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!

SO YOU WANT TO MOVE TO RUSSIA

I have not written a blog in a few weeks because life has been very busy for this “retiree.” I got a lot more responses than I usually do on my last blog explaining why we moved to Russia. One of the surprising things about that blog is that I have discovered there are a lot more people in America thinking about either moving to Russia or at least visiting here to investigate the possibility than I ever thought. The reasons vary, but clearly the political and cultural turmoil in America is a big factor. So in this blog I will continue to discuss issues involved in moving or visiting. I have tried to keep in mind the various questions as I write. I am aware that I repeat some points made in earlier posts, but most people have not read all the blogs so, unfortunately, I think repetition is necessary. I will give some personal updates on our status and then give responses to a few important issues.

First, it has taken us longer to get adjusted and settled in than we thought. We landed in Russia five months ago today. We are only now beginning to feel we have things in order. Well, I don’t mean completely in order because I don’t think we have ever reached that point, but you know what I mean. Of course, one complicating factor was that we moved into one apartment and after three months had to move again to a different and unfurnished apartment. Therefore, we were able to choose furniture and other essentials that were right for us. Unfortunately, that took time to pick out the right things. We had to have some things built, because the stores here do not keep everything in inventory. We were able to move only at the beginning of the school year. Hence, the stress was increased.

Second, we had to decide what issues we had to settle immediately and what needed to be postponed. We decided that we could not get the Russian citizenship for Gabriel and Marina Grace right now. We had everything in order when we came here, but, as I have mentioned previously, working with local governments can be frustrating. People in different offices will give you different responses to the same question. Sometimes different people in the same office give you different responses. We were advised by folks here that the Luga office that deals with such matters was more difficult than most. Even the main branch in St. Petersburg told us that. We made a decision that we would have to go to St. Petersburg to get the process completed. The apparatchiks here in Luga always found some reason not to bother. Making a trip to St. Petersburg and staying for a couple of days in and out of offices getting things processed is not feasible right now since our kids are in school. Our kids do not have to get their Russian citizenship right now. So we decided to wait.

Another decision was we decided not to buy a car right now. Obviously there are advantages to having a car when it comes to getting around. Also, our visas for me, Marina Grace, and Gabriel are for three years. It is a Russian law, however, that we have to leave the country every six months and re-enter. I do not understand the logic of that law, but I am not able to get an exemption from it. If we had a car we could easily drive to Estonia, spend the night, and return to Russia, and we would be good for another six months. On the other hand, cars here are just as expensive as they are in the States, if not more expensive. Taxis are cheap. We can get a cab to go across town for under $2.00. There are also buses and “marshutkas” (vans) easily available. Public transportation in small Russian cities is far superior to the public transportation available in the small towns I lived in back in South Carolina. The major factor, however, was my displeasure with Russian drivers as I have made clear before. They drive at a very high rate of speed even in town. There are always little things that are different when driving in a different country, whether rules or just basic practices. I am trying to reduce stress and worry, and I did not feel safe with my wife driving our kids around on the streets of Luga filled with Russian drivers! So we made a decision not to buy a car. We do not keep “chewing” on it or worrying over it.

Looking back we realize we could have enjoyed our initial experience here more if we had not worried so much and had filtered out more quickly what decisions were not pressing. Our expectations were too high. We thought since Oksana is from here and I had lived in Russia for three years, the transition would go smoothly. We both forgot that things don’t go smoothly in Russia very often. In addition to missing our family and friends back in America, we wanted to get all our paperwork and all our decisions settled promptly. Then our pallet we shipped did not arrive as promised. We had to pay more money to get it through customs.We now realize we worried too much over all the details at once. If you are a chronic worrier then I would advise either not coming to Russia or spending a lot of mental energy and prayer on letting go of the worry. I speak as a “fellow struggler.” Do not expect things to go “as planned” here. Choose to solve the more pressing issues and let the other ones go. I can say on a positive note we thank God that most things we worried about ended up well. Our regret is not spending more time enjoying the nice temperatures of the Russian summer!

Another positive piece of news is that our boys (Roman age 16 and Gabriel age 8) continue to enjoy their school. Gabriel still does not speak Russian at home. But his teachers tell us he seems to understand a lot of things, and he is making good grades. His classmates have not teased or bullied him at all. He has told me several times that all his classmates try to help him. His teachers also make sure he understands what he needs. I usually walk him to school, and he is always in a good mood going to school and looks forward to seeing his teachers and friends. Surprisingly, he says he feels more comfortable in his Russian school than he did in his American school. Roman is not as expressive or sociable as Gabriel, but he also likes his school. His Russian has improved, and he has done well “catching up” on the subjects he was behind on when we came here. Tutors have helped. It is taking both boys less time to do their homework now, although Russian schools give more homework than their schools in America. They do not spend as long at school, however. I get Gabriel to school in time for his classes at 8:30. He usually gets out by 1:10 and sometimes earlier. I don’t think we could have asked for a better experience with the Russian school here.

