Why are Russians the go-to movie villains in Hollywood?

There are many classic Hollywood villain archetypes: The Mad Scientist, the Corrupt Politician, the High School Bully – the list goes on. But ever since the 1940s and the threat of the Cold War, Soviets or Russians have become an easy shorthand for bad guy in American cinema.

As the Cold War passed, other tropes took over. Muslim villains were a prominent stereotype after the events of 9/11, often with deeply racist implications – a 2021 report from found that almost 54 per cent of Muslim characters in 2017-2019 movies were victims of violence and 39 per cent were perpetrators.

Tech Bros – the casually dressed but otherwise grandiose heads of tech corporations – also became common in the wake of backlash against figures like Mark Zuckerberg. Think of Taika Waititi as greedy game developer Antwan Hovachelik in or Jesse Eisenberg’s updated version of Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman (2016).

But even though the evil Russian as a villain died down a bit after the 1980s, it’s experienced a resurgence in recent years.

Recent events also signal it’s likely here to stay: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been condemned by a vast array of global leaders, including the US, resulting in multiple sanctions and a temporary suspension of Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. US President Joe Biden went so far as to call Russia’s war in Ukraine a genocide.

Here’s a look back at how this archetype developed, and how it’s evolved over the years.

The ‘Red Scare’ and Soviet spies

As the Cold War came to a deadly freeze in the 1940s and ’50s, anti-Soviet and anti-communist messaging permeated American culture. US government propaganda pushed warnings resulting in the Red Scare, spreading fear about communist espionage wide and far.

The political firestorm also extended to Hollywood. The infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) interrogated those in the industry suspected of communist ties on often flimsy evidence. At the height of the Red Scare, under pressure from the government and trying to prove loyalty, Hollywood began to make vehemently anti-communist films featuring one-dimensional, fist-clenching Soviet spies.

A prime example is My Son John (1952), a film produced during the height of McCarthyism. It tells a story of a young man named John who is suspected of being a communist spy by his parents. Over the course of the story, John’s mother, Lucille, condemns him over flimsy-at-best evidence, and John’s father, Dan, physically beats him while arguing over the truthfulness of the Bible.

Robert Warshow, an author and film critic, would write in response in the American Mercury magazine that there was a wrong way, a dangerous way, to be anti-Communist. Those who do not believe this may find it illuminating to see Leo McCarey’s new film, My Son John, an attack on Communism and an affirmation of ‘Americanism’ that might legitimately alarm any thoughtful American, whether liberal or conservative.

However, signs of complexity and evolution in Cold War portrayals would begin to surface as the ’50s came to a close.

North by Northwest (1959), one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated films, tells the story of an innocent man who is wrongly suspected of being a US agent and pursued by both foreign spies and Americans.

Unlike many earlier films, North by Northwest gave depth to its characters and plot. Its communist agents are charming and almost debonair, contrary to previous depictions of screaming, hard-faced Soviet soldiers. And even as the main character is pursued by communists, he is also equally trapped by the machinations of American intelligence agencies.

Politics and paranoia

As the ’60s emerged, Hollywood slowly evolved in its Cold War depictions. In the aftermath of the Korean and Vietnam wars, Americans began to question just how heroic the US actually was. Movies took shots at bureaucratic hypocrisy, becoming bolder in their criticisms of the government’s actions in addition to those of communists.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962), released at the height of US-Soviet hostility during the Cuban missile crisis, showed how a combination of international communism and domestic extremism could create a violent, manipulative force that endangers US citizens.

In it, brainwashed Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw becomes an unknowing killer for an international communist conspiracy that aims to assassinate a presidential nominee and overthrow the US government. But it turns out that American right-wing extremists were secretly involved in the conspiracy. The film took a magnifying glass to the hypocritical nature of politicians, showing how foreign communism and American extremism were just two sides of the same authoritarian coin.

On the comedic side of the spectrum is Dr Strangelove (1964), a black comedy that satirises Cold War paranoia over nuclear war. At every turn, attempts to stop the end of the world are thwarted by absurd rules, ridiculous politicians and plain old human stupidity. In one of its most famous lines, as US General Buck Turgidson and the Soviet ambassador attack each other, President Merkin Muffley exclaims: Gentleman, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room.

Russians remain the ‘easy’ villain

Portrayals of the Cold War maybe grew more complex, but even as we move into the present day, Russians are still an easy stereotype for villains.

Just think of Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, the massive, scientifically perfect Soviet specimen from 1985’s Rocky IV. Or Gary Oldman’s terrorist figure Egor Korshunov in Air Force One from 1997. There’s Michael Nyqvist as Kurt Hendricks, the Swedish-born Russian nuclear strategist in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin in last year’s .

Part of this might be because Russia is a safe enemy to depict in the present day, even though the US has many global rivals. For example, Hollywood is careful not to anger China due to the huge market the country represents, willingly censoring its movies to maintain access to the Chinese box office. Meanwhile, the US is closely allied with other major countries such as Britain and Japan.

These stereotypes probably won’t change any time soon. American views toward Russia began declining in 2013, going from 44 per cent positive to only 15 per cent this year. In fact, a 2022 Gallup poll conducted in late February just before the Ukraine invasion showed that Americans viewed Russians very unfavourably, above only Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

These views have only grown worse amid the war with Ukraine. According to the Pew Research Centre, 85 per cent of the public – including 85 per cent of Republicans and 88 per cent of Democrats – favours maintaining strict economic sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion. The majority of Americans also currently sees Russia’s military power as a critical threat to the US.

With the relationship between the US and Russia once again in tatters, it seems Hollywood’s Russian boogeyman will remain a fixture in films everywhere.

The Washington Post

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