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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Auto-stereotypes of the Russians: psychological research

Smolina Tatiana Leonidovna

PhD in Psychology

Docent, the department of Social Psychology, St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions

192238, Russia, Saint Petersburg, Fuchika Street 15, office #430

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Melnikova Alla Aleksandrovna

Doctor of Cultural Studies

Professor, the department of Social Psychology, St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions

192238, Russia, Saint Petersburg, Fuchika Street 15

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The subject of this article is the national auto-stereotypes of Russians. Perestroika and the subsequent social transformation significantly influenced the collective representation, touching upon the system of ethnic identity, the structure of which includes the ethnic auto-stereotypes. The need for examine the direction of transformation of the Russian ethnic stereotype defined the subject of this article. The authors conduct a theoretical and empirical analysis of the semantic content of auto-stereotypes of the Russians. The empirical study contained the two methods of collecting information: projective drawing and survey. The scientific novelty is first and foremost determined by the combination of methods, which allowed examining not only the conscious auto-stereotypical representations, but also the unconscious that are difficult to verbalize. The acquired result confirmed the appropriateness of such approach, having demonstrated the considerable variations between the conscious and unconscious auto-stereotypes of the Russians. While according to the data from surveys the respondents describe their countrymen as positive overall, the processing of projective drawings illustrate that the unconscious auto-stereotypes of the Russian rather have an extensive number of negative connotations.

Keywords: self-identification of Russians, ethnic self-identification, national self-identification, ethnic mentality, mentality, conscious auto-stereotypes, unconscious auto-stereotypes, examination of auto-stereotypes, auto-stereotypes of Russians, auto-stereotypes


People of different cultures tend to develop general characteristics of other social groups and about themselves. Those typical features are usually regarded as stereotypes in everyday discourse as well as in the social science tradition. Throughout the short history of studying stereotypes, different approaches to understanding the nature of this concept have been introduced. View on stereotypes as cultural and collective beliefs has been accepted since the very appearance of this phenomenon. Later on, however, individual approach has been developed by social psychologists who started to be preoccupied with processes of categorization (see, for example, Schneider D. J.[15]). As a consequence of the dominance of the social psychology in the field of study of stereotypes, the role of culture in determinacy of stereotypes was often disregarded. In the case of national stereotypes, however, culture and consensus cannot be underestimated and stereotypes should be viewed as a collection of cultural beliefs shared among the members of a society. At the same time, the national configuration of stereotypes can be seen as hindering or helping the progress of the nation in civilizational dynamics. [1, c. 385-386.] The content of stereotypical perceptions of Russians is the main focus of the present article.

Stereotypes are deeply embedded in the fabric of culture, and due to this fact historical sources provide rich material for the interpretation and the reconstruction of popular beliefs and opinions. However, the first scientific notion of this human tendency was introduced only in the XX century. Walter Lippmann, was the first to use the term ‘stereotype’, and since then, the name of this American journalist is cited almost in every work dedicated to this phenomenon. The popularity of this definition in everyday language can be explained by the multidimensional character of stereotypes which play an important role in the construction of the social world. Originally, Lippmann, in his famous book Public Opinion [12], described stereotypes as ‘pictures in our heads’. In the classic study of discrimination The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Gordon W. Allport gave the following definition of stereotypes: “…a stereotype is an exaggerated belief associated with category” [9, p.191]. Thus, in Allport’s view stereotypes are perceived as inaccurate mental generalizations or fixed ideas about the social world. In the mainstream of social science at that time such adjectives as wrong and inadequate were frequently used to describe stereotypes.

This definition of stereotypes was highly influential until the existence of correspondence between characteristics of groups and the beliefs which others held of them was discovered. The notion that stereotypes bear the “kernel of truth” and therefore resemble real characteristics changed the attitude toward this phenomenon in social science tradition (see, for example, Klineberg in McDonald [13]). Still, in everyday discourse stereotypes are usually viewed as inaccurate representations.

