Escape from America: Moscow, Russia
To start with, please tell us how long you've been in Russia? Why did you decide to move there?
I have been in Russia since the summer of 2014. In fact, I came a week or so after Ukraine shot that passenger plane down and blamed it on Russia.
In the beginning, I would half-joke that I was the first refugee from America, but nowadays when Russians ask me - and they often do - I usually make vague noises about wanting to travel, mainly to avoid discussing it. As it turns out, it’s a surprisingly personal question that leads to more questions and me giving long-winded explanations where I feel like I’m pontificating or lecturing them. And frankly I have gotten tired of hearing myself talk.
Part of the reason I moved here is that I have an escapist personality, but the other part was political. I grew up southern Alabama, in a left-wing family, which back then was rare to the point of non-existent in white society. My father especially was sympathetic to the Soviets/Russians, Cubans and Palestinians and having gone to Catholic school all my life, I took the moral lessons to heart, if not the religious ones. I myself had my political awakening after 9/11 when I was just 20 years old. By the time 2014 had rolled around, I pretty much hated the US system and felt powerless and angry, so I made the conscious decision to leave. At that time, I figured that Russia or China was my best bet, but China seemed too foreign, so I went to Russia instead.
How old were you when you arrived in Russia? Did you come alone? Had you been to many countries before? What were some of the shocks, if any, of finally living there?
I went to Russia alone right after my 33rd birthday. My then-boyfriend of three years drove me to the airport and I never saw him again.
Before moving here, I had only traveled abroad a little in Europe; Ireland a few times, Greece, Scotland, Spain and France but never more than as a tourist. Since then, however, I have traveled much more widely. But I had never been to Russia, let alone Eastern Europe, and actually I knew little about it outside politics and clicking around on Google Earth.
The first shock was actually right after I landed. Just leaving the airport, I was surprised at how dumpy everything looked. The apartment buildings, specifically those built in the late 80’s early 90’s look almost burned out. I remember staring really hard at these horrible edifices trying to see if they had actually caught fire and thinking it was impossible that so many apartments could have burned. And the cars were all covered in mud too. In fact my car is so dirty right now, you can’t even read the plates. It turns out that when you combine an extraordinarily harsh climate with frugality, overcrowding and the utilitarian aesthetic of the 1970s, everything looks pretty dismal.
Another shock but in a good way was how wonderful the food is: small, flavorful vegetables, real, raw dairy with loads of fresh cream that gently sours after a week instead of putrefying after three months, raw honey by the bucketful and the bread-making is an artform. I lost 15 lbs within a couple of months. But I want to be clear here, while the food is wonderful, the cuisine is bland and bizarre in equal measure. “Herring Under a Fur Coat” is as unappetizing as it sounds (and looks).
Another culture shock was that as an American smiling at everyone all the time, it took awhile for me to adjust to the grim expressionlessness of Russian people. Actually, I’ve never really gotten used to this. The flipside is that since most interactions with Russians “feel” rude, I have become far less sensitive when people are actually being rude.
You came to Russia because you hated the American system, but what did you expect from Russia that the US didn’t have? After nearly eight years in Russia, have you found it?
I understood that there were no real alternatives to international neo-liberal/neo-fascist capitalism but I figured that Russia was, if not opposed to it, at least pulling in another direction. Russia was also really big and wild and - I secretly hoped - also lawless.
And really, I wanted to escape the vicious rigamarole of living in the US. For me, life there was like being a rat slowly dying in a glue trap; the more you struggle the more mired in it you become, and if you just go limp, you wither and die just the same. And even if you do everything right and never question and follow all the rules, you still get a raw deal. Mysteriously “autistic” pincushion-kids, garbage food, debt slavery, thuggish cops, endless insurance policies, fees, fines and taxes that nickel and dime you, and now, beyond my wildest imagining, transvestite sexual clowns reading to your kids in the public library.
So what I expected was to leave that life behind, and eight years later, not only did I find it, I am living a muddier version of the American dream in a Moscow suburb. My son is unvaxxed, the social services are broad and of good quality, the food is clean and natural, and our finances are so simple that we are building a house and paying in cash, and by that I mean stacks of rubles passed in envelopes and no bank involvement at all.
You mention the grimness or rudeness of Russians, at least on a superficial level, but what about the people you’ve gotten to know well? What sorts of friendship have you been able to cultivate there? What are the barriers, and how is your Russian?
I’d like to say that I have seamlessly integrated into the society and that I’m surrounded by Russian friends, but wouldn’t be true.
