In the latest entry of my Escape from America series, I interview an American who’s living in Russia, a country that’s been relentlessly demonized by the Western media. To a minority of Americans, however, Russia is a nationalist beacon, or even a possible refuge, as it already is to many Afrikaners.
How long have you lived overseas?
For about 8 years. But I visited home two times in those 8 years for a month or so.
And since I travel by moving somewhere for work, I have only scratched the surface of Europe and never even been to South America or Africa. :/
So in a nutshell it’s been: ≈ 2 years in Vietnam, ≈ 3 years in Japan, ≈ 3 years in Russia.
But of course, there were many smaller trips around and breaks in between in places like Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia. A brief stint in Finland, passing through Germany, Poland, Ukraine. I pride myself in getting to know the culture instead of just checking it off a list, but I’m getting a bit older so now I would love to have financial independence in order to explore other continents for shorter periods like my yuppie friends do.
What made you decide to leave the US?
I had hitchhiked all around the U.S. and always enjoyed travel. I think it’s in my blood. All the Europeans with gypsy-esque souls were selected out of the European population they say. I pride myself in my pioneer origins / predispositions, but also see the downsides of them as I get older. Perhaps that hyper individualism is what lead to America’s degeneration? I don’t know. But I always planned on traveling the world. My mom traveled a lot and took us on road trips all the time. So that could be it. Nature vs. nurture. Chicken or the egg?
Anyways, I was actually enrolled in ROTC for a brief bit, because I come from a family with a lot of military in it and am lower middle class. So I didn’t have trust fund study-abroad-and-snort-ketamine-at-European-musical-festivals kind of money that some of my peers did. Therefore, the most plausible way to secure a career and cross the seven seas was by joining the Army or Navy. I changed my mind and am glad I did. I’ve immersed myself and traveled way longer than I could have if I’d have stayed and signed a contract. However, military has always been my plan B if I got in massive debt somehow or got a chick pregnant. Knock on wood, still cruising with plan A.
What advantages does Russia have over the US, societally and culturally, as in every day stuff? What do they do worse?
The stereotype of the (figuratively) cold Russian is true. I get weird looks if I smile at strangers when my American habits seep through unconsciously. And if you visit, you’ll see lots of aggressive verbal conflicts and unenthused customer service. But to be fair, locals say “Russians have a generous soul.”
I can attest to this 100%. Once you get to know someone, they will treat you like family and go to obscene lengths to take care of you. They are always lending each other money and giving gifts. And the goodbyes last forever, like something out of a movie where the family sits on the porch and waves until your car is out of vision. But I believe this is part of why they are (on average) poorer than Western Europe.
I’ve couch surfed a lot of places and been in Beverly Hills mansions with robots that clean their pool, as well as homeless shelters with bed bugs. And everywhere in between. It seems counterintuitive, but the poor people are way more giving. Though in hindsight, it makes perfect sense:
“The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”
If you are minimalist and family oriented and live for the moment, you won’t have high standards of living. This of course gets more complicated and can go into Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic theories. And what can be said about Catholic countries can be said about Orthodox as well. Regardless, the emphasis on family values can lead to more fulfilling lives, but also leads to the ever prevalent nepotism and corruption that prevents such countries from advancing. Things Westerners take for granted like clean tap water are still an issue here. Having said that, I try to zoom out and look at the big picture.
Perhaps the Western world is burning the candle at both ends. Which is why I’m not a Nordic supremacist. If the hyper individualized cultures/biology of the West inevitably lead to empires collapsing, maybe the slow burn method is better. After the migrant crisis era is over and the dust is settled, which countries will still be standing? Only time will tell.
