May 2017 Media and Reviews

Review: The Americans and “Knowing” Russia in the Age of Trump

In the fourth episode of the current season of FX’s widely acclaimed Cold War drama The Americans, Karl Marx appears for the first time in the series.

by Abby Holekamp

In the fourth episode of the current season of FX’s widely acclaimed Cold War drama The Americans, Karl Marx appears for the first time in the series. No, not as some kind of Ghost of Communism Past (though I would definitely watch that show) but rather as a metonym for the Soviet Union. Paige Jennings arrives to babysit for the unfortunate Pastor Tim and his wife, who all share a secret: Paige’s parents, Philip and Elizabeth, are actually K.G.B. agents under deep cover. Pastor Tim asks a tense Paige how things are going with her parents; as she answers, inspiration strikes Pastor Tim. He goes to grab a copy of Capital off a bookshelf in the adjacent room and brings it to Paige.

Pastor Tim: This might help you understand them a little bit.
Paige: Marx? I thought he hated religion.
Pastor Tim: Uh, h-he did. But he was pretty great on class and poverty.
Paige: Are these your notes?
Pastor Tim: Mm-hmm. It’s from college. Here. “Labor is therefore not voluntary but coerced. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need. It is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.”
Paige: What?
Pastor Tim: All right, just— read the book.

Pastor Tim reading Capital. Courtesy of The Americans.

This scene made me laugh when I first watched it (though maybe that’s just my Russian historian sense of humor). On its face, the idea that reading Capital will help Paige better understand her parents seems absurd and in keeping with the way the entire run of The Americans has painted Pastor Tim as a character the audience should find at least a bit ridiculous. But when considered in the context of how people were receiving and processing information about the Cold War at the time, his advice to Paige in this scene makes more sense.

The essential question of how people gain information and formulate knowledge runs all through The Americans. And as I’ll point out in a bit, it’s also a vital question with regards to Russia in today’s political climate.

Of course spies like Elizabeth and Philip deal in information. It’s the Jennings’ job to gather intel and decide how to act on it, with the input of their handlers and K.G.B. higher-ups in Moscow. Many of the The Americans plot lines revolve not only around this gathering of information, such as the literal collection of biological weapon samples gathered by scientist and fellow K.G.B.-agent-under-deep-cover William last season, or the multi-season saga of scientist Anton Baklanov, who defected to the United States only to be kidnapped and taken back to the Soviet Union to work in a closed sharashka, as in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle (В круге первом, 1968). In this season, the Jennings’ activity revolves around the question of acquiring U.S.-developed pest-resistant wheat to ease Soviet food-supply problems.

But if this were the only type of information The Americans was interested in, it would be merely a middle-of-the-road spy drama. What makes it compelling to my mind is, rather, how these questions of information are just as important in the inner lives of our characters as in the procedural parts of the show. There’s not a character on the show about whom we the audience aren’t constantly wondering what they do and don’t know, what they might suspect, what they refuse to consider (poor Martha!). This is especially true of the characters who seem to occupy a liminal space—think of Gregory, the black-activist-turned-K.G.B.-asset in season one, Elizabeth’s South African informant Hans, or Nina, re-doubled Soviet agent. Or especially Paige. In the final scene of the season three finale, “March 8, 1983,” she is curled into a corner of her bedroom, on the phone with Pastor Tim. Her parents are liars, she tells him, and she can’t take it anymore. In that moment, she can’t keep up such a stark dichotomy in her own life; existing in a truly liminal space is difficult and enervating.

Martha, the Americans
Martha staring at a meager dinner in the Soviet Union. Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.

“March 8, 1983” references specifically the date of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the handful of historical touchstones that have played a major thematic role in an episode of the show. This particular season-ending episode closes with a news clip of the speech reverberating—“they are the focus of evil in the modern world” (we hear crackling applause)—through Philip and Elizabeth’s bedroom as the screen cuts to black, and is intercut with shots of the distressed Paige in her bedroom.

This arresting sequence illustrates a clear shift away from how the show’s first season focused with particular sharpness on historical events and historical figures. Those episode synopses read as if the characters were being inserted into a history book: the Jennings plant and monitor a bug in Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s house; the K.G.B. and F.B.I. react to the attempted assassination of President Reagan. The risk in this approach (that we also see, for example, in Law and Order’s “ripped from the headlines” modus operandi) is that the more a TV show emphasizes events that actually happened and people who actually existed, the more likely we are to ask: “Is this historically accurate?” And few questions are more likely to take us out of what is going on inside a character. Later seasons of The Americans are painted with broader strokes, historically speaking; there is an evolution away from such explicit invocation of particular historical moments. However, strong resonances remain, ones that carry forward into present time and that lend themselves more readily to reinterpretation in the context of information we have now.

The first season of The Americans premiered in January 2013, a time when “Russian election interference” (not to mention krompromat or “golden showers”) was not a requisite part of public discourse.[1] Given today’s political climate, the show is now bound to resonate in a different, peculiar way. As Joshua Rothman wrote recently in the New Yorker: “the new season [of The Americans] tells us more about ourselves than it does about Russia or Trump.” (Apparently Trump-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is a fan!)

