It is conventional wisdom that under the Putin regime, anti-American sentiments have skyrocketed. The reasons for these are varied, ranging from the shortcomings of American foreign policy to a stereotypical culture of arrogance that is believed to be pervasive in American citizens about their country. There is also the assumption that the propaganda machine of Vladimir Putin’s government continuously feeds misinformation and hateful rhetoric about America to average Russians. They are thus imbued with xenophobia and a distrust of the West, Western culture, most especially the United States. However, after studying in Russia for more than a month, associating with Russian students and ordinary Russians in cafes and on the street, not to mention living with a Russian family, I am of the opinion that not only is this view overly simplistic, but it actually does harm to the Russian – American relationship.
I live in Moscow, which, admittedly, is more cosmopolitan than other places in Russia. That said, it does not make it immune from the charges mentioned above. Yet I have not once experienced discrimination or harassment by ordinary Russians, and especially Russians who can deduce that I am American. The first reaction of Russians to the realization that I am American has universally been one of fascination and great interest, rather than hostility. To a person, I have encountered friendliness and curiosity about what I am doing in Russia and about life in America. If there is any hostility expressed, it is usually directed at U.S. government policy rather than ordinary Americans. In fact, it has been my experience that Russians have used the opportunity to practice English when they find out I am American, and initiate conversation with me. It has been a welcome surprise and a lot of fun because I find out about them, too.
Often, if there is a deal breaker in a discussion with an average Russian, it amounts to how well you can speak the language. Russians have admitted to me that the language is difficult even for natives to master. Therefore, making an effort and demonstrating that you want to communicate in Russian will actually elicit a gregariousness that I have interpreted as delight in meeting me. The geniality they exhibit in my speaking their language encourages more conversation. Russians are clearly proud of their country, and appreciate the apparent interest I have in it as well. It is the same thing I have found when visiting other foreign countries—people love it when they sense you are enjoying their country and their language: I would not go to Germany without trying to speak German. I would not go to Japan without trying to speak Japanese. Language is the best icebreaker!
I’ve learned that Russians are genuinely interested about life in America and many I have met say they wish to travel to see it. So, while it is not accurate to say there is no disdain for Western or American culture in Russia, the notion that it is pervasive is overblown. A fascination with the West is evident in Russia, a result of the relative openness since the fall of the Soviet Union. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, American fast food restaurants like Burger King and KFC are extremely popular, especially among young Russians. In many restaurants, contemporary American pop songs can be heard playing. T-shirts with English and American slogans are practically everywhere. For younger Russians, America is a place of hip, cool and popular culture. Identifying yourself as American may even win you some new friends! It is a sign that there are those who think the relationship between Russia and American is still important. A word of warning, though: students should still be wary of those who may take advantage of our lack of knowledge of all things Russian. It’s a good thing that those Russians are few and far between!