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 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. 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,” 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.
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.
Here is a link to the original Dreher post that prompted Freeman’s response.
And here is a link to the home page of Freeman’s blog, Between Two Worlds. His archives go back to 2016. Here he is from last September writing about a return trip he and his family made to America 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 — 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?