The Russians are coming: Unpacking America’s favorite villain – ThinkProgress

When Joe Weisberg was a case officer for the C.I.A., he thought he had a pretty good idea of who the Russian enemy was. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russians who had previously been forbidden from sharing their personal experiences started writing memoirs. Reading these memoirs, Weisberg discovered something alarming: “They bore no relation to the people I had imagined.”

In these memoirs, he found “relatable people, patriotic people trying to do their job, believing in some degree in what they were doing but recognizing the problems. People you’d like and want to spend time with. People you could easily understand.”

“That completely changed my concept of who a KGB spy was,” Weisberg said.

In hindsight, he realized his original view of Russian people was “ridiculous and off-base.” But the era of his service was one in which generalizations were rife about the Soviet Union and the people who lived there — and when Weisberg’s own president, whom he agreed with at the time, often spoke about the region “in almost fairy tale terms as an evil empire.”

“[The Americans] is really about the notion of what it means to be an enemy and to have an enemy, and the need to individuate yourself by having an other.”

Now, with The Americans, Weisberg and his fellow executive producer Joel Fields are trying to create a show that intentionally avoids exploiting the Russian spy tropes that Americans so readily recognize. For starters, Phillip only gets a mustache when he’s pretending to be someone besides Phillip. And the classic Soviet characteristics that they do display—Elizabeth’s stone-cold killer attitude, Phillip’s willingness to break the bones of a dead woman’s body so she can fit inside a suitcase — are drawn from the real circumstances in which they would have grown up: Born into a nation at the tail end of World War II where “the suffering was unbelievable,” Fields said, and sent to live in the United States at only 20 years old, strangers to each other in an even stranger place.

Philip and Elizabeth on “The Americans.” CREDIT: FX/Edit by Diana Ofosu

Elizabeth and Phillip were “formed in that cauldron” and were shaped by it in turn, Fields said. Elizabeth came out a true believer, Phillip someone still open to the idea there could be merit to the American way of life.

“The concept of the show was much more about real people,” Weisberg said. “Part of the idea of the show was to challenge [the idea of] what it means to have an enemy… The show is really about the notion of what it means to be an enemy and to have an enemy, and the need to individuate yourself by having an other.”

“With the exception of a few sociopaths, there aren’t people out there twirling their mustaches, and looking to just destroy one group of people. And even those people tell themselves a story,” Fields agreed. “To the extent that we understand everybody’s story, we all have a greater chance of moving forward in the right direction together.”

The Americans isn’t the first television series to go a little softer on the Soviets. TV actually offered some of the earliest kinder portrayals of Russians, perhaps because, as Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson suggested, “it came into our domestic space week after week” and had to avoid “being alarming.” Take The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Illya Kuryakin, a Russian and “the pinup guy” of the series, which aired from 1964 to 1968. (Viewers too young to have watched the show may recall Mad Men’s Sally Draper getting very into Illya during a sleepover from which she was promptly sent home.) Star Trek, which debuted in 1966, imagined a time “so far in the future that Russian/American distinctions had become irrelevant,” Thompson said, which meant Americans could work side-by-side with the loyal, fiercely intelligent Mr. Chekov.

But as Khrushcheva pointed out, even these more considered portraits of the other “are also about America.” Even a show as “understanding and reflective” as The Americans isfeeding American superiority anyway: ‘Our guys are better than your guys, but we are so open-minded and big-hearted that [we] understand… that nobody is bad completely.’”

Gru in “Despicable Me.” CREDIT: Edit by Diana Ofosu

In fact, you could make the case that these depictions of Russians have always been more about America than anything else: That we invented the bad we needed to oppose in order to believe in our own inherent goodness.

“Everybody needs an enemy,” Khrushcheva said. “You need to set yourself against somebody else, to show that you’re better.”

“You need to set yourself against somebody else, to show that you’re better.”

After all, why do Americans so consistently imagine Russian villains as uptight, militant, leg-breaking thugs who follow orders without question? (Boris and Natasha’s boss was known only as Fearless Leader; he was never seen on screen.) Probably because that’s the antithesis of what America likes to imagine its own heroes to be: Scrappy, jocular good guys, morally correct cowboys who occasionally break the rules but are so charming and suave while doing so you can’t begrudge their mischief. Americans believed our pop cultural Russian enemy into being to justify and maintain our fantasies about ourselves.

The Russians are coming: Unpacking America’s favorite villain – ThinkProgress