The Best Russian Characters in Pop Culture
Stranger Things Season 3 continues the strong tradition of compelling Russian characters in pop culture.
The following contains Stranger Things Season 3 spoilers.
In hindsight, it’s a little surprising that it took Stranger Things this long to introduce “The Russians.”
Stranger Things is infamously a nostalgic throwback to ’80s culture – both real and pop – and there are fewer important mainstays in ’80s pop art than the ever-nefarious Russian. Stranger Things Season 3 finally decides to live up to its Red Dawn and Rocky IV ’80s forefathers by introducing some Soviets of its own.
further reading: Stranger Things Season 3 – Inside the Summer of Strange
In Stranger Things Season 3, the Soviet government and Russian soldiers and scientists fulfill the role of the boogeyman as they so frequently did throughout the Cold War era. In fact, Russians of many dispositions have been mainstays in American art for a long time. So now, in honor of Grigori, Alexei, and the many other Russians of Stranger Things Season 3, we are going to list of some of pop culture’s most infamous Russian characters.
The Russian (Kevin Nash)
Marvel comics is undeniably obsessed with Russians, which is not that surprising given that its golden era almost perfectly corresponds with the Cold War. Of all its Russian characters, The Russian is neither the best nor the last one to appear on this list. But his name is The Russian and he dresses like a super buff Waldo so that means he deserves a spot.
Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman)
Air Force One
Korshunov is one of those aforementioned generic Russian boogiemen. But he’s interesting in that he hijacked Harrison Ford’s plane long after the Cold War was over and he’s depicted by Gary Oldman. Asking Gary Oldman to portray a generic Russian bad guy is like asking Michael Symon to make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’re going to get something much better than you deserve.
Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke)
Iron Man 2
Oh hey, another villain AND Marvel character. Iron Man 2 was a bit of a disappointment but it’s no fault of Vanko’s. Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, a Russian scientist who helped Tony Stark’s father, Howard, design the Arc Reactor. Vanko inherits both his father’s genius and his hatred for the Stark family. His time in a Soviet prison turns him into a bit of an odd duck, which is certainly a popular trait for Russian villains.
Maybe Western audiences like to see villains as long as they’re a bit odd to take the edge off. Otherwise, a man who has access to energy whips and the ability to face a harsh Russian winter is too terrifying.
Nikolai Jakov (Peter Newman), Head of the KGB
Nikolai is a sparingly used character on Archer, though always following his name with the honorific “Head of the KGB” is one of the most consistently funny parts of the show. As you might suspect: he is the Head of the KGB. And for the leader of such a powerful, secretive organization, he’s a pretty gregarious guy.
He’s certainly fond of Americans as evidenced by his decades-long tryst with Mallory Archer. He may actually even be Sterling Archer’s father. Jakov is a highly-competent, but still usually drunk idiot. That may seem like a stereotype until you factor in that that description also fits almost everyone else on Archer to a “T.”
Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare)
Peter Stormare is kind of like a European Swiss army knife for American audiences. The Swede can play anything from Scandanavian to German to yes, Russian. His Andropov is the typical Michael Bay character – loopy from years of isolation and prone to fixing things by hitting them with a wrench.
Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen)
Any character who gets in a naked bathhouse knife fight is Russian enough for this list.
SPOILER ALERT FOR A 10-YEAR-OLD MOVIE: Sure, Nikolai is actually an FSB agent who has infiltrated a gang and not a straight-up gangster but that shoots him even higher up the list. David Cronenberg is so obsessed with violence that one of his movies is literally called A History of Violence. It’s no surprise that he would create a Russian mob character that is fitting with out perception of a violent underground Russian life.
Vladimir Bierko – (Julian Sands)
Season five is one of 24’s very best years, in large part thanks to a reliably great villain performance by Julian Sands. Bierko is a Russian businessman who is able to infiltrate the U.S. government then secure Sentox nerve gas from within the President’s administration. President Logan and Peter Weller’s Christopher Henderson are more likely to be remembered but Vladimir Bierko is the real villain of season five.
Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko)
For the entirety of Stranger Things Season 3’s runtime, the grim-faced Russian thwarting Jim Hopper at every turn doesn’t have a name. According to the show’s credits, he actually does have a name and it’s “Grigori”…it might as well be “Terminator” though.
read more: Stranger Things Season 3 – How Hawkins Found Its Jaws
Grigori is a seemingly nigh invulnerable force put on Earth to foil Jim Hopper’s plans. Every time Hopper and the gang things they’re closer to cracking this Russian mystery, Grigori turns up with fists that are absolutely parched for blood. As portrayed by Andrey Ivchenko, Grigori is a ruthlessly efficient killing machine and excellent Russian baddie.
