Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is inspired by Cold War Week:
KGB agent Leo Demidov, the hero in Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy of Soviet thriller novels, isn’t a terribly rich character in his own right. But the intrepid, thoughtful Demidov acts as a convincing stand-in for a generation of operatives who watched from the inside as the Soviet machine transformed itself and ultimately sputtered to a halt. His struggle to reconcile reality with party orthodoxy begins in the first (and best) book of the series, Child 44, which has Demidov investigating a serial murder case while he tries to maintain the official pretense that the USSR is a crime-free society. Nikita Khrushchev’s shocking repudiation of the Joseph Stalin personality cult gives its name to the second book, The Secret Speech, and Demidov’s disillusionment deepens accordingly. By the last half of the final book (Agent 6), Demidov hopes to escape his homeland once and for all, so he fights to outrun the ever-encroaching tendrils of the massive Soviet intelligence apparatus. Demidov isn’t just the central figure in a series of vibrant thrillers—he’s also a glimpse into what it might have been like to live through the USSR’s major political upheavals, which those of us in the Western world could only watch from afar.
Here’s how good Dr. Strangelove is: It features my favorite Hollywood commie, and he never even shows up in the flesh. Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov exists only as the other side of an exasperating phone conversation with U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers at his deadpan best), but he’s such a thoroughly sketched character that it’s hard not to fall in love. Found at an unlisted number (because, as the Russian ambassador sheepishly notes, this man of the people is “also a man, if you catch my meaning”), Kissov is drunk, partying, and delightfully petulant. (When Muffley explains he’s not calling just to say hello, the smashed statesman demands to know why he wouldn’t do just that.) Dr. Strangelove is an entire movie about how our poor, doomed world is light on actual villains but heavy on supposedly well-meaning idiots (and that the latter are just as dangerous as the former, when nuclear bombs are in the mix), and portraying Kissov as a childish buffoon, instead of a sneering supervillain, only heightens the human tragedy of the apocalypse to come. It doesn’t hurt that he gets (indirectly) one of the movie’s best punchlines: When nuclear expert Strangelove (also Sellers, also brilliant) demands to know why the Russians haven’t told anybody about their perfect, world-ending deterrent, the ambassador explains that it was going to be announced the following Monday. “As you know,” he says, with just a hint of a sigh, “The premier loves surprises.”
My love for Zangief knows no bounds. Though he’s now billed as hailing from the Russian Federation, Street Fighter’s premiere wrestler has deep Soviet roots. With the USSR’s full support, he traveled the world pile-driving rivals into oblivion for the glory of Mother Russia and nothing more. His hyperbolic patriotism led to some of the series’ funniest moments—like the time he celebrated his Street Fighter II victory with an ersatz Mikhail Gorbachev “in the appropriate Russian fashion” (doing a Hopak dance with the Soviet president, of course). But thanks to an endearing personality that’s as massive as his physique, Zangief’s appeal transcends geopolitics. There’s an earnest goofiness beneath all those bear-wrestling scars, which the artists at Capcom have continued to amplify throughout The Red Cyclone’s 25-year street-fighting career. In Street Fighter V, it’s gotten to the point where, whenever you choose to play as him, he responds by flexing every muscle and screaming “CYCLONE” at the top of his lungs while his eyes bulge and his entire body convulses. How can you not love this guy?
If you’re going to pick favorites from an era of Soviet caricatures, you might as well go with the ones who were genuine caricatures: Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, those pun-prone no-goodniks from that fictional cradle of corruption, Pottsylvania. It would’ve been so easy for The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show to treat its main antagonists as one-dimensional saboteurs, but such flatness was reserved only for the show’s animation: In addition to providing regular crash courses in wordplay, Russian history, and stock characters, Boris and Natasha are defined by their devotion to one another. Sure, everything they do is in service of Fearless Leader and the triple cross, but there’s a secret sweetness to their interactions (and their doting on each other after every pratfall and slapstick gag) that cuts through the thick accents put on by Paul Frees and June Foray. Moose and squirrel are enjoyable on their own, but none of their adventures are truly great until the moment Boris (or one of his many aliases) is allowed to introduce himself.