What makes The Americans particularly fascinating to think about now is how much of this new subtext is likely unintentional, unlike a similarly critically acclaimed show such as M*A*S*H, with its depiction of the Korean War first broadcast during the tail end of American involvement in Vietnam.[2]

And I think there is a major piece of subtext affecting both how we watch The Americans and how we talk about Russia in 2017. Our collective knowledge of Russia still rests on a Cold War-era intellectual infrastructure, built in the 1950s and ‘60s and ossified when the Soviet Union became the “evil empire” in the 1980s. Now re-activated by new widespread—and genuine, warranted—concern about Russia’s role in U.S. and global politics, the Manichean tendencies of this infrastructure can obscure much needed nuance in how we think about and act on information about Russia. There is little room for the liminal in such a framework. Furthermore, being aware of the subtext is critical because in an increasingly balkanized digital news environment, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia more and more involves management, interpretation, and manipulation of information, and too often, of disinformation. More so now than ever, it can’t be black or white.


The evolution of the intellectual infrastructure undergirding American knowledge production about the Soviet Union during the Cold War gives us an idea of where these tendencies come from. At the beginning of the Cold War era, prominent scholars of Russia sometimes seemed to care less about the content of the literature they studied than about what could be extrapolated from it, especially in order to understand the Soviet enigma. So why has the context of the Russia-U.S. relationship so often over-informed the subtext of which knowledge is produced? Essentially, no one really studied Russia—its history, literature, and so on—before World War II. The following anecdote from David C. Engerman’s Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (2011) sums it up: “Samuel Harper, the one-man Russian program at the University of Chicago for some four decades after 1903, dissuaded one student from entering the field, saying it was the exclusive province of ‘freaks and nuts,’ himself included.” Indeed, by Engerman’s calculations, only about six of the approximately 140 students who wrote Russia-related Ph.D. dissertations before 1940 became successful academics.[3]

By the 1960s, the situation had shifted dramatically, as money for Slavic studies began to circulate from the State Department, the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic entities, and especially from the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). American Slavicists felt pressure “to show not just the value but the necessity of their pursuit.” For example, in his important work Through the Glass of Soviet Literature (1953), Ernest Simmons “added an introduction, making the case that literature could be a useful tool for understanding Soviet society—so much so that he cited patron saints of sociology like Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen but no literary critics or scholars.” Even Imperial-era works were pressed into the service of understanding the Soviet system; the works of “Tolstoevsky” were analyzed not just as precursors to modernism but also as windows into “the supposed Russian soul.”[4] While the adage in the U.S. policy world might have been “know your enemy,” this tendency was present along the ideological spectrum and also before the Cold War. In the 1930s, influential French Communist writer Paul Nizan described his and other Western intellectuals’ interest in Russian and Soviet culture in terms of its capacity as “a ‘tool of knowledge’ (instrument de connaissance) of Soviet society.”[5] But are broad readings of Russian culture and history really the most useful “tool of knowledge” we—or Paige Jennings—still have?

Paige’s copy of Capital. Courtesy of The Americans.

Elements of the Cold War-era intellectual infrastructure lead us to “over-read” Russian history and culture that crosses ideological divisions. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is one the media’s excessive practitioners of this. This feels weird to write as a historian, but I think she sometimes assigns too much weight to history. Recently, to set up a segment about an event that took place in the city of Yekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned and executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, Maddow gave viewers a brief history of the October Revolution. Her facts were (broadly) right, but why graphically describe the Tsar’s “extrajudicial death sentence” before an unrelated segment? Maddow always delivers her monologues in such a circumlocutory style, love it or hate it, but it’s hard not to hear a clear subtext here: Russia is up to no good, and has been since at least 1917.[6] It’s still broadly okay to essentialize Russia in public discourse, even though progressive media often pushes back strongly—and rightfully so—when other cultures, especially postcolonial cultures, are essentialized in analogous ways. This is a tendency I’ve often puzzled over and I think the legacy of knowledge production about the Cold War has a lot to do with it.

And sometimes it gets even weirder. On September 9, 2016, MSNBC journalist Joy Reid sent out a series of tweets on Trump and Russia that seem to have been written in an alternate version of the 1980s where Twitter existed:

“BTW Trump isn’t the first pro-Putin Republican. His pal Rudy and other GOPers have praised Comrade Vladimir over President Obama for years.
“That said, for most Americans it’s shocking to see an American presidential candidate openly touting authoritarian, communist Russia…
“… and in the party of Reagan, no less. Just stunning.”

