Probably I shouldn’t blog about politics ever. And usually I can hold my peace. Because I believe 99% of it is hype to fill up the time between commercials on the 24/7 news channels.
But I have been thinking about this blog post for a few months now, so here goes.
Did Russia meddle with the US elections? Here is my answer: I have no idea. And neither do you.
But perhaps a better question would be “Would Russia meddle with the US elections if it had the chance?”. Um, well, if given the chance, I wouldn’t put it past them.
And I am quick to add, I wouldn’t put it past the United States of America to meddle with nearly every significant foreign election in recent memory.
The second question would be “what is Russia trying to communicate to America?”. I will take a stab at that in a moment.
I was convinced Hillary would win. I didn’t think for a second that Mr. Trump had a chance. Shows how well I understand politics. Even with my misguided views, I was invited to do an interview on the eve of the election with Russia’s Rossiya-24 channel.
After the interview, I was heading home on the commuter train when I received a mysterious invitation to “An event at an undisclosed location. The location would be announced only immediately before the event was to begin.” I sort of thought that the “event” might include me digging a shallow hole in the woods. But my wife said, “That’s cool. You should totally go”. So, I did.
It’s sort of difficult to describe what the event was. I guess it was like a pro-Trump/pro-Kremlin election watch party. The speeches seemed to be very pro-Trump and anti-American government. But the main idea was a simple belief that Trump was the one who could improve Russia-US relations. I was asked if I would like to give a speech. I explained that, uh, I felt that probably nobody there wanted to hear my opinion on Trump. Although I was no supporter of Hillary either.
It was an interesting couple of weeks around the elections. It seemed the Russian people were euphoric about Obama’s exit and were convinced that Trump would improve the relations between our nations.
During that time, I talked to a lot of folks. And I guess I could say this is a list of things, in no particular order, the Russian people would want America to know (now that we have your attention).
Not saying that I agree with all of this, but I think it is helpful for Americans to understand. Because I have heard many of these points not just from Russians, but from folks I’ve met from many nations around the world.:
Russians want better relations with the United States. It also seems they want it on their terms, just as America (1st) wants these improved relations on its terms. Not sure how that is supposed to work, but I believe there is a real desire for improvement of relations. Even at the awkward pro-Kremlin watch party, I sensed a sincere desire for improved relations, and a real concern for America.
It’s strange for you to be indignant about any meddling in your elections. No one outside of the United States believes that the US isn’t getting their fingers in all of the pies.
The price of oil being attached to the dollar is unfair. That’s a really long conversation. Google it, if you’re interested to learn more.
America’s democracy isn’t really a democracy. Elections are controlled by corporations, etc.
And maybe this is the moment when I can mention perhaps the one thing I don’t love about Russia. That is, I don’t love it when Russia blames America for things. I don’t love it, because I believe that Russia is a powerful nation, so the actions of other nations shouldn’t affect it. And in years past when my Russian friends would ask me “what Americans think about Russia”, I would shrug my shoulders and say something like “usually they don’t”.
But now, America, a superpower, and maybe we could say the superpower, is doing the same thing- blaming Russia for its own problems. Maybe we could pause for a moment and look at ourselves, instead of Russia. And maybe, just maybe, we can stop pointing fingers at Russians, Republicans, and Democrats.
Because although we are all sinners, if we make a little effort, we might just be able to begin working together again.
Who knew that achieving productivity in Russia could be as simple as a one word vocabulary?
I’ve noticed from time to time that America and Russia have different understandings of time and planning. This actually does not mean that the people of one nation are more productive than the other. Rather, the triggers for productivity are different.
If you don’t know the triggers, you might find yourself becoming slightly frustrated from time to time. For example, if you are a foreigner in Russia and have met with your Russian co-workers in a planning meeting, you might be surprised that the result of the planning meeting is everyone urgently drinking tea, leaving the office to get some kind of urgent spravka of a personal nature, and in general, urgently engaging in every activity under the sun, except applying the action points that were just discussed in the meeting.
At this moment, you might feel lost and sad, and wonder at which point in your life journey, you took the misstep that left you destined for a meaningless existence in The Motherland.
You might then bitterly gaze out your office window at the overcast skies and watch the sleet pouring down on the slushy streets… and then you notice that Russians are working. And if you watch American news, you already know that Russians are a tireless bunch, manufacturing weapons, hacking foreign political parties, pumping oil out of the ground, trolling heads of state, and all of this in spite of the weather.
