I put this question to a bunch of people:
What do you think of when you think of Russia?
These are some of the answers I got, in no particular order:
Dostoevsky's jail cell, Nabokov's butterflies, the Bol'shoi Ballet, Peter and the Wolf, vodka, James Bond villains, hell, children's picture books and fairy tales, family, nuclear fear in the 80s, "tear down this wall", vodka, borsch, Tolstoy, xenophobia, skinheads, fur hats, confusing house music, Pushkin, the Disney movie Anastasia, cabbage, hard work, expressionless military men, beautiful women, vodka, the Beatles' "Back in the USSR", secrets, space exploration, Gogol, distance, the Metro, provincialism, Soviet war pins, gymnasts, angular architecture, 10 time zones*, Gorbachev and his birthmark, The Master and Margarita, sour cream, the death of reason, Solzhenitsyn, bent old women working fields of wheat, bad teeth, vodka, the Gulag, onion domes, matryoshka dolls, potatoes, tsars, propaganda posters, danger and drunkenness, Red Square, revolution after revolution...
It's a fuzzy picture: still bearing marks of the Soviet age, relying heavily on food and literature. Though neither overwhelmingly negative nor positive, the overall tone is closer to dark than light. Soon I'll pose the question about a different country and see what returns, to offer a point of comparison. I want to know about our current view of Russia, if it's been updated much since 1991 or the Putin presidency, but in order to come to any conclusion about that, I need to know if our perceptions of, say, France or Egypt or China or Cuba are based on today, ten years ago, WWII or the Bay of Pigs, Hollywood movies or commerce. Even then, I won't have any conclusions, per se; I'll only have a better grasp of how and how quickly our perceptions shift.
Better get back to work...
*As of March, 2010, there are officially nine time zones in Russia: eight contiguous, plus Kaliningrad.