In a similar vein after the election, in a piece of faux-sinister clickbait—“Is Putin’s Master Plan Only Beginning?” its headline asks us—published by Vanity Fair in late December 2016, Vladimir Putin was described as “a former K.G.B. agent who, it is no accident, shares the name Vladimir Ilyich with Lenin.” Chilling. Except that the article quickly had to be corrected to replace “Vladimir Ilyich” with just plain “Vladimir” because Putin’s full name is actually Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, as anyone with access to Wikipedia would be able to discover. As Keith Gessen later put it in The Guardian:

“If it is not an accident, this may be because it is one of the most common Russian names. But still, it cannot be denied. Both Putin and Lenin are named Vladimir. The Putin-is-named-Vladimir hypothesis is either the historic high point of Putinology, or its nadir, depending on your perspective. But the confident proclamation of expertise by someone who does not technically know Putin’s name is surely a sign of something.”

To be sure, both Joy Reid and the writer of the Vanity Fair piece were widely ridiculed for these gaffes. But I’d like to suggest that what seem like merely ridiculous factual errors expose the Cold War mentality that is still intact in some corners of public discourse. See the 1:20 mark of this testimony from a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Soviet, or rather, Russian, election interference:

Think also about the word ‘totalitarianism,’ which seems to be everywhere again as of late.[7] (And not just thanks to Trump. Perhaps because I’m living in France at the moment, I noticed that a lot of recent U.S. coverage of the presidential elections quoted failed candidate François Fillon’s pledge to prioritize “defeating Islamic totalitarianism”—also the title of a book he published last year.) As one historian of Eastern Europe put it in a review of a book called Beyond Totalitarianism: “Despite our best efforts, we never get beyond totalitarianism.”[8] One hopes we can get beyond the Cold War; the context has changed. And therefore, The Americans is not the mirror that it may appear to be in 2017.


Back to Karl Marx. Two episodes after Pastor Tim proffers Capital to Paige, we learn that perhaps reading Capital has helped Paige to understand her parents better. Elizabeth walks into Paige’s bedroom one evening to find her reading Marx.

Elizabeth: They assign you that for social studies?
Paige: Pastor Tim gave it to me.
Elizabeth: Hmm. So, what do you think?
Paige: I actually agree with a lot of what he says.
Elizabeth: You do?

Hip rendering of Marx by Russian KPRF Party.

“You should probably keep this book on your shelf with other books on similar topics,” Elizabeth tells Paige as she leaves her room. “That way, anyone who’s looking won’t pay any attention to it.”

Nowadays it’s unusual for students of Russian history to have to read Marx and Engels. The field has moved far beyond what was an understandable overreliance on intellectual history and “great books” in its early years, which was due in part to the lack of access to archives and other primary materials for Western historians of Russia during the Soviet era. Or perhaps, because the context in which we are studying Russia has changed, reading Marx feels less relevant. If this essay has convinced you of nothing else, I hope it has convinced you that just as the changed context in which we watch The Americans has inevitably altered its subtext, so too should the context of politics in 2017 alter the subtext of the way we “know” Russia.

As Trump might put it, nobody knew Russia could be so complicated.

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetAbby Holekamp is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian and Soviet history at Georgetown University. She is writing a dissertation on the interplay of French and Russian revolutionary cultures from 1905-1936 and how these interactions affected the production of new political knowledge across Europe. She is also watching a lot of television.

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[1] 12.1 million Google results and counting!

[2] Apparently M*A*S*H received its highest ratings during 1973-1975, 1975 being the year the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam. See this essay, citing James H. Wittebols, Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America: A Social History of the 1972-1983 Television Series (1998).

[3] David C. Engerman, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (2011), p. 13.

[4] Engerman, pp. 235; 132; 148-152.

[5] Quoted in Ludmila Stern, Western Intellectuals and the Soviet Union, 1920-40: From Red Square to the Left Bank (2006), p. 12. Like other prominent French Communists or fellow-traveling intellectuals, Nizan later broke with the Soviet Union over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

[6] You can watch this segment here. Maddow also makes a bit of the fact that the church built on the site where the Romanovs were killed is called the Cathedral on the Blood, which is a conventional way of naming churches built on sites of assassinations—you might know the more famous Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, built where Tsar Alexander II was killed by terrorists in 1881. Says Maddow: “And because it’s Russia, it has a fittingly dramatic Russian name: it’s called the Cathedral on the Blood. So Yekaterinburg is an interesting place; their biggest tourist attraction is the Cathedral on the Blood.”

[7] The history of the term “totalitarianism” is a fascinating example of Cold War-era knowledge production. In Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (1997), historian Abbott Gleason points out that the 1980s re-popularization of “totalitarianism” by American neoconservative political figures who were obviously interested in preserving the status quo was very much influenced by their “great sympathy of Eastern European dissidents” like Václav Havel and Solzhenitsyn. These dissidents, by contrast, were using a “more practical and activist” idea of totalitarianism to challenge the status quo. Interestingly, within the Soviet Union, “totalitarianism” didn’t catch on with scholars or activists until well into the era of perestroika. (Gleason, pp. 180; 172; 191).

[8] John Connelly, “Totalitarianism: Defunct Theory, Useful Word” [review of Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer, eds., Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, 2008] Kritika 11.4 (2010).

1 comment on “Review: The Americans and “Knowing” Russia in the Age of Trump

  1. Pingback: The Americans and “Knowing” Russia in the Age of Trump – archives & deep dives

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