Moscow State professor Larisa Mikhailov discusses America’s superhero complex

Lauren Kelleher

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Larisa Mikhaylova tells the story of a student who was killed while investigating neo-Nazi groups.

In Russia, many believe Americans view themselves as superheroes, said Larisa Mikhailov, a professor at Moscow State University.

Mikhailov, who teaches in the journalism department at MSU, spoke to about 20 students on “The Russian view of American Culture and American Values” in Willard Hall on Monday night. The event was sponsored by Northwestern’s Slavic Department.Much of her work focuses on the Russian perception of American culture and the foundation of those perceptions, she said.

“America became so powerful (after World War II) and then more people began studying it,” Mikhailov said. “But then some people turned to resentment.”

Russian post-Cold War sentiment toward America is rooted in the U.S.’s role as a superpower, Mikhailov said.

Russians hold on to a few pervasive stereotypes regarding America, Mikhailov said. “Americans are dumb, Americans have never gone to the moon,” and, most predominantly, “Americans think of themselves as superheroes.”

The last impression is largely caused by U.S. foreign policy, Mikhailov said, and how the nation sees its role as a democratizing power in the world.

Mikhailov said she is particularly interested in the preponderance of the Superman image in American culture. It was this idea-the superhero and how it played into impressions of America abroad-that Mikhailov came to America in 2005 to study.

Mikhailov said everything from the idea of a “friendly neighborhood Spiderman” to the opening-credits song for the television show “Smallville,” “Somebody Save Me,” reflect a strong, widespread belief in the ultimate salvation and justice of superpowers-in essence the important of being a superpower.

“When I came to America, I found many comic books and images of superheroes, everything from Metropolis to Spiderman, who lives in your neighborhood,” she said. “And this belief that this kind of justice of saving (others) is possible.”

McCormick sophomore Mirasbek Kuterbekov, an international student from Kazakhstan and a member of the Russian Student Association at NU, spoke Russian with Mikhailov before and after her presentation.

He said the stereotypes regarding Americans, which Mikhailov touched on in her presentation, reminded him of what his friends at home say to him about going to school in America.

“They are always joking about how I must be the best student here,” he said. “It’s really strange, because an American university education is highly valued in Kazakhstan. But at the same time the image of Americans as lazy, dumb and complacent still exists.”

Bienen sophomore Chase Hopkins traveled to Russia in February with Professor Emeritus Irwin Weil, of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, who introduced Mikhailov before her talk. He said he saw firsthand the superhero stereotype Mikhailov discussed.

“I asked them what Russia thinks about America’s involvements in Iraq and Afgahnistan,” Hopkins said. “They said they think it is dumb because they already fought at least one of those wars and it didn’t work out well.”

He agreed with Mikhailov’s point that there are few joint efforts between two nations for whom Cold War memories run deep. Ultimately, he said, the superhero image of the democratizing West needs to be kept in check.

“We do think we are superheroes,” he said. “But power doesn’t automatically mean justice. Russians, of all people, know that.”