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As a Russian Studies major, I geek out over any media that incorporates Slavic history and culture. However, Russian and Eastern European representation in Western media often reduces Slavic people to caricatures or subjects them to violence, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Russian and Eastern European people in real life.
Most Eastern European men are portrayed as violent villains. In seasons 3 and 4 of Netflix’s hit sci-fi drama “Stranger Things,” the villains are Soviet scientists who commit heinous acts of violence, perpetuating the idea that all Slavic people are inherently evil and brutish. The only “good” Russian character only earns his redemption arc by renouncing his Russian identity and defecting to the United States, and he gets murdered moments later by a fellow Russian. Russia has undeniably been both a perpetrator and a victim of violence throughout its long political history, and in light of Russia’s current occupation of Ukraine, I want to establish that this op-ed is not meant to dismiss any atrocities that Russian leaders have committed, whether past or present. However, “Stranger Things” attributes this level of violence to nearly every Soviet character when in reality, many Russian citizens have been opposing their government’s violent policies for decades. The lack of positive representation in “Stranger Things” suggests that these scientists are evil not because they crave power, but simply because they are Russian.
I hesitate to throw around the term “Russophobia” because Vladimir Putin and his supporters frequently use it to avoid taking responsibility for their abuses of power. Furthermore, white Slavs are less likely to face systemic oppression and violence in the U.S. compared to people of color. However, xenophobia towards Russians and Eastern Europeans still exists, and it’s unsettling to see mainstream shows casually endorsing violence against a group of foreigners. Unfortunately, “Stranger Things” is merely building on a long history of Western shows that feature Slavs as criminals, mobsters or spies.
The few Slavic men who don’t get cast as villains are usually based on humiliating stereotypes. They’re the eccentric sidekicks who chug vodka with every meal, play the accordion and keep bears as pets. The unhinged drunk cosmonaut Andropov from “Armageddon” embodies this trope perfectly while wearing a fur ushanka. Although the cheerful, clever Pavel Chekov from the “Star Trek” franchise was one of the most sympathetic Western portrayals of a Soviet man during the Cold War, his thick accent is exaggerated for comic relief. These characters serve as comical companions to the Western heroes, like Bruce Willis’s Harry Stamper in “Armageddon” and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in “Star Trek.” In the film industry, Russian and Eastern European men can only escape villainy when they appear ridiculous beside strong Western men.
Russian and Eastern European women, in contrast, are often cast as femme fatales who seduce the Western male protagonist with their “exotic” beauty. From “Black Widow” to “Red Sparrow,” the entertainment industry’s obsession with deadly Slavic women reflects a Cold War-era fantasy of Western conquest. Most of these female characters either submit to the dashing Western hero or die as villains, as epitomized by the James Bond franchise. Tatiana Romanova in “From Russia with Love” and Xenia Onatopp in “GoldenEye” are both Soviet agents who seduce Bond for ulterior motives.
However, Romanova soon falls under his spell, abandons the Soviets, and becomes Bond’s love interest. Onatopp, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sadist and dies gruesomely because she never gives up trying to kill Bond.
This contrast demonstrates how Russian women in film are only considered worthy and redeemable when they submit to Western men. Furthermore, the domination and destruction of Soviet women’s bodies serves as a stand-in for the American domination and destruction of the Soviet Union itself. Although the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the fetishization of Slavic women – particularly Russians and Ukrainians – grew even more prevalent in the post-Soviet era, when economic instability caused many young women to seek foreign husbands or join the sex work industry. However, Western media discards the socioeconomic explanations and portrays most Slavic women as promiscuous gold-diggers, like Irina Korsakov from “Desperate Housewives” or Svetlana Yevgenivna from “Shameless.” If you Google “Ukrainian women,” the top search results are websites for mail-order brides and articles instructing Western men on how to find Ukrainian wives. The hypersexualization of Slavic women in the film industry reinforces these stereotypes and objectifies women.
Most Russian characters in the media are played by white actors. Of course, the lack of diverse representation in the film industry is a broader systemic problem, but it’s particularly egregious amongst Russian characters. Although Russia is still a predominantly white country, it’s home to 193 recognized ethnic groups, and many of these people are not white presenting.
Western films also tend to misinterpret or exaggerate aspects of Russian or Eastern European life. For example, many Russians do not smile at strangers because they consider it ingenuine to smile unless you are truly happy. However, US films often use this cultural difference to imply that Russians are cross, rude, and unfeeling. Likewise, films often use Russia’s cold winter climate to portray Russia as a shockingly brutal place, whereas films set in equally frigid destinations like Canada or Scandinavia rarely treat bitter temperatures as a reflection on the country’s character.
Most so-called Russian and Eastern European representation is culturally inaccurate because many filmmakers treat Slavic culture as merely an aesthetic. Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” is set in a fantasy version of Imperial Russia where soldiers wear fur hats and call their leader Tsar, but female characters have Russian names that are typically given to men and the Cyrillic posters are just a jumble of random letters. I do appreciate that “Shadow and Bone” avoids many of the stereotypes I mentioned earlier and features several Russian-coded characters of color; however, the fact that no one bothered to fact-check these blatant cultural inaccuracies reflects that the entertainment industry really doesn’t care about respectful representation.
These inaccurate representations collectively reinforce harmful stereotypes about Russian and Eastern European people at a time when anti-Slavic sentiment is dangerously high. Following the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office reported over 1,700 cases of xenophobic threats, insults and vandalism against Slavic people living in Germany, and Russian Americans have shared similar stories of harassment in the workplace. I don’t have Russian or Eastern European heritage, but as an Asian woman living through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve experienced firsthand how fearmongering and generalizations can incite vivitrol and violence towards innocent people. The entertainment industry has the power to shape our perceptions of society. When we reduce people to caricatures, we allow ourselves to see them as subhuman, and we begin believing that their suffering matters less than ours. But when we represent them as complex people, we see their humanity and find mutual compassion. And this world needs compassion more than anything.