BF6175A4-1B51-4D90-8EDB-D1F0A345695BToday is one of those days I am more aware of the practical differences in my two worlds than usual. I thought it may be interesting to some readers to learn more of the differences in the American and Russian cultures at this wonderful time of year. As I write this blog entry it is the day before Christmas Eve in my home country. Given that it is also a Saturday, I am quite sure when the day dawns over my world eight time zones away that there will be much busy-ness. Some cooking; some cleaning; some shopping—no, a LOT of shopping! No doubt folks are getting ready for the day that for many over there is the biggest day of the year. My unofficial, but highly scientific, research, i.e., looking at my friends’ Facebook posts, indicates that while some are glad for the relatively warm weather predicted, the majority of people in South Carolina are lamenting another non-white Christmas. I remember all those times growing up wherein it seemed every Christmas movie showed it magically snowing just in time for Christmas. Every year I kept looking. The Russians have a saying which would be an appropriate description of my annual scanning of the southern skies in my homeland for any indication of just a few falling flakes: “Надежда умирает последней” [“Hope dies last”].

Here in my other world the snow is already a reality. There is plenty on the ground and more significant snow predicted this evening. The chance of a white Christmas is very high—except Monday is not Christmas in this world. Come Monday (as Jimmy Buffett would say), I will be teaching a class. By the time most children in America will wake up Monday with great joy in the anticipation of what they will find under the tree, our nine year old Gabriel will have already completed a full day of classes at School #5.

One of my responsibilities as the “English Consultant” at our school is to give presentations to several classes on what Christmas is like in America. It is supposed to help them linguistically and also to enable them to be more “culturally aware” of life in the West. They already have some general ideas gained largely from movies they have seen from Hollywood. Of course, they’ve watched them in Russian so they don’t know the specific terms we use for some things. Further, their knowledge is fragmentary. So this week I’ve tried to bring together in some kind of meaningful narrative the elements of Christmas like baby Jesus, Santa Claus, gifts, shopping, reindeer, shepherds, and then explaining what a stable is because I couldn’t remember the Russian word. I also try to explain the extreme importance of decorations and lights to Americans, as parodied in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” It wasn’t easy. I decided not to bring up the fact that in our former neighborhood the leadership committee actually gives an award to the family with the official “Best Decorated Yard.”

I’m not sure my explanations were clear, partly because the kids didn’t speak much or ask questions at the end. Did they not ask questions because they understood everything or because they understood nothing? On the other hand, since I don’t teach these students regularly it could be the normal reluctance to risk speaking to a native English speaker. When I started the first class I asked them how they were, and a young lady in the front row said, “We’re scared!” But several thanked me when leaving and the regular teacher seemed pleased, so I’m hopeful they left more culturally and linguistically informed than when we started.

On the other hand, I want to communicate to my American readers the fact that Russia still has great holidays, and New Years Day is probably the biggest one. Seventy years of Communism took a toll on the celebration of Рождество [Christmas] in Russia. The transition was slow and mistakes were made, but the Communists were eventually largely successful in transferring many of the traditions of Christmas to New Years. So we have a New Years Tree here. We also have Santa’s “cousin,” Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). There is also the sharing of gifts of various sorts, although here in Luga the atmosphere in the streets is nothing like the madhouse the parking lot at a Mall in Greenville, S.C. could, and usually did, become.

New Years is also a time when families and close friends get together and share a meal. There are usually numerous salads and then several courses of foods. One difference in these special meals is that whereas in America everything is put on the table at once, in Russia the hostess usually brings in the separate courses as the meal progresses. More than once I just knew the meal was over, and then Oksana’s mom would bring out another meat and vegetable plate. Then at midnight we watch the President’s speech on TV. For Oksana’s family it is always an important time. It’s a bit like a “State of the Union” speech an American president gives from time to time, although I never remember an American president giving a speech on New Years night. Then there are fireworks and a general feeling of celebration just like in America. Further, schools are out and many folks have off from work until after January 9.

Russian Christmas is January 7. Before Communism Russia was on the Julian Calendar, which was observed at the time of Jesus. After Pope Gregory XIII introduced what became known as the Gregorian calendar in 1582 the process of changing over began all over the world. Russia did not adopt the “new calendar” until 1918, which was much later than Western countries. Even the Orthodox Church in America celebrates Christmas on December 25. The Russian Orthodox Church still observes the “old style” calendar, which is about 13 days “behind” the new style. Thus, since Christmas is a religious holiday, it is observed on what would be Christmas under the Julian calendar. New Years Eve would be January 13 according the old calendar, but since that is not a religious holiday it essentially makes no difference here. So by the time it is Christmas in Russia all the shopping has been done, and the gifts have been put away.

So what does our family do? Last year was our first Christmas away from America. Since it was on a Sunday, the boys did not have to go to school anyway, we observed it the best we could. This year Roman has classes in St. Petersburg and, as I said, Gabriel will have to go to school. Sadly, there comes a time to let go of the “old life.” We still sing a few Christmas carols, and we try to keep the memory of Christmas in America alive for the kids. The truth is, however, we really have little desire to try to “recreate” an American Christmas experience here. It just seems a bit hollow. We will participate in the festivities of New Years with our Russian family and friends. We’ll enjoy the meal with Oksana’s parents, and the fireworks. Then on the evening of January 6 we will go to our Russian Orthodox Church for the Vigil celebrating the Incarnation.

We will greatly miss our family and friends in South Carolina Monday. We’ll see photos and Facebook posts of so many getting together, and we will remember our years there and the big meals, the presents, and the good laughter of those times. Somehow, however, we all have become more accustomed to our life here. We will have opportunity to spend more time together as a family. I hope to have time to get some more reading and research done for a serious political blog I’m hoping to write. Our three children will get to spend more time with each other. And we hope to make a trip to St. Petersburg for at least a couple of days. We’ve celebrated these holidays in both of our “worlds,” and we are thankful for all the tradtions that have helped us become the family we are.



In the previous post I dealt with “russification,” or the ways in which we as a family have become more a part of our Russian culture and surroundings. Unfortunately, I ran out of time and my own self-imposed space limitations for a conclusion. So I wanted to write a brief “wrap-up,” summarizing what russification looks like personally here in our world of small town Russia.

