Op-Ed: Hollywood, Stop Demonizing and Stereotyping Russians

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Photo illustration by David Cutler

Throughout the ages, Americans have loved to hate Russian villains on the silver screen.

Natalie Kozhemiakin, Editor-in-Chief

As American society works toward eliminating stereotypes and embracing belonging, I continue to feel frustrated by popular culture, which demonizes anything Russian.

Just consider Hollywood movies, where Russians consistently play the chief antagonist. From James Bond defeating Russian baddies beginning as early as 1963’s From Russia with Love, to Rocky defeating the evil Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV, and evil Russian spies in FX’s hit series The Americans, I get the picture: I represent the quintessential villain that everybody loves to hate.

“You can’t even turn the TV on and go to the movies without reference to Russians as horrible,” US-based Russian-American scholar Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, told the BBC in 2014.

Even before the dawn of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have been geopolitical adversaries in just about everything—from science, politics, sports, and culture.  

Certainly, tempers haven’t been cooled by overwhelming evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Still, I am puzzled by a blanket disdain for Russians, which dismisses countless numbers—from teachers and nurses to prominent athletes and scientists—who for generations have immigrated here as loyal, patriotic and productive citizens.

This includes my father, who grew up in the former Soviet Union. 

To see if Russians harbor such disdain for America, I conducted a small survey of friends and family who live in Moscow—the political, economic, and cultural capital of Russia. While my results are not scientific or representative of Russia as a whole, with the help of my cousin, Sasha, who lives in Moscow, I gained insight into what the most progressive segment of Russia thinks about America and those who live here. 

Interestingly, America and Americans are generally liked. In fact, upon asking whether respondents would like to travel here, answers ranged from “Yes, I would (again),” “Absolutely,” “Sure!,” and “I would love to.” As expected, McDonalds, Las Vegas, New York, the White House, and Captain America were among the list of answers when asked what comes to mind when someone first thinks of “America.”

However, the tone changed when it came to assessing America’s politics. 

“Trump is absolutely crazy, he turned politics into a Twitter-based show,” one person said.

“The presidential elections have turned into more of a reality show rather than a democratic process it’s meant to be,” another said. “Donald Trump has turned the elections into a circus. I’m really glad he lost. He should have never become president in the first place.” 

The entirety of respondents condemned Trump’s leadership. Such condemnation is also likely reflective of how extensively the state-controlled media has criticized the current affairs of the U.S. 

A recent NPR article details how Russians viewed the United States following the catastrophic presidential debates: “On Russian state television’s flagship weekly news show, a barometer of the Kremlin’s mood, anchor Dmitry Kiselyov used the first presidential debate to criticize America as a whole. Anyone who watched the contentious debate was left with a ‘feeling of disgust,’ Kiselyov said. ‘For decades, America has imposed its way of life on the world as a universal model,’ he said. ‘And now everything has changed so fast.'”

While Trump gradually lost popularity in Russia, Biden never took. In the same report, Moscow-based political analyst, Masha Lipman, explains, “I think the very fact that Biden was Obama’s vice president already makes him not a friendly figure in Russia. Obama looked down on Russia. In some of his statements, he certainly sounded not respectful. This caused this sense of offense on Russia’s part.”

Constructively, respondents shared how to build stronger relations between the two countries. 

“The way the media portrays these countries to each other needs to improve,” one person said. “The governments of these countries need to stop constantly escalating the situation,” another said. 

Additionally, many saw the remnants of the Cold War and “the lack of a unified view on how the world should develop” as major obstacles to improving Russian-American relations.

In Russia, the authoritarian government suppresses dissent and controls much of the media. According to the BBC, “The top national TV networks are either state-run or owned by companies with close links to the Kremlin. The government controls Channel One and Rossiya 1—the leading channels—while state-run energy giant Gazprom owns NTV.” 

From this small, unscientific investigation, I still find hope for the future. No matter what’s portrayed on the silver screen here in the United States, my friends and family in Russia harbor no animosity toward Americans, but rather how our nation is governed. I can’t help but feel that here in America, we would also be better to focus our ire not on the Russian people themselves, but on the Kremlin.

Before genuine diplomatic progress between Russia and the United States can occur, more Americans must understand that the Russian government does not define the entirety of Russia’s values. Millions of good, decent people live in both nations.

So, the next time a heavily  Russian accented villain appears on your screen, fight against the urge to accept that blanket stereotype.