If you've been keeping up with news headlines over the last several months, you'll know that Russian hackers are a hot topic. They steal, leak, commit DDoS attacks, target, exploit, disrupt and have been linked to everything from disrupting the US election to the leaking of Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles' medical records.
But you don’t become internationally notorious overnight: the villains we see in headlines now have come a long way to get here, and the journey is recorded on film. It has three distinctive steps: the Nerd, the Small-Time Baddie, and the stage we’re entering currently, the International Villain.
The Nerd was mostly a low profile character who appeared on Russian TV a decade or more years ago, like a localised IT Crowd castaway, imported into Russia with a sense of humour surgically removed at customs. All the computer geek cliches applied although his portrayal was usually also poor fact-wise: the code that appears onscreen is always so bad that you start to wonder if the shows had researchers, and computer terminology gets thrown around with apparently so little respect for the meaning behind the words that you start to suspect no-one is really paying attention. Because of this, the Nerd was disliked by anyone remotely knowledgeable about computers. Plus, he was never important or interesting enough as a character for more than an occassional role. But the appearances were so frequent, and the background stereotype so strong, that the trope stuck around.
The Small-Time Baddie
The Small-Time Baddie is a semi-logical sequel to the Nerd. You’ll come across hackers like him in many western and Russian films, where they mostly steal money but sometimes also act as cyber mercenaries for governments or private companies. Their small-timeness is not due to the damage they do but to their motivation: the key thing is that they do it for money, not ideology or an imaginary greater good. Because of their mundane motives, they are almost never interesting enough to be main characters, but are usually present in the background. This is as close to the traditional pre-2016 image of Russian hackers as possible – they are a threat to your bank account but not your democracy.
The International Villain
You are probably already familiar with the new looming threat of Russian hackers as international villains in the media, targeting the future of democracy everywhere, rigging and hacking everything that can be rigged or hacked. The discourse surrounding them in the news is already laying the grounds for Marvel-esque anti-hero appeal — they are a mysterious, all-reaching, disembodied, looming threat, hiding behind jokey names and bear gifs and using stolen truth — in the form of leaked documents and stolen information — as a weapon. Working in sync with the rhetoric of post-truth politics, where no one is right and facts neither exist nor affect the outcome of elections, those who expose the hidden, hard facts naturally become a figure comparable to superheroes (or super-villains). And it’s only a matter of time before they conquer the silver screen.
Showbusiness and audiences are partial to an anti-hero, underdog, or whistleblower
Showbusiness and audiences are partial to the odd anti-hero, underdog, or whistleblower, as films on Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have demonstrated, and a Russian hacker can be any of these things depending on your political outlook. Besides, they have the Russian villain trope working for them, creating a historical background for the conflict. Now, all we have to do is wait for the films to arrive — and when they do, they'd better use stereotypes in a smart way and not follow the Bourne Identity disaster which still makes the rounds on the Russian internet as a go-to joke about the Hollywood portrayal of Russia.
The real question though, is how long this stage — both in film and IRL — will last. In the short-lived NBC sci-fi show Revolution, set in a world that lives in a state of permanent electrical power blackout, one episode shows a former Google employee complaining about losing all the authority and reputation that came with his respectable job, because he lives in a world where technology has become obselete. But until the post-apocalyptic, near-future comes, we are probably stuck with hackers for a while, the ambivalent antiheroes that the world in 2016 deserves.