The death of the archetypal Russian villain

The death of the archetypal Russian villain

THE cold war was fought as much in the imagination as on the battlefield. 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. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union followed, writers and directors put down their arms. Barely any films about the cold war were made in the years immediately following its end.

Nearly three decades later, American drama is revisiting the period with a vengeance. There were occasional cold-war films in the early 21st century, such as “Charlie Wilson’s War” (released in 2007), but the revival began in earnest with “The Americans”, a TV series that from 2013 followed deep-cover KGB agents in Washington. Its finale aired last month. “Bridge of Spies” (2015), a film directed by Steven Spielberg, told the story of a lawyer instructed to defend a Soviet spy. The drive for scientific dominance forms the backdrop for both “Stranger Things”, one of Netflix’s biggest shows, and “The Shape of Water”, winner of this year’s Oscar for best picture. “The White Crow”, currently in production, is a biopic of Rudolf Nureyev, a Russian ballet dancer who defected in 1961. A new six-part adaptation of John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, about a British spy’s assignment in East Germany, is also in the works.

These productions diverge strikingly from the Manichean tone of many blockbusters made during the conflict, especially those from the tub-thumping Reagan era (Mr le Carré was always a subtle exception). For example, Ivan Drago, the antagonist of “Rocky IV” (1985), was an emotionless brute: “If he dies,” he memorably says of a defeated American boxer, “he dies.” So was Podovsky, a Russian torturer, in the “Rambo” series. In “From Russia With Love” (1963), the assassin Rosa Klebb relished inflicting pain on both her compatriots and her enemies. In his book “Hollywood’s Cold War”, Tony Shaw, a historian, summarises the celluloid Soviets of yore: “the male of the species normally sported a cheap suit, a black hat and an ugly face…the rare female communist was either a nymphomaniac or frigid and repressed.”

Brothers in arms

“They” were cold-blooded criminals, subversives and deviants; “we” were enlightened defenders of democracy and freedom. Even in grittier, more realistic works, the motivations of communist characters were rarely explored. They existed mostly as “foils against which the men of the West demonstrated their superior skills,” says Michael Kackman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

These hard-faced psychopaths have now been ousted by richly textured Soviet citizens. “The Americans” is concerned as much with the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the Russian agents (pictured), and the trials of raising their children in America, as with espionage. The pair grapple with guilt and the meaning of freedom. Flashbacks to their country’s Stalin-era suffering help explain their devotion to their mission; even so, doubts and disillusionment with the Soviet cause creep in. Supporting roles are thoughtfully rendered, too, such as a Soviet diplomat who is willing to commit treason for the greater good.

So human are these characters, in fact, that viewers are persuaded not only to empathise with them, but to hope they evade capture—even as they kill and blackmail Americans. The hope cultivated by “Bridge of Spies” is that Rudolf Abel, the affable Soviet agent, will not be executed after he is sent home. In “The Shape of Water”, Dimitri Mosenkov, an undercover Soviet scientist, is an ally in saving the Amphibian Man. Mosenkov’s survival is vital for the creature’s own safety and its relationship with Elisa, the heroine.

In these stories, the idea of Western superiority—either moral or professional—is questionable. In the case of “The Americans”, it can be laughable: one of the series’ funniest moments comes when the head of counter-intelligence at the FBI discovers that his secretary has secretly married a KGB officer. The villain of “The Shape of Water” is not Mosenkov but a repulsive American colonel. In “Stranger Things”, the bad guys are scientists on the American government’s payroll, who use the cold war as a pretext for dangerous and exploitative experiments.

The richness of these new storylines in part reflects the intellectual dividend of the Soviet Union’s fall. The overseers of “The Americans”—Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer, and Joel Fields—based details and plot points on archive material that was previously inaccessible. They enlisted Masha Gessen, a Russian-American writer, to ensure their Russian dialogue would feel idiomatic. Likewise, Simon Cornwell, Mr le Carré’s son and a producer on the new version of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, says it will incorporate documentary evidence that was unavailable when the novel was written in the early 1960s. “For a writer whose work is so grounded in reality—he had no access to that reality,” he says of his father. Now the production team has been “able to spend time in the Stasi archives, to spend time with people who were on the East German side,” Mr Cornwell says. “There is room in the six-hour format to explore both sides.”

But the political mood in Britain and America has also played a part. Confidence in Western intelligence services was never unqualified. In Mr le Carré’s novel, Control, a British intelligence chief, blithely acknowledges that “You can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?” But faith in Western spooks has drastically decreased in the wake of the Iraq war and recent surveillance scandals. Moreover, for all the talk of a “new cold war”, and despite Vladimir Putin’s election-meddling and revanchism, most English-speaking viewers no longer feel they face an existential threat from Russia. The imperative to deflect criticism outward, so conspicuous in the 1980s, no longer applies. The dissipating fear has made it easier to focus on the personal side of the stand-off.

Above all, perhaps, these nuanced narratives reflect the evolution of audience tastes. Used to navigating moral minefields in shows such as “The Wire” and “The Sopranos”, viewers have outgrown simplistic tales of good and evil. Proof was offered by “Red Sparrow”, a film released earlier this year that starred Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian seductress targeting a CIA agent. It was “designed to make Americans feel good about [themselves] by showing how much nicer [their] spies are than their Russian counterparts,” says Denise Youngblood, a historian of Russian and Soviet cinema. Judging by its box-office performance, the formulaic plot was a turn-off.

Bringing Soviet characters in from the cold, mapping their private conflicts with geopolitical ones, makes more compelling drama. And it reminds viewers to doubt generalisations about history that occlude the experiences and complexities of individuals. “Because Russia has always been a land of villains,” Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, once wrote, “it is also a land of heroes and saints.” Hollywood is at last imaginative enough to make room for all of them.

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