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Sunday, April 14, 2024

'The Americans' Deserves an Emmy For Its Look Inside Putin's Mind

All week, WIRED's Culture team will be writing endorsement letters for various Emmy nominees in advance of next Monday's awards ceremony. Today: senior writer and amateur Soviet historian Emily Dreyfuss.

Before he was president of Russia, Vladimir Putin was an intelligence officer in Dresden, East Germany. His job there was to recruit “illegals,” USSR spies who would embed in everyday life and report back to the KGB. If you’ve ever watched the FX show The Americans, then you’re familiar with how this all worked: The focal characters of that show are KGB illegals in the United States, working during the same time period Putin was running operations in East Germany. And while the show has no interest in Putin's early political career, The Americans’ verisimilitude and unintentional prescience has proven to be a powerful educational tool for viewers—and one that gives crucial insight into the political ideology underpinning modern-day Russia.


In the nearly 30 years since the Cold War ended, there has arguably never been a more important time for Americans to understand Russia. As the US gears up for midterm elections that could decide the fate of President Trump’s administration, the US intelligence community warns that Putin is trying to affect the outcome—just as he and Russia did in 2016. In response to Russian spies recently trying to kill a former KGB agent in Britain, the US and the rest of our allies kicked out Russian diplomats. Though The Americans didn't foreshadow these events, the lessons about the Soviet Union, its triumphs and failures, and the sacrifices and beliefs of those who worked to further its mission shed light on current US-Russia relations.

“In general, people will tend to pick up beliefs about how the Cold War and espionage works from pieces of fiction that they find to be ‘transporting,’” says University of Massachusetts-Amherst political science professor Paul Musgrave, who has researched pop culture and the Cold War. “When people really work hard to get the details right, as The Americans mostly seems to have, then fiction can be an amazingly effective way to communicate about reality.”

Musgrave co-authored an article last year in which he explained that viewers consuming fictional narratives process them the same way they would if they witnessed the real events. “These 'synthetic experiences' can change beliefs, reinforce, pre-existing views, or even displace knowledge gained from other sources for elites as well as mass audiences,” he wrote. When those fictional stories are educational, they can be really helpful in creating knowledge.

But even the best fictions take liberties to make things more interesting. And that’s where things get tricky. “The danger of people updating their beliefs in the context of a show like The Americans is problematic since they will get a fantastical view of espionage,” says Brandon Valeriano, international conflict professor at the Marine Corps University. “As we saw during the election, modern subversion is much more mundane and persistent.”

There’s a tremendous utility in making espionage seem more exciting than it really is–and not just because it makes good TV. The Soviet Union understood this psychological truth well. “The Soviet regime in the 1960s tried to make popular culture more appealing to young people and, as part of this effort, sought to make the KGB an attractive career option,” writes John Ehrman, a counterintelligence senior analyst in CIA's Directorate of Analysis, in a review of two other books about Putin. “Moscow copied the West by glamorizing espionage work in films, television, and novels.”

Perhaps the most important viewer of those cultural efforts was Putin himself. According to the account of Putin biographer Steven Lee Myers, a teenaged Putin was inspired by The Shield and the Sword, a 1968 miniseries adaptation of a book about Soviet spies who infiltrated Nazi Germany during World War II. In 1975, fresh out of law school, Putin followed in the footsteps of the film’s heroes and joined the KGB, first working in St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad in those days), then transferring to Dresden—just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. With protesters gathering around the Soviet Directorate, Putin called for backup and was told he was on his own. As Myers describes in his book, Putin's 21st-century rise to power can be understood as his attempt to regain the dominance he watched his country lose in 1989.

Anyone who watches The Americans understands that worldview well: Putin's ethos is the same one that drives Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). Unlike her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys), whose loyalty to the Soviet Union sours and complicates over the show’s five seasons, Elizabeth remains a staunch statist like Putin. This unwavering devotion to her homeland is core to her character, and the question of how she will respond to the end of the Soviet era runs through the series until "Start," the dramatic final episode—and the one nominated for Outstanding Writing, thanks to the work of creator (and ex-CIA agent) Joseph Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields.

The Final Struggle

The final season keeps Elizabeth and Philip at odds–she holding steadfast in her conviction that the Directorate is working in the best interest of their people, and he retired from spying and struggling to run the travel agency that’s been their cover for years. As the spouses are forced to hide their work from each other, they grow increasingly suspicious. In the build-up to the final episode, the unspoken question of whether one of them will defect morphs into a more dire worry: Will Philip and Elizabeth turn on each other?

Philip is dragged back into spying by a minority faction of KGB operatives who want him to monitor his wife, whom they think has been given a job by a rogue group of KGB officials intended to undermine peace efforts. They’re right, and when Elizabeth learns that the group is actively trying to subvert peace and build a machine that could automate nuclear war–a machine that actually existed!–she is forced to rethink what her loyalty means. Is the Soviet Union as it existed currently worth destroying a peaceful future to maintain?

Modern Russian experts have asked the same question of Putin. Does he want to recreate the former Soviet Union, or embrace a new future for Russia? Does he want Russia to be rich or powerful or free or communist? According to Myers, he wants strength above all. He wants to make order out of chaos. And at the end of The Americans, that’s exactly what the Jennings do: make peace with each other and act decisively to protect the greater interests of the Soviet people.

"Start" is the capstone to a series that consistently asked American viewers to root against the US, and to empathize with those who actively sought to undermine it. Its creators should win not just for the exactitude of the show, not just for its subtle humor and disquieting drama, and not just for the way the finale neatly wraps up six seasons worth of drama—but also for giving American viewers a deep understanding of Soviet thinking that’s more relevant than ever.

Not that Weisberg and Fields planned it this way. In fact, quite the opposite: The show was written during a brief thaw in US-Russian relations, when President Obama and then-Russian-President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to be seeing eye to eye. But by the time it aired in 2013, Putin had reclaimed the presidency from Medvedev and begun to undo his predecessor's pro-Western work; by the second season, Russia had forcibly annexed Crimea from Ukraine, throwing the US-Russia relationship into the disarray unlike any since 1989.

“We would prefer for the show to metabolize in a world in which people are looking with bemusement at Russia, as the enemy of the past, and wondering why they were ever demonized. Instead of looking at the show with fresh eyes, considering the Russians new enemies,” Fields told Vanity Fair earlier this year. “That’s pretty unfortunate. We look forward to the show being viewed nostalgically again.” They may not have meant to make a show as educational and relevant as it is, but that accident is part of what makes the show so brilliant. And so worth winning the Best Writing Emmy next Monday.

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