Russia was once a place of fear and fascination – my children will know it only as a pariah state

Will my children want to visit St Petersburg, the city of Putin’s birth, in all its splendour, as we did when the nation opened its doors? Of course not

James Moore
Thursday 03 March 2022 17:15
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<p>Sylvester Stallone (left) and Dolph Lundgren in ‘Rocky IV’ </p>

Sylvester Stallone (left) and Dolph Lundgren in ‘Rocky IV’

For Gen X-ers like myself, the Soviet Union was an object of fear but also fascination. The terms “Russia” and “Russians” were often used as convenient shorthand for the country and its people. We are all now painfully aware of how wrong that was.

But, back then, we knew so little about it. We knew next to nothing about the people, or how they lived. Most of us had never met a Soviet citizen, and most of us never expected to.

True, people occasionally visited the eastern bloc. My paternal grandparents were card-carrying communists (my grandfather was a steelworker) and had holidayed in Bulgaria, but my brother and I didn’t have much contact with them after our parents split up. The occasional defector made front page news, before disappearing into obscurity, usually under a false name. We heard about the snaking lines for consumer goods.

But there was very little information available that was unfiltered through the lens of propaganda.

Unfortunately, it was often left to popular culture to fill in the gaps. In the more jingoistic parts of it, the “Russkies” were the baddies when the Germans weren’t. Sometimes they were played by German actors, although when Sylvester Stallone saved us from communism in Rocky IV it was Sweden’s Dolph Lundgren who played Ivan Drago, all hissing sibilants when he introduced himself as “a boxer from the Soviet Union” with his comically sinister entourage behind him.

Some of it played upon the fears of the “evil empire”. Some of it was clearly designed to help whip that up. At the extreme end was the movie Red Dawn and ABC’s soapy Amerika miniseries about a Soviet-occupied US, which aired just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There were also grim warnings of nuclear devastation, an ever-present fear we lived with. I still remember watching the BBC’s brutally grim Threads, about a full-scale nuclear war and its impact on Sheffield, where I was born, and having the s**t scared out of me in the process. Maybe it could do with a re-run. Maybe it should be beamed into the Kremlin.

Sting once (ugh) wailed about hoping the “Russians love their children”, too. Ridiculous. Of course they do. Putin though, not so much. He’s busy killing young people.

There were plenty of more nuanced works, which recognised that the west was far from perfect. John Le Carre’s masterful spy fiction, and the various adaptations of it, are a case in point. Those who cared to look also knew about the west’s shameful propping up of dictators because they were “our guys”. We knew which side of the wall we wanted to be on, but we knew it wasn’t a clear cut case of goodies and baddies.

Lots of us who consumed this stuff wondered what it would be like to go there. Only a few people did that, on highly choreographed tours.

Today, I wonder how my Gen Z children will come to view the place. There is no mystery anymore,  and there isn’t much room for nuance. Today, Russia – and it is now Russia – is once again inspiring discomfort while its leaders and their shills bathe in post-Soviet nostalgia. But also the deepest contempt. The country is inching its way towards becoming a prison camp again as its regime seeks to rival some of the worst of the 20th century.

In popular culture, its people have lately, and somewhat unfortunately, been portrayed as stereotypical mafia hoods for American heroes to beat up on, but also sometimes as colleagues on space missions or in disaster movies. The actors still aren’t necessarily from Russia.

But what will the future hold? More spy fiction? More of the Russian accent as code for “bad”? Probably. Hollywood is nothing if not predictable and there will be a market for this. Tough break for the English character actors who’ve earned a crust portraying aristocratic bad guys, I suppose. They’ll need to find dialogue coaches.

Will my children want to visit St Petersburg, the city of Putin’s birth, in all its splendour, as we did when the nation opened its doors? It was a lot of fun, with its white nights, its bars, its clubs, its glorious centre and of course, its globally famous cultural institutions such as the Mariinsky Theatre, formerly the Kirov, and the Hermitage.

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Will they hanker after joining a Russian ballet crowd, so much more vibrant than their stuffy English equivalents, with enthusiastic shouts of bravo ringing out when the dancers execute mastery of their craft? Will they want to get smashed on Russian beer and vodka in a basement club, while listening to a husky voiced and hypnotic female singer?

Or will they turn up their noses, shunning the place as a rogue state, a modern equivalent of the South Africa of my youth where there was no mystery and where no one wanted to go until the stain of apartheid was lifted.

It will, I fear, be the latter as Russia becomes a baleful pariah with its leaders throwing periodic hissy fits to remind us that they’re there, with its people suffering under their brutal yoke as they did through most of the last century, as the hopes for better at its end were cruelly dashed on the altar of Putin’s monstrous ego. Now there is the living embodiment of the word “villain”.

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