“Is it true that Americans are afraid of Russians? That they hate us?” I had walked into my colleague’s English class, and, noticing an awkward hush among the students, had told my life story in a couple of minutes, highlighting my lifelong interest in Russia, beginning when I first went to Russia when I was just about their age. I thought maybe these students, sitting in a sunny room in an arts magnet school in the far Northern city of Petrozavodsk, would ask me about a singer they had seen on Youtube, or about pets or food. But instead, a thirteen year-old girl with bright eyes, a high forehead, and dark hair raised her hand and asked about American attitudes toward Russians.
So. Here we go again, I thought. Growing up during the Cold War, the hostility between our countries had weighed me down a lot. Gorbachev and Glasnost lightened the world tremendously: it had been 30 years since I had felt the terror about nuclear war that depressed me as a teenager. But the anxiety I saw in the girl’s face reminded of my worry at that age, my fear that political leaders with their own agendas would screw up the world I was entering into.
Students’ questions kept coming: “We listen to music from all over the world, but we don’t think people listen to our music. Why not? Is it not good? Is it because people can’t understand Russian?” “Why don’t people in other countries want to learn Russian? Is it really so hard?” “Why, when Russians are portrayed in movies, are their accents so bad?” “We have stereotypes of Americans as fat and stupid. Are these images true? (You aren’t offended, are you?!)”
I wished I could say to these kids, NO! Americans aren’t afraid of Russians! We like your music; your accents aren’t that weird, and it’s a lie to say that we’re fat and stupid! It’s my role as a guest, isn’t it: to reassure, entertain, and appreciate my hosts. But I can’t pretend that there aren’t truths in the stereotypes. So, I admit the parts that are true, and try to communicate that there is more to us, more to them, more to everything than simple associations can convey.
But I have been noticing an awful lot of stereotypes coming up in my own responses to what I’m seeing here. For instance, my host Irina and her students show me a charming video about this school, featuring the students’ and teachers’ many collective activities: dancing, building artful snowpeople…and shooting? The image of these kids in camouflage and gas masks running through the woods with rifles appalls me. When I learn that some of the kids I meet go to military after school programs rather than the music or dance programs I am used to, my view of these kids warps. I instantly assume they must be part of the new Russian youth ultra-nationalist movement that, according to American news stories I read, are being trained to inherit and continue Putinesque policies. Suddenly the stereotypes fill my head and start funneling my impressions of the students in front of me: I look for signs that fit my idea of militarized youth as machines, unquestioning and dangerously obedient.
I didn’t even realize I was carrying around so many prejudices about Russian patriotism. Where were my assumptions coming from? I started to realize how deeply media images and stories had penetrated my perception – some held over from when I was a kid, and certainly some recent stories. A tone of distrust, alarmism, and judgment had somehow become normal enough that I hadn’t even noticed it and its effects on me. I had allowed ideas to take hold in my brain without questioning them – sounds like fat and stupid to me!
If, in talking with young Russians, I wanted to urge them to look for multiple aspects of Americanness, Russianness, human complexity – I had to develop multiplicity in my own perspective. I needed to try to understand words, behaviors, and events in a greater range of meaning and contexts.
So, it was helpful to come across readings that opened up some of this range for me. For example, in her study of patriotic youth programs, Marlene Laruelle* emphasizes that in the context of Russia today, “patriotic” doesn’t really mean what we in the West think it means. For many participants and leaders, patriotic programs foster independence and care for the local community, not intensified nationalism. Laruelle talks about military clubs that defend young people who don’t want to enlist. She tells stories of young people in military archeology clubs who in their search for remains of WWII soldiers realize that the state didn’t give all their soldiers a proper burial. These young people participate avidly in patriotic clubs, but are decidedly anti-patriotic. “These patriotic practices,” Laruelle says, “are flexible, multidimensional, and open to diverse readings and levels of engagement. Patriotic narratives and practices are marked by a rejection of abstraction. They involve no messianism or ‘great-powerness’, but instead draw on living examples, local or familial heroes, life stories and sites to visit and cherish” (p. 25). This close look at how people actually understand patriotism in their local contexts made me realize that my understanding of patriotism was one-dimensional and abstract, based in hype, rhetoric, and my own fears.
Our young people are capable of constructing new stories about self and other, of growing the trust and respect that our interdependent world requires. It would help if we older folks stopped letting our own fears and assumptions get in the way.
*Marlene Laruelle (2015) Patriotic Youth Clubs in Russia. Professional Niches, Cultural Capital and Narratives of Social Engagement, Europe-Asia Studies, 67:1, 8-27.