7.13.2011

Where have all the Good Russians gone?



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Here's an experiment: Close your eyes. Access that part of your brain that has seen so many movies and TV shows. Now ask yourself this question: "In what American movie is there a good Russian character?" Now let me explain some parameters of this game. I'm not talking a morally ambiguous Russian character, like an innocent bystander or deli owner. I also argue against counting the token Russian cosmonaut of slurred speech and questionable manners which always seems to turn up in there's-an-asteroid-coming-to-decimate-the-earth movies. Those guys are mostly there for the comedy: funny names, predilection for vodka, a little creepy.
PictureThe fact of the matter is that aside from Disney's Anastasia (which I'll talk about later) there are really no truly admirable Russian characters. As an American researcher of Russian music and musicians, especially during the horrific Terror of the 1930s, this troubles me. (I was 4 when the wall went down.) Here's my opinion of the American view of Russia as displayed in its movies: they all (even cute little Anastasia) represent an Ayn Rand contempt for authority. For example, the obvious case are the evil Stalin soldiers of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. They're just evil, Nazi-esque, power hungry, bad guys who speak a language that requires subtitles. The whole moral of the movie (Spoiler Alert!) is that the desire for power, world-dominating, totalitarian power, gets you in trouble. Many other movies have these cut and dry, Uruk-hai/Nazi/terrorist "bad guy" roles for Russians: James Bond, late WWII, Law and Order, Air Force OneEastern PromisesSpy Games, etc.
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"But," one protests, "what about the sniper from Enemy at the Gates, Chekov from the Star Treks, Anastasia, Lev Andropov from Armageddon, or the ballet dancer from White Nights?" Here's my argument for why they contain the veiled pro-American agenda. In having one Russian character who displays heroic characteristics, a stark contrast is always drawn between the vast horde of the rest of Russia. Vassily Zaitsev of Enemy at the Gates rises to underdog hero status against the background of a horrifically despotic and corrupt Red Army. By the end (Spoiler Alert) it is not a love for country that motivates this warrior to surmount his challenges, but an individualistic love for other individuals. You can hear Ayn Rand in all of it: communal, Russian patriotism doesn't work. All other Russians from the above question have this in common. They are set against a system or army or power of Russian badness. Chekov's universe contains an oppressive alien power which substitutes for Communist Russia in the Klingon Race. In later shows where Warf the Klingon joins the good guys, he is always set against the culture he has essentially abandoned. Anastasia/Meg Ryan fights against the evil, ultra-Russian villain Rasputin, reserving her only Russian line for the death blow that essentially severs her own ties with her ruined culture.
PictureRussians are always measured against themselves, against the horror, the vastness, the harshness of their culture. The good ones "defect". The bad ones simply "are". This saddens me. My heart goes out against the insular bigotry of this view. It would be worth it to look at American views of other cultures and nationalities in movies, both majorities and minorities. I challenge you to prove me wrong.

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