Thank you, Amber, for the two responses you wrote me last week. You brought up a lot of questions and issues that got me thinking about ethnic diversity here in Russia and the way Russia is portrayed and percieved in the U.S. I’ll do my best to share some of my thoughts, experience and perspective based on what you wrote and asked. I was sure to copy/paste every time you used a question mark, as well as a few of your other comments. I even have a couple of questions you could maybe help me out with. Some of my answers will be brief, while some other comments are a bit longer. I’ve come back to add to this occasionally as I’ve had free time (which is not much) over the week before publishing it. I’m a slow writer. Apologies in advance if I get a little long winded.

Russians shouldn’t really be weighing in on the plight of African-Americans in America. No one who doesn’t fully understand the history should, and that’s most Americans too… a better response is one based in inquiry and respect, like yours

Thank you for the compliment. I agree that any cross cultural discussions should start from a position of inquiry and respect. There are a lot of things I don’t know and I have to depend on others’ knowledge. I’m not a mechanic or a doctor, for example, and so I have to trust their expertise if I need my car fixed or medical treatment. When it comes to culture and ethnicity, things can get a little more complicated.

I started teaching at a private school in Moscow just over 12 years ago and had been living and working in Moscow for several years before that. I have a Russian colleague, older than me who has been teaching much longer, before I was even born in fact. We teach the same students — I teach English literature and he teaches American history. He also teaches at one of the top universities here. I’ve seen part of his collection of Time magazine dating back to the 1970’s and we have had many good conversations over the years. He knows dates, events, can quote speeches from many of our U.S. presidents. His English is near perfect and he’s been to the U.S. several times. He most likely knows a lot more about my country than I do. But he doesn’t know what it’s like to be an American. I’m sure you can appreciate the difference.

this is a country that does have some history with the oppression of free thought, does it not?

Of course. That’s one of the reasons the break up of the Soviet Union was a good thing. Opposing views are not banned or repressed, but there seems to be more effort to marginalize or minimize the spread of radical views that could destabilize the country. This is actually quite normal in any modern country, even the U.S., and the only difference is the degree to which the media are limited by the government.

There are all kinds of opinions and thoughts available in Russia to read, watch and listen to. There are daily live debates on all kinds of current issues shown on many TV channels. Sometimes the debates seem to be slanted a certain direction (like many U.S. talk shows), but that in no way means that differing views are not discussed and no one is killed for sharing their opposing views. The news organizations that are most vocal in criticizing the government are indeed limited, mostly to radio, but in the age of information anyone who wants to be informed can be. Irina Khakamada, for example, is a long time critic and political opponent of Putin who still has her own TV and radio shows and blogs regularly. She is half Japanese, half Russian and when she ran for Russian president in 2004, she actually got more votes than Putin in the capital city of Moscow, although she finished fourth nationwide.

And are you suggesting that it is propaganda that journalists are shot down in the streets when they write stories in opposition to the political leadership’s position? I am just curious.

If you put it that way, then yes. That is very much propaganda.

How much of this is American demonization of Russian politics and how much of this is true?

I’m not going to take it on myself to say exactly how much is true and how much is just America demonizing Russia without knowing which sources you are referring to. Much of what’s written and said about Russia in the U.S. media is not true, or at the very least twisted, exaggerated and taken out of context to be spun for someone’s political goals. The same can be said about a lot of the anti-American propaganda I see here.

I wish I knew more languages, but because I’m fluent in both Russian and English I am able to compare what is said in the news. I am sympathetic to synchronized translators because I know how hard their job can be, having done it on occasion. In January, however, I noticed an especially egregious mistranslation of a word Putin used in part of his answer to a journalist’s question about Trump’s previous visits to Moscow. Putin used the word ‘пониженный’ (‘po-NEE-zhe-ni’) which any Russian dictionary will tell you means ‘degraded’, ‘reduced’ or ‘lowered’ depending on the context. The official English translation on live TV was ‘liberal’. ‘Liberal’ in Russian is либеральный (‘lee-be-RAWL-ni’). I don’t know why the translator on TV chose English word ‘liberal’ because the context didn’t warrant it. It’s hard for me to think of a more politically charged word than ‘liberal’ and it makes me wonder how often inaccurate translations have added to the misunderstanding between our two countries. (Stephen Colbert, by the way, did a whole opening monologue in his show about that Putin quote even though, as I said, Putin didn’t really quite say that. That didn’t stop Colbert from being hilarious as usual.)

Geography isn’t a strong part of the American education system. For many Americans the world can be simplified — Canada up there, Mexico down there and everything else is across the ocean. Russia, however, borders more countries than any other in the world, from North Korea to Norway. It’s Chinese and Mongolian borders are both longer than the U.S.-Mexican border. (And its other border with Kazakhstan is about as big as both of those — combined!) The U.S. has 50 states. Russia has 83 regions, areas and territories (more if you count the ‘disputed’ areas). I’ve yet to meet a Russian who can name them all.

I tend to value firsthand information. I am in a position where I have more access to firsthand information on certain topics than a lot of my fellow Americans. Since I’ve been living here, I’ve interacted with people from so many different regions and countries it’s hard to keep track. People from all over Russia and from the neighboring countries of Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine… this list could go on for a while. There’s a big difference, for example, between people from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Just because I’ve had negative experiences with the former and positive experiences with the latter, doesn’t mean that all Uzbeks are terrible and all Tajiks are good people and they can be offended if you confuse them with each other. Just like the Costa Rican man I worked with for several years in the U.S. who didn’t like being taken for one of the many Mexicans who also worked with us.

There are two words for ‘Russian’ in the Russian language and they are sometimes, but not always, interchangeable. Anyone who has a Russian passport is Russian, regardless of their ethnic background, just like Americans in America. There is a different word for those white ethnic Russians of slavic descent. The majority of people in my neighborhood are these kinds of Russians and after them the most common ethnic group is Armenian. A lot of the children in my son’s class are Armenian. Georgia is a different country altogether, and Abhazia and South Ossetia are territories that Georgia has been disputing Russian control over since 2008. When I wanted to know what’s the deal with why Russia and the U.S. were fighting over Abhazia, I was able to talk to a woman who was born there to get her take on the situation, as well as others who had been there more recently. How crazy is it that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, North Ossetia and South Ossetia ended up in different countries? Can you imagine North and South Carolina as parts of two separate countries? (A lot of the food, by the way, from the various countries I’ve named is excellent:)

Two of the most hotly debated regions in Russian are Chechnya and Crimea, the latter of which Russia took back control over in 2014. Chechnya, unfortunately, is one of the areas that has had centuries of conflict with Russia (a notable exception to the humane expansion by comparison to the U.S. that I mentioned in my previous response to you). One of my son’s karate teachers is from Chechnya. He’s a great person; does volunteer work at orphanages. I also had two students for several years from Chechnya, twin girls whose family had to leave Chechnya due to the most recent wars there in the 1990’s. One fall after summer break they came back to class after having visited their childhood home for the first time since leaving, or more accurately the field where their home had stood. I get a better feel for what Chechnya is like today talking with such people and most of what I hear contradicts what the Western media is saying.

As for Crimea, I know a woman who was born there but now lives in Moscow. She is so happy now that she doesn’t have to cross an international border (a border that didn’t exist in her childhood) to go home to visit her parents in Crimea so they can see their grandson. I know another man in almost the opposite situation. He’s the same friend I mentioned in my article on the Winter Olympics in Sochi who called me during a hotly contested U.S.-Russia hockey game. He can no longer drive down to see relatives in the Zaporozhia region of Ukraine, just north of Crimea, because it is now on the other side of a war zone in the surrounding regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. I’m sure his son misses his grandparents.

My wife is from the city Voronezh, and the Voronezh region borders Ukraine. We were there visiting her parents in 2014 when the violence in Ukraine started to escalate. Although the majority of those fleeing to Russia went through the Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu further south, I remember that lots of children’s summer camps were cancelled in the Voronezh region so that their territories could be used to temporarily house the influx of refugees. Tens of thousands of people, mostly children, fled from their homes to Russia for safety from a U.S. backed Ukrainian army. This is obviously not how the U.S. media wants to spin Russian ‘aggression’ when the Russians were the ones protecting people’s lives and rights. I cringe every time I hear the western media talk about Russia invading Ukraine. I remember watching part of a U.S. congressional hearing on C-SPAN about Ukraine and to their credit, some of those congressmen looked genuinely shocked to hear about some of the more radical forces the U.S. is supporting there, intentionally or not. I imagine if I was still living in the United States and didn’t have the chance to see and talk to so many people personally affected by what’s going on there I might also believe what many in our government want us to believe about Russia.

However, what you (and others) have said about Putin, tends to do the things that people attribute to dictators, which is yes, admittedly they do horrible things, but it would all be so much worse if they weren’t in power, ruling with an iron fist. I believe that’s true. It is quite a catch 22 for such a leader.

It is quite a catch 22 for any leader in such a position of power. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, as it were. If things go well, they’re praised; if things go badly, they’re cursed which is why they ironically often have the single most motivation to ensure that things go well. The real power of such leaders can be exaggerated to absurdity — they can get blamed for everything, including things no one can control. Many other people have noted that, in a sense, they are less free than the people they rule.

After their experience with the Bolshevik Revolution, Russians are in no hurry to start killing each other to replace their government (they’ve seen the true price!), especially since the current government, however imperfect, is making improvements. And when I say making improvements, I’m not thinking about the abstract, I’m thinking about the way people interact with their government on a day-to-day basis. Things like going to the DMV to register a car or renew a driver’s license or setting up a doctor’s appointment have noticeably improved in recent years with increased computerization. The city of Moscow even has an open portal online for feedback from citizens where they can complain about everything from potholes to corrupt local government officials. Traffic cops extorting bribes used to be a huge problem, but has become much less frequent in recent years due to measures taken by the government. I could go on. I’ve lived in or travelled to enough other cities besides Moscow to recognize that it is an outlier, but other regions in Russia are improving as well, albeit not as rapidly.

In the end, my overall point about Russia, which was that Russia has suffered, due to always coming under dictatorships), you don’t seem to really be disputing, here.

I wasn’t disputing that there, but here I’ll dispute your use of the word ‘dictatorship’. Putin is no dictator and that word gets thrown around too much. Several years ago before Gaddafi was murdered, I remember reading an article that traced how the British and American media alternate used the terms ‘Libyan president’ as opposed to ‘Libyan dictator’ when referring to him over the years. Basically, if he said or did anything pro-Western (like allowing foreign oil companies to work in Libya) he was called the President. If he did anything seen to be more selfish, even if it was in the interest of his country, he was called a dictator. People from Europe used to vacation to Libya. Now it’s a mess.

Bush, Obama, Putin and others have been compared to Hitler or Stalin. Doing so serves no factual purpose other than expressing how the speaker feels about a certain leader. (See my article about words and their meaning). It actually has the negative effect of lessening how monstrous people like Stalin or Hitler really were, especially to children who have never heard of either and now link them to people like Bush or Obama. Yes, the Russian people have really suffered under poor leadership at various times in their history which is one of the reasons most appreciate Putin for being such a good leader, despite his shortcomings.

And I do understand that, all things considered, Putin is good for Russia, but is he good for the rest of the world? Probably not. Is he good for America? Why would he be? Has America been good for him or Russia? Certainly not. So, it stands to reason Putin’s Russia has something to gain from American destabilization. But to be fair, many countries do.

What you are describing here is a false dichotomy, a mind trap. People who have inherited and continue zero-sum Cold War mentality fall into this trap. What’s bad for them is good for us and vice versa. ‘Us against them’ and I get it. My grandmother’s last words to me were ‘You can’t go to Russia. The commies will get you!’. (I’ve been here a while now and haven’t been ‘got’ by any commies:) The problem with this mentality is that it excludes the possibility of both countries being strong partners, even friends, working together for the common good. We can be good for each other! As Lincoln said, ‘Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’ (See my Kindergarten Lessons piece.)

Most forget that before 2007, Russia had been working more closely with NATO until they were told, directly and indirectly, that they couldn’t be trusted within NATO. NATO, an expanding military block, needs an ‘enemy’ to justify it’s existence (and budget!) and Russia serves that purpose just fine. It was in 2007 that Putin gave his (in)famous Munich speech that most experts point to as a turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. I can be pro-American and pro-Russian, wanting the best for both countries, without contradicting myself and anyone who argues otherwise should reexamine their own values and motives.

