In swift, yet contested fashion, the election of our new leader ended a 70 year history of a Cold War era defined by America and Russia having a cantankerous and antagonistic relationship. If you’re thinking that the “Cold War” ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, you’re wrong. If you were a fan of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night Raw program in 2014, you ultimately saw the last, absurd, yet ultimately amazing hurrah of the notorious conflict, played out in the on-screen drama surrounding the first two years on WWE Raw and Smackdown of legitimately Bulgarian-born, yet on-screen Russian-sympathizing heavyweight Rusev and his blonde bombshell “Russian” (read as, real-life Florida-born) social ambassador, Lana. In understanding Lana and Rusev’s rise to prominence, Russian stereotyping in wrestling, and American realities related to “Russian” performers, it creates a most wildly convoluted sense of where we’ve been as Americans, and our mind-bogglingly weird future ahead.
This isn’t the first time that quasi-Russians and pro wrestling have crossed paths with immense success. In 1971, the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s (WWE’s Northeastern United States-based predecessor) champion was a God-fearing French-Canadian man born Oreal Perras who was re-cast as “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff. Koloff was a bald and brooding brawler who preached Russian communism not just as a superior political theory to American democracy, but moreover as a signifier of cultural and athletic dominance. Intriguingly, as Ivan’s career was winding down in 1986 and he was wrestling in the then-WWF’s southern-based competing organization the National Wrestling Alliance, Ivan Koloff’s “nephew” Nikita (born Scott Simpson in Robbinsdale, Minnesota), a similarly bald, brooding, and communist brawler, debuted.
As for the WWF, their 1980s Rock and Wrestling Era included their own Red Scare of a heavyweight competitor. By 1984, Yugoslavian-born grappler Josip Peruzovic was no stranger to rings all over the world. Instead of being presented as being of Slavic, or even Croatian descent, he bizarrely enough portrayed, of all things, a Mongolian named Bepo Mongol.
Peruzovic was later re-cast though as Nikolai Volkoff, a pure-bred Russian communist hate machine. As an opponent for WWF’s flag-waving “Real American” champ Hulk Hogan in 1984, it was as if he was from central casting. Strolling confidently into the ring, and demanding that crowds across the nation in the Reagan-era ’80s pay homage to his intentional butchering of the Russian National Anthem, he became an icon. After touring the country wrestling Hogan, Volkoff was then famously paired in a tag team with the Iron Sheik — a one-time legitimate Iranian Olympic wrestler cast for pro wrestling as a pointy-booted, back-breaking and “camel clutching” evildoer — whose most significant claim to fame at that point was being defeated by aforementioned Hogan for the WWF Championship.
Impressively, due to these portrayals and the WWF’s massive popularity in the era, for many children of the 1980s, Volkoff was more of an ideal a picture of Russian people and communism in real life than even the two Mikhails, Gorbachev and Baryshnikov.
Fast forward to WWE in 2014, when Rusev and Lana debuted. Of course, given that this was 2014 and there had been minimal, if any real-life hostility between Russia and the United States in over two decades. The idea that Rusev and Lana were being so lustily booed was truly fascinating. However, it was the little bits of Ivan and Nikita Koloff, Nikolai Volkoff, the Iron Sheik, and yes, let’s go as far as to throw in Rocky Balboa’s Rocky IV foe Ivan Drago too, that were key to his presentation and made him an immediate on-screen sensation.
Rusev was undefeated as an in-ring competitor for his first 16 months on globally broadcast television. Much of the reason for this was attached to the intriguing notion that pro wrestling fans loved re-hashing Cold War angst. Lana would proclaim Rusev a “Hero of the Russian Federation,” and that he was undefeated because he had a mutual admiration with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, Putin’s noble face, cast upon a waving Russian flag would appear on the massive Jumbotron screen used during WWE’s broadcasts. Entirely ostentatious, it was the true coup de grace and impressively raised anti-Rusev sentiment among WWE’s fanbase.
Again, let’s remember that in the modern era, we’re now completely aware that professional wrestling is athletic entertainment with scripted conclusions. Thus, there’s seemingly no good reason to believe that anything happening in a professional wrestling ring is terrible enough to receive the level of vitriolic hatred that Rusev and Lana were getting on live television. Yes, Lana once insinuated on pay-per-view television that the Russians had no role in the shooting down of a Malaysian flight MH17 and praised Putin for “making fools” out of the U.S. Intriguingly enough, that tasteless comment did not receive the type of crowd anger that Rusev’s blatant use of classic pro wrestling tropes, updated for the modern day, garnered.
Wait for it, though. Here’s the gob-smacking super-stereotypically American payoff to this whole tale. It’s more amazing than the friendship between our new leaders.
Off WWE’s screens Miroslav Barnyashev (Rusev) and Catherine Perry (Lana) recently married and moved into a four bedroom home that sits on 12 acres of land in Nashville, Tennessee. Moreover, Perry, as Lana, and Barnyashev, as Rusev, are featured this season on WWE’s E! Network reality TV show Total Divas. Can’t get more American that that, right? Need more stereotypical American behavior from rasslin’ Ruskies? The aforementioned Ivan and Nikita Koloff? They are now born-again Christian ordained ministers, while Wikipedia notes that WWE’s Russian antagonist Nikolai Volkoff currently lives on a farm in Glen Arm, Maryland and owns close to 100 cats.
In a manner similar to World Wrestling Entertainment’s one-time marketing tagline, when carnies do the Cold War, “anything can happen.”