Separating love of Russia from love of government

We've all seen negative stories about Russia on the news. But what's the real story? Here's one view from a Russian professor who teaches Marketing at the University of Nevada.

From blogging about people of different cultures, I’ve learned that there’s always another side to the global stories we see on mass media. It seems like all I see on the news lately is negative coverage about Russia, especially concerning politics. This got me thinking: why don’t I find out the real story from someone who’s actually from Russia?

Dr. Igor Makienko
Dr. Igor Makienko

This brings us to Dr. Igor Makienko, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Nevada, Reno. In his Marketing class, he frequently discusses cultural differences in marketing between Russia and the United States. For example, one class session, Dr. Makienko told us that in Russia, it’s considered very strange behavior for a cashier to smile at you at the store. By the 1990’s, smiling started to become more of a norm behavior in Russia, but it was still far behind the US. However, even now, it’s not appropriate to smile to strangers on the street. On the smiling culture in Russia, Dr. Makienko elaborates “If you don’t know people, why would you smile to them? Keep your great feelings and emotions for your friends and relatives. If you smile to everyone people may think that you are crazy person.” On the contrary, in America, smiling is an integral part of behaving politely. Dr. Makienko often brings Russian promotion materials to class to further demonstrate cultural disparities.

Dr. Makienko earned five degrees, including his PhD in Business Administration and multiple Masters degrees. He is from Sochi, Russia= perhaps you’re familiar with Sochi from the 2014 Olympic games. Growing up, Dr. Makienko never imagined himself living in America.

So: what does a well-educated Russian say about life in Russia and the current state of politics?

The Russian perception of propaganda, marketing

“I remember one TV program where they interviewed a homeless person from the US. The person from the US they showed on TV was homeless and he was complaining about his life. But his message was not really effective for Soviet propaganda because viewers paid more attention on the jeans he was wearing and thought – ‘Yeah, you are complaining, yeah, your life may be really hard, but at least you have jeans, and I cannot afford purchasing such jeans.’ The Soviet Union didn’t sell jeans or chewing gum so you had to get them from outside. If you managed to purchase chewing gum it was….like starvation for jeans and chewing gum. Isolation created these crazy things. Chewing gum, they didn’t sell chewing gum in the Soviet Union. They even spread some stories that if you use chewing gum your jaws will be bigger, because it’s a capitalist product.”

“After 1917 following the Socialist revolution, living standards in the Soviet Union were lower than those in the US and Western European countries. It was a society of deficit, absolute deficit, you couldn’t purchase stuff you wanted, high quality products, even if you had money. That’s why the job abroad was valuable because you go abroad and you purchase what you want and there’s value in that. Even other Socialist countries, if you could get products from there, they were considered high quality. The Soviet Union was good at missiles, tanks, and military production. All other goods, clothing was really bad. However, quality of the products that were aimed for export were higher as they had to compete with those of Western producers. That is why in some rare cases when some export products were sold in the USSR, people perceived such products as really good products.”

“What is interesting – when first foreign companies came to Russian market in late 1980’s and started advertising, Russian consumers had very skeptical attitude towards these ads. In the “deficit” society it was really hard to explain to customers why you need to advertise your products. If they are good, people will buy them without any advertising. Only bad products need advertising to persuade customers to buy them.”

The only skill that can help you is the ability to learn

“I have two messages. One message is that education helps you so much, that you may not even realize at the beginning. You may think ‘I am in too many classes, I am overloaded, I just want a good job, a formal education and that’s it.’ From my experience, any class you take, even if it’s useless to your degree, helps you to enrich your life and to reach a form of higher self. It makes your life much more interesting. If you’re curious, you don’t need to look at all these efforts and time you invested in learning like a waste. No. It’s shaping your mind. Nowadays, in this kind of changing environment, the only skill that can help you is the ability to learn.

“My second message has a strong correlation with the first message. When my students approach me, some of them tell me they are disappointed in this major. They say ‘I don’t want to do this, but I need to do this because I invested four to six years in it.’ I say, you shouldn’t make yourself do anything you don’t like. If you do something you don’t like, it will affect you psychologically. You always have time to change your job, to change what you want to do. If there are some obstacles that do not allow you to do this, like family, obligations, just put an escape plan in your mind. Later on if you have this plan, it will help you to do more. Eventually you will get something that you will enjoy and have a good life. You will not be tortured by ‘I have great money on this job but I hate this job’. Yes there is a way. But again, it may not be a fast way.”

Do your own research, rely on mass media as a supplement only

“When I first came to America, I didn’t go back to Russia for seven years. Then, before I went back, I was afraid because I watched only TV. Usually mass media reports the most extreme stuff. This is logical for mass media, as they don’t have infinite number of hours to report. Everything is justifiable. Anyway, I was actually afraid to go back to Russia. And then I went back there, and everything was the same. Crimes happen everywhere, in every city. For example, let’s say Africa. I talked to one person doing consulting in Africa. I asked her about safety and she told me Rwanda is the safest country. But all you see on mass media is past reports about genocide. There’s so many events in every country that you should not rely on mass media only. Do your own job, contact people over there.”

“Recently I taught in Shanghai and decided to travel to Cambodia and Vietnam. In Cambodia, I never traveled there before. I did not hear a lot of news from Cambodia in the last 15-20 years. Probably, nothing was happening there during many years that could catch the attention of American mass media. Really, it should be something of the world-level importance to be reported in the US. But I remember from a long time ago, the history of genocide there in 1970’s. So, I really did not know what to expect there and was preparing for the worst. I arrived in Cambodia and went to all these museums and I was looking around to be careful. I was terrified. And then I saw more and more tourists from the US and Europe, and thought ‘okay, this is my misconception’. Some tourists told me ‘Oh people in Cambodia they’re so friendly, we didn’t catch our bus and they gave us a ride’. These misconceptions grow if you don’t have anything to counter them. All I heard beforehand was how dangerous it is to travel anywhere you’ve never been. That’s not true.”

For older Russian generations, it’s hard to change Soviet beliefs and adjust to new reality

“I grew up in a Socialist system but I’ve lived in America now for almost twenty years. The problem is that systems are different, cultural norms are different. It’s really difficult to understand other cultures if you’ve never lived there. And that is why I enjoy elements of each culture. On the other hand, I really value the Democratic approach, the ability to discuss things to come up with the best decision. There are so many cultural differences. Again if I start telling you the list of these differences, it’s very long. Probably, let’s say traveling and getting friends from different cultures will help everyone. Russians, especially young Russians gain much more understanding about Western cultures because they travel more, they are much more open minded.”

“Unless you live in a different environment, you will never realize this. There is no way to change the older generation’s way of thinking. I stopped arguing. I understand that it’s still too late and it may be a big tragedy for Russians to realize that they live in such a horrible system. My childhood was a really good phase. But I didn’t like the way the system was functioning. But I am not anti-Russian. I am Russian. I want to see Russia successful. It’s impossible to change. So that is why we will wait for a couple generations. For more freedom of thinking in terms of assumptions.”

I often find myself incredibly frustrated with the endless arguments that accompany politics. After speaking with Dr. Makienko, I feel a renewed appreciation for the democratic process of the US and ability to refine decisions together. Another important takeaway was not to judge the people of any country by their government. Although there is valid criticism of Russian government, it’s important to remember the circumstances that later Russian generations lived in. By continuing to learn from people who are different from us, our cultural understanding grows. We can separate love of people from criticism of government.

What was your take away from the perspective of someone who grew up in Russia? The comments are yours.

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