Russia’s Love-Hate Relationship with America
By Erica Marat
The Galygin television show is perhaps the best popular representation of Russians’ idiosyncratic relationship with the United States. The show copies Seinfeld, the quintessential American sitcom, with its own standup comedy bits sprinkled between the daily lives of Russian versions of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. While the former is familiar, Galygin.ru characters are deep patriots. In one episode, for example, they throw a Western tourist out of a bar while cheering on the Russian team in a televised hockey game (STS TV channel, February, 2010).
Russian mainstream press outlets, mostly controlled by the government, convey a rigid narrative about what the West (Europe and the United States) means to Russia. In the crudest terms, the narrative claims that the West is trying to undermine Russia by luring former Soviet states into its own sphere of influence. Broadcast by the national TV channels, it portrays United States as a competitive power.
However, little is known about what ordinary Russians believe the West has to say about Russia. This could be one of the reasons why websites that translate international press stories about Russia, such as www.Inosmi.ru and www.Inopressa.ru, attract curious readers. Both websites include intense discussions in which readers vent about the supposedly negative portrayal of Russia abroad. On an average day, both websites feature mostly negative reporting about Russia and Moscow’s policies, claiming to reflect the overall mood in the international media.
For the average Muscovite, the government narrative is appropriate for the greater Russian population. Muscovites are convinced that the official narrative is necessary because it educates people and keeps them disciplined. Yet more internet-savvy Russians sense that local television channels present biased news and recognize them as government mouthpieces, broadcasting the Kremlin’s take on domestic and international issues.
Events such as the ongoing anti-government protests in Khimki forest outside Moscow or a movement of activists that convenes on the 31st of the month expose the contrast between local news sources and the international media outlets. “Finding truth somewhere in between” is a common saying for internet-savvy Russians who seek news both from national and foreign outlets.
On the other hand, shows like Galygyn.ru reveal Russians’ genuine curiosity towards the United States. As one economist from Moscow puts it, “It is really interesting to know what the United States has to say about what our government has to say about the United States.” Russian admiration for Western products and fashion is expressed in a subtle manner, mostly in shows that copy the format of popular U.S. television programs. There are Russian versions of Jon Stewart, for instance. Similar to their American prototype, they make fun of Obama and American politics, as Medvedev and Putin are off-limits.
This love-hate relationship with the United States is typical for a young urban Russian. In Moscow the lifestyle entails numerous Westernized attributes, yet the West, overall, is not popular. According to the British GfK Group, which measures country and city brands worldwide, U.S. brands are indeed more popular among Russians than is the U.S. government.
The movie Avatar and the restaurants TGI Friday’s and McDonalds are the most conspicuous reminders of American presence in everyday in Moscow. “Chasing the West has turned into a trap for us!” says famous comedian Mikhail Zadornov, for whom American and Western culture is a common subject for satire. Many would agree that he ridicules how Russians often adopt the worst habits and products imported from the United States.