The Eagle and the Bear

American and Russian Visual Depictions of the Other

By Nathan Ojo


Mortal Enemies

It can be easy to get lost in the narrative that America and Russia, and in turn Americans and Russian, are mortal enemies.  The Cold War between the United States and the Russian-dominated USSR was the defining conflict of the latter half of the 20th century, and while the emergence of a new, democratic, capitalist Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union offered some hopes of ameliorating tensions between the two states, but that prospect proved woefully short-lived.  Today, relations between America and Russia remain frosty, and often openly antagonistic, and this state of affairs is reflected in both countries' populations, as well as the way those populations view and choose to depict one another.  The majority of American maintain an unfavorable view of Russia and most Russian view America as an enemy of their country.


However, this relatively uncomplicated conception of the two nations as mortal enemies belies a more complicated relationship and history of interaction between Russia, the United States and their respective populations.  This collection aims to explore this relationship through an examination of visual media produced in both countries depicting the other and its residents.  This gallery features not only the most typical sources of American and Russian depictions of the other, namely political cartoons and official propaganda, but also such diverse sources as popular films and even video games.  While the relationship between Americans and Russians has often been defined by antagonism, this collection illustrates both the changing contours of that antagonism and the fact that it is not immutable.  America and Russia may still be adversaries on the international stage; however, this gallery demonstrates that the current state of relations is not a given.  Americans and Russians have had moments of reconciliation and friendship in the past, and there remains a hope of such relations returning in the future.


Imperial Animosity

Russian and American depictions of one another from the late 19th and early 20th century are dominated by (usually polemic) commentary on the successes and failures of the countries' imperial ventures.  While the two lacked the inherently contentious relationship that one could observe between, for example, France and Germany at the time, a wariness of the imperial ambitions and imperious policy of the other appears to have been prevalent in both countries.  On the Russian side, much of the conversation is dominated by the Spanish-American War and subsequent American occupation of Cuba, America's role in the Russo-Japanese War (both real and perceived) and activity throughout the Pacific and Northeast Asia, and finally America's contentious racial politics in the domestic sphere.   American art in turn emphasizes the Russian Empire's repeated military blunders throughout the period, and, much in the same way that Russian artists mobilized American racism to discredit the country and its foreign and domestic policy, leans heavily on depictions of the antisemitic violence that swept through late-imperial Russia as well as repression of popular protest that surrounded events like the Revolution of 1905.

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“In the name of humanity America offers salvific shackles to the beautiful Negress,” Novoe Vremia, April 25, 1898

While it may come as something of a surprise given the Russian Empire's own often brutal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities within its borders, America's racial politics, interactions with people of color and imperialist actions directed at populations of color was a common theme in Russian political cartoons throughout the late imperial period.  In this particular cartoon America, personified by Uncle Sam, as was frequently the case, restrains a matador representing Spain as he attempts to whip a caricature of a black woman representing Cuba.  Uncle Sam's intentions are; however, far from benevolent, as indicated by the shackles in his hand and the accompanying caption.

This is in many ways a prototypical Russian depiction of American imperialism during the area.  The piece lampoons pro-American rhetoric and art from the period surrounding the Spanish-American War which generally framed the United States as altruistically liberating subjugated non-white peoples (often portrayed as woman or children) from the hand of brutal Spanish domination. 1  Flipping this narrative on its head, this piece questions American motives for "freeing" Cuba and, not unfairly, represents America as ready to enslave and exploit the Cuban people on its own terms.

The depiction of Cuba as racist caricature of a black woman in this cartoon is worthy of note, as it represents something of a theme in Russian depictions of American racism.  While the cartoon points out undeniable racism within American foreign policy, it does so itself using racist imagery.  Russian art depicting blackness and its relationship to the United States in subsequent years often fell prey to similar tendencies of, on the one hand, fairly pointing towards profound racism in American politics and society and, on the other, doing so in a manner that was itself quite racist.

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“More Trouble Bruin—Something the Matter Inside Now”, Harper’s Weekly (17 May 1879)

While Russian artists around the turn of the 20th century often sought to highlight the deleterious nature of America's foreign policy "successes," Americans generally highlighted the ailing Russian Empire's failures.   Russia's costly victory in the Russo-Turkish War and its unprecedented defeat by an East Asian power in the Russo-Japanese War were particularly popular points used to depict the empire as a powerful, but ultimately shambling and decaying state.  This era also saw the rise in the popularity of the use of the bear as a symbol of Russia and its people, a trend that remains popular to this day.

