How Russians and Americans See Each Other

Today I’m taking a break from my observations regarding Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to make a simple observation about Russia and America.

Since 1989 I have been visiting Russia – usually staying a month or more each time. I have lost count of how many times I have made trips to Russia, but I know its over 20. I’m well acquainted with Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as the small town of Borovichi. Several times I have journeyed to Ukraine. I’ve met all kinds of Russians: rich and poor, well educated and barely educated, old and young. I’ve had extended conversations with Russians in their own language.

Based on my personal experience, I can make the following generalization: Americans tend to see Russia through the lens of politics while Russians tend to see America through the lens of culture.

When I discuss Russia with Americans, the conversation inevitably focuses on the latest conflicts or agreements between the American government and the leaders of Russia. Right now that relationship is strained by conflict over Ukraine and the economic sanctions President Obama and his administration have placed on Russia. There is evidence that these economic sanctions have hurt the Russian economy and have made the life of the average Russian harder. Given the current political tensions between the two countries, I wondered if this year when I came to Russia I would experience some level of hostility to me as an American. I am glad to report that that is not the case. This summer I have been welcomed everywhere here as warmly as in the past. When people ask, “Where are you from?” I usually say, “California,” and the responsive is always positive. I sometimes apologize to people that I don’t speak fluently and they invariably say something like, “No, you speak well enough.” No matter that I garble their grammar and can’t find the vocabulary to express myself. They are flattered that an American is trying to speak their language.

When my wife and I walk down Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of St. Petersburg, I notice that the movie theaters are showing all our American first run movies. I hear American pop music in the street. Last week my wife and I went to a jazz concert not knowing what would be played. It turned out to be all American jazz favorites. The Beatles are adored here. Venders in the street now sell hamburgers and hot dogs. In brief, Russians have embraced nearly all aspects of American culture.

We Americans, on the other hand know very little of the riches of Russian culture. How many Americans could identify Alexander Pushkin or name one Russian rock group? (It is hard to find a Russian who cannot recite many lines of Pushkin’s poetry.) How many Americans have tasted blini or pelmeni? When Americans envision Russia, they may picture parades of soldiers marching through Red Square. When Russians picture America, they think of the soap opera series “Santa Barbara” and living the good life on the Pacific Coast in California.

I am grateful that I have discovered the Russian people with all their warmth, hospitality, and good humor. I have grown to appreciate the enormous contributions have made to world culture in music, literature, dance, and art. I wish more Americans would come to know the Russia I have discovered.

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