Главная Журнал «Россия и Запад: диалог культур» Главная Рубрики Актуальные проблемы регионоведения Anna Pavlovskaya "Western Stereotypes of Russia: Historical Tradition and Current Situation"

Anna Pavlovskaya "Western Stereotypes of Russia: Historical Tradition and Current Situation"

Anna Pavlovskaya –

Doctor of Historical Science, Professor,

Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies,

Lomovosov Moscow State University,

Tel.: (495)783-02-64

E-mail: annapavl@mail.ru

Western Stereotypes of Russia: Historical Tradition and Current Situation

The article focuses on the most common stereotypes about Russia prevalent in the West. It evaluates the validity of different sources of stereotypical perceptions (personal impressions of travellers, behaviour of emigrants, the mass media) and offers an analysis of notions and ideas generally associated with Russian culture and national character. It is emphasised that stereotypes are persistent, resist changes and have a great impact on intercultural relations. In this connection, the article argues that beliefs about Russia held in the West are important for studying, as well as enhancing the country’s image abroad. They also provide valuable insights into both Russian and Western civilizations.

Key words: Russia and the West, national stereotypes, national character, intercultural relations.

It is well known that every nation has a certain stereotyped image in the eyes of other nations. The term "stereotype" has been a subject of discussion and debate for many years. This paper deals with national stereotypes (as opposed to political or ideological ones), i.e. the simplified, leveled opinions of one nation about other nations or about itself.

The most vivid, though somewhat primitive, description of national stereotypes can be found in so-called international jokes. In them, representatives of different nationalities find themselves in the same situation and react differently according to the national characters ascribed to them by the native country of the joke. Here is just one very popular Russian joke as an illustration. Representatives of different countries were asked to write a book on elephants. Germans brought to the jury a series of volumes entitled "An Introduction to the Life of Elephants", the French brought an elegant and well-illustrated book "L'amour des elephants", Englishmen submitted a leather-cover book "Ivory and its Trade", Americans produced a pocket-book "Everything about Elephants", Russians wrote a volume "Russia is the Motherland of Elephants". All this is, of course, a joke, but it has a grain of truth in it.

Thus, every nation has a generalized, simplified but widely-spread image in the eyes of other nations.

The study of the perception of Russia by the West is very important for understanding Russia and Russians because it gives an opportunity to see Russia, as it were, from a distance, to develop a specific view on Russian problems, and to see those features which may be taken for granted and therefore unnoticed by Russians.

The specific feature of the Russian national character is an inclination to self-analysis, very often to self-criticism. However, to know best what you are like it is necessary to also know what you look like in the eyes of strangers.

At the same time, perception of Russia in the West, evaluations of Russia and Russians by Westerners, undoubtedly give an additional clue to understanding both the western civilization and national characters of the peoples watching and evaluating Russia.

Studies of the national image of Russia through the eyes of Westerners are especially topical today as the problems of international communication have become really acute. Indeed, now it is especially important to avoid the clash of cultures caused by differences in historical, political and cultural development.

What are the ways the stereotypes of Russia were formed and are being formed? What is the mechanism of their mass influence on this or that country?

Nowadays, as well as last century, it is believed that the most reliable data on a country and its people are the opinions of people who have been to the country. As a rule, travellers’ opinions and evaluations are well received by their compatriots because they come, as it were, from the horse’s mouth, from people who have been there and witnessed everything they speak about.

There is a great danger in this kind of approach. The opinions of somebody who spent three days in Moscow and saw Russians from the Intourist bus window are usually considered as reliable as the opinion of those who spent three years in Russia. At the same time, I am sure that many foreigners will share the opinion of an English diplomatic lady who wrote in the middle of the 19th century: "After living for years in Russia, it is very possible not to know Russians".[1]

Another problem comes from the geography of most visits: they are usually confined to only two cities - Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Besides, visitors usually communicate with either their own compatriots or Russians who are traditionally called "intelligentsia" (educated society). They know foreign languages and are rather international by their education and character.

It is a very complicated question: who embodies the Russian national character now? In the 19th century the answer to the question was simple (though disputable): Russian peasantry. Nowadays, it is more difficult to answer. It is evident, however, that the educated societies of big cities are essentially different from the larger part of the Russian population.

There are some other aspects that are important for evaluating personal impressions: knowledge (or rather lack of knowledge) of Russian that puts some limits on communicating with Russians and the ability to appreciate independently what is going on. Another point:  one has to be prepared for perceiving and understanding the Russian life, to have at least some elementary knowledge of Russian culture and mode of living. Otherwise, the cultural shock may be too strong to understand what is going on.