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“The Czar of All the Russias”, Harper’s Weekly (11 March 1905)

As noted above, the slow death of the Russian Empire was a persistent themes in American cartoons depicting the state.  This cartoon, published in Harper's Weekly, depicts the monarchy's failure to handle the popular protests that ultimately evolved into the Russian Revolution of 1905.  As was often the case, the broader Russian population is here depicted as a suffering victim of the country's archaic political system and its aristocratic leadership.

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“Tsar: ‘Excuse me, I’m too busy weeping over this Delaware affair,’” Brooklyn Eagle, reprinted in Literary Digest, 18 July 1903.

Just as Russian artists were quick to point at the hypocrisy inherent in American pretenses to protecting liberty and freedom at home or abroad, American artists regularly downplayed Russian criticism of their own society by depicting Russian anti-Semitism.  The Russian Empire was at its height home to the largest Jewish population in the world, and during the tumultuous years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were increasingly targeted by mass violence in the form of pogroms.  While the imperial government usually did not play a direct role in this violence, it was roundly criticized by Western states and their residents for its consistent inaction to prevent such violence, as well as its role in the proliferation of anti-Semitic ideology.  Here, the Tsar is depicted as ignoring American efforts to address anti-Jewish violence and instead weeping crocodile tears in response to a lynching in the United States.


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“Forward, Uncle Sam!” Novoe Vremia, June 12, 1903.

Images like those above represent individual salvos in what became a cycle of mutual recrimination between the United States and Russia, and Russians and Americans.  This particular cartoon depicts Uncle Sam chasing down and running over two stereotypically presented black men while traveling down the "Path of Progress" and bearing a flag emblazoned with the words "Freedom" and "Equality."

War and Revolution

Despite the United State's close relationship with France and the United Kingdom, the other members of the Entente, American media generally did not depict Russia in a particularly positive light during the early years of World War I.  Indeed, cartoons like "The Chain of Friendship" often played the line, still popular today, of presenting the war and its initiation as a something of a blame game between the European imperial powers.

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"Chain of Friendship" or "A Threatening Situation," Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1914)

This cartoon depicts the political situation in Europe on the eve of World War I.  Here, Russia is depicted at preparing to defend Serbia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in the years prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had demonstrated increasingly domineering behavior towards the Balkan state.  It is notable that the European powers are all shown in relatively similar positions here, each stepping in to protect their own allies and interests, and none possessing a clear moral high ground.

The February Revolution of 1917, then, stands as something of an important pivot point when it comes to American presentations of Russia.  With the February Revolution we see American opinion on developments in Russia become increasingly divided: some emphasizing the the revolution as a moment of liberation of an oppressed people from an autocratic monarch and others focusing on the loss of stability that the revolution implied for Russia and its international implications (this latter theme becoming especially important as the Russian Provisional Government increasingly lost domestic public support to the Bolshevik-dominated Soviet government).  This debate over the meaning of revolution in Russia would only expand after the October Revolution, which would add questions of the future of socialism and Russia and Europe more broadly to the equation.

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Unnamed Cartoon Depicting the Russian Revolution, The New York Tribune (March 18, 1917)

This cartoon, showing the Russian people, represented as a young peasant man, breaking free of their shackles depicts the February Revolution in a positive light in no unclear terms.  Here the peasant, drawn in huge scale relative to the aristocrats and plutocrats which had previously tied him down, appears ready to reclaim the country as a whole for in the name of its common people.   The February Revolution is notable for being perhaps the first time we can see frequent depictions of the Russian populace as a group or set of groups differentiated from the state become common in American art.  As one can see by looking at the art from earlier periods in this piece, Russia was often presented as a monolith represented by either the Tsar or the famous Russian bear.

Celebratory depictions of February of this sort would become increasingly uncommon as the afterglow of the revolution was increasingly overshadowed by domestic political dysfunction in Russia leading up to the October Revolution.

