Greetings from Siberia. For the next five months I will be doing my best to survive the cold, copious amounts of vodka and meteorites here in Irkutsk. Since I have arrived, Siberia has been exactly as you would imagine it: cold, lots of snow and the babushkas seem like they could break my bones in less time than it takes to barter the price of potatoes. The first few days I was here, the mercury did rise above -25 degrees C; when I leave my home each morning, it is usually -35 degrees Celsius (-31 F). I walk outside each morning and immediately all of my exposed body orifices freeze shut.
In the spirit of Summer Dowd-Lukesh’s wonderful column, Les Petites Différences, I would like to begin by talking about differences between Russian and American cultures. I have already spent 13 months previously studying here in Russia and I am always surprised by how openly Russians embrace and talk about cultural stereotypes. In my conversation course at the university, usually the first questions I am asked is, “Sam, what do you think about Gypsies, Chuckchas (Russian Eskimos), Ukrainians, Georgians, Poles, Tajiks, Iranians, Jews, etc.” While I myself do not want to stereotype all Russians and do believe that most Russians are capable of astute observations and differentiation of individuals in a particular culture, the frequent mention of stereotypes both in and out of the classroom is one of the most blatant cultural differences I have observed so far.
My host mother, who is one of the sweetest women I have ever met, has already generalized or expressed displeasure of 17 ethnic groups (I am keeping track). When I give presentations to Russians about the United States, usually the very first question people ask me are about stereotypes Americans have of Russians, Belorussians, Latvians ect. Stereotypes here in Russia are so omnipresent that Russians have even created stereotypes that Americans have against Russians. In addition to prevalent alcoholism and political nihilism, most Russians also believe that Americans think that bears walk freely about the streets in Siberian cities. My friends are usually crestfallen when they learn that no such stereotype exists in the United States.
For my inner American moral compass, the feeling of constantly stereotyping different cultures, is akin to how I feel when Russians add copious amounts of mayonnaise to an otherwise delicious looking homemade pizza. Back home, the first moral lesson we learn in school is to never stereotype and celebrate cultural diversity. Supporting individual identity is as much a part of the American experience as apple pie and milk coming in plastic gallon containers.
Yet the more I thought about the role stereotypes play in these two different cultures, I began to realize that no matter how hard we try to avoid stereotypes back home, they are to a certain extent inevitable our age of mass media. From the suave upper-middle class white hero to his token black friend, American media seems to be breeding grounds for stereotypes albeit on a more nuanced level. Rather than blatantly stereotyping based on ethnic boundaries, media promotes more nuanced stereotypes based on social/class parameters. Even though we might not openly mention stereotypes in conversation, in my opinion, the adherence of certain social/ethnic groups to prescribed roles in the media is as real a stereotype as equating wealth with the Jewish people.
With the all this stereotyping and the largely negative recent news in the US media, Russia must seem like a barbaric and hostile to most America. The simple answer is it really isn’t. I have spent 14 months living here and I can sincerely say that there are many things about Russia and Russian culture that I envy; I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy every single minute. In many ways, I am envious of Russian culture and the way many people live.
In recent history, Russia has always been the polar opposite of the United States. While Western culture is quickly rushing in, people live in a completely different environment than the US and consequently the way of life is based on a completely different set of principles. People support authoritative leaders such as Putin because that is what is needed to keep such a huge and diverse country from falling apart. People like my host mother stereotype, not because they are inconsiderate of other cultures, but because that is the way they were taught to view other cultures in the Soviet Union. People drink vodka not because they are alcoholics (although some are) but because after dealing with the Russian bureaucracy you need a shot or two. While Russians are quickly accepting Western values and ideas, it may be high time to look to Russia for our own inspiration.