Stereotypes in Russia

July 29, 2015

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on issues in the tech industry, I believe that the persistence of certain stereotypes linked to gender and ethnicity influences levels of student achievement in the STEM disciplines. While such stereotypes remain largely unspoken these days due to shifts in American societal norms, the lack of their vocalization doesn’t make them any less real or any less impactful on the psyche of children and young adults who remain particularly vulnerable to them. This leads to proportionally fewer women and minorities who choose to major in STEM during college, which, in turn, has a knock-on effect on the gender and ethnic makeup of the tech industry.

Due to the number I drew in the grand lottery of birth, I’ve seldom experienced negative stereotyping directed towards me while living in America. However, as part as my graduate studies, I lived abroad in various places in Eastern Europe for approximately 35 months. Russia, in particular, has earned a deserved reputation for being a country where political correctness is largely a foreign concept and sexual harassment lawsuits non-existent. Though I managed to avoid any extremely unsavory incidents while there, I was undoubtedly subject to certain preconceptions by virtue of being an amerikanets. This was especially the case during the first years of the Iraq War, when Americans weren’t held in high regard pretty much anywhere in Europe.

As far as I can tell, nowadays the Russian everyman formulates his stereotypes of Americans from three main sources: 1) how Americans are portrayed in the Russian media (Cold War-style demonizing has been making a comeback lately, just as it has on our shores with regards to Russians), 2) how Americans portray themselves in Hollywood movies and hit TV shows, and 3) in Moscow and St. Petersburg at least, through contact with the Americans who live, work, and study there.

One prevalent stereotype is that we Americans smile an awful lot. This is an accurate stereotype—we’re taught from childhood to hold ourselves this way in public. Russians, on the other hand, will rarely crack a smile in a public setting, unless they are under the influence of a significant amount of alcohol. Therefore, they read American smiles according to their own cultural code: our constant smiles are a sign of our shallowness, stupidity, superficiality, and our collective failure to understand that life, in its essence, consists of one long, unbroken chain of suffering (which, just maybe, one day might become a source of redemption). In fairness to Russians, the mindset of the average American is probably more insular than the average European (those two large oceans help shield us from foreign cultures...and ground invasions), and those Americans who have the material resources to travel or study abroad have a certain carefree joie de vivrethat Joe Sixpack, who lives in rural Ohio and barely ekes out a living despite working two jobs, doesn’t possess.

The goofy American smile constantly on our lips made it easy for Russian policemen to pick us out from the waves of humanity exiting the metro station and ask to see our papers. Of course they weren’t really interested in finding out whether we were living there illegally, but rather they stopped us due to another enduring stereotype about Americans: we have lots of money. Combine this with our general lack of foreign language skills and it’s easy to see why Americans are frequently shaken down for bribes in Russia. Not nearly as often, mind you, as people from the Caucasus or Central Asia, who are subject to the most virulent strain of racism present in Russia today. Skin color in some sections of Russian society (or in some sections of American society, for that matter) is the point where stereotypes start to edge into more insidious territory.

So, barring a pair of incidents—one occurring during a conversation with an absolutely tanked Buryat in a small village on an island in the middle of the miraculous Lake Baikal (worth a visit to Wikipedia, trust me), and the second after jumping into a gypsy cab where I was exposed to a ten-minute diatribe about how Americans are screwing over Russia and generally ruining the entire world (I remember periodically grunting in response rather than risk betraying my vaguely foreign accent)—I can’t say I ever felt threatened due to my Americanness in Russia.

But, was I subject to preconceptions? Did most Russians I meet try to impose a form on me so that I more closely corresponded to their mental image of what an American should be (at least initially)? Did some of my language teachers, who have encountered hundreds of foreign students throughout the years, subconsciously do this too? Yes, yes, and probably. Did this feel good? Except in a few situations, no. Did I let this bother me? Nope. If anything, I liked the challenge of trying to shatter preconceptions by displaying, like a true American I guess, my individuality of thought, character, and action.