Just as cultural stereotypes have persisted in the way Russians view Americans, the same is true in the way Americans view Russians

America's view of Russia is full of stereotypes. Photo: RIA Novosti

The way most Americans think about Russian leaders says a lot about the way these stereotypes can get in the way of diplomacy and foreign policy. Most Americans would be quick to characterize Vladimir Putin as a Communist (he’s not), Mikhail Gorbachev as a typical Russian (he wasn’t – he was actually from a Russian-Ukrainian family), Boris Yeltsin as just another alcoholic Russian (he was more nuanced than that, as Timothy Colton has pointed out), and former Soviet leaders as united in their “hatred” of America (not true at all).

In an earlier article, I suggested that Americans are perplexed about Russia because they do not have a full picture of the country. This article aims to provide a clearer view of Russia and to highlight and rectify some of the misconceptions about the country.

1.      “All Russians are alcoholics”

“Vodka is our enemy, so we’ll utterly consume it!” and “There can only be not enough vodka!” seem to sum up stereotypical Russian sentiments regarding the spirit. With phrases such as these and the custom of never leaving a bottle unfinished, it is rather easy to understand why Americans have the misperception that all Russians are gulping down vodka. However, not all Russians are drinking heavily. According to Rosstat, 40% of the Russian population abstains from alcohol completely. As a point of comparison, 37% of Americans said they abstained from alcohol in a 2011 World Health Authority study.

Shockingly enough, vodka’s dominance is being challenged as beer’s popularity skyrockets in Russia. Considered ‘healthier’ by some, beer has seen an increase in sales of 40% in the past decade. Come to think of it, I recall more people buying and drinking beer than vodka. This was especially true while relaxing at the park. In that regard, Americans and Russians are not so different - both enjoy a good beer. Heavier drinkers, however, scoff at beer’s lower alcohol levels, stating “beer without vodka is like throwing money to the wind.” And so vodka’s legacy lives on…

Needless to say then, alcoholism is still clearly an issue in Russia with about 2 million diagnosed cases in 2011 according the World Health Organization. All one needs to do is pass through a metro perekhod (underground crosswalk) to notice the inebriated loiterers and brawlers. The problem of alcoholism is very evident then. However, it is a declining issue within the past few years.

In 2010, the average annual consumption per person in Russia was an astounding 18 liters. By 2013 the number dropped to 13.5 liters as recorded by Rosstat. 13.5 liters is still quite a bit and higher than the American figures calculated by the World Health Authority in 2011 at 7.5-10 liters annually. Nonetheless, it is an impressive 25% decrease.

In addition, the mortality rate of alcohol-related deaths seems to be decreasing, at least in regards to alcohol poisoning. In 2009, the Public Chamber of Russia reported more than 500,000 deaths related to alcohol. This same figure reoccurred in the 2011 World Health Organization’s report that said about 500,000 Russians died from alcohol-related crimes, accidents, and sicknesses. However, the figures on alcohol poisoning are drastically lower. There were approximately 23,000 deaths by alcohol poisoning in 2011 as recorded by a World Health Organization report. According to the same report, this number dropped to under 10,000 in 2013.

The death toll from all alcohol-related in America stands at 80,374 according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Alcohol Related Disease Impact Report. This figure includes alcohol poisoning (370 deaths); motor vehicle accidents caused by drunk driving, hypothermia; long-term illnesses caused by alcohol such as liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, and pancreatitis; and much more. With this data, it can be determined that, while alcoholism in Russia is more of a problem than it is in the U.S., the situation is improving.

If these trends continue, Russia will no longer be seen as the land of vodka and drunkards.

2.      “Russians are still Communists”

To be fair, there are still a lot of Communists in Russia. After all, it is the second most represented party in the State Duma with 92 seats and 156,528 documented party members. I often noticed nostalgia for the Soviet Union and respect for Lenin and Stalin by all age groups. However, I do not recall meeting anyone who was a card-carrying party member. Then again, maybe they were and I simply did not know. Despite this lingering wistfulness and popularity, one cannot ignore the several other non-Communist political parties existing in Russia.

Let us not forget the main party in Russia: United Russia. With 238 seats, United Russia holds the clear majority in the State Duma. It is also the ruling party within the presidency and government cabinet.

This centrist and statist party holds a high level of support with just under two million party members. Moreover, 30% of the Russian population is considered by United Russia to be loyalists to the party.

The third most represented party in the State Duma is A Just Russia, with 64 seats. It claims to be the largest leftist party in Russia with about 400,000 members.

The political party LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) is a far-right party often described as ultranationalist and xenophobic and, ironically, not liberal or democratic at all. Despite this, the LDPR is still the fourth largest political party in Russia with 56 State Duma seats and about 600,000 members.

Other notable parties in Russia include Yabloko (“Apple”) and Patriots of Russia. However, independents are also creating quite the stir in Russia. One of Putin’s opponents in the 2012 presidential election was the independent Mikhail Prokhorov. I saw this firsthand in the events leading up to the election. So many parties were present for various demonstrations - even a Green party!

With this variety of Russian political parties and a non-Communist party in power, it should be evident that not all Russians are Communists.

3.      “Russians hate Americans”

According to a 2013 Pew Research Global Indicators study, 51% of Russians surveyed had a favorable view of the United States. However, only 31% saw America as a partner- a bit lower than the 44% of Americans who viewed Russia as an ally. However, this may have something to do with American foreign policy. Only 24% of Russians approved of Barack Obama’s international policies. However, 60% of Russians had a favorable view of the American people as a whole.

It seems as though Russians have drawn a line separating people from their governments. While Russians may not be fond of American politics and “adventures” abroad, they do not let these sentiments affect their opinion of the American people much.

I may have felt scrutinized and belittled at times while living in Russia, but I never felt outright hated. My Russian classmates were a tad standoffish at times, and my host mother (babushka) accused me of being a spy. But, no one ever said they hated me. So, while Russians might view Americans with skepticism and deem them stupid at times, they still seem to be fond of us overall.

4.      “Everyone in Russia is Russian”

Russia is actually quite diverse with over 185 different ethnicities. According to the 2010 Census, 80.90% of the population is ethnically Russian. The non-Russian ethnicities with the highest populations included Tatars 3.87%, Ukrainians1.40%, Bashkir 1.15%, Chuvash 1.05%, Chechens 1.04 %, and Armenians 0.86%. In numerical terms, there are about 5 million Tatars; nearly 2 million Ukrainians; and over 1 million Bashkir, Chuvash, Chechens, and Armenians each.

However, there are numerous other ethnicities as well, including Tajik, Azeri, Kyrgyz, Moldovan, Chinese, Kazakh, Belarusian, Georgian, Uzbek, Vietnamese, and Turkmen. 3.94% of 2010 Census participants did not declare an ethnicity, so ethnic diversity in Russia may be even higher.

Illegal immigrants, primarily from Central Asia, account for over 4 million people residing within Russia. These migrant workers certainly add to the ethnic mix of Russia. On a final note, more than 14% of Russia is Muslim, making Islam the country’s second largest religion next to Russian Orthodoxy. In fact, Russia is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.

Most of my neighbors, the owners of the corner market by my university, and the women who operated the convenience store by my flat were all Muslims from Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus. On a daily basis, I had more interaction with them than I did with ethnic Russians.

For a country that seems so homogenous from the outside, it is actually very pluralistic in many ways. It is this multi-layered and complex side of Russia that most Americans have not been exposed to. By understanding more of these facets, it is my hope that Americans will be a little less perplexed about Russia, and that American policymakers will be less likely to let cultural stereotypes guide their impressions of Russia’s top leaders and diplomats.