While Roman’s and Gabriel’s Russian has continued to get better, I do not think mine has improved very much. With the issues involved in moving here and then moving again, buying furnishings for the apartment, teaching, etc., I have not been able to focus on my Russian as much as I wanted, and my progress has been very slow. I can speak on mundane issues with Oksana’s family and friends. If they call or come by and need to know where she is or what we are doing I can explain things. When we go over for dinner I can understand the conversations pretty well and sometimes join in. I can use Russian much more effectively in teaching my classes in English than I could when I lived here before. My vocabulary is such that I can explain the English concepts much better. My listening skills are still way below par, and I still hesitate too much to speak for fear of making mistakes. I started taking Skype lessons through a school in St. Petersburg. It is rather expensive, but I was pleased with it. When the wife of the Director at our school found out about it, she asked if she could be my teacher instead. She had studied teaching Russian as a second language and did have some experience. She also offered to teach me for free at the school where I am the “English Consultant.” Since I have never studied Russian in a classroom I decided studying with her in person would be better. I look forward to starting with her this week.

If you are planning on working in Russia in a job other than teaching English you need to set the goal of becoming fluent in Russian. Becoming fluent in Russian takes years for most people. Obviously, the more time you can devote to it, the less time it takes to become fluent. Being fluent will open up a lot of doors of opportunity here. But there are few jobs available, other than teaching, to those who cannot speak Russian. America puts a lot of effort in making people who cannot speak English “comfortable” in America, and they make it so many can work without knowing English. That is not the case in Russia. Even to become a temporary resident you have to pass a rather rigid test in Russian. If you teach English you do not have to know Russian, although it helps. There are a LOT of opportunities for English teachers here. When I taught in St. Petersburg I actually taught in two schools and could have had as many private students as I wanted. Teaching jobs usually do not pay as well, however.

I will restate what I said in an earlier blog, however, about learning Russian. Russians realize that Russian grammar is more complicated than English. If you can speak Russian at all they greatly appreciate the fact that you are trying to learn it. Sometimes the important point is not that you are able to communicate with them, it is that they know you are trying to learn their language. I am the first “native speaker” my students have had. They were very shy and tried to say as little as possible. So one day after I gave them their assignment in English, I switched to Russian and said, “Okay, start. Get to work!” They all looked up immediately, and one young lady said, “Wow, you speak Russian really well.” If an American speaks Russian at all they think it is really well! After that they seemed to warm up to me, and that is when I started using what Russian I know to help them understand English. So you do not have to be fluent for your Russian to break down some cultural barriers.

For those wanting to move to Russia another choice you will have to make is whether you want to live in a larger city or a smaller town or even a rural area. Despite being from a small town in South Carolina, I felt more comfortable going out on my own in St. Petersburg, which has about 7 million people, than I do in Luga. There are many people who know English there and the attitudes are generally, well, less provincial. There are also more jobs available in a larger city. On the other hand, it is much more expensive. When we moved here we thought we might live in Luga just until we got comfortable as a family living in Russia and then move to St. Petersburg. But when I checked on the cost of living in St. Petersburg we decided we did not want to go back under the financial stress we had left in America. It was far more expensive there. Further, while living in St. Petersburg may have been less stressful for me, we don’t think it would be for the children. As I mentioned above, our boys have gotten a lot of individualized attention in their school. I can’t say that they would not have such care in St. Petersburg, but I do not think they would have. The small town atmosphere and the fact that grandparents live nearby led us to decide to stay in Luga.

I mentioned the disadvantage of living in a small town is that there are fewer jobs, athough you still can usually find a job teaching English. I think it is harder to form friendships here initially as well. In St. Petersburg even many of the Russians I met were from somewhere else. Also, the “natives” were more accustomed to meeting new people from different places. Here most people have lived here in Luga a long time and already have their friends. And the old Russian culture of people living private lives except for a few close friends still lives on in the small towns. There is an old Russian phrase I learned a long time ago, “Старый друг лучше новых двух.” (“An old friend is better than two new ones.”)

I already mentioned the positive aspects of the lower cost of living in a small town. So far we estimate that our family of five could live fairly comfortably on less than $1,500 a month. We live in a 60 square meter apartment, have visited the doctors and dentist several times (as any family with three kids does!), we have purchased our clothes for the winter, etc. Roman has two tutors, and we sometimes use another one for Gabriel. Also, we buy pretty much whatever groceries we want. We actually can afford the kinds of clothes and groceries here we could not afford in America. GMO food is illegal in Russia, and natural foods here are not more expensive like in America.

Living in a small town in Russia means we can live a simpler life and we can avoid the financial pressure that just seems to be a part of American life for most people. Clearly there are people in America who do not have to worry about paying the bills each month. But the truth is we observed some very wealthy people in America who confessed that they lived under great financial strain that comes from the cultural pressure there to live just above your means. We had to focus on not getting caught up in the “trying to keep up with the Joneses” mentality that leads you to buy stuff you do not need and continue to accumulate the unnecessary. We are glad to be out from under that burden. I am sure if some of our American friends saw our small apartment here and how we live our lives now they would think we are doing without the “finer things in life.” We don’t see it that way. We lived in a four bedroom home with two cars, closets full of clothes, big yard, etc., but we do not miss that part of America at all. We miss our friends there, but not “the stuff.” We opted for small town life in Russia and for our family it is the right decision. For those moving here, we have found that we tend to remember the “good ol’ days” in South Carolina. The truth is there were some very good days and we had great times. There were also some really stressful and depressing days which our memories tend to delete now! Somehow the mind lets go of the frustrating parts and holds to the positive. From time to time we have to remind each other that things were not perfect there either.

