‘Rocky IV’ and ‘Miracle on Ice’: Cold War Russian Culture as the Villain Returns
And it’s a familiar fight, especially for a generation that grew up on a constant diet of anti-Russian agitprop: in the headlines (the McCarthy hearings), in schools where children hid under laminate desks in case of Russian nuclear attack, and in books, movies and TV shows that reinforced all the stereotypes. Rocky and Bullwinkle battled cartoon villains Boris and Natasha. James Bond foiled dangerous masterminds working for the USSR Rocky Balboa prevailed against the fiercest boxer in the USSR. It was very scary and very heady.
“By having an enemy who was all evil, I was able to see myself as all virtuous,” said Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent and co-creator of the acclaimed FX series “The Americans.” “And I must avoid, deny and run away from all sides of myself or my country that were troubled, problematic or dark. I also have a related mission: I have something to focus on, something to care about, something to give meaning to my life because I have to be a soldier for the good guys.
Then the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and heroes and villains were redefined. A new generation of Americans and Russians viewed the Cold War as a relic of the bad old days.
In just two weeks, Putin has taken us back 60 years.
Russia was “our number one enemy” said Weisberg, 56. “The average person on the street knew that and cared. Even now, in the midst of a really terrible crisis, you see the interest increase dramatically – but I don’t think it even comes close to the way that people were obsessed with during the Cold War.
As post-WWII parents anxiously watched the news — the nation came to a standstill during the Cuban Missile Crisis — their children drew inspiration from pop culture. Weisberg first encountered Russians in the animated series Rocky and Bullwinkle, which debuted in 1959. The flying squirrel and his moose sidekick tangled up with Boris and Natasha, spies from “Pottsylvania.” It was funny and satirical, he said, but also disturbing that little kids were taught “that someone with that accent was so nefarious. So you start from there.
As a young adult, he was particularly influenced by the movie “Red Dawn”. The 1984 film pits Soviet soldiers invading the United States against a group of American high school students. “For me, that was my biggest fantasy, exactly what I wanted: the Soviets would invade, then someone could give me a gun and send me into the woods with a group of my friends to fight them.”
A year later, Sylvester Stallone starred in “Rocky IV”, where Rocky and Soviet boxer Ivan Drago went mano a mano for their countries. Despite mediocre reviewsit was a huge success, winning $300 million worldwide, one of the most successful sports films of the Cold War era. (Rocky not only defeats Draco but earns the respect of the Russians.)
When Weisberg spent a few years in the CIA, he bought into the “evil empire” narrative about the USSR. It wasn’t until he read the memoirs of a former KGB officer that he developed a more nuanced view: This guy and his friends remind me of me and my friends in the CIA. They don’t look like dark knights fighting for the evil empire. They seem to be patriots and idealists and people who want to support their country. It’s a bit embarrassing to talk about it, because it shouldn’t have been such a shock. But it was.”
That idea inspired “The Americans,” which debuted in 2013, ran for six seasons and won acclaim for its sophisticated exploration of two undercover KGB spies living near Washington during the Reagan administration. His book, “Russia upside down“, published in September, asserted that our relationship with Russia was doomed as long as Americans adhered to the worldview of good guys and bad guys.
But perhaps the nuance is overstated, especially for millions of fans who have inhaled the Cold War spy thrillers of John le Carré, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Fans thought the novels were thinly veiled retellings of real-life spy stories when, in fact, they were set in fictional worlds with just enough interior detail to feel real. There is a moral ambivalence and a certain introspection on the part of the protagonists. But the Russians are still, in big and small ways, the bad guys.
Consider the success of the iconic James Bond, who became the world’s most famous spy thanks to the novels and numerous films of Ian Fleming.
“James Bond’s obsession with Russia has long signaled Western discontent with its former Soviet enemy; indeed the Bond franchise has always been at its most extravagant and politically divisive when it has Bond facing Mother Russia,” an email was sent to Ian Kinane, professor of popular literature and culture at the University of Roehampton and editor. Founding Chief of the International Journal. studies of James Bond.
