Top 20 most (in)famous Russian characters in American cinema

Alexei Vostrikov, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Alexei Vostrikov, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Russia Beyond has compiled a popularity rating of the most important and often despicable Russian characters in the history of U.S. cinema. But there are a few examples where Russians are portrayed in a more or less positive light.

20. Balam, Riot (2015)

A crime boss with Russian roots, Balam (Chuck Liddell) enjoys a life just as good as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. From a lavish prison cell he controls the city's police, wears expensive suits and, by and large, has a pleasurable life. All this comes to an end when his old enemy, a former policeman of the ‘honest’ kind, ends up in the same prison.

The only Russian thing about Balam is perhaps the shape of his mustache. Otherwise, even the tattoo on his skull is in the form of Chinese characters, for some reason.

Balam, Riot (2015)

19. Gangster Gennady, Limitless (2011)

An archetypal Russian gangster, Gennady, sticks in one’s mind after watching the movie only thanks to the most bizarre scene in which the protagonist Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) drinks his blood.  

Morra is a hard-drinking author with writer's block until he becomes addicted to the drug NZT. With the miracle pill, he becomes the smartest guy on the planet, so gangsters such as Gennady are after him. The effect of the drug wears off, however. In the finale, he is able to find it only in the blood of the Russian gangster…

Gangster Gennady, Limitless (2011)

18. Tatiana Romanova, From Russia With Love (1963)

In the second of the famous Bond films Tatiana Romanova, a Russian employee at the Soviet Consulate in Turkey, is the girlfriend of Bond (Sean Connery). She is played by Miss Universe runner-up, Italian actress Daniela Bianchi, who quite realistically conveys the depth and contradictory nature of Russian women. On one hand, this blonde with red lips is demurely dressed in angelic blue, but on the other hand, she impresses us with her determination and even cruelty. The main thing is that she is beautiful to the point of indecency.

Tatiana Romanova, From Russia With Love (1963)

17. Yuri Komarov, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013, Die Hard film series)

In the fifth film of the famous series a dissident Russian oligarch trading in uranium (Sebastian Koch) is chased around Moscow by half of Bruce Willis's family who are in turn chased by Russian secret services and criminal groups. Hollywood takes it for granted that in Russia everything is possible: one can buy a tank, blow up the Kremlin without being caught by police, and steal a nuclear bomb. The difference between the Russian and American perception of reality is spelled out in the first lyrical digression. Komarov, looking at Willis's son, says that in Russia such people are regarded as "cool," which means "tough and hard," and Willis replies that in America his son is just a "juvenile delinquent."

Yuri Komarov (right), A Good Day to Die Hard (2013, Die Hard film series)

16. Alexis and Sasha Kaidanovsky, Pacific Rim (2013)

Director Guillermo del Toro premiered his version of the battle beyond the Great Northern Wall with alien monsters in 2013. A coalition of countries is fighting against the Kaiju, creatures that have emerged from the Earth's crust and look like Godzilla. The Russian team is represented by an eye-catching couple called Kaidanovsky. In the movie they look like a family that has had to survive in the taiga for years. They are tough, physically strong, do not say much and, like real Russians, can get hold of anything. Risking their lives, they save all of China. It must be one of the few first-class blockbusters in which the Russians, Americans, Chinese and (surprisingly) Australians overcome the temptation of eliminating one another in the first three minutes of the movie.

Alexis and Sasha Kaidanovsky, Pacific Rim (2013)

15. Xenia Onatopp, GoldenEye (1995)

James Bond fell in love with Russian beauties several times, but this femme fatale, who prefers smokey eyes eyeshadow and red lipstick, was not easy. Nine years after the end of the Cold War, 007 (Pierce Brosnan) still prefers to keep his distance from Russians, so a meeting with Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) in Monte Carlo does not lead to a passionate affair. And Bond is proved right - Xenia, a former Soviet test pilot who is now working for a terrorist, is the main villain and dreams about having sex with Bond.

Apparently for the film director the word "Russian" is a synonym for "dangerous." And if this is the case, then it’s the only Russian feature that Onatopp has. The scene in which she dies has become one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema history. Before dying from a collision with a tree, she manages to climb down from a helicopter on a rope, beat and lick Bond, and apparently is sexually satisfied.

Xenia Onatopp, GoldenEye (1995)

14. Pavel Chekov, Star Trek (1979)

The 17-year-old child prodigy, Pavel Chekov, appeared in the Star Trek universe at the height of the Cold War, but he was full of good-natured jokes and would rescue the Enterprise crew like a kid from a Hollywood family drama. At the same time, one of his main features was a sincere love for Russia. Apart from a few exceptions, Chekov could not help himself from making remarks along the lines of: "Actually, it was invented by the Russians." According to Chekov, the Garden of Eden was near Moscow; the saying "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," originated in Russia; important space discoveries were made by Russian astronomers; and an old woman from Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] invented Scotch tape. And, despite his youthful age, when it comes to drinks Chekhov enjoys only vodka, of course.

