By Anne Liebig| 02 October 2019
On 4th July 2019, the third season of Stranger Things hit Netflix and quickly pulled off its favourite stunt – defying the sequel trap. Once again, the show satisfied viewer demands and climbed to critics’ top scores for the third time running. The long-awaited return to monster-ridden Hawkins not only features delightful performances by its stellar cast, but also widens the playing field for the series’ baddies: other than the familiar killer goo that is the Demogorgon, who are Hawkins’ child heroes up against in 1980s America, and on the most patriotic of holidays no less? You’ve guessed it: the Russians.
I will be honest: my first reaction to the ‘evil Russian’ trope was one of annoyed exasperation. Despite the early foreshadowing of a Russian connection in season 1, the exact trajectory that producers were going to take with this story arc remained unclear until now. Hence my unease: the classical go-to move for American renditions of Russians resemble lukewarm exploitations of tried-and-tested stereotypes, along with actors who confidently produce a handful of harsh-sounding syllables, thinking it will fool viewers into believing it is Russian. Some (primarily Russian-born) viewers have already expressed their disapproval of the portrayal of Russians in the new season, condemning the show’s predictable casting of ‘Smirnoffs’ in the traditional role of villainous soldiers and scientists. But does Stranger Things 3 really succumb to an uncreative rehashing of long-dead clichés? I would think not.
First of all, the show employs generous amounts of self-parody, most overtly expressed in the atrocious character that is Grigori – a Soviet killing machine who delivers monosyllabic platitudes. Grigori also serves as such a blatant stand-in for Schwarzenegger that he becomes less of an attempt at Russian characterisation and more of a caricature of 1980s TV culture and its obsession with the action hero trope in general.
Second of all, no matter how reductionist the roles appointed to the Russians in the show may be, it is not their posts, but their personalities that eventually dictate their appraisal. ‘He was nice,’ Murray argues, after fooling an alcohol-loving guard into letting him and Hopper pass a check-point. The assumption that Murray’s American accent would have gone undetected is, quite frankly, ridiculous. (Equally unrealistic is Robin’s success at deciphering the message transmitted by the Russians within a matter of hours. Any fellow student of Russian as a foreign language will agree that it takes much higher levels of masochism than the ones displayed to translate a message of this kind, even upon consideration of the fairly phonetic nature of the Russian language.) However, by not only acknowledging a Soviet guard’s joviality, but also using it as grounds for empathy, Murray successfully splits the person from the post – employing one of the basic tenets of diplomacy in the process.
‘Nice’ is also a fitting word to describe Aleksei, the scientist-gone-informer who helps save Hawkins over cherry-slurpee-negotiations and fully-stocked-supermarket euphoria. Portrayed as both an innocent and a schemer, Aleksei breaches the Iron Curtain not only in a physical, but also in a philosophical sense. (As an interesting aside, Alec Utgoff, the actor who plays Aleksei, is of British-Ukrainian descent. While this hardly played into the decision to cast him, Utgoff’s heritage does offer an interesting middle ground between the two former bloc powers.) His death at the hands of his Terminator-esque compatriot is easily the most tragic one to date. As he hugs his 4th July amusement stall prize win, Aleksei shouts ‘это всё честно‘ only moments before he is shot. These last words acquire an important double meaning: translated as ‘it is not rigged’, the Russian phrase can also mean ‘it is all fair’ or ‘it is all honest’. The naivety of Aleksei’s faith in the American dream is quite literally punctured by agents from both sides of the Iron Curtain; Grigori fires the fatal shot, but the fake U.S. spectacle of patriotism allows him to seamlessly blend into the crowd. In a similar way, the location of the Russian laboratory underneath the most holy of American institutions – the mall – suggests a curious interaction between the two institutions as the main locales that bring instability to Hawkins. Ultimately, both sides are complicit in the murder of Aleksei’s dream for a fair and honest future – a dream that many Soviet citizens lived by until 1991, and which for them, too, died soon after.
Argue as one might about the need to get rid of oversimplified cinematic stereotypes like these altogether, the (re-)humanisation of the enemy in Stranger Things 3 performs an interesting balancing act aimed at today’s atmosphere of historical inaccuracy and paranoia. In a time when talks of a revamped version of the Cold War are ripe – an erroneous term that carries great rhetorical power, but which fails to take into account the changed global stage of today – popular culture offers a platform for the re-assessment of fossilised terms and comfortable belief systems. Could Stranger Things 3 have done a better job at de-vilifying Russians and righting the historical balance? Undoubtedly so. But as a popular culture show whose primary purpose is to entertain, it has still managed to put its own spin on a past that people think they know – inviting further reflection on a Cold War gone all upside-down.
Anne Liebig is a 4th year PhD student in Russian studies at the University of Edinburgh. Hailing from East Germany, she has always felt a close kinship to the literary realms from beyond the Iron Curtain. When she is not writing, Anne can be found teaching German, kickboxing, or imbibing copious amounts of wine.
Edited by Chris Jardine and Ailish Woollett.