And back in your native Idaho or Iowa, you know that people are productive too. And they are productive after careful planning sessions. But here you are, all alone, in the middle of Russia, feeling like you must now personally fulfill all of the activities described in said meeting. Why aren’t your meetings in Russia translating into practical results?
It is questionable whether any meeting is necessary anywhere in the world. However, long planning meetings in Russia are probably less useful than their American counterparts, and are a complete waste of time if you don’t know the one word you must know in order to achieve productivity in Russia.
Here is a list of the One Word You Must Know In Order To Achieve Productivity In Russia:
Срочно. Since this is a hastily written blog post on a Saturday morning, I don’t have time to translate this word into English for you. But urgently learn the trigger of bustling activity and manufacturing in Russia. That trigger word is срочно. Because unless you urgently learn the word срочно and it’s meaning in English, you will be left perpetually and gloomily staring out your office window. All alone and feeling a sense of urgency.
There is an old Chinese saying that goes something like this: “Nothing is done in the Soviet Union without the word срочно”.
But here is the rookie mistake that most Foreign People In Russia make when employing the word срочно. These silly Russian expats think that you should have a meeting, make a plan, and then wait for everything to become hopelessly urgent before waving this magical wand of Russian manufacturing. Nay, I say!
Instead, you must begin the whole affair by explaining in the most gravest of terms that this work is срочно. Become emotional about the deadline. Then watch in amazement as a vigorous flurry of labor commences, unlike anything ever witnessed in the Western world. I’m not kidding when I say that you might even notice that your co-workers will begin to get their friends to help in the task at hand, often absolutely free of charge.
Because Russians work hard, they just generally see that they should apply themselves to what is urgent and brings results… not to what is endlessly discussed.
Ok, folks. This blog post has nothing to do with Russia. It has to do with America. More specifically, it is related to my hometown of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. I’ve been able to visit Cuyahoga Falls a few times over the past year, and the city has a plan that is blowing my mind. [Beginnning rant now]
This is a picture of my dad, taking a stroll on Front Street, circa 1943:
You see, that’s what people did in the 1940’s on this pedestrian street, they employed the decidedly unique human trait of bipedalism and went outside houses without cars.
Fast-forward to 2017: The city of Cuyahoga Falls is planning to spend $10 million to transform Front Street from a pedestrian walkway into a two lane road. This is in an effort to boost local business due to the decline of foot traffic, and also, presumably, because Cuyahoga Falls doesn’t have enough two lane roads.
Probably, I should just go to bed now instead of writing this, but I really have to get this off my chest.
A few weeks ago while in Ohio, I decided to go down to Front Street myself to do some in-depth investigation. I immediately discovered the problem. There aren’t enough parking spaces on the parking deck:
The next issue that can only be overcome by tearing out the pedestrian walkway, is the distance from the parking deck to the nearby shops as is illustrated in this snapshot taken from the parking deck overlooking the bustling market district:
I feel like I’m revealing an issue of national security when I write on the internet that the distance in the above picture is too far for the average American to walk.
Joking aside, the distance from the parking deck to that store (used to be a uniform supply, I think) is LESS than the distance from the average parking space at Wal-Mart to the entry greeter.
But you know, sometimes on a windy winter day, I think to myself, “I might just drive down to Front Street and fill my work uniform order right now. That would sure just hit the spot.”
I mean, call me crazy, but perhaps the issue isn’t the road. It’s people who think 30 yards is too far to walk AND the fact that there are pants that don’t fit right instead of fancy over-priced cupcakes and hot chocolate at the end of this story?
Fortunately, there is a theater on Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls:
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem there would be anything showing. Hello, Cuyahoga Falls! I mean, I understand many of us Fallsites would prefer not to spend our Saturday evening watching a chamber orchestra, or even listening to one. But don’t we at least have a comedian or two who could put on a show and save the walkway from the mayor’s jackhammers?
Now, I know what those of you who are not from Cuyahoga Falls are thinking. You’re thinking I’m not telling you the whole story. You would be right. I forgot to mention there is a beautiful river next to the street with a boardwalk (for crying out loud, overlooking a series of waterfalls). I also failed to mention that the parking deck is absolutely free of charge. Oh yes, there is also a nice fountain. And there is Metropolis Popcorn and the Whistle Stop. I mean, I love the Whistle Stop. I went there like five times when I was a kid and bought some model rockets. I think it’s super cool that the Whistle Stop is still there. But it’s not every Saturday afternoon that I need a model rocket, so the Whistle Stop isn’t going to draw my business on most weekends.
