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 The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the Chinese mind-control master makes reference to the work of “the Pavlov Institute.”

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