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When Russia was the villain: How this moment echoes the era of Cold War spy novels and ‘Rocky IV’

Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa faces off against Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago of the U.S.S.R. in 1985's “Rocky IV.” (MGM/UA/Kobal/Shutterstock)

The “Evil Empire” is back — or is it?

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has resurrected an irresistible narrative: Russia as villain. It’s a return to a time when Americans were good guys, Russians were bad guys and everything was black and white and red all over.

Suddenly, it’s once again acceptable to reject all things Russian. In addition to the oil import ban and company boycotts, Moscow Mules are now Kyiv Mules in a toast to solidarity. The Paralympics barred Russian athletes. Russia’s leader has been meme-ified as “Sadamir Putin” or Lord Voldemort, while Sen. Mitt Romney called him “a small, feral-eyed man.”

“This is not just a fight between Ukraine and Russia,” former White House National Security Council official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman said last week. “This is a fight between good and evil. This is a fight between democracy and authoritarianism.”

And it’s a familiar fight, especially for a generation that grew up on a steady diet of anti-Russia agitprop: in headlines (the McCarthy hearings), in schools where kids ducked under laminate desks in case of Russian nuclear attack, and in books, movies and TV shows that reinforced every stereotype. Rocky and Bullwinkle battled cartoon villains Boris and Natasha. James Bond thwarted dangerous masterminds working for the U.S.S.R. Rocky Balboa prevailed against the Soviets’ fiercest boxer. It was all very scary and very heady.

“By having an enemy that was all bad, I got to see myself as all virtuous,” said Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent and co-creator of the acclaimed FX series “The Americans.” “And I got to avoid, deny and run away from any sides to myself or my country that were troubled or problematic or dark. I also got a related mission: I got something to focus on, something to care about, something to give meaning to my life because I got to be a soldier for the good guys.”

Then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the heroes and villains were redefined. A new generation of Americans and Russians looked at the Cold War as a relic of the bad old days.

In the course of just two weeks, Putin has taken us back 60 years.

Russia was “our number one enemy,” said Weisberg, 56. “The average person on the street knew about it and cared. Even now, in the middle of a really terrible crisis, you see the interest rising considerably — but I don’t think it even approaches the way people were obsessed during the Cold War.”

While post-World War II parents anxiously watched the news — the nation came to a standstill during the Cuban missile crisis — their kids got their cues from pop culture. Weisberg first encountered Russians on the Rocky and Bullwinkle animated series, which debuted in 1959. The flying squirrel and his moose sidekick tangled with Boris and Natasha, spies from “Pottsylvania.” It was funny and satiric, he said, but also troubling that small children were taught “that somebody with that accent was that nefarious. So you start from there.”

As a young adult, he was especially influenced by the movie “Red Dawn.” The 1984 film pitted Soviets soldiers invading the United States against a group of American high school students. “For me, that was my greatest fantasy, exactly what I wanted: The Soviets to invade, and then somebody could give me a gun and send me into the woods with a bunch of my friends to fight them.”

A year later, Sylvester Stallone starred in “Rocky IV,” where Rocky and the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago went mano a mano for their countries. Despite mediocre reviews, it was a huge hit, earning $300 million worldwide, one of the most successful sports movies of the Cold War period. (Rocky not only defeats Drago but earns the respect of the Russians.)

When Weisberg spent a couple years in the CIA, he bought into the “evil empire” narrative about the U.S.S.R. It wasn’t until he read a memoir by a former KGB officer that he developed a more nuanced view: “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy and his friends remind me of me and my friends from the CIA. They don’t seem like sort of dark knights fighting for the evil empire. They seem like patriots and idealists and people who want to support their countries.’ It’s sort of embarrassing to talk about it, because that shouldn’t have been such a shock. But it was.”

That insight was the inspiration for “The Americans,” which debuted in 2013, ran for six seasons and was hailed for its sophisticated exploration of two undercover KGB spies living near Washington during the Reagan administration. His book, “Russia Upside Down,” released in September, argued that our relationship with Russia is doomed as long as Americans buy into the good guys/bad guys worldview.

But perhaps nuance is overrated, especially for millions of fans who inhaled Cold War spy thrillers by John le Carre, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Fans believed the novels were thinly veiled accounts of actual spy stories when, in fact, they took place in fictionalized worlds with just enough inside details to feel real. There is moral ambivalence and some soul-searching from the protagonists. But the Russians are always, in ways big and small, the villains.

Consider the success of the iconic James Bond, who became the most famous spy in the world thanks to Ian Fleming’s novels and the many films.

