How ‘Catherine the Great,’ ‘Chernobyl’ Challenge the Hollywood Script on Russia

Hollywood loves a good baddie, and for the last 50 or so years, a large proportion of those villains have been Russian. Take Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in “Rocky IV,” or Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), who hijacked the President’s plane in “Air Force One,” or more recently the Terminator-like Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), battling Jim Hopper in the latest season of “Stranger Things.”

Between the Cold War’s impact on the American consciousness and more recent allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and President Trump’s entanglement with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Hollywood has utilized Russians and people from the former Soviet Union as the bad guys for decades. However, two of this year’s TV shows are trying to re-frame the narrative a little: the HBO-Sky co-productions “Catherine the Great” and “Chernobyl.”

In “Catherine the Great,” which premieres Oct. 21, Helen Mirren continues her queenly streak by embodying the radical 18th-century titular Russian empress, a woman who came to Russia as an immigrant — a child bride who forged her own path to the throne by orchestrating a coup to overthrow her husband Peter III. Her ideas to liberalize Russia by bringing in a slew of modernizing innovations and freeing the oppressed serfs, made capturing her on-screen feel “fresh and modern,” according to series director Philip Martin.

One of Catherine’s crowning achievements was annexing the Crimea, which Martin admits feels eerily similar to recent events. “In Russia, she’s regarded as a heroine for her accomplishments,” he says. “But to us, Catherine felt like a chance to get behind that stereotypical version of what Russia is. She was an incredibly modern, instinctive, intelligent person that feels very much of the world we live in today.”

Martin believes that the legacy of the Cold War and the years following World War II resulted in the West having a “probably inaccurate view of Russians and who they are.” By putting Russian characters at the center of the story, “Catherine the Great” wants to peel back the layers on their nuances. But additionally, filming in Russia, in the palaces where the real Catherine lived and worked, was key.

Among other locations in Latvia and Lithuania, the series was the first ever to shoot in Catherine’s Palace in St. Petersburg, where Mirren was able to tread the same wooden parquet floor that Catherine herself had paced more than 200 years before.

“We worked alongside Russians because 90% of our crew were locals, and actually it was this wonderful feeling that here is this parallel culture that we know so little about but is extraordinary,” Martin says. “I hope as we go forward over the next few years we’ll get more opportunities to tell Russian stories and in some ways find out more.”

With “Chernobyl,” which picked up a staggering 10 Emmys in September, showrunner Craig Mazin also sought to depart from the traditional view of Russians and people from the former Soviet Union, and instead depict the men and women who were victims of the terrible disaster and who sacrificed their lives to prevent the loss of millions more.

“Authenticity was our collective obsession as a production, in part because our theme is about truth, and in part because we are telling the story of Soviet culture, Ukrainian culture, Belarusian culture, and the best way to honor other people’s culture is by caring enough in getting the details right and not engaging in caricature and cartoony-ness or laziness,” Mazin says.

His dedication to authenticity and attention to detail in “Chernobyl” included recreating such sets as the inside of the control room down to the exact knob and dial, to hiring an expert in Soviet military uniforms to ensure each medal and epaulette wasn’t out of place.

However, despite the best efforts and intentions of creatives like Mazin and Martin, Hollywood may still have a long way to go to paint a fully accurate picture of Russia or the Soviet Union, according to Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international relations at the New School in New York (who also happens to be the great granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev).

While Khrushcheva says she was “really impressed” with the first four episodes  of “Chernobyl” and the way in which the series highlighted the lives of the people who “fought that horrible disaster and that stupid government … closer to the end, ‘Chernobyl’ began answering the political demand of portraying the Soviet government and its officials as bastards and morons who are completely incapable of anything,” she says. “In that sense, it fit into the Hollywood propaganda formula in which Russia as a concept cannot have any positive portrayal. On the level of character and emotion, it was interesting, but on the extra level of politics it was disappointing.”

Khrushcheva believes that the Kremlin is still “the Darth Vader of American TV and film,” regardless of whether Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev or even her great-grandfather is sitting in it.

In order to do Russia and countries in the former Soviet Union true justice, Khrushcheva says Hollywood will need to remove its inherent political bias and stem the flow of stereotypical Russian bad guys who permeate “Liam Neeson-type action movies” and even crept into a show like “Stranger Things” earlier this year, having had nothing to do with the series for the past two seasons.

Given the fraught real world political history, Khrushcheva doesn’t think it’s likely to see these changes reflected on-screen anytime soon, but she knows the potential is there.

“I don’t know if we’ll be more maligned because of the election and the current impeachment situation than we have been, but in Hollywood, the sky’s the limit,” she says.

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