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The Russians Are Coming! ... to a Theater Near You

Ian Bremmer is president of the Assn. for the Study of Nationalities in New York. Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Most Americans thought that the failed August 1991 coup in the Soviet Union was cool. They watched the play-by-play on CNN and it was Miller Time--the U.S. had finally won. It was better than the hockey team’s triumph at Lake Placid in 1980. Because this time there was permanence. Or at least it seemed that way.

But not in Hollywood. U.S. films keep making America save the world from conflict-crazed Russians over and over and over again.

Granted, it’s less disturbing when things blow up on the big screen than when they do at the negotiation table. In fact, things blow up only on the screen nowadays, while negotiations for the most part are constructive, agreeable and friendly. Even tough issues like NATO enlargement haven’t been able to upset the essentially good-natured relationship between Russia and the West.

So if the Russians are our friends, why is Hollywood still thumping them? America’s film industry just came up with “The Peacemaker,” the third film this year wherein valiant Yanks face off against Russian evildoers. Nothing much has changed from the heated confrontations of the Cold War era, with anti-Soviet classics like “Doctor Strangelove,” “Walk East on Beacon” and “I Was a Communist for the FBI.” The enemy then was the communists. Now it’s the Mafia--the communist Mafia.

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In “The Saint,” the first 1997 anti-Russian production, a communist Mafioso named Tretiak wants to become president and divert Mother Russia from the liberal course she has taken. His son, also a Mafioso and a drug addict to boot, chases the Americans all over Moscow to prevent them from protecting Russian democracy.

In “Air Force One,” another nationalist psycho hijacks an American president, played by Harrison Ford, in order to exchange him for a Russian would-be despot who days before had overthrown a democratic regime.

This fall’s blockbuster, “The Peacemaker,” serves up Mafioso Gen. Alexei Kotorov, looking to make beeg bahks by smuggling nuclear warheads to Iran. The fate of the world (read: midtown Manhattan) hangs in the balance.

One one hand, it’s good, forcing huge stretches of geography upon unsuspecting Americans--places with unwieldy names like Azerbaijan, Mahachkala, Srebrenica. “Air Force One” opened with Americans taking out a Russian leader in Kazakhstan. OK, the Kazakhs were perturbed that we demonized their country with a megalomaniacal fascist baddie. But the fact that it was Kazakhstan that Hollywood was demonizing is a start.

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On the other hand, geopolitical nuance aside, the message is still the same: America wants to keep the world safe from Russkies. And let’s face it, who else cares? Not the cautious Europeans, sitting around waiting for America to rid the Balkans of ethnic cleansers. Not the United Nations, with neither stomach nor mandate to handle the messy problems of the coming century. And certainly not our friends the Russians, who got themselves into all this trouble in the first place.

Why the obsession? America is nostalgic for the Cold War. Before, it was easy. There was the Soviet Union. There was the Eastern Bloc. If you wanted to be picky, there was Yugoslavia. There were big chunks of countries to make into an enemy. Now, despite the expansion of geography, the real enemy has been reduced to mere individuals.

The communist Mafiosi are critical because, to the Hollywood equation, Russians need ideology to fight effectively. They used to have communism. That worked until roughly 1988. Then they discovered money. So now Russian fighters get wiped unless they’re fighting for money. Hence the communist Mafiosi.

This is ironic because these Mafiosi are hardly anti-American. Deep down, in fact, they want to be American. Capitalism created these guys. So at heart they make lousy villains. Recognition of this undermined “The Peacemaker"--Kotorov is only a go-between and gets smushed in the middle of the film; then we’re left effectively villainless for the better part of an hour.

Hollywood should understand the problem better than anyone. Filmmaking needs good enemies to kick around. Fact is, new Russians couldn’t threaten total domination of a paper bag. They may be bad but they’re not grotesque. Grotesque is grandiose. Grotesque requires the desire to wipe out entire peoples systematically. It also requires a response from the entire U.S. armed forces. Radich, Tretiak and Kotorov don’t cut it.

Does it suit the United States to hunt down single individuals? Not really. The world may be in danger, but it isn’t anybody’s fault. Call it the peace dividend. Call it the end of the Cold War. Hollywood can turn back the clock, but in the end America has nobody left to blame but itself.


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