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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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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Last Updated

April 5, 2021 4:59 a.m.

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