A former American programmer, now a toiler of the Pochayev Laura Monastery found his spiritual Motherland in Russia. In interview to Vitaly and Valentina Trubetskoy he told a lot of unexpected troubles he met in Russia.
– What led you, a native-born American, to the Russian Orthodox Church?
My parents are Protestants but they sent me to Catholic school because private Catholic schools in America are known for tougher courses, and better performing students. A requirement of Catholic school is taking Catholic religion classes. It was very interesting growing up because I always heard one point of view at school and then a different one at Protestant Church (Presbyterian). When I was going to school we had lessons about the Great Schism and were encouraged to visit an Orthodox Church.
Years later I visited Russia, as I was interested in doing business with an internet company in St Petersburg. I saw Orthodox Churches and was reminded of these lessons. I went home and found the OCA.org web site (the official site of the Orthodox Church in America) and they have a questions and answers section, and for all of their questions their answers made more sense than mine. I visited a local Orthodox Church and after 4 months of lessons after liturgy was baptized (I was never baptized Protestant as my parents are opposed to infant baptism). I started attended a Russian Orthodox Church Abroad parish about a year later; the OCA parish I attended had shorter English Language liturgies, and benches similar to Catholic Churches. Even though standing for a longer liturgy was difficult it felt more respectful to God. I was amazed that the English translations of prayers in my prayer book was so close to the Slavonic though, it's usually word for word.
– Do you remember your first visit to an Orthodox church? What impressions did it have on you?
– My first visit that I remember (outside from seeing Orthodox Churches in Russia) was the OCA Church near my home in New York. What struck me most is that it seemed like everyone was very ambitious about prayer, and worshiping God. Presbyterian Church was all about the pastor, and about half the service was listen to some inspirational sermon, about a quarter of it was singing American-style songs. Catholic Church seemed more respectful to God but very very dry. God seemed to me very present in the Orthodox liturgy, and it seemed at Catholic Church like maybe he was home sick.
For a couple weeks my dad brought us to a 7th day Adventist Church, and the people babbling was weird to me. It seemed rehearsed; it was really the first time I'd seen in person anything I would call a sect. When my father joined the freemasons he had me come to an 'open meeting'. They talk a lot about being based on the Bible but it was clear that they were a sect; nothing they do is written in the Bible at all. I have never been to a mosque though there is one visible from the Albany NY Russian Orthodox Church out of Russia (ROCOR) parish. I become a little sad when I see them, not really because of a strong position against Islam so much as the symbols they borrowed from Orthodox Cathedrals. Domed Mosques, and the Crescent are borrowed from the Orthodox Cathedrals in Constantinople. At the same time I respect that they seem to practice their faith in everyday life and even being so close to our parish in Albany there were never any altercations with them. I studied a lot about religions in college, but wasn't very inspired to visit their places of worship.
– Why did you decide to leave America?
– There were a lot of reasons. Politically America seems to me to be a farce. America talks a lot about democracy but it's illegal in some states for a third party to run for office. America says it's a Christian nation but it's constantly starting new wars regardless of what party is in office. I was deeply disturbed as an Orthodox Christian about what happens to Christians when America goes to war; few are left in Iraq. The behavior of American troops during the war in Kosovo was upsetting; they paused their campaign for Islamic Ramadan, but dropped bombs with 'Happy Easter' written on them during Easter. Also the economy was an issue. I became unemployed in America as a programmer, and the fact is that most programming jobs are becoming outsourced. It seemed to be competitive it would be smarter to work in a country where programming is growing not declining.
My biggest reason for not returning though is definitely that it is very hard to practice Orthodoxy in America. Yes we have Orthodox Church; beautiful ones with very active parishioners, but the American culture is absolutely opposed to Orthodoxy. In America abortion is a 'right', there is talk of forcing Churches to conduct homosexual marriages if they conduct any marriages. Telling a young woman to cover her head during prayer is very close to 'hate speech' in America.