I remember being in America during the Socchi Olympics and seeing footage of Pussy Riot being beaten. At the time, I believed my fair share of Western propaganda and thought it was such a shame Russia was so homophobic and violent. I was fairly apolitical then and only heard about it because a band (Portugal, The Man) posted a petition to free them from prison. In those days, I’d argue with my mom about legalizing gay marriage. Fast forward 8 years and now there’s transgender kids and everyone on Tinder is a saposexual gender fluid. Needless to say, I’ve started to doubt my previous convictions…
We may cringe when we see the brutish, caveman-esque gopniks beating up drag queens. But perhaps The West could use a bit of that macho vigilantism. Everyone here knows their votes don’t matter. They joke about Putin winning with 1,400% of the votes. But they accept it. The mentality seems to be a dog-eat-dog, hierarchal type here. For better or for worse. This leads to a fatalistic acceptance of ungodly corruption and income inequality. But it also keeps their society somewhat in check regardless of what the elites want. I show locals American news once in a while and they can’t comprehend it whatsoever. And neither can I, really. Can you imagine a beefed up tranny [Tiffany Moore] yelling at people and getting away with it in Russia?
When debating locals, I often accuse them of being pessimists. And they often counter by pointing out my naivety, while assuring me that they are merely realists. Maybe they are. After all, I can guarantee if something like Rotherham or Cologne happened in Russia, they wouldn’t wait for the right paperwork and lawyers to get justice. They would beat the living shit out of everyone in a 5KM radius and not bother navigating red tape like we do. The immigrants from the CIS countries know this and behave. Not to mention, the Putin dictatorship surely spies on its citizens and nabs any jihadis. They just don’t let the media report on it. Speaking of which, most Russians have no clue how insane this whole Russian collusion media frenzy is. But despite what you may be thinking, it’s not like North Korea, everyone can use a VPN and surf any website they want.
But the average Russian doesn’t bother so the media control seems to work just fine. Guess fire walls work as well. The only time I hear my Ruski peers talk about Trump is when USA places new sanctions on Russia, kicks out some ambassadors, or in the most recent case: when Putin advised Trump about North Korean nukes. Basically, anything that makes Russia look good, and/or America like an aggressor. Smart of them in case a war breaks out between us. But of course the lack of reporting on the Russian hacking / water sport hookers conspiracy theory, could be due to the fact that it’s such obvious bullshit, and that no sane news agency would try to milk it for 3 years like ours do.
The thing is, I don’t want a “benevolent dictatorship” like Singapore or Russia. I want to live in a country like the Founding Fathers of America intended.
It’s tough to say, though. Surely some forms of government fit certain genetic clusters better than others. But how much of this is innate?
What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?
I am incredibly envious of the locals who live in ethnically homogenous countries with a sense of identity and contributing to the greater good. A janitor in Russia or a taxi driver in Japan both have great pride in their nations and being part of a community. When I first lived in Japan I tried my best to be respectful and assimilate. But no matter how hard I tried, I realized I’d always be an outsider and was actually rewarded positively when I played up the stereotypes of the American cowboy who was straight forward and flamboyant. It’s pretty fun but a bizarre experience to be the token minority for once. I remember thinking the black suburban kid from my childhood who beatboxed and grew his fro out was goofy. As well as the gay kid who came out of the closet and did a 180º personality wise (gay lisp and limp wrist included). Welp, now I can relate… just on a much smaller scale.
Obviously this is no big deal and only takes some minor adjustment, but that’s because I’m relatively young. When I talk to my ex-pat elders who have knocked up a local, it seems these mole hills really do become mountains. When you are fresh off the plane, the differences are trivial and cute.
“Oh wow, you use chopsticks and I use a fork.”
“What!? You put ketchup on your pizza? Gross.”
“Hmm, you care much more about what you parents say than I do.”
But imagine making life changing decisions together, or going through traumatic events together.
That’s when the real differences show. It takes decades to truly understand a different ethnic group, and I think even a lifetime is not enough due to biological limits. After all, it’s not just IQ that separates us. We have different temperaments and spirits. Having said all that, exploring the Russian or Japanese soul and trying to figure out what makes them tick, makes everyday life fascinating.
