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Russian language and Russians on American TV and movies

My wife is Russian and I am American. We live in the United States and we've noticed something about the way Russian is used in American films and on TV.

As far as the language goes, most of it is horrible. Hollywood assumes that Americans don't speak Russian. Frequently the actors don't speak Russian at all and are just reading lines that have been written out phonetically. My wife can't even understand what they are saying. Shows and movies that aim a little higher use actors who speak Russian but with accents. The most common case seems to be American children of Russian Immigrants. Sometimes they have Ukranian or Czechoslovakian accents according to my wife.

The show that gets our award for consistently using actors portraying Russians who actually speak Russian well is the HBO series the Sopranos.

But this leads me to the way Russians are portrayed on American television. Almost always they are portrayed as mobsters and the women as prostitutes. In some cases this is very relevant to the overall plot (again the Sopranos comes to mind) and isn't as offensive. But I believe that many Hollywood writers are lazy. When they want a villain that they don't have to explain or justify, they stick in a Russian mobster. After the 9/11 attacks they used Arabs and Muslims, (and shows like 24 still do), but then they realized how racist they were being to the 1.5 billion Muslims. They don't seem to have any qualms about replacing Muslims with Russians, however.

If you know any positive depictions of Russians on American TV or in Hollywood films, please respond here. My wife and I would like to know about it. The best example we came up with is the character Nikolai on the HBO series Six Feet Under. Of course, he was played by Ed O'Ross an American of Czechoslovakian descent, but at least he played a florist and not a mobster.

November 24, 2015



After reading all your interesting responses, my wife and I were working on a crossword puzzle together. One of the clues was "thugs", 8 letters, and we had "R U _ _ _ _." I went ballistic, "This is too much! It's racist!" Of course, the answer turned out to be RUFFIANS. :-)


I was about to get offended on behalf of our Russian friends until I got to the end! Good one.


I haven't seen all of the show, but The Americans on FX is about a family of Russian spies and there is a LOT of spoken Russian (although the main cast is never really required to speak much of it). Because the show is about spies, it definitely plays into the stereotype, but the characters are more relatable than the theme would suggest. Check it out!


One of my happiest moments as a learner was when there was a Russian scene on the Americans without subtitles and I understood the plot points that were conveyed! It's a great show.

There was a similar show called Allegiance last season but it was cancelled (maybe still available online). That show was set in modern day NY and there was a Russian family that had spies working for both the US and Russia. Most of the Russian was terrible because it was spoken by American actors.

I heard that Orange is the New Black has Russians in it too, but I've never watched it.


I second this, although I have only seen the first season or two. There are a lot of shades of grey in that show, and even though the main characters are Soviet spies pretending to be Americans (and even hiding the truth from their own children!) they are very sympathetic and likable characters.


The Americans has Frank Langella as Gabriel in the supporting cast (Season 3, acc. to Wikipedia), who has already played two Princes of Darkness in the movies, Richard Nixon and Skeletor, and probably is pretty good, although I've never heard his attempts at speaking Russian.


The Russian bad guy stereotype dates from the Cold War. However, because Russia and the US were allied during WWII, some WWII movies show Russians in a positive light.

Although I haven't watched either of them (and I'm not a movie person myself), I would recommend (from what I've read on the internet) 2010 (which is the sequel to 1968's 2001, A Space Odyssey) or Moscow on the Hudson (about a Soviet circus musician who defects while visiting the US). Both date from 1984, prior to perestroika.


Thanks for the input.


No prob. Glad to help.


My favourite Russian-language moment in a Hollywood film: Какие ваши доказательства? - Кокаинум!

Initially the script had "Чем докажете? - Кокаином!". Perfectly normal use of instrumental case. But then they replaced the question with "Какие ваши доказательства?". Now instrumental case doesn't make sense and the answer sounds like a weird Latin word "кокаинум". Combined with the hilariously bad acting, this scene becomes very funny, so funny that it is in fact an Internet meme.

(Sorry if it's a bit offtopic, but I think Arnold plays a positive character in this film, right?)


Hehe, I was thinking about Red Heat too. What's funny is Arnold has an Austrian accent!

I also liked the relation between the two bad guys in 15 Minutes, because one is Russian and the other is Czech.


If I find one, I'll tell you - very few exist. And some of the Russian I see on screen sounds like gobbledegook, regardless of how often I listen.

ETA: I do think it's often the people behind the scenes who are at fault, re the language; I mean, it depends on the role, but very few actors are going to learn a whole language just for their character to speak it once or twice, especially on long running shows when they're working full out for 9 months of the year. But seriously, some of the stuff I hear, it's like the writers put it through Google translate (or something less reliable...) and then copied it out phonetically, and didn't even bother to get anything close to right. I'm pretty sure I could do a better job.

What really makes me laugh is when characters make wild claims about being mistaken for a native in X, Y or Z language, and then you listen to them, and sometimes (even with languages I can't even speak), it's so painfully awful and so obvious that they would never be mistaken for a native, or sometimes even understood by one.