As for Metropolis Popcorn, I was too depressed to walk inside. Probably nice folks. But I’ve never been sitting around at the house and then thought to myself, “I’m going to go for a drive downtown to eat some popcorn”. Usually, I’m thinking the opposite: “I’m going to eat some popcorn so that I don’t have to go outside”. Also, I saw the sign, but couldn’t see the Metropolis.
I think the buildings down on Front Street are pretty cool looking:
But more importantly, in almost everywhere in the world, cities are tearing out their roads and putting in pedestrian streets. It’s more fun, it’s healthier.
Yes, Front Street has its issues, but it’s not because of a 50 yard walk from a parking spot. And these are issues that won’t be remedied by a two-lane road.
I live in Moscow which has a lively city center full of walking streets. I enjoy the sounds and the people on those walking streets, even in the winter. It’s a part of the culture both here and in much of the world, and it is a culture that many cities are working to attain.
So, Mayor Walters, I hear you’ve been paying some shiny consultants good money to tell you the difference between a pedestrian walkway and a two lane road. But I invite you to come on over to Moscow, and I will be happy to give my advice, free of charge. Please don’t turn Front Street into a motorway. You can save a lot of money for the city and boost business. You just need to make bipedalism great again.
Have you ever met someone who wasn’t just an interesting person, but was deeply fascinating? That was my experience when I first met Dmitry Mikheyev. It was almost by chance that we met, and about 30 seconds into our conversation, I turned on my phone to record our conversation for a video blog (If you speak Russian, you can watch it here). Although I have only met him once since, I believe he is someone that I can call a friend.
Mr. Mikheyev did mildly scold me, while we were drinking tea in my home, for continuing to speak to him in formal Russian; that is, adding the additional respectful form of his patronymic name, Dmitry Fyodorovich, asking jokingly if it was because of his age. The truth is, although I don’t agree with all of his viewpoints, I have a deep respect for Dmitry Fyodorovich’s personal history and experience, and I recognize he is someone that I can learn from.
In a time where there doesn’t seem to be an end to tension in international relations, I thought it would make sense to move away from the usual lighthearted content of this blog to present a point of view that is perhaps a bit different than what we would normally read or hear in America.
First, a bit about Dmitry Mikheyev: He was born in Siberia before being was accepted as a student at the prestigious Moscow State University, eventually earning his Ph. D. in theoretical physics. At the time, he had some questions about the way that the Soviet Union was run and began running a “discussion club” on these topics. For example, as he explained to my children, “In the Soviet Union, we didn’t have personal property, the government owned everything… including us, and I didn’t like that”.
In 1970, Mr. Mikheyev attempted to escape the Soviet Union to the West, but was caught and sentenced to six years of prison in the notorious Perm-36 prison facility “for betraying the motherland”. In 1980, he found himself living in the United States. I think for most Americans reading this post, this might seem like a typical story that we read about from time to time in the newspapers, and we might already be thinking “this sounds like our kind of guy”. But what happened next is what makes Mr. Mikheyev’s story so fascinating.
Mr. Mikheyev soon found himself at the Hudson Institute, advising top US security officials on Soviet-US relations. It was here that he became disillusioned with America, as he explains it “for Biblical reasons”. “Christian Americans believe in a devil who can never change, correct?” asks Mr. Mikheyev. “Well, do you remember what President Reagan called the Soviet Union? He called it ‘the evil empire’. We were compared to the devil, and what does that mean? It means we can never change.”
Let’s take a few minutes to read one of Mr. Mikheyev’s essays to hear about his experience and point of view in his own words. But before we do, it’s probably worth mentioning that Mr. Mikheyev did not want me to share his thoughts at first. He said “These are religious thoughts, and I know that these issues can be touchy in America.” I was able to convince him that although many will probably disagree, and in fact those of you who know me well will understand that there are points here that I don’t agree with, it might be constructive for his opinion to be heard. So, please read this with the understanding that this is not an opinion that he is trying to push on you.
Why twenty-five years after great ideological victory in the Cold War, Russia is still portrayed as an intrinsically reactionary, imperialist power, a major threat to Western civilization?
Secularists insist that imperialism and undemocratic proclivities of Russians are “in their blood,” i.e. genetically predicated, while religious fundamentalists believe that Russia has been divinely destined to be an “evil empire.”
The decisive moment of my reckoning of the question came on August 22nd of 1991, when the
Soviet “Evil Empire” collapsed. At the time, I was at the Hudson institute, a conservative think tank in Indianapolis. I was ecstatic to see the totalitarian regime taking its last gasp and dying right in front of my eyes. The spectacle of the Evil Empire’s agony didn’t bring much joy to my colleagues though. To my incredulity, they were confused, if not upset. Not only neoconservatives were despondent, liberals seemed downhearted as well.