National stereotypes by definition refer to people’s judgements about other people and their cultures. Stereotypes about other nations comprise of number of beliefs which construct national character. Traditionally national character was viewed as “the average (or central tendency) of the characteristics of individuals” [14, p.71]. This means that the majority of the population of a given community possesses a set of typical traits, however, there can be modes in this common pattern. National character implies the modal characteristics – traits that occur with the highest frequency. However, these modal traits are largely constructed with the help of stereotypes.

Studies of national characteristics as typical traits of Russian national character have a long tradition of analysis in social sciences (see, for example, Gorer G., Rickman J.[11]; Peabody D.[1985]; Peabody D., Shmelev A.G., Andreyeva M.K., Gramenitskiy A.E. [5]; Kasyanova K.[2]; Melnikova A.A. [3],[4], to name just a few). Within the social sciences, studies on Russian national characteristics started to appear in mainstream anthropology after the Second World War. Anthropologists tried to find typical features and summarize them into national character. Although it was not always possible for the researchers to visit those countries and conduct a study (as it was the case with the Soviet Union), literature and historical analysis as well as examinations of traditions were helpful in investigating closed communities.

This type of study was carried out by British anthropologists Geoffrey Gorer and John Rickman in 1949. They proposed the so-called ‘swaddling hypothesis’ in order to understand the nature of the Russian character. It was suggested that the peasants’ practice of rapping up infants tightly (to keep arms and legs immobile) and unwrapping them only for feeding or playing results in the construction of specific features. Periods of anger and passions which transform into exhaustion, loneliness and depression were attributed to Russians based on the assumption that restrictions posed on a person in early childhood would have an effect on them as adults (Gorer G., Rickman J. [11]).

Clearly, the Russian character cannot be fully explained by childhood experiences; it is a product of the interaction of a variety of geographical, social economic and cultural events. The acceptance of Byzantine Christianity and the experiences of the Mongol invasion are only few factors that accounted for the establishment of specific Russian characteristics. A high level of emotionality, extremism, unpredictability and maximalism are usually attributed to Russians. However, all these traits can be juxtaposed with others, such as fatalism, passivity, submissiveness and laziness. Those contradictions of the national character were stressed by Russian philosophers (e.g., Lossky, Berdyaev, and Solovyev). Berdyaev, for example, acknowledged clashing principles that can be found in the foundation of the ‘Russian soul’: the indigenous pagan (Dionysian) and the ascetic (Christian Orthodox). According to Berdyaev [10], this antagonism is the source of the contradictory traits of the Russian people: goodness and brutality, individualism and collectivism, rebellion and slavery.

Different characteristics attributed to Russians can be found in folktales where the Russians described themselves as kind, honest and strong. Yet, in the same fairy tale one can find depictions of Russians as drunkards, liars and cheaters. Even the most popular character in Russian folktales is called Ivan the Fool – the name which in itself conotates certain personality traits.

A variety of characteristics ascribed to Russians can have different forms, and literature provides another source of information. Fedor Dostoyevskiy in his Diary of a Writer stated that a “Russian man is too broad, it wouldn’t be bad if he became narrower” (Dostoyevsky in Segal B. [16, p. 232]). This observation reveals the difficulties in examining Russian characteristics. However, the attempts have been made on different accounts. The inside view of the characteristics of Russians can be observed in the works of the most prominent Russian writers (for example, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Leskov). In the novels by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy Russian peasants usually were attributed such traits as patience, modesty, goodness and moral purity. However, striking contradictions can be found between these descriptions and the observations made by other Russian writers. Chekhov, for instance, described Russian peasants as distrustful, cruel and idle. By no means, Russia can be regarded as a homogeneous society, therefore, the image of this nationality can very, as this is the case in the writers’ portrayals of Russians.

