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Rocky IV: The one with the Russian

Note: This essay was originally written and published on my old blog, in 2012

Statue of Rocky Balboa in Serba
Rocky in Serbia, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All of the Rocky movies appeared on Netflix recently, and I was inspired to put them on in the background while I was doing some mindless busy work. Ah! How they bring back my childhood. Anyway, I was particularly excited to watch Rocky IV, “the one with the Russian,” for the first time since it came out in 1985. At that time, I was ten and didn’t particularly know anything about Russia. The Cold War had been reignited and I was scared of nuclear war. I took the movie at face value, enjoyed it, was mildly interested in the scenes where Rocky is (supposedly) in the Soviet Union. The message I got about the USSR at that time was mainly that it’s cold there, the people are apparently big and scary, and they have a lot of technology.

Watching it twenty-seven years later, as a professor of Russian history whose students don’t even remember a world in which a Cold War existed, was of course very different. I expected to giggle at the cliches about Russians (yeah, they’re not any bigger on average than we are, duh), but my dim memories of the movie had not prepared me for how hilariously, amazingly backward the whole portrayal is of Soviet athletes versus Americans.

The Russian boxer is characterized in the movie as almost super-human not just because of his size, but mainly because of the super-cutting-edge technology his team of top trainers use (lots of rooms full of flashing lights!), while Rocky is of course all natural, just one man against the world, able to beat stronger opponents through sheer will power and his ability to endlessly take a beating. When he travels to the “Soviet Union” to train for his big face-off, Rocky demands not a high-tech training center equivalent to what his opponent is using, but a humble cabin off in the snow somewhere (Russia is cold, yo). He runs in thigh-high snow, he climbs mountains (is he supposed to be in the Urals? there aren’t a lot of mountains in Russia, actually, and none of them are very impressive looking), he throws logs around. That’s our authentic Philly boy, there.

There are so many things wrong about this that it’s hard to know where to start.

First, in the 1980s, to our detriment, we vastly over-estimated both the economic and technological power of the Soviet Union. Mind you, we had to guess because the USSR worked very hard to prevent an accurate picture of their real abilities from reaching the West, but our guesses were very, very wrong. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of them must be that we let our fear become reality. We were afraid the USSR was ahead of us in technology, so we assumed they were ahead of us in technology. Sometimes that kind of thinking can be useful — be prepared for the worst case scenario, right? But we acted on this fear, even though there was no evidence that it was substantiated, in all kinds of ways that are still hurting us today (mainly by running up our national debt to astronomical levels in a race to “match” an opponent that actually was way behind us from the beginning).

What we now know about Soviet technology in the 1980s is that it was woefully behind western standards and falling farther behind every day. The first scene of supposedly Soviet high tech that I saw when re-watching Rocky IV made me laugh out loud.

Yeah, right — they wished.

The Soviets obtained the technology for microcomputers, for example, quite early, but had endless delays in their attempts to reverse-engineer it, and by the 80s, from what I’ve read, they had started buying many of the parts, and some whole computers, from abroad. In 1985 when I first watched Rocky IV I had had a TRS-80 personal computer in my family home for 5 years already, but the USSR as a nation was still struggling to develop and distribute comparable technology.

I’m generalizing, of course — there were a few areas of technology where the Soviets put all the investment they were capable of (as far as I know, the first personal computers that got into classrooms in the latter part of the 80s seemed to have been developed for military purposes), but athletics wasn’t one of those areas. And in any case the level of investment they were capable of in the 80s was basically in the realm of imaginary numbers — in a nutshell, the empire collapsed a few short years later because they’d been running on imaginary numbers for decades. By 1980 at least, the game was already up for the Soviet Union — this just wasn’t admitted to until 1989 and beyond.*

If you remember watching the Olympics in those years you know the Soviets did put on a show of strength — that was part of the game of the Cold War. There’s some truth to the cliche of those cold-eyed coaches who pushed their athletes to the limits and achieved huge successes. But don’t confuse a hard-as-nails coach with technological or economic superiority.