First, in the simple practical aspects of life it means watching my little boy’s eyes light up when he sees a big bowl of fresh fruit in the winter, and being truly grateful for it as he picks one variety and then another. It’s the simple pleasure of putting cold sour cream over a smoking hot plate of pelmeni. On the other hand, it is walking up five flights of stairs with two large containers of water with a backpack filled with four bottles of milk on your back, determined not to show weakness by stopping and resting. It is distracting yourself on the ascent by thinking and wondering about the person who built those steps. What was life like then? Did they believe that as they finished those steps they were helping build a better industrialized and communal life? Did they see the labor of their hands as contributing to the realization of Lenin’s dream? Or were they just trying to get through the day and get home safely?

In relationships and social settings russification is learning to talk about things that matter. It’s forgoing the small talk until you know a person well enough to talk about the things that are truly meaningful. It’s reading Russian history and of those who suffered in this country for “opening up” to the wrong person—and paying the price. Then when you want to chat casually with Russian people you do not really know, you understand the “history of their silence” and you are far less likely to dismiss them simply as “unfriendly.” And that makes you all the more appreciative of Russian friends who honor you—an AMERICAN—by telling you about their lives, their personal histories and aspirations. They have “verified,” and now they trust you.

You also find yourself both defending and cursing Russia. So many reports, articles, and news clips day after day portraying life here in such a negative way. And you know from the content the authors are completely ignorant of what life really is like here. The political reports on this place—the place you and your family live—demonize Putin, Russia, the whole society here in order to achieve a political goal in America. Russia is just a political football in their “more significant” Western world. They aren’t trying to understand Russia; their villification is from a darker place. Strangely, you feel offended by their lies, like they have attacked you and your family. One of “my worlds” wants to destroy the other. But then you have to walk to the market on a sheet of ice, and being from South Carolina, it is not your finest hour. You fear the shame of being the American whose feet went flying. You now feel Russia itself is against you, and “the Russians” are all waiting for your moment of humiliation. Reading of the experiences of Napoleon’s army or the Nazis I should’ve realized – Russia is not always hospitable to foreigners in winter. Foolhardy perhaps, but I continue to press—or slide—on.

In matters of faith russification is standing in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small village, which has a beauty that defies its drab, cold, grey surroundings outside. Standing there (never sitting!), listening to beautiful singing with no instruments to guide the melody. There is no hype, no drama, no performances. It is worship stripped bare of the barnacles of modernity. Then we say the “Symbol of Faith.” All the voices expressing the historic confession of faith from hundreds of years ago. All of those voices are in Church Slavonic—except yours. You quietly say the English, under your breath, while you are listening carefully to the Slavonic so you are speaking with them. You want to say what they are saying, but of necessity “in a foreign tongue.” It means a lot of pauses. Slavonic takes longer than English. In the “mystery of faith,” you realize what is going on here is not about me; and it’s not limited to any people or country or any language. It is worship. Russification means you don’t feel so much like an outsider in those moments.



Sometimes close friends and my wife discuss the degree to which I (and our family) have become “russified.” We use the term in an informal, “loose” manner. In a more formal and academic sense it goes back to how those outside the boundaries of Russia (or Old Rus) changed—or were made to change—their manner of life and culture to be more “Russian.” In his latest book, The Romanovs: 1613-1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore stated that after the Romanovs came to power in 1613, the Russian Empire increased in size by 55 square miles (142 square km) per day. That is 20,000 square miles per year! By the end of the nineteenth century, when the era of the dynasty was drawing to a close, the Romanovs ruled over 1/6 of the earth’s surface. Obviously, a lot of “tribes, tongues, and people” had become Russian. Countries and cultures who were “russified” were less likely to rebel. Russification at that time focused on language and religion, but it included much more.

After the Romanov dynasty, Russia became the largest and most significant republic in the Soviet Union. In Autopsy of an Empire Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, states that in order to prevent the regions from cooperating with one another against Moscow, national groups—especially Russians and Ukrainians were “relocated” and scattered throughout the Republics. (Ukrainians were essentially regarded as Russian at that time.) This dispersion ensured a “Russian presence” throughout the USSR. It also helped in spreading Russian culture and language to the republics. While there was no law forcing the people of the other republics to learn the Russian language, at a practical level in order to advance professionally or educationally one had to know Russian. So both during the Romanov period and the Soviet period, one needed to be “russified,” i.e., adopt the ways of Russian culture—at least to some degree—for a more fulfilling life.

Now things are different. There is no Russian kingdom spreading further across Eurasia; there is no Soviet Empire forcing anyone to adopt Russian ways. So what about those of us who have willingly come here? How has our family life and how have I, an American living in Russia, consciously or subconsciously adopted to life here? What are factors in “russification” for a family like us who lives in a small Russian city? I emphasize that I am talking about life in a small town. This reflection is just one middle class family who moved from a small town in the US to a small town in Russia. I’m sure my counterparts in larger cities have different experiences.

Food. Of course, food is somewhat different in Russia than America, although not in an extreme way. Sometimes it is the same or similar food but prepared differently. This past week Oksana returned from shopping and had been able to purchase a variety of fruit. When Gabriel came in from school his face lit up when he saw the fruit. While eating it he commented about three times on how delicious it was. It is not that we never get fruit here in winter. But you cannot always get a big variety. While living in the warm climate of South Carolina Gabriel (and all of us) took fruit for granted. Then yesterday Oksana made a fresh salad and made homemade Italian dressing to go on it. We all thoroughly enjoyed it! Again, it is not that we seldom get fresh veggies here – just less variety in winter time. And, of course, anyone can make homemade Italian dressing in America just as easily as in Russia. (I’m aware there are many Americans who make their own dressing). But the motivation is not as strong when you have several shelves of all kinds of dressings at the local grocery store. Again our choices are more limited here. We have learned to appreciate these things in a way we did not appreciate in America. We took things for granted.

On the other hand, we live within easy walking distance of the open market, and we all love the fresh produce, dairy products, and meat we can buy there in the warmer months. Eating “all natural” or organic here is much easier (and cheaper!) during the warm months than in America. Further, Oksana is one of those people who can taste something and figure out how to prepare a dish of it. Her creativity flourishes here. The market is small, and I’ve gotten to know the vendors we buy from regularly. We had a farmers market in South Carolina, but it was large and most folks came in cars. Here most people walk to the market and buy from local folks and friends.

