Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve. (Applause.) State of the Union Address, 20 January 2015

Notwithstanding the fact that some of what Obama said in those quotes was just plain wrong, it would not be hard to understand why pundits might think that many Russians would hope for an abrasive and confrontational response from its leader to such condescending and deceitful remarks by the President of the United States. Surprisingly, Putin does not allow such comments to elicit emotional reactions and responses. In the press conferences I have seen he is very clear, strong, and logical in his responses. He does not “roll over,” but he does not resort to the vitriol or drama of the American leaders. The election and recent high approval ratings of Putin show that the majority of the Russian people did not allow their frustrations with America’s name-calling politicians to make them vote for another party.

Second, Doctorow said that even though he did not write about the economic situation prior to the election he really believed that the fact that Russia is technically in a recession and purchasing power is down 8% would cause a majority of Russians to vote for another party. Now, Doctorow’s understanding of economic factors far exceeds mine. There is no question that his analyses are correct. But my observation from life here is that Russians are used to tough times, especially those who lived through the fall of Communism and the “reign” of Boris Yeltsin. Russians also realize the sanctions, while limited in their effectiveness, came along roughly at about the same time as a severe drop in oil prices which had a clear and unavoidable negative impact on the Russian economy. They do not blame Putin for these problems. The annexation of Crimea, ostensibly the reason for the sanctions, was based on the fact an overwhelming majority of Crimeans wanted Crimea annexed. It actually made the economic situation in Russia worse because of the cost involved after Ukraine had left things in such terrible economic shape. But Putin could not risk losing significant military bases in Crimea if Ukraine did join NATO. Further, the radicals and neo-Nazis in Kiev dispise fellow Ukrainians who still speak, worship, and live consistently with their Russian backgrounds. Most Crimeans, as polls show, really consider themselves Russians. Putin did not want to leave Crimeans to these radicals. And on the specific issue of the Russian economy, while Russia is in a recession, the economy is clearly healthier by far than when Putin became President in 2000. Overall, my observation is that Russians look at the longer picture. Their relationship with Putin is not of the “what have you done for me lately” variety. Unlike what sometimes happens in the West the citizens here do not hold the President responsible for everything that happens to the economy.

The point here for understanding relations with the West is that the Russian people gave clear support to the party in power despite the strong attempts of the West to leave Russia isolated and in economic shambles. Based on some of Obama’s comments, I believe he really did think that the negative impact of the sanctions would be so clear and undeniable that the Russian people would rise up and oust Vladimir Putin and his party. The latest elections show that this scenario was a long way from reality. The truth is Europe is far less likely to follow the lead of the United States in the future, because following the US on the sanctions did not work out well for them. Obama referred to the US and its European “allies” as standing strong and united. Patrick Buchanan has written recently on the fact we must come to grips with very different alignments in Europe now. With the “old guard” departure of leaders in the UK, France, Italy and perhaps even in Germany next year, the US will clearly have far less influence in Europe. Russia is still standing pretty strong behind its government, but the same cannot be said of the feelings of many European countries for the US.

THE ELECTION IN THE UNITED STATES. While the results of the Duma elections in Russia were a bit of a surprise, those results were nothing compared to the shock at seeing Donald Trump elected President of the United States. I was asleep here in Russia when the evening began in the US, but I was told by family and friends that when the 6:00 news came on there no networks were predicting a Trump victory or even a close race. Again, my purpose here is not to analyze the Trump victory or to predict all that he will or will not do when he does become President. I’m not qualified to render such a broad analysis.

I do, however, want to comment on what I think his election means for the future of Amerian/Russian relations. Again, I first look to those who know more than I do for the “bigger picture,” and then comment on how this filters down to one who lives and moves about within this small Russian city. I have already mentioned Gilbert Doctorow, and in previous blogs I have referred to Stephen Cohen. I look to them because both of them have spent their careers studying Russia. They carry on the best of “mature scholarship.” More than just the advantage of age and experience, they do not need acceptance in the academic or professional media circles anymore. They can, pardon the cliché, “call ’em as they see ’em.” Cohen was recently asked why almost no one else who writes or comments on Russia agrees with him. His reponse was that there are those who do agree in private, but they need acceptance in the professional societies and circles, and if you say something outside the “mainstream consensus,” such as to claim Putin is not demonic, then you are regarded as a “stooge” or propagandist for Russia. I did a quick i-net search and immediately saw Cohen listed as “Putin’s apologist,” and “Putin’s best friend” (under the subtitle: Useful Idiot).