– Did the Russian people among your ancestors matter in your choice?
– Although I have Slavic ancestry on my mother's side it was not a major concern. Honestly when I first started learning Russian it was because I saw the language on a pop-group's CD and was interested how a 'backwards R' was pronounced. I wish I could find out more about my grandmother's heritage but we have very few documents about her parents because she was adopted at a young age. I was more interested in the culture, potential, and style of government in Russia than my ancestry, although I am very very interested in Slavic culture overall.
– How did your family and friends react to your decision to leave the U.S.?
– As far as how my friends and family reacted it was really strange. Even my friends who are very liberal and could be accused of being 'anti American' in many ways thought it was a bad idea. My employer at the time said that Russia was a backward scary place. One friend won't talk to me anymore because he thinks that the CIA must be tracking my every move and he's worried that he'll be placed on 'some list'. My father was and is very negative about the idea. He was also very negative about my being baptized Orthodox. Late in his life, about 2 years before I was baptized, he joined the freemasons, and while I think the group is not very active at this point they still have a lot of anti-Orthodox, propaganda, and their beliefs are inheritly disdainful of the Tsar.
– How did Russia meet you ? What were your expectations from Moscow? Did it disappoint you?
– I more or less knew what to expect from Moscow having visited several times in the decade prior to moving there. I was disappointed that on arrival the firm I was going to work for told me they had no work because the owner decided to work for another firm. He ended up moving back to England. I suspect that his business only benefited from the good times, and he did not know how to succeed in the 'crisis'. It left me renting expensively and made it harder to find work; I never found work there.
– Why were you not disappointed with Russia even after having been robbed and beaten here? Did you want to go back to America after that incident?
– There are bad people in every country. In a lot of ways I was to blame for staying out late at night and in the wrong area, and talking to people even though my accent is strong enough that people know I'm a foreigner. I have never had a problem going out late in Manhattan but I know the kinds of places and people to avoid. I did not find Moscow to have any more criminals than New York; probably less even I think. I was certainly disappointed with the individuals but not at all with the country. Days latter I was really happy how friendly the police were with giving me directions when I got lost.
It is not so difficult to fall in love with a country which is very hostile to you. But I think such a love costs nothing. But if despite numerous troubles, poverty and accidents your feeling does not fade, it is really sincere and of proved worth.
I did not feel like returning; I felt angry that the individuals could not be found. I was discouraged that I was not better adapted to know how to avoid such trouble. I think that returning would represent a personal failure. I also don't have a lot to return to; I sold most of my valuable possessions when I left. Really returning would just offer a lower standard of living, harder chances of finding work, and make me a burden to my family in America.
– What did you do after you having been beaten and robbed?
– I walked really slowly back to my hotel. I was unconscious I guess for about an hour before that. I was really beat up. I thought about calling the police but I did no't have many details about the attackers. I wish I had called right after because then maybe it would have been worthwhile but by time I felt better enough to think about it there was not anything useful that could have come from it.
– You wanted to obtain Russian citizenship, how and what for?
– I qualified for citizenship at the times on account of my then wife (I did not realize she was planning to divorce me). When I came here to live in Russia she on the contrary left for the States. I'd really be happy to join the Russian Army if they'd have me!
– Were you not afraid of bullying?
– I think that if a person is asking to be a citizen of a country they should be ready to defend that country. Certainly I'v heard of cases of bullying, and I do imagine a lot of Russians would be hard on an American. I have met both types of people; people who are really interested and happy that someone would show interest in Russia, and people that view all foreigners sceptically. A lot of Russians, especially in the Church, view me with skepticism and ask me if I am a spy or something. That does make it hard to keep a positive spirit at times. My understanding though is that bullying is not epidemic, even though it's certainly counter productive. Also I have heard nothing but support from Russia's government about putting an end to it, and also moving to a contract army and eventually ending conscription. (I would note that I think it is advantageous that all Russian men have at least basic combat training, I think that's in general a good idea at times). I have also been very happy to hear of the efforts to allow Orthodox Chaplains in the military; I think keeping Orthodoxy in the military is very helpful. The film Admiral starring Kostya Habensky demonstrates that a lot.