My own eating habits have changed since I’ve been living in Russia. I never ate sour cream much before Russia. I would put it on baked potato. That was it. Now, I eat it in soups, on pelmeni (pasta with meat inside), and various and sundry other foods. I eat it more than Oksana, who says I eat it on things most Russians don’t. (Russians do not put it in fish soup, but I do.) I also love kolbasa, a kind of Russian sausage, on a slice of Russian bread with cheese. The cheeses we get at the market are fresh, and I eat a lot more cheese than I ever have. Cheeses and breads are different from what I ate in America. Again, I’m not saying you can’t get really fresh and natural cheeses or fresh baked bread in America. I just didn’t have the motivation to search them out, and they always cost more. Here fresh cheeses and breads are “the norm.” I could not go back to eating Sunbeam or any of those processed breads now. And there is no way I could go back to Campbell’s canned soup. Salty and flavorless. My palate has become Russified.

Buying food is also different. Since we walk to and from the open market and grocery stores, we’ve become accustomed to carrying our groceries home. I never go to the grocery store or market without my backpack. In America we tried to carry as many of those plastic bags of groceries from the car into our house without having to return the 40 feet for a second trip. If we filled up the back of our Kia with food, then we had to sacrifice and make more than one trip from the driveway to the kitchen. Here we keep an eye on how much we buy because we must carry it home and walk up five flights of stairs to our apartment. Our refridgerator is smaller here, too, so we’ve just adjusted to more trips to the store during the week.

Space. Our storage space is also more limited. We do not have an attic or huge walk-in closet to store “off season” clothing, décor, etc. So we have fewer clothes and “stuff” in general. I think it is just a part of American life to accumulate a bunch of clothes and other things you don’t need. For us russification means we don’t live like that. You can’t. When winter was coming Oksana asked me what new clothes I needed. I said I didn’t NEED anything so we aren’t buying anything. You buy what you need. Nothing more.

Another impact of living in a small apartment is that not everyone has their own “space.” The boys do not have separate bedrooms. They adjusted with no problems. That was a surprise. You don’t get the space for “alone” time. Family life is—to say it in a good way–”togetherness.” Really together. All the time! I miss the small study I had in America. I could close that door and read in quiet. Now, I get up really early and go read in our living room. With a nine year old and a three year old, if I don’t read before they get up it will be very difficult to read at all. I have adapted. I read very early. Then I do things that don’t require total quiet, like practicing my Russian, later in the day.

Social. Social relationships are also different. As I have indicated before, I take long brisk walks around town. Last week I had to stop at the crosswalk for the light to change. I was standing next to a gentlemen about my age. We had just had a nice snow. My Russian is good enough for small talk, so I had this strong urge to say something about the weather or the traffic or anything! We stood there and said nothing while waiting for the long light to change. That would not happen in small town America. Americans chat. We can chat for quite a while about nothing significant. That’s how we get to know each other. Russians are comfortable with quiet. Even when we are with people we know, we don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes Americans visiting Russia think Russians are unfriendly. That is not it. It is a simple cultural difference. If there’s a need to say something, then they do. Otherwise, enjoy the quiet.

Holidays and Holy Days. As we approach Christmas we are aware of other cultural and religious differences. The main difference is that we are Russian Orthodox so our Christmas Eve is January 6. Russian Orthodox Christians follow the Julian, not Gregorian, calendar, since it was the calendar used at the time of Christ. On December 25 I’ll be teaching a class. But the difference in date is not the biggest difference. We shop for gifts for close friends here just like in America. (I’m using “we” in the traditional male “collective” sense. I am one of those men who has to wait till my friends open their presents to know what “I” bought them. Oksana enjoys shopping, and I enjoy not shoppng. It works out.) There are socials and parties, but in Russia New Years is the really, really big holiday. The giving of gifts, etc., is about New Years. Christmas is specifically Christian. It is not a cultural holiday like in America. We loved our parties and friends at Christmas in America. Nothing like it! But every American knows you have to fight to keep your focus on what Christmas is about. In another sense, I like the Russian holiday better. The “secular” stuff is for New Years. Christmas is about faith and the celebration of the Incarnation.

So we have more time for family readings and activities that focus on that. As Orthodox, we observe the “ascetic fast” for 40 days leading up to it. We change our diet; we change our daily schedule. We don’t sit in front of the TV in the evenings. Oksana belongs to a group of Orthodox women who do a “nativity marathon,” which gives ideas for families to focus on in preparation for the holy day. It has nothing to do with entertaining.

Language and History. In addition to these necessary changes, our language is changing of course. I study Russian almost every day. As I’ve mentioned before I’ve never had a class in Russian, so I’ve had to study it on my own. I still have a long way to go, but now that both boys can speak Russian we are speaking Russian in the home more. That is helping my listening skills. I don’ t think one can become “Russified” without at least being in the process of learning the language. It’s more than learning what this or that word means. It is the process of thinking and communicating in this country’s language. If one wants to learn a culture you have to study the language of that culture. When I taught in the University about the writings of the period around the New Testament I knew I had to learn the Koine Greek language as well as I could. Whether it is an ancient culture or a modern one, language is essential.

In addition to the language I continue to study Russian history and contemporary politics. Fortunately, I like reading about such things. I realized a few years ago that much of what I knew about Russian history was what I had been told by American TV and movies. So I have kept reading about Russia’s past and present. I finished the book on the Romanovs I mentioned above and am now almost through with yet another biography of Vladimir Putin. Russification is not just something that happens in daily life. Understanding the history and the bigger political developments helps one to know how things and people are the way they are. In this era with so much misinformation about Russia being spread in the West, I feel an even greater responsibility to familiarize myself as much as possible with the truth about Russia (past and present) and pass on what I have come to understand through living and learning here.