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"Scraps from the Master's Table," Leon Israel, Der Groyser Kundes (April or May, 1917)

This cartoon taken from the American Yiddish-language newspaper Der Groyser Kundes also seems to offers a positive spin on the February Revolution, featuring a comical depiction of a Russian peasant, again depicted at a much larger scale, throwing the scraps on his plate to the now-deposed Tsar Nicholas II.  Given the deep antipathy that many American Jews (a large number of whom were emigres from the Russian Empire) held towards the Russian monarchy it is safe to assume that Israel viewed the February Revolution as a positive development which represented something of a victory for popular justice in Russia.

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"Working for Wilhelm," Rollin Kirby, New York Daily World (May, 1917)

For all of the adulation that surrounded many depictions of the February Revolution in the United States, others took on a much more cynical view of political developments within the country.  The deposition of the Tsarist government, which had been fully committed to the Entente's war efforts, and the subsequent emergence of a struggle for political domination between the Provisional Government, led by mostly by liberal and moderate socialist elements, and the soviets, in which the Bolsheviks were quickly developing a majority, was viewed and framed by many Americans as not only a development which served the best interest of the Triple Alliance, but as the direct result of German machinations.

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"With His Head in the Clouds," William Hanny, St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press (November 26, 1917)

Art which framed revolution in Russia as a recipe for anarchy in the country and a victory for Germany would only become more popular following the overthrow of the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution.  This cartoon shows a Russian communist, his head literally in the clouds of naive "idealism," about to be ambushed by a tiger representing German domination.

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"Set 'Em Up Again!" by Ted Brown, Chicago Daily News, November 10, 1917

While many American socialists viewed October with high hopes and as an important move towards world revolution, outside of leftist circles there was much less optimism.  Similarly pessimistic in its tone to the previous drawing, this cartoon depicts the October Revolution as just one in a series of steps towards anarchy and the collapse of government authority in Russia.

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"Trotsky Advances in the Direction of a Democratic Peace," Louis Raemaekers, Bell Syndicate (March 13, 1918)

This cartoon is typical of depiction of the Bolshevik leadership at the time.  The cartoon depicts Leon Trotsky, who served as the Soviet Foreign Minister during the negotiation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended Soviet involvement in World War I and saw the government make substantial concessions to Germany, is shown being influenced by Bolshevism to doom democracy in Russia by acceding to German demands in the name of securing a quick "democratic peace" for Russia.  In contrast to depictions of the Communist Party from the Cold War which would often frame it as a nefarious, scheming organization, this piece paints its leaders as naïve actors easily taken advantage of by the German political machine.

For Russia's part, America and Americans did not feature particularly heavily in Russian visual media during the Revolutions of February and October or the subsequent civil war.  Where they did appear (at least in socialist art), America and Americans generally played the part of nefarious capitalists complicit in the oppression of the Russian people.  However, some particularly interesting exceptions to this rule can be found in the closing years of the Civil War, during which the American Relief Agency played a key role in helping Russia recover from a number of devastating famines that swept the country in the early 1920s.

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"Gift of the American Nation," American Relief Administration (1920)

This poster, commissioned by the American Relief Administration and composed by Russian artists, shows a woman representing the United States dolling out grain to Russia's starving children.  The poster represents an interesting departure from the socialist realist style which defined most art which came out of Russia during the period, as well as unique bright spot in Soviet depictions of America and Americans which would not be seen again until the two countries came together to fight the Nazis during World War II.

A Moment's Peace

The interwar period would once again see America and Americans take up a noticeable place in Russian visual art.  This period saw the emergence of the Soviet film industry, and Americans would feature surprisingly prominently in a number of Russian films from the era.  These depictions of Americans in film were often somewhat derisive, portraying many Americans as ignorant of life within the Soviet Union and portraying American society as largely unjust; however, they stop short of essentializing Americans and often served to make the point that the Soviet Union was a place where not only its residents, but also Americans, could live better, freer lives.

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The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the BolsheviksLev Kuleshov (1924)

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, a Soviet comedic satire released a few years after the end of the civil war, features an American, the titular Mr. West, as its main character and while it lampoons American ignorance of the Soviet Union, it also depicts West as fundamentally virtuous and capable of change (albeit, with the help of dedicated Bolsheviks).  West, a YMCA director (the YMCA ran a number of social programs in Russia at the time, and West's association with it speaks to his generally positive moral character in the film), travels to the Russia to "enlighten" the Bolsheviks, whom he has been led to believe are savage brutes.  Once there he quickly finds himself taken advantage of by nefarious counter-revolutionaries who only work to reinforce his misconceptions, until he is rescued by a Bolshevik policeman who shows him the error of his ways.  West himself plays on common Russian stereotypes of Americans from the time, entering the country in plush furs, espousing blind patriotism for the United States and derision for the Bolsheviks and travelling with his raucous cowboy friend.  However, as noted, West is depicted as a fundamentally goodhearted character who, not unlike the Russian people themselves, just needed the tutelage of strong Bolshevik leadership to be set on the right path.

