The death of the archetypal Russian villain

THE cold war was fought as much in the imagination as on the battlefield. Each side sought to project images of social and cultural superiority; stories of people corrupted by the decadent West or persecuted by the KGB were turned into weapons. This struggle was largely waged on screen, in shows and films that were subject to varying degrees of government involvement. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union followed, writers and directors put down their arms. Barely any films about the cold war were made in the years immediately following its end.

..  For example, Ivan Drago, the antagonist of “Rocky IV” (1985), was an emotionless brute: “If he dies,” he memorably says of a defeated American boxer, “he dies.” So was Podovsky, a Russian torturer, in the “Rambo” series. In “From Russia With Love” (1963), the assassin Rosa Klebb relished inflicting pain on both her compatriots and her enemies

.. the rare female communist was either a nymphomaniac or frigid and repressed.”

.. “They” were cold-blooded criminals, subversives and deviants; “we” were enlightened defenders of democracy and freedom. Even in grittier, more realistic works, the motivations of communist characters were rarely explored. They existed mostly as “foils against which the men of the West demonstrated their superior skills,”

.. These hard-faced psychopaths have now been ousted by richly textured Soviet citizens. “The Americans” is concerned as much with the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the Russian agents (pictured), and the trials of raising their children in America, as with espionage.

.. The pair grapple with guilt and the meaning of freedom.

.. So human are these characters, in fact, that viewers are persuaded not only to empathise with them, but to hope they evade capture—even as they kill and blackmail Americans.

.. In these stories, the idea of Western superiority—either moral or professional—is questionable.

.. In the case of “The Americans”, it can be laughable: one of the series’ funniest moments comes when the head of counter-intelligence at the FBI discovers that his secretary has secretly married a KGB officer.

.. The villain of “The Shape of Water” is not Mosenkov but a repulsive American colonel.

.. The overseers of “The Americans”—Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer

.. They enlisted Masha Gessen, a Russian-American writer, to ensure their Russian dialogue would feel idiomatic.

.. Now the production team has been “able to spend time in the Stasi archives, to spend time with people who were on the East German side,” Mr Cornwell says. “There is room in the six-hour format to explore both sides.”

.. faith in Western spooks has drastically decreased in the wake of the Iraq war and recent surveillance scandals.

.. despite Vladimir Putin’s election-meddling and revanchism, most English-speaking viewers no longer feel they face an existential threat from Russia.

.. The imperative to deflect criticism outward, so conspicuous in the 1980s, no longer applies.

.. Used to navigating moral minefields in shows such as “The Wire” and “The Sopranos”, viewers have outgrown simplistic tales of good and evil. Proof was offered by “Red Sparrow”, a film released earlier this year that starred Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian seductress targeting a CIA agent.

.. It was “designed to make Americans feel good about [themselves] by showing how much nicer [their] spies are than their Russian counterparts,” says Denise Youngblood, a historian of Russian and Soviet cinema. Judging by its box-office performance, the formulaic plot was a turn-off.

.. Because Russia has always been a land of villains,” Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, once wrote, “it is also a land of heroes and saints.” Hollywood is at last imaginative enough to make room for all of them.