Since writing the first draft of this blog, I decided to add that some people might be interested in rural life. For example, I have a friend who is an Orthodox priest. Probably in January he and his family of ten will be moving to Veliky Rostov (about 2-3 hours north of Moscow I think). He would like to start an Orthodox Christian community there. It will be agrarian. Non-citizens can buy land in Russia, and I believe the current cost there is about $60 per acre. There is a great push in Russia for more farming. The government wants very much to increase agricultural production. Father Joseph would like to have other Americans there who would live “close to the land,” and be a part of a community instilling not only a good work ethic, but strong moral and spiritual values in their children. His Facebook group is “Moving to Russia,” and I received his permission for adding this part to my blog.

If moving to Russia I would suggest getting as much information from reliable sources as possible. You will not find that information in most outlets from the Western press. Before I moved to Russia I thought the information in much of the media was distorted some. Now I think most of it is just completely wrong. Their analyses of the economic and political statuses here are often way beyond slanted. The economy is down in Russia, but nothing like what I read and see on the internet from the West. There is nothing we need that we cannot buy here. Further, the political and cultural turmoil in America on this eve of this important election is far greater than anything here. That is not to say people do not disagree politically, but there is a civility here in those debates that America has apparently lost—at least for now.

Hillary Clinton has “upped the ante” with her tirades about Russia in general and specifically Vladimir Putin being interventionist in American politics and an Eastern European aggressor. Her immediate response in blaming the Russians for the e-mail leaks was particularly disturbing. NATO has adopted the convoluted logic of excusing its increase in troops closer and closer to Russia—because Putin is so aggressive. My intention is to discuss the September elections here in Russia and the very important November elections in America in my next blog. My point for now is you need to have a very strong and healthy skepticism about how Russia and the Russians are presented in the media from the West.

It is also good to talk to anyone in America that knows Russia first hand. One word of caution: I have discovered that Russians (and other Eastern Europeans) who left in the 90s and even in the first decade of the “new” millenium are shocked at our descriptions of life here. If a person left here during that time period and has not returned on a regular basis, then their understanding of Russia may be quite dated and misleading. Times were awful during that period, but the Russia they left is not the same as it is today. I have frequently mentioned how different this country is from when I first came here in 2002. It has dramatically changed even since we left in 2008. While poverty is still a problem, clearly many people are doing much better financially and materially. But there are other differences. I saw this as an “outsider looking in,” but I am also looking from the inside. Russia has become more “modern” in many ways, but I also think it has rediscovered its past, its history, its “soul.” There is a healthy pride in their country that I did not see when I was here before. There is a growing emotional, moral, and spiritual strength I thought was gone. There is still crime and bad things do go on here. There are laws and politicians I do not appreciate. And any reporter or politician can choose to focus on those. But it is a distortion of the truth at best to write or speak as if those are normative.

The last question I will discuss is how Russians accept Americans. As I hinted at above, it is not a part of this culture for people just to come up and start talking to a total stranger, especially one from America. So I have felt a loner at times. But my mother-in-law told us that we are being talked about and people are calling her interested in our family in a positive way. They really do want to get to know us, but it is a slow process here.

A few other examples will hopefully help demonstrate my point. We did a workshop at our school for the English teachers on Education and Family Values in America. The ladies were so interested and asked a lot of quesitons. We went for over two and a half hours because they really wanted to hear what we had to say and ask questions. Last week my wife stopped by the market to buy a couple of small toys for the kids. I guess the vendor heard Gabriel speaking in a language other than Russian. So he began asking questions—one after another. It was cold and snowing and Oksana just wanted to get home. But he kept asking. After finding out she was married to an American, he wanted to know my views on various topics. She had a hard time leaving. He told her wanted to get together with us and his wife and get to know each other “as family.” Then I saw the Director of the school where we teach (let’s name him Mikhail), at church one Sunday. He introduced me to his friend Alexander. Mikhail and I chatted a few minutes (in “Russlish.” He knows about as much English as I know Russian so we have our own “language.”) Mikhail was talking about our move here as we chatted. His friend said very little, and his expression barely changed at all. He was very passive during our chat. But later Mikhail told us how interesting his friend found our talk and how he admired me coming here and living in this culture. He thought it was so great to see an American who wants to be in Russia. Well, his admiration of me is probably a bit too high, but it was another confirmation of what I have believed since I first came here. Russians are very good at distinguishing between the politicians and their political views in America from real Americans they may meet. I’m sure there are Russians who do not and will not like Americans. But overall I have found the Russian people to be very interested and accepting of those of us from the West. I believe anyone who visits or comes to live here and is genuinely interested in learning from and being a part of this country will find plenty of acceptance.