‘De la Rosa Klebb resembling a toad in ‘From Russia with love‘ (1963) and the slippery General Koskov in ‘Living daylights‘ (1987), to General Orlov’s Madness by Stephen Berkoff in ‘Octopus‘ (1983) and the rampant sexual acrobatics of Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp in ‘golden eye‘ (1995), the Russian adversaries of Bond have always been true parodies,” he said. “Beneath the hyperbole, however, lies Ian Fleming’s deeply troubling preoccupation with the operations of SMERSH, the Red Army’s apex counterintelligence organization, and the main antagonists of Fleming’s early Cold War thrillers. Jump.”
In “From Russia with love(one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books), the Soviets plot to trap Bond in a political sex scandal in order to discredit him and the West. Bond skillfully outwits the Soviets plans while avoiding open conflict. “Total war is not the British way – or, at least not the British way of the Bond universe,” Kinane explained. “Bond outsmarts the Russians rather than outmaneuvering them, and effectively sabotages Soviet designs for Western destabilization.”
Of course, this genre requires heroes and villains, high stakes, and a satisfying ending with the good guys prevailing, usually saving the world from a terrible threat. Real life isn’t that neat.
But real life provided the basis for all pop culture depictions of Russia.
The McCarthy hearings, the Cuban missile crisis and the arms race have underscored an existential threat. But in many ways, it was the simple stories that resonated most profoundly: ballet star Rudolf Nureyev defected in 1961; Mikhail Baryshnikov followed in 1974. Both men became international sensations.
“If you were to doubt your black-and-white thinking, here’s proof you shouldn’t,” Weisberg said. “All these great people – artists, scientists and diplomats – just wanted to get from the wrong country to the right country.”
Others cite Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “The Gulag Archipelagowhich has been called the most damning indictment against the Soviet system ever written. The book, published in English in 1974, influenced a generation of Western scholars; Solzhenitsyn in exile was hailed as a world hero. What many forget is that the dissident still loved Russia: he returned there in 1994 and remained there until his death in 2008.
But if you pick a Cold War moment that sums up everything Americans wanted to believe, it was the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY Team USA – a group young amateurs — faced the team of the USSR, with its professional players and multiple gold medalists. The upset 4-3 in the semi-final (“Do you believe in miracles? YES!” extolled announcer Al Michaels) made world headlines; in 1999, the game topped Sports Illustrated’s list of the 100 Greatest Moments in Sports History.
Best-selling author David Baldacci, 61, has watched all of this and more. “I grew up thinking that the Soviet Union wanted to destroy us,” he said. “I’ve seen it on TV. I’ve seen it through books, I’ve seen it through movies. Baldacci was a poli-sci major in college; ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ has changed his understanding of Russia “But it was a clear decision at the time: it was good versus evil, almost like Hitler versus the Allies.”
And yet, when it came to his post-Soviet thrillers, Baldacci dismissed what he saw as a simplistic approach to US-Russian relations. Her 2008 novel “All the truthis about a corrupt arms dealer who distributes fake Russian video to start a new Cold War. “I’ve had Russians acting on behalf of other countries or other organizations because of the level of skill they developed working for the Soviet Union, the KGB and its successor,” he said. declared. “I certainly didn’t use Russia as a main foil in most of my books, because that seemed like a tired formula to me.”
Looking at this invasion, he believes that we have not returned to the exacerbated state of his childhood. “Obviously Americans look at Putin and Russia and say, ‘I understand what he’s doing in Ukraine and it’s a lot of bad things, but it’s never going to affect us. It might make our gas prices a little higher , but it’s not like Putin will ever invade America, so it doesn’t seem like the threat is that real.
Another change: despite Putin’s media crackdown and disinformation campaign, there are signs that many Russians do not support this invasion.
“I don’t know if it’s the people on the streets of Moscow demonstrating for peace or the fact that there’s internet and connectivity with other people around the world, but there seems to be a very demarcation now. between the Russian government and the Russian government people who maybe weren’t there before,” said Stuart Holliday, CEO of the Meridian International Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes global diplomacy. “I think many Russians are wondering why Putin is doing this.”
Weisberg received an email this week from a 30-year-old Russian friend who relayed to him: “My generation sees through the lies about this war and your generation doesn’t. And it’s just a generational divide.
“Evil Empire? Or just the ‘bad guy’ Putin? If history is any guide, we won’t know until this war is over.