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Circus, Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, Mosfilm (1936)

The 1936 Soviet film Circus also features an American as its primary protagonists.  Russian actress Lyubov Orlova portrays white American circus performer Marion Dixon who, after giving birth to a black child, finds herself harassed and marginalized by her fellow Americans, as well as the circus' German ringleader.  Dixon finds respite in the Soviet Union and its multi-ethnic population, who embrace her and her child and offer her the prospect of a life free of the racism ingrained in the United States and broader Western world.  While the film's message is more heavily focused on lionizing the Soviet Union as a tolerant, modern society, it's admiring depiction of Dixon is notable.  Again, in Circus we see the idea highlighted that Americans can be shaped into model figures, but American society runs counter to this end.  Soviet Union and dedicated Bolsheviks, on the other hand, not only make this transformation possible, but something of a given.

A Brief Alliance

Unsurprisingly, among the friendliest American visual depictions of Soviet Russians and vice versa emerged from World War II, during which the United States and the Soviet Union fought together against Nazi Germany.  These pieces, mostly propaganda posters, but also a number of films, emphasize the importance of the other countries' contributions to the war against Nazism and recognizing and supporting their efforts.  While this art leans heavily on depictions of Soviet and American soldiers, they also feature symbolic depictions of the other countries' armies in the forms of weapons and flags, as well as, in the American case, images of the embattled Russian populace.  Another interesting element of the American pieces, which can be seen reflected in later propaganda as well, is the equation of the Soviet Union with Russia, and the Soviet populace with Russians, a trend which may be related to the efforts of the Soviet leadership to Russify the Union around the time.

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"This man is your FRIEND — He fights for your FREEDOM," U.S. Government Printing Office (1942)

This poster is from just one in a larger series, all depicting smiling soldiers from nations which fought alongside the United States with the same caption.

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"Treaty of Friendship," USSR (1943)

This poster shows Soviet, American and British sailors, ships and planes charging fighting alongside one another under the naval ensigns of their respective countries.  The leftward orientation of the fighting force my be significant, given the Soviet push westward into Germany.

The British also featured prominently in Soviet propaganda from the war.

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"Help Russian War Relief!" Russian War Relief Fund (1942)

This poster, commissioned by the Russian War Relief Fund, depicts somber Soviet soldiers marching under the Soviet flag and a quote by General Douglas MacArthur extolling the essential role of the Red Army in the Allied war effort.  The Russian Relief Fund would produce a number of similar posters intended to encourage financial and material support for the Soviet Union throughout the course of the war.

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"Europe Will Be Free!" Viktor Koretsky, USSR (1944)

This poster shows swords representing the Allied Forces cutting the shackles from the arms of a woman representing Europe under Nazi domination.


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Mission to Moscow, Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. (1943)

The above still is from an American propaganda film entitled Mission to Moscow.  The film, a "faux-documentary" depicting a fictionalized version of Joseph E. Davies time serving as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, is notable for its effusive depictions of Stalin, Stalinism and the Great Purge of the 1930s, during which Stalin persecuted huge numbers of Soviet citizens and officials for their perceived disloyalty to him and (by proxy) the Soviet state.  Stalin is portrayed as a genial, pragmatic leader deeply concerned with the Soviet citizenry who generally with profound compassion and foresight.  It is a striking departure from both earlier and later depictions of Stalin in American art.  The film ironically begins with a short address by Amb. Davies himself, in which he says "No leaders of a nation have been so misrepresented and misunderstood as those in the Soviet government during those critical years between the two world wars."

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"In other words, gentlemen, Togo won't hit Joe and Joe won't hit Togo... unless they take a poke at each other when I start socking Joe," Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dr. Seuss Political Cartoons, UC San Diego, Library (June 20, 1941)

Not all American art produced during WWII was so shining in its depiction of Soviet leadership.  This political cartoon, one of many produced by the famous Dr. Seuss commenting on events surrounding WWII, offers a mocking critique of the Soviet Union's neutrality at the outbreak of the war, showing Stalin naively maintaining peace with the Germans in spite of the profound threat that the Axis posed to the Union.  Ironically, the cartoon was published just two days before the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, during which Nazi Germany would launch a surprise attack on the Soviet Union and draw it into the war at last.

