- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Why The Freemans Moved To Russia

Hal Freeman is an American who relocated to Russia with his Russian-born wife, and their children — this, in part to take a Benedict Option [1] of their own. He writes a blog about his experiences there. Recently, he wrote about a post I’d made here, about people who have decided to leave America to live abroad. [2] In his response, Freeman talked about his experience, and about a new book by University of Chicago political theorist John Mearsheimer. Excerpts:

Others, not writing from a Christian perspective, have also noted major changes in American culture and the inability of much of “the public” to change those trends. In his recent book, “The Great Delusion,” [3] noted political scientist John Mearsheimer discusses how difficult, nay impossible, it is for people in a liberal culture to agree on what “the good life” is. Mearsheimer is not using the word “liberal” in the way we often do to describe someone who holds to a certain set of political perspectives, e.g., women rights, gay rights, pro-choice, etc. He is using “liberal” to refer to belief in the importance of the individual and individual rights as opposed to, say, a monarchy or some other system that devalues the place of the individual in the political and economic destiny of a nation.

Despite the emphasis on individual rights, Mearsheimer contends we are profoundly communal in nature. We are born and raised “in community.” Society and culture are essential factors in our self-definition. He defines a major dilemma the liberal state faces: “For a society to hold together, there must be substantial overlap in how its members think about the good life, and they must respect each other when, inevitably, serious disagreements arise.” I doubt anyone reading or watching the debates about our cultural values in America would conclude there is a whole lot of respectful debate going on over our deep divisions in defining “the good life.”

In the sense that Mearsheimer defines “liberal,” the Constitution of the United States outlines a liberal nation. America was founded on individual rights, e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to engage in business without governmental controls. That would be what Mearsheimer calls “modus vivendi” freedom. That is the kind of “liberal” thinking that characterizes the views of more traditional, usually Republican, Americans.

More:

Currently, the progressives are in charge culturally and politically. Mearsheimer, like Dreher, believes the modus vivendi liberal adherents cannot win the cultural battle at the ballot box. He states:

“To understand how thoroughly progressivism has triumphed, consider how liberalism relates to the major political parties in the United States today. The Democratic Party’s ruling ideology is clearly progressive liberalism, and it acts accordingly when it controls the key levers of power in Washington. If you listen to Republicans, you might think they follow the dictates of modus vivendi liberalism. That is usually true of their rhetoric, but it is not how they govern. In office, Republicans act like Democrats.”

Hal Freeman goes on:

The traditional values, the loss of which many in America are lamenting, are largely the values of the Russian culture in which I live. I do not write as someone who has been told this. I live here. The Russian Orthodox Church has a strong influence on local life. There are also active Catholic and Protestant churches in my town. The Church and State work together at a national level. For example, both want to reduce the numbers of abortions which skyrocketed during the Communist era because abortion was commonly used for birth control. The Church has made a strong commitment to help women in “crisis pregnancies.” The laws are more restrictive now about when and for what reason abortions can be performed. Watching the news here after Gov. Cuomo signed the bill in New York permitting late term abortions, I was struck by the contrast between the agony of my Christian friends’ posts on Facebook and the smiles and celebrations of the governor and legislators in New York. Abortions are still performed in Russia, but the numbers are steadily declining and no one smiles, laughs or brags about them.

I realize many in America are very glad that the American government is intervening and the understanding of “morality” has changed radically. They applaud freedoms won for gay, lesbian, trans-gender and many other Americans who have been oppressed. They have the right to rejoice: They won. The Benedict Option is one way for those on the other “side” to adapt. Many have been and are living it out. Others, like me, decided it was not in our family’s best interest to risk the future of our children to stay. After the New York decision on abortion I received an e-mail from an American Orthodox mother asking questions about moving to Russia. She realized the struggles involved in such a move. She wrote, however, “We have to move. No matter how well we are doing in home schooling and church, we cannot keep the government out of the lives of our children.”