So do Russians think I’m “russified”? It probably varies depending on who you ask. The Director at our school and my doctor seem to think so. Oddly enough, they were both in the Soviet Navy for many years. So the two people who praise my “russification” the most were part of the Soviet military against whom I was told as a young man we might have to make war one day. Part of their positive appraisal is because I try to speak Russian with them, and the other part seems to be their amazement at and even professed admiration for an American who would come and live in Russia because he wanted to. My perspective on life seems to have convinced them I’m russified. I’m glad for that. Of course, I can see ways my own process of russification has become clear to me. But I do not think of myself in any sense as Russian. I’m an American, and I don’t try to be one of those people who “identifies” as anything other than who I am. Life here has changed me for sure. There are perspectives and ideas about things that are very different from what I once thought. I have learned to appreciate the positive things about this country and culture and endure those things I find terribly inconvenient and or just plain crazy. It’s Russia. Russification means you don’t try to make it like your own country. When I lived in America I believed learning and accepting our culture and language ought to be a part of anyone’s experience who immigrated to America. I was amazed at people who came to America and then constantly ranted about how great life was where they came from. We’re here. We have our times of missing our family, friends and aspects of our lives in America. But then we move on again with an appreciation for our lives here.


Last week I was invited to speak to two classes of Russian students (teenagers) on basically the same topic I wrote about in my last blog—differences in secondary education in Russia and America. Obviously the talk went in the opposite direction of the blog because I was explaining the American system to Russians. When I began the class I asked them how many had ever communicated with an American before. None of them, except one daughter of a personal friend, had. These students have been studying English in this small Russian town for years but have never talked to anyone whose native language was English. I didn’t know whether to feel honored or worried!

I was amazed at how attentive they were. There were about 20 present, and they showed a lot of interest in how the experiences of young people in America are similar to and different from their own experiences. I talked for over an hour and a half to each class, and no one whispered, wrote notes, or fell asleep. When I finished I thanked them for being so attentive. Three young ladies seated directly in front of me all looked surprised. The older one said, “Thank you! We’ve never heard any of this before!”

The next day I noticed on my blog feed that the number of views had gone up dramatically. This was about three days after I posted it, and the number of people viewing it more than doubled. WordPress allows me to see what country the people are from who read it. The increase was due to a far larger than normal readership in Russia. In fact, there were more Russians who read it than Americans. I have explained that I started this blog for friends in America who asked me to write about life here. Now I have discovered that not only is my blog being viewed by people I don’t even know in America, but it also has been translated by someone into Russian. I am not saying that my blog is a blockbuster nor that I am even close to being almost nearly famous. I am saying that there is far more interest on the part of both Americans and Russians in how life is viewed here by an American than I thought. Americans seem interested in what life—normal and political—is really like here, and Russians are interested in how an Amerian perceives life in their country.

There were some negative comments on the Russian blog, particularly on a place where there was a mistranslation. Now, I’m not critisizing whoever translated my blog. He or she did a far better job than I could ever have done! There were, however, criticisms of my logic at the point where the mistranslation occurred. K-5 “kindergarten” in English was translated as детский сад (“children’s garden”) in Russian, which is really “daycare” in America. The English term kindergarten, however, refers to an actual public school class for 5 year olds in a public elementary school. Both the Russian and English are based on the German, which does mean “children’s garden,” so the mistake was completely understandable. Again, I’m not critisizing the translator or the people who thought my statement was “illogical” at that point. What I am impressed with is that the people reading it were reading it so carefully. They realized something was wrong. I think it is important to let American readers know that someone believed it was important for other Russians to read about educational differences in Russia and America. Then they went on to go to the trouble of translating other blog entries on my site. I am thankful to whomever translated it; I am also thankful for people who read, analyze and think through what I write—even those who disagree.

What frustrates me is presently we are also seeing a “crackdown” on the information available to Americans about or from the people of Russia. My wife’s Twitter account was taken down by the folks at Twitter. Acting General Counsel of Twitter, Sean Edgett, recently testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee that they look into anyone who logs on from Russia or has a Russian IP address. If anyone has a Russian phone number or e-mail address they are also suspect. Then last week the Russian news outlet RT had to file as a foreign agent in America since it is supported by the Russian government. It also lost its Capitol Hill press credentials. Other government supported news outlets from China to London do not have to register or suffer any restrictions. Further, no one from RT was allowed to appear before any representatives to answer questions or complaints, nor was there any mention of false reports coming from RT. Their affiliation with Russia was sufficient reason to restrict them. Google has introduced algorithms that reduce the possibility that information retrieved will come from Russian sites. In the area of politics it was widely reported that President Donald Trump did not meet privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin while both were in Vietnam because the U.S. press would have immediately turned it into a news story that Trump was caving in to Putin.

The major news right now is focused on the fact Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election has led to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, admitting he lied to the FBI about his communications with Russia before Trump took office. According to information recently released, in December of 2016 Flynn apparently had two conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In the first conversation he was responding to a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block a vote in the U.N Security Council to censure Israel. Obama had decided to abstain, rather than veto, the vote. So Flynn tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Russians not to support a censure of Israel. So if there was any “collusion” going on, he was colluding with the Israeli’s to convince the Russians to back off. On Dec. 29, not long before Trump would be sworn in as President, Flynn spoke with the Russian Ambassador about a second matter. Obama had placed more sanctions on Russia because of the claim Russia had interfered in the election. Obama was a lame-duck president with no hard evidence that Russia interfered, but he was determined to impose more sanctions anyway. While on vacation Flynn called Kislyak and in the course of the conversation he requested that Russia not escalate tensions between the countries as a result of the sanctions. When Flynn reported the conversation he did not mention that request. The NSA had provided the FBI with transcripts of the conversation, so they already knew what Flynn said before they questioned him. Thus, they concluded he was being dishonest with the FBI. Two issues are not addressed. First, Flynn was charged under the Logan Act of 1799 which prohibited private citizens from interfering with U.S. foreign policy. Flynn was the National Security Advisor designate. Treating him as a “private citizen” in the sense the act intended seems disingenuous at best. When you are the designated Natural Security Advisor scheduled to take over in three weeks, the “private” part of your citizenship has been nullified. Interestingly, until now no one has ever been charged with anything under the Logan Act of 1799.

Second, what did any of this have to do with what Mueller was appointed to do, that is, investigate Russian interference in the election? The election was over before either conversation took place. I find the most likely explanation to be Mueller knows there is nothing to be found on Russian interference, so he has chosen to “keep fishing” to justify his appointment. There was a time you could depend on liberal Democrats to raise a furor of such exploitative violations of the judicial system, but their animus toward Donald Trump goes far beyond their concern for juridical integrity. When it comes to Russian relations right now, the rules are being made up as we go along.

