When Altynay Kosherbek was preparing to come to America as a high school exchange student from Kazakhstan, she said she was ready for endless partying and gorging on fast food.
After she arrived, Kosherbek said she not only discovered these stereotypes about American culture aren’t true but also had to battle Kazakhstan's stereotypes, which she said the U.S. media has created.
“One major [stereotype] is [the] “Borat” movie,” said Kosherbek, a sophomore business marketing major at Westminster College. “Because of [it], people think we are still riding camels and live in yurts and stuff. It's a big misrepresentation of our country.”
In 2006, after the release of “Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Borat),” Kazakhstan’s government denounced the movie, saying it inaccurately portrayed the country.
“Borat” was filmed in Romania, not in Kazakhstan, and the movie never uses the Kazakh language and alphabet, according to Kosherbek. But more importantly, she said, the movie portrays her country as anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic.
The government later attributed the movie to the rise of tourism in Kazakhstan and directed its attention to breaking post-Soviet era stereotypes.
“I’m a person who loves to break stereotypes,” Kosherbek said. “I know that sometimes I get funny and I want to make a joke out of it, so I get serious about it, and at the very end I say, ‘I’m just joking.’ I do it for fun because it’s ridiculous. A lot of stereotypes are born from a lack of information and knowledge, and so once you fulfill that [need for information], you are free.”
Kosherbek said she isn’t too concerned about “Borat” because she likes it and said she knows most people don’t think it’s realistic. However, she said she’s more worried about what people see in the news.
“I hear a lot of stuff about Kazakhstan, but most of it is negative, unfortunately,” Kosherbek said. “I think a lot of the attention goes to the negative [news] more than the positive.”
Gulsumkhanum Bayazitova, a senior environmental studies major from Kazakhstan, also said she is worried about the news Americans receive about former Soviet states.
“I don’t think Americans really know much about my country or actually read stuff about my country,” she said. “In general, I think the idea they get starts in middle or high school about the Soviet Union [and] about communism. And I feel like this negative attitude stays down throughout their life.”
Bayazitova said these ideas about communism and the Soviet Union perpetuate stereotypes about the former Soviet Bloc, leaving the positive things her country does unnoticed.
Leonardo Figueroa-Helland, an assistant professor of political science at Westminster, said the “cold war mentality” is still pervasive among Americans and said the media often reinforces this ideology and the negative stereotypes that come with it.
Along with reinforcing stereotypes, Figueroa-Helland said American media does a poor job of representing how the former Soviet Bloc conceives of international affairs and its position in the world. Instead, he said, Americans hear a lot about Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
“It’s not that [Putin] isn’t important over there—[he] is important over there—but there’s so much more that goes into their worldviews and how they see the world than can be fairly represented by U.S. media outlets,” he said. “You could say the same things about representations of Africa, or clearly the Middle East or China. Clearly there are problems of many dichotomous representations of of the ‘other’—often framed with a nationalistic discourse.”
Figueroa-Helland said it isn’t necessarily bad for a country to have a strong national identity. However, he said basing foreign policies on nationalism and “othering” is problematic and said he thinks American media, Russian media and many other countries’ media focus on othering, which perpetuates nationalistic ideologies and practices.
Ruslan Mavlanov, a senior theatre arts major from Russia, said he thinks American media generally does a good job covering the former Soviet Bloc—aside from some factual errors and misrepresentations about his country—because of the diverse options of media available.
Mavlanov moved to America during the start of the Crimean war. While he was living in Russia, he said he never heard anything about Russian troops in Ukraine and didn’t learn of the military presence until after coming to America.
“Everything about Russia is always positive,” Mavlanov said. “While I was in Russia, there was no other news agencies that you can see the actual truth, so you get news that is approved by government only.”
Russian media is strictly controlled by the government, and unapproved media is quickly deleted, according to the European Journalism Center.
Mavlanov said he thinks the Russian government wants to maintain an illusion that “everything is fine” and does so through its media representations.
Kazakhstan also strictly controls speech, according to Kosherbek and Bayazitova. Both of them said they strive to help their country develop a free speech model like America’s.
Although America has a diverse range of media options, Mavlanov said he is worried that the U.S. government will begin approaching media like Russia does with President Donald Trump in power and the rise of conservative news outlets like Breitbart and Fox News.
“I think the U.S. does a good job because there’s so many different opinions and there’s so many different news outlets that aren’t controlled by [the] government,” he said. “But sometimes I feel like… For example Breitbart, it’s basically like… It reminds me so much of a Russian website [because] they publish everything that is positive only about Trump and not [the] negative other opinions. I find it urgent but disturbing.”
The stereotypes Americans see in the media about the former Soviet Bloc may have an impact on how individuals from that area are treated. But ultimately, Mavlanov said Russian stereotypes boil down to “drinking a lot and riding bears.”
He and the other two students said the majority of biases they experience in the United States aren’t because of where they come from but because of their ethnicity and race, their accents and—for Kosherbek and Bayazitova— their gender.
To fight misleading stereotypes, Kosherbek and Figueroa-Helland both suggested individuals research events outside of mainstream media by looking at media from other countries and from the viewpoints of minorities or the disadvantaged and then critically asking what has been left out.
They also encouraged individuals to spread their knowledge and experiences, especially through social media, to help break stereotypes.
Beyond doing these two things, Figueroa-Helland said the most important and probably the most difficult way to end stereotypes is to fully immerse oneself in another culture.
“Nobody has the complete truth,” Figueroa-Helland said.” Nobody sees these things without their own perception….There is no kind of short solution to that. There’s not an easy solution to that.”
Updated at 10:52 PM on May 4, 2017: A prior version of this article incorrectly identified Russian President Vladimir Putin.