How Russia and the US conducted propaganda against each other in cinema


At the end of February, the New York Times published an article entitled ‘The Spy War: How the CIA Secretly Helps Ukraine Fight Putin’. The article goes into detail describing relations between the Ukrainian special services and the CIA, which has been training elite Ukrainian special forces since 2016, and helped create secret bases and underground bunkers that are still functioning. The main idea of the article is that American aid has allowed Ukraine to hold on and continue resisting.

One might say this is no secret to anyone, but the very fact that a systemic pro-government publication openly published information that could previously be called a ‘conspiracy theory’ is important. Today, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we see a new round of confrontation between the special services of Moscow and Washington. And although many people will perceive this as a showdown between the powerful that is unrelated to their everyday lives, foreign policy has influenced and will influence the lives of any country’s citizens. And it affects their cultural life as well.

The ideological confrontation between the US and the USSR began to be reflected in cinema in the first half of the 20th century. Later, with the beginning of the Cold War, the role of cinema on the propaganda front became decisive. Let’s look at how relations between Russia and the US affected the cinematography of both countries, and how cinema aided and abetted in this confrontation.

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How the Cold War in cinema began

Back in the pre-war years, Soviet cinema produced spy films in which certain sabotage or espionage groups tried to disrupt the USSR’s plans to build communism. But since the young state was opposed to capitalism in general, the nationality of the spies was not important. Anyone could act as villains. For example, in the 1924 film ‘Four and Five’, a Soviet pilot battles against five spies who want to steal a militarily significant invention. The film does not go into specifics or say where the spies came from, but it was clear to any viewer that these were agents of Western capitalism.

Though the spy genre was also actively developing in the US, movies produced in this vein were purely for entertainment and did not carry any serious political overtones. Alfred Hitchcock, who shot the fascinating picture ‘The 39 Steps’ – full of chases, plots, and special agents – also loved this genre.

However, everything changed after the Second World War, when the world was divided into two camps. The US began to fight the USSR for spheres of influence, and Hollywood – having received a specific image of the enemy – very quickly retooled and began to produce films with Cold War themes.

The first film that directly addressed the Cold War was ‘The Iron Curtain’, which appeared in 1948. It is based on the memoirs of Soviet GRU agent Igor Guzenko, who worked as a cryptographer at the USSR Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. Three days after the end of World War II, on September 5, 1945, Guzenko stole documents containing information from Soviet agents and handed them over to the Canadian side in exchange for asylum.


It is curious that ‘The Iron Curtain’ was criticized in the US at the time. A New York Times critic called the movie provocative, and expressed concern that Hollywood had decided to get involved in the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the Soviet side was the same, but it was expressed more openly. Moreover, the picture caused a scandal in the music world. The film used works by Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Aram Khachaturian. Shostakovich even filed a lawsuit in a New York court for copyright protection, but the court rejected it, since according to Soviet law, the composer’s music was a national treasure.

Despite the criticism in the press, ‘The Iron Curtain’ raked in money at the box office and turned out to be the film that broke the dam. Hollywood stopped being shy and began to produce movies about the Cold War and Soviet spies with enviable regularity. A year later, ‘The Red Danube’ was released to the big screen – a story of Soviet citizens who found themselves in the occupation zone of Western countries and were returned to their homeland after the war. Naturally, the picture showed a lot of people who did not want to return to the USSR. Some even hid from the special services and feared the NKVD and repression.


In 1950, the science fiction film ‘The Flying Saucer’ was released. Despite its name, it wasn’t about aliens, but a struggle between Soviet and American special services to obtain a flying saucer that had been designed and built by a brilliant American scientist.

The Soviet response

Curiously, the Soviet response was not symmetrical. Filmmakers did not set out to expose the CIA and other American agencies directly. Also, we must not forget that the country had just weathered the Great Patriotic War, so the lion’s share of spy genre films was about the fight against fascists. Soviet cinema produced several outstanding spy movies: ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’, ‘Shield and Sword’, ‘Variant Omega’, ‘Secret Agent’, and others.

