Authorities recently plucked a live hand grenade from a trash can at Boston Garden—planted, it turns out, in the name of social commentary. For scheduled to oppose the Boston Bruins was an enemy more despised than opponents from Philadelphia, New York or the far northern province of Gretzky. On this occasion the Beantown squad was slated to engage a gang known as the Moscow Dynamo-skaters from the frozen heart of Phantomland, friends, reds on ice.
Although a mysterious caller phoned The Associated Press and said, “Dynamos must die,” the game proceeded. As Soviet players entered the rink, boobirds cawed in the rafters and some stalwart individual hurled scarlet dye onto the ice. Thereafter, the spirit of détente more or less prevailed and although the Soviets beat the home squad 6-4, there were handshakes at the end of the match.
Athletes may be able to transcend political differences more easily than the rest of us. After all, when one has been pounded into the boards for 60 minutes by a fellow in two tons of padding and helmetry, issues regarding troop deployment and the distribution of wealth cease to be of immediate concern. One may even grow fond of his attacker—his tenacity, his pluck—and by game’s end, decide that rapprochement is in order. It’s either that or drag the cur into an alley.
At the moment, it might be wise for Americans to schedule some sort of vigorous but nondebilitating physical exchange with their Russian counterparts—all the better to release emotional steam. Yes, the President spoke on television to the Soviet people over the holidays and we permitted Mr. Gorbachev to say a few words in return. On another occasion, U.S. and Soviet citizens exchanged ideas on a special edition of the Phil Donahue show. These were momentary lapses, be assured, and not signs that our antisocialist resolve is weakening.
On the contrary, we grow bold. Mr. Reagan may be cozy enough with Gorbachev to propose an evening of Trivial Pursuit at the White House, but it wasn’t long ago that he described Russia as an “evil empire”—a signal misread by no one. It was an irresistible comic strip phrase and we embraced the image eagerly. Ah yes, a half-lit landscape, a fog-enshrouded castle, a
slew of axe-faced automatons plotting world domination beneath a portrait of Lenin.
With the commander-in-chief providing inspiration, the gang in megamarketing began working overtime. So now we find ourselves agurgle in television ads and movies that portray Soviets as many of us are pleased to see them—awkward, ignorant, depressed and sometimes dangerous. One advertisement, for the Wendy’s hamburger chain, adopts a fashion show motif. The model is a Soviet woman whose shape approximates that of a horse trailer and whose dress seems cut from linoleum. Her outfit is the same for morning or evening. The theme of the ad has to do with freedom of choice.
Should one want to wash down one’s burger with a cool, ideologically acceptable soft drink, RC Cola might be just the ticket. RC is running an ad
By portraying the Soviets as snakes and shlumps on TV, do we gain some inscrutable sort of comfort?
that suggests small groups of dissidents are drinking its product in defiance of Moscow. The viewer is transported to a rustic cabin where peasants dance before a fireplace and toast each other with contraband cola. Abruptly, the door swings open revealing two glowering secret agents. So long, Soviet peasants. So long, RC.
Audiences in the Midwest have been watching a spot that portrays the crew of a Soviet submarine shopping in a local appliance store. The captain loads up on electronic gear and returns to the ship only to discover a crew member missing. “Where is Plotchney?” he demands over a snort of vodka. But alas, Plotchney is still ashore, his revolutionary zeal undone by the sight of so many audio equalizers and microwave ovens.
The TV ads are benign compared to what has been showing up at movie theaters—fare described recently as “war-nography” by Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Sylvester Stallone has delivered not only Rambo, superpatriot extraordinaire, but Rocky IV, who vanquishes a diabolical Soviet
boxer so convincingly that Russian fight fans begin chanting, “Rou-ky, Rou-ky, Rou-ky.” There is Red Dawn, a flick in which Soviet troops conquer Colorado, and White Nights, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines as dancers trying to soft-shoe past the KGB.
Still in the works is a television mini-series, Amerika, that promises a view of the United States 10 years after the Reds take power—an ABC brainstorm that has vexed Kremlin officials to the extent that they reportedly are ready to curtail the network’s news operation in Moscow if the series goes forward. At last word, ABC had put a hold on production.
Weird it may be for the Kremlin to object so vigorously, but how strange do we look for concocting this outlandish intellectual bean curd in the first place? Have our own grim fantasies finally taken control of our good sense? By portraying the Soviets as snakes and shlumps do we gain some inscrutable sort of comfort? Observes Jerry Hough, a Soviet expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington: “There’s an awful lot of self-satisfied smugness around. We want to believe that all the old comfortable stereotypes are still going to apply. And it’s wishful thinking.”
What seems to mystify the Soviets most is that their people—not just their leaders—are being depicted in such unflattering terms. They say the phenomenon simply has no equivalent in the Soviet Union. Criticism of the U.S. government may be harsh and unrelenting but, said Alexander Shalnev, a Washington-based reporter for the TASS news agency: “Not a single commercial film or book in the Soviet Union presents American society the way you present us.”
Shalnev is indulging in a bit of sophistry, of course. You can’t go around saying Ronald Reagan is an imperialist bully without implicating the society that so appreciates him. Still, the Soviets seem mightily puzzled as to why we have been selling cheeseburgers at their expense and unleashing the steel-chested Sly Stallone. How dense these people are, really. They have yet to comprehend that theirs is an evil empire and that our advertising executives and Hollywood types merely are defending the faith —no holds barred.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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