Another problem comes from the fact that Russians are inclined to show off, to blow their trumpets, especially in presence of foreigners. This desire to look good in the eyes of foreigners often makes Russians behave in a non-typical and strange way.

Finally, very often personal impressions reflect ready-made stereotype. It results in a tendency to see only those features and phenomena that can be squeezed into the prefabricated frames.

It is necessary to emphasize once more that the evidence of visitors expressed in diaries, journals, memoirs, letters and oral accounts is one of the very important ways of forming stereotypes. Not infrequently an occasional episode becomes viewed as part and parcel of Russian social life only because somebody "personally witnessed" it.

A great part in creating the national image of Russia is played by Russian travellers or emigrants.

Their opinions are taken into consideration; their behaviour and character are evaluated as those of the nation they represent. As a rule, everything said by "real Russians," regardless of their education, political views, experience, is considered to be "nothing but the truth." The most difficult problem arises from émigrés who are either too harsh and critical or too sentimental and idealistic about their former country.

It is common knowledge that the press plays the most important part in spreading stereotypes. Generally, mass media skillfully manipulate ready–made stereotypes depending on the politics of the moment. Literature, including fiction, is quite another matter. In this field, alongside cheap editions full of fixed and primitive ideas concerning Russians, there  are  serious  and  solid  papers  whose  authors  try  really  hard  to understand Russia, to penetrate into the Russian heart.

Finally, TV and cinema must be taken into account as they influence the national consciousness enormously. Cinema visualizes national images. Unfortunately, this kind of visualizing is usually quite primitive, even in good films.

The Russia of the 19th century is usually depicted with bears in the streets, troikas, coarse, uncultured entertainments, and alcoholism. Characters from the 20th century Russia (before perestroika) in Western films mostly wear army uniforms or fur hats; all of them are bad KGB agents plotting day and night against good Western governments. The heroes of the perestroika period dream only about emigrating to a foreign country: the farther from Russia the better.

Usually TV plays a double role: on the one hand, it reflects to the fullest the most superficial national ideas; on the other hand, it spreads them very actively.

National stereotypes are surprisingly stable. Everything changes - international situations, times of war and peace, political tensions and détente, peaceful cooperation and economic crises; governments and whole state systems come and go, but national images remain the same and exist as undercurrents. Interestingly, it is commonly accepted that in the second half of the 19th century Britain witnessed a certain rise in Russophobia, for which there were many military, political and economic reasons. However, in spite of the strong prejudice of the official press against Russia, the travellers’ diaries and letters described it in a traditionally moderate way.

It is beyond the scope of the present paper to decide which stereotypes in perceiving Russia are true and which are false. My goal is to show the most common Western views on some features of Russian life and Russian national character. It is difficult to hear the voices of ordinary people (who form the absolute majority of the population of a country); they are drowned by the press, political battles, and TV commentators. However, it is these voices and opinions that represent the national perception of various countries and peoples.

My research concerning the 19th century was based on diaries, letters, memoirs of foreign visitors (mostly English-speaking), the press, literature, and diplomatic documents. As for the 20th century, the sources included the western press, TV, films and an opinion survey involving about 250 people of different ages and nationalities.

I will quote at length in those cases when the quotations are especially typical and reflect the opinion of the majority. Besides, many of them, to my knowledge, have never been quoted before.

Russia has always been a mystery for foreigners. And the mysterious always attracts and frightens at the same time. In different historical periods, Westerners "discovered" Russia again and again, each time revealing some "new" aspects. In the 19th century, as well as today, a Westerner going to Russia was looked upon as half-mad and half-heroic. Even now, in the times of mass media, many foreigners are surprised to find that Russians are also human.

What is, after all, the vision of Russia by the West?

There cannot be a simple clear answer to the question. The attitude to Russia and Russians was different in different historical periods and in different political situations. However, there are some persistent, fixed stereotypes that do not change under any circumstances. I would like to dwell upon these.

The immediate associations with Russia in the West are "cold", "snow", "winter" and all the attributes of the concept. The stereotype of Russia as a cold, snowy country is typical of both the past and current centuries.