One War Ends, Another Begins

The end of WWII saw relations between the Soviet Union and the United States sour rapidly, and art that came out of both countries reflected that reality.  As the Cold War evolved American and Soviet Russian artists increasingly sought to highlight the other country's self-interested foreign policy, mistreatment of their citizens and often hollow political rhetoric, as well as to lionize the better life that their countries and respective economic systems could offer.

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"Time to Bridge That Gulch," Bruce Russell (1945)

This political cartoon, first published in November, 1945, provides commentary on the deteriorating relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union as WWII came to an end and presages the outbreak of the Cold War.  Notably, unlike the increasingly hostile depictions of the the Soviet Union which would come out of the United States as the Cold War evolved, this piece seems to depict the antagonism between the two states as mutually constituted and put the onus on both powers to repair relations.  Russell would win a Pulitzer Prize for the cartoon the following year.

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Meeting on the Elbe, Grigori Aleksandrov, Mosfilm (1949)

The Soviet film Meeting on the Elbe, released in 1949, portrays interaction between Soviet and American forces in Eastern Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  While Russia and the United States were still nominally allied during the events depicted, the American soldiers and leadership are generally portrayed in a rather negative light.  While a few American officers are admirable, honest characters who form genuine friendships with their Soviet counterparts, the American soldiers are generally depicted as drunk and debauched, while their leaders are presented as conniving, uncaring capitalists who are unconcerned with maintaining a productive partnership with the Soviet Union and who actively collaborate with former Nazis.  The Soviet characters, on the other hand, are presented as deeply committed with doing whatever is possible to rebuild Germany and bring democracy and rights to its people.

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"Path to Peace," Clifford K. Berryman (1951)

This American cartoon depicts the Soviet Union's efforts to exert influence over Greece early in the Cold War as Stalin veering off of the "Path to Peace."  Portrayals of their opponent as being the power which was truly responsible for sabotaging world peace were common in both countries during the Cold War.

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"Voice of America," Alexander Zhitomirsky, USSR (1950)

This poster seeks to present American capitalism as ultimately being a mouthpiece for fascism.  The horn coming out of the American figure's mouth, labeled "voice of America," is being played by a chimpanzee styilized to represent notorious Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.  In spite of the fact that the Americans played a critical role in aiding the Soviet Union in its fight against Nazi Germany, the idea that American capitalism and democracy were a reincarnation of or vehicle for fascism was a persistent theme in Soviet propaganda meant for internal consumption.  The use of this motif allowed Soviet propagandists to both play on Russians' deep antipathy towards fascism and Nazis and present the American system as insidious and deceptive in its pretenses to offer people freedoms denied to the Soviet populace.

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"If Russia Should Win..." Paramount Pictures, inc. (1953)

This poster warns Americans of what a future in which the Soviet Union was triumphant in the Cold War might look like for Americans, showing an American woman quite literally under a Russian boot and predicting that American men will be sterilized, while American women will be left in the hands of "Asiatic Russians."  The poster is notable for both its misogyny and its racism.  Not only does it imply a level of ownership that American men have over "[their]" women, it racializes the perception that American men will lose that control and presents it as especially galling that American women will fall prey to men of "Asiatic" stock.  One can see clear echoes between this presentation and rhetoric surrounding interracial marriage within the United States.

The depersonalization of the other in this poster is also notable.  While the American woman is depicted in full and we have the chance to interpret and appreciate her emotions, the Russian man is faceless, emotionless and almost reduced to an object.  We can see this tactic used in both American and Soviet art from the Cold War.

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"The American Way of Life," USSR (1950)

Crime and criminality were frequent themes in Soviet anti-American propaganda, and this poster is a prime example of that trend.  While art from both countries about the other often presented arguments that was were largely rhetorical, this poster draws on actual American crime statistics to send its message to the viewer.  The text informs the audience that: "Every 21 seconds a serious violent crime is committed in America"; "Every three minutes is an automobile theft"; "Every 100 seconds there is a break-in"; "Every year [people] disappear without a trace"; "Every 44 minutes there is a premeditated murder"; "Every nine minutes there is a robbery."  These depictions of America in which it was presented as a hotbed violence and crime were held in contrast to depictions of the Soviet Union as itself being safe and well-ordered.