There is a lot of information circulating in the American media regarding information warfare being waged in America by Russian influence. This certainly seems to be something that logically is within the realm of possibilities. Are you suggesting it’s not?

I’m not suggesting it’s not. There is always an information war going. The only thing that keeps us from being victims of such a war is our own critical thinking.

Of course I realize, there are blacks in Russia, as at this time in human history everyone is everywhere, but, I imagine that there numbers have got to be incredibly, statistically small, compared to the overall population, as there was no massive slave trade between Africa and Russia.

Isn’t that a good thing? The fact that the Africans who came here came of their own free will, not bound by chains? But the Russians made slaves of each other. That’s essentially what serfdom was. It’s part of sad legacy that Russians are still dealing with, especially now in relationship to the fallen Soviet regime, a legacy that now has the descendants of both the victims and their oppressors learning to live together with variable degrees of success. Sound familiar?

Slavery is not over, in America. Not by a long shot. But of course from the outside looking in, that’s the assumption. If that’s your assumption, have at it.

That’s not my assumption and I hear what you are saying. I think you are more accurate, however, when you have written that you are ‘dealing with the ramifications of slavery daily’, rather than slavery itself. Human trafficking is still a problem in the modern world where people can be kidnapped and sold as manual laborers or sex workers in other countries. Stopping human trafficking was, in fact, one of the less discussed factors that led Russia to the most recent wars in Chechnya. If you or anyone in your family have suffered from this kind of modern slavery (and I know of families in the U.S. who have been affected by this), I am indeed truly sorry. Linguistically it can be correct to say that many are ‘slaves to their student loans or mortgages’ but such a use of the term can sometimes be confusing to those whose first language is not English. Such uses of the term should not be confused with slavery when it means owning another human.

My favorite Bob Marley quote.

Buying and selling another human is no longer legal in the U.S. (it’s horrible that it ever was) and if that is someone’s limited definition of slavery, then they are right when they say that it’s over. I’ve come understand that many like yourself have inherited a new kind of slavery, as you call it, that stems from the old kind. I believe this has more to do with inequality, racial profiling, segregation, relations with the police, etc. As an outsider who hasn’t suffered from this, it’s not my place to comment. But I can listen. And when I do listen I hear different voices within the African American community and I have to be open to others' experiences who may not feel as oppressed as you do, such as the man in this article.

The responses to this article were as interesting as the article itself. What do you think about it? I hope you can be happy for any of your fellow Americans, whatever skin color they may have, including black, who do feel fully free and unoppressed living in America. In many places (and if that is too general for you, in many families at least) slavery and racial segregation truly is over. I hope we can all get to that point. You and I can both point to multiple cases where this is unfortunately not the case and we definitely have a long way to go to ensuring racial equality in America.

In my classes, we spend a couple of weeks each year on ‘Everyday Use’ by Alice Walker. Here’s a link to the full text my students read:

And here’s a link to the video I show in class:

There is obviously a lot of ways this can be interpreted and presented, like all good literature. Film and books are different mediums, of course, each with their advantages and limitations. There are many nuances in the text that could not be included in the film, and there are some details added in the film that add depth to the story. When the college educated older sister asks her younger sister to ‘fetch her some lemonade’, I understand there’s a lot more going on than what’s on the surface, which is why the mother interceding at that point, and at the end with the quilts is so significant to the way each character perceives and lives their heritage. I have my own ideas, but I recognize my limitations as a white American in teaching such material. Any thoughts or insights that you could share with me would be much appreciated if you have the time. (And thanks, by the way, for mentioning Darkness at Noon in your response. I have not read it but it is now on my reading list.)

At any rate, definitely some interesting choices you’ve made, to be an American working in Russia.

I never expected it. How I ended up here is a story for another time.

I hope reading through this was worth your time. I look forward to your thoughts and insights on the African American community. (If anyone else reading this and would like to comment on something I’ve written here, you’re more than welcome.)