There are subcultures of toughness in the US. Any criminal gang -- black, white, or Hispanic -- is going to esteem toughness. The military obviously does. And jailhouse culture is all about proving you're not a "punk."
Among whites, both Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans seem to have more than their share of self-proclaimed tough guys. In general, the Irish seem to pride themselves on being tougher than the English (both here and in the UK). It's a little the same way Norwegians pride themselves on being tougher than Swedes, both here and in Scandinavia. (Those Old World rivalries die hard.)
In today's America, though, much of the toughness is just Sylvester Stallone-ish posturing. (What is Stallone, after all, but a more intelligent and successful version of the Jersey Shore boys?) It's an ersatz, for-show version of toughness: take steroids, lift weights, strut around in a muscle shirt, try to look manly, and if you're lucky, have people film you. The Italian Mafia can be tough on other people -- but the ability to inflict pain on others is an altogether different quality than a willingness to undergo it yourself.
The Russians shine in both regards. They have a culture of toughness, and they seem to venerate the quality for its own sake.
It may have something to do with having being toughened by years of communism. But it goes beyond that. There are plenty of other places -- like most of Eastern Europe -- which suffered under years of communist rule, but which simply don't place the same premium upon stoicism and grit.
The prominence of combat sports can be a fair barometer of the character of a people (think tae kwon do in Korea), and Sambo (a form of grappling) is a popular sport in Russia. Fedor Emilianenko, considered by many to have been the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, was also a four time world sambo champion. He was known for his calm, businesslike demeanor while fighting. Here is a good example of that.
While Fedor was the greater MMA fighter, his brother Aleksandr Emilianenko, a three time world sambo champion, may be an even better embodiment of Russian toughness. Here is his brief fight against the pumped up, posturing James Thompson. Aleksandr somehow managed to look not only calm, but downright bored, not only before and after, but even during the fight. Aleksandr spent three and a half years in jail (in Russia, one doesn't get those kinds of tattoos, especially those stars on the front of the shoulders, without earning them). And Alexander reportedly goes bear hunting with just a pitchfork and a knife. (C'mon, it wouldn't be sporting if the bear didn't stand a chance.)
A man who had once visited some brothels in Prague told me that they employed Russian ex-military guys as security men there. He described these guys as "all muscle, arms covered with tattoos, probably in their thirties but with their crew cuts already going gray, with these incredibly hard faces which looked as if they hadn't smiled in about ten years."
A recent article in the NY Times about training Russian flight attendants explained that the biggest hurdle seemed to be to get them to smile. (A culture which venerates toughness does not engender smiley face, have-a-nice-day personalities.)
Prison shows are a staple on various cable channels these days. Most emphasize the harshness and brutality of life behind bars. There was a show about a Russian prison recently; it made even the American supermax jails look like summer camp.
Consider how the national character of our two countries is reflected by our leaders. There's no doubting Vladimir Putin's no-nonsense, realpolitik attitudes. Our President, on the other hand, is Barack Obama.
We could wish for a more formidable leader like Putin, but do we deserve one? As long as enough of us are willing to be brainwashed by the mainstream media, we probably deserve a President who is the embodiment of political correctness.
Others who've had firsthand experience with Russians tend to agree.
Last year my daughter was a freshman in college. She was assigned a roommate from Moscow, who came to stay with us over Thanksgiving. This girl was intelligent, well-mannered, good-natured, and extremely enamored of the US. At one point I asked her who she thought was tougher, Russians or Americans. I knew beforehand what her answer would be, but was curious as to exactly how she'd say it. She didn't hesitate: "Oh, Russians."
This past summer when I was in London, I chatted for a while with a South African woman, a former ballerina studying to be a midwife. She was a Boer, and back home she had helped her uncle illegally poach game. (She could still skin a sheep with a knife.) The Boers are a plain-spoken lot; she mentioned that her father had told her she was "pretty from far, but far from pretty," meaning that she wasn't good-looking up close -- not the kind of thing most American fathers would say. She herself had gotten her ten-year-old son over his fear of the ocean by forcing him to swim out alone beyond the breakers; this, too, is not the usual American way. In any case, at one point I asked her what the Russians in London were like. She immediately responded with a shudder, "Oh those Russians, they're tough."
(If you haven't clicked yet on the link to Aleksandr Emelianenko's fight, it's worth a look; he is the quintessential Russian.)