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"American Freedom," USSR (1950)

While Soviet propaganda made much of crime in America, it did not present America as totally lawless.  Rather, it often sought to frame America as a police-state, in which the law served to protect a small, privileged minority at the expense of the broader populace.  This poster makes just such a point, lampooning the freedoms guaranteed to Americans by law.  The sub-images, going clockwise from the top-left, read: "Freedom of press (with 'lies' and 'slander' written on the ducks)"; "Personal freedom"; "Freedom of assembly"; "Freedom of opinion."

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"Racism - the Shame of America," USSR (1969)

As it had been at various points in the past, racism was an extremely persistent theme in Soviet Russian art critical of America.  This poster is a rather typical in its approach to the topic, framing racism as a reality which should be a source of great embarrassment for a country like the United States, and in its presentation, depicting brave, stoic Black men resisting oppression by the American state (Black women are notably absent from much of the art addressing this topic).  While not featured in this piece, the Ku Klux Klan also frequently appeared in art of this style and was often associated with the American government.

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"I Don't Think I Can Make It," Jim Berryman, Washington Star (August 1, 1961)

Where Russians focused their art critical of America on socio-economic and racial inequality, American art critical of Russia tended to paint a picture of the Russian people as destitute and abused by an authoritarian state and its conniving, deluded leadership.  This political cartoon presents Soviet rule as a literal yoke and suggests that the Russian people are worked to the breaking point by leaders who have little concern for their lives in the interest of building a future which is impossible to reach.

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"Take me to America, Comrade Angela Davis - I want to be oppressed like you." Frank Interlandi, Los Angeles Times (1972)

Juxtaposing a poor Russian woman to a lavishly dressed Angela Davis, this cartoon makes a similar point to the previous one, emphasizing the widespread depravation of the Russian people.  However, in comparing Davis, a longtime communist and activist, to the Russian woman, the cartoon also serves to mock those Americans who criticized the American government or American society or suggested that communism would be good for the American people, presenting them as deluded and out of touch with the reality of life on the ground in Russia.

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"This Godless Communism," Treasure Chest, George A. Pflaum (1961)

Soviet and American characterizations of one another's leadership were often quite similar in tone.  They were both frequently presented as plotting, vindictive imperialists intent on spreading their ideology at any cost and to their own benefit.  This page from a comic entitled "This Godless Communism" features such a depiction of Nikita Khrushchev, showing him seeking to improve his and communism's public images while ruthlessly crushing dissent.

While antipathy was the norm in Russian and American depictions of the other during the Cold War, there were many exceptions to this trend.  First, one can find depictions of the citizenry of each country which sought to portray them as oppressed and perhaps misled by their political leaders, but not fundamentally immoral and often capable of change for the better.  Additionally, especially during the various thaws in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States throughout the Cold War, one can also see broader appeals to cooperation and friendship between the two countries.  A number of the pieces featured above speak to the former trend.

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Rocky IV, Sylvester Stallone, MGM/UA Entertainment Company (1985)

The primary antagonist of Rocky IV, Russian boxer Ivan Drago, presents an interesting example of American art humanizing individual Russians while offering harsh critiques of the Soviet system and its architects.  For much of the film Drago is an almost robotic character who seems concerned with little other than fulfilling his duty to the Soviet Union by winning boxing matches.  This is presented as a result of the intense conditioning and training which the supreme control of the Soviet state made possible.  It is only during the climactic fight between the protagonist Rocky Balboa and Drago that this façade is shattered.  As the match wears on and Drago is unable to defeat Rocky his dedication to the Soviet state and its ends flag, culminating with him shouting "I fight to win!  For me!"  This moment in which Drago shakes off the fetters of Soviet control in the interest of fighting for himself rather than a state and an ideology can, even more so than Rocky's actual victory in the competition, be read as a triumph of capitalist democracy and the freedoms of self-control and self-expression that it offers over the Soviet system.


