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The Americans and “Sleeper Cells” of Russian Intelligence in America

A Story Behind the TV Show

Sergei I. Zhuk

Abstract

In June of 2010, a Canadian couple, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, was arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the KGB “sleeper agents.” These KGB agents (Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova) lived in Canada since 1992, and in the United States since 1999, working for the Russian intelligence as “a sleeper cell” of the Russian spies. This story became an inspiration for the American TV show The Americans (2013–2018). Using the reviews of this TV show from the United States and Russia, the interviews with the real participants of the events of 2010 and with the retired KGB officers, the KGB documents from the SBU Archive in Kyiv, Ukraine, this article is an attempt to study how the special KGB/FSB operations in the USA, portrayed in one American TV series became an object of fascination and “fictionalization” on the both—American and Russian—sides of the geo-political conflict.

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Civilizing Russia's “Barbarous Kingdom”

Gender and Violence in Hulu's The Great

Marjorie Hilton

Abstract

The Hulu series The Great, an ahistorical satire of the eighteenth-century Russian Empire, set at the courts of Peter III and Catherine II, doubles as a critique of contemporary politics and culture. Created for Anglophone audiences with little knowledge of history, but aware of stereotypes of Russia as a despotic, dysfunctional backwater, the show's appeal rests on the love-hate relationship between Peter the bro-emperor and the “girlboss” empress Catherine, as well as the expectation that Catherine, ultimately, will “have-it-all.” This article examines the gender dynamics structuring Peter's and Catherine's narrative arcs and argues that Catherine's trajectory from naïve, self-declared enlightened European princess to skilled, pragmatic ruler undermines Peter's attempt to liberate himself from an outdated model of masculinity.

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Far from Tranquility Base

Gender and Russianness in For All Mankind's (Not So) Alt Cold War Universe

Roshanna P. Sylvester

Abstract

The Apple+ television series For All Mankind imagines an alternative history in which the Soviets beat the United States to the moon and the Cold War space race never ends. Gender politics and associated dynamics are central to the action. This article explores plotlines involving two fictional cosmonauts: the first woman on the moon and a male crew member stationed at the Soviet's lunar base. It finds that FAM reinforces Cold War tropes, anxieties, and “us vs them” formulations. FAM's writers miss the opportunity to probe the complexities of gender and personhood in the late Soviet era. Instead of encouraging more nuanced thinking about “the Russians,” FAM's universe perpetuates Cold War sensibilities that promote competition and conflict on Earth and in space.

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Howdy Comrade

Continuity/Familiarity of Cold War-Era Tropes of Russian, East European, and Soviet Womanhood in Early Twenty-First-Century Popular Culture Artifacts

Linda Beail and Lilly J. Goren

Abstract

American and Western audiences have long come to understand Soviet and Russian womanhood, and thus US womanhood, from representations in popular televisual texts. While there is a long history of popular culture presenting the “othered” women of Eastern Europe, for example as temptress “Bond girls” during the Cold War, these narratives have continued onscreen into the twenty-first century. We examine the myriad representations from both the Cold War and post-Cold War period, noting the typical narrative constructions that focus on femme fatales, psychological and sexual trauma, and economic precarity, and how these have continued in contemporary popular culture to shore up notions of Western cultural and political superiority. The characters and the situations in which they find themselves, as spies, assassins, and double agents, continue to send messages about danger and dominance regarding both gender and geopolitics.

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Lion of Love

Representations of Russian Homosexuality and Homophobia in Netflix's Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Catherine Baker

Abstract

Alexander Lemtov, the Russian antagonist of Netflix's 2020 musical comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, embodies and dramatizes contentions over Russian homophobia, disavowals of homosexuality in Russian entertainment, and the construction of LGBTQ+ equality as a defining value of ‘European’ space which have surrounded the real-life Eurovision Song Contest since the mid-2000s. An assertively-heterosexual sex symbol in public, Lemtov in private exemplifies the trope of the closeted gay entertainer whose performances of machismo allow him to hide his admiration for the male body in plain sight. His depiction could potentially open space for exploring how other queer male Russian entertainers have historically negotiated homophobia but is constrained within a liberal sexual geopolitics that demands further recontextualization following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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Not-Russians on TV