Pavel Chekov, Star Trek (1979)

13. Egor Korshunov, Air Force One (1997)

In 1997, even though the Cold War was over, Hollywood still casts the main villains as Russians. In this film, Gary Oldman plays a brazen communist terrorist who hijacks Air Force One, which of course is carrying the U.S. president (Harrison Ford) who has just visited Moscow where he delivered a tough speech on security issues. Oldman's character, Egor Korshunov, gives Ford's character a smart punch after the latter says: "Do you know who I am? I'm the President of the United States." Apart from this phrase, the president makes more than one uplifting announcement, along the lines of: "We will no longer be afraid," but when a gun is pressed to his temple he admits to the Russian that the whole fight against terrorism boils down primarily to the eternal male game of "whose is longer," and all other considerations are secondary.

The ideologically fanatical Korshunov naturally has numerous grievances against the U.S., and he suffers over the disintegration of the USSR. His main complaint is about hegemony: what is the point of freedom granted to post-socialist countries if the U.S. has abandoned them and "left them at the mercy of gangsters and prostitutes"?

Egor Korshunov, Air Force One (1997)

12. Lev Andropov, Armageddon (1998)

The outlandish plot is once again held together by Bruce Willis, but it’s the "wild" Russian who saves everyone. Trying to blow up an asteroid with a nuclear bomb, NASA pilots are forced to refuel at the Russian space station, Mir, where Colonel Lev Andronov has grown a beard after a year and a half alone at the station.

The film’s creators decided to make Andropov an eccentric typical Russian who is drunk and wears a fur hat with earflaps, a dirty T-shirt with a red star on the front and a padded jacket. At a critical moment Andropov saves his American counterparts, helping them to return to Earth but he chooses a strange method for this. At first he looks bewildered at the American control panel, then violently pushes aside a woman who can help him and in anger smashes the panel with a poker. And - miracle of miracles - it works!

Lev Andropov, Armageddon (1998)

11. Irina Spalko,Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, kidnaps the lover of the main hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), to force him to take her to a magical artifact. But even in her Russian army shirt, with a fringe, sabers and a weird Russian accent à la Greta Garbo, Blanchett still looks more like the melancholy Elf Galadriel than a Russian Communist and KGB agent. Russian viewers are slightly put off by the abundance of all this hokum but they are used to it. Beauty has been and remains the main criterion for the image of a Russian female character, so Steven Spielberg simply did what any other director would have done in his place: he found an exceptionally beautiful blonde and gave her a Russian name.

Irina Spalko, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

10. Teddy KGB, Rounders (1998)

The character played by John Malkovich, nicknamed Teddy KGB, wears a red Soviet tracksuit, sports a bushy beard and runs an illicit poker club in New York. This Russian gangster, who can be an unpleasant sleazeball, wants to spend most of his screen time being amusing and eating cookies.

The lead character, Mike, is played by the young Matt Damon, but you don't want to look at his youthful and boyish face as much as you do his opponent, Malkovich. Perhaps it's all to do with the color red: as everyone discovered a year later, even a low-cut dress of this color looks stunning on Malkovich.

Teddy KGB, Rounders (1998)

9. Alexei Vostrikov, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Near the shores of the U.S. in 1961 the first Soviet nuclear submarine is carrying out tests, during which an accident happens and there’s an imminent risk of radioactive fuel leaking into the water. The submarine's captain, Alexei Vostrikov (played by Harrison Ford), takes the decision to prevent this from happening at any cost.

The film, which was made by the Oscar-winning Kathryn Bigelow, portrayed Soviet people from an angle that was unfamiliar in the Hollywood of the early 2000s - not as violent crooks, but as real heroes, patriotic towards their country, something that in the majority of cases corresponds to reality.

Alexei Vostrikov, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

8. Boris The Blade, Snatch (2000)

A living Soviet symbol (because he's "as bent as the Soviet sickle, and as hard as the hammer that crosses it"), Boris Yurinov (aka Boris The Blade) is a colorful character who became the film's trademark protagonist and one of the best characters to emerge from Guy Ritchie's imagination. In the film, he is an arms dealer played by Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija who wants to get his hands on a huge diamond. Yurinov speaks with a thick Russian accent, is accompanied by the sound of the balalaika wherever he goes and possesses a legendary capacity to dodge bullets. He is also a former KGB agent, but that is not his defining feature. He conforms fully to the stereotype - Boris The Blade uses colorful Russian obscenities at appropriate moments.

Boris The Blade, Snatch (2000)

7. Anna Karenina, in the film of the same name (2012)

There have been many cinema incarnations of Anna Karenina, but the interpretation by Keira Knightley portrays the heroine as a highly-strung and spontaneous personality. Adapting to the screen Leo Tolstoy's novel about a young married woman in the second half of the 19th century and her amorous travails is never an easy task. In Russia, for instance, close adherence to the literary source is usually strenuously demanded and freedom of interpretation is rejected. That is why Keira Knightley's Karenina was judged to be not the real Karenina.