I never try to convince anyone to come to Russia. I do receive frequent inquiries. I try, as best I can based on my experiences and research, to give honest descriptions and answers. I will repeat what my regular readers have heard me say many times. Despite the bad political relations between the U.S. and Russia neither I nor my family have ever been treated in a bad way. Our children attend public schools. They have to study harder, but they have learned the language and are doing well. Sometimes we do not agree with what is taught in a science class (for example), but nothing is ever presented in such a way as to tear down what we teach at home. The views of the parents are respected. There is essentially no debate here over gender issues or traditional male/female roles. Some of my American friends will see this as horrible, while others will be envious. Life in Russia is certainly not without challenges and difficulties. I continue to struggle with the language and other aspects of life here. Nevertheless, I do not sense the deep seated alienation living in this culture as Dreher and many others sense living in America.

Read the whole thing. [2]

Here is a link to the original Dreher post that prompted Freeman’s response. [4]

And here is a link to the home page of Freeman’s blog, Between Two Worlds. [5] His archives go back to 2016. Here he is from last September writing about a return trip he and his family made to America [6] after having been away for a couple of years. In it, Freeman talks about going to their home church in South Carolina, and answering questions from parishioners about what life was like in Russia. He writes:

Toward the conclusion of the evening, I told them I had tried to be very honest and open about Russia. I had described the many positive developments here, while admitting there are problems yet to be resolved. But, overall, based on my experience here I really do see Russia headed in a direction that will make the country stronger. Polls show a strong majority of Russians see even better days ahead. Social, economic, and political differences are here, but there is in general a larger shared cultural perspective. American reports often focus on the fringe groups in Russia, but this is a misrepresentation of how it is here. I heard Ksenia Sobchak referred to as an “opposition leader in Russia” by more than one American news outlet. She received 1.68% of the total vote in 2018. A person receiving that percentage in America would hardly be referred to as a “leader of the opposition.”

I then told the group I wanted to ask them a question: What about America? I stated very honestly my impressions from our visit. I sensed fragmentation on a number of fronts without an overarching unifying principle. People seem more worried about offending or being offended than finding common ground. I asked them if my perceptions are wrong. If not, what is the solution? As I said, this group was a very thoughtful, well-informed group. But there was a moment when no one spoke. No one contested my perception on the condition in America. Of the responses that followed, there was very little optimism expressed about a good outcome. Some offered that they saw it only getting worse; a few others said a cultural or economic collapse will be the only way toward rebuilding. Someone brought up Orwell’s 1984 as America’s destiny.

 

Here’s a link to the June 10, 2016 post [7] — his first one — in which Freeman, son of a Southern Baptist preacher, writes about why he and his wife and kids were setting off to live in Russia. Excerpt:

Nevertheless, I do think people, especially in the U.S., will come to a better understanding of life in Russia—both at a personal and political level. In fact, the idea to write the blog came from being asked by several friends who would like to know more about what life really is like in Russia. Further, most news organizations have cut back on the number of reporters actually living in countries they report on. Some of those who do live there still limit themselves socially to the “ex-pat communities.” I intentionally avoided that life when I lived in Russia before. My friends were primarily Russians. I didn’t know any Americans living in St. Petersburg and did not seek them out. I live the Russian life from “the inside out.” I am neither a politician nor a reporter. But I can tell when politicians and reporters in the US say or write things that based either willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. And some of these reporters work for big name magazines, papers, or networks.

I need to alert readers to my own presuppositions, even if those are not uninformed presuppositions. One of those I will mention now is that in my opinion there are many in the military-industrial complex in the United States that have a vested interest in spreading wrong information about Russia. Some people make a lot of money trying to scare Americans so they can sell a lot of hardware in the interest of “National Security.” This blog will be primarily personal. The focus will be on what life is like in a small town in Russia as processed by an American who is from a small town in the US. But I won’t avoid calling into question what is being force-fed to the American public. Life in the small towns of both Russia and America are to some degree shaped by decisions made at a political level. I am American and I have no desire to tear down my country. While I love the study of Russian language, history, politics and religion, I do not think of myself as anything but an American. Yet I see no point in trying to hide my disagreement with ill-informed or self-serving political decisions or my disgust over the current imploding of our culture.

Freeman is a natural writer. I wish someone would give him a book deal — his story is pretty amazing.

