A scene from Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Russia on the Silver Screen

The Evil Empire from Lenin to Putin

Anglo-American popular culture seldom depicts Russians as heroes or even good guys—unless they come from the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak. The best hope for a Hollywood Russian is to follow the example of Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius, the captain of a Russian submarine in The Hunt for Red October (1990), who rebelled against his national government. Of course, perceptive viewers noticed that the captain’s surname, Ramius, indicated that he was not ethnically Russian but hailed from the captive Baltic republics. He was thus a trusted slave plotting against his masters.

Russians have almost always been cast as the Great Other, as removed from Anglo-American values as East is from West. Russian film characters are feared as cruel and implacable opponents, unless, as if to assuage that fear, they are depicted as bungling court jesters of evil.

Captain Marko Ramius, played by Sean Connery, in the opening scene of The Hunt for Red October.

There was only a brief period when this was not so. During the United States’ wartime alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, the U.S. State Department and Hollywood worked as one to gloss over Soviet human rights abuses and the incompatibility of Marxism-Leninism with American ideals. In movies such as The North Star (1943), the Russian people—or close enough, since the drama was set in a village in modern-day Ukraine—were shown as noble and courageous, shattered by the German assault. That idea was furthered in the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ propaganda movie Know Your Ally: Britain (1944), which depicted China, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States as “four backs on a football team” in a game played “for keeps.”

Russia was kicked off the team soon enough. The Cold War—a clash of competing ideologies as well as geopolitical interests—became the dominant factor in shaping the American public’s understanding of the world. A 1947 Paramount newsreel put it starkly: this was “the year of division” marked by “the global struggle of East versus West,” a conflict illustrated by an animated scene of stone-faced Russian troops marching westward across a map of Europe. This was the face of the new enemy, made more threatening in 1949 when the Soviet Union broke the United States’ nuclear monopoly. Even as the United States went to war in Korea and as China became a bigger threat, Americans still saw the Soviet hand behind the inscrutable visage of Chairman Mao. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the Chinese mind-control master makes reference to the work of “the Pavlov Institute.”

MALEVOLENT MOSCOW

Cold War anxiety about Russians played out in several key ways. The extraterrestrial aliens in movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) can be read as stand-ins for the alien Russians. Around that time, headlines proclaimed the espionage convictions of the lawyer Alger Hiss and the spy couple Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, along with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges of Communist infiltration of government. It’s no surprise, then, that fifth columnists directed from Moscow were featured in films noir such as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Pickup on South Street (1953).

But Russians often figure in Cold War movies without the filter of the fantastic. One regular image of Russians—as preposterously crude yet dangerous because of the military power at their command—was given impetus by the real-life specter of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who threatened to “bury” the United States and pounded the UN podium with his shoe for emphasis. The historian Yanek Mieczkowski aptly described the Cold War as a “prestige race,” and in a contest between competing visions of human society, denigrating the opponent as a poor specimen of civilization is a handy weapon. The Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is the classic cinematic iteration of the boorish Russian official. Another character of the time, Boris from the cartoon series Rocky & Bullwinkle (1959–1964), may have been identified as an agent of “Pottsylvania,” but he was cut from the same fabric, with his unconvincing attempts to blend into the American scene and his risible schemes to bring the free world to its knees.

Boris and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle.

While children were chortling over Boris, adults were laughing at the Russians in Silk Stockings (1957), a musical remake of the Greta Garbo vehicle Ninotchka (1939). In the remake, Cyd Charisse plays a beautiful but humorless commissar dispatched to Paris to upbraid an errant Soviet delegation, a trio of buffoons—led by Peter Lorre’s character—who have been corrupted by Western ways. “We are now rotten capitalists, and if all goes well, we’ll be much more rotten than we ever dreamed,” Lorre’s character says. The commissar portrayed by Garbo and Charisse represented a Hollywood type of Soviet womanhood, dangerous for their system’s willingness to promote them in professions reserved for men in the United States. In another example, Jet Pilot (1957), Janet Leigh plays a Russian fighter pilot who encounters the West in the form of an American aviator, played by John Wayne. In all cases, capitalism and its representatives succeed in seducing the Russian women. 

A few years before Silk Stockings, Peter Lorre was given the opportunity to play an embodiment of another prevalent Cold War–era Russian stereotype: the coldly calculating antithesis of Western values. In the first appearance of James Bond on screen, Casino Royale (1954), shot as an episode for CBS’ Climax! anthology series, Lorre costars as Bond’s nemesis, a Russian agent called Le Chiffre. Curiously, Bond made his screen debut as an American, played by Barry Nelson—a far cry from the jet-setting Briton brought to life in the 1960s by Sean Connery. As a footnote to the world’s most prolific and successful movie franchise, the original Casino Royale serves as a reminder that Ian Fleming conceived Bond in a Cold War setting as a foe of the Soviet Union, even if the early Bond films played down explicit references to the Russians. In From Russia with Love (1963), the evil Soviet agents Grant, Klebb, and Kronsteen became operatives of the global criminal syndicate SPECTRE.