Western observers are surprised that Russians love this cold and snow, look forward to the winter and have a great number of winter feasts and games. An American boy who visited Russia in the 18th century was shocked by the barbaric ways of Russians and their passion for snow. Here is how he described the Russian bathhouse (l781): "They bathe themselves at first in very warm water, and from thence they plunge themselves into the snow and roll themselves in it ...". And then follows the conclusion: "this nation is far from being civilized ...".[2]

As for the modern times, it suffices to recall the famous "Doctor Zhivago": the film based on the book is set among enormous icicles and huge snow drifts.

All the attributes of winter are also associated with the Russian way of life: furs, fur coats, fur hats, big shawls, vodka, the excessive consumption of which is also justified by cold.

Various superficial and primitive stereotypes are also widely spread: caviar, troikas, samovars, golden domes. What is surprising is that even now, in spite of the western mass media reporting on empty shops, shortage of food and even starvation in Russia, these stereotypes are prevalent. An English student, who had never been to Russia, wrote: "Whatever they say, Russia for me is a country of caviar, furs and snow."

Western views about Russian politics are amazingly stable. They can be expressed in one word - despotism. The despotic Russia is usually opposed to the democratic West, which helps to emphasise the advantages of the Western system. From time to time, the West becomes hopeful and proclaims the coming of freedom to Russia. It was so in 1861, during the times of Great Reforms, and in the years of perestroika. However, such periods are usually followed by disappointments. Here is what American president Abraham Lincoln wrote (1855): In " Russia ... despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."[3] And here is the opinion of an English journalist (1891): "In Russia there is no law outside the autocrat's will, as interpreted by his officials; no independence, no self-respect."[4] At the same time, strong power is supposed to be a must for Russia because it is said to be the condition of peace and order in it: "...Russia of those days (1870s - A.P.) wanted nothing more than to be governed with a firm hand, whatever the liberal professors and students, and the intelligentsia generally, might think or say to the contrary."[5]

The western views on the Russian economy are relatively unanimous. According to western observers, the main obstacle to its proper development lies in the national character of Russians, i.e. in the lack of individualism, and in the character of their consciousness (which many pre-Revolutionary authors called "communist"). At the same time, many observers admire this very feature.  For example, an American senator noted: "...Individualism ... may be an ineradicable part of the Anglo-Saxon nature ... the racial tendency of the Russian (is) to do business on the communistic principle. Where like undertakings by Americans, or Englishmen, or even Germans, would first be interrupted by contentions and then destructed by quarrels, and finally break down by the inability of the various members of the association to agree among themselves, the same number of Russians get along very well together, and practically without antagonism ."[6]

However, most people in the West believe that it is the lack of individualism that hinders Russia’s normal development. The following opinion is characteristic of the time of the previous quote: "They (Russians - A.P.) are, as a people, incapable of the economic advancement or of the adaptation to modern conditions by which alone they can hope to survive and win ultimate success in the struggle ... it is certain that it would take many generations to bring this (economic and industrial progress - A. P.) about with the Russians under the most favourable conditions, and it certainly will never happen until individualism of effort is encouraged and personal energy rewarded."[7]

The position of our western contemporaries is close to the opinion expressed 100 years ago. Almost 90% of answers state that only individualism can facilitate Russia’s development.

Talking about the main characteristics of the Russian national character, here are the most frequently mentioned qualities:

ü  hospitality ("The Russians are accustomed to a sort of princely hospitality ..."[8])

ü  religiousness ("...religion in Russia ...whether believed  or not, will always remain a part of patriotism, and since there is a Russian nation there will be a Russian religion at the core of it."[9])

ü  sincerity and openness, often hidden behind outer reservedness ("During travels Russians become very talkative, and while they are as curious as Scots - they are sincere and open about their even very intimate affairs to such an extent that we can hardly imagine."[10])

ü  kindness and, at the same time, extreme suspiciousness ("A student makes a lamp - shade out of the portrait of the Emperor Nicholas. An Englishman or Frenchman visiting this student for the first time see merely the Emperor Nicholas portrait on a light-shade, but a Russian entering the room understands that the young man regards Nicholas as an obstacle to enlightenment."[11])

ü  sense of brotherhood, solidarity, lack of individualism  (Russian can't "live apart in detached farms and crafts as in modern England (1380 – A.P.); and the Russian is a social creature and pines for the presence of his fellows."[12])

ü  patience, endurance

ü  disingenuity, dodginess, falsity ("With all his air of simplicity, it would hardly be wise to trust the word of a Russian peasant, or indeed of a Russian of any rank ..."[13])

ü  inborn laziness ("He is lazy, shiftless, apathetic, you say, coming from the busy West ..."[14])

ü  indifference to political freedoms, conservative thinking, fatalism ("… in such a country as Russia . . . given justice at home and a guarantee against foreign aggression, the vast majority of the population would care not a rap for "liberty"[15])

ü  light mindedness, carelessness (" … an important lesson that all Russians have still to learn ... is the value of time"[16])

ü  capacity to give up everything for the sake of an idea or a passion, even if it does nothing but harm. ("Their unbounded power of losing themselves in a feeling, an idea; their capacity for self-sacrifice"[17])

Contradictions of the Russian character, the combination of incompatible features both attracted and repulsed the pragmatic West at all times.

