Stock-in-trade: why Russian villains are still popular culture’s favourite bad guys

Stock-in-trade: why Russian villains are still popular culture’s favourite bad guys

From the brawny Ivan Drago in Rocky IV to the comical ambassador in Dr Strangelove, Russian villains are still the go-to bad guys in western popular culture

20 November 2014

Russian villains in Hollywood are having a resurgence, as recent releases such as The Equaliser (2014) and The November Man (2014) show. But they never really went away. Since the Cold War began, Russians, or rather their stereotypes — hard, mean, amoral and, conveniently for postcolonial western audiences, white — have been the guys that the western film industry loves to hate. Here's a selection of the most outrageous Russian and Soviet bad guys.

Rosa Klebb

Rosa Klebb is James Bond’s worst nightmare: a communist, a terrorist and an unattractive woman. With a whip in her hand and knives in her shoes, this former Soviet intelligence agent-turned SPECTRE operative is more than a match for 007. Klebb does have one thing in common with Bond, though: an eye for ladies, strongly suggested by her fascination with the beautiful Tatiana Romanova. The name Rosa Klebb is a pun on khleb i rozy (bread and roses), the Soviet phrase for women’s rights, and if the film From Russia with Love (1963) was in some way suggesting it was fine for women to be lesbian dominatrices with milk bottle glasses, the pun might have been appropriate.

Egor Korshunov

Hollywood had a problem post-1990 — who would play the bad guys now the Cold War was over? Air Force One (1997) got round this with a villain who just hadn’t accepted that the Soviets were beaten yet. Egor Korshunov (a creepily-bearded Gary Oldman) hijacks the American president’s plane in order to secure the release of General Ivan Radek, the murderous communist dictator of Kazakhstan who has just been imprisoned with Uncle Sam’s aid. Korshunov claims he won’t stop until his beloved USSR is restored and “the capitalists are dragged from the Kremlin and shot in the street”. Spoiler: he doesn’t succeed.

Ivan Drago

“I must break you,” says Ivan Drago to Rocky Balboa before their climactic boxing bout in Rocky IV (1985) in what is surely the most popular film line for 12-year-old boys to quote to each other ever. Already a freak of nature due to his colossal size, Soviet boxer Drago’s (Dolph Lundgren) strength is artificially boosted by devious Soviet scientists pumping him with steroids. Drago shows no emotion when he kills Apollo Creed, Rocky’s fellow American, in the ring. But, like the Soviet Union a few years after the film was made, this commie Goliath is heading for a fall.

Imran Zakhaev

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When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released in 2007, Russia and the west were going through a period of tentatively friendly relations. Good news, you might think, but not for Imran Zakhaev, this blockbuster video game’s chief villain. As leader of the “Ultranationalist” party, Zakhaev is hell-bent on toppling Russia’s government and restoring the country to its former Soviet glory. He made his money in the 1990s selling black-market uranium salvaged from Chernobyl and now wants to deploy Russia’s nuclear arsenal to achieve his dastardly aims. Zakhaev is an implacable foe of all things western: he’s had his arm blown off by British special forces and seen his son commit suicide rather than hand himself over to them. Safe to say he’s pretty angry.

Ambassador de Sadesky

Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (left)

The Russian ambassador to Washington in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr Strangelove is certainly absurd, but in a film about a world gone MAD, he’s no crazier than anyone else. Instead of relying on an over-the-top Russian accent (or indeed, any kind of Russian accent), Peter Bull uses comic physicality and facial expressions to carry the role, for example, when coming to blows with the American general over the buffet table (“No fighting in the War Room!”). If you look carefully during Peter Sellers’s masterful wheelchair-bound adlib about spawning a subterranean super-race, you’ll see Bull in the background finding it very hard to keep a straight face.

Xenia Onatopp

Xenia Onatopp wins the prize for the most cringeworthy punning name in film history — first equal with fellow Bond girl Pussy Galore, that is. She supposedly speaks with a Georgian accent, but there’s about as much chance of her name being Georgian as there is of the name Pierce Brosnan being English. Literally a femme fatale, Onatopp is a criminal henchwoman who gets aroused when she kills. Her signature move is to clamp her victim between her thighs while — you guessed it, on top — and squeeze them until they suffocate. Her sadistic side can easily be explained by the fact that she used to be fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force.

Boris the Blade

“As bent as the Soviet sickle and as hard as the hammer that crosses it.” Not content with stereotyping Cockneys and Irish Travellers, director Guy Ritchie generously extended his remit to Russians in the Brit-flick crime comedy Snatch (2000). Arms dealer Boris “the Blade” Yurinov, played by Croatian Serb actor Rade Serbezija, ticks all the predictable “crazy Russian” boxes: ruthless, violent and completely unhinged. There’s some woeful subtitling of spoken Russian (Da, ya ponimayu — “Yes, I understand” — somehow turns into “It’s OK, I know a couple of guys” onscreen) before Boris suffers the final indignity of being killed by Vinnie Jones.

Irina Spalko

At least the woeful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) had a truly ridiculous lead antagonist in Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko. A KGB agent and champion fencer with psychic powers, Spalko is obsessed with finding the Crystal Skull of Akator to harness the infinite knowledge that resides in it. She aims to use this power to manipulate the minds of the Americans and teach them the “true version of history”. Unfortunately, aliens melt her eyes out first. The internet claims she was raised in a “small mountain village in the eastern regions of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic”, which shows roughly how much the internet knows about the geography of Ukraine.