Sure, a mustache-twirling communist baddie is always fun, but an elegant and ice-cold communist mom is even better. That’s why Angela Lansbury’s Eleanor Iselin from The Manchurian Candidate will go down in history as one of the great commie villains. John Frankenheimer’s psychological suspense thriller isn’t just one of the great “who’s playing who” neo-noirs, it’s a master class in scene-stealing by Lansbury. As the scheming, Manichean matriarch of a politically influential family, Iselin is a communist agent who plans to use her own son as a brainwashed assassin to kill their party’s presidential candidate at the convention, thereby clearing the way for her vice-presidential nominee (and buffoon) of a husband to ascend to the Oval Office. Her willingness to sacrifice her own son for political ambitions already marks her as a contender for the pantheon of great communist villains, but Lansbury’s performance, which combines steely resolve, Onassis-esque grace, and Norman Bates-like creepiness, is one for the ages. Lansbury may not have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress that year (despite being nominated), but you can bet Eleanor Iselin would have had a sniper ready to take out the acting competition.
The James Bond franchise depicts more Soviet spies, soldiers, and sex objects than you can shake a sickle at, so it’s no surprise that my favorite communist is an Ian Fleming creation. I’m referring, of course, to Colonel Rosa Klebb, the mastermind behind the love in From Russia With Love. As the second Bond film’s primary villain and the series’ first Russian antagonist, Klebb embodies the choicest qualities associated with communists at the time: devious, fanatical, homosexual, and feminist. Plus, she has a funny name. But she’s no laughing matter: Ruthlessness is probably her defining trait. She comes about as close to killing Bond as anyone has in the last 60 years, and he only manages to survive because Klebb’s love-struck agent Tatiana betrays her to save Bond. The fight that ensues pits 6-foot, 2-inch Sean Connery, armed with a chair, against this tiny old lady with a knife in her boot, hopping around on one foot. That’s about as silly as it sounds, but it’s also the film’s tensest moment—Klebb’s cold, unmoving exterior breaks into a desperate, writhing ferocity, a transformation that still shocks me as much now as it did when I was 11.
I’ve long believed that the West won the Cold War not because of Reagan’s saber rattling, or the constant threat of nuclear war, but because millions of people behind the Iron Curtain peeked over the wall and saw a society with more freedoms, a higher standard of living, and remarkably short lines for bread. In short, our shit worked. Theirs didn’t. So I was surprised to see my worldview confirmed by a story endorsed by the Gipper himself: The Hunt For Red October, whose hero, defecting submarine captain Marko Ramius, abandons the USSR after blaming their inadequate healthcare system for the death of his wife. In the film version, Sean Connery portrays Ramius with the heavy brogue that surely everyone in the Soviet navy spoke with, and makes him capable of both stirring, patriotic speeches about how “the world trembled at the shound of our rocketsh,” and bitter regrets about the empty promises behind the Soviet “workers’ paradise.” He perfectly embodies the Soviets that had both the pride and ingenuity to send Yuri Gagarin into space, and the self-reflection to admit their system wasn’t working and tear it all down.
While I assume she no longer affiliates herself with the politics of her birthplace, the fact that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a former KGB agent means I feel justified in calling her my favorite communist. More importantly, she’s one of my favorite parts of the MCU (right after Chris Evans’ performances and Chris Hemsworth’s abs). The moment that sold me on the MCU’s interpretation of Natasha Romanoff is her utter terror at having to battle the Hulk in Avengers. To avoid accusations of sexism, superhero movies tend to write women as infallible badasses, which leads to an overabundance of stereotypical “strong female characters.” I give Joss Whedon a lot of credit for realizing that flaws actually make Natasha stronger, not weaker. Black Widow palpably shaking after battling the Hulk may not be proper KGB procedure, but fighting through that fear to go tackle another crisis is a perfect demonstration of her Russian fortitude.