“James Bond’s obsession with Russia has long signaled Western discontent with its Soviet enemy of old; indeed, the Bond franchise has always been at its most lewdly outlandish and political confrontational when it has Bond facing down Mother Russia,” emailed Ian Kinane, a professor of popular literature and culture at the University of Roehampton and the founding editor of the International Journal of James Bond Studies.

“From the toad-like Rosa Klebb in ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963) and the slippery General Koskov in ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987), to the lunacy of Stephen Berkoff’s General Orlov in ‘Octopussy’ (1983) and rampant sexual acrobatics of Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp in ‘Goldeneye’ (1995), Bond’s Russian adversaries have always been veritable parody,” he said. “Beneath the hyperbole, however, lies Ian Fleming’s deeply troubling concern with the operations of SMERSH, the umbrella counterintelligence organization of the Red Army, and the primary antagonists of Fleming’s early Cold War Bond thrillers.”

In “From Russia with Love,” (one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books), the Soviets plot to ensnare Bond in a political sex scandal to discredit him and the West. Bond deftly thwarts the Soviets’ plans while avoiding open conflict. “All-out war is not the British way — or, at least not the British way of the Bond universe,” explained Kinane. “Bond outwits the Russians rather than outmuscles them, and effectively scuppers the Soviets’ designs on Western destabilization.”

Of course, this genre requires heroes and villains, high stakes and a satisfying ending with the good guys prevailing, usually by saving the world from some terrible threat. Real life is not so neat.

But real life provided the foundation for every pop culture depiction of Russia.

The McCarthy hearings, the Cuban missile crisis and arms race underscored an existential threat. But in many ways, it was the simple stories that resonated deeper: Ballet star Rudolf Nureyev defected in 1961; Mikhail Baryshnikov followed in 1974. Both men became international sensations.

“If you were going to doubt your black-and-white thinking, here was evidence that you shouldn’t,” said Weisberg. “All these great people — artists and scientists and diplomats — just wanted to go from the bad country to the good country.”

Others cite Nobel Prize laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” which has been called the most damning indictment of the Soviet system ever written. The book, published in English in 1974, influenced a generation of Western scholars; the exiled Solzhenitsyn was hailed as a global hero. What many people forget is that the dissident still loved Russia: He returned in 1994 and remained there until his death in 2008.

But if you’re going to pick one moment in the Cold War that encapsulated everything Americans wanted to believe, it was the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Team USA — a group of young amateurs — went up against the U.S.S.R. team, with its professional players and repeated gold medalists. The 4-3 upset in the semifinals ( “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” exalted announcer Al Michaels) made global headlines; in 1999, the game topped Sports Illustrated’s list of 100 greatest moments in sports history.

Best-selling author David Baldacci, 61, watched all of this and more. “I grew up thinking the Soviet Union wanted to destroy us,” he said. “I saw that through TV. I saw it through books, I saw it through movies.” Baldacci was a poli-sci major in college; “The Gulag Archipelago” changed his understanding of Russia. “But it was a clear decision back then: It was good versus evil, almost like Hitler versus the Allies.”

And yet, when it came to his post-Soviet thrillers, Baldacci rejected what he considered a simplistic approach to U.S.-Russian relations. His 2008 novel “The Whole Truth” is about a corrupt arms dealer who distributes a fake Russian video to spark a new Cold War. “I’ve had Russians acting on behalf of other countries or other organizations because of the skill level they developed working for the Soviet Union, the KGB and its successor,” he said. “I certainly haven’t used Russia as a main foil in most of my books because it seemed like a tired formula for me.”

Watching this invasion, he believes we haven’t returned to the heightened state of his childhood. “Obviously, Americans look at Putin and Russia and say, ‘I understand what he’s doing in Ukraine and it’s a lot of bad stuff, but it’s never going to affect us. It might make our gas prices a little bit higher, but it’s not like Putin is ever going to invade America.’ So it doesn’t seem like the threat is as real.”

Another change: Despite Putin’s media crackdown and disinformation campaign, there are signs that many Russians do not support this invasion.

“I don’t know if it’s the people in the streets in Moscow demonstrating for peace or the fact that there’s Internet and connectivity with other people in the world, but there seems to be a very distinctive demarcation now between the Russian government and the Russian people that may not have been present before,” said Stuart Holliday, CEO of the Meridian International Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes global diplomacy. “I think a lot of Russians are asking themselves why Putin is doing this.”

Weisberg got an email this week from a 30-year-old Russian friend who conveyed to him: “My generation sees through the lies about this war and your generation doesn’t. And it’s just a generational divide.”

“Evil” empire? Or just “evil” Putin? If history is any guide, we won’t know until this war ends.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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