I have mentioned on several occasions that I grew up right in the middle of the Cold War. One of the main criticisms of the USSR was that it did not allow freedom of the press. Those poor people over there could not really get access to different sources of information so as to make informed decisions for themselves. The criticisms were justified. I have learned since moving to Russia that people over here complained about “no truth in Pravda [The Truth] and no news in Izvestia [The News]” back then as well. They were not being duped by their government. Now I live in Russia, and I access news from a variety of nations and a variety of sources. The pretense that the mainstream media in America is open, free, and objective is ridiculous—and most Americans agree. I would contend a majority of Americans no longer trust their press or their “government agencies.” Trump’s bald claims of his intent to “drain the swamp” in reference to the powers in Washington would not have rung true with so many if it were otherwise. The recent decisions that any news coming from Russia must be censored only exacerbates the mockery.

Why are the politicians in Washington so afraid of anything that hints at Russian influence? Do they believe my wife’s tweets about Russian recipes are really coded information that will crumple the government in Washington or, God forbid, cause some American to form a deeper friendship with a Russian? Is our government really afraid of lies coming from RT or are they afraid that if Americans hear reports from RT, those reports are going to have the ring of truth that is lacking in the MSM in America? Why is the American government so afraid of information? Does Col. Jessup’s (Jack Nicholson) line, “You can’t handle the truth!” describe how our own government thinks of us Americans today?

Writing blogs can become an exercise in self-absorption. You write about yourself and hope you get a whole lot of people interested in you. I pray to God I do not succumb to that approach. I have no delusions of grandeur. I know I am an unknown person living in a small, somewhat obscure, Russian town. I do believe, however, that there are powers way beyond me who put forth every effort to make sure my two worlds never come together in a relationship that is mutually beneficial. That seems to be the only issue right now that both Republicans and Democrats agree on. I am far from having a big enough platform to stop them, but I refuse to yield. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, someone’s listening.


I am sometimes asked about schools here in Russia. How do public schools in Russia compare to schools in America? How are they different? I have mentioned various aspects of how our kids have done in school all along. I have not, however, given much of an overview of how public secondary schools in Russia differ from their American counterparts. I have also said that we have been basically pleased, but I have not given too many details about the school system itself and how things differ here from my “other world” in South Carolina. Of course, I have to summarize without getting into too many details. I apologize to my Russian readers.

Traditionally, children have begun school at the age of seven in Russia. Fairly recently that regulation was changed to six and a half. Still children here start public school at an older age than kids in America, where most begin with five year kindergarten. Russian school goes through the eleventh, not the twelfth grade. Elementary school extends from grades 1-4; middle school is grades 5-9, and high school is 10-11. Usually the elementary, middle and high schools are at the same physical location, whereas in America they can be miles from each other. The schools are also normally designated by numbers. Gabriel goes to School #5. Occasionally you will see a school named for someone famous, e.g., “Imeni Pushkina” is named for the famous Russian poet. In South Carolina we had Chandler Creek, Skyland, Blue Ridge, etc. They keep things more basic here in Russia. The numbers go up into the hundreds in large cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow.

All schools start in Russia the same day: September 1st is the “Day of Knowledge” throughout the country. Children dress up and take flowers to the teacher. There is a big presentation at the school. Everyones meets outside in the school yard and children gather by classes. There is the formal commencement of the school year as we parents look on. It is pretty impressive. I cannot fathom how much money is spent on flowers for the Day of Knowledge all over Russia! Of course, that is just my Western capitalistic curiosity. Here they cannot fathom why it is that American schools in even the same state start on different days. I really do not have an answer to that question. Also, here transportation is up to the families. In South Carolina there was always the option of the school bus. Kids here usually walk or take a city bus. And now you even see a number of cars outside the schools as parents drop their kids off at school. When I first came here years ago, you rarely saw that. Since Gabriel does not attend the closest school he walks to the bus stop every morning and takes a city bus. Usually his grandfather picks him up and brings him home. If that is not possible either Oksana or I walk to the school so he’ll have someone to walk home with. If we’re in a bind she sends a taxi. The cost is a little under $2.00.

Elementary school children have the same teacher for all the years they are at a school. Gabriel’s teacher, when he started last year, was Galina Mihailovna. She will be his teacher until he leaves elementary school. In our case that worked out well. He really came to love his teacher last year. She taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! She knew our situation and was very good for Gabriel. So when he started this year there was very little anxiety. He knew he was going to have the same teacher and basically the same classmates as last year. I suppose there are advantages and disadvantages compared to changing teachers and classmates every year, but for us there were clearly more advantages.

Students keep the same group of teachers for the different subjects in middle school and high school. That is, they have a different teacher for math, science, history, etc., but the set of teachers does not change. They will have the same teacher for math from the time they start middle school all the way through high school. It is the same for all courses. Now, if there is a severe problem then the parents can ask that their class have a different teacher. The “norm,” however is for them to keep the same set of teachers.

The program of study is pretty much a “lock-step” program. There are no electives. Everyone takes the same courses. The major courses and the grades they are taught are: History (5th-11th); Social Studies (6th -11th) ; Russian Grammar (2-11); Russian Literature (5-11); Foreign Language, usually English or German (2-11) Home Economics (1-11); P.E. (1-11); Art (1-7) and Music (1-7). There are also reading and penmanship courses for the younger children, of course. Math is also taught every year, and geography, biology, physics and chemistry start during middle school and must be taken every year in high school. There is also one course wherein the students are taught survival skills, military training, and First Aid (7-11). Since Roman’s classmates had already had courses he had not, we had to use tutors to “catch him up” last year.

Overall, I think most Americans would see this as a pretty rigorous course of study. Also, I would add that schools here are about academics. There is no equivalent really to the “Friday night football,” like in America. Also, the “social issues” of sexuality and gender identity are simply not considered the task of the school system in Russia. In America Roman had an openly gay teacher in the ninth grade. That is not allowed in Russia; President Putin is often critisized for this law in the West, but I do not see it being changed.