For me, the Cold War was over. Russia had shed her empire and abandoned her messianic drive to spread Communism all over the globe. She radically changed her socio-economic system and was now striving to ‘integrate into the ‘civilized’ world. Many of us Russian-Americans were elated and eagerly anticipated a new era in Russo-American relations, a partnership of two great nations. We dreamt of these two countries embracing each other and working together toward a more peaceful and prosperous world.
Personally, I dreamt of playing the role of a bridge builder between them. I was dismayed to find out however, that American intellectual and political elites, had a totally different take on the situation. In their eyes, Russia remained essentially the same old Soviet Union if only downsized. As General William Odom (director of the NSA during the President Regan administration) argued, yes, the Evil Empire was experiencing a temporary setback, but one day it would recover and get back to oppressing small freedom-loving neighbors. Soon intellectuals and politicians were scrambling to find signs of Russia’s undemocratic drift and growing “authoritarianism and neo-imperialist ambitions” while Cold War veterans were back in the trenches, arguing that the policy of containing and curtailing Russia should continue. Russia’s resurgent aggression had been allegedly demonstrated in Chechnya, in the “invasions” of Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria… next are the Baltic states. Only NATO could save them from the Evil monster.
So, they kept expanding NATO toward Russian borders. Serbia, Russia’s close ally in Europe, was bombed and dismembered. Separatism and “freedom fighters” of Chechnya and other “oppressed peoples” were covertly supported.
Here is a cognitive dissonance. Why would a victory over your mortal enemy be so disappointing or even distressing? Think of it. You fought a long and exhaustive war and finally defeated the enemy. Russians surrendered en masse to the ideology of liberal, democratic capitalism. Why would you sit down and grieve and then resume fighting? It took me a long time and considerable effort to solve this cognitive puzzle. Now I seem to understand the mindset of these warriors. My life-long interest in the worldview and mentality of Bolshevism shed light on the fundamentalist mindset. It is this mindset, I believe, that underlines Russophobia and hostile policies toward the New Russia. The roots of the American fear of Russia are much deeper and more generic than Communist ideology or “Russia’s innate imperialist ambitions.” They have religious and existential overtones, and I am afraid they are likely to endure for a long time.
In my view, ultimately, three tenets underline the fundamentalist mindset: 1. the good-vs- evil dualism, 2. the doctrine of predestination and 3. apocalypticism (belief in the pending end of the world). Taken together, they explain fundamentalists’ existential hatred, fear, and hostility toward Russia and, I dare say, other Christians as well.
The polarization of everything appears an obvious and universal rule of the world: plus and minus, pull and push, light and darkness, male and female, left and right. It is tempting to apply this dichotomized approach to living things, particularly humans: material and spiritual, life and death, right and wrong, moral and immoral, beautiful and ugly, happiness and suffering, liberal and conservative, saved or not saved. Scientifically speaking, such reductionism has nothing to do with the real world. That’s why fundamentalist are so hostile toward science.
Dichotomization permeates the political philosophy of fundamentalist politicians. Neoconservative ideologue Robert Kagan has admitted, “Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil, between friends and enemies.” President George W. Bush Jr. himself articulated this Manichean worldview in the wake of 9/11 when he proclaimed, “Either you’re for us or against us,” and so did most Republicans.
For fundamentalists, every political issue– indeed, every disputed aspect of national and international life– is a struggle between good and evil, God and the Devil, Hell and Paradise.
There cannot be a middle ground, a partial solution. Either you are in heaven or in hell. There can be no such a thing as “between,” at least until the final judgment. They see every individual as an agent of either good or evil forces. That is to say that the evil individual is incapable of good feelings and actions (love, compassion, sacrifice). For them, the gray, middle ground is a wicked sophistry, an intentional mudding of waters. This is one reason why they dislike intellectuals. The latter, they think, tend to confuse the ‘gut feeling,’ the infamous common sense. They are “commonsensical” and, in fact, they are afraid of drowning in innuendos, different views and theories. Uncertainties, fuzziness and vagueness are all the Devil’s way of trapping simple folks’ minds in doubts and vacillations. Good and evil don’t mix, or, more precisely, if they mesh, evil prevails. Hence, solutions, they suggest, are binary – more government or less government, more regulation or less regulation, raising taxes or lowering taxes, fighting or flying. Striving for compromises and balanced decisions are seen as wishy-washy muddling through, a sure recipe for defeat and failure. Leadership is associated with resoluteness and decisiveness, not with thoughtfulness. A quick result is valued over an optimal solution; toughness over patience; action over dithering. Once the enemy has been identified, he has to be crushed with overwhelming force. Negotiations with “the evil guys” can only corrupt the pristine souls of the good guys. Fear that the bad guy can outsmart the good guy leads to reliance on brute force, hence, tendency to “shoot first, ask later.”