I’m picking up what you’re putting down here, Caroline, but I’ve got to go with another Red Room trainee: Agent Carter’s Dottie Underwood. Played ably by Bridget Regan, Underwood is the perfect female Soviet spy. She’s lovely to look at, but she can kill you with a swipe of her blood-red lipstick. She’s highly trained in hand-to-hand combat, and she’s been effectively trained to forget everything that might keep her from completing her mission. While Black Widow’s turned into a bit of a softie, Dottie Underwood is still a shit-kicking badass, willing and able to do everything she can for the Soviet cause. I’m glad people like her don’t really exist (or do they?), but as far as fictional one-note commies go, Underwood’s a pretty bitching one.
This may be sticking out because it’s so recent, but I’d have to declare a big tie with all of the commies in Hail, Caesar! There’s a lot to love about the most recent Coen brothers picture, but one of its greatest delights is the cheeky, counterintuitive way it kinda-sorta uses Hollywood communists as its bad guys, only to portray them as the same ineffectual dopes who populate so many Coen movies. After the communist group The Future (which includes ace Coen-vet character actors like Alex Karpovsky and Fred Melamed) kidnaps movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he stumbles into their secret communist meeting, and it’s rife with conflicting opinions, self-sabotaging ideologies, finger sandwiches, and people angrily telling David Krumholtz to shut up. What could make communism look at once sillier and more harmless than that?
His name sounds more like a lame off-the-cuff attempt at name-calling from some jingoistic hick than the work of a WGA Award nominated screenwriting team. But Vladimir Ivanoff—the character played by Robin Williams in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow On The Hudson—still stands out for me as the first time I remember being provided with an opportunity to actually like a communist. Looking back, I know I must have seen others, because even while writing this entry I suddenly remembered there was an episode of Mork & Mindy that used Mork’s misunderstanding about the phrase “illegal alien” to introduce a one-off character named Sergei (“Mork And The Immigrant”), but the trailer for Moscow On The Hudson really stood out because it played up Williams’ comedic schtick while showing that if they were given the chance, yes, even the God-forsaken Russians would see that America is awesome. I can’t say for sure if the movie’s actually any good, but it certainly served to make me aware that Russians were people, too. There are worse lessons I could’ve learned in my early teens.
TV doesn’t hurt for antiheroes these days, but one of the reasons I love Philip and Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans so much is that, from a certain point of view, they aren’t antiheroes. They commit horrible acts, but unlike Tony Soprano or Walter White or that guy from Ray Donovan, those acts aren’t motivated by selfishness; they strive to serve a goal larger than themselves. That goal—the extension and ultimate victory of the Communist party over the corrupt and decadent West—is not something that’s easy to root for, admittedly, but their commitment to the cause, and what that commitment costs them, gives them a distinctive appeal in comparison to their more self-minded peers. When the Jennings betray someone or murder an innocent, it’s horrifying, but the horror goes beyond them to serve as an indictment of rigid ideologies, no matter how seemingly righteous. There are good people inside these monsters, but the system that created them makes that goodness irrelevant.
It’s a wonder that Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago could box at all, considering how heavy-handed he is. I can’t resist the camp factor of a character who embodies every ’80s-America fear of communism. Drago is unfeeling, chemically enhanced, and—perhaps worst of all—really good at sports. Whereas Rocky trains the old-fashioned way, Drago has a team of scientists ready to pump him full of whatever commie drugs are available. It’s even funnier that the character happens to be played by a Swedish chemical engineer. Dolph Lundgren was ideally suited to play the genetically perfect Drago, all square chin, muscles, and Johnny Unitas haircut: a perfect physical specimen. Lundgren’s look and Drago’s metaphor-laden character made it all the more triumphant when the Italian Stallion brought down Drago: He wasn’t just flooring the guy who killed his best friend, Apollo Creed, earlier in the movie, but essentially killing communism altogether. Perhaps the best aspect of Drago is something he (and we) didn’t see as mattering much until last year: Drago rarely speaks during Rocky IV, but his few lines really land, like the famous, “If he dies, he dies.” It’s a sentence that prognosticates Apollo’s death and essentially sets off a chain of events that lead to the excellent Creed, one of my favorite movies of last year. Without Ivan, there’s no Adonis.