Class, Comedy, and the Peculiarities of East European Otherness on 2 Broke Girls

Erica L. Fraser

Abstract

This article discusses portrayals of a Ukrainian and a Polish character on the US sitcom 2 Broke Girls (2011–2017). The pilot episode reveals that the showrunners used stereotypes of Russian characters to establish different national origins for Oleg and Sophie. The show perpetuates offensive stereotypes of Slavic and postsocialist characters to elide differences from Russians but with notable distinctions—stemming from Oleg and Sophie's economic backgrounds in the struggling postsocialist economies of the 1990s. American television has produced many comedic characters from the European margins (Greek, Czech, Ukrainian, Polish, Latvian, or from invented but East European-coded lands) who were understood as chaotic but loveable. Crucially, however, they were not Russian. From the late Cold War through the 2010s, Russianness onscreen seems to consistently signal dishonesty, danger, or hopelessness for Western audiences. This suggests that while stereotypes persist, in comedy, at least, showrunners use East Europeans to support, not threaten, American characters, further othering Russianness.

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The Romanovs on Contemporary American TV

Nostalgia for White Imperialism

Katharina Wiedlack

Abstract

This article analyzes the Netflix six-part docudrama The Last Czars as well as the Amazon Prime anthology drama The Romanoffs for its representations of Russian imperial history and its heritage. Using an intersectional lens, it utilizes a close watching of the TV shows to identify a nostalgia for Russia's imperial legacy as core element of both series. Embedding the findings within popular culture, the analysis further shows that the nostalgic depiction of the last Russian imperial family and the mourning of their loss has a century-long history within American media. Comparing these depictions further to recent commemorations of the last Romanovs through the exhibitions Russia My History points to the Western complicity in Russian imperialist and colonial ideology through the recent shows in liberal American media.

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Russians at the Gates

Spies, Saboteurs, and Provocateurs in Jack Ryan 3 and Treason

Denise J. Youngblood

Abstract

This article analyzes two recent streaming series—the third season of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan (Prime, USA, 2022) and the limited series Treason (Netflix, UK, 2022)—as aspects of “Cold War II,” the increasingly common term for the resurgence of anti-Russian attitudes and stereotypes in Anglophone cinema and television that has been apparent since 2010. These two series reflect a shared fear of Russians and offer interesting and illuminating points of comparison, especially regarding their definitions of the threat (internal or external), the battleground (at home or abroad), and strategies for confronting the enemy (shoot ’em up or run and hide). At the same time, these series reflect different national concerns, with Jack Ryan 3 as one of many US-produced spy thrillers that trumpet aggressive, offensive action in a way that deflects attention from the country's serious divisions and protracted domestic crises. Treason, on the other hand, engages with British concerns over corruption in the UK's police and security services. Finally, the series’ differing treatments of the relationship of the not-so-distant past to present dangers (real and perceived) is also noteworthy, if puzzling; the demise of the Soviet Union is central to the crisis in Jack Ryan 3 but only glancingly mentioned in Treason.

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The Strawpeople of Russian, Eastern European, and Soviet History in English-Language TV and Film

Erica L. Fraser and Danielle C. Kinsey

Abstract

This special issue features historical scholars of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union analyzing representations of Russian and East European characters and history in contemporary Anglophone television and films, such as The Americans, Black Widow, The Great, For All Mankind, and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. They identify several tropes that shore up Anglosphere conceptions of progressiveness, liberalism, feminism, and even whiteness in ways that put pressure on geopolitics today, which some have characterized as a second Cold War. Gender and sexuality are dominant themes through which difference between the West and Eastern Europe is commonly staged onscreen. Debate emerges on whether this is a return to twentieth-century thinking or a new vision of Russian and East European otherness.

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Book Reviews

Enrico Beltramini, Elisabeth C. Macknight, and Eloise Grey

François Hartog. Chronos: The West Confronts Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. Chapter endnotes and index. 285 pp. (Hb) ISBN 978-0-231- 20312-8; (eBook) ISBN 978-0-231-55488-6. Hb $35; eBook $34.99.

Neil Kenny, ed. Literature, Learning and Social Hierarchy in Early Modern Europe. Proceedings of the British Academy no. 246. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Index. 21 b/w ill. 291 pp. (Hb) ISBN 978-0-19-726733-2. $100

Arunima Datta. Waiting on Empire: A History of Indian Travelling Ayahs in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. Bibliography and index. 150 b/w ill. 320 pp. (Hb) ISBN: 978-0-19-284823-9; $45.

Gunnar Broberg. The Man Who Organized Nature: The Life of Linnaeus. Trans. Anna Paterson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023. Bibliography and index. 55 b/w ill. 17 color plates. 512 pp. (Hb) ISBN 978-0-691-21342-2. $39.95.