And I hesitated adding this, but after several days of being woken up by my neighbors, I feel I must. You see, a gay Muslim friend of mine, (who I met in Japan), was privileged enough to immigrate to America. And yet, all day on facebook he would bitch and whine about the country. Obviously as someone who felt the need to leave my own country, I agree with most of what he said. But I’m still a patriotic nationalist despite all the shit I talk about my country, and so it irked me. After all, he would be thrown in jail if he was openly gay in his home country. How dare he move to another country and immediately complain and advocate for more “diversity” and critique the culture and politics.
I think most people, (especially Russians), can relate to this sentiment. The average Ruski is incredibly hard on their own country. But it’s like how you can make fun of your siblings, but when someone else does you knock their teeth in. I’d like to say I always respected this, but it’s not true. I was more brazen in my earlier days of travel, and hypocritically complained about Japan with the very Muslim I referred to earlier. It’s not just me, though. Go on any expat forum, and it’s full of gripes.
The first thing ESL teachers talk about when they meet is how much they miss peanut butter or how they hate the pollution or whatever. And yet, they don’t go home. The same is true of Mexican immigrants in America and Africans in Europe, if you ever take the time to chat with them. (Which is part of what made me more rightwing and nationalist.) The vast majority who don’t go home are economic migrants. Economic in terms of balancing the supply & demand of money, or balancing sexual market value.
Which is why I try my best to be respectful to my host nation. And even make a habit of catching myself thinking ungrateful thoughts by telling myself, “Don’t like it? Then leave.” Well, I’m still here in Moscow. So, I clearly like it, and am very appreciative for their hospitality.
Having said all that, I feel I must warn you, dear reader, the truth about Russian neighbors. They are the worst I’ve ever had in my entire life. Not face to face. Face to face, they are incredibly friendly and there are countless babushkas who will give you pickled tomatoes and other homemade gifts as if you’re family. I’m talking specifically about how loud the neighbors are.
I am an incredibly deep sleeper. As a hitchhiker I zonk out next to highways all the time, and have adapted to every country I’ve been in. Except for with Russians. The same is true with locals here. They also wake up thanks to neighbors and will bang on the old soviet water heaters that are threaded throughout the complex when they’re annoyed. It’s impossible to adapt because it’s not a white noise like the motorcycles in Vietnam. The sound waves are not uniform, but rather polarized sharp spikes. Blaring techno with bone rattling bass at 3AM. Screaming couples at 1AM. Hammering and drilling at 9AM.
I finally figured out why. My girlfriend’s brother told me that there’s no word for “privacy” in Russian. Well, there is, but not with the same meaning that Americans have for it. From a NY Times article on the subject:
Most Russians grew up in dense housing blocks, where children ran wild in closed central courtyards. Cul-de-sac translates in Russian as tupik—a word that evokes vulnerability and danger, a dead end with no escape.
“It’s such a new concept for them, that you can get security by putting distance between yourself and the others,” he said. “The Russian concept is that you’re safe when you’re with the crowd.”
He devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language, or in the airless human mass that forms when Russians wait in line. Americans, he reports, prefer to converse at a distance of at least four feet.
“I suppose that in a typical Russian line, your average American would lose consciousness,” he writes. “Any touch to an American is taken as a violation of his personal space, so in the U.S., as a rule, people do not take each other by the elbow and do not tap each other on the shoulder if they want attention, they do not embrace each other like brothers.”
And this blog that confirms the veracity of the previous article:
I got the assignment because I have a Russian husband, who has himself published some essays about some of the unexpected cultural differences a Russian encounters in America, and we’ve been dividing our time between Moscow and Amherst for the last 15 years.
So our topic is whether the word “privacy” exists in Russian. If you ask “Google translate”, you get eleven choices, and given my own moderate knowledge of Russian, none of them looked equivalent to “privacy” in the sense of valuing your privacy, or wanting to know about Facebook’s privacy policies. And when I asked my husband about it, he agreed that there isn’t any Russian word that’s equivalent because indeed, our particular concept of privacy really isn’t part of Russian culture. So Zlobin is right.
Consequently, if you don’t have enough money for a house or gated community, then prepare yourself mentally for a college dorm atmosphere. If you’re the partying type, it can be a blast. Otherwise, get some sound canceling headphones. Maybe that’s why Russians put rugs on the wall? Why not stack two or three for good measure.