Both Doctorow and Cohen were “cautiously optimistic” in the evaluation of what a Trump presidency will mean for Russian/American relations. Both expressed frustration at Trump’s lack of consistency and the difficulty of seeing his “big picture” because his statements are often contradictory or mutually exclusive. Doctorow pointed out this is not unusual when looking at statements of an American politician running for office—especially if there is no record to defend or explain. In other words, all politicians engage in political pandering. No shocker there. He did, however, make a very important point for analyzing Trump’s pre-election statements. He recommended looking at statements, which the politician, in this case Trump, made during the campaign that he knew would result in criticism and would gain him few votes. So what did Donald Trump say that would meet these criteria?

First, even in the Republican primaries he condemned Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That was not popular with many in the Republican voting population. Turmp also pointed out in an interview on CBS Good Morning that after we had Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi killed the situations in Iraq and Libya got worse. In Clinton’s words on Gaddafi, “We came; we saw; he died” (followed by demonic laughter). Trump pointed out that neither of these men were good, fine, upstanding men, but look what resulted after they were gone–especially in the case of Gaddafi. He may have been a bad man, but he kept worse men from taking over. So after his death our Ambasssador was beaten, humiliated, raped and killed in the streets in Libya, along with three other brave American defenders. Hussein was also bad, but he did keep Iran under control, which was actually more important. Now look at the situation with Iran. Trump stated, “Had we done nothing, had our politicians gone to the beach, we would be in better shape (in Libya and Iraq) than we are now.”

He was asked in this interview if he could convince Putin to get rid of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. To which he said he didn’t think he wanted to. Assad is no “baby,” said Trump, but who do we think would take over control of Syria. Who is the “good guy” we have in mind? He keeps terrorists who murder and torture even children at bay. He went on to say he would be willing to work with Russia in getting rid of ISIS (and other such groups). The interviewer quickly asserted that Putin is “hitting” people we support. Trump’s response was to ask why do we support them. Why do we send weapons to these people we know nothing about other than they do not like Assad? We have no idea who we are supporting and who we are arming.

Clearly these responses are by someone who sees through the excuses the US makes for regime change. This is not pandering for votes. Pointing out that our actions against Hussein and Gaddafi were ill conceived, and that our opposition to Assad has no “forethought” to it, and expressing his willingness to work with Putin and Russia clearly will not win Trump support among the establishment Washington politicans—Republican or Democrat. This was the cause of both Doctorow’s and Cohen’s optimism. They both, like a lot of us, would like to hear a more consistent and clearer policy from him, however.

Cohen also pointed out in his podcast after the election that another reason for concern is Trump will face opposition from both parties if he tries to implement policies that move away from the position that the US has the right to work for the overthrow of any leader the Military Industrial Complex and the political establishment deems unacceptable. Assad is the democratically elected President of Syria. He is an Alawite Muslim, which means he comes from the minority group in Syria. Sunnis make up about 74%, whereas the Alawites make up only about 13%. Hence Assad has kept Syria more “secular.” As Trump said, he is not a “baby,” not a gentle person. He has been more than harsh in dealing with opposition. But Trump’s point that a gentle person would not last long as the leader of Syria is simply overlooked by most in Washington, because Assad has not been friendly toward the United States. Cohen points out the opposition comes from both Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain on the Republican side and a host of Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton. Most of what Graham and McCain say is so similar to what Clinton said during her campaign it is hard to believe they actually belong to different political parties.

THE REACTION IN RUSSIA. Now I will conclude with what I’ve observed here in Russia to Trump’s victory. The day after his election my mother-in-law called during the evening newscast and said the news reporters seemed to be smiling a little. Russians rarely smile, and Russian news reporters almost never do. It seemed they were trying to hide it, but you could tell they were pleased with the results. I think that is true of most Russians. Months back, after the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was surprised that several advisors around Putin favored Clinton. They knew Clinton had said negative things about Russia, but they believed she still was more predictable than Trump. They were more comfortable with her than with dealing with someone who had never really done anything in foreign policy before. But as the campaign went on and Clinton played the “blame Russia” card so frequently, it was clear they really were concerned about her resorting to military action. One no longer heard from anyone supporting Clinton. I would say many, if not most, Russians believed a Clinton presidency would bring the real potential of WW3. After she claimed (without good evidence) the Russians had hacked the DNC she began rattling the saber pretty loudly talking about military responses to “cyber attacks.”

