Was American Culture Really Anti-Russian During The Cold War?
03/11/2022
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From the Washington Post Style section:

When Russia was the villain: How this moment echoes the era of Cold War spy novels and ‘Rocky IV’

By Roxanne Roberts
Today at 6:00 a.m. EST

The “Evil Empire” is back — or is it?

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has resurrected an irresistible narrative: Russia as villain. It’s a return to a time when Americans were good guys, Russians were bad guys and everything was black and white and red all over.

Suddenly, it’s once again acceptable to reject all things Russian. …

And it’s a familiar fight, especially for a generation that grew up on a steady diet of anti-Russia agitprop: in headlines (the McCarthy hearings), in schools where kids ducked under laminate desks in case of Russian nuclear attack, and in books, movies and TV shows that reinforced every stereotype. Rocky and Bullwinkle battled cartoon villains Boris and Natasha. James Bond thwarted dangerous masterminds working for the U.S.S.R. Rocky Balboa prevailed against the Soviets’ fiercest boxer. It was all very scary and very heady.

Nah, my recollection is the opposite. Until the 1980s, when there were a series of surprise anti-Communist movie hits appealing to the male audience, American culture tended to go out of its way to avoid portraying the Soviets as irredeemably diabolical.

“By having an enemy that was all bad, I got to see myself as all virtuous,” said Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent and co-creator of the acclaimed FX series “The Americans.” …

Weisberg first encountered Russians on the Rocky and Bullwinkle animated series, which debuted in 1959. The flying squirrel and his moose sidekick tangled with Boris and Natasha, spies from “Pottsylvania.” It was funny and satiric, he said, but also troubling that small children were taught “that somebody with that accent was that nefarious. So you start from there.”

OK, but Rocky and Bullwinkle was obviously intended to keep 3-digit IQ parents amused while watching with their kids. It was part of a tradition in which Soviets and/or Communists were portrayed as comic or baroque characters, like the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, the hit comedy movie The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate.

As a young adult, he was especially influenced by the movie “Red Dawn.” The 1984 film pitted Soviets soldiers invading the United States against a group of American high school students. … A year later, Sylvester Stallone starred in “Rocky IV,” where Rocky and the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago went mano a mano for their countries. …

As I recall, hit anti-Communist action movies came out of the blue in about 1983 with Uncommon Valor, and then even extended to prestige films like The Killing Fields. But pictures like Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Rambo, and Top Gun were a big surprise at the time. As canny an intelligence as Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t manage to get himself into a rare anti-Soviet movie during the 1980s, appearing only as a Russian cop in Red Heat.

Or consider the top box office hits of 1965. Number one was of course The Sound of Music, in which the Nazis are the bad guys. (Nazis make really good bad guys.) Number two was Doctor Zhivago. The Bolsheviks are the bad guys for a long time in it, but the film’s ending says that’s over and now the sentimental Soviets are mostly building impressive hydroelectric dams:

Number 3 in 1965 was Thunderball, in which Bond battles SPECTRE, a non-ideological international criminal organization under Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Other 1965 hits with Russian or Communist themes include pre-Great War period comedies The Great Race and Those Amazing Young Men in Their Flying Machines, which I believe included Tsarist characters, and John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which explains the moral equivalence of British and East German intelligence agencies.

The 1965 hit Bond parody Our Man Flint featured James Coburn battling an international union of mad scientists. (Similarly, Dean Martin’s Matt Helm Bond parodies from 1966-1969 has him battling the Big O, another SPECTRE-like organization.)

In general, Cold War movies were strikingly light-handed about the Red Menace. For example, in Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest, the bad guys, led by James Mason, might be affiliated with the Soviets. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. It’s left ambiguous. Can you fly a propeller aircraft all the way from Mt. Rushmore to the Soviet Union?

Here’s a list of movies having something to do with the Soviet Union and/or Communism. What’s striking is how obscure most of them were. Most of the top Hollywood talent tended to avoid the subject, pro or con. One exception was 1939’s Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and worked on by Billy Wilder.

There were a handful of pro-Soviet Hollywood movies during WWII. Paul Johnson says there were only three: Message to Moscow (which portrays Stalin’s show trials as the epitome of justice), The North Star, and Song of Russia, although there were also some more minor pro-Soviet movies from major studios, with the exception of Paramount.

But in general, Hollywood skipped the general topic.

There were pro-Soviet Communist screenwriters, but there were also more than a few White Russian refugees, often working as movie extras due to their superb manners.

And there were also pseudo–White Russians like Michael Romanoff, owner of the Romanoff’s Restaurant on Rodeo Drive fashionable with movie stars. He claimed to be a scion of the Romanov dynasty, but was actually a former pants presser from Brooklyn. David Niven’s memoirs include a chapter about how hard it was for him to be sure that his favorite restaurateur/con man wasn’t actually the rightful heir to the Russian throne.

But perhaps nuance is overrated, especially for millions of fans who inhaled Cold War spy thrillers by John le Carre, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.

Clancy was a Cold Warrior, but Le Carré was the king of Cold War ambivalence. My vague recollection is that Ludlum was more into conspiracy theories, but I could be wrong.

But the Russians are always, in ways big and small, the villains.

Consider the success of the iconic James Bond, who became the most famous spy in the world thanks to Ian Fleming’s novels and the many films.

“James Bond’s obsession with Russia has long signaled Western discontent with its Soviet enemy of old; indeed, the Bond franchise has always been at its most lewdly outlandish and political confrontational when it has Bond facing down Mother Russia,” emailed Ian Kinane, a professor of popular literature and culture at the University of Roehampton and the founding editor of the International Journal of James Bond Studies.

“From the toad-like Rosa Klebb in ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963)

An unusually realistic Bond film …

and the slippery General Koskov in ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987), to the lunacy of Stephen Berkoff’s General Orlov in ‘Octopussy’ (1983) and rampant sexual acrobatics of Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp in ‘Goldeneye’ (1995), Bond’s Russian adversaries have always been veritable parody,” he said. “Beneath the hyperbole, however, lies Ian Fleming’s deeply troubling concern with the operations of SMERSH, the umbrella counterintelligence organization of the Red Army, and the primary antagonists of Fleming’s early Cold War Bond thrillers.”

But Fleming himself chose in 1961 to replace SMERSH with the international apolitical SPECTRE, who often try to encourage nuclear war between the West and the East, in his 1961 Thunderball, and most Cold War Bond films followed that convention of the Bond Villain being non-Soviet and non-Communist.

The hit Bond-style TV spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) started out with an American star Robert Vaughn as the hero Napoleon Solo, but David McCallum’s Russian (or Ukrainian) agent Illya Kuryakin was so popular that he was promoted to costar.

Science fiction tended to posit that the Cold War was just a misunderstanding that would blow over: e.g., in Star Trek, navigator Chekov was in training to be a captain himself. Kirk and Chekov don’t have ideological disputes over economic policy, but they are, respectively, in their cultural affect extremely (North) American vs. extremely Russian.

Above the level of pop culture, Cold War America tended to be highly respectful of Russian higher culture, such as the Bolshoi Ballet. There was almost zero of the kind of anti-German hysteria of World War One and great pride when Americans could best Russians in a fair fight. Texan classical pianist Van Cliburn won the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 and Bobby Fischer defeated a Soviet chess champion in 1972. Both were big deals because Americans acknowledged Russian cultural superiority in classical music and chess.

[Comment at Unz.com]

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