My Russian is coming along, but it is not at the level it should be. I never had any interest in or exposure to foreign languages growing up, so at thirty-three I had to start from scratch after my brain was already calcified. Still I bumble through my lessons, twice a week, as my budget allows.
My relationships and conversations with Russians tend to be boring, superficial and vaguely uncomfortable. Part of this is due to the language barrier, but I suspect there is more to it. I’ve come to find Russians to be pretty bland in general but in a pleasantly wholesome, milk-moustache way that is devoid of all the egoism, drama and individual neuroses that drive Americans. But, to be fair, that toxic mental stew is also what makes American people interesting as individuals.
I’m loathe to admit it, but I get along best with the random Americans and Canadians I meet, if only because we know how to speak to each other. We know the unspoken rules of communication, the pop culture references, political clichés and touchy subjects. My best friend here is an American woman eight years my junior.
No longer a rat in a glue trap, you’re living the American dream in a Moscow suburb, so your life sounds fine. The tension between the US and Russia has reached a toxic level, however, and it’s likely to get even worse. How has this affected your situation?
The tensions have been high the entire time I’ve lived here, but by the beginning of 2020, it became crystal clear to me at least, that the US was preparing for a war with Russia. So really, for the last two years, everything I have done has had that in the back of my mind so that the “American dream” I mentioned before is really the product of my own paranoia.
The house we are building is in a forest far outside of Moscow. I read somewhere that during WW2, the French who lived in the countryside fared relatively well and besides, I didn’t come all the way to Russia in order to grow old and die in a drab Moscow high-rise. The house is only about 2/3rds complete, but with the Ukraine situation, we decided to move out that way early, so now we are renting a small house near our property.
It took me eight years, but I only just got my Russian citizenship two weeks ago in a rather anti-climactic and even somber ceremony (if you could call it that), yet also like every other achievement or milestone I’ve crossed here, it was serendipitous and timely.
When I came here, I didn’t intend it to be the hill I would literally die on. As they say, all wars are banker’s wars, and while I am sympathetic to Russia, I also attended MGIMO back in 2017 and had a peek behind the curtain so to speak, and I was disappointed by the ideological inner workings of this country. Let’s just say that the anti-Soviet quislings of the 90’s are reformed, but are still the status-quo. So I think Russia needs to do a bit of housekeeping of its own before it goes around cleaning anybody else’s clock. But times are a changin’ and I think those pro-west diehards are going to start keeping their heads down. They were never popular to begin with. Today on the train I noticed huge slogans like “Socialism or extinction” painted along the route, instead of the usual dicks and swear words.
These days, reading Western mainstream media gives me a feeling as though I am staring into the horizon and seeing the dust cloud of an approaching stampede of powerful, dumb beasts. It’s a dull and unemotional feeling, but your blood still runs cold.
So even with all this turmoil and madness, Russia is still home, and beats returning to the US, not that your husband would want to move there. I’m assuming also you never considered relocating to a third country.
My husband works in the aerospace industry. He’s not allowed to leave Russia with his job, but even if he could, he would not want to go to the US.
I can imagine scenarios, like war, where I would return to the US, but it would never be with great relish or any intention to stay. Being an expat is not just a lifestyle, it’s a skill, as I’m sure you know. I lived in Czechia for a year and it was a breeze. Russia is one of the harder places to live. The only work I can really do in Russia is teaching English because they (rightfully) kicked all the NGOs out, but I do have a masters degree in international relations and I still am an associate with a US-based consultancy company, so I actually have better career prospects abroad than I do here in Russia. The only real threat to that is whatever medical tyranny/NWO crap is coming down the pipeline. But as of now, I have no intention of leaving Russia. I finally managed to drag the last load of my books over in January, so I consider it my home.
How have Russians reacted to their absurd demonization? Has this affected your relationships with Russians?
I don’t know how aware of it they actually are. If you notice, the Western media is careful to keep the focus on “Putin” and furthermore, Russians in general can barely speak English, let alone read between the lines. The linguistic culture of the Russian language is very direct; people say what they mean and mean what they say, in contrast to English which tends to be indirect and dissembling. This goes back to what I said about how Russians seem rude. But anyway, I have always gotten the feeling that Russians don’t realize how much the West hates them. Russians are not chauvinists so they don’t understand the chauvinist mindset.
So no, so far this has not affected my relationships with people here. People do ask me who I voted for in the last election, but they’re satisfied when I answer that I don’t vote. Actually, just the other day a man struck up a conversation with me on the street. I can’t hide that I’m foreign so naturally, he asked where I was from and I reluctantly admitted it. He was slightly taken aback, and started to back away. For some reason I felt compelled to explain that I live here and have a son and so on, and he perked right up and then introduced himself in English.