Another difference is that in elementary school students are allowed to have their cell phones with them. Students are allowed to call home when they need to. Again, I can see why American schools do not allow this practice. For us, the Russian way was a big help. When Gabriel was struggling last year with understanding a word or assignment, he could just call us. Sometimes his teacher would get on the phone and talk to Oksana to get the confusion cleared up. Also, Galina Mihailovna keeps her cell phone on her desk at all times. Oksana does not hesitate to call her if there is something she needs to pass on to her. She also promptly answers her phone and never seems distracted by the call. We don’t abuse it, but it helps to be able to do so when needed. She told Oksana she does that because it is always possible that parents need her promptly. Last week Gabriel had had some stomach problems, and Oksana called after school started to tell his teacher that he may have to excuse himself or even come home. Also, while we try not to take advantage of her kindness, Oksana has to call her sometimes in the evening to clear up confusion over an assignment. There is a very close “working” relationship between parents and teachers here.

Unlike in America, Gabriel does not get out of school the same time every day. We are given a schedule. He usually has four or five classes, depending on whether he has P.E., which he has three times a week. It is more structured than his physical education class in America. Students change into their exercise clothes and go through some fairly rigorous exercise routines. Still, even on his longer days, Gabriel gets home sooner than he did in South Carolina. Schools start about the same time in Russia and America, but Gabriel is usually home either at 12:30 or 1:30. While he gets home earlier, he has comparitively more homework here than he did in America. Further, even if it were not for the language issue with us, parents here almost have to work with their kids on homework. There is a lot of it, and it can be complicated. Oksana says it is like a combination of public school and home schooling here! She’s joking, but it is a fairly accurate description.

Finally, at the end of both, middle and high school, students in Russia have to take a rigorous set of standardized tests. They may have passed all their courses, but that does not mean they will pass these final standardized tests with flying colors. It is a big hurdle and an important one for getting into university. This created another problem when Roman started to school here. In Russia, you actually receive a certificate when you finish middle school. They will not accept you to high school if you don’t have the official certificate. Roman had finished the ninth grade in America, but naturally, had no certificate or diploma to show for it. Therefore, he had to repeat the ninth grade. Now, this was not a significant problem because we realized he really did not have the math and science courses which the other students had had. Finishing middle school here is obviously more significant here than in America. They even have a prom at the end of the year!

One reason for the certificate and prom is because college is an option after middle school. If a student qualifies by passing the college’s entrance exam and gets accepted into a college, he or she can forego the last two years of high school. A college in Russia is not the same as a university education. A college education continues your general education courses you would have taken in high school, but also provides the student with courses in his or her chosen vocation. So to go to college, you must qualify academically, but you also must be sure of your chosen profession—at least in general. Roman has known for some time he wanted to go into some sort of design, architecture or construction science. He shadowed my second born son in America who was a Construction Science major at Clemson and now is a project manager for a company that builds multi-housing units. Roman’s career aspirations were confirmed after seeing this work up close. So he will go to college for four years. At the end of that time he will have completed the same general education requirements that any high school student would take, but he will have already been taking courses pertaining to his career choice as well. The college is an architecture and civil engineering college. After completing his degree requirements there, he will have the option of going into the work force if he finds suitable employment in his field or he can continue with getting a higher education in a university setting.

The “switch” from the American school system has presented us with a few challenges, yet we are pleased. In addition to getting what we believe is a good education, Gabriel now communicates easily in Russian. Roman’s courses at college have been quite rigorous, and he has had to study hard. His classes go from 9am to 5pm every day Monday through Friday, and then he goes for half a day on Saturday. Yet both boys are happy with their schools. Certainly you will find parents and students here who are not happy. Some here believe it is too rigorous, and many believe the standardized tests are becoming more “Western.” For example, they have multiple choice answers now, which they did not have before. One had to write out one’s answers with no options listed. From our experience so far, however, we have been pleased.


ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF HAL CLARENSOVICH. Yesterday was neither normal nor remarkable. It was different from normal in the sense that we had to go to a private medical clinic for our physical evaluations for teaching at the English school. Even private schools are required to make their teachers and workers obtain certification that their health is “clean.” So we met our colleagues there at 9:00 a.m. I had neither breakfast nor the second cup of coffee, so it was a sacrifice.

The routine involved going to several different offices (actually “cabinets” in Russian, which includes the examining rooms). There were quite a few other people at the clinic as well. Many of them had similar forms to the ones we had so I concluded something about their jobs made them get clean bills of health also. I may have noted before Russians do not really “get in line” for waiting on things like buses, trains, or entering a doctor’s office. So we gathered outside the doors, and when each new person arrived they would ask who is last and know they go in after that person.

In some cases the examinations can be, well, very personal. I’ll spare my readers the details, but sometimes they ain’t comfortable. A rather humorous exchange happened when Oksana and I were walking past an office where no one was gathered, and the nurse opened the door indicating the examination room was not occupied. So Oksana quickly grabbed me and starting explaining that she and I needed to go in together because I’m not fluent in Russian and may not understand some terms. The lady began immediately shaking her head no, so Oksana got a little more insistent. In the meantime I looked at the sign on the door. I’m not fluent in Russian but I do know the Russian word for “Gynecologist.” So I’m pulling away, the lady is gently shaking her head, and Oksana continues to explain that we always go in together, and it’s never been a problem. Well, it was a brief encounter that ended with much laughter when Oksana noticed the sign.

Eventually we went up to the next floor, and my first exam up there, while not pleasant, went fine. They drew four viles of blood! We stepped out to the next office, and realized it was the office of the surgeon who I had visited about a year ago for the removal of a growth on my back. His nurse came out and told us he was not available, however, because someone had had an accident and apparently had broken her leg. He would have to treat that emergency first. So we moved back downstairs and waited outside another office. After finishing there, we moved to another. Unbeknownst to me the surgeon, Dr. Tkachenko, had come down to check for an update on the person with the broken leg. As we were sitting outside one of the offices I looked up as he was walking quickly down the hall to get back to his office. After taking about three steps past me, he stopped in his tracks and turned around. He looked at me, smiled, and greeted us warmly. He then motioned quickly for us to follow him. As we were walking back up the stairs he asked Oksana if I had learned to take off my shirt “the Russian way.” As I recounted to FB friends at the time, I discovered Russians and Americans do not take off pullover shirts or sweaters the same way. We had a good laugh together, and I was surprised he remembered. He took us into his office and examined our joints and checked our blood pressure and pulse and we left. Well, after stamping our documents multiple times. Nothing is official in Russia unless it has numerous “official” stamps.

