Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Top Gun, Rocky, and Little Einsteins

One of my favorite things about Russia is the way it lingers in the popular imagination. Everybody has a story about Russia. I’m watching Top Gun right now, where Tom Cruise’s erotic power stems, at least in part, from his ability to do battle with a Soviet MIG fighter. If you can go head to head with Russian airpower, you’re a natural born hero. And what would Rocky be if he hadn’t survived long enough to defeat a Soviet boxer in Red Russia, the ultimate feat of masculinity? Russia also finds its way into the thoughts of ordinary Americans.

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Everybody has a Russian story. For me, maybe it’s the made-for-television movie, The Day After, which probably horrified and titillating children all across America, giving us the impression that we’d be responsible for making do without homes, cars, grocery stores, and even parents, in the event of a nuclear conflict with the Soviets. Or perhaps it’s just the awe I felt every time I walked by the Soviet embassy when I went to college in Washington, D.C.

Some stories are more light-hearted. One chemist in my division tells his students about how Rasputin survived a poisoning (he was eventually killed by other means) because the sugar in his wine is a natural antidote to arsenic. (He also smilingly recalls the disco song, Rasputin, with some fondness). My four year old talks about visiting Russia—the land of the mythical firebird—because a cartoon called Little Einsteins shows four children flying their spaceship past the Kremlin and a series of mad Russian (matryoska) nesting dolls in search of this bird. Another friend says I should mention how cold it gets in Russia, because that’s what has always fascinated her. A colleague on a trip mentions that he took a theatre trip to perform a play in Omsk, Siberia, staying there for a month and drinking lots of Vodka (because the water was dirty and there wasn’t anything else to drink in any case). He took an Aeroflot plane in and out of Omsk, which, he added, always landed at a sharp vertical angle with a thud.

So what’s your memory of Russia or the Soviet Union?


  1. In The Day After, the USSR was hardly even a tertiary character. The bombs themselves were more important than the people who launched them. On the other hand, Red Dawn showed the USSR as actual invaders on US soil. Wolverines!

  2. Oh, I was thinking about Red Dawn but thought that the invaders were Cubans... I guess it would have hurt our egos to be overrun by a small island nation.


  4. Actually, it was both Soviet and Cuban soldiers. There is a remake coming up that is supposedly Russian and Chinese soldiers.

  5. Can't wait to see it... And I'll probably have to go back and see the original.

  6. Just surfed on searching on Boy Meets Tractor. Anyway, we adopted two Russian kids back around 2000. I was already interested in Russia, mostly WW2 Eastern Front, Novgorod & Nevsky, Andrei Rublev, Katyusha, Gogol, Repin, Darkness at Noon, Tchaiko, Rachmaninoff, Dr Zhivago, Dersu Uzala, etc. Could speak tourist-grade Russian.

    We were in and around Moscow and Rybinsk for 2 weeks. In those days Moscow was like a cross between Las Vegas and Dodge City. Lotta money sloshing around a few high-profile types, 7 series BMWs arrogantly parked up on the sidewalks, Afghan War vets begging at traffic lights, general air of, what, quotidian corruption. Some private businesses thrived, such as Pizza Hut and Makdonalds, while gov't restaurants languished. Active black market. People were polite but careful. Interesting; I haven't thought about all that in a long time.