Valery (Vitali Baganov)
Valery is essentially one big Macguffin but man, he’s a big Macguffin. Known only to most as “The Russian” in the “Pine Barrens” episode, Valery famously evaded capture from a cold and lost Chris and Paulie. What ultimately happened to Valery is one of the Sopranos biggest mysteries, next to Tony’s ultimate fate. David Chase’s answer has always been “don’t worry about it.”
Niko Bellic (Michael Hollick)
Grand Theft Auto IV
Niko was a war veteran from an unspecified Eastern Europe country. He probably is the Soviet block individual that people are most like to empathize with on this list as they’ve inhabited his body for hour and hours of car-jacking, police-chasing shenanegans.
Kseniya Onatopp (Famke Janssen)
The James Bond universe is filled with Russian characters, which is not surprising since there is a film called From Russia With Love. In fact, there could probably a whole separate entry about Russian characters in Bond films alone. But if we’re forced to choose only one, we’ll take the character played by Famke Janssen and who was in a classic N64 game.
further reading: How Goldeneye Updated the James Bond Franchise
For a series that is obsessed with sex, Xenia somehow still stands out. There seems to be separation between sex and violence for her, which makes her both a perfect Bond character and a stellar Russian femme fatale.
Helena (Tatiana Maslany)
One of the common traits of Russians in pop culture seems to be a general weirdness or anti-social loopiness. Maybe Western writers just can’t envision facing a Russian winter without going a little insane. Nevertheless, Helena, one of several clones on Orphan Black, at least makes the crazy Eastern European stereotype cool.
Of the approximately eleventy-billion characters (estimate may be inaccurate) on Orphan Black played by Tatiana Maslany, Helena is somehow the most competent, violent and gentle – all at the same time. She’s a perfect distillation of the Eastern mystique.
Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig and Anton Yelchin)
Gene Rodenberry’s version of the future was rather unusual for science fiction. It was bold, bright and relentlessly optimistic about mankind’s capacity for forgiveness and high-minded thinking. The U.S.S. Enterprise’s capable navigator, Anton Chekov is a prime example of this. In a time when a lot of science fiction often casted aliens or organizations as thinly veiled facsimilies of the U.S.S.R. Star Trek featured a full blown Russian as one of its heroes.
further reading – The Difficult Journey of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Make no mistake: Chekov was a hero. Kirk can command the ship, Sulu can pilot the ship, and Spock can do whatever it is that Spock does but it does some uncommon intelligence to chart a route through the vast nothingness of outer space.
Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson)
Of all Marvel’s Russian characters Black Widow ranks highest due to her being an Avenger. Ok, historically that hasn’t been that high an honor. If Doctor Druid can join the team, we’re all a few push-ups and a lucky radioactive spill away. But Black Widow is a founding member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is arguably the greatest recent pop culture achievement of any Russian character.
On a team that features a war machine worth billions of dollars, a chemically-made super solider and an actual god, Romanov is still able to hold her own.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell)
Of course it would take a show called The Americans to produce two of pop culture’s best-ever Russians. DC residents and mild-mannered travel agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings aren’t really Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. In reality, they are Soviet agents Mischa and Nadezhda. The pair came together as part of a very ambitious KGB program to send loyal agents to American deep undercover.
How deep undercover? Philip and Elizabeth are, for all intents and purposes, Americans. They’ve got a house in the suburbs, two kids, and a love for Washington, D.C. sports teams. The Americans is a brilliant story that charts just how similar pop culture’s favorite Russian boogeymen can be to the American dream.
Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren)
No one can come close to touching Ivan Drago’s Russian pop culture supremacy. He’s the perfect image of Red Menace. He hangs Iron Curtains in his home. He… he killed Apollo Creed, who unwisely believed that James Brown songs could blunt punches to the head if blared loud enough.
Ivan Drago in his precise, machine-like training and preparation is the perfect foil for what Americans think they can conquer. Sly Stallone and movie-viewing audiences think any South Philly boy can topple a giant man dedicated to physical perfection if he punches enough dead cattle and his heart’s in the right place. Stallone is wrong. We are wrong.
Honorable mentions: Alexandra Udinov (Nikita), Irina Derevko (Alias), Illya Kuryakin (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Sergei Malatov (The Wire).
Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad