The Americans, an FX drama series about a Russian spy couple posing as seemingly normal suburbanites in Reagan’s America, is the “best show” on television, according to the Washington Post. In 2013 and 2014, it was nominated for Critics Choice TV Awards for best dramatic series, best actor, and best actress. One critic applauded: “Not since The Wire worked its last corner has a drama series been as outright binge-able and richly satisfying.”
No one should mistake The Americans for serious television. Although co-stars Kerri Russell and Rhys Matthews — who are romantically involved in real life — deliver consistently compelling performances, the show is the television equivalent of junk food. Its depiction of the Cold War between East and West is worse than worthless; it is dangerous to the mental health of viewers, particularly the distressingly large number of young viewers who get their history from television. They will learn about as much about the history of the Cold War by watching The Americans as they would learn about the Ice Age by watching The Flintstones.
The underlying theme of The Americans is that the Cold War was a competition between two opponents, each with its virtues and flaws, and each with its retinue of good guys and bad guys. This doctrine of equivalents is established early on. Before each episode begins, a sculpted bear and eagle, freed from a block of ice, glare menacingly at each other. If the characters wore helmets and shoulder pads, this could be Monday Night Football: the Russian Bears versus the American Eagles.
Then the introductory credits kick in, and we’re treated to series of mirror images and symmetries. There is a clip of American Jazzercise juxtaposed with Cossack dancing. We see an American astronaut, and a Russian cosmonaut. There is a bearded Santa Claus and a bearded Karl Marx. Perhaps not too sensible, but you get the picture. Two teams from the same league are about to square off.
In the three years the show has been on television, it has offered plenty of characters to root for, and plenty of characters to despise, but it has presented absolutely no reason to prefer one side over the other. Instead, the two sides are carefully mirrored. Kerri Russell and Rhys Matthews play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a nice middle class couple. They live next door to the Beemans, Stan and Sandra. Both appear to be typical American families, facing marital issues and the daily challenge of raising adolescents. The Jennings spy for Russia. Stan Beeman spies for the FBI.
Both organizations have their share of idealists, realists, and dull bureaucrats. FBI nice guy Chris Amador is killed by the Jennings. KGB nice guy Vlad Kosygin is killed by Stan Beeman. Sometimes the writers resort to simple-minded imagery to get their point across. An FBI agent secretly confronts his KGB counterpart midway across a footbridge in a park. They are meeting each other half-way. Subtle, huh?
Nina Sergeevna, a Russian embassy employee caught up in the machinations of the two sides, is arrested and sent back to Moscow, where she tells her prison cellmate: “In America, I had two lovers. One communist. One capitalist. I was whatever they wanted me to be.” In a way, Nina speaks for us all. The writers want us to feel equally manipulated by the communists, and by the capitalists. We are whatever they want us to be.
The writers make no secret of their belief in the fundamental equivalency of the two sides in the Cold War. Series creator Joe Weisberg told the Hollywood Reporter: “There were these really competing value systems. And there’s no question that repressive socialism failed, but unbridled consumption hasn’t exactly led to great satisfaction — and one problem is how do we express that dramatically.” The answer, apparently, is by withholding any sort of value judgment as to whether either side deserved to fail.
Weisberg spent a few years in the CIA, as a self-described “trainee spy.” He left before being assigned to a post outside the country, and turned to writing novels. Then, in 2010, inspired by a real-life FBI investigation which uncovered Russian spies living undercover in the suburbs, he wrote a screenplay for a pilot based on that incident. Rather than place the story in the present, he reached back in time and stuck it in the Cold War, because, as Weisberg himself put it, “Can you think of a better time than the 80’s with Ronald Reagan yelling about the evil empire?”
Yes, that Ronald Reagan certainly made a spectacle of himself, yelling about the Soviet Union being evil. Weisberg, of course, is much more sophisticated than that. His story features characters on both sides who qualify as evil. But not the two sides themselves. After all, as Weisberg pondered: “What is the enemy? What does it even mean to be the enemy? … Maybe the enemy is as human as you are.”
Or maybe the enemy is not.
Real history, rather than televised fluff, answers Weisberg’s question. It tells us what it means to have been the enemy in the Cold War. And it shows us what a vacuous product this series is.