UPDATE: Gang, don’t assume that because I’ve posted Hal Freeman’s story that I agree with him about becoming an expat to Russia. I don’t take a position on whether or not he and his family did the right thing. Maybe it was right for them. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself — I think about the starry-eyed American leftists who went to the Soviet Union in its early days to build Communism, and who suffered for it — but that doesn’t mean there’s not something worth learning in his family’s story. I’m interested in his views and stories about their life there. Since when does showing interest in someone’s thoughts and experiences imply that you endorse them?

Advertisement
111 Comments (Open | Close)

111 Comments To "Why The Freemans Moved To Russia"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 5, 2019 @ 9:41 pm

This is the erroneous thinking that creates wars:

“Russia would like to reassert domination over the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine; and if successful, that puts Russia back in a position to dominate Europe. If Russia can dominate Europe, it becomes a superpower again, and we’re back to the Cold War.”

To say that world peace and American well being depend on American hegemony and an unchallenged world empire based on military might and financial sanctions enabled by forced use of the American dollar, is the height of neocon folly. This is the religious defense of Full Spectrum Dominance, where 4% of the world’s population rule the 96%, without any accountability to that 96% whatsoever.

#2 Comment By Waz On February 5, 2019 @ 11:38 pm

The certainly unintended but quite enlightening irony of this piece is the picture of the spiritual asylum in Russia seeking American intently reading the still Communist Pravda (the Truth) newspaper.

#3 Comment By Fr Martin Fox On February 6, 2019 @ 6:51 am

Sid Finster said:

Br. Fox proposes a justification for war, empire and piracy, because doing otherwise means “abandoning our present way of life”. Well, I’d rather abandon our present way of life if that means that I can live and die an honest man. If some other country wants to pick up the mantle of robber in chief, let it.

And since it is the United States that has been the imperialist, the robber, the bully, the pirate (lest I trot out that abbreviated list of America’s wars of aggression again), I have zero problem abandoning the country I was born and raised in when it deserves to be abandoned.

I would say the same about Russia or any other country too, BTW.

Fran Macadam said:

“This is the erroneous thinking that creates wars:

“Russia would like to reassert domination over the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine; and if successful, that puts Russia back in a position to dominate Europe. If Russia can dominate Europe, it becomes a superpower again, and we’re back to the Cold War.”

To say that world peace and American well being depend on American hegemony and an unchallenged world empire based on military might and financial sanctions enabled by forced use of the American dollar, is the height of neocon folly. This is the religious defense of Full Spectrum Dominance, where 4% of the world’s population rule the 96%, without any accountability to that 96% whatsoever.

It’s almost as if the 20th century, with three world wars (the Cold War was a world war) never happened. And as if NATO never existed. But if it did, surely NATO must have gotten us into lots of wars, right? Because that’s what these two commenters say: NATO = war.

I remember it rather differently. NATO meant no war. The Cold War ended without the missiles being fired or the Fulda Gap being overrun.

Do these commenters think that Korea would be better off if united under the Kim dynasty? Why did that not happen?

You can wish for the Chinese to run the world. But if it happens, you may not like it so much. Here’s a hint: look at how they run the part of the world they do control.

#4 Comment By JonF On February 6, 2019 @ 8:21 am

In the tsarist era the Russian Empire included Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states as well as Finland and most of Poland. And yet Russia most certainly did not “dominate Europe”.

#5 Comment By Tom Wheeler On February 6, 2019 @ 8:30 am

Mr. Dreher, I did not write that you implied that people “ought to” move to Russia. I am just wary of coverage that even remotely suggests or implies that Russia is some kind of conservative haven and I am not suggesting that you have such beliefs, but that by posting an article that does seem to at least somewhat imply a sympathetic reading of such views you could lead your readers to such conclusions. I agree fully with the thesis that the secular Western culture is becoming more and more unwelcoming to the Christian way of life. It is a worry for which the Benedict Option may be the only solution. I would, however, warn strongly against trying to see Russia as some kind of possible beacon of light in this. It is not.

#6 Comment By DRK On February 6, 2019 @ 10:57 am

Facing such a grim future can you blame anyone for seeking a refuge especially for traditional Christian families? Russia may very well be that refuge.

Unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness of course. Then they will just throw you in jail for practicing your religion. Be very careful about doing ANY public witnessing of your faith in Russia, or you could run afoul of the Yarovaya law. Oh, and don’t have religious meetings in your house. And don’t email invitations to church to your friends. Just keep your head down and shut up about your faith and you should be all right.

[8]

[9]

[10]

#7 Comment By VikingLS On February 6, 2019 @ 11:04 am

“I would, however, warn strongly against trying to see Russia as some kind of possible beacon of light in this. It is not.”

This is a deeply irrational position to take.

#8 Comment By Ready for the Apocalypse On February 6, 2019 @ 11:24 am

Harve: good points. I wonder if Freeman would have relocated to Russia if his economic situation in the US had been better than it was? If his motives were primarily economic, that undermines the “Russia as natural homeland for conservatives” narrative.

#9 Comment By guy in MI On February 6, 2019 @ 12:48 pm

The idea of conservative Christians seeking refuge or just sanity in a Russia that has more of a future (for now) is both real and problematic. Real in that what much of what could until recently be considered normal here is still so there, and you will not be persecuted for your faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few others excepted. For my family’s circumstances moving back to Russia now is out of the question, but I have a running argument with my wife, who is from Russia, about maintaining Russian citizenship for our oldest child and getting it for our youngest, who was born in the US, simply because things have changed so much in America just in the five years that we have come here that it is somewhat alarming to consider what the future will bring. A part of me would like my children to have an option out, if they should ever decide it would come to that.
Problematic–because Russia is a real country that, despite whatever you may hear pro or con, simply doesn’t care about any Benedict Option as much as it does its own priorities. One sticky matter that has my wife against our kids’ dual citizenship is a recent Russian law saying that you must inform UFMS (Russia’s citizenship and immigration service) if you or your child has any dual citizenship or even residency in another country. (The US has yet to pursue this as much, as far as I know.) She says she feels this will be to стучать (inform) against her own kids.
If you don’t have a problem with this, then it may be just a minor bureaucratic hassle for you. However, it may one day be a possible mechanism for either closing some doors monitoring a few people.
Don’t get me wrong–Russia is far less oppressive on a daily basis than our media would have you believe. People treated this American with nothing but friendliness and courtesy (or as much could be expected in the big cities I lived in). I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who gave me a hard time for being American, and they were mostly old WWII veterans with chestfuls of medals.
A few conflicting thoughts about the church in society there–yes, officially it is much respected and it’s less apologetic than here. On the other hand, it’s mostly cultural for most people, and a great many people, often the more urbane and sophisticated people (just like here) hold it in some contempt, if not indifference. Still, there is real faith at work in places, but you sometimes have to look for it. As a couple commenters here noted, Russia is like the US in that its social safety net sucks. The church in Russia is one of the few organizations that try to alleviate that here and there, a few stories of which I know personally. These cases may be fewer and further between than some claims make it seem, however.

#10 Comment By arty On February 6, 2019 @ 5:43 pm

@ Guy in MI:

That sounds about right to me. I lived in Russia for a short time back in the early 2000’s, for the only person I ever heard refer to themselves as an atheist was my хозяйка, who was in her mid 60’s then. Everybody else just didn’t care/never mentioned it, with one exception. A young guy I used to practice Russian with would stop and light a candle at a church.

I stand by my earlier comment: nobody should put their faith in princes, either Russian ones or our own. All that matters is if there’s sufficient community, and if the state is likely to leave you alone.

I’m skeptical that a nation which perpetually uses abortion as a form of birth control has any more to offer than that.

#11 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On February 7, 2019 @ 2:01 am

In Christianity, as in any serious social institution, one can distinguish the stationary part — the solitary monasteries, the monastic cell, where nothing distracts the mind of the believer from fellowship with God and the mobile part — missionaries who disseminate ideas, test them with practice.
The desire to explore new spaces is one of the basic features of the American character.
Mr. Dreher quite rightly points out the complications of this American trait when he recalls “starry-eyed American leftists who went to the Soviet Union in its early days to build Communism, and who suffered for it”.
There are two types of birds: settled like pigeons and migratory, say starlings.
The nature of the starling is life in a circle and of course it will suffer if it begins to live a sedentary life like a pigeon, regularly receiving bread crumbs at the porch of an Orthodox church.