WHY WE MOVED TO RUSSIA

This weeks blog is a bit more personal than most I have written, although most of them have essentially been personal observations. I have been asked many times why we moved to Russia from America, as I mentioned in an earlier blog. The motives for the question seem to vary. Some are friends who just want to know more about us; some are interested in moving to Russia and want to know more about and discuss our motives and theirs; others just think it is so out of the realm of the ordinary they would like to know what could ever make one think moving to Russia from South Carolina is a good idea. Some aren’t interested at all, and you may want to skip this one!

There is no one reason, so first I’ll review the background. We moved from St. Petersburg, Russia to America in 2008. The main reason we moved was because Oksana was pregnant, and we wanted the child to be born in America. Russian and American paperwork and documents are just too complicated for private individuals who want their child born in Russia to be an American citizen.

Coming back to America was more difficult for me than I thought it would be. I had taught at a University there, and it was the job I thought I was made for. I taught Koine Greek and New Testament at a Baptist school. I loved what I did and worked with a great group of friends. I resigned in 2005 because my marriage was on the brink of divorce. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I hated leaving that school and the close friends I had there.

That is when I moved to Russia, and stayed here three years. When we returned to America in 2008 I took a job working for my brother at a small company. We both thought it would be temporary until something else turned up. I stayed there eight years. In November of 2011 we found out my in-laws from Russia were coming in March of the following year for a two week visit. I knew the visit would go better if I “studied up” on some Russian. When we had lived in St. Petersburg I had learned very little Russian—only survivor’s Russian. After living in America for three years I had lost what little I did know. I went on Amazon and bought the first level of three levels of conversational Russian (Pimsleur) to prepare, since my in-laws knew no English. I finished it and got the second and then later completed all three levels. It was good because it focused on pronunciation and listening, and I could listen to the CDs on my way to work and back. After purchasing the Pimsleur CDs, Amazon “flashed” some books on my account as “you may be interested in these.” So I ordered a history of the October Revolution by Richard Pipes and another one on Orthodox prayer written by Orthodox monks. I became addicted! I read Russian history, practiced the Russia language lessons, and got into Orthodox writings.

I still had no intent of ever going back to live in Russia or becoming Orthodox. I just found it all very interesting. Having lived in Russia and being married to a Russian I’m sure was part of the impact. I wish I could have studied the language, history, and religion of Russia in a university setting where I could get the insights of those more knowledgeable than I in a classroom setting. Nevertheless, I was the sole bread winner and had a wife and two kids. I had to do it on my own, although Oksana tried to spare some time to help me with the language. I recently counted over fifty books I had read on Russian history and Orthodoxy, not counting the Pimsleur collection and the grammar books. It got to be an addiction that was a bit expensive.

Occasionally I started to have thoughts of moving back to Russia, but never mentioned it to anyone—even my wife. I did start looking around on the i-net for opportunities for study or work near our home in South Carolina that would allow me to use or enhance my knowledge of Eastern Europe, but I found nothing. The process, however, made me realize I no longer longed to go back to a teaching position like I had had before. Only a few of my old friends came around anymore. I think I was a pariah to some who I had thought were dear friends. My interests had changed, and it was impossible to go back to the way things were before Russia. My life was different now, and I had finally accepted that fact.

Then in late January of 2014 we got our biggest shock ever. We found out that Oksana had gotten pregnant in December. Years before, when she had her first son in Russia, she was told that she probably would never be able to have other children. She had had a hard time getting pregnant in her first marriage. So when she got pregnant two months after we were married we thought it was a fluke. That was nothing like our response when she got pregnant with our second child!  I had to endure all the “old daddy” jokes, like the one from my nephew asking about the visiting hours in nursing homes for those with children in elementary school! At first I actually was devastated and confused. But then we found out the baby was a girl and my thinking changed. I had four boys—now a girl!? It was actually exciting now.

When she was born in September of 2014 I knew I did not want to miss her young years by leaving for work and coming in too tired to play. I had learned from experience how quickly the years pass, and they grow up. So I started thinking about what I could do to have the family time I craved. I thought of semi-retirement and working part time. My brother was fine with that. So I checked with the Social Security office and found out that with two minor children I could retire early and my benefits would be double what it would be with just my wife and me. Now, Social Security isn’t much, but that did sound better. On the other hand, I feared if I stayed in my old job part time it would end up not being truly part time. I had grown into taking care of many things there, e.g., office manager, inventory and purchasing manager, customer relations, sales and more. I had trouble taking a couple of days off without the phone ringing from work.

Then not too long after she was born we were in a Skype conversation with my in-laws in Russia. My mother-in-law, Sveta, said, almost in passing, that the director of the secondary schools was closing the English program in Luga. English would still be offered in the schools, but they had a program here in Luga which had won several awards. The director no longer wanted the headache of doing all the paperwork for that program. Sveta suggested that since I had taught English in Russia before I could sure get plenty of students.

I said nothing to my wife but could not get it off my mind. I thought, I prayed, I examined every angle and thought of every reason not to follow up, but it would not go away. Then after about two months Oksana and I were on our walk late one afternoon and were almost back home when she said, “You know, I never thought we’d move back to Russia, but I can’t get what mom said off my mind.” So we started discussing, praying, and analyzing everything together!

