“I Dream of America”: Russian Impressions of America & Americans

Upon our arrival, and as a way to gauge my students’ English language skills, I asked them to tell me what came to mind when they hear the words “America” and/or “Americans.”  It was quite revealing both in terms of their perceptions of the United States as well as what it implied about their feelings toward their native Russia. The one word that was repeated over and over again with reference to America was “dream”; the common symbol mentioned was the Statue of Liberty; and the first place they want to visit is New York City.

“I dream of visiting America” or “I dream of moving to America” was written repeatedly.   In addition to NYC, Florida and California (specifically, Hollywood) were the top vote getters for places to visit in the U.S.  But there was also a recurrent desire expressed to move to America permanently.  Many young people have friends studying in the U.S. and none of them want to return to Russia. Moreover, these feelings about America have been confirmed in our interactions with other, older Russians (up to early forties in age).  These two generations, the younger ones who never experienced communist rule, and the generation that preceded them, the ones who came of age during the fall of communism (1989-1991), share in the belief that America remains the land of opportunity.  Conversely, they see a limited future for themselves, at least at this point in their country’s historical development.  Such attitudes, regrettably, do not bode well for the future of Russia if all their best and brightest want to leave the country.

A group of students marked the beginning of the Islamic Eid al-Adha religious observance with a party of tea and typical Tatar treats.  They also explained the meaning of the holiday and showed a video about it.

Their view of Americans as a people also had some recurrent themes.  Most prominent was the belief that Americans are very open, friendly, and that we smile a lot:)  One of the more curious descriptions of Americans was that we are “lazy but creative.”(!)  The student who wrote that explained that Americans are constantly trying to figure out better, more efficient ways to do things so in turn we can be lazy.  Maybe she’s right!

If there is an American icon for young Russians it is undoubtedly Steven Jobs.  Apple products are very expensive, but coveted by their generation.  Russian youth love technology; in fact, Russians spend more money per capita than Americans on high technology and related gadgets.  It’s no wonder Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg visited Moscow last month.  He ate at McDonald’s, judged a technology competition, and met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, all as part of his bid to better position Facebook in the Russian social media market.

In short, there is great interest in all things American and learning about America.  And great admiration, too, for the place we are fortunate to call home.

American influence can be seen in a variety of ways, but so far not too much English language penetration. Can you figure out what this Russian sign says (hint follows)? (Mark Zuckerberg) 

KFC has a huge presence on the main pedestrian street in Kazan.

A display of Budweiser beer in a grocery store. It was the only such display featuring one brand of beer.  Artificial Christmas trees (in front of beer case), Santa Claus, and holiday items are popping up in stores.

Next post:  Food (i.e., adventures in Russian grocery shopping!)

22 thoughts on ““I Dream of America”: Russian Impressions of America & Americans

    • Thanks, Jon. While riding the train to Yekaterinburg in Siberia last week, Sandra and I looked at each other simultaneously and said, “We’re in Russia!” Still seems strange at times, but what an experience!

  1. I hope you did not have have to eat McD’s for your chef created Thanksgiving!

    Loved the info on how the Russian students think of the U.S.

    They are advertising the Russian Ballet playing in the cities. Every time I hear the ad I think of the treat you and Sandra will have in January!

    Miss you. Hugs. Jan

    • Jan,

      Our chef-created Thanksgiving was quite the feast. Here’s the summary I cribbed from Sandra’s notes:

      Chicken with herbs (no turkeys here). Appetizers included candied nuts, pomegranate, sausage, and roquefort cheese eaten between sips of fresh cranberry juice with purple basil leaf. Sam had his juice spiked with vodka. Instead of potatoes we had oven roasted cubed pumpkin, saute’d oyster mushrooms, herbs and leeks, pan gravy, deviled eggs, and fresh greens. Spencer, the chef, had made almond butter which he added to an apple cider homemade vinaigrette. The salad was thinly sliced shallots, celery, parsley, and leeks–no lettuce or tomatoes. The beverage for dinner was mulled wine Bela had made from an old English recipe–red wine, cognac, and almost every spice in their kitchen topped with a slice of lemon. Fresh apple crisp for dessert. We hope to meet them in Moscow for another sumptuous meal.