Given the widespread assumption of Russian brutality, which was reinforced by countless media depictions, widespread opposition to U.S. policies designed to thwart Soviet advances in Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America was virtually impossible. Other television programs and films during the Cold War either trumpeted or rued the United Kingdom’s role as junior partner to the United States in its struggle against Soviet Russia. Patrick McGoohan starred in Danger Man, a British production that aired in the United States as Secret Agent (1960–1962, 1964–1968), whose villains often hailed from Eastern Europe. The novels of the British literary master of espionage John le Carré were adapted into several films and television programs. Le Carré’s callous Soviet mastermind Karla factored in the acclaimed BBC-TV production Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and a film taken from the same story (2011). 

Screen depictions of Russians often trailed in the wake of headlines and statecraft. Even  after Washington managed to avert nuclear Armageddon in the Cuban missile crisis, films such as Fail Safe (1964) and The Bedford Incident (1965) depicted the unseen Russians as rational actors with no desire for war, but who might by accident be drawn along with the United States into the abyss. The popular TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–1968) implied that Russians and Americans could work side by side in an international organization to defend world order from criminals and rogues. But the mood in Hollywood darkened by the end of the 1960s—in part a result of Soviet aid to North Vietnam. In Ice Station Zebra (1968), American and Soviet forces nearly came to blows in the Antarctic.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) mirrored the rise of Cold War tensions during the era when U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced his intention to thwart the “evil empire,” a phrase derived from Star Wars. David Suchet played a KGB agent, handling a pair of reckless young American traitors based on real sellers of state secrets, in the implacable mode familiar from decades of Hollywood Russians. In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Cold War anxiety collides with a Vietnam War revenge fantasy as Sylvester Stallone slaughters the nefarious Soviet torturers assisting the hated North Vietnamese. Red Dawn (1984) played on the worst fear of Russians, as American teenagers fight a guerrilla war against a Soviet-Cuban invasion of the United States.

Given the widespread assumption of Russian brutality, reinforced by countless media depictions, widespread opposition to U.S. policies designed to thwart Soviet advances in Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America was virtually impossible. After Vietnam, the American public was unwilling to commit massive troop deployments, but unlimited aid to local allies and special operations drew protests only from the usual suspects on the left. U.S. administrations could carry on their policies with little concern for domestic resistance.

VILLAINS WITHOUT A CAUSE

The demise of the Soviet Union did little to improve the screen image of Russians. Once again, entertainment followed reality as new players emerged from the collapse of the Communist state. Sinister oligarchs and crime syndicate kingpins trigger the plots of GoldenEye (1995) and The Saint (1997). Criminals unable to rise to the top of the new Russia become the new class of gangsters in the West, vying with the long established Italian Americans of The Sopranos (1999–2007) and playing the bad guys in countless TV and movie crime dramas.

Putin’s resumé as a KGB operative who shrewdly worked out the changing calculus of power is a Hollywood screenwriter’s dream come true. Although Russian actors were the unseen enemy in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), this fact-inspired film about U.S. aid to the mujahideen after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan might have helped set the mood for American opposition to more recent Russian military operations. The reason such opposition did not translate into policy was simple: the American public grew wary as well as weary of deploying forces overseas after the wars in Iraq and, more recently, Afghanistan.

Apathy should not be confused with support for Russia’s aims, however. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pronouncements and machismo play well to a wide audience in his homeland, internationally his image conforms to the cold-eyed Russian killer engraved on the imagination by decades of screen villains. Like some of his predecessors, Putin is a living argument for recognizing the painful truth that stereotypes can have analogues in reality.

Putin’s resumé as a KGB operative who shrewdly worked out the changing calculus of power is a Hollywood screenwriter’s dream come true. Regardless of whether some of Putin’s arguments have historical or political validity, or can at least be understood in terms of Russia’s history of suffering invasions from Western Europe and its desire for security behind a ring of buffer states, Putin has been unable to effectively communicate his message to Western listeners. In the gallery of pop culture images stamped with the seal “Made in Hollywood,” Putin bears closer resemblance to such fictional evil Russians as Kronsteen and Karla than to a real-world statesman.

It’s safe to say, therefore, that Washington will continue to confront little public opposition to countering Moscow’s policies—say, by providing aid to Ukraine or other Eastern European states threatened by Russia. Yet because the memory of cinematic nuclear wars between the United States and Russia remains strong, it may serve as a break against the temptation to send U.S. forces to the region.

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