"It was back when we didn't know the Russians were incompetent."
- Hank Hill
As the Cold War got colder than a Leningrad toilet seat, the movies, comics, and video games of the 1980s brought us a new wave of terrifying Soviet supercomrades. Could pampered, moonwalking, hair-gelled Americans possibly stand up to these steel-muscled proletarian titans? Of course, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc by decade's end, we'd soon learn that the scariest Russian is a drunk, underpaid teenage soldier guarding a nuclear stockpile. But for a few years there, a parade of fictional Communist automatons (none played by actual Russians) kept our nerves on edge and our defense contractors rich...
Ivan & Ludmilla Drago, Rocky IV
Looking like a Stalinist statue come to life, the hulking Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren, Fulbright Scholar (seriously)) let his 2,000-PSI punches do the talking. His few lines of dialogue in Rocky IV are coldly robotic taunts like "I must break you" and "If he dies, he dies." He's so blank, so chiseled, that his ice queen wife, swimming champ Ludmilla Drago (played by the future Flavor Flav consort Brigitte Nielsen), must serve as the "friendly face" of the Soviets' venture into professional pugilistics. Here's the fun couple meeting the press.
But as Rocky batters Ivan into caviar at their climactic Moscow bout, the Russian boxer discovers the merits of individualism ("I fight for me!") and Ludmilla lets concern for her husband break her mask of proletarian perfection. See? World peace would be ours if we could just reach across the gap between East and West and beat the hell out of each other for 15 rounds.
Ursa Major, Marvel Comics
The Soviet Super-Soldiers served the Socialist Motherland gloriously, from the hammer-and-sickle wielding Vanguard to the shield-throwing, star-emblazoned Red Guardian (wonder where the scheming Reds got that idea?). But the most Russian of all was Ursa Major. A flat-topped, square-jawed Red Army officer named (with convenient comic-book logic) Major Ursus, he was bestowed by Soviet science with the ability to transform into an enormous, slavering, but still intelligent bear. Here's his historic introduction to the other Soviet Super-Soldiers in Incredible Hulk #258 from 1981.
Yes, within seconds of meeting, these ostensible teammates are trying to kill each other. Even behind the Iron Curtain, Marvel is Marvel. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, Ursa Major came through perestroika with his career intact, and still defends the Sorta-Capitalist Motherland to this day.
Colonel Bella & Colonel Strelnikov, Red Dawn
The pinnacle of '80s Cold War paranoia, Red Dawn was cited as the most violent movie of all time upon its 1984 release. Not only are the ragtag high-school guerrillas repelling the Red Army patriotic, they're also cool enough to win the admiration of the Che-like Cuban officer played by Ron "Superfly" O'Neal in hip beret and reflector shades. Early on, he's sending dissidents to the firing squad; by the third act, he's comparing the kids' fight to his guerrilla days and he lets a wounded Wolverine get away.
No such warmth courses through the veins of Colonel Strelnikov. When the Kremlin decides they've had enough of being pushed around by the likes of C. Thomas Howell, they send The Hunter to sort things out. But of course, even this elite Soviet paratroop commander is no match for the Wolverines - The Hunter catches lead by the time the credits roll.
Vodka Drunkenski, Super Punch-Out!!
You probably know him as Soda Popinski. But the arcade version of Nintendo's boxing game pulled no punches (sorry) about the liquid enthusiasms of the "Champion of U.S.S.R." You can hear echoes of his original identity in the NES game, though, with taunts like "I drink to prepare for a fight. Tonight I am very prepared!" and "I can't drive, so I'm gonna walk all over you!" You can take the boy out of Russia...
Captain Ivan Danko, Red Heat
The 1988 buddy cop movie Red Heat took the bold stance that America's problem is that our police are too restrained and we should be more like the Russians. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Ivan Danko sneers at the Western legal niceties that keep Chicago cops like Jim Belushi's Art Ridzic from really knocking some heads. Would YOU want this guy finding cocaine in your artifical leg?
Near as I can tell, despite his ideal look for the role, this is the only time Arnie ever played a Soviet. He probably figured he'd have plenty of time for that. Little did he, or anyone, know.
Nikolai Volkoff, World Wrestling Federation
Pro wrestling is nothing without its villains. Nikolai Volkoff didn't just want to hit you with a chair - he wanted to put you in a camp and force your children to dig up beets. Actually a Croatian named Josip Peruzovic, he wisely guessed that WWF fans wouldn't know the difference. Volkoff joined his fellow foreign heel the Iron Sheik in an axis of Russian-Iranian evil, capturing the WWF Tag-Team title in 1985 only to lose it to "the U.S. Express" a few months later. Darn the luck.
Unnamed Soviet agent, Spies Like Us
In the era of Anna Kournikova and Russian mail-order brides, it's funny to recall that the stereotypical Soviet woman was once a husky, wart-faced babushka who smelled strongly of rotting potatoes. But then there were Red temptresses like this, from the Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase vehicle Spies Like Us, who made adolescent boys consider that perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to be conquered by the Soviet Union. (Never mind that she was actually played by British actress Vanessa Angel.)
Communist bad guys just don't pack the same punch they used to - even a remake of Red Dawn featuring the Chinese as bad guys has been indefinitely shelved. Like their real-life counterparts, it seems, the scary fictional Soviets of the '80s will remain relics of a bygone age. If they die, they die.
But I know I must have left some out. What pop-cultural Russian spectres gave you nightmares?
If you read this far, you might also like: