Opinion » Columnists

America and Russia through the eyes of an American

I want to thank the staff of Pravda for inviting me to write this article.  The Pravda staff are very good people and I enjoy Pravda.
Through a series of articles, I will explain America, how to prepare coming here, how to communicate, how to find help, and what to see and do while you are here.  I want to help guide you, both student and or tourist, to become prepared for your visit, and I hope that your memories of America will be as wonderful as my memories of Russia.  I also want to give you insights into the average American way of life.

Both our countries have faced serious problems with each other.  At several times, we were very close to war.  We each developed attitudes towards the other.  Attitudes that we were fed by our governments, told us to hate and mistrust each other.  But hatred is a government thing.  People on the other hand, have different ideas, for we have common bonds. 

Our language, customs and culture are the only things that separate us.  Those are not the basis for hatred, but these are what make us humans.  It is those differences which are a common blessing as we learn from each other.  We have so much to give and receive from each other. Neither country is better than the other.  We are countries that are trying to find the higher meaning of ourselves. 

Russia, as far as the world goes, is once again reinventing itself.  Russia is for all practical purposes, a very new country, but yet it is still a very old country. Russian history has given Russia a soul and an identity.  Russia has a soul that lies in the very heart of the Russian people.  I remember walking through St. Basil the Blessed.  Here is a church that goes back hundreds of years and provides a solid and colorful pillar of continuity from the past to the present.  I toured the Kremlin and I was absolutely amazed – I stood in the vestibule where the Tzars were crowned.  I walked through Red Square where Lenin spoke. I rode the subways of Moscow and each central stopping point is an art form unto itself.  I saw the Russian White House.  I have felt the Russian soul.  Be proud Russia. 

Why I bring this up is because Russia has so much from their past that is still standing.  America, unfortunately, tore down much of its older buildings and with that action, part of America died with it.   To the Russian people, I urge you to retain your past and cherish it. 

Russian has yet to discover tourism – and, you will eventually.  You have so many beautiful show cases of history and culture.  Russia truly needs a Department of Tourism.

Having been military, I stood at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin to pay my respects. I reflected, as a military person would, the significance of what was before me.  Russia withstood one of the most savage attacks in the history of modern warfare and repulsed the Nazi invasion.  I looked at each one of the granite boxes, filled with the earth from Star Cities that fought back.  Unless one has been in the military, one can not appreciate the solemn and hallowed changing of the guard in their ever vigilant salute to Russia’s unknown soldier.

I should also like to extend congratulations to President Putin on his re-election.  Russia has a very capable leader in him.  As an American, I like him – he is straight forward, does what he says he is going to do and he has the background to make sound decisions. Actually, I’d like to meet him and hear more of his plans for this new Russia.

During the fall and winter months, American companies will recruit Russian students to come and work in the United States during the summer months.  Many students agree to participate in this work program, and when they arrive in America, they find that there are poorly prepared on what to expect.

First time visitors to America are also unprepared for the American experience.

Why are they unprepared?  Because they view America through the eyes of the American movies they see, and the books they have read.   It is easier to tell you what America is not, rather than what it is.

My background – I am a middle aged man, and I am a Rabbi.  I came to Russia about 4.5 years ago, met a beautiful Russian woman, and she is now my wife.  I’ve known people from America who went to Russia and did not have a good experience – the question becomes “why”.  I prepared myself for my trip, I studied Russian culture, I studied the history of Moscow, and I used the internet effectively to learn all I could.

When I came to Russia, I wanted to have no pre-conceived ideas from an American point of view.  I wanted to experience Russia as best I could with an open mind.  I’m glad I did.

My trip to Russia was very pleasant and wonderful.  I have many, many good memories, and I hope to return again soon.

I’ve known people who have gone to Russia and come back. They relate bad stories, had a miserable time and never want to return.  My usual question to them is why they had a bad time.  And it always comes down to one thing: attitude. To visit a foreign land, one must remember that one is going to their country, must follow their rules, and expect no special treatment just because one of from this country or another.  Special treatment comes from being respectful of that country.

Special treatment comes from knowing something about the people, the culture, and the customs.  In short learn, all you can before visiting.  Show an interest in the people and places.  You will be very surprised at the special treatment you will get.