Several factors merged in our thoughts. One was financial. It took me a long time to learn the sales and business world, but I had finally gotten to where I was making a decent income. Yet it required a lot of time and energy, and it was not particularly fulfilling to me. Further, it takes a lot of money to live in America. I don’t mean to live elaborately.  I mean just to have a home, cars, and clothes. If my sales fell off one month we struggled. We rarely went out; we bought clothes second hand; we were careful to hold down expenses. We still had trouble making ends meet some times. Health care with three kids was a big issue. “Obamacare” was devastating to us. We made too much to benefit from it but not enough for it to be of any advantage to us. It was a heartless piece of legislation. We talked to friends in Luga, and the cost of living was so much lower. We could never live on my social security benefits in America, but our research indicated we could live comfortably on it in the small Russian town of Luga.

The second component of our thinking evolved around the political situation in America and Russia. As the political talk increased in 2015 in anticipation of the 2016 elections I grew more pessimistic about a stable political future in America. I read a book called, “The Deep State” by Mike Lofgren. The book completely changed my thinking on American politics. The author spent practically his whole career working for Republicans in Washington D.C., mostly in the Senate and mostly for John Kasich. He presented his information in a way that convinced me he was being honest. His main point was that D.C. is not run by the politicians you see on T.V. There is a whole world of invisible bureaucrats who control things. Their primary interest is in keeping America involved in conflict, war, and the sales of arms. They want a huge military budget, but not for the privates, corporals or low ranking officers to get deserved salary increases and benefits. They do not care about them. They are pawns to send into wars. These bureaucrats care about arms producers and dealers. Follow the money! The arguments about domestic issues like abortion, women’s right, etc., are primarily for show. Nothing ever really changes on those issues. The “conservative pro-life” Republicans had a majority in both House and Senate when the videos of  Planned Parenthood selling body parts came out, and how did their federal funding change?  Party differences are not significant. Neocon Republicans and neoliberal Democrats really work off the same page. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, for example, may appear to be on different sides, but do not be deceived. Look at their positions on conflicts around the world. America has gotten so used to being involved in wars around the world that most of us no longer can name countries where our military men and women are dying.  We reward diplomats for their contributions to important politicians, not for their ability to solve conflicts without the loss of life.  I wanted very much not to believe him. But the book was a best seller, and I could find no one who wrote a response proving his work was a distortion. The most chilling part of the book was when he described talking with a lobbyist for a company that made weapons. After 09/11/2001 he told Lofgren with some sense of glee, “We’re gonna make a lot of money out of this!” Lofgern alluded to Cicero’s quip that the sinews of war are infinite money. I wanted to throw up.

As the campaigns of the numerous candidates got rolling I was no longer the political junkie I had been. I faded into cynicism. And what would all this mean for us—a Russian-American family? Increasingly what was said about Russia reminded one of the manipulative paranoia of Joseph McCarthy. To fast forward briefly, since then as the election has gotten closer, I note how every time Donald Trump mentions he’d like diplomatic ties with Russia to be stronger to fight ISIS both Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media started talking of his “bromance” with Putin or claiming he was Putin’s puppet or whatever. Let ISIS keep chopping off heads of innocents. Trust the candidate, the real enemy is Russia. As I said, I’m far too cynical now to have a political purpose in making these statements. I don’t care who you vote for. But the fallout from this stupidity was I felt squeezed and quite insecure as to what would happen if we ever did want to make a move to Russia. I concluded we better do it sooner rather than later if we were going to do it. One frustrating thing is that you simply cannot trust what the Western media or especially the American media and what the political wags say about Russia. The picture they paint is a complete distortion in most instances. Whether it is Chris Matthews or Charles Krauthammer, it really is the same stuff from people who do not know the language or the culture of Russia. They’ve never listened to a full speech from Vladimir Putin, but that does not stop them from droning on. They are static in the ears of those who want to know what it is really like. But I digress.

Another consideration was our boys and how they would handle the idea of a move to Russia. When we told Roman and Gabriel that we were thinking about moving there they both immediately said they liked the idea. My sixteen year old stepson Roman was ready to move immediately. Seven year old Gabriel was positive, but still apprehensive. He feared riding on a plane, but that quickly faded. He liked the idea of being around his Russian grandparents. I started researching education in Russia. I was pleased with what I found out. We had great experiences with teachers and administrators in the schools our children attended in South Carolina. We were concerned about the increasing role the U. S. Government plays in education, however. The social agenda was highlighted later by what seemed to us the ridiculous issue of transgenders and bathrooms. It more and more seemed no issue was too “far out” for the government to step in and force what was politically correct on local school districts. That was not a problem in Russia, as I have written before. If “fluid distinctions” between the genders are what one likes, then you will not be happy with public education in Russia. Conversely, parents like us who are far more traditional are not as comfortable with public education in America. From discussions with people here in Luga about the schools we learned that children here are introduced to certain math courses and the “hard sciences” like chemistry and physics at an earlier point in their education than children in America. International scores of children in Russia are on the rise. We concluded that they would get a very good education here.