As we went back to wait on another office to open. I thought about what he did. Some would say he gave me preferential treatment. I don’t think Dr. Tkachenko believes it was preferential treatment. It was hospitality to a foreigner. Many Americans have noted that Russians do not seem to smile much. That isn’t true. The truth is they don’t smile without reason. When he saw me his smile told me not only he remembered me, but he was genuinely glad to see me. I’m an American; I’ve done that “American smile.” You know, when you smile broadly at someone and all the time you are thinking, “Do I know this guy? Who is he? Gosh, I don’t remember his name!” Russians don’t do that. He took me up to his office immediately because he wanted to make me feel a sense of being welcomed here. This is certainly not the first time I have been treated with genuine hospitality since I’ve been here. Contrary to popular belief, most Russians don’t harbor animosity toward Americans. They may not like what our government does, but they do not hold individual Americans—like me—responsible for what politicians do. So the next time Rachel Maddow rolls her eyes and sneers when she says, “Russians,” just remember Maddow knows far less about Russian politics than she thinks she does and next to nothing of life in this country or its people.

After getting back home two and a half hours later, we ate lunch. I went in our bedroom and started getting ready for my class that evening. Marina Grace came in and laid down on the bed. She’d had the sniffles and hadn’t been feeling well. After lying down, she said, “Daddy, can you come be with me?” So I got up and lay close beside her and let here watch “Masha and the Bear” on my phone. (Masha and the Bear is the only Russian cartoon I’ve known to become a hit in America.) People often ask why I took early retirement and moved to Russia. I’ve explained that there are several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that we can afford to live here without me working dawn to dusk, and if my little girl wants me to lie down with her in the afternoon I’ll be here to do it.

After I was lying there about an hour she still wasn’t asleep, so I decided to get up and do my Russian lessons. My laptop was right at the head of the bed so I could still be with her. Oksana and I tape my lessons. She says a sentence in English and then pauses to give me time to say it in Russian. That lets me know if I have learned the vocabulary. Then she repeats the sentence in Russian three times, pausing after each one so I can practice saying it repeatedly to make sure I have the right pronunciation. I have more recordings than I can count! Each lesson lasts 5-7 minutes. Before I had finished the second one Marina was fast asleep. It has happened before on several occasions that when Marina hears both our voices that lets her fall gently to sleep. I finished reviewing my Russian lessons, then turned to prepare to teach my late afternoon class.

The class I teach goes from 4:30-6:00 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays. Since it was a grey and cold Friday I wondered how many would be there. I have 14 students registered in my class. This is larger than most classes at the school. It is a private school, and they like to keep the classes small. But I’m the only native speaker so they made an exception. I teach teenagers, mostly 15-17 years old. They don’t get any school credit for the class or any grades. Some are there to work on getting their certification from Cambridge University. Our school is accredited by Cambridge, and they can qualify at various levels of proficiency. Some are just there to learn English. Parents pay, and students work so they’ll learn English. They all showed up for class. They were a little restless to start with but everyone settled in, and we had a great class. They worked hard. So after being in their regular school, they leave and come to my English class. Then they have to get up and go to school on Saturday morning! Yes, students here in high school go six days a week. I find that impressive.

I’ve been hearing about the topic of “American exceptionalism” again. I’m never comfortable talkng about myself, my “group,” or my country as “exceptional.” That doesn’t mean America doesn’t have some great people and great characteristics, as I addressed in a blog last month. I recall, however, the words of the Scottish Chaplain Oswald Chambers on a different topic, but his point applies more generally. As he advised those under his spiritual care he said, “Don’t seek to be known as a man of prayer. Seek to be a man of prayer.” Telling others how exceptional we are as individuals or as a country probably indicates we’re not as exceptional as we may suppose. I can tell you that in my unremarkable day, I was again the recipient of genuine hospitality offered by a doctor who had been very busy with a potential real emergency and a whole lot of other people waiting on him. Because the financial pressures of life here are less than in my home country, I was able to be beside my little daughter as she faded off to peaceful sleep listening to her mom and dad’s voice. I got to work with a room full of students who put forth the effort to study outside their regular school hours and activities just to learn another language. I think that was a pretty exceptional day.



OUR TRIP TO FINLAND. As I have mentioned before one of the laws of Russia is that most visas require us non-citizens to leave the country every six months. You don’t have to go far at all. Just cross the border. You don’t have to stay gone long—just get your passport stamped and you can re-enter, and you’re good for another six months. Somehow, in a way I do not understand, this helps Russia to keep check on us “foreigners.” I am here on a “private visa,” which is good for three years, but I still have to leave every six months. After that I can get temporary residency permit, which means I will not have to leave for three years.

Marina Grace and Gabriel also have to leave every six months. Our paperwork has been acccepted for processing in order for them to become Russian citizens. We won’t get the approved paperwork back until next April, but we’re optimistic that we can get them citizenship after that. There are two advantages to them getting citizenship. One advantage is that they don’t have to go out of the country with us every six months. The second advantage is huge: Russia has a program which issues “Maternal Capital.” When you have more than one child, born between 2007-2018 to a mother who is a Russian citizen, you qualify for financial rewards from the government. Russia has a demographic problem: There are not enough people here. The primary factor was the huge number of people killed in “The Great Patriotic War” (WWII). Over 19 million Russians were killed in that war. Further, after the Revolution, abortion became a standard form of birth control. The population has never recovered. Russia is almost twice the size of the United States, but it has less than half the population. You can only apply one time for the Maternal Capital, but the more children you have the more money you receive. Since we have three children we are eligible for 1.5 million rubles. There are some restrictions on how you have to spend the money, since it is intended to pump money back into the economy, but they are rather “fluid” restrictions. It was very difficult getting the paperwork approved, but obviously it is worth it in the long run.

Six months ago we went to Finland for our out of country journey. We all enjoyed the trip so we decided to return there. I realize that making two trips to Finland does not make me an expert, but I thought some people may be interested in what Finland is like. I’ll break it down in terms of disadvantages and advantages.

