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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Russians Think About Foreigners

In April of 1945, the Soviet Army was closing in on Berlin. Blocking its way were the Zeelow Heights, a series of hills turned into a fortress. The Soviet military command proposed to bypass that area left and right, take Berlin and after that, should it be necessary, return and wipe out “Fortress Zeelow.” That, of course, would mean taking Berlin only toward the end of May. But the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Stalin, said “Nyet!.” Berlin, he said, must be taken on May 1, the International Day of Workers Solidarity, thereby confirming the infallible teachings of Marxism-Leninism. And so an all-out attack was launched on the Zeelow Heights, and they were taken — at the cost of 300,000 Soviet lives. Just think of that. Three hundred thousand lives — and probably well over a million widows, orphans, childless mothers and fathers. And this when the war was almost over, when countless lives could have been saved. Then compare this to how the Allied Armed Forces fought in Europe — razing enemy strongholds to the ground through artillery and air force bombardments and only after that sending in their infantry, thereby saving as many lives as possible.
Which of those two approaches would you call more humane?
I remember the reaction of many of my Russian friends to the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” The whole idea of sending a group of people to save the life of just one individual was something they could not really comprehend. In some it caused admiration (“Just imagine caring that much about one human life, how great!”), in others — disgust (“Just imagine risking the lives of a whole platoon to save one jerk!”), but the salient point is the common understanding that nothing of the sort could happen in Russia.
Perhaps the bottom line is that Russians believe themselves to be different from all other people. In some cases that is a source of pride, in others — a source of discomfort. But the belief is there.
One of Russia’s most intelligent film producers, Andron Konchalovsky, once said to me: “It’s too bad we’re not green or blue or purple, because if we were, the world would treat us differently.”
I asked him to explain.
“The West expects us to act like they act. They go after us all the time, they keep criticizing us — and you know why? It’s because we look like them. If we looked different, they would get off our backs. Take the Chinese. Does the West go after them for their not being democratic, for not living up to Western standards? No. And why not? Because the Chinese look different. I tell you, our problem is that we look like Westerners, but in fact we are not, we are different”.
This is not an uncommon view.  
I will leave it at that, but not without one concluding remark. While it is true that the average Russian’s attitude towards foreigners is complex and often negative, it is, in my opinion, no less true that Westerners have a complex and mostly negative view of Russians. This, too, has historical roots. So we are dealing with two prejudices that play off each other, a fact that should not be forgotten.