Further, leading news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post joined in the renewed McCarthyism. Some of it was ideological, but as Paul Robinson pointed out, some of it is just lazy journalism. Many reporters from major outlets who write about Russia do not take time to familiarize themselves well with Russia. It is a big and complicated country. Many articles clearly show an ignorance of the country and the people that one who has lived here can easily spot. And then there is the “herd mentality.” It is easier to go with the flow than to do hard research that takes you out of the mainstream. Again, Russians are aware of what is written and said about them in the West. So the fact that both The Times and The Post, who do not like Russia, also do not like Donald Trump was seen as a positive for Trump in the minds of many Russians.

The other reaction I got here were the questions on why there was rioting, complaining, and so much angst after Trump’s victory. What were the rioters trying to accomplish with their violence against other persons and property? I had and I have no answer. People did not get their way and they expressed it through violence. I hate giving that kind of answer, because it obviously does not make American citizens look very mature. I love my country, and I know for the better part of my life most Americans accepted disappointments and moved on. Yet now that virtue is being lost. The “picture” of America that is being sent around the world is an ugly one—violent, self absorbed, and impossible to please. I have seen bitter political fights, but never the senseless violence. Now Trump’s every move seems to be questioned by Democrats, establishment Republicans and even those who did not want Clinton. I do not know what kind of president he will make. I can say from this side of “the pond” that many see Americans as a people who chose a leader then condemned him to failure before he even began.

As an aside, I will (again) address the question or the suggestion I get often that Putin has a plan to restore the old Soviet Union or at least expand the borders of Russia as close as he can to those of the USSR. I cannot say what goes on inside the Kremlin. I do not claim to know Vladimir Putin’s motives or plans. I can only judge based on what I see and read here on the news and what I sense in talking to Russians. This attitude that Putin has a secret (or not-so-secret) aim to take over the Baltic states or Ukraine or re-establish the old Soviet boundaries seems very inconsistent with what I see and hear here in Russia. I don’t know anyone here who thinks like that, and there is nothing in the news that indicates Putin is trying to stoke those flames. I would think that he would be sending out subtle messages to the public feeding the desires for a return to the old days if that was his plan. Statements like the one I quoted in an earlier blog that he frequently makes that “anyone who wants to restore the old Soviet Union has no brain” is not the way to lay the groundwork for restoring the Soviet Union or expanding the borders of Russia. Sure, there are people who still long for the old Soviet days. They are not, however, in the majority. There is a Communist Party here, and it got 13% of the vote as I said above. Many of them, however, just want Communism in Russia, not taking over the old Republics (countries).

CONCLUSION. I will conclude with some evidence for hope for future relations and another observation on Putin. After the election of Donald Trump, a Levada Russian independent poll shows that 71% of Russians want rapproachment with the West. The mid-November poll showed a jump of 21% from July of last year. The only poll that has ever been higher was in 2000. Fifty-six percent still had a negative view of the West, probably based on all the negative things that were said about Russia in American press during our election. Russians clearly want things to be better, however. I sense this in daily conversations, not just polls taken by professionals. They simply do not see the same attitude from the West.

Vladimir Putin is sometimes called a “semidesyatnik” by biographers. A semidesyatnik is a “person of the 70s.” It refers to those who “came of age” during that decade. It was toward the end of Leonid Brezhnev’s long rule of the Soviet Union. He was old and way past his prime, and most of the men in his government were as well. It was a stagnant time. For the ideology of Communism the proverbial bloom was off the rose. Putin, like many of his peers, seems to have been fiercely loyal to Russia, but not as committed to “the party” as his KGB credentials might suggest. The accusation or presumption that there lies within him a heart longing for the restoration of the USSR is, I think, way off the mark. I will offer a word from personal experience as to why I think this way. My father-in-law is also a semidesyatnik. As I have mentioned before he served a career in the Soviet army. In fact, he served five years in East Berlin at the same time Putin was there. On birthdays and holidays my in-laws often get together with some old army buddies and their wives. I get to come along because, well, I’m married to his daughter. Hearing their stories, I realize this is not a group who longs to restore the USSR. They were patriotic; they served their country, and they love their country. But they, too, saw the hollowness of the ideology they were raised on. It’s not that they hate Communism. They just see no reason to go back to it.

