Russian characters in Western movies: From spies to allies

In the hit U.S. TV drama “House of Cards,” Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), the political opponent of U.S. President Frank Underwood, is smart, cunning and very dangerous.

In the hit U.S. TV drama “House of Cards,” Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), the political opponent of U.S. President Frank Underwood, is smart, cunning and very dangerous.

Kinopoisk.ru
From over-the-top oligarchs, to femme fatales, to helpful colleagues, Russians have played a wide range of roles in Western films and TV series.

Robbie Williams's video "Party Like a Russian," which already has garnered more than 4 million views on YouTube, is far from the first over-the-top depiction of Russians in Western pop culture. Here are a few examples of how portrayals of Russians have changed over time.

Devious spies 

"Even before the Cold War, Russia was represented often as a geopolitical threat to the West," said James Chapman, professor of film studies at the University of Leicester, describing how Russians are depicted in pop culture during an interview with the BBC. "But [that stereotyping] takes on a particular ideological inflection during the Cold War when you get the association [with] not just Russia but also Soviet communism."

Examples of Russians as nefarious actors working to undermine the West includethe head of SMERSH, General Grubozaboyschikov, and his unsavory subordinate, agent Rosa Klebb, in the James Bond classic "From Russia with Love" (1963). Source: KinopoiskExamples of Russians as nefarious actors working to undermine the West includethe head of SMERSH, General Grubozaboyschikov, and his unsavory subordinate, agent Rosa Klebb, in the James Bond classic "From Russia with Love" (1963). Source: Kinopoisk

Examples of Russians as nefarious actors working to undermine the West include: The Soviet military abducting American soldiers with the intention of subjecting them to psychological treatment and making them zombies in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962); the head of SMERSH, General Grubozaboyschikov, and his unsavory subordinate, agent Rosa Klebb, in the James Bond classic "From Russia with Love" (1963); and the  sadistically twisted Colonel Podovsky in "Rambo: First Blood Part 2" (1985). Russians were the anti-heroes in Western movies for more than 30 years.

Sadistically twisted Colonel Podovsky in "Rambo: First Blood Part 2" (1985) is one of the Russian anti-heroes in Western movies. Source: Kinopoisk.ruSadistically twisted Colonel Podovsky in "Rambo: First Blood Part 2" (1985) is one of the Russian anti-heroes in Western movies. Source: Kinopoisk.ru

Cooperative allies

With the onset of perestroika, however, the characteristics of Russians in movies began to change. Films featured an increasing number of Russians who were ready to cooperate and establish links between their country and the West.

Police Captain Ivan Danko played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Red Heat" (1988), has a stern face, coarse manners and grotesquely throws around words like "kapitalizm" ("capitalism") or "khuligany" ("hooligans"), but he is devoted to his work and is ready to go through the streets of Chicago in an effort to catch the head of the Georgian mafia.

Police Captain Ivan Danko played by Arnold Schwarzenegger has a stern face, coarse manners and grotesquely throws around words like "kapitalizm" or "khuligany." Source: Kinopoisk.ruPolice Captain Ivan Danko played by Arnold Schwarzenegger has a stern face, coarse manners and grotesquely throws around words like "kapitalizm" or "khuligany." Source: Kinopoisk.ru

Colonel Lev Andropov in "Armageddon" (1998), is unshaven, a little wild and wears a cap with earflaps, but, nevertheless, he makes a significant contribution to the salvation of humanity from a powerful asteroid.

Colonel Lev Andropov in "Armageddon" (1998), is unshaven, a little wild, but, nevertheless, makes a significant contribution to the salvation of humanity. Source: Kinopoisk.ruColonel Lev Andropov in "Armageddon" (1998), is unshaven, a little wild, but, nevertheless, makes a significant contribution to the salvation of humanity. Source: Kinopoisk.ru

Oligarchs and gangsters

With the advent of the 2000s, the most common types of Russians in Western films were the superrich and mobsters – categories that were not mutually exclusive.

Uri Omovich (Karel Roden), a supporting character in Guy Ritchie's action movie RocknRolla is the exact opposite of everything the average viewer associates with Russian oligarchs.

