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This Mega-Hit US Series about Russian Spies is Slick Russophobia (The Americans)

Just renewed for a 4th season, The Americans is a huge critical and popular success, with the latest season getting an unusual 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic saying: "one of the best runs of episodes in TV drama history."[49]   

Oh, yeah, and it's produced and conceived of by a former CIA agent, and it happens to be really Russophobic

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The author is writing a series of articles for RI about propaganda in the entertainment media.  He maintains a website called Prole Center, dedicated to advancing socialist ideas.

The Cold War is back, and it makes for great television!

<figcaption>The CIA had nothing to do with making this...</figcaption>
The CIA had nothing to do with making this...

If you like cloak-and-dagger tales with plenty of suspense and intrigue then look no further than The Americans; just get ready for a heavy dose of propaganda to go with your entertainment.

In The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are KGB spies posing as a normal American couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the early 1980’s.

According to the blog put out by the International Spy Museum, a biased history of espionage exhibit and clumsy attempt at whitewashing the CIA’s image, the show strikes a chord because it is supposedly based on reality! They go on to explain the grave threat posed by the Soviet Union’s espionage activities in the past as well as Russia’s ongoing efforts. We also get a rehash of the bogus propaganda line of how America is shiny and free, contrasted with the drab and oppressive Soviet Union.

Some will wonder, though, how can this show be considered anti-communist or anti-Russian propaganda when the protagonists are KGB spies? Being immune to nuance or subtlety as well as suffering from paranoid delusions, American conservatives actually consider the show to be communist propaganda! In reality, the opposite is true. If you really understand just what a true conservative is, there is no mystery as to why they would not get this type of propaganda approach. A true conservative sees everything in terms of black and white; they have no understanding of nuance or shades of gray. They don’t think it’s cute or clever to have “godless commies” presented as the good guys; they are not going to comprehend the deeper meaning.

An article on the popular right-wing blog, The Blaze, made this quite clear, as did most of the folks posting in the comments section. There was bafflement, outrage and charges of an ongoing liberal conspiracy to turn America into a socialist country. However, one commenter tried to explain. He or she correctly pointed out that throughout the show the KGB is portrayed as ruthless and evil, while the FBI out to catch the enemy spies are obviously portrayed as the good guys. US society is shown in a positive light and the economy is efficient and productive with plenty of consumer goods. Furthermore, as the series progresses (SPOILER), we see both of the KGB spies begin to come to either appreciate the wonderful life available in the US and/or become disillusioned with the Soviet Union due to the nefarious activities (such as killing innocent people - including an old lady!) that they are ordered to do by their KGB superiors.

As this individual pointed out in his comments, Philip observes about the US, “the lights are always on and the food is pretty good.” Elizabeth, his wife, is more disciplined and devoted to “the cause” (there is rare mention of socialism by name) as she puts it, but even she begins to have doubts and difficulties in doing her job.

And so, far from glorifying communism and the KGB, the show is actually promoting anti-communist and anti-Russian sentiment in a somewhat subtle and clever way. You will never get a hardcore conservative right-winger to understand that, but the point is this particular type of propaganda is not meant for them – it is actually meant primarily for liberals. Entertainment propaganda of this sort is meant to ensnare those who are feared to be just open-minded enough to possibly be sympathetic to another point of view and potentially attracted to progressive ideas.

You have to speak to your audience in a language that they understand. In storytelling there are two main types of protagonists – there are heroes and there are anti-heroes. Conservatives prefer heroes while anti-heroes appeal more to less conservative, and frankly, more mature and realistic people. The hero is larger than life; he or she may have some slight flaws, but the total package is something akin to a demi-god figure like Hercules. A hero will have a very straightforward purpose and moral code and selflessly fight to the bitter end to achieve the greater good and destroy the bad guys. The anti-hero, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous, flawed and complex - like a real person.

As the website, Writer’s Digest, points out an anti-hero will generally be unorthodox and have significant weaknesses and yet, being the protagonist of the story, he will be sympathetically portrayed. The anti-hero “reflects society’s confusion and ambivalence about morality . . . [his] actions and ways of thinking demand that the reader think about issues and ask difficult questions.” For this reason, this type of character is perfect for social or political commentary. Also, the reasons why the anti-hero behaves in a certain way, and his self-concept, are vitally important to the theme or moral of the story. 

Conservatives respond much more favorably to propaganda that features a hero and a story that is simple and straightforward - good guys versus bad guys. On the other hand, with the anti-hero as the protagonist you get an EPOV (Enemy Point of View) which appeals to more socially liberal and left-leaning people. In this way, the ruling class uses the additional powerful propaganda tactic of pretending to give all political perspectives an equal and fair hearing.

This type of propaganda also serves to dredge up in the American psyche old feelings of fear and hatred cultivated during the Cold War that can be used to direct hostility toward Russia today.

In the minds of most Americans, Russia and the former Soviet Union will be forever inextricably linked.



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