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The R Document, Valeriy Kharchenko, RusFilm (1985)

The 1985 Russian thriller The R Document tells the story of a U.S. Senator and a civil rights activist who, at the turn of the 21st century, uncover plan by the FBI and senior members of the United States government to launch a coup d'etat and turn America into a hyper-authoritarian state.  The film paints a picture of deep corruption and ill intent within American political and intelligence leadership; however, it is only the efforts of the films protagonists, both of who are dedicated to protecting liberty and justice within American society, that allows the plot to be revealed to the public and brought to an end.

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"Friendship Worked Then - It Can Work Now." People's World (1985)

This piece, an advertisement for the American leftist newspaper People's World, shows American and Soviet soldiers meeting and shaking hands on the banks of the Elbe River in Germany in 1945, and suggests that similar friendship and cooperation could be achieved in the present.  While the piece is notable in part for its publication by a Marxist organization, it also speaks to more widespread suggestions that one can see throughout the Cold War that there was an alternative to the antipathy between the Soviet and American governments and the societies they represented.

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"Peace," USSR (1987)

This poster advocates for peace between and through the Soviet Union and United States.  While significant tension existed between the two powers for the entirety of the Cold War, it should be remembered that there were elements in both societies and indeed both governments who consistently advocated for peace and cooperation between the two superpowers.  A notable artistic choice in the poster is that "Peace" is written out in the ink of the Soviet pen, while "Мир" (Russian for "peace") is written in the ink of the American pen.

A Fresh Start?

Many in both the United States and Russia had high hopes for the future of the countries' relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union; however, as Russia slid first into economic decline and then saw a new strongman come to the fore of Russian politics in the form of Vladimir Putin those hopes gradually faded.  Nevertheless, American visual media still features a wider array of Russian characters than one might have seen in the past.  Russians are still frequently characterized in a negative light, with the slick, sinister KGB agents of yesteryear having been replaced by Russian mobsters and "international terrorists."  Likewise, Russian stereotypes still about, with vodka-swilling foul-mouthed men representing a significant number of the Russians the average American is exposed to through visual art.  However, for all of these unflattering developments, the past thirty years have also a greater variety of more human portrayals of Russians in American media.  

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Air Force One, Wolfgang Petersen, Sony Pictures Releasing (1997)

The film's antagonist, Egor Korshunov, is a terrorist who leads a plot to hijack Air Force One in a bid to see a Soviet-era Kazakhstani dictator who was recently deposed through a joint American-Russian effort restored.  While Korshunov's motivations are in some areas sympathetically framed, his end goal of seeing the Soviet Union restored to greatness sets him in firm opposition to the interests of most American audiences.  What is more, his characterization, like the characterization of many Russian villains, plays heavily on old stereotypes about Soviet-era Russians.  He is shown as cold, mean and ruthless enough sacrifice huge numbers of lives to achieve his ends.  Russian villains may be as popular as they are in part because they allow for American artists to easily mobilize these preconceptions of Russians (or at least Russian leaders) and generate the kind of fear and antipathy that a good villain is often meant to evoke.

An interesting development in American depictions of Russia which can also be gleaned from the film is that the Russian state itself is no longer demonized.  This change could in part be due to interest in marketing mass media to the Russian population, but it may also speak to the end of the Cold War also being the end of an era in which a Russian-dominated state was the geopolitical rival of the United States and a reorientation of American perceptions of Russia which has resulted from that change.

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K-19: Widowmaker, Kathryn Bigelow, Paramount Pictures (2002)

Another interesting development in American depictions of Russia and Russians since the end of the Cold War has been the rehabilitation of elements of the Soviet state and its functionaries.  This transfomation has by no means been total: the Soviet Union is still generally portrayed in a negative light, and old stereotypes about the Soviet apparatus and its operation abound; however, we have also seen agents of the Soviet state painted in a positive manner which was heretofore extremely rare.  A prime example of this phenomenon is the thriller K-19: Widowmaker, in which a Soviet submarine crew works to stop their malfunctioning nuclear submarine from exploding, causing a major ecological disaster and potentially turning the Cold War hot.  The submarine's captain, most of the crew and even elements of the state bureaucracy with which they interact all demonstrate valor, compassion and concern for their fellow man, rather than the cold dispassion that was more typical of depictions of agents of the Soviet state in earlier years.  The state itself work assiduously to try and solve the problem, and while Soviet leadership also emphasizes the importance of keeping the crisis a secret from both the Soviet public and the wider world, the depiction again humanizes the Soviet system and the people which made it run in a way that one was unlikely to see in Cold War depictions.