I read an article recently on an interview John McCain gave in France. It was a rehashing of what amounts to his political threat toward Donald Tump to the effect that Trump better not try to work to improve relations with Russia. When I read John McCain ranting about Russia (he literally sputtered during the interview) and giving his psychoanalysis of Putin, the “KGB thug,” I realized it for the garbage it is. Maybe we should analyze John McCain. His grandfather and father were both 4 star Navy admirals. Of course, he got into the Naval Academy. His rank in class at graduation was 894 out of 899. Pity the five guys out of almost 900 who were dumber than he was. Unfortunately he will unite with his Republican soul-mate Lindsey Graham and the mainstream Democrats in an attempt to sabotage whatever attempts Trump makes to join with Russia in destroying ISIS and its kin once and for all. His threat is not an empty one. My hope is that America is ready to listen to wiser voices about Russia.

SO, WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT LIVING IN RUSSIA?

Winter can come early here in Russia. We had early November snows and for a couple of weeks the temperature never got out of the 20s (F). It has warmed up to mid-30s this week, but the cold and snow are expected to return next week. The days are quite short. Official sunrise today was 9:13 am and sunset is at 4:22 pm. Despite these facts over the last couple of weeks we have had some real highlights, and I was reminded of the good part of living in Russia.

Weekend before last on Saturday afternoon we had our English club at the Erudite school. Students (and others) pay a fee to the school to come for a presentation on a topic we choose beforehand. Oksana and I did the presentation on Education in America. Our classroom was full of about 15 Russian teenagers. We presented various facts and experiences from our time in America. I went over the “nuts of bolts” of ages and grades in elementary, middle and high schools. I covered the basic curriculum and other facts, such as the fact the three schools are in different locations. Here in Russia our high school student, Roman, goes to the same location as our elementary student Gabriel. Elementary students here stay with the same teacher every year. She moves up with them to the next grade each year, and they basically have the same classmates for the entire elementary experience. Oksana reviewed many of her experiences as a parent who did volunteer work at the schools. We included anecdotes from our kids’ experiences in schools in America. The Russian students could ask us any question they wanted, but they had to ask in English. We concluded with a discussion of a scene from the Kevin Spacey movie, “Pay it Forward.” Oksana chose a great scene when the social studies teacher challenges them to think of the world and how they could change it despite being kids who can’t drive and who live in a small town. One kid decided to do three random acts of kindness to people and asked them not to pay him back but to “pay it forward” in other acts of kindness to other people. Our students had to brainstorm in small groups (again, in English) about the ways they could do acts of kindness that could be “paid forward” by others. What we found particulary rewarding was the interest and participation of our Russian students. They came to the school at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon and remained attentive and involved for an hour and a half.

Then last Friday I was asked to come to a Senior Center here in Luga. The senior citizens can come there and study about or learn skills that perhaps they have never had an opportunity to learn, e.g., computers are a big item of interest. English for Seniors is very popular, too. A Russian friend of mine teaches an English class there. He asked if I could come over and let them hear a ‘native speaker.” I agreed and he gave me a ride over. The “class” was about 7 or 8 Russian babushki (grandmothers) and one lady who was a younger widow. She had taught English before, but the other ladies had started studying it late in life. They were very hesitant to speak to me in English, although some did try. They were invited to ask me any question they wanted in English or Russian. At first I would say a few things in Russian to try and help, but they insisted I speak only English. First, they asked about my family and how the adjustment was going moving from America to Russia. As I was telling them I got out my phone and showed pictures of my family. When I showed them a picture of my wife the first lady looked at me, the picture of my wife, back at me, and then asked, “How old is your wife?” I smiled and told her. (Yes, I am noticeably older than my wife!) They asked several questions about my life in South Carolina, the climate, my work, our life there. They were interested especially in how my Russian wife and step-son were received there. I was glad to tell them everyone there was always warm toward Oksana and Roman. Oksana had as many (if not more) friends as I did in America! I then told them also that our two children born in America have been treated well here. I heard them whispering about politics, so I decided to bring that topic up and told them they could ask me about politics in America. One or two expressed disappointment with statements made by Hillary Clinton about Russia. I agreed, but I reminded them that politicians often say things for political gains at home. They readily agreed and were quick to add that Russian politicians do the same.