We also let them know there were things about life in Russia that were not as nice as America. We would be living in a small apartment, and they would not have their own rooms with plenty of space. There are no fast food restaurants like MacDonalds or Burger King in Luga. We rarely ate at them anyway, but they did say they would miss Chick-fil-A. Of course, an overriding issue for the boys and me was the language issue. Roman was better than Gabriel, but he did not understand the more complex grammatical aspects of Russian grammar well. I can communicate the basic things I need to, but my listening skills are not good. I have a very difficult time with “native speakers” unless they consciously slow down. Gabriel knew no Russian. So we knew struggles were ahead in those areas, and decided we will simply have to work hard. We would not let the language “barrier” stop us. Learning Russian would be tough for us, but it is essential.

After many discussions and tentatively coming to the decision to move, I sought out some responses from people I trusted. I told my best friend with whom I had taught for 14 years and had known much longer than that. He said he hated to see us move but at the same time he was not surprised and even a bit relieved. Essentially he said, “Man, you have been talking to me a lot and boring me some about Russian history so long I’m ready to see you go over there! You need to do it!” I also told our priest and wanted to get his response. He was very positive and also had a somewhat humorous response, “I’m almost envious. I say ‘almost’ because envy is a sin and I’m not to the point of sin, but I am almost envious.” I spoke to others and everyone we talked to said they thought it seemed like a natural move for us. The hardest part was the thought of leaving my two sons by my first marriage and their families. My oldest son was not surprised. He seemed to have “seen it coming” to some degree. My second son was more surprised, but he was also supportive. As I thought then, moving away from them has been the hardest part without question. I miss my boys.

We made the decision to move here the fall before we actually moved. I gave an eight month notice at work! That gave us a lot of time to prepare physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I thought maybe it was too long for goodbyes, but I see now it was not. It also allowed us to let the decision sink in and “settle” in our thoughts. I constantly examined and reexamined my motives for moving. I knew this was a huge decision to move our family of five half way around the world and essentially start over. I did not want to move until all our minds were completely certain that we should make this move. We all were agreed that this was right.

So in March I bought the plane tickets and got a better deal by ordering in advance and giving the site flexible dates to fly. Adjusting has been more difficult than we thought. Even Oksana, who was born here, has had some challenging times. We prepared ourselves for leaving family and friends for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you won’t miss them terribly. We miss my grown boys, their wives and children so very much. There are very few days we don’t recount our times with them. My brother and I had, for the first time in our lives, worked together at the same place. We saw each other most every day. I knew we’d never have that again. We miss our church and the wonderful friends we had there.

We are all glad we are here, however. It is just the adjustment has taken longer than we thought. The truth is, however, I had continuing troubles adjusting to life in America the way it is in 2016. I still love America, but the America I grew up in is gone. It is simply not the same country. The majority of Americans have decided they want those changes. No one forced America at gun point to change its cultural values, how it educates its children, and how it resolves political differences. I respect the rights of others to change values and policies with which I do not agree, and I made my decision on leaving America accordingly. America has chosen to go down a path I regret. But I don’t get to make the call.

When I lived here in Russia before I always felt I was out of place because I was an American and things were different in America. Frankly, I feel out of place in America now. I am a stranger in my own country. When I go to the market here I feel like I’m back in the world of my Grandfather Freeman selling his vegetables in Pickens, S.C. We craved that simpler, more “connected” life. We had looked forward to more natural foods and nutrition in Russia and a life closer to the soil. We have not been disappointed. The schools and the moral approach they couple with education, along with a more rigorous education, is far more like what I was accustomed to early in my life and what I believe is good. I don’t even dread the coming cold weather!

When the struggles come, as they do, we know we could not have been any more careful in our decision. We discussed every angle, we prayed over every detail, and we sought advice from people we trusted. There were positive things that drew us to Russia. I don’t think any move like this should ever been done just to “get away” from things where one is. There are going to be problems and stresses wherever you are going. I know, however, I did not want to let fear of change or an unwillingness to move in faith keep us from pursuing what we believed was best for our family and right in the eyes of God.

LIFE IN RUSSIA: ALL THINGS INCONVENIENT, IRRITATING, & INTERESTING

I have tried to point out some positive aspects of life in Russia compared to the impression given by Western reporters, politicians, and some others who have never lived here. In some cases the negative images and statements seem created out of thin air by someone who either has a political point to make or just wants to sell papers at the expense of researching the truth. Many of the descriptions I read are, for the most part, not what I and other Americans living here experience. Nevertheless, life experiences here do vary from what one experiences in America (and much of the West) in big and small ways, and anyone thinking of visiting, living in, or just knowing more about Russia needs to learn what to expect. This weeks blog is about some of the small ways life is different. I get a lot of the “what has Putin done to you lately” kind of questions, but frankly those are way off base when it comes to getting through the day with a sense of accomplishment and peace. I recognize what frustrates or irritates me may be of no consequence to someone else. And I may omit some things that seem insignificant to me, but they would be of major importance to someone else. So, with that disclaimer, I offer my observations.