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Call of Duty Franchise, Activision (2003 - 2020)

Perhaps even more than film or television, video games have been the visual medium through which many young Americans have had their greatest exposure to Russian characters.  Chief among these video games is the Call of Duty franchise, a series of military "first-person shooters" which is among the best-selling video game franchises in history.  Entries in the series take place in a wide variety of settings ranging from WWII, to the modern era, to the near future; however, Russian characters feature prominently in almost every game in the series.

In this series we can see mirrored all of the contemporary trends already discussed.  Most of the games set in WWII feature sections in which the player takes control of a Red Army soldier, and, while stereotypical elements are still present, they also generally portray Soviet soldiers and officers as brave, patriotic and willing to engage in great personal sacrifice to protect their country and combat Nazi Germany.  The games set in contemporary settings also heavily feature Russian villains who's characterization can be compared to characters like the villain from Air Force One, and these villains are always shown as explicitly working counter to the legitimate Russian state (which is more often than not depicted as a reluctant ally of the American or British protagonists).

While Americans seem to take a less prominent place in Russian visual media than Russians do in American art, the breadth of depictions of Americans has expanded there to.  A number of pieces of Russian media from the past three decades feature American antagonists, but a trope of the "American bad guy" cannot really be found in a form that the "Russian bad guy" still clearly can in American art.  Rather, Americans, where they are stereotyped, are generally shown as rather typical, if often naïve, people.

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Brother 2, Aleksei Balabanov, CBT Film Company (2000)

Brother 2, the sequel to the famous post-Soviet Russian crime drama Brother, is one of the few contemporary Russian films which takes places largely in America, and it features a wide variety of portrayals of the country's residents.  The film centers on a Russian vigilante-turned-policeman by the name of Danila as tangles with the Chicago underground in effort to loosen an American crime bosses grip over one of his associates.  During his travels across America and time in Chicago Danila meets a variety of American characters ranging from the friendly, if a bit obnoxious truck driver who drives him to the city and introduces him to the American way of life, to the kingpin Richard Mennis, who in many ways mirrors the oligarchs and crime lords who he interacted with back home in Russia.

In addition to its portrayal of range of very human and often very different American characters, the film is also quite notable for its portrayal of one group of American in particular, Black people.  The film leans heavily on stereotypically negative portrayals of Black American, with the vast majority of Black characters Danila interacts with for any length of time being violent criminals, prostitutes or homeless people.  The sole exception to this rule is a Black baggage carrier at the airport.  While the film does highlight institutional racism against Black Americans (Danila is arrested after getting into a fight with several Black gangster; however, after the police learn that the men he assaulted were black he is immediately released, with one of the officers tossing out the line "F*ck them n***gers," to clearly get the point across), it also leans heavily into pervasive stereotypes of Black people as violent, brutish and crude.  In one particularly problematic scene Dasha, a Russian prostitute who Danila has rescued from her Black pimp, makes the argument that Black people may in some ways be racially superior because, unlike White people, they have not lost the primal, animalistic element to their character that makes White people fear them.  The film highlights the sad fact that, while Russians and Americans have in many ways made progress in depicting one another in more complex, human manners, this development has not extended equally to all groups.

Conclusion

Antipathy has long been a common feature of American and Russian depictions of one another in visual mediums; however, as this gallery has demonstrated, that hostility has not been universal, and even where it has been persistent its contours and bounds have evolved alongside our evolving societies.  Likewise, while stereotypes and reductivism have never been absent from our portrayals of one another, they have never been totalizing, and even where social and political currents have pushed against it elements of our societies have always been able to recognize one another's humanity.

Russian-American political relations are in a fairly grim place today, but in spite of this fact the manners in which we present one another in visual art have generally expanded towards encompassing a broader, more understanding, less hostile pictures of each other with a greater appreciation for all of our complexity and diversity.  Even if state relations continue to sour it is imperative to keep this trend moving forward.  Stereotypes and unflattering depictions of the other still exist, but progress has been and can continue to be made.  So long as Americans and Russians work to develop an understanding of one another which demonstrates a greater appreciation for the other, our shared humanity and our real, but not unbridgeable differences there remains hope for fostering compromise between our societies and their people, and in turn for salvaging relations between our two countries and their populations.

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April 5, 2021 4:59 a.m.

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