They reason that Evil cannot be reformed, only destroyed. Because Russia was not occupied as were Germany and Japan in 1945, only crippled, its evil nature was not eradicated. Hence, Russia will recover and try to reassert her power over former client states. “Forget the Islamic threat, says Robert Kagan, the coming battle will be between autocratic nations like Russia and China and the rest.”
Why, on earth, Russia and China? After all, China is the world’s chief manufacturer of consumer goods and a major sponsor of American prosperity. Russia is a European Christian nation and the world’s biggest producer of energy, as well as a leading producer of grain and raw materials. The customary theory of economic rivalry, market and resources driven imperialism, is too shallow and materialistic for those who think in cosmic terms. In the “epic, decisive great battle” with the Devil, only these two powers can field armies mighty enough to confront the forces of Jesus. And Russia, not China, will lead the way.
Why? Because fundamentalists are intrinsic racists. They read the Old Testament as justifying the inequality of races. They think that God created different races and people for a purpose, with different roles in the world. The whites are destined to rule, blacks – to be slaves and servants, others — to be laborers. They dismiss Chinese as an “inferior race” lacking the capacity for original thinking, creativity and the leadership potential of a white northern race. These obedient laborers are not strong and creative enough to stand to the superior race of Anglo-Saxons.
Russians, on the other hand, are white, hardy; they have proven themselves capable of crushing several of the most powerful military forces of time. They are smart and creative, which fundamentalists associate with a stamp of the Devil, and they possess a massive nuclear power. Therefore, only Russia can fulfill the Prophecy — rally, equip, and lead the hordes of God’s enemies. Remember what the former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated: Russia is “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”
The second key tenet of fundamentalism is apocalypticism i.e. the belief in the end-time destruction of the world. Some 40% of Americans say they believe that events described in the Book of Revelation are going to come true. They think that current skirmishes with Satanic forces must one day culminate in the decisive contest — the Battle of Armageddon in which Russia (and possibly China and Muslims) will constitute the army of the Antichrist.
Logically apocalyptic and good-vs- evil mentality constructs are connected to the same zero-sum logic… the material world (humans included because flesh is material) is so fundamentally flawed (corrupted) that it cannot be improved and must be destroyed.
I dare to theorize that fundamentalists, such as Jerry Falwell, rely mostly on the Old Testament while the progressive evangelicals – on the New Testament. Fundamentalists hate the progressives’ sympathy for many politically liberal positions, their rejection of violence, militarism and injustice, and blasphemous reinterpretation of the Sacred Scripture.
According to the fundamentalist worldview, only totally misguided liberals can advocate universal morality, i.e. morality equally applicable to all people and all cultures.
To them, universal morality is nonsense at best, and a devilish plot at worst.
Indeed, how could freedom and justice be equally applied to good and evil people or nations?
How could the Devil be allowed to exercise freedom to corrupt, convert and enslave good people? Justice toward evil means injustice toward the good, because giving to some means taking from others. Such conception of freedom means liberation of good people and the constraining of bad ones. The good-vs- evil mentality logically and inevitably leads to double standards – for those who are good, and those who are evil. In dealing with evil the ends justify the means. Love, mercy, compassion, proper procedures and rules…such do not apply to the minions of the Devil; anything short of total annihilation therefore should be regarded as a flagrant betrayal of God.
Also fundamentalists criticize other Protestant denominations for compromising with Darwinism. Here I suggest that the doctrine of predestination contradicts evolution toward the better of both individuals and nations. Indeed, if individual’s destiny is preordained before he/she was conceived by God, his/her evolution is impossible. Then, again, I see inconsistency here: does God preordain someone to be a thief or a murderer? Or, perhaps, God constantly changes His mind? In short, the doctrine of predestination seems incompatible with evolution: either you believe in the existence of an immutable God’s plan for the world, or God created the world, set the rules, and then removed Himself from it.
The Cold War standoff had perfectly fit the apocalyptic and good-vs- evil mentality of fundamentalists. There was an implacable “evil other” and the looming nuclear Armageddon.
Clear and simple. Today’s situation is somewhat more complicated. Still, as then, their political belief system rests on phantom primordial fears of global dimensions. In my view, only such paranoia can fully explain why American military expenditures exceed those of the rest of the world.