Anna Karenina, in the film of the same name (2012)

6. Ivan Drago, Rocky IV (1985)

The Russian killing machine and Soviet heavyweight boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), arrives in the U.S. to beat American boxing stars and provide living proof of the advancements of his country in the technology of transforming mankind. This product of the "empire of evil" wins, and accidentally and without remorse he kills the former world champion in the ring. The fight prompts Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to wrest himself from his comfortable life of family bliss and travel to Russia for a rematch to avenge his friend's death.

The Russian boxer is the only character in the film who one is genuinely sorry for. He is reduced to a set of specifications, rather like an iPhone - only needed until the next generation arrives. Thus, even as the fight with Rocky is under way, his patriotic Russian fellow countrymen turn away from Drago and forget about him, and start to chant the name of the American boxer (which amounts to a load of mind-boggling nonsense, but that’s how Hollywood viewed the Russians in 1985).

Ivan Drago (right), Rocky IV (1985)

5. Natasha Chenkov, Salt (2010)

Another unrealistic character born of KGB-phobia is Evelyn Salt or Natasha Chenkov (Angelina Jolie) – a CIA agent living in Washington D.C. who is playing a double game. Evelyn/Natasha has been set up and now she is forced to jump onto the roofs of moving vehicles and dodge bullets in order to save the Russian president and her own good name. In the classic mold of Lara Croft and Mrs. Smith, but this time with a Russian plaited pigtail, she runs the whole gamut of stunts befitting a big-budget blockbuster (including jumping out of a helicopter without getting killed), and she drags the viewer to the bottom of the film's labyrinthine plot.

Natasha Chenkov, Salt (2010)

4. Ivan Danko, Red Heat (1988)

Russia at the turn of the 1980s/1990s was the golden age of Arnold Schwarzenegger and American action movies. So the film's hero, Russian police officer Ivan Danko, was assured the affection of Russians and a lasting place in their memories. Many lines spoken by Ivan, a man of few words, have entered the language as catchphrases despite the film's copious doses of hokum - ("Since I figure cops are cops the world over, how do you Soviets deal with all the tension and stress?" - "Vodka.") To a large extent it is because director Walter Hill made a genuinely endearing film about a pair of Russian and American (James Belushi) buddy cops on the streets of Chicago (in so far as any film with shooting and gangsters can be said to be endearing). And the point isn't even that in contrast to stereotypes about the "Red Peril," Red Heat is a film with a smile. It's just that it suddenly became apparent that all the political twaddle about confrontation between the great powers amounted to nothing when it came to human relations between ordinary cops. One has his coffee, donuts and cigarettes, while the other has his Magnum and his concentration. But opposites attract, as Hill reminds us.

Ivan Danko, Red Heat (1988)

3. Nikolai Rachenko, Red Scorpion (1988)

Dolph Lundgren is the ideal "killing machine" with a Russian face. Yes - again. Critics say jokingly that Lundgren seems to have had the most Slavic features in Hollywood at the time.

His character is Nikolai Rachenko, a universal soldier born in the USSR who is sent to a distant African country where a revolutionary coup against the local communists is brewing. Moscow cannot of course accept the situation and a whole Soviet-Cuban-Czechoslovak coalition is sent to the impoverished country. Finding himself far from ideological propaganda, Rachenko sees the light: Communism is evil and the liberation plans are a mere smoke screen. Time to rise up! Needless to say, Rachenko drinks a lot of vodka, flaunts a fake Russian accent, and sends flying in all directions first the enemies of communism and then the communists themselves.

Nikolai Rachenko, Red Scorpion (1988)

2. Ivan "Whiplash" Vanko, Iron Man 2 (2010)

While the self-absorbed Iron Man (Tony Stark) wonders how to spend millions of dollars, updates his superhero costume and slowly dies of radiation, a colorful rival emerges in Russia. Another exponent of the "it was actually invented by the Russians" theory, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is convinced that Stark and his father stole the superhero costume technology from him. He invents a new costume and sets off to cut down Stark with whips he has made himself.

For anyone who knows what a typical Russian engineer is like, Rourke's portrayal must seem highly mediocre. He could equally well have been Hungarian, German or Italian. Except perhaps that Rourke himself resembles a Russian bear - as long as you don't look too closely, that is.


1. Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff, The Avengers (2012)

One of the principal Avengers, martial arts expert, polyglot and hacker who can bypass security systems to break into almost anything, Marvel Universe character Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is the personification of the ideal female Russian spy in Hollywood. Viewers first met this Marvel Universe heroine in Iron Man 2.

She possesses no superpowers, but instead she has had years of KGB training and a tough childhood in Stalingrad (now Volgograd). Stereotypes of Russians as communists, terrorists, burly policemen and muscle-bound hard-drinking soldiers have been consigned to the past along with VHS recordings and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now it's the well-built and sexy Natasha in a leather outfit who can deal with either the Hulk or a new generation of mutants. This was roughly the ideal of Russian womanhood that the writer Nikolai Nekrasov had in mind when he wrote his famous lines that a Russian woman could "stop a galloping horse and enter a burning log cabin."


Read more:

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