Writers and thinkers have greatly contributed to the construction of Russian stereotypes. The question arises then, how do Russians view themselves? Do the stereotypes promoted by historical events and literature traditions persist or do they crystallize into other characteristics? A survey conducted by Sikevich (1996) indicates that the respondents view a typical Russian as kind, tolerant, hospitable and hard-working. This does not correspond with characteristics attributed to Russians by anthropologists, philosophers and writers. It can be explained by the fact that that the image of one’s own group (auto-stereotype) is usually described in more positive terms.

Auto- and hetero-stereotypes are studied as means for investigation ethnic self-consciousness (Sikevich Z.V. [6]; Smolina T.L.[7]) and mutual perceptions of groups as a result of intercultural contact during cross-cultural adaptation (Ward C., Bochner S., Furnham A. [17]; Smolina T.L., Melnikova A.A. [8]).

Methodology of the Research

In the present study of auto-stereotypes two different types of methods – projective drawing and questionnaire – were adopted. The projective drawing technique as a research tool is frequently used in psychology when subjects are asked to draw different objects and thus express their attitudes and feelings. In the case of current research respondents were given the task of drawing typical Russian. This drawing technique allows a research to diminish problems with language. Language is both a vehicle for and an obstacle to the cross-cultural research due to the fact that specific methods designed for one country if applied to the other cultural setting without an appropriate translation could produce unreliable results. The use of drawings reduces this danger, as it is administered to the respondents in an unlimited format and subjects have the freedom of self-expression and reflexivity. Moreover the main advantage of this research technique is that it can tap into the respondents’ own images. However, the ambiguity of interpretation is one of the significant disadvantages of this method when presenting the results obtained from the drawings. In the current study the drawing technique will be analyzed through content analysis.

The other data was collected from the questionnaire. The short questionnaire was constructed specifically to address the issue of national stereotypes. One of the question was constructed in the form of semantic differential – the technique which is comprised of a set of polar traits-adjectives that are presented to the respondents on the basis of a seven-point scale. Subjects are asked to check the items that are closest to their position. In the present research twelve pairs of features were constructed. On the whole, the questionnaire was produced for the purpose of finding out additional information about respondents as well as to support the empirical evidence received from the drawings. The use of drawings and then juxtaposing them with information gathered through the questionnaire allows a second alternative reading due to the combination of received results.


A sample of the Russian students from Herzen State Pedagogical University (St. Petersburg, Russia) took part in the research. This target group consisted of psychology students aged between 18 and 27. Fifty-two Russian respondents participated in the study: 33 women and 19 men.

The surveys were distributed simultaneously to the subjects for completion. First, respondents were asked to fill in the questionnaire. Upon its completion, the respondents were asked to think about and draw a picture of a typical Russian. The whole procedure took from 20 to 30 minutes.

Method of Analysis

Results obtained through the semantic differential technique are presented in average scores of the trait-adjective attributed to different nationalities. The data gathered from the drawings were analyzed using the method of content analysis. The element of the drawing was regarded as a coding unit. Categories were not invented or theoretically derived; they were drawn from the material (elements of pictures). The classification scheme contains ten different categories (i.e. Political and national symbols, Leisure time symbols, Labor symbols, Advertising symbols, Plants and animals, Food and drinks, etc.).

The elements which were not included in the categories were analyzed qualitatively. For instance, gender, type of clothes and the general appearance of the depicted person were taken into account. The drawing technique proved to be a valid and reliable research tool because it can be analyzed through content analysis. Second, it can be interpreted both quantitatively and qualitatively. The respondents can express not only the views they were conscious of (through the questionnaire) but also the attitudes they were unaware of (through the drawings).

The self-evaluations of Russians

The analysis of auto-stereotypes consist of two stages. First, the results obtained from the drawings will be analyzed qualitatively and quantitatively. Second, the findings received from the survey will be presented and compared from the previously mentioned data.

During the first step of our analysis, the auto-stereotypes of the Russian respondents will be assessed through the examination of drawings. It should be stated from the beginning that there were no abstract drawings; all of the subjects drew a person as a typical representative of the Russian nationality. However, although the majority of the respondents depicted a man, there were several drawings by female subjects who drew a woman. More specifically, five percent of the female respondents perceived a typical Russian as a female person. This tendency to differentiate the gender in the stereotypical perception was noticeable only in the drawings of the female respondents.

