Why do Russian characters make such good villains?

Why do Russian characters make such good villains?

After three years of waiting and thousands of theories online, the Hawkins teens are back on the small screen for the fourth season of Stranger Things. Composed of two parts, the plot promises to be darker as the characters grow and the monsters evolve. The whole season 3 of the series was centered around a group of Russians and the machine they had made to open a door to the other world, under the town of Hawkins: the characters of the villain Grigori or the scientist Alexei have created many reactions among fans.

In its trailers for season 4, the Duffer brothers have reserved a few surprises for the spectators: the return of Hopper, shaved head, visibly in a snowy camp; Joyce receiving a package with stamps stamped with the communist flag; snow and officers in chapkas… The Russians are back, and part of the plot takes place in distant lands of Hawkins where we like vodka.

A good villain, the essential element of a good film

That Stranger Things, which takes place in the 1980s in the United States, places Russian characters as antagonists is nothing original. Hollywood has been using the Russian villain archetype in its productions since the 1920s/1930s. As Joël Augros, teacher-researcher and specialist in the history of American cinema, explains, “the villain is necessary in the narration of Hollywood films: a good villain makes a good film. It’s almost mandatory.”

By Yuri Komarov in diehardvia Irina Spalko in IndianaJones and Lev Andropov in Armageddonwithout forgetting Tatiana Romanova in Kisses from Russia (and all the other Russian villains that populate the James Bond saga), the archetypal Russian villain is very present in the Hollywood imagination. Constructed as a cold and cruel character, bordering on sociopathic, with a pronounced accent, Russians in American cinema seem to bring together a slew of stereotypes.

The impact of the Hays code

In the 1940s and then 1950s, American cinema was at its peak, but was regularly shaken by scandals. In 1934 the Hays code (or production code) was put in place, applied to control what appears in the films of the time: a puritanical vision of cinema, excluding all nudity, crime, sin. This code will be applied until 1966. “Hollywood will be very careful during this period to the nationality of the villains, which could prevent the sale of a film in certain countries. For example, there is no question of making German villains to alienate the German market, so we transform it into Russian: we are after 1917, so we are no longer selling films to the Russian market” explains Joël Augros.

If during the Cold War, Hollywood did not hesitate to use its soft power, marked by the witch hunt of the Communists who would hide in its ranks, this growing fear of espionage on behalf of Russia nourished many works of the American cinema. But as Joël Augros reminds us, “it’s not systematic. In the 1950s, if we had Russian villains that were too Cold War, that risked disfavoring the film in countries where the Communist Party was important, such as France or Italy”. Since then, the Russian villain has become a stereotype of himself, a Manichean vision of evil, particularly in many action films of the 1980s/1990s (Rocky, Die Hard, Rambo, Top Gun…).

Stereotypes, cruelty and the KGB

But in the end, presenting Russian characters, or even those from Eastern Europe in general, as perfect villains, isn’t that a bit…stereotypical? “It’s never been very modern, we’re taking a bit of the clichés that are lying around. The Russian characters are associated with a kind of cruelty, there is also the imagination of the mafia, the oligarchs, money earned in a twisted way, and with a display of wealth… It is very cinematic” adds Joel Augros. An imagination that affects neighboring nationalities: we remember that in the last season ofEmily in Parisa character presented as Ukrainian turned out to be a thief and a liar, which caused an outcry.

The inclusion of Russian characters in Stranger Things, as in many other works of American cinema, is perhaps permitted by a general atmosphere: war in Ukraine, seizure of power by Vladimir Putin, destabilization of the American elections… This would reinforce in American society this kind of invisible enemy , a special agent version of the KGB which is used to feed the imagination of the scriptwriters. One thing is certain, it is that the new season of Stranger Things should take place partly near the Volga, atmosphere barbed wire and chapka by -30 degrees. Cliche, you said?

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