We continue the discussion of the Russia-related series. Following the exploration of how Russian history is shown in popular TV shows, we now look at why and how the Russians are always the bad guys.
The long awaited third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things finally arrived earlier this month, returning to our screens with a strong dose of 1980s nostalgia for garish fashion trends and the Cold War-era Red Scare.
While in the first two seasons of Stranger Things, there are pretexts of Cold War tropes woven into the storyline, in the third season, we are presented with a major Russian-led operation to reopen the gate to the Upside Down. Given that the series is set in the 80s and paranoia towards the USSR was then a reality, can we dismiss this plot line as simply a product of the time? Or are we witnessing another illustration of a somewhat clichéd demonisation of Russia in mainstream western entertainment?
In twentieth-century Western popular culture Russians have been a constant subject of caricature. The notion of Russian villain has been so consistent that we have come to consider Russian as synonymous with baddie. An Eastern European accent is tantamount to malevolence in everything from James Bond spy thrillers to children’s cartoons (GRU in Pixar’s Despicable Me). The image of the Russian gangster is hard-wired into our psyche.
Over the last decade, many have argued that the Cold War never ended but has simply been simmering on a low heat. Nina Khrushcheva [Professor of International Affairs at the New School and Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter] argues that from a cultural perspective, this is also the case. She highlights the presence of Russian villains on our screens at the turn of the Millennium, think — Air Force One, The Peacemaker, and The Saint.
Fast-forward to the 2010s, in Hollywood we have seen a striving for more sensitive representations of race, gender and sexuality, but white male privilege still appears to hold the calling card. Can we place the Russian villain into the Hollywood playbook, a method of mitigating any risk of racial offence by avoiding casting a non-Caucasian actor as the antagonist? And in the same vein, an attempt to keep familiar actors in leading roles(albeit it with some disputable Russian accents)?
But when President Putin plays the role of the ultimate oligarch gangster on our evening news reels, where do we draw the line between fact and fiction? In the Cold War era, the callous, Russian baddie fed into the prevailing Manichean view of good and evil. Characters such as Ivan Drago (Rocky IV) helped the West to believe in its own inherent goodness.
James Watkins, the Director of the BBC’s McMafia, says that the show is not a simple case of Russian criminality versus English morality, but rather something altogether more grey in which the corporate world is as dangerous and arguably more venal than that of organised crime. Despite this, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, James Norton says he feels like a lot of the world has this misconception that being Russian gives you a predisposition towards corruption. Indeed, his character [Alex Godman, an Anglo-Russian banker] questions whether it is his Russian genes which make him more disposed to getting involved in the criminal underworld in the first place? We get our answer to this with the arrival of his thuggish Russian uncle fresh off the plane from Moscow.
More recently, in the BBC’s Killing Eve, Jodie Comer arrives on our screens as Villanelle, a dark but coltish, psychopath killer who both seduces and revolts. But why is it that she makes such a concerted effort to hide her identity as Oksana Astankova? And why is that only when we see her in her homeland, do we get a glimpse of this other character inside her, and see her commit arguably her most savage murder? Can only her ‘Russianness’ explain the surfacing of such evil?
Dr. Matthew Alford, co-author of National Security Cinema, argues that national cinema is all the same – enemies are always portrayed in salacious ways, and more films and series than we would like to think are affected by government censorship in an attempt to control how states are portrayed – Alford cites Meet The Parents and the Hulk as examples of unlikely victims of government censorship.
He argues that the Cold War was fought as much in the imagination as between spies. Each side sought to project images of social and cultural superiority; stories of people corrupted by the decadent West or persecuted by the KGB were turned into weapons. This struggle was largely waged on screen, in shows and films that were subject to varying degrees of government involvement.
Screenwriting is a tool which affects the way we view the world. Nina Khrushcheva also argues that Vladimir Putin has been significantly influenced by Hollywood’s parade of evil Russians. Whether or not this is true; and however much we may have grown accustomed to the one-dimensonal Russian antagonist – would we not be better off with a richer variety of Russian characters on our screens? That said, there is no lack of hype around the arrival of the next season of Stranger Things.