Russia

A Russian Take on 'The Americans' Scares Moscow Liberals

The political conversation in Putin's Russia increasingly revolves around cinematic versions of reality.

Hall of televised mirrors.

Photographer: Kommersant Photo/Kommersant via Getty Images

While the U.S. gets accustomed to Russia's potential to make or break its presidential candidates, Russia is living in a dreamlike haze of its own. A good way to understand it is through a television series about U.S. meddling in Russia that recently hit the country's main state-owned channel.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

The series (now available on YouTube, but only in Russian) is called "The Sleepers." The eight-part first season is addictive viewing to anyone who has watched Moscow elites up close during the Vladimir Putin era. It has characters based on Putin's top political opponent Alexei Navalny, "system liberals" in the government, muckracking journalists, a troll factory owner, even former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul (who managed to express delight at the portrayal). The recognition effect is uncanny -- and almost everyone in this Moscow society who doesn't work for Russia's domestic intelligence service, known as the FSB, is either corrupted by U.S. influence or is a Central Intelligence Agency agent recruited and left to await "activation." Even some of the FSB operatives -- the more pro-Western ones -- actually work for the CIA.

Unlike the U.S. sleeper agent series "The Americans," which is set in the Reagan era, "The Sleepers" is very much about the present. With a series of murders (liberals die one after another, and the Navalny character is kidnapped) and a terror attack at an anti-FSB rally, the CIA attempts to destabilize Russia and disrupt a gas deal with China. A real-life agreement signed in 2014, soon after Russia was hit with sanctions for annexing part of Ukraine, seems to be the inspiration. The attempt is ultimately thwarted, though a U.S. agent succeeds in blowing up the entire Chinese delegation, and the U.S. intelligence officer in charge of the operation moves on to Ukraine. So does the protagonist, a patriotic, soulful FSB officer.

In the world of "The Sleepers," liberal convictions and a pro-Western orientation are symptoms of a treasonous bent. They only accuse the state of being oppressive because they are Russia's enemies, a fifth column. "We are those, who, just three years ago, thought there was freedom of speech in this country," rants the series' main antagonist, a prominent journalist and, of course, a CIA asset. "We thought civilization would be here in just a short while. We are those who thought Russia could be turned into a normal country." The protagonist replies: "So do it, who's stopping you?" 

Watching this in Berlin, I suppressed an impulse to throw my wine glass at the screen. But it's even more uncomfortable to watch from Moscow. To the Russian capital's literati, the artsy crowd, progressive bureaucrats and anti-Putin activists, "The Sleepers" is not just a spy series like lots of similar U.S.-produced schlock, just with Russians as goodies and Americans as baddies. It's practically an overt threat. Channel One, which ran the series in prime time, is an official mouthpiece. While it carries some of the most concentrated Kremlin propaganda on its news programs, it has steered clear of lashing out at liberals elsewhere on the programming schedule.

"The Sleepers" was seen as a political statement. Angry, disgusted, sarcastic reactions on liberal-leaning websites followed: 'The Sleepers' is concentrated ideology, the pure alcohol of pro-government propaganda," Oleg Sulkin wrote on the anti-Putin website New Times. "What's dangerous about this series?" Natalya Isakova wrote on another liberal site, Colta.ru. "Don't we know from the news that Russia is surrounded by enemies and the opposition is willing to kill itself if only that can harm our dear state? Well, the news doesn't have the emotional tension. The series is a chance to hammer ideological maxims into the viewers' hearts."

That, of course, is not how pro-government commentators saw it. State-run RIA Novosti countered that "The Sleepers" fed the Russian critical, creative class "some of its own bitter medicine." But that didn't quite add up. It was directed by Yuiri Bykov, who had been the darling of liberal viewers thanks to a previous film in which corrupt regional bureaucrats were the main villains. As the backlash intensified, he deleted his Facebook account and wrote on the Russian social network Vkontakte that he might end his movie career in order to avoid misleading "those who really want to believe it's possible to change something."

Today in Moscow, it doesn't matter whether Bykov's threat of retirement is genuine or whether he'll start shooting the second season tomorrow. The political conversation is increasingly revolving around cinematic versions of reality. Another hot topic in recent weeks is a movie about the last Russian czar's love affair with a ballerina, which conservatives, including a prominent lawmaker, are trying to have banned for slandering Emperor Nicholas II. A lively discussion of socialite and reality TV star Ksenia Sobchak's bid for the presidency on a mildly anti-Kremlin platform, announced on Wednesday, is about a similar kind of escapism. Her run is transparently sanctioned by the Kremlin while Navalny, who really challenges Putin, is barred from the election. yet liberal bloggers are all too happy to analyze Sobchak's views, goals and potential influence on the election campaign.

The best thing about these TV dreams is that they leave most of Russia cold. "The Sleepers'" viewership share was weak for a prime time series at about 13 percent -- and significantly lower outside Moscow. 1  This apathy signals ordinary Russians' waning receptiveness to propaganda messages, no matter how expensively and convincingly packaged. Indifference is the biggest threat to the legitimacy of Putin's all but certain election victory next year -- and the biggest source of hope for the "fifth column." No U.S. interference will be necessary when this starts happening, and it'll be more exciting to watch than any movie.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The previous production Channel One ran in this spot -- a Ukrainian-made crime series about a man with an unusually sharp sense of smell -- achieved 19 percent.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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