The fact that Moscow is behaving badly — with President Vladimir Putin meddling in Ukraine’s presidential affairs last December, annexing Crimea in March and now, despite denials, likely supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine — has validated Americans’ view of “evil” Soviets lurking in the new Russian empire. Even before Putin took back Crimea, more than 60 percent of Americans regarded Russia as a bad guy on the world stage.
Politics is largely to blame, but Hollywood may be the true villain in this drama. American culture never adapted to Moscow’s friendlier face. Though the Cold War was over, movie executives decided to ignore that memo. Russia may have been trying to leave behind its bad old days, but in the movies, Russians were still the bad guys.
In Air Force One (1997 – six years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution), a Russian nationalist psycho hijacks the plane of the U.S. president (Harrison Ford) in order to overthrow post-Soviet democracies. In The Saint (1997), based on a suave 1960s British television series starring Roger Moore, the heavy is a communist mafioso intent on diverting Russia from its new liberal course.
I remember looking at the screen in disbelief: “Why are we still your enemy?”
Putin’s rise to power in 2000, in part, was a result of what Russian “capitalism” had become and how closely allied it was to the U.S. model in the Russian mind. His promise to restore Russia’s self-respect did revive policies familiar from the communist era. He began jailing “dishonest” oligarchs, clamping down on the “irresponsible” press and suppressing critics of his regime. But was he really, as Americans believed, the ultimate villain?