– So, you're ready to give up American Citizenship, why?
– A lot of people are convinced that American citizenship is a wonderful blessing to have; I'm really not. After years of paying unemployment taxes I was offered no real help from the system when I became unemployed. The American economy, and I've worked for the US largest bank, is a house of cards. The nation is deeply in debt to China, and has few resources (human, or natural) to compete. All the US can do is wave a big sword at other nations and hope they buy into the lie of American might. I wouldn't mind keeping American citizenship for the convenience of tourism or to see my parents once in awhile, but would gladly shrug it off to attain citizenship in a nation where I can practice my religion, and which has a growing economy, with resources that make the future look bright.
Also America has not helped me at all overseas. I went to the American embassy when I had my computer stolen in Ukraine and all they did was offer me a loan that I could only accept if they ripped up my passport to get dropped off at the nearest airport to 'home' in America. Being penniless in New York City with no way to get home, and having no identification or means to call home is not help. I asked them for 20 cents for a metro coupon and was told no (a stranger on the street in Kiev gave me a subway token). America's support for its citizens abroad is vastly over-rated.
– Why did you come to Ukraine? What for?
– I had to leave Russia to obtain a new Visa. It's expensive to get a visa to Russia and ironically the people who really love Russia are the ones burned by visa restrictions. I haven't yet been in a situation where I can live without my passport for 2 week, afford to live, and afford for a visa invitation and processing fees. Ukraine has been interesting but there's no a day when I don't wish I was back in Russia.
I would add that in Russia Orthodoxy is much more stable. In Ukraine there are numerous non-canonical Churches. Really the situation is very similar to upstate NY. in NY The Moscow Patriarchate, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and Orthodox Church in America argued intensely in court during the Soviet Era. Because of resistant parishioners or clergy and confused court decisions there are numerous streets in America where there is a ROCOR parish a few blocks from an OCA parish. Even within jurisdictions there were such arguments. I know a woman who goes to a 'New Calendar' OCA parish, and he mother goes to an Old Calendar parish about 10 minutes away.
In West Ukraine the situation is a lot like this. I know of an Orthodox parish that relocated to a Church that had been used as a warehouse because the Catholic church won a court case; they rebuilt the new Church and now the Catholic Church wants to take that. In Lvov there are only 3 Orthodox Churches. They include a small wooden church where the city denies permits to rebuild a destroyed Orthodox Church on the property, and a new Orthodox Church that has only one of the two floors planned because the city does not want another visible Orthodox Church. It's frustrating to see this kind of religious persecution but it makes a lot of the situation with the Church in America more understandable. In Russia there is no such confusion; you don't have to read the plaque by the door or see what Patriarch is mentioned on the calendar to know whether you're in a canonical parish.
– Why in the e-mail and social networks you have not signed his own name, and take Russian names?
– I use Vasily at times because it's my baptized name. I am also concerned about US government spying. My Facebook account was hacked into from Beltsville, MD which is near the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. In general anonymity is smart on the internet. That said Georgy is my name and pronounced closer to the original Greek name My dad's name is also George so using Georgy Georgiyevich makes sense. I have also used the pen name Alexander which is reference to my favorite Tsar, Alexander III.
I would like to note though that Georgy, Vasily, and Alexander are all Greek names though. That said everyone here calls me either Georgy or Yura (the Ukrainian for George). A few people have tried calling me Amerikanets and I have rather bluntly told them not to. There are plenty of Russians and Ukrainians who love America and would give everything to go there; I think these, misguided individuals deserve nicknames like 'American'.
– How do Russians react to your story? Do they say you're wrong to have left America?
