Russian film villains: Timeline and history

Illustration by Shelly Tan/The Washington Post;  photo by Susan Walsh/AP, Reed Saxon/AP, Mikhail Klimentyev/AP, National Archives and Records Administration, Script Slug, iStock

There are many archetypes of classic Hollywood villains: Mad Scientist, Corrupt Politician, High School Bully — the list goes on. But since the 1940s and the threat of the Cold War, Soviet or Russian have become easy abbreviations for “bad guys” in American cinema.

As the Cold War passed, another trope took over. Muslim criminals were a prominent stereotype after 9/11, often with deeply racist implications — a 2021 report from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that nearly 54 percent of Muslim characters in 2017-2019 films were victims of violence and 39 percent were perpetrators. .

“Tech Bros” – the casual but pretentious head of a tech company – have also become common after the backlash against figures like Mark Zuckerberg. Think of Taika Waititi as greedy game developer Antwan Hovachelik in free man (2021) or Jesse Eisenberg’s latest version of Lex Luthor at Batman v. Superman (2016).

But although the “bad Russian” as a villain died down a bit after the 1980s, it has seen a resurgence in recent years.

Recent events also signal the possibility remains: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned by a large number of global leaders, including the United States, resulting in various sanctions and Russia’s temporary suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council. President Biden even called Russia’s war in Ukraine a “genocide.” Here’s a look back at how this archetype evolved, and how it evolved over the years.

Creation of ‘evil Soviet’ villains

As the Cold War reached a deadly freeze in the 1940s and 1950s, anti-Soviet and anti-communist messages permeated American culture. US government propaganda prompted warnings that resulted in the “Red Fear”, spreading fears about communist espionage wide and far.

The political storm also extended to Hollywood. The notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) interrogates those in the industry with suspected communist ties to often weak evidence. At the height of the Red Fear, under pressure from the government and trying to prove allegiance, Hollywood began making anti-communist films featuring one-dimensional Soviet spies clenching fists.

A prime example is “My Son John,” (1952) a film produced during the height of McCarthyism. Tells the story of a young man named John who is suspected of being a communist spy by his parents. During the course of the story, John’s mother, Lucille, condemns him on the weakest evidence, and John’s father, Dan, physically beats him while arguing about Bible truth.

Robert Warshow, a writer and film critic, would write a response in American Mercury magazine that there is a “wrong way, a dangerous way, to be anti-Communist. Those who don’t believe this may find it enlightening to see Leo McCarey’s new film, My son Johnthe attack on Communism and the assertion of ‘Americanism’ that may legitimately worry every wise American, liberal or conservative.”

However, signs of complexity and evolution in the depiction of the Cold War will begin to surface as the ’50s draws to a close.

“North by Northwest,” (1959) one of Hitchcock’s most famous films, tells the story of an innocent man who is mistaken for a US agent and is pursued by foreign and American spies.

Unlike many previous films, “North by Northwest” lends depth to its characters and plot. His communist agents were charming and hardly overbearing, contrary to earlier depictions of screaming, stern-faced Soviet soldiers. And even as the main character being chased by the communists, he is equally trapped by the machinations of American intelligence agencies.


FEB. 1945

Cold War begins

August 29, 1949

Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb

29 JULY 1949

FILM: “Conspirator”

FEB. 1950

Senator Joseph McCarthy begins his hunt for communist spies

April 8, 1952

“My son John”

JUNE 1950

The Korean War begins. Stalin supplied North Korea with Soviet weapons.

OCT. 4, 1957

Sputnik launched into orbit

DEC. 8, 1959

“North by Northwest”

FEB. 1945

Cold War begins

August 29, 1949

Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb

29 JULY 1949

FILM: “Conspirator”

FEB. 1950

Senator Joseph McCarthy begins his hunt for communist spies

April 8, 1952

“My son John”

JUNE 1950

The Korean War begins. Stalin supplied North Korea with Soviet weapons.

OCT. 4, 1957

Sputnik launched into orbit

DEC. 8, 1959

“North by Northwest”

29 JULY 1949

FILM: “Conspirator”

April 8, 1952

“My son John”

DEC. 8, 1959

“North by Northwest”

FEB. 1945

Cold War begins

August 29, 1949

Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb

JUNE 1950

The Korean War begins. Stalin supplied North Korea with Soviet weapons.

OCT. 4, 1957

Sputnik launched into orbit

FEB. 1950

Senator Joseph McCarthy begins his hunt for communist spies

29 JULY 1949

FILM: “Conspirator”

April 8, 1952

“My son John”

DEC. 8, 1959

“North by Northwest”

August 29, 1949

Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb

FEB. 1945

Cold War begins

JUNE 1950

The Korean War begins. Stalin supplied North Korea with Soviet weapons.