I would like to mention first a few things about daily life that just make life a little more inconvenient than I selfishly wish. First, you cannot drink tap water. Now, I realize many Europeans are used to avoiding tap water as a way of life, but for the majority of Americans (like me) it is not the norm. I like being able to come in the house on a hot day, shove a glass in the freezer door for ice and then run some tap water for a quick and cold glass of water. Well, you don’t realize how nice it is until you cannot do that. The only potable water here is the water that you either buy at the grocery store or access from one of the underground pumps around town. Fortunately my father-in-law brings us water in large containers on a regular basis. Still it falls to me to fill up the smaller containers each day that we keep in the fridge that the kids can manage. The water does taste better, but how great can water taste? And there is always some spillage no matter how careful I am. Okay, that’s not something that ruins my life, but it is a part of my daily routine I have not yet accepted (without whining about it). I discovered that drinking small amounts of the tap water won’t do any immediate damage, however. I know because last week I asked my wife to hand me my glass of water on the counter. I drank it down and and then realized something was wrong. Turns out, I got the wrong glass. Roman had put some tap water in the glass that was to go in the iron. I just knew by daylight I’d be in a locked in an intense struggle with the death angel, possibly hoping he would win. But I got up fine the next morning.

Further, on the subject of water in Russia, I’m not sure if it has a lot of more iron in it or the pipes just have rust there, but a rust film gathers very quickly in our sinks and the bathtub. In one week the rust is clearly visible. You can even see it on the shower curtain. It makes cleaning the bathroom more of a task than any of us are used to.

Another inconvenience is that there are few automatic dishwashers here. I cannot say there are none. I’m sure some people somewhere in Russia have automatic dishwashers, but I’ve never seen one. For us, I am the dishwasher. We rarely eat fast food or food out of a box. My wife usually prepares a meal the old fashioned way, as do most people in Russia. So I think if she works like that to prepare the meal, I should be the one to wash the dishes. Roman was my helper, but now he has back trouble so the job is left to me. It’s not bad, but the sinks are small and the space is tight. There’s not really enough room in our kitchen for two people to work there anyway. So it is not a terrible job, but it is certainly not something I enjoy about Russian life. I had no idea how many dishes a family of five can dirty. Be prepared gentlemen.

Something else that most of us “individualistic” Westerners consider an inconvenience is that most Russian apartments have no individual controls for temperature. In the summer you open windows and you use fans. When the weather starts getting colder someone somewhere in the city makes the decision to turn on the heat. Remember, most apartments in Russia were built during the Communist period. We all get warm together at the same time, Comrade. You hope it does not get cold before they decide to turn on the heat. The good news is the stoves are natural gas and you can use those to heat with if it gets really cold too early. Our apartment is like most Russian apartments. Radiators provide the heat. Since the temperature is controlled centrally even in cold Russian winters you usually end up opening a window because it often gets too hot inside the apartment. Opening and closing the windows becomes a juggling act for the most part. It does reduce family conflicts over just where to set the thermostat, however.

The inconvenience that comes closest to being an irritant is the fact that many manufacturers of products in or for Russia have no idea what the concept “easy open” means. The brand of coffee sold here that I like comes in a vacuum sealed pack. (Forget those convenient plastic container of coffee you get in America.) You have to pull apart the top liners which are sealed tight. To do that your fingers need to be the size of my two year old daughter’s fingers, but you have to have the grip strength of a professional arm wrestler to open it. When you use a knife or scissors the moment the seal is broken the pressure is released and you have coffee on the counter or the floor or both. Further complicating this situation is the fact that we drink a lot of coffee and the packs are, generally speaking, quite small compared to those in America. Juice here comes mainly in boxes. The top is sealed tight with a screw-off top. But the top is small and on tight, so the adults are the only one who can open it. I have seen Russians put up shelves in a two room apartment so cleverly that you could get most of the stuff off the walls of a four bedroom home in America up with no problem. Then why are there no Russians who can design openings for coffee and juice in the morning that allow you to get through breakfast without wanting to curse out a bag or a box?

In addition to the inconveniences, there are some things that are irritations. These are more serious than the inconveniences. One I have mentioned earlier is dealing with workers in local government offices. Practically anything to do with official documents is a source of irritation. Rarely will you find a helpful local worker in a small town. I have been told that sometimes in the larger cities like St. Petersburg you will find helpful people. We didn’t find anyone like that here. So if and when you arrive don’t expect a, “Hello, how may I help you?” from the grouchy local apparatchik.

Second, the driving here is awful and, in my opinion, dangerous. People drive extremely fast in the city. And it makes no sense. They see the light ahead is red and still try to reach maximum speed before stopping quickly. I did see worse driving in Santo Domingo, but it is still quite dangerous here. There are a number of traffic accidents, and yet no one seems to think that if people would drive more slowly and carefully that would not happen as much. The police are out in force, but I’m not sure if they actually stop people for speeding. We like to walk as a family, and it is more than irritating sometimes. It is worse on the weekends. The locals say that is because people from St. Petersburg have dachas here and visit on the weekends. Maybe that is true, I cannot say. I can say there needs to be a cultural change toward safe and defensive driving, but I do not see that happening anytime soon.

There are other things about life here that are just, well, interesting. I find the manner of dress here quite interesting. The range is amazing. Walking to the market last week I saw three guys dressed in track shorts of various and sundry colors that were so short and looked so tacky that a Walmart greeter would bar them entrance. Then the next person I saw was a young lady that looked like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine. She was tall, attractive and her apparel was so perfect that I believe that most actresses in Hollywood would kill to look like that. Next to her in line was a babushka (grandmother) with a dress that reminded me of a potato sack. And she had on black socks. For those old enough to remember, it was like seeing Jaqueline Kennedy standing next to Nikita Khrushchev’s wife on their visit to America. Now, not all older ladies dress like that here anymore. One difference I have noticed from when I first came to Luga years ago is that many “seniors” dress quite nicely. The most interesting one was a lady I saw last week—again at the market. I don’t know her age, but I’m pretty sure she was north of 55. She had on a nice soft yellow plaid suit. Her shoes were a perfect match for the outfit, and even her glasses went well. But her hair was a light purple. I’m not kidding. Oksana was in line buying something, and I so wanted to scream, “Sweetie, look!!!” Of course I refrained. The fact that Russians dress like this does give one the freedom to wear whatever you want to the market and know you won’t stand out.

The other thing I find interesting in a good way is when you break through the rather firm Russian exterior in relationships. This happens slowly, cautiously. We have been buying fresh fruits from the same guy at the market. His name is Sasha, and he’s from Uzbekistan. At first he was all business. After a few times he would smile when he saw us coming. Now, for those who know anything of Russian culture, the smile is a big deal. So we just kept buying from Sasha. Then week before last we stopped and looked at his supply, but told him we really did not bring cash for buying any fruit that day. He said that was no problem, we could just take what we needed and bring the money tomorrow. So we took the fruit and paid him the next day. Then this week we bought a good bit from him because the days of getting fresh fruit are diminishing. Oksana gave him the 650 rubles we owed him, and he smiled and gave her 50 back. Today he sold us nectarines at his cost—100 rubles per kilogram cheaper than his usual price. Consistently I have found that in stores or shops they will tell you if their product or produce is not good. The ones you get to know will be very honest. We buy dairy products at the market at the same place from the same lady every time, and the lady carefully explains which ones have any preservatives or were prepared in a way she knows we do not like. If she does not have something she knows we prefer, then she tells us. They like return business, and it is nice to know they remember you and what kind of products you like. Then on Saturday Oksana stopped in a store looking for window treatments. They were more expensive than she thought they would be. Oksana told her we rent our apartment and do not really need the custom made treatments this store focuses on. So the lady just told her that her competitor down the street usually has more in stock and at a cheaper price. When she realized that we just rent our apartment and do not need expensive custom items she directed us to someone with better pricing.

There is one Russian tradition that my wife and I disagree on concerning the category to which it belongs. I opted for “interesting” or maybe “inconvenient.” She thinks it should go under “irritating.” So we’ll just leave this one for observation. The custom is that when one has a celebration, say, a birthday, and she is female (it really is sexist), then the “birthday girl” is expected to host the party. Now, the guests will bring gifts. It is up to the one having the birthday, however, to have the apartment or home spotless and do ALL the cooking. Birthdays are a big event here in Russia. It is regrettable that it sometimes can be quite difficult for the one who is to be the center of attention. I do not understand how someone doesn’t think, “You know the best present would be to prepare a meal for her and her family in our home.” So if you do not want to cook and clean for your birthday—don’t let the Russians know it is your birthday.

Then there are those experiences which just leave you feeling better about a place or an experience you dreaded. Today was such a day. Oksana took Gabriel to the dentist becaue of a “milk” (baby) tooth that has been bothering him. It was one of those toward the back of his lower jaw. The young lady was a pediatric dentist, and when she started talking to Gabriel Oksana explained he did not speak Russian. She asked what language he did speak and when she told her English, she spoke to him in English. Her English was not great, but she did not let that bother her and just kept chatting away! That made Gabriel feel more comfortable I’m sure. She took x-rays and examined the tooth and said it would be best for it to come out. He has had several absesses there from time to time. So she said he could come back if he didn’t feel comfortable doing it now. Gabriel was all for doing it now. He actually said, “I’m so excited! I can’t wait to have my tooth pulled!” The dentist was quite surprised to say the least. She spent a lot of time with him getting the area numb. She pulled the tooth and Gabriel never had any pain. She complimented him and Oksana on the fact that most children have a lot more dental problems or cavities at that age: Gabriel had only one problematic tooth in his whole mouth! Then she was clearly quite proud of having an American customer and told the others in the office, “I have an English patient today! Just like the movie.” The total cost was about $18.00. Then she asked Oksana if her husband taught at Erudite school. When Oksana said yes, the dentist explained a couple of the doctors from her dental clinic had teenagers in my English class. So Gabriel had a very positive experience, and Oksana came away quite happy as well. As with our medical treatment, we felt that we got very good care from a concerned and kind health care professional. And $18.00 to have a tooth pulled feels pretty good as well!

So life here, as in America, has good points and bad points. Life can be very inconvenient here sometimes. And, on occasion, it is more than inconvenient. I am aware of the image many have of life in Russia as tough, cold and unfriendly. And it is tough, cold and unfriendly sometimes. You can’t get into the other side of Russian life, however, by reading about it or watching the news. It takes time and effort. Nevertheless, there are some things and some people here that make you know that your life has been greatly enriched by becoming a part of life here and the people of this land.