      So we definitely didn’t starve!

  2. I am blown away by the fact that the youth of Russia still generally dream of coming to the United States, even after so long after the fall of communism. Perhaps the next generation will feel differently. Thanks so much for your blog.

    • Carolyn,

      My hypothesis is that with the more open society and because of the internet, youth have an even greater sense of what opportunity is (or should be). I suspect that it will take the passing of the current generation of leaders, men who lived under communism and then found a way to continue their leadership in the post-Soviet government, before Russia really opens up in a truly Western fashion.

  3. Sam,

    Here are some of perceptions from while I was there in 2002:

    Yes, the Russians perceived us as being somewhat “carefree and joyful”, as though we don’t carry a heavy burden. Russian are always “serious”, all the time, and never really seem to “kick back and relax”.

    Also they seemed to have a slightly skewed idea as to how much it costs to live a good lifestyle in the US.

    A Russian explained to me that pretty much that everything they earn goes right back into paying apartment rent and food, and very basic necessities, with not a lot of money left over for anything else. And so when they learn of our incomes, they think that we are living a pretty opulent lifestyle. What they don’t realize, until I explained it to them, is that many of our costs in the US are MUCH higher. Whereas in Kursk, Russia, the rent for an apartment was $100-$150 per month, and in the US, the rent is more like $450 – $600 for an apartment in rural areas and $900+ for urban.

    Also our interpreter seemed a bit embarrassed when we would see or be approached by a homeless person begging. I explained that in urban areas in the US, that the same scenario plays out. Our interpreter was a bit surprised to hear that there are homeless people in the US.

    So in some respects, perceptions of another place, without actually having lived there for a period of time, are not necessarily reality.

    Do we generally live a more affluent lifestyle than the Russians? Definitely. Is it on the order of magnitude that they perceive it at? Probably not.

    - Allen -

    • Sam, so good to hear from and about you!!!! Sounds like you are busy and productive as usual!. Make the most of your Russian adventure – I’ve never been there, but would like to go someday.

      Best to you and Sandra this holiday season
      Bernice

    • I think your analysis is accurate, Allen. Perceptions of another country and its people are shaped by a variety of factors, but especially today by mass/social media. I don’t know how accessible the internet was ten years ago, but it is definitely a “game changer” when it comes to perceptions today.

      On a recent taxi ride the driver asked what the starting salary was for teachers in the U.S. I gave him some ballpark figures with all the caveats. I suspect he added a bit to our fare just knowing what the general starting salary was for teachers.

      You might be interested in this article about Russian perceptions of America/ns:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/world/europe/book-gives-russians-close-up-of-american-minutiae.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&

  4. What an awesome experience for you to be there and to represent Ridgewater so well while doing it. I bet you simply can’t journal enough..so much observing to do, questions to ask, listening to do. Thanks for sharing the experience with us!

    • Thanks for your note, Janet. You’re exactly right when it comes to blogging! Something happens every day that is new, different, exhilarating, exasperating, crazy, head scratching, funny, etc. All part of the adventure!

    • Thanks, Mary, for your note. As with any experience like this there are ups and downs, but by far it has been an amazing adventure. It’s the people who make the experience and we have met many wonderful Russians who are as interested in us and America as we are in them and in Russia.

  5. Very interesting, please keep us up to date on your trip! It intrigues me, I learned something new after reading this – thank you; its not everyday I get to learn something new! I wonder why other countries feel that way and why we do not see it the same – perhaps we take what we have for granted.

    • I’m glad you’re learning something from our experience, Aliya! Unless you have the opportunity to travel and see how the rest of the world lives, I think you are correct that it’s easy to take what we have for granted. Hope to hear from you again in response to future posts.

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