Uri Omovich (Karel Roden) in Guy Ritchie's action movie RocknRolla is the exact opposite of everything the average viewer associates with Russian oligarchs. Source: Kinopoisk.ruUri Omovich (Karel Roden) in Guy Ritchie's action movie RocknRolla is the exact opposite of everything the average viewer associates with Russian oligarchs. Source: Kinopoisk.ru

The ceilings of his spacious and bright home are not covered with gold leaf, and he has no tattoos on his fingers. He understands art, and what's more important, he does not drink alcohol.

According to writers on the movie website IMDb, this character is clearly based on Roman Abramovich. For one thing, the actor looks like the Russian oligarch. Secondly, Omovich pays a bribe to get a permit for the construction of a football stadium, and Abramovich is the owner of Chelsea Football Club.

Charming and potentially dangerous

Russian characters in American TV and film today are more nuanced. They are often attractive and have admirable qualities, but also give the impression of people who should not be crossed.

In the hit U.S. TV drama “House of Cards,” Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), the political opponent of U.S. President Frank Underwood, is smart, cunning and very dangerous. Underwood is warned of these characteristics by his wife Claire, who received a savory kiss on the lips from the Russian president during an official banquet. Petrov is a great counterbalance to the American president, and in some ways even surpasses him. He is youngish, lean, dapper, quick to respond and has a way with words.

In the hit U.S. TV drama “House of Cards,” Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), the political opponent of U.S. President Frank Underwood, is smart, cunning and very dangerous. Source: Kinopoisk.ruIn the hit U.S. TV drama “House of Cards,” Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), the political opponent of U.S. President Frank Underwood, is smart, cunning and very dangerous. Source: Kinopoisk.ru

Petrov looks lost only once: on the eve of an important decision, he explains to Underwood that one cannot show weakness at his post, otherwise he will no longer be respected.

Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin from the 1960s TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." seems to have been created as a counterbalance to all previous Russian screen villains. He acted in concert with American agent Napoleon Solo, without betraying the interests of his country at the same time.

In the recent movie based on this TV series, the part of Kuryakin is played by Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the famous businessman Armand Hammer, who long represented the commercial interests of the U.S. in the USSR. Kuryakin looks serious in the Russian way, moreover, sometimes he is slow in his decision-making, but, unlike many Russian movie characters with square jaws, he is angelically handsome and well dressed.

In the recent movie based on 1960s TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," the part of a Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin is played by Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the famous businessman Armand Hammer, who long represented the commercial interests of the U.S. in the USSR. Source: Kinopoisk.ruIn the recent movie based on 1960s TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," the part of a Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin is played by Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the famous businessman Armand Hammer, who long represented the commercial interests of the U.S. in the USSR. Source: Kinopoisk.ru

The spy thriller Möbius is full of clichés about Russians: a banker oligarch played by Tim Roth, black Mercedes SUVs and different arrangements of the song "Varshavyanka." However, FSB agent Moïse (aka Gregory Lyubov) is played by not another grim brute, but stately and handsome Jean Dujardin with his noble profile and equally noble gray streak.

The spy thriller Möbius is full of clichés about Russians: a banker oligarch played by Tim Roth, black Mercedes SUVs and different arrangements of the song "Varshavyanka." Source: Kinopoisk.ruThe spy thriller Möbius is full of clichés about Russians: a banker oligarch played by Tim Roth, black Mercedes SUVs and different arrangements of the song "Varshavyanka." Source: Kinopoisk.ru

Pavel Chekov, the pilot of the spaceship Enterprise in the modern Star Trek films is one of the best Russian heroes in contemporary Western cinema. Chekov is friendly, smiling, does not dream of destroying half the world and knows how to work in a team. The charming Russian pilot was played by an American of Russian origin, Anton Yelchin, who beams with joy and exclaims, "Yo-Moyo!" ("Holy Moly!").

Pavel Chekov, the pilot of the spaceship Enterprise in the modern Star Trek films is one of the best Russian heroes in contemporary Western cinema. Source: Kinopoisk.ruPavel Chekov, the pilot of the spaceship Enterprise in the modern Star Trek films is one of the best Russian heroes in contemporary Western cinema. Source: Kinopoisk.ru

This article has been abridged from the original Russian version, which first appeared in RBC Style.

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