Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

To Russia With Greed

September 20, 1999

My wife, Darlene, spent 11 weeks this summer, mostly in Russia, in conjunction with a Concordia College Russian language program. She told me of some impressions she observed or gathered from Russian citizens during her stay.

What do Russians see?

They see America the Beautiful. Our country is a powerful force in the world. Free market capitalism triumphed over the communist ideologies that didn’t work. Our economy is the economic engine that drives other economies. Our ideals of democracy, human rights and freedom are envied and emulated world-wide. Our people are known for their friendliness, generosity, confidence and goodness. On a one-to-one basis, Americans are liked and appreciated.

American music is played everywhere. People want to learn English. Our name brand products and other symbols are adopted with lightning speed. We are the trend setter for youth and popular culture.

Russians also see America the Ugly. Educated, middle class Russian parents also worry about how unbridled American capitalism exports death to Russia as surely as Columbia exports cocaine and Mexico exports marijuana to the U.S.

American cigarettes abroad. Young people on the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia dress smartly in red and white Marlboro stylish clothes while they hand out cigarettes to teenagers. Our Western style advertising, all the things we are trying to outlaw here with regard to youth and cigarettes, are going full sway there.

Are American lives somehow more precious? We reign in Big Tobacco here but turn a blind eye to this industry’s potent and callous attempts to make money on less suspecting cultures. Aren’t we being hypocrites? If Big Tobacco is forced to admit it has an addictive and endangering product here, aren’t the effects the same for people everywhere?

Sex and violence sells. Another pernicious American export is our entertainment. Our entertainment industry dominates the world. Russians parents worry about their teenagers and their values just as we do. Western pornography is flooding Russia. Graphic sex and violence is portrayed on television and through video rentals.

Visitors to Russia wonder if our entertainment industry is exporting even lower grade videos to the Russian culture than is marketed here - kind of like dealing crack-cocaine instead of soft drugs. Russian immigrants to this country are surprised that our television programs are so clean, in contrast to what they were used to seeing coming into Russia.

Is this true? If it is, it is like our tobacco products, not good enough for us but OK for children of other countries.

In this country parents are fighting a battle against our own poisonous media culture to preserve innocence and values of our children. In the last few years the tide of public opinion is starting to turn against gratuitous sex and violence. American parents have religious and cultural support in this battle. Our economy supports middle class values and strivings.

Russian parents are coming from backgrounds where their cultural and family traditions have been weakened by communism, atheism and a struggling economy. Western media offers "style" to a vulnerable culture struggling to find substance amid the rapid changes they are experiencing. No wonder some Russians feel helpless and angry about low western values that manage to penetrate their culture.

Hollywood is not our best ambassador. Through the eyes of our media products, Russians see the wealth and the results of our market-oriented capitalism. They do not understand the work ethic, the rule of law and societal trust that is behind our prosperity. What they do see is our media portrayals of greedy and manipulative characters taking advantage on one another through dubious means - getting what they want in life without paying any kind of price.

Russians unfairly judge Americans as manipulative and duplicitous. They don’t understand the bedrock values that really drive our culture. In fact, western entertainment media reflects and reinforces more of what is going on in Russia than what happens here: gangster capitalism and robber baron mentality.

In the August 1999 issue of National Geographic Magazine there was a feature on global culture. Author Erla Zwingle cites an experience of seeing a young man at a rock concert and political rally in St. Petersburg, Russia wearing a tee-shirt with a slogan in English, "Thank God I’m not in America."

This ironic statement may actually reflect the thoughts of a population trying to find meaning and value during their economic and political struggles. It is a rejection of American "users," the image conveyed through our own media.

America the Beautiful. America the Ugly. Which is it? Which do we want it to be?