However, there was also a place for the modern agenda. So, in 1950, ‘Conspiracy of the Doomed’ appeared on Soviet screens – about a plot by Western special services to eliminate the prime minister of an Eastern European republic, and how the USSR came to the aid of the young communists.

‘Secret Mission’, released the same year, deserves more attention. This is a rare case when Soviet intelligence directly takes on its American counterpart, and not some collective image of Western spies. ‘Secret Mission’ takes place in the last days of the war. Soviet intelligence receives information that the CIA is going to hold secret negotiations with the Third Reich on a Western-Front surrender – which, of course, makes the leadership nervous. The USSR gives two agents the task of finding out what the US is demanding from Germany, and how this will affect the situation for the Soviet Union.


Nevertheless, there were very few such cases in the history of Soviet cinema. As a rule, some collective ‘Western intelligence’ acted as antagonists, whose plans were thwarted by the protagonists, mainly due to the superiority of the ideas of internationalism, collectivism, and socialism.

Hollywood acted in a more targeted manner, and even in 1963, part of the Bond film ‘From Russia with Love’ was completely dedicated to the confrontation with the KGB.

However, there was no unanimous opinion among American filmmakers, and therefore satirical movies condemning the Cold War were also released in the US.


Propaganda peace and war

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece ‘Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, remains one of the clearest examples of anti-war cinema. This was Kubrick’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had rocked the whole world a year earlier, when the planet was on the verge of an armed nuclear conflict. It is necessary to give credit to Kubrick, who took the book ‘Red Alert’ by American writer Peter George as his film’s basis. The novel was written in a serious tone and left no doubt as to who the good guys and bad guys were, clearly dividing the characters into US protagonists and Soviet antagonists. Kubrick turned a propaganda book into an anti-war manifesto, exposing the powerful in any country as manic psychopaths who take pleasure in nuclear weapons.

Also deserving of attention is the comedy ‘The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming’ by Norman Jewison, which came out in 1966. The film openly ridicules the mood of panic that ordinary people in small American towns easily succumb to. The picture begins with a Soviet submarine running aground off the coast of Massachusetts. Russian sailors disembark to find equipment to free the submarine from the shoal. On recognizing the sailors as Soviet, the Americans fall into an unimaginable panic, conjuring up horrific images of an imminent attack by the USSR. Jewison shot a witty comedy of the absurd, and received recognition from his American peers – the film was nominated for four Academy Awards.


It is not a coincidence that two such important anti-war films were released after the outbreak of US hostilities in Vietnam. The Vietnam War greatly changed the mood in American society, and depictions of spies, where brilliant CIA agents save the world from evil KGB agents, gradually began to go out of fashion. People were naturally concerned about events that affected them personally.

At the time, the US government was making attempts to sway public opinion in favor of the war, but was unsuccessful. In 1968, ‘Green Berets’ was released, in which a journalist arrives at a base in South Vietnam and gradually rethinks the role of the US in the conflict and understands the need for American troops to participate. The legendary Western hero John Wayne even starred in the film, but that didn’t help. The picture was mercilessly panned not only around the world, but also at home, with critics ridiculing the obvious pro-Vietnam War propaganda.


The end of the Cold War

A temporary truce on the Cold War front persisted until about the mid-80s, when a crisis of power occurred in the USSR after the death of Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev. The change of three secretary-generals in three years could not but affect the economic and political stability of the Soviet Union, and this fact was used by Hollywood filmmakers. And when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan struck a political course towards rapprochement, it became fashionable in Hollywood to make films advocating friendship between the superpowers and depicting ‘good Russians’. ‘Rocky 4’, ‘Red Heat’, and ‘Red Scorpion’ carry a universally peaceful message and speak out for ending the Cold War.

But, as always, the devil is in the details. It was at that time that the expression ‘cranberries’ became popular in the USSR, and later in Russia. This referred to the methods American filmmakers used to portray Soviet people. The Americans’ near-colonial attitude towards Russians was evident in every film like this. Russian people appeared on the screen as simple, narrow-minded fools. Thus, the idea was planted in the viewer’s mind that an American victory in the Cold War would benefit not only the US, but also the poor, intimidated, impoverished Soviet people.