What are some of the pleasant surprises you’ve encountered in your new home?
The biggest breath of fresh air that comes to mind, is the absence of PC culture. I am free to speak my mind and no one really cares. And by the same token, the traditional aspects that were foreign to me my whole life are nice. For example, women who unabashedly fit their gender roles and expect you to do the same. And of course, cheaper living expenses and higher wages are a huge bonus. I think most ex pats would happily move back to America if we had sensible immigration laws and weren’t throwing taxes into a giant hole in the ground.
Please speak more of unanticipated problems.
Those perks don’t come without a price. There’s a high turnover rate and a lot of people try being an ex pat in their 20’s and can’t hack it after a year. The reality is not like the Instagram Yoga thots make it seem…
So what I tell everyone is that you’re not really getting paid to teach English, (the default job you will likely have unless you start your own business), but rather, getting paid to tolerate a different culture. And it’s not just poorer countries that I’m referring to. I learned this lesson with Japan. On paper, they are better than America in many ways. Higher standard of living, safety, cleanliness, politeness, etc. But to a white guy from the West their politeness felt like fakeness and I was stressed out because of it; always overanalyzing insignificant things. Which is how many black people feel when hanging around white people. What we see as just common courtesy, comes off as passive aggressive and beta to them. To each his own.
For me, I found that I was more straight forward than the average American, and came off as abrasive to my peers since childhood. A Kramer of sorts. So after a bit of travel, it seems that Eastern European culture is a good fit for me. I also wear my heart on my sleeve and get very passionate when speaking. So maybe I’ll try out a Latin country next. You may feel the same, or may feel right at home. Just bum around a bit until you vibe with a certain spot then settle down. But if you’re like me, you’ll realize how important identity is and become more patriotic as you gain a frame of reference. So while I enjoy frolicking around the world and don’t plan to stop anytime soon, I’ve been eyeing some land in Mid West America that I may buy real estate in.
What is some advice you have for Americans who also want to get out?
YOU ARE INCREDIBLY LUCKY!!!
It really can’t be overstated how blessed you are to have American citizenship. You can be in tons of debt, have zero dollars in the bank, and several misdemeanors, and you’ll still get an automatic 90 day visa on arrival. Even with a one way plane ticket. This is unheard of and will likely not be the case in the near future if current demographic trends continue. So seize the day!
Seriously. In these past 8 years, I’ve met so many wealthy, well educated, amazing people who have to jump through so many hoops and sacrifice so much for the mere chance of a tourist visa. If you only knew…
So, stop putting it off!
I made that mistake and in retrospect didn’t need to wait at all. I saved for 2 to 3 years living super frugal and working 3 jobs. But every day expenses are the biggest drains. Besides, when your friends and family find out you’re saving money, they’ll come to mooch. Or “life happens” and you’ll need to pay for the broken water heater or flat tire. So just run away while you still can. The other mistake I see people make is that they toil away for 80% of the year in a job they hate, so they can splurge for a few days in an Americanized luxury resort. Why not make every day exotic and truly get a feel for the local atmosphere by moving somewhere for a year instead? In my experience, the most expensive part of travel is the plane ticket. So be smart and just get a one way ticket and find a job once you get there.
Most places you apply to online won’t take your overseas application serious, just like I don’t take my friends’ claims of visiting me serious. Talk is cheap. So take a leap of faith and have peace of mind knowing the American Embassy will take care of your spoiled ass. I knew a Venezuelan chick whose friend spent all her money on coke and was stranded in South America. Apparently the embassy paid for her ticket home. But it was debt she owed that would never go away until it was paid back, even if she filed Bankruptcy. Still, not a bad deal compared to 99.9999% of the Earth’s population. And that’s worst case scenario so long as you don’t foolishly backpack somewhere like Morocco and get beheaded.
If all else fails, just buy a bus ticket to Minnesota and see what it’s like to live in Somalia for a day.
–Michael Kreutzer (28-years-old)