– Most usually think I'm an idiot for leaving America, but once I explain my reasons they understand better. The Russians think everything is easy in America, and that Americans have tons of money. The Americans have tons of credit cards, many of my acquaintances in America have nothing saved for retirement and use credit cards for gas, food, and paying the rent. My parents have problems with the bank also, even though they own 5 properties, and have a lot of assets, the bank practices during the real estate boom hurt them. The bank wants to foreclose on 2 of their properties.
Orthodox Russians involved with the Church understand me a lot better. In the Church a lot of people, and I'm not sure where they have heard this, think that in the future many Americans will come to Russia and that America will be poor and the dollar will be worth nothing. I'm glad to be the first American to leave if that's the case. Actually I really think that unless America seriously changes it's ways that's a pretty good description of America's future. You can only rattle a saber with an army bought with foreign credit for so long; especially with an average of one new foreign conflict a year.
– Can you compare two ways of life – Russian and American? Which seems you more attractive and why?
– Moscow is very much like Manhattan to me. I love visiting Manhattan and I used to go 1 or 2 times a month, but I wouldn't like to live there. I don't really want to live in Moscow, although the new region developing to promote technology is attractive to me. I wanted to move to Nizhny Novgorod or Vladimir. I had a job opportunity in St Petersburg that did not work out because it would cost so much in visa fees and taxes. I've only been to Saint Petersburg once. It reminded me of Prague, and seems like a nice place to live. The 'white nights' were interesting but I would imagine that might become annoying every year. In both cities though life is similar to America.
Outside big cities Russia, and Ukraine, are a lot closer to where I grew up. Lake George NY is a tourist town bordering one small city, where the biggest employer is the hospital, and a handful of agricultural communities. Apples, corn, and milk are still big industries there. That said I've never seen anyone seriously use horses for transportation in winter (which I did near Pochaev Laura in Ukraine), or walked out of a bus station in a major city to see cows grazing in front of an apartment building (as I did in Lvov).
It seems easier to find healthy food in Russia. A lot of Russians complain about factories putting chemicals in food but in America it's much worse; even most food labeled organic in America is loaded with things no one has bothered to test if they are okay to eat. I love that we have a lot of dairy farms in New York State, and they have fought hard to not go out of business, but they still load cows with growth hormones to produce more milk.
I definitely prefer life in Russia. Just being able to walk to an Orthodox Church in pretty much any city is amazing. Our Orthodox Churches are mostly only open on Saturdays and Sundays, and at least an hour away. Many Americans have to go to a different state to find an Orthodox Church. I really like Russian language, and I love walking around hearing people speaking Russian. In a lot of ways Russia also seems freer than America; America, thanks to the heavy use of technology, has become a police state. In the instances where America insists Russia is less free, such a protest, it seems common sense prevails; I am appalled to see so many American's defend disgracing a Church (by Pussy Riot) as some form of free speech.
– What is good in Russia, which you can`t have in America?
– The most important thing to me is still being able to walk into an Orthodox Church any day of the week. Even with communism, which was subsidized by the west and never would have taken over Russia without foreign money, was no match for the Church which has quickly flourished after the Communist Empire had collapsed.
– What future, do you think, awaits the U.S.-Russia relationship?
– From my experience working as a programmer, and a financial analyst I am positive America is very close to severe hard times. Rather than fixing the problems that created the last crisis they rewarded the perpetrators and made new laws to protect them. The nation and the people are in debt they cannot realistically repay. The culture is insistently decadent, the leaders perpetuate wars that do not benefit the people, or the nation. It's a mess; and the people are just mindlessly going on with life as usual as it falls apart; with the two party system they really is not an opportunity for them to make change.
Russia has leadership that is looking to keep Russia strong and competitive and improve the life of average Russians. I have met people critical of Putin, but even they concede that there is not a real alternative that would benefit the country; America does not even have that. Americans go to the election trying to pick which candidate is 'less bad'. I see Russia as a country having an emerging middle class, an army that is modernizing tremendously, and a Christian culture. This represents a great place to start a family, as well as a great investment opportunity.