Russian home life in the Western imagination:

– Honey, I’m home!
– Why so late?
– On the way home the bear dislocated his leg. I had to treat it with vodka.
– Ok, everyone sit down! Let’s have some vodka.
– Mom, I want to go play with the bear.
– Ok, but first finish your vodka.
– Where’s Grandpa?
– He’s still standing in line to get ration tickets for ration tickets.
– Good thing he had some vodka first. And why are you sitting with idle hands? Go drink some vodka.
– Ok, go play, son, and don’t forget to write your report to the KGB this evening. And on the way home, could you pick up some vodka? We’re running out.
– Honey, it’s hot in here. Would you mind turning off the nuclear reactor?
– I’ll finish my vodka and then turn it off. In the meantime, play something on the balalaika.

-A Russian joke I originally got from a Russian Tatar friend, translated by me.

Recently, my (decidedly non-Russia-related) boyfriend cut his hair, but kept his beard. Another (non-Russia-related) friend declared that with his new ‘do, he looked like a Cossack. A Halloween costume was born. It’s more “Old Timey Russian Dude” than pure Cossack – Cossacks actually traditionally wore their hair shaved off, except for a long forelock – but I’m anticipating that it will be a pretty good costume, especially with the planned addition of zombie makeup.

Then, along came the latest liberal guilt kerfuffle: a series of “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” posters. The Facebook-sharing by several of my friends led to some heated discussions about whether these costumes are “actually” offensive. I’ll leave the geisha argument to others (i.e. Asian women) – relevant here is that it brought up questions of whether dressing as members of other groups of white people is offensive. Lederhosen? Cossack dress? Where’s the line? In the Russian Empire, Cossacks did some awful things to the Jews – by the way, I highly recommend Isaac Babel’s “Story of my Dovecote,” a memoir of a pogrom he witnessed as a young child in Odessa – but were in turn repressed by the Soviet regime. Germans have been oppressed by – uh, someone, I’m sure. Oh! Right! The Volga Germans were also repressed by Stalin. (Oppression rule of thumb: When in doubt, just say Stalin. You’ll probably be right.)

Rather than actually judging (I’m too busy making my costume – hey, I guess I’m dressing as a member of an oppressed group, too), I thought I would use this to bring up an interesting aspect of contemporary Russian culture: a near-neurosis about Western stereotypes of Russians. Part delight in American idiocy, part reflection of a deep cultural wound at the loss of world-power status, and part 300-year-old hangup about whether Russia is as good as the West, the fixation on what Americans and other Westerners think about Russians is pretty impossible for a traveler to the land of vodka and bears to miss.

Lacking exposure to actual Americans, a lot of their understanding comes from American pop culture. Unfortunate, right? The Russian wiki Lurkmore has a great list of films (mostly American) with stereotypical Russian characters, from The Hunt for Red October and Rocky IV to Transsiberian and Salt. Of course, there’s also The Simpsons and Family Guy. (Although the latter is really Yakov Smirnoff’s fault.) Based on these films: the Soviet Union still exists (substereotypes include excessive references to Soviet realia and the equating of Soviet society with post-Soviet Russian society), Russian men are evil and/or mobsters, Russian women are all attractive femmes fatale, all of Russia is always extremely cold and snowy, tossing back vodka is basically all people do whenever they aren’t doing mob deals/spying, and everyone wears fur hats (this is actually sort of true).

To be fair, we’re not the only ones – check out this Rammstein clip (the Russian lyrics are “Moscow – Young Pioneers are marching, they’re singing songs to Lenin”; neither of these things is remotely true) and these delightfully bizarre Dschinghis Khan and Boney M ones. There’s even a slang term for these tired-out stereotypes: kliukva, or cranberry. (From the expression “overgrown cranberry” – a plant that’s spread much farther than it should have.)

The really interesting part is that these kliukvi have taken on a life of their own in the Russian popular imagination. On the basis of “In Soviet Russia…,” I’ve been asked if it’s true that Americans don’t know that the Soviet Union no longer exists. I’ve been shown countless YouTube clips, dubbed into Russian, of Americans incorrectly answering questions about Russian geography. Of course, as in any good capitalist society, all this has been monetized: just off of Red Square, you can buy t-shirts declaring membership in the KGB or participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and more fake Soviet paraphernalia than you can shake a stick at. And few American travelers, I’d wager, have been to Russia in the last twenty years without being asked whether they are disappointed that there are no bears roaming the streets. This question usually comes as a surprise, as “bears in the street” is not actually a widespread American trope about Russia. But that’s not even the point anymore, to Russians – what matters is that it’s now a widespread trope about Americans.

So tonight when my boyfriend dresses up as Zombie Cossackovich, he’ll just be fulfilling Russians’ perception of how we Americans see them. Right?

(I’m curious – do other societies American pop culture likes to stereotype (don’t pretend we don’t!) have a similar relationship to the phenomenon?)

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