I left feeling a significant sense of surprise by this meeting. I had thought that this age group would be a bit more negative. Russian grandmothers have a reputation for being negative about a LOT of things. Even when I mentioned some weaknesses about life in America, such as the cost of living and the extremely divisive political year, they said nothing negative but accepted the fact that all societies and governments go through such times. As I was talking to them I could not help but think of the political changes that had happened to their country during their lives. They had been born in post-War Soviet Union after Hitler had devastated the country. Most estimate the number of those killed during WWII in the Soviet Union was over 25 million. By comparison, the number of US killed was a bit under 500,000. They had lived through the recovery of the Soviet Union and saw Communism flourish and then fall. They had watched their country collapse literally almost overnight. Then they had to live through the economic and political devastation that happened after the collapse of Communism. I already knew from talking to my wife and others how hard those years were when there was nothing in the stores for days. Yet there was no bitterness or whining as these ladies spoke of their lives here. They actually seemed more understanding of America’s divisions than most folks are. And we had a number of good laughs during our “class” together.

Then this past weekend we had two house guests. “Olga” and her daughter “Tatiana” came Saturday afternoon from St. Petersburg and spent the night with us. Olga and Oksana had taught English together years ago when they both lived up in the Murmansk area. Tatiana was a child then, and she is now almost twenty-two years old. Her mom just retired from teaching and moved to St. Petersburg. Retirement is granted earlier to those who live and work that far north. The climate is horrendous, even by Russian standards, and certain government “incentives” are given to get people to live and work there. I had never met either of them, but Tatiana had spent four months this past summer working in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We looked forward to getting her impressions!

There was the usual awkwardness of meeting an American and needing to communicate in English. But it was not long before we all felt much more comfortable with each other. Oksana prepared a large supper, and we enjoyed the meal and chatted a long time. We stayed up almost till midnight chatting. Tatiana took a big interest in Marina Grace, and Marina Grace loved it. They are actually from Ukaine and even though they have lived a long time in Russia, they still go back in summers for visits to the Ukraine.

The next day our conversation turned to politics. They were very hesitant to say anything, but Oksana assured them I really wanted to get their honest impressions. They seemed relieved that they could speak openly. They both spoke strongly against the “propaganda” that goes on and how Ukraine is being used almost as a pawn in the disputes between Russia and the the West, particularly the United States. They said they knew that pictures of “Russian soldiers” are staged to make things look like the Russians are “invading.” They, like most Eastern Europeans, know how the news is presented in America. They also said there had been tensions between them and some family members still living in Ukraine when things first went bad. They confirmed what I had read and heard that Poroshenko is liked by almost no one there and were it not for Western money that keeps coming in he would have been gone long ago. I also asked their opinion on what I had read in several books on Ukraine that the country had always been divided. It seemed to me the West was trying to exploit those divisions. They quickly confirmed my impressions.

Sunday afternoon while Olga and Oksana were having a chat in the kitchen about the “old days,” Tatiana came over and said some very kind things to me. She is a rather quiet young lady who obviously is quite kind. She said that her experience in America working with and for Americans was overall very positive. She liked the Americans and got along well with her American co-workers. She added, however, “But the thing I noticed is that the Americans I was around showed little interest in life of other countries, rarely asking me about my country. They seemed to accept whatever they had seen on their news as the truth.” She also repeated something I had said the night before: Americans in general have little interest in learning other languages. She then confessed to me that she was uncertain about meeting and spending time with me, but she said, “When the three of us ladies were in the kitchen last night I heard you speaking Russian to your children. I was shocked! I had no idea that an American father would not only study Russian, but use it when talking to his kids! You have no idea how much that meant to me!” Now, it clearly was not that I was using some really sophisticated Russian vocabulary or that I spoke so fluently that impressed her! I speak simple lines in Russian and then in English. She wasn’t impressed with my Russian; she was moved by the fact I spoke it to my kids. She said she saw all my books on Russian and Eastern European history on the book shelf and could see I had a great interest in this country and its culture. She said it made her feel renewed. I thanked her and told her there were others like me, and I hope there would be more interest in the future. I assured her I had not always had such an openness. I was raised in the Cold War and accepted what I was told. But as I have gotten older I have learned it is best to investigate things with the understanding I could be WRONG. And, in this case, I was.