The 1984 film ‘Red Dawn’ directed by John Milius stands apart. Milius is primarily known for writing the screenplays of the outstanding classics ‘Jaws’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’. But in 1984, he sat down in the director’s chair and shot a candid ‘cranberry’ about a Soviet attack on the US. In the film, Soviet troops invade America and build re-education camps for US citizens. Meanwhile, high school students assemble a guerrilla group to confront the invaders. Today, ‘Red Dawn’ is viewed like Tommy Wiseau’s comedy ‘The Room’ – a film is so bad it’s good. Even at the time of its release, it was impossible to watch without a smile. It is also noteworthy that the film starred a young Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and the future ‘Back to the Future’ star Leah Thompson.


Meanwhile, in the USSR, the mood in the cinema was changing slowly. In 1986, ‘The End of Operation Resident’ was released to screen – the last instalment in an espionage tetralogy about a battle between Soviet and Western special services, which began back in 1968. The film was received coolly by critics. Many compared it unfavorably with the first three, but viewers were generally happy, as they finally got to see how the fate of the characters they loved turned out.

In 1987, the movie ‘Zagon’ appeared, which pitted Soviet agents against CIA operatives in a struggle to gain possession of a deposit of a strategically important mineral. Perhaps it was ‘Zagon’ that put an end to Soviet Cold War films. After its release, cinematographers no longer touched on this topic until the collapse of the USSR.


A new round

The 1990s and early 2000s turned out to be the calmest in the cinematic confrontation between Russia and the US. The stable relationship between the countries did not give rise to a sharp or topical plots. Even NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia failed to kick off a new round, although relations would never be the same after 1999.

Everything changed dramatically after 2014, with Crimea’s decision to rejoin Russia. Russian filmmakers did not wait for the appearance of American spy films about faceoffs with the CIA and other special services, but immediately began to produce films and TV series in this genre. Already in 2014, the film ‘The Soul of a Spy’ was released, which is an adaptation of a novel by Soviet intelligence officer Mikhail Lyubimov. In the story, a Russian intelligence officer tries to track down a mole in England who is working for the American special services.

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In 2017, director Yuri Bykov shot the spy series ‘Sleepers’, which exposes a large-scale plan by Western special services, involving events that, at first glance, seem unrelated. In 2019, the series ‘Spy No. 1’ came out – about how the CIA and the FBI tried to uncover a Russian superintelligence agent in the early 90s, while the Russian side conducts an operation to secure him.

The cloak-and-dagger theme was revived this year with the release of ‘GDR’. The series, shot in a retro genre, depicts the events of the autumn of 1989 – the most important period in the history of modern Germany (on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell). According to the plot, Soviet and American special services fight to obtain the secret archives of the GDR during the collapse of the socialist regime.

Hollywood has not lagged far behind its Russian counterparts. In 2014, the movie ‘Child 44’ starring Tom Hardy was released, which was originally a crime thriller about the capture of a maniac in the USSR in 1953. The film did not receive rental certificate in Russia and turned out to be a flop in the US. Even American critics called it “an attempt to revive old-school Cold War propaganda.”

However, it soon became clear that ‘Child 44’ was just a touchstone. In 2018, ‘Red Sparrow’ starring Jennifer Lawrence was released, and although it didn’t get high ratings from critics, it was more favorably received. In 2019, in the third season of the highly popular Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’, events revolved entirely around secret Soviet bases in the US. The season was well-received – and critics refrained from labeling it as propaganda because the creators rushed to assure everyone that it was a Cold War satire, with the events taking place in 1985. And the series ‘The Americans’, which ran from 2013 to 2018, features KGB sleeper agents in the US during the Cold War. That project won universal recognition and a large number of awards.

Today, the big-screen race between Hollywood and the Russian film industry is in full swing. This is neither good nor bad. In the end, the manufacturer is trying to create a product that the viewer will buy, and the viewer is looking for what he is interested in now. Russian-American relations have become one of the main topics on the agenda of both countries in recent years. Just take the ubiquitous ‘Russian hackers’, who purportedly helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. Demand creates supply, and this rule is followed by filmmakers from both countries.