Westerners, often dissatisfied with the world which was increasingly dominated by machines and technology, which suppressed sincere feelings and emotions for the sake of business and profit, and abounded with individualism in all spheres of human communication, looked at Russians now with admiration, then with derision. Russian people, in their opinion, succeeded in preserving the sincerity of feelings and behaviour.

Here is how an American woman poet describes the Russian national character (l866): "The Russian nature, with favourable conditions, is like forest and steppe in summer, full of peace and grace and charm ... But it has also the strength and terror of steppe and forest; and under the winter of injustice and tyranny and cruelty, its impulses, its energies, its affections, become pitiless blasts and devouring wolves."[18]

While the mass media preserved and stored the old stereotypes, the modern times unfortunately added some new ones. In the 1950s and 1960s these included "fear", "threat", "the evil empire". The current stereotypes are "hunger", "queues", "food shortage" and "political instability".

At the same time, I would like to stress the stability of national stereotypes. This can explain why "hunger" and "bread queues" stand next to "caviar" and "furs" in the minds of modern western students.

Summing up, I would like to emphasize once more that stereotyped perceptions of Russia by western nations are sadly under-investigated. However, they are of great importance and interest as they throw a new light on Russian national character and Russia itself.

Most of stereotypes have not changed in more than 200 years, despite the drastic changes in the Russian society. It is very important to analyse their actual sources and spreading mechanism, as stereotypes are used to manipulate the public opinion and surreptitiously shape the image of a nation, thus influencing relations between countries.


  1. Baddeley J.F. Russia in the "Eighties" - Sport and Politics . L., 1921.
  2. Baring M. The Russian People. L., 1911.
  3. Barry H. Russia in 1870. L., 1871.
  4. Beveridge A.J . The Russian Advance. N.Y ., 1904.
  5. Dicey E. A Month in Russia L., 1867.
  6. Edwards H.S. The Russians at Home and the Russians Abroad. L., 1879.
  7. Geddie J. The Russian Empire. L., 1882.
  8. Hodgetts E.A.B. In the Track of the Russian Famine . L., 1892.
  9. Pares B. Russia a d Reform . L., 1907.
  10. The American Image of Russia .
  11. The Englishwoman in Russia. L., 1855.
  12. Woldman A.A. Lincoln and the Russians. N .Y., 1952.

[1] The Englishwoman in Russia . L., 1855. - P.VI

[2] The American Image of Russia, 1775-1917. Ed . by E. Anschel. N .Y .; 1974. _ P.31

[3] Woldman A.A. Lincoln and the Russians. N .Y ., 1952. - P.125

[4] Hodgetts E.A.B. In the Track of the Russian Famine . L., 1892. - P.92

[5] Baddeley J.F. Russia in the "Eighties" - Sport and Politics . L., 1921. - P.108.

[6] Beveridge A.J . The Russian Advance. N.Y ., 1904. - P.332.

[7] The American Image of Russia. - P.201

[8] Dicey E. A Month in Russia L., 1867. – P. 240

[9] Baring M. The Russian People. L., 1911. - P.358

[10] Baring M. The Russian People. L., 1911. - P.358

[11] Edwards H.S. The Russians at Home and the Russians Abroad. L., 1879. - V.I, p.120.

[12] Pares B. Russia a d Reform . L., 1907. - P.2.

[13] Geddie J. The Russian Empire. L., 1882. - P.200

[14] Ibid . - P.207

[15] Baddeley J.F. Op. cit. - P.108.

[16] Barry H. Russia in  1870. L., 1871. - P.97.

[17] The American Image of Russia . - P.143.

[18] The American Image of Russia . - P.145.

Нравится Нравится  
Из сборников конференции Россия и Запад:

Школа юного регионоведа

Основная информация
Запись в школу:

Заполните форму по ссылке - запись
E-mail: regionoved2005@yandex.ru

Выпуски журнала "Россия и Запад: диалог культур"