My discovery of the racist, violent, imperialistic, ignorant, conspiratorial and paranoid America was shocking. It contradicted my entire ‘theory’ of American culture and civilization.
The greatest threat to America isn’t the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, authoritarian Russia or Communist China. The greatest threat to peace and prosperity of humanity is fundamentalism, especially Muslim and Christian. It is fundamentalists’ irrational fears and hatred, fanaticism and apocalypticism, their global ambitions and zeal, which represent the greatest threat to the world and America itself.
Quoting the neocon guru Robert Kagan, America is a “dangerous nation,” and it will remain so until this powerful minority of the American empire is convinced of its supremacy, exceptionalism, and divine right to rule the world.
Indeed, when a country as powerful as the USA is so scared and angry, humanity is in deep trouble. It has already been dragged into the war of fundamentalists of the three major monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity), each fighting for its own version of the Heavenly Kingdom.
I am imagining that perhaps some of my evangelical Christian friends might read this text and take some offense, or you might want to shout, “That’s not what we meant!” Perhaps you want to quote some Scripture and “help” Dmitry understand. I would understand your indignation. I am an evangelical Christian, and I do believe in good and evil, absolutely- this has created some friendly, yet serious conversation, that I have been privileged to share with Dmitry Fyodorovich.
But none of that is why I have posted this. Instead, let’s consider that if we are accusing others of being evil, we are insinuating that we are good.
As Solzehnitsyn famously wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Let’s consider how we have come to a point of believing that we are so exceptional as a nation, a thought system that doesn’t fit well with the basic Christian virtue of humility.
Can Russia change? Of course, it can, and it has. So has America. Regardless of your political leanings, you will probably agree that America’s standards and expectations of its leadership have drastically changed over the last couple of decades. So, yes, we too are changing, but perhaps not for the better.
At the end of the day, regardless of our political or religious leanings, if we don’t believe that our enemy can change, then any pursuit of relationship is a waste of time. So, America, please know that the world is listening to you right now. Are you blaming and fearing “them?” Or will you take a moment to listen, understand, and change?
One of my favorite things about Russia is that what would seem extreme in America, simply gets no attention here. A simple example of this is that when the ice is melting in the spring, despite the many warnings in the newspapers and on the radio, the Russian ice fishermen remain loyal to their task.
I run a Russian language blog, called the American. Writing is what I enjoy, but my readers on the Russian language blog informed me that they prefer video. So, I started running a Russian language vlog.
My videos are usually shaky and low quality (something I intend to improve), but my Russian friends and “readers” seem to enjoy them. At the same time, some of my non-Russian speaking friends have complained that there are no English subtitles. So, I decided to fix that in this video where I talk about ice fishing in Russia in the spring.
For English subtitles, click on the “CC” button on the bottom of the screen. One of the most famous phrases here is “Russians don’t give up”, and I think this video is some proof of that. Enjoy. 🙂
This elite grocery store security force, code named OXPAHA, is comprised of a countless mass of men and women, held together by their fierce commitment to unblinkingly observe potatoes, grechka, kvass, and kefir being rung up at the cash register, sometimes 24 hours at a time.
It is the OXPAHA who holds the final authority on proper grocery store entrance or exit. And if you are new to Russia, you might find yourself in quite an unpleasant tangle with this foreboding authority figure. He or she is not paid for critical thinking. His or her gainful employment is based on following rules.
Thus, as you read this, please bear in mind, that you are not to think. Instead, you are just to follow the rules. When entering or exiting a grocery store in Russia, don’t think. Just do.
Here’s the good news. Most Russian grocery stores have different rules.
However, if you are unfortunate enough to break any of the rules, the OXPAHA will helpfully scold you, in Russian. This educational process of public shaming is unpleasant, yet highly effective. So, no worries, you will probably never break any rule more than once.
Let’s get started:
Obtaining a shopping cart or basket: As soon as you exit your car, or otherwise approach the grocery store in question, casually scan the exterior. Are there folks already finding their shopping carts? If so, join them. This is a “get your grocery cart outside” kind of Russian grocery store outfit. If you’re planning to buy a bunch of groceries, that’s good news, because it also means you can bring your grocery cart (or “trolley”, depending on where you’re from) back outside to your car. Alternatively, beware of grocery stores in shopping centers that have a set “trolley freedom zone”- you don’t want your trolley to be halted by the OXPAHA a few hundred meters from your car. Wondering how to free your grocery cart that is chained to all of the others? A 10-ruble coin will do the trick:
Yes, if you just slide a ten ruble coin into that little slot, you will have freed your grocery trolley and be on your way. On the other hand, I have a lot of folks writing in and asking, “Andy, but what if I don’t have a ten-ruble coin?”. That’s a great question, and I’m glad you asked. You see, “I know a guy” who has tried American nickels and quarters, 5 ruble coins, and perhaps a few other metally type objects, to no avail. It appears that the trolley will not bow to any counterfeit measures, although I once did see a guy approach the trolley rack with something other than a ten-ruble coin and walk away with a trolley and an expression much like when the cat has swallowed the canary.
Fortunately, the authorities have foreseen a situation wherein a prospective customer would NOT have a ten ruble coin in their pocket. That is why they installed these:
You can insert your 100 ruble or 500 ruble bill and get a big old pocketful of ten ruble coins that will certainly make the cashier blush with pleasure at checkout.
Please also bear in mind that if you are in a grocery store and see a trolley that appears abandoned, it is not. Don’t take it. The owner of the trolley did not get it so easily and will not be happy if you swipe it.
2. Entering The Store: No, not so fast! You successfully have your grocery trolley in hand, but what should you do if you happened to bring some luggage? Well, the easiest thing would probably be to take it back home, or put it in the “boot” of your car. But what should you do if you are carrying a bag, a backpack, or a suitcase, but do not have a car or home? Well, naturally, this would indicate that you have come to the grocery store with your sticky little fingers to “borrow” the goods on the shelves while covertly placing them in your Samsonite.
Happily, the authorities were not to be foiled by this rascally behavior, and they also understood that not all prospective customers would have a car or home. So, they installed lockers. Once you have arrived in the store, scan the entrance for lockers. Do you see some? Great! Put your items in the locker, lock it, grab the giant key that is attached to the hubcap and get on with your shopping. Don’t see a locker? Perhaps you see this?
Take your various items, place them in a plastic bag. Now seal the bag with the hot iron. This is a do-it-yourself service. Don’t burn off your fingers.
But what should you do if you have a bag, but don’t see lockers or a plastic bag melty machine, and you don’t have a car or home? That’s a great question. The answer is simple, just walk into the store acting totally normal. You should be totally fine. Nothing to worry about here. However, be warned that the OXPAHA now have the right to search your bag, but only if you don’t act normal. So, be sure to just dissolve into the masses and act normal. Everything, really, should be just fine. Don’t worry about it. Just act normal.
3. Leaving The Store: There are two very different scenarios here, based on your situation:
You Found What You Were Looking For And Would Like To Checkout: Good Job! Do that then! Now, the cashier will have a few quick questions for you. She or he will want to know if you have the store’s loyalty card. After you’ve been in Russia awhile, you will need to carry around a backpack for all of the stores’ loyalty cards. You can avoid this question by simply stepping up to the checkout and handing them the card. Next, at most grocery stores, they will want you to do a quick trigonometry estimation. The question is this: “How many bags do you need?” The best part about this situation is you won’t usually see any bags, and when you answer, the cashier will then ask if you want those to be big or small bags. I usually just go with “four big”. If you have underestimated, you are allowed to purchase as many bags as you want, even at the end of this maths exercise. If you have overestimated, breathe easy, they are cheap, and now you have plenty of trash bags for the week.
You Didn’t Find What You Were Looking For And Would Just Like To Leave Now: STOP! No one is getting out of here just like that. What does this place look like to you? A center of free trade and commerce? No! You may exit the grocery store in Russia in any way you wish, as long as it is in the exact spot that is not prohibited. In all cases do NOT walk out through the cash registers, unless you fancy an encounter with the OXPAHA. In most cases, do NOT walk out the way you came in. Instead, look for a small sign, conveniently located at the far end of the store that says simply Выход без покупок”. Approach this narrow gate. Now, walk through it, without making any eye contact with the OXPAHA, breathing normally, and acting completely normal. You should be just fine. If you see no sign that says “Выход без покупок” then approach the entrance that you came in, making sure the OXPAHA sees you, then ever so calmly walk through. Some stores allow this kind of riotous exit behavior. However, some don’t. So, if the OXPAHA tries to stop you, drop everything and run! Just kidding. Please don’t do that. Instead, speak your foreign native language calmly and with a smile. I congratulate you, you are about to receive an OXPAHA education.
Great, now you’re out of the grocery store in Russia and can get on with your day! But what to do with your shopping trolley? Well, there are two schools of thought here.
Benjamin Franklin’s School of Thought: We all know that “a ten-ruble coin saved, is a shopping trolley away”, so take that trolley back to its station and get your coin back.