OCT. 4, 1957

Sputnik launched into orbit

FEB. 1950

Senator Joseph McCarthy begins his hunt for communist spies

The shift towards more complex depictions

As the ’60s emerged, Hollywood slowly evolved in its depiction of the Cold War. After the Korean and Vietnam wars, Americans began to question how heroic the United States really was. The film captures the hypocrisy of the bureaucracy, being bolder in their criticism of government actions alongside those of communists.

“The Manchurian Candidate,” (1962) released at the height of US-Soviet hostilities during the Cuban missile crisis, shows how the combination of international communism and domestic extremism can create violent manipulative forces that harm US citizens.

In it, brainwashed Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw becomes an unknown assassin for an international communist conspiracy that aims to assassinate presidential candidates and overthrow the US government. But it turns out that right-wing American extremists are secretly involved in the conspiracy. The film takes a magnifying glass into the hypocrisy of politicians, showing how foreign communism and American extremism are just two sides of the same authoritarian coin.

On the comedic side of the spectrum is “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), a black comedy satirizing Cold War paranoia over nuclear war. At every turn, attempts to stop the end of the world are thwarted by unreasonable rules, ridiculous politicians, and the plain old folly of humans. In one of his most famous lines, when US General “Buck” Turgidson and the Soviet ambassador attacked each other, President Merkin Muffley exclaimed: “Sir, you can’t fight here! This is a war room. ”


August 1961

Construction begins on the Berlin Wall

OCT. 24, 1962

FILM: “Manchurian Candidate”

OCT. 1962

Cuban missile crisis happened

JAN. 29, 1964

“Dr. Strange love”

DAMAGE. 1965

America’s ground war in Vietnam begins

May 25, 1966

“Russia is Coming, Russia is Coming”

JULY 20 1969

Apollo 11 landed on the moon

August 4, 1971

“Johnny Gets His Gun”

APRIL 1975

Vietnam war is over

SEPT. 25, 1975

“Three Days Condor”

August 1961

Construction begins on the Berlin Wall

OCT. 24, 1962

FILM: “Manchurian Candidate”

OCT. 1962

Cuban missile crisis happened

JAN. 29, 1964

“Dr. Strange love”

DAMAGE. 1965

America’s ground war in Vietnam begins

May 25, 1966

“Russia is Coming, Russia is Coming”

JULY 20 1969

Apollo 11 landed on the moon

August 4, 1971

“Johnny Gets His Gun”

APRIL 1975

Vietnam war is over

SEPT. 25, 1975

“Three Days Condor”

JAN. 29, 1964

“Dr. Strange love”

August 4, 1971

“Johnny Gets His Gun”

OCT. 24, 1962

FILM: “Manchurian Candidate”

May 25, 1966

“Russia is Coming, Russia is Coming”

SEPT. 25, 1975

“Three Days Condor”

August 1961

Construction begins on the Berlin Wall

OCT. 1962

Cuban missile crisis happened

DAMAGE. 1965

America’s ground war in Vietnam begins

JULY 20 1969

Apollo 11 landed on the moon

APRIL 1975

Vietnam war is over

OCT. 24, 1962

FILM: “Manchurian Candidate”

JAN. 29, 1964

“Dr. Strange love”

May 25, 1966

“Russia is Coming, Russia is Coming”

August 4, 1971

“Johnny Gets His Gun”

SEPT. 25, 1975

“Three Days Condor”

August 1961

Construction begins on the Berlin Wall

OCT. 1962

Cuban missile crisis happened

DAMAGE. 1965

America’s ground war in Vietnam begins

JULY 20 1969

Apollo 11 landed on the moon

APRIL 1975

Vietnam war is over

Despite the changing times, Russians continue to be easy villains to beat

Depictions of the Cold War may grow more complex, but even as we enter the present day, Russians are still an easy stereotype for criminals.

Think of Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, the hefty, scientifically perfect Soviet specimen from 1985’s “Rocky IV.” Or Gary Oldman’s terrorist figure Egor Korshunov in 1997’s Air Force One. There’s Michael Nyqvist as Kurt Hendricks, strategist Swedish-born Russian nuclear fighter in 2011’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin in last year’s “No Time” To Die.”

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Part of this may be because Russia is a “safe” adversary to describe today, even though the United States has many global rivals. For example, Hollywood is careful not to anger China because of the huge market the country represents, willingly censoring its films to maintain access to the Chinese box office. Meanwhile, the United States is in close alliance with other major powers such as Britain and Japan.

This stereotype is probably not going to change anytime soon. America’s view of Russia began to decline in 2013, rising from a positive 44 percent to just 15 percent this year. In fact, a 2022 Gallup poll conducted in late February just before the invasion of Ukraine showed that Americans viewed Russia very unfavorably, above just Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

This view has worsened amid the war with Ukraine. According to the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of the public — including 85 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats — would prefer to maintain strict economic sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion. The majority of Americans also today view Russia’s military might as a critical threat to the United States.

With relations between the United States and Russia once again in shambles, it seems that Hollywood’s “Russian destroyer” will remain a part of movies everywhere.

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