I guess generally they can get away with it because such a huge proportion of their audience are happy monoglots, but I find it seriously frustrating :-/


It was quite funny in one of the installations of "Mission Impossible". There, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise's character) is mistaken for a native by a Russian prisoner while sharing a cell for months. The thing is, while Tom Cruise's pronunciation is often passable, the supposedly "Russian" cellmate does not ever sound convincing (and sometimes even hard to understand). No wonder Ethan was mistaken for a local ;).


... well I suppose that is at least an original way to screw it up! Wow, that's really unfortunate, though kind of funny, too. It's bad enough when people are claimed to speak like a native, but when the "native" can't... 8-o Oh my LOL


That's pretty hilarious.


It's called клюква (literally cranberries) when representatives are depicted with a set of stereotypes.


Have you seen The Americans? It's quite good TV drama about Russian spies living under cover in America during Cold War. They even made some КГБ characters likeable... and that is really something.

Hollywood Stereotypes about Russians (Parody) with English/Portuguese captions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5KYZb178kI

The Americans' Refreshingly Real Take on Russians http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/the-americans-refreshingly-real-take-on-russians/371471/


As a Russian who lived in the US, I can only confirm that the accents are horrible and that Russians are stereotyped. Baryshnikov (from Sex and the City) has played in a few recent movies, in some of which he speaks Russian - perfectly, of course. I also recall "Russian bride" from early 2000, where Nicole Kidman speaks rather good Russian, which is striking since her supporting actors from Eastern Europe fail miserably in this respect.


I remember being impressed with Kidman, too. She obviously worked really hard on her Russian for that role, and it showed. It's been a while since I watched it, but I remember her Russian was about a thousand times better than I ever saw any non Russophone actor produce before or since.


The movie with Kidman is called Birthday Girl. I saw it years ago, before I was learning Russian, so I don't remember how well she spoke it (I won't spoil the plot, but it wasn't a positive portrayal of Russians), but I do remember reading that she actually tried to learn the grammar and not just recite phonetic dialogue.

I could swear that Baryshnikov was speaking French on Sex on the City, not Russian. I would definitely be interested if you can remember the movies in which he speaks Russian. I loved the Turning Point back in the 80s.


He does speak French there. Not a word of Russian as far as I remember and I've seen that show more times than I care to admit ;)


Cate Blanchett's character in The Man Who Cried? My young daughter has a Russian dad and is starting to notice what you wrote about above.


Thank you for all the comments. We will definitely try and check out some of the shows and films you mentioned. I did think of another film to add to the list, the Cold War era (1966), film: The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. Except for the sub-commander, the Russian isn't great, but the film attempts to highlight the shared humanity of both Russians and Americans at a time when tensions were very high.


If you enjoy military action films or are familiar with the movie "Full Metal Jacket", I would lead you to the Russian film "9 рота". You can watch it all on youtube


Curiously, I thought not of Hollywood film or TV-show but of the computer game )) There is a Russian character in "Starcraft: BroodWar" (And then he appears again in "Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm"). His name is Alexey Stukov (Алексей Стуков). He was slandered by real bad guy so, that his friend counted him (I mean - Alexey) a betrayer but actually he was the first one who revealed that bad guy could not be trusted ))) A quite positive character ))

And as for "Russian" language in American movies. I have seen the 2004 animation "Coraline" in English. I really love this movie, respect all its creators, but... There is one character named Mr. Bobinsky and he periodically uses in his speech "Russian" words. Well... I did not have an idea what does mean the word "новисир" until he explained it to Coraline (He wanted to say "новый сыр" - "a new cheese"). As well as I was wondering in what connection with him are the flies ("мушка-s") until he translated them to English and it turned out, that he spoke about the mice ("мышки") )))


They've tried to do some proper Russian in "Madam Secretary," but failed miserably. OTOH, I don't expect much from Hollywood and/or American TV in general after the "reset" debacle.


The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming 1966


Thanks, I mentioned that above. Great film.


Sorry. I read slowly:)


We have noticed this trend as well, and we don't like it. I wrote a novel with a Russian man as a good guy/love interest and some of my critique partners were not very open to that idea (telling me Russian men are terrible husbands, asking when I will reveal the truth that this man is evil, etc). I was shocked.

White Nights is an older film, but it is fair to the Russian character, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Great dancing, too!


Wow, that's sad :-/


Eastern Promises, despite featuring a stereotypical "Russian mafia" setting, depicts several positive characters.


A video game example: Vadim and Yefim Bobrov (while only having been confirmed as being "of Slavic descent") from Fallout 4 are certainly shown in positive light and seem like an inversion on the trope. Heck, the mafioso/bad guy stereotype is even made fun of when you first meet Vadim.


This is a disney movie: Anastasia

I'd say the only bad guy it depicts is Rasputin but everyone else seemed like good russian guys.


It's still historically inaccurate and borders on tasteless. It blames the Russian Revolution on Rasputin (when he was allied with the Romanovs) and portrays pre-revolutionary Russia as a paradise while ignoring the rampant poverty, repression, and antisemitism.

[deactivated user]

    as a English native-speaking Briton, i find the exact opposite annoying, Russians trying to speak English, most like you said are still reading out phonetic words

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