Another issue which is worth mentioning concerns the general appearance of the depicted person. While the facial expression was not taken into account due to the ambiguity of interpretation, the type of clothes and its elements were carefully observed. There was a considerable amount (24%) of drawings where a typical Russian was depicted in winter clothes (e.g. fur coat, fur hat, gloves). Less frequently respondents drew a person in a military form (5%), sportswear (2%), business suit (2%) and traditional national costume (1%). More often, however, a typical Russian in the drawings was presented around different plants and animals, as is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Auto-stereotypes of Russian Respondents (%)




Political and national symbols



Leisure time symbols



Economic life of a society



Labor symbols



Technical objects



Advertising symbols



Plants and animals



Food and drinks






Negative symbols



According to the findings, category ‘Plants and animals’ dominates in the perception of a typical Russian by Russian subjects. The drawings of bears, cats, dogs, horses as well as different types of trees were observed in 26,5% of cases. The second group of symbols which appears significant for the auto-stereotypes of Russians is the category ‘Alcohol’ (22%). Besides the drawings which depicted a person with a bottle of vodka or beer, 18% of the drawings contained political and national symbols. The latter include both Russian and Soviet symbols (Soviet and Russian flags, sickle and hammer, Soviet star), which shows that the Soviet heritage still dominates in the perception of a stereotyped Russian. Interestingly enough, the next popular category is the category of leisure time symbols (12,5%), where respondents draw various musical instruments (accordion, balalaika) and books (one of the books was titled “War and Peace”). Objects representing labor (spade, scythe, hammer, axe) were also present in 6% of drawings.

As it was noted earlier, one of the questions in the survey was presented in the form of a scale, where students were asked to rate how typical a certain characteristic is for a Russian on a range from one to seven, where a score “one” represented the more favorable direction. Alternatively, a tendency to respond in a more unfavorable direction resulted in scoring closer to number seven. Table 2 illustrates the auto-stereotypes of Russian respondents on the bipolar scale basis.

Table 2. Bipolar Scale Characteristics of a Typical Russian by Russian Respondents (Mean Values)



brave / cowardly


active / passive


hard-working / lazy


educated / uneducated


tolerant / intolerant


sociable / unsociable


frank / devious


modest / conceited


kind / mean


generous / stingy


patriotic / unpatriotic


well-mannered / primitive


The Russian is believed to excel in courage, sociability, kindness and patriotism. Overall, it cannot be said that Russians view themselves negatively; there are no ratings near to the score “seven”. Moreover, the closest number to the unfavorable direction (4,2 – modest / conceited). Nevertheless, a score of 4 is usually considered the middle point or the constant in the seven-point scale. It can be concluded that auto-stereotypes of Russians hold a favorable (positive) direction according to the results of the survey.

A possible explanation of the discrepancies between the data – drawings and questionnaire – can be the following. Such characteristics as drunkenness and poverty were not presented in the questionnaire and the possible scoring of those features is not known. The images of guns that appeared in the drawings of Russian respondents can be interpreted as an indication of aggressiveness – another negative characteristic. Thus, the drawing analysis provides the images which symbolize certain characteristics and reveal other dimensions of the auto-stereotypes for further interpretation.


The empirical investigation provided a range of findings in regard to auto- stereotypes of Russians. First, it cannot be said that the auto-stereotypes of the Russians are strictly positive. On the contrary, the auto-stereotypes contain a rather large amount of negative connotations according to the analysis of projective drawings. The qualitative interpretation of the drawings demonstrated the existence of gender differences in stereotyping. In particular, Russian male respondents never drew a woman as a representative of the other nationality. Female subjects, on the other hand, in some cases depicted a woman when given the same assignment. Overall, it can be concluded that this study not only offered an enquiry into the content of stereotypes, but also posed questions which appear to be challenging for future investigation into the nature of stereotypes.

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