2 January 2018Feature
If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. — John F. Kennedy
The first American I recall meeting was a middle-aged male tourist from San Diego. He was the most stereotypical American tourist one could conjure up. He had a classic goatee, and was dressed in baggy cargo shorts, an oversized black t-shirt, velcro strap sandals, and a cowboy hat. He was walking around Adelaide Zoo snapping photos, his two young children munching on ice creams nearby. Somehow, our paths crossed and while the brief conversation is for the most part lost in my memory, I remember his opening words very clearly: “What are y’all eating? Kangaroo biscuits?”
The first Russian I met was my grandmother-in-law, Grams, and she is basically a Russian stereotype. There is a strength that resonates in her words, which often include age-old proverbs, and I learned quickly when I first met her that despite living in Ukraine since before the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is and always will be her motherland. During the first moments of our meeting, Grams did not say much, but what she lacked in words she made up for in action — within minutes of entering her home I was sat down before a feast as she did everything possible to make me feel at home.
Since these events transpired, I have met many Americans and Russians, and my experiences of both have been largely delightful. At a time when geopolitcal tensions are skyrocketing and a Cold War 2.0 seems to be well underway, I find it important to occasionally look past the political rhetoric and see the humanity behind.
My experience of living in both the East and the West has allowed me to make observations regarding the differences between what often seems like two separate worlds. So, without further ado, I offer you what I believe to be three major distinctions between Americans and Russians — two of the most unique and powerful nations in history.
Fear often dictates how our American friends behave and interact with others socially and politically. This has been shown time and time again through the gun control debate, US foreign policy, attitudes toward immigration, film, the way news is communicated; they are a fearful people.
The whole pro-gun position is based on the fears that they will be attacked, or that they will need to defend their rights against a tyrannical government. US foreign policy is very much founded on a similar principle — someone is always looking to attack the US or its interests, and so the best method is to destroy anypotential threats before they emerge.
The problem with this mentality is that it leads to mistakes, breeds social and political tension and, in some cases, incites unnecessary conflict.
Russians, however, are fearless; which, like being fearful, is not always a good thing. This fearlessness is built on a violent history of struggling with invaders, monarchy, and communism, that stretches back over 1000 years.
Russia’s past has created a culture which encourages resilience and toughness, while deploring anything that could be considered a weakness. World War II contributed a great deal to this culture, as the Soviet Union lost tens of millions of people in the fight against Nazism and in the subsequent years to starvation and persecution under Stalin’s dictatorship. Those who fought in the Red Army against the Nazis are revered for their courage, and used as a kind of standard that all should strive to achieve.
Socially, this ‘stand your ground’ mentality can cause people to be quite harsh – by Western standards anyway – and in the geopolitical arena can make Russia appear stubborn. It also encourages a very traditionalist brand of domestic politics.
Americans fight on principle. This can be seen in their fierce defence of their rights. At the slightest hint that there may be a perceived infringement on their freedoms, Americans will rise up and defend their rights, even if that means allowing neo-Nazi rallies. It does not matter what is being said, it is the principle of free speech that is important.
In the eyes of an American, once a government starts deciding what the people are permitted to say, it is a slippery slope to authoritarianism. Donald Trump personified this ideology during the 2016 Presidential Election. By saying whatever floated into his head, Trump positioned himself as an anti-establishment warrior defending free speech.
Again, the speech does not even need to be coherent, it is the principle that matters.
Russians are less concerned with living life in theory and prefer to see the practical implications of things. An example of this is their fierce support for the current government.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, there was chaos across all of the former Eastern Bloc republics. Russia fell into a state of corruption and was vulnerable to foreign influence. After a mountain of reforms in the first few years of Vladimir Putin’s Presidency, the country stabilised, but memories remained.
When it comes to ideas of radical change and reform, Russians are cautious, which is why President Putin maintains such strong support, and why opposition figures like Alexey Navalny remain largely unpopular. The people know the current system works, and do not want it to change.
Americans tend to like jumbo-sized anything. It’s always about more money, more food, a bigger car, a bigger house; everything is targeted at getting more for less. This is what capitalism is, and while it is not strictly unique to the US, there is certainly a higher concentrated effect than in any other country.
In the US, millionaires and billionaires are often considered heroes, especially if there is a good story behind how they made made their money. They are champions of the American dream. You only need to look at the films made about Apple founder Steve Jobsand Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg.
The downside to such a consumerist lifestyle is the enormous waste that is associated with it. Having said that, no one is stopping anyone from demonstrating a little more self-control.
In Russia, many people are focused on living from month to month, and even the middle class often count their pennies.
For some it is a reality that they need to be as economical as possible, whereas for others it is just a habit. Russians generally apply an ‘everything in moderation’ ideology to consumerism and resent greed.
In stark contrast to the US, extreme wealth is generally associated with immorality or crime. This stereotype is a throwback to the widespread corruption and rise of oligarchs during the 90s. There is also a belief that money is dirty, both hygienically and spiritually.
Frankly, Americans and Russians are not all that different. Both nations are deeply religious, patriotic, hold military service in the highest possible regard, are politically engaged, have fought for their freedom, value hard work, are incredibly hospitable, have their own kinds of democracy; and above all, are human.
It has been over half a century since John F. Kennedy’s death, and we still have not achieved a world in which East and West live accepting each other’s differences. We could debate forever whose fault that is, but the situation still would not change. Politicians have failed to connect us and continue to do so, which is why I believe the onus is on us, the citizens of our countries, to reach out, mingle, find a common ground; and build bridges instead of walls.