The Leviticus School of Thought: The children of Israel were thus commanded: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.” From this we learn that it is also okay to leave the shopping trolley at the edge of the supermarket parking lot as it will provide some gainful employment for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.
Choose which of the above you prefer. And then we will know what kind of person you are.
Good job! You have now successfully entered and exited a grocery store in Russia. In no time, it will seem normal to you. Later on, it will seem right. Then you can be like my wife. A few years ago when she entered a Wal-Mart in America, she stopped and asked the greeter (whom she apparently mistook for an OXPAHA) where she should put her purse. After a lengthy pause, he smiled and said, “You can just walk in!”.
If you would prefer some friendly and helpful local orientation over an OXPAHA education, check out Expat Flat Moscow. They not only provide Moscow’s premier expat real estate service, but also provide local orientation, to make your move to Moscow as comfortable as possible.
Will I feel at home in Moscow? Regardless of how appealing a job offer is for an expat, this is naturally one of the first questions they will mull over when considering whether to accept or not. And particularly for those adults who have lived the expat lifestyle before, Moscow is a treasure chest of culture, entertainment, and an easy place to make new friends.
But the question of being at home in Moscow for those who move as a family with children can be a bit more challenging. Children live through this expat experience much differently than adults, and their parents understand this and deeply desire for this international experience to be a positive memory and building block in their children’s lives.
Corporations that are recruiting expat talent spend significant amounts of money to attract personnel, often for executive positions. With these large investments in foreign staff, it is very much in the company’s interest to make their expat executive a success. And as many company’s are discovering, it is foolish to dichotomize the executive’s success and his family’s ability to not only survive, but thrive in the expat environment.
It’s simple really. In a classic and perhaps banal situation, if the children aren’t happy, the wife is not happy, and if she is not happy, then dad is, at best, distracted at work. This is clearly not in the family’s nor their employer’s best interest.
As I write this, I was remembering four years ago when I was working through what would be the best lifestyle for our family in Moscow. My oldest son, who was 8 at the time, came to me and gave me his opinion on our lifestyle and then ended his points with, “This is my childhood!”. I thought that was remarkable insight, and I have never regretted following his advice in the matters we were facing.
But the core issue here is that there is never any good reason to sacrifice the children’s childhood for the parents’ career choices. And it is because we believe that it is possible for a family to not only survive, but thrive in Moscow, Expat Flat is thrilled to provide not only our core real estate service, but also expat lifestyle support and consulting to make the relocation process to Moscow as smooth as possible for both individuals and families.
And with that, I was thrilled to find what was admittedly for us, a hidden gem in Moscow. I recently became acquainted with the Swedish School in Moscow and found this introduction to become quite remarkable.
Why was a visit to this school, hidden in a quiet part of the Metro Universitet neighborhood, so impressive? Because, as I spoke with the Director and toured the school, it was clear that not only was this high quality education, but the school profoundly understood the needs of expat families. And with that I saw that the Swedish School had become a home for Scandinavians in Moscow.
4 Noteworthy Expat Points For The Swedish School In Moscow:
1) The school follows the Swedish curriculum and is staffed by qualified Swedish teachers, yet is run by a Parents’ Committee.
It is perhaps because of the flexibility and unique solutions that are required for expat families that many Americans in Moscow have turned to home schooling. However, I wonder if more of these American expats would reconsider this option if they could have more influence in a school’s program.
2) There is a weekly assembly attended by parents where the pupils present their work.
Many children of expats will adopt the expat lifestyle themselves. I think there is a good chance that at least a couple of my four children will, and for anyone who chooses an international path, communication is perhaps the crucial component for success, almost regardless of the specific chosen career. This weekly assembly at the Swedish school hones the children’s communication skills while building a strong sense of community.
3) There is a coffee break room, not for the teachers, but for the parents.
I’m guessing there is a break room for the teachers as well, but the school is clearly proud of a comfortable room that is reserved specifically for parents to be able to enjoy a few minutes together after dropping off their children for school. Again, this resounds of community and home and mutual support among expats that is a fundamental point for them to flourish while living in Moscow.
4) It just feels like a home. The students and teachers seemed focused on their tasks, yet relaxed. I had just arrived from a busy day in the usual hustle and bustle of Europe’s largest city as I toured this oasis of serenity, and perhaps felt a slight disappointment that neither I nor my children are Scandinavian.
I take off my hat to the Swedish School of Moscow as they continue to endeavor to not only provide high level education, but play their crucial part in making both the children, their parents, and their parents’ employers prosper. As goes the children’s expat experience, so goes their parents’ success.