Reflections of Contemporary Culture: The Portrayal of Russians in U.S film

When it comes to keeping amused in our spare time, we all like a good movie. Whether you are sitting down with the family, watching with your partner, or simply chilling on your own, films are a great way to pass the time. From horror movies to war films, rom-coms, and action flicks, there is always something to float your boat.

One of the other great things about watching the latest films is how it exposes you as the viewer to different cultures and people. Many of us do not have the time or money to travel the globe and see this for ourselves. This makes movies a valuable resource for a great deal of us.

That’s not to say of course, that what we see is correct.

Are Russians always shown in an accurate way?

One country that certainly seems to get a rough deal at times when portrayed in Western films is Russia. When you look back at movies over the years, you get the distinct impression of crude stereotypes being used in characterization and dialogue. The problem here is that this then affects how we perceive Russian people not only in the film being watched but also in our real lives.

Why have Russians not always been shown correctly in movies?

The Cold War effect

The simple answer is the Cold War and the way that films were used to influence how the public felt about Russia at that time. For those who may be unfamiliar, the Cold War was a war of propaganda and intelligence rather than physical confrontation. It was waged between Capitalist America and its allies and Communist U.S.S.R and its allies. As the big movies from the West mainly came out of LA-based Hollywood, some films of the time were used to distribute propaganda against Russia and its people.

What is perhaps surprising is that this war of information may still be going on. Although it had seemingly died off in recent years, tensions between America and her allies with a Vladimir Putin-led Russia have begun to surface once more. These are brilliantly explored by Angela Stent in her recent book Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the Rest, which looks deeper into the underlying reasons. As an expert on US-Russia relations, the ideas that she reveals also tell us about why Russia is perceived a certain way in Hollywood.

What stereotypes do we usually see about Russia in films?  

Of course, not all films perceive Russia and its citizens in a false light. Even those that do may do it through ignorance rather than with anything more dubious in mind. Whatever the reason, the below are common yet not always true perceptions of Russians in films:

  • Always ill-tempered – one thing you see a lot in major Hollywood films with Russian characters in is that they are always in a foul mood. While this will be true for some Russians in real life (as it is for all nationalities), many Russians are happy, friendly people. The perception given by some films of all Russians being rude and in a constant bad mood is simply not true.
  • Emotionless – in terms of emotions, the other very common stereotype that you will see around Russians in films is that they have no emotions at all. It is very common to see Russian characters as the bad guy who will kill or hurt people with no feelings at all. This apparent lack of empathy or compassion is not true as most Russians are decent, normal people. Many believe that this was a concerted propaganda move by the US to make it easier for people to not care about Russians or feel any emotion for them either.
  • Involved in crime – this is actually something of a recent trend, but many modern movies with Russian characters in will only show them as criminals or crime bosses. Films such as Little Odessa or Eastern Promises show most Russians as being linked in some way to the Russian mafia, even if they are not members or criminals themselves. Once more, this is a real misconception around Russian people, many of whom are totally law-abiding.
  • Borderline alcoholics – to cap off the list of less-than-positive traits that many Western films show in relation to Russians is that they are all drunk on vodka constantly. While it is true that vodka is a very popular drink there, and Russians, like a lot of other nationalities, like to party, the rest is hokum. The majority of Russians do not reach for the vodka bottle as soon as they get up and are not constantly swigging on it all day.

Will the perception of Russians in US films change?

The big question moving forward is whether the perception given of Russian people in Hollywood films will change in the future. While a lot has gone on to improve this, there is still a long way to go. This is especially true around the stereotype of inherent criminality and mafia connections shown for Russian characters in modern films. As recent tension between Putin and the West continue to remain, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

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