An example – when I went to Russia and was going through customs, I remembered that the US Embassy said to plan on at least 1.5 hours.  Showing respect, asking advice and having an interest in what was going on, I got escorted through Customs, by a military person, and it only took me 20 minutes.

I find it ironic that I should be writing this article in the month of July, for it was in July of 1776, the American colonies chose to divorce themselves from the British Commonwealth.  The colonies became a country.  And now, I write of this country.

Our government is not a new form of government – the ideal of electing a country’s leaders has its’ foundations in many ancient societies.  The ideals of having a governing body of elected officials, who make the laws, goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.  Russian is now learning this form of government.

America has had to learn the many lessons of the democratic process the hard way, through trial and error.  Mistakes were and are still being made, but it is getting better.  One of the most basic tenants is having the right to say what you think.  We also can travel this country without the need for special permission.  But, it means that the individual must take more responsibility for themselves – this is not a bad thing.

The American experience is a diverse experience.  There is no single ethnic group, no predominate religion, nor a single opinion.

America is composed of many nationalities.  We are Native Americans, Swedes, Blacks, Whites, and Mexicans.  We have Jews, Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics, and Moslems. 

We have large cities such as New York, which is the size of Moscow, and we have small towns in the farming areas.  We have crowded streets and we have stretches of highway where you will not see another person for hours at a time.

And, what this means is that if you are going to come to America, you must know where you want to go, and how you are going to get there.  You will have to prepare yourself for a diverse population, each with its’ own special identity and ways.

I have had tourists call me, or ask me, where they can see American gangsters like Al Capone.  My own father in law came here for a visit and wanted to know where the Indians were, with their horses and teepees.  America is not those things.

One has to come here with an open mind, and a willingness to try and understand.  America is not Hollywood.

America is not a country where money falls from the sky, not all people are rich, and not all people live in large houses.  The average American goes to work, earns their check, and comes home to an apartment.  This is America.  I can highly recommend you see the movie “Moscow on the Hudson” starring Robin Williams.  This is a movie which comes close to showing the American experience.

Americans earn a higher salary than most of the world, but we also have a higher cost of living.  Coming to America to work during the summer means you will experience this for yourself; there are bills to pay, rent to pay, and food to buy.  But if you are prudent, you will be able to save money and go home with money – enough to fund the next year of your college education. Or you can choose to buy new clothes, see another part of the country, and have a nice time.  The choice is entirely yours.

There are Russian communities in all major cities – in New York, there is Brighton Beach.  Where I live, St. Louis Park, we have a large Russian community.  I urge you to seek out these communities, for the people can be very helpful in helping you find your way.  The best way to find these communities is either through the Russian Orthodox churches or the Jewish Synagogues. 

America cannot be judged by our movies.  Nor can America be judged by the actions of our leaders.  America can only be judged by the common people of this country.  And, it is with the common people you will associate with.

Russian people and American people are not so different – we all have the same hopes and dreams.  We have common values.  We smile, we laugh, and we cry.  We are all willing to extend a hand to help. And, some how, in spite of language differences, we find a way to communicate.  My own experience in Russia – I found this to be absolutely true, people will find a common way to exchange ideas, thoughts, and to answer questions. 

When I went to Moscow, for the first day, I did not have a personal assistant yet – I got through customs, got a taxi, and got checked into the Hotel Rossyia.  People find a way to converse.

My father in law, when he came to America, he spoke absolutely no English and I only know 5 words in Russian – but, we developed a special language all our own.  After a while, he could go to the store on his own and get what he needed with no assistance.

If you do not speak good English – please, don’t worry.  

I will write more in my next article.  I wish you all a wonderful day.

Until next time, Dosvedanya.

Michael Berglin

Several years ago, a prominent Indonesian businessman who now resides in Canada, insisted on meeting me in a back room of one of Jakarta's posh restaurants. An avid reader of mine, he 'had something urgent to tell me', after finding out that our paths were going to be crossing in this destroyed and hopelessly polluted Indonesian capital.

Capitalism reduced Indonesian cities to infested carcases

Several years ago, a prominent Indonesian businessman who now resides in Canada, insisted on meeting me in a back room of one of Jakarta's posh restaurants. An avid reader of mine, he 'had something urgent to tell me', after finding out that our paths were going to be crossing in this destroyed and hopelessly polluted Indonesian capital.

Capitalism reduced Indonesian cities to infested carcases
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