You’re Dead to Us: Russia as a Scary Place Full of Scary People

Written by Popular Culture, You're Dead to Us

A series in which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.

In about 1987 or so, I was in line at the grocery store with my grandma when I noticed a Time or Newsweek on the racks with the headline “Inside the Real Soviet Union,” or something to that effect. It definitely had the R in one of the words backward, so as to look super-Russian. The picture was a spooky, darkened image of the Kremlin. “Grandma,” I asked, “how come in Russia they put all the Rs backward?”

The two people in front of us turned around and gave me a condescending glance. I looked up, and realized they were the most stereotypically Soviet figures possible, both with huge wool hats, thick winter coats, stern expressions, and Russian writing on their jackets. Grandma was mortified with embarrassment. I was mortified because those people were obviously Russians, and they were going to kill me, because Russians were evil Communists from hell who wanted to kill Americans, even these two that had successfully defected and were buying Swanson’s TV dinners at a Safeway in Eugene, Oregon.

Spoiler: they didn’t kill me, because Russians aren’t anonymously evil. I was only made to think that way through scores of Reagan-era anti-Communist propaganda, be it direct—such as every word out of Reagan’s mouth—or indirect, via the glimpses of Russians and the Soviet Union I’d absorbed through the pop culture of the time. Which was that Russians were all old grandmas or young idealistic killing machines, consumed only vodka and old bread they stood all day in line to get, and hated Americans so very, very much for no apparent reason. I’m not the only little kid who lay awake at night, terrified that the nukes from Russia would kill us all any day, and that it was just a matter of time.

Let’s look at some examples.

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Anti-Russian sentiment started to dissipate with the Glasnost movement for peace, the visits to Moscow by American girl Samantha Smith, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it didn’t really change until August 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed virtually overnight. Because we realized they didn’t hate us anymore, and because we’re self-absorbed, we stopped hating them, too. The fears of nuclear war disappeared instantly.

So too did the idea of a scary, impossibly evil, Russian/Soviet/Communist menace in pop culture. The novelty of the Soviet Union was gone, killing Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff’s culture-clash act for everyone but the most paranoid past-dwellers who frequent his theater in Branson, Missouri. This sketch from The Ben Stiller Show in 1992 illustrates the idea nicely.

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However, it wasn’t too long before Americans could start projecting all their misplaced racism and jingoism on Middle Easterners, both in action movies and real life.