Letters from Abroad

Cultural Hegemony

These days the headlines are all about America’s diminishing influence in the world. Most everybody knows how China’s economy is on the rise and America’s geo-political hegemony is being challenged by Russia. But there is one place where America still reigns supreme over the whole world: culture.

Globalization has done amazing things with regards to spreading different cultures and traditions across the world. In my lifetime, I grew up watching Japanese cartoons, following an Italian soccer team and enjoying Central American cuisine all while living in suburban areas of America. While I dabbled in other culture’s creations, almost everyone else who did not live in America was inundated with far more American influence.

In Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a rush of American companies who entered this untapped and new market. The most famous of these were McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, which still remain relatively popular in Russia. Of course, this was not a mutual relationship. I do not think an average American could name a single Russian company operating in America, while Russians can give a rather large list. Not only are there quite a few American companies working in Russia, many of them do not completely acculturate. Since Russian and English do not use the same alphabet, there is always a debate about whether to translate the company name into Cyrillic alphabet (McDonald’s or Макдоналдс?). On the whole, I would say that most American companies choose not to translate their names and stick with the Latin alphabet. So, this leaves the average Russian to be forced to be able to read the Latin alphabet. I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like for my grandparents if all of a sudden the names on their shampoo bottles were in Cyrillic!

American brands are pervasive throughout Russian society, but American entertainment is far more engrained. Just yesterday, I went to the movies to watch Interstellar and noticed that vast majority of movies that this theater was showing were American. When I went and watched Sunstroke (a Russian movie, which I wrote an article about several weeks ago), almost all Russians had no idea that this movie even came out. In my experience, Russian youth are far more likely to know about American cinema than they are about Russian cinema. And when it comes to television shows, most Russian students at my university have watched way more episodes of How I Met Your Mother, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones than even I have (granted I am not a huge television buff). Again, how many Russian television shows does an average American watch or even know about: 0.

Whether it is when I am on the metro watching a Russian play 2048 or walking past a Subway, I am constantly reminded of how unseparated I am from my own culture. Life is quite easy for Americans abroad and the comforts of home are not too far away for any person who wants them. While everybody is trying to learn English in Russia, I am one of a small group of Americans trying to learn Russian. It remains to be seen how long American culture can remain dominant in the world, but for now, it has a pretty firm stranglehold.