The Cold War was not a contest between two morally equal teams. It was a mortal struggle between two fundamentally different systems, one based on individual freedom and the rule of law, and the other based on collectivism and “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
From its very birth in October 1917, the Soviet Union dedicated itself not merely to imposing a totalitarian system on its own people, but to aggressively exporting that system to the rest of the world. In the aftermath of their revolution, the Soviets staged a coup in Finland, took over the government in Hungary, and invaded Poland. These efforts to spread their system failed after World War I, but they succeeded after World War II, and for 45 years Eastern Europe fell under the sway of communist domination.
To say that communism was aggressively expansionist is not right-wing propaganda. It is incontrovertible truth. Here is the emblem of the Soviet Union, adopted after the revolution.
Note the hammer and sickle, the symbol of communism, superimposed over the globe, not just the Soviet Union. The design is intentional. Communism never saw itself a nationalist force. It was, from its birth until its collapse 70 years later, an international movement dedicated to world conquest.
In every state where communism temporarily succeeded, it eliminated freedom of speech and religion, it exerted control over all economic activity, and it adopted mass murder as its preferred method of dealing with dissent.
No country suffered as much from communism as the Soviet people themselves. In April 1919, the new dictatorship established the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps, better known as the “Gulag.” It was a system of forced-labor camps, where the government stored its political prisoners. An estimated 5 million people filled the camps each year, with about 10% of the prison population dying annually due to overwork and starvation. According to Nobel laureate and former resident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, between forty to fifty million people served sentences in the Gulag between 1928 and 1953.
In 1929, Joseph Stalin imposed the Soviet system of collective farming on the Ukraine. He believed that resistance might come from the “Kulaks,” formerly wealthy farmers who owned 24 or more acres. So he declared them “enemies of the people,” and dispossessed them of their land. An estimated 10 million men, women, and children were evicted and deported, many of them to “special settlements” in Siberia. An estimated one third of them perished in the frigid conditions.
The remaining populace opposed collectivization, so Stalin engineered a mass famine. He imposed quotas of foodstuffs to ship out of the Soviet Union to pay for his Five Year Plan. By 1933 there was little or no food left to feed the population. Famine ensued. At its height, an estimated 25,000 persons were dying each day, and desperate Ukrainians resorted to cannibalism to survive. Nearly a quarter of the population of the Ukraine, including three million children, died.
The United States has never been perfect, and throughout the Cold War, one could find in this country racial and ethnic discrimination, income disparity, McCarthyism, and so forth. But such flaws pale almost to insignificance when held next to the long, bloody, ignominious history of Soviet communism.
The Americans gives no hint about this history. When it does invoke real events, it selectively distorts them. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, is mentioned mainly to show the savagery of the Mujahideen resistance fighters. In one episode, horrified Russian embassy personnel watch a video of the execution of a Soviet captive, in an obvious attempt by the writers to evoke the contemporary experience of Westerners victimized by ISIS. The writers’ message, apparently, is that whether we’re Russians or Americans, communists or capitalists, we’re both victimized by Muslim fanatics. The writers disregard the fact that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was an entirely unprovoked act of aggression, that the war cost the lives of somewhere between 850,000 to 1.5 million civilians, and that one third of the prewar population was forced to flee to neighboring countries.
Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire because the Soviet Union was an evil empire.
Another American president who saw the evil in that system was John F. Kennedy. In June 1963, he went to West Berlin, a city that had been surrounded and besieged by communism for eighteen years. He stood next to the Berlin Wall, a concrete symbol of the fundamental difference between the two systems, and said: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
Kennedy was the youngest man elected to the presidency and Reagan was the oldest. They were poles apart politically. But each, in his own way, exemplified the West. In 1987, Reagan visited the spot where Kennedy spoke, and reasserted the basic difference between the two systems:
As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: “This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.” Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.
The wall fell three years later. It could not withstand freedom. Reagan was right. Kennedy was right. The West was right. Communism was wrong, and it was always wrong. There never was any equivalency between the United States and the Soviet Union in the long, twilight struggle that was the Cold War.
To suggest, as the writers of The Americans series do in every episode, that the Cold War was a contest between two evenly-matched moral systems, is not a sign of sophistication. It is a confession of blind ignorance.