The only real disadvantage we found was the reality that international travel these days is a pain. International travel with small children is beyond a pain. The flight itself took less than an hour, and our children did fine. Marina Grace sang the whole trip. It is getting through the terminals that is problematic. We decided to make it as simple as possible. Since we were leaving on Thursday and returning Saturday, we decided we could just stuff our backpacks full and have enough clothing. The only “luggage” we took was Marina’s stroller, which is kind of large. We didn’t know if we had to check it in as luggage or we could take it to the plane—or maybe someone from the airlines (FinnAir) could take it on board. We were given three different answers from airline personell. Oksana had to go back and forth before learning that they would just take it on board for us. Getting through security and then passport controls in a timely manner proved frustrating. No one treated us poorly, but just the process—especially with a three year old—is difficult. It was the same way coming back. We were exhausted even though, as I said, the flight was short. During all that screening, we did have one humorous incident. When I was unloading the containers with our computers, phones, etc., the lady asked me something in Russian, and I answered her. But then she kept talking as I was turning away, and I didn’t understand. I asked her to repeat it, and she said it again in Russian. Oksana only heard the last part and turned to me and said, “I guess they can’t speak English here!” The young lady said, “Oh, I thought he was Italian.” Not sure if an Italian could’ve understood her any better, but I’ll take the fact she thought I looked Italian as a compliment!

Now to the good information. We found Finland to be a very nice clean place to visit. You can even drink tap water there! Oksana went down to buy bottled water at the hotel, and the lady said, “You know, you can drink tap water here.” Oksana said she was sorry, but she just couldn’t bring herself to drink tap water. The lady replied that when they go elsewhere in Europe the Finnish people hate not being able to drink from the tap. We flew to Helsinki, although we never actually went into the city itself. We got a nice hotel at a reasonable cost fairly close to the airport in the town of Vantaa. The hotel we stayed in the first time we came was full, so we had to choose another close by. We actually liked it better. On both trips the hotels provided a free shuttle to and from the airport for the 15 minute drive. Our room was not fancy, but it was nice, clean and very spacious. The four of us had plenty of room. The hotel had a sauna, restaurant, and provided a nice breakfast for free in the cafeteria.

There was a huge mall about a one mile walk from our hotel. We enjoyed walking through a large park to get there. Our children loved the mall, and there were plenty of things for children. We had our first Mexican meal since leaving the States at a restaurant in the mall. It was very good, but when I asked for chimichangas they had no idea what I was talking about. So it wasn’t exactly like eating Mexican back home. Oksana also found a nice shop for buying Christmas presents for her friends. The kids loved the huge toy store.

After returning to our room and resting a bit after our trip to the mall, we decided to walk in the opposite direction that evening to see what we could find. We felt very safe walking. There were many other folks out walking on the large paved trails. The streets were well lit so we had no trouble getting around. We did get surprised when we got to the strip mall. There were many nice stores, but only one restaurant, which was a Japanese buffet. In America, a place with that many stores would have had five restaurants I’m sure! The food was adequate, but it wasn’t great. Even though it was the only restaurant in the whole complex it was only half full of customers on a Friday night! I guess Finnish people don’t eat out much.

The thing that makes Finland an easy place for Americans to visit is that everyone we met spoke fluent English. In the airport, and of course at the hotel and restaurants, we had no trouble communicating. But several times we stopped folks on the park trail or in the mall and asked for directions or for other information, and every person we asked spoke English with no problem. Speaking English really helped at the airport. When you enter Finland you must check in of course. You don’t just present your documents and walk on through, however. They ask you very specific questions about why you are there, where are you staying and how long will you be there. Obviously we flew in with many Russians, and they were required to answer in English (or Finnish). On our first trip there the Russian lady in the line next to us did not speak English well. They started asking her very pointed questions about the purpose of her trip. As all of us who try to communicate in a language other than our native tongue know, the more nervous you get, the harder it gets to communicate. The gentlemen working in this area do not smile and do not seem very patient. Fortunately, they recognized that my English was that of a “native speaker,” and I had our passports, as well as our papers showing our hotel registration and return flights. So we had no problem, but I did feel for the Russians who were left to struggle.

I cannot speak or understand the Finnish language AT ALL. Both Oksana and I thought it sounded, well, very different from Russian or English! It sounds very “tonal” and has numerous double vowels. When we got on the bus that took us out to the plane, I actually felt comfortable that everyone was speaking Russian. I can’t understand it when everyone is speaking at once like that, but at least it was Russian. I thought about how my life is so different living in another country and visiting places that I would have never thought of in earlier stages of my life. There are difficult aspects of “life abroad” to be sure. I admit to keeping an “open ear” hoping perhaps I’ll hear an American voice. (I never did.) On the other hand, I cannot imagine not having had the experiences I now am having. I live in a world that is so very different from the one in which I was raised. Not understanding clearly what someone says to me or looking closely for little “cultural cues” to see how I should react to different situations has become “second nature” to me now.

So overall I can recommend Finland as a nice and interesting place to visit. The prices for food and lodging are reasonable, and, given how many folks know English, it is quite easy to get around. I think we’ll be going back again in the future and hopefully see more.

The positive feelings about our trip over the long weekend were shattered, however, when we woke up Monday morning to the news of the shooting in Texas. As I recounted in my blog after the Las Vegas shootings, being able to get only partial news and being away from other Americans seems to intensify the feelings. This one hit me even harder. All such shootings, bombings, etc., are horrible. I cannot deny, however, the fact that this one happened in a small Baptist church in a small Southern town impacted me more because, well, small Southern towns and small Baptist churches was my world growing up. Seeing the pictures of those individuals, of all ages, who had been brutally murdered brought me to tears. Then the larger questions of how will American culture change as a result of these continued senseless mass murders will no doubt have to be addressed. Right now, I, like many others, have to wait with a heavy heart. The one positive and encouraging video I saw was of the pastor and his wife, who lost a daughter as well as many members of their church “family,” when they spoke to the press. They spoke with wisdom and faith even though their hearts were broken. I reminded myself of St. Paul’s words, “if it is only in this life that we have hoped in Christ, then we are, of all men, most to be pitied.”