Oleg Riabov (ed.): “Vrag nomer odin”: V simvolicheskoi politike kinematografii SSSR i SShA perioda kholodnoi voiny.

Moscow: Aspekt Press, 2023, ISBN 978-5-7567-1242-1 398 pp.

Peter Kenez
Soviet films, American films, construction of the enemy, the Other, Cold War, cinema and propaganda, ideology, symbolic politics.

As the title tells us, this is a book about the depiction of the enemy in Soviet and American films during the Cold War. The editor, Oleg V. Riabov, wrote four of the thirteen articles. Riabov, together with Tatiana Riabova (also a contributor to this volume), has published widely on Cold War politics with special attention to questions of gender, construction of national self-image, and its corollary, construction of the enemy. Riabov has succeeded in compiling a volume in which the articles support one another and produce a unified argument. This is a valuable book, worthy of being translated and published in English.

In his introduction, Riabov argues that the very impossibility of war in the age of nuclear weapons made it likely that the leaders of two opposing forces, the USSR and the USA, would hate each other so much because they could not defeat one another on the battlefield. Under these circumstances, a significant part of the confrontation took place in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the foreign but also domestic audiences. Riabov refers to the fundamental proposition of Carl Schmitt, according to which politics is always a struggle and therefore there is always a need for an enemy. The ideological struggle in these years involved many aspects of life, and in this confrontation cinema had a special role to play. Movies address the masses, and they are able to manipulate and create desired images. It is, of course, not new information that movies have performed political tasks. The virtue of this volume is that it is based on an extraordinarily wide array of studies depicting both sides of the Cold War with remarkable even-handedness.

The book is about films. However, it is not only for scholars of cinema but also to be recommended to historians and political scientists. Indeed, all of us as human beings should contemplate, on the basis of the material it presented, how we see “the other” and how difficult it is to accept or even, recognise that there are other ways of seeing the world besides our own. Although the book concerns the time period of the Cold War, its inherent message is arguably still timely.

Riabov demonstrates the similarities in the way Soviet and American films perceived the Cold War enemy. The depiction is always black and white. No concession is given to the other side. The enemy must be powerful since it is an existential threat not only to our way of life but everything that is decent and worthwhile in life. However, we can take it for granted that the enemy will be defeated, and the good and decent proponent will ultimately prevail.

From watching Soviet Cold War films, it is evident that the directors intended to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was the leader in a world-wide struggle for a just, moral society and at the same time the most efficient economic system that will provide the greatest material well- being for the largest number of people. The opponent’s primary characteristic is anti-communism, anti-Sovietism not only on a world-wide scale, but also at home. In Soviet cinema “mother Russia” is the motherland of all the peoples of the Soviet Union. This particular theme was presented especially strongly during the “Great Patriotic War”. In the immediate post-war period, Soviet films stressed that the Soviet Union was the leader of forces that struggled for peace against the American war-mongers.

The enemy is everywhere. The necessity of vigilance is a recurring theme. It was especially significant at the time of great purges in the USSR in the late 1930s, but remained important during the Cold War. Saboteurs were everywhere. The socialist hero overcomes all difficulties and unmasks the enemy. Party leaders dictated how the enemy should be depicted. The enemy does not evolve. The political criminal was a criminal from his youth to the present day. Evolution would imply that there was a time when the enemy was only half bad.

According to this worldview, the West is threatening, but also miserable. Its people are close to starvation, and the police are everywhere. The working classes are loyal friends of the Soviet Union and the members of the Communist Party are persecuted. In films such as Vstrecha na El’be / Encounter at the Elbe (Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1949, Soviet Union), it is the Americans who loot in occupied Germany right after the war’s end.

One of the authors in this volume, K.A. Iudin, discusses the case of the Hollywood Ten in the McCarthy era and thereby implicitly establishes a parallel with the Soviet Union concerning government control of the film industry. In the United States, it was not only the government that impacted the ideological content of films, but also social organisations, like the American Legion, the Catholic Church and others. The possibility of boycotts of films often resulted in self-censorship by different directors. Conservative forces feared communist propaganda and demanded the celebration of the American way of life. In American films, on the other hand, the population of the communist world is miserable, desiring escape. At the same time communists are dangerous. They think up extraordinary and evil ways to infiltrate us. Think of The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962, United States) based on the eponymous 1959 novel by Richard Condon.

In his concluding chapter, editor Riabov argues that these films created “symbolic politics”. More than other types of propaganda, cinema aimed to affect not only the audience’s thinking, but also their emotions. Films not only depicted the two main antagonists in the Cold War but actually served to extend it. In a note to p. 328, Riabov shows that in contemporary American internet traffic, the Russian Federation is depicted as a society without democracy and freedom, just as the Soviet Union was depicted fifty years ago.

Vrag nomer odin once again demonstrates the similarities in the depiction of “enemy number one” in Soviet and American Cold War films. Riabov comes to the perhaps surprising conclusion that these similarities in fact demonstrate that Americans and Russians are actually inhabitants of the same civilisation.

Peter Kenez
University of California, Santa Cruz, USA


Peter Kenez is an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A specialist in Soviet and Hungarian history, he has published extensively on Soviet propaganda and film, including Cinema and Soviet Society from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (2nd ed. rev.) and The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929 (1985).


Aleksandrov, Grigorii. 1949. Vstrecha na El’be / Encounter at the Elbe. Mosfil’m.

Frankenheimer, John. 1962. The Manchurian Candidate. M.C. Productions

Suggested Citation

Kenez, Peter. 2023. Review: “Oleg Riabov (ed.): “Vrag nomer odin”: V simvolicheskoi politike kinematografii SSSR i SShA perioda kholodnoi voiny”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 16. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2023.00016.344.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/
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