At the highest levels, politicians and policymakers in the U.S. and Russia seem to hold very different opinions of each other, which can clearly be seen between the two top leaders of the world. Is America truly stuck in it’s isolationist views or is this just one of misconceptions held by the rest of the world.
But what if it’s not just the top leaders and thinkers who hold these opinions and misconceptions? What if the majority of Russians – or at least, the Russians that Vladimir Putin wants to appeal to – do not consider Americans “exceptional” at all?
It’s too easy to blame a “Cold War mentality” when, in fact, cultural stereotypes about Americans seem to be deeply embedded in the Russian national psyche. Take these persistent cultural stereotypes about Americans, for example, that just about any American visitor encounters after spending time in Russia (I have).
Here are just a few examples.
1. “All Americans are rich”
In Russia there is a perception that all Americans are rich, or at least the majority of them. This comes from how western media portrays the average American. Wealth in Russia is viewed in a different way from the States, most people here live on very modest salaries compared to Americans.
American salaries are indeed higher than Russian ones. According to the United States 2012 Census, the median annual salary in the U.S. was $51,017. Meanwhile, the average Russian salary per year ranges from about $9,800 to $11,300 as determined by the Russian Federation’s Federal Statistics Service. Interestingly enough in Tatarstan we have a higher level middle class earners than most areas of Russia.
However, stating that Americans are rich isn’t correct, especially when one factors in the debt that Americans have. From Federal Reserve statistics, it is estimated that each American household has about $7,072 in credit card debt, $146,675 in mortgage debt, and $31,374 in student loan debt.
I remember after first arriving here I held a class about Credit and the use of credit cards, I asked my students how many credit cards they had in their wallets. The whole class was stumped by the question, none of them had a single credit card. They politely told me Russians don’t carry credit cards. I quickly had to change my lesson plans realizing that I had wrongly assumed everyone has at least a couple of credit cards. The reason they don’t, because they don’t trust the banks. Perhaps, once you factor this in, plus free education and health care, Russians don’t have it so bad after all.
2. “All Americans are fat because everybody eats fast food”
The number of Americans that are obese is indeed high. In January 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report placed American adult obesity at 37.5 percent. For children and teens the percentage is around 16.9. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences., 25 percent of the population of Russia is obese as of November 2012.
Comparing the number of super-sized Americans to Russians, I’d say that America has Russia beat. When I arrived in Russia I was 40 lbs. overweight due to consuming to much fast food. The number of Americans who indulge themselves in fast food is indeed high. One nice thing about living in Russia is that you won’t find fast food restaurants on every corner. Most people here make an effort to eat at home, if they choose to eat out it can be quite expensive. So saying that all Americans are fat is a unfair stereotype and does not apply to all of them.
For example, according to Vegetarian Times, about 3.2 percent of American adults are vegetarian. This is about 7.3 million people. A July 2012 Gallup Poll recorded this percentage as even higher, with 5 percent of American adults declaring themselves vegetarians.
Occasionally I’ll find myself eating American-style junk food during sudden moments of homesickness, but that seems to be happening a lot less often, hopefully a good sign. Now if we had restaurants like, The Cheese Factory, P.F. Chang’s or maybe even Shoney’s I might just eat out a little more, but alas they are only in America.
3. “Americans are stupid”
Jokes about Americans being stupid are probably some of the favorite ones in Russia. If you type in “тупые” (stupid) in Google the third popular search result appears to be “Stupid Americans”(see picture above for proof).
See in Russia smiling is considered somewhat of a stupid thing. It’s one of the reasons I don’t smile so much in public here. When I leave the house I tend to wear a rather austere expression on my my face (especially if I’m alone). If you are smiling broadly or laughing loudly while on the bus or metro here, it will immediately become clear that foreigners are among them. The problem with this is that it tends to feed the stereotype that Americans are loud, obnoxious, and somewhat empty headed. See if we do smile at a stranger here, we were deemed foolish even though we only meant it to be polite. Why? Because Russians view it as though we were are naïve and a bit to trusting of someone we don’t even know.
One of the real culprits of the dumbing down of America is the mass media which started it’s campaign during 70’s and 80’s. The reasons behind are hard to understand but very real. More recently Kicker has worked hard to reverse this trend.
Russians know from their own history that trusting the wrong person can lead to disastrous consequences (are you paying attention America). So, unless you want to be known as the susceptible and goofy foreigner when visiting, I’d recommend keeping a facial expression that matches the weather. Cold and frosty.
4. “Americans hate Russia”
According to a September 2013 Gallup Poll, 50 percent of Americans see Russia as an enemy or unfriendly, while only 44 percent consider Russia as an ally or friendly.
Positive perceptions have not been this low in fifteen years. The last time Gallup posed this question, in 2006, 73 percent of those polled called Russia friendly or an ally, compared with just 20 percent who saw it as unfriendly or an enemy.
However, to say Americans hate Russia might be overboard. There may be some conflicting interests now, but this does not necessarily imply hate. Moreover, the lingering Cold War mistrust and labels of Russians as ‘Commies’, is very limited and confined to a small and uneducated part of the American populace.
When it comes to opinions regarding Russia, I would say that most Americans are more perplexed than anything because they do not have the full picture of Russia. The same may be true of our leaders, policymakers and analysts – it’s not so much that they are lost in some kind of “Cold War mentality” – it’s that they’ve allowed persistent cultural stereotypes to influence their thinking. Maybe what they need is a good trip abroad to open their eyes to reality.
Here’s a short video about what Russian’s think about Americans.