I came away from these three experiences with a number of feelings and reflections. First, with all three groups, it was great to be around different age groups who really want to “broaden” their horizons and learn as much as possible about another country, cutlure, and language. I wish more Americans could see and experience what I experienced in getting together with them. I have written in several of my blog posts about the fact that I believe there is a severe misrepresentation of the Russian people and the Russian leadership being foisted on the American people by some for political and economic reasons. One aspect of this blog is I have a strong desire to disspell what I believe are wrong impressions and “facts.” I have no delusions. I realize my small blog will not have a great impact on the bigger picture of Russian-American relations. Yet in that movie I mentioned earlier, Kevin Spacey’s character challenges his young students to dare to make a difference in the world by doing SOMETHING where they are. So while I realize that life will go on the same, and the attitudes of most people will remain as they are, I also believe it is a great blessing and responsibility from God of being the only American most of the people here will ever meet and get to know personally. And I’ll be here next week, next month, and after that. They won’t just see me in class or at a meeting. They’ll probably run into me at the market or the grocery store. I can’t change how most Russians will think of Americans, but I can change how some Russians in this town will think. I also believe, based on responses I have received, that there are some from the West who do read my blog and take to heart that what they have been told about Russia is wrong.

As I have reflected more on these meetings it has also caused some changes in my own goals. One goal that I mentioned to my facebook friends is that if I am going to live here and be a “representative” of my country, I need to get better at Russian. I dropped out of FB for a while (although this blog gets posted there automatically) so I can spend more time studying Russian and writing my blog. With our responsibilities at the school, raising three children, and interacting with various individuals and groups, I have to put time in our life here. I now have a Russian tutor and am doubling my efforts on the language.

There is a deeper emotional reason at work, however. Facebook and other forms of electronic communication are wonderful if you are living abroad. You get to see pics of your friends’ kids, parties, church and social events. You get to post pics of your own life and argue over football and politics. (Yes, my alma-mater Clemson plays its arch rival USC Gamecocks this Saturday, and I still have a strong emotional investment there!) It is so much different now than before when I lived in Russia as far as communication. The downside is these things can keep you from fully engaging where you are. I can spend hours chatting on-line with my friends half way round the world and never speak to my neighbors. I decided to take a break from FB and get a Russian teacher to develop my Russian so I can establish my life here. If I am going to be a part of this community, then I need to know the language better than I do. But I also need to be emotionally connected. That does not mean I will cut off all contact with my family and friends in America. Absolutely not!!! But it does mean I will not be so focused on my life there that I miss my life here.

So to answer those who asks, “What do you like about retiring in Russia?” it obviously is not about the warm climate and sunny beaches. Russia does not fit the “picture” of “Wow, retire here and indulge yourself!” that I see plastered on-line. For me, it is about still sensing that we are being used for larger purposes than enhancing our creature comforts. My Christian faith teaches me that there is no perfect place and no geographical location—no matter how sunny and special—that will give us ultimate fulfillment in this world. I have confirmed through experience what ealier I had accepted by faith in the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures: your bank account can’t do it for you either. The time in my life when I was most materially prosperous was the most miserable time of my life. As C. S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

So life here in Russia can be aggravating, frustrating and sometimes lonely. Nevertheless, the aggravations and frustrations and feelings of isolation may vary depending on geographical location, but they don’t go away. What I like about Russia is seeing the difference both in myself and others that my being here makes. They are small right now. Hopefully, as we get better adjusted and I become more proficient in the language and understand our place and purpose here, they’ll be more vistas we see open up.

So my input for those who are thinking about or are actually planning on coming here is let yourself become a part of this country and whatever city or place you live in. Russians seem to sense when that is your attitude and when it isn’t. Maybe it is that “big Russian soul” or whatever, but they can discern those who are trying to bring a piece of American culture here and those who are bringing themselves to this culture. No one here expects me to be an unpatriotic American. They do not mind when I tell them I love my country. On the other hand, as I told the group of older ladies, I know there are Russians here who don’t like Americans and won’t like me no matter what I do. So what? They will not stop me from learning from this culture and, in turn, demonstrating what I believe is good about my country and our values and how there is a better way than the hatred and divisiveness that predominates now.

Today is Thanksgiving in America. I recall my childhood experiences at school. I realize many question the historical reliability and details of the way American kids in those days re-enacted Thanksgiving. But the legend, myth, or whatever you call it, was a part of what I learned America was. Some of us would dress up as “Indians,” while others donned those big ol’ Pilgrim hats. We were taught the two groups came together because both lacked some things. But, more than a spirit of mutual dependence, there was a spirit of mutual trust and companionship. None of us were taught that those were attitudes that just happened or remained in place automatically. They have to be cultivated, and they come to fruition only with conscious effort and struggle of spirit. The cynics say the historical picture, as well as the effort, is all wrong. It is about domination and the survival of the politically and militaristically fittest. I disagree. I choose the legend and message from my childhood. That is the attitude that has to return if we want “to make America great again.” Happy Thanksgiving!