Why does the movie, Rocky IV, portray Soviet strength in technological terms? Well, as I’ve said it wasn’t implausible to an American audience at the time because we didn’t know the truth, but it’s also no doubt because the robot-like Soviet villain makes such a nice contrast to our humble homeboy Rocky Balboa. Throughout all the Rocky movies there’s a running theme that Rocky wins not so much because he’s stronger or a better boxer, but because he can take punishment and stay standing. He is a hero for his ability to withstand suffering.

This is astounding, that such an iconic American hero-figure is portrayed this way. The standard narratives of what Americans are all about have never had anything to do with suffering. In most American myths, we are pioneering, we are adventurous, we are brave, chivalrous, we are often the plucky underdog. But looking on ourselves as the underdog had to be getting pretty difficult after World War II, when we were essentially the only Western power left standing, and certainly by the late Cold War, when we more or less ruled the globe. Clearly Rocky is a plucky underdog type, calling on an origins myth (we became Americans, gaining our independence from Britain, against the odds, so somehow we’re still underdogs at heart), but adding this layer of suffering is curious, to say the least, especially at a time when Americans seemed unbeatable.

To a Russianist, the words “hero for his ability to withstand suffering” is overwhelmingly Russian. The word “suffering” in Russian — stradanie — is full of deep cultural associations. A big part of the reason is that Russian Orthodox Christianity values suffering (and humility) much more overtly than most other Christian Churches. As I understand it (not being an expert by any means in the theology), suffering is a path to God. Those who endure great suffering and remain devoted to God are often recognized as saints — it’s one of the highest virtues.

In a general cultural way, for Russians suffering is understood as an inevitable fact of life (in stark contrast to the American view, where the pursuit of happiness is actually a right of all people in our Declaration of Independence). What matters when suffering is inevitable is that you keep standing. Like…Rocky Balboa.

And then, in historical terms, no one can deny that Russians have endured a hell of a lot of suffering over the centuries. Suffering isn’t something you can quantify, but most people familiar with Russian history and the histories of western Europe are struck by the sheer ubiquity of suffering in Russia. Mind you, western Europe (and since it was founded the U.S. too) are the real exceptions here, if you’re looking at the whole globe. It’s a false comparison. Nevertheless, Russians have compared themselves to the West since at least the beginning of the 18th century, and so it is that comparison that contributes to Russians’ sense of themselves as a historical people. And that sense of themselves is colored by endless stories of suffering. Where Americans have won nearly all of our wars and only experienced major bloodshed on our soil once (when we fought ourselves), have never experienced foreign invasion, and have never been targeted for takeover and elimination by a foreign power, Russians have experienced all these national tragedies over and over.

A really abbreviated list of just the worst national tragedies and humiliations would include:

  • Devastation and then foreign rule at the hands of Mongols (1247-1380)

  • Terrible defeat at the hands of Crimean Tatars 1571

  • Vicious internal warfare, most notoriously at the hands of Ivan the Terrible (1560s and 70s mostly), plus a big loss in the Livonian War

  • Near takeover by Poles, resolved in the nick of time in 1613 by the election of a new monarch

  • Terrible loss to the Turks in 1711

  • Crushing defeat at Napoleon’s hands (1807)

  • Crimean War (1853-56) — first major, lasting military loss since Russia became a Great Power

  • Russo-Japanese War (1905) — humiliating loss to a tiny peripheral nation that contributed to bringing down the monarchy

  • World War I (1917) — in the middle of revolution, the Russians made a separate peace with Germany on punishing terms

  • Relatively bloodless revolution devolves into destructive Civil War (1918-23)

  • Stalin effectively declares war on his own people (1929-1953) — collectivization, purges

  • The Cold War (1949-1991) — Gorbachev essentially threw in the towel, arguably bringing to an end (for now) Russia’s place as a Great Power in Europe

Okay, those are just the Big Events (and note how many times Russians suffered at the hands of their own government, in addition to their vulnerability to foreign invaders, due largely to the absence of natural defenses).

Here’s another list of just some really BIG ways Russians have suffered as a people:

  • Enserfment of the vast majority of the population (arguably beginning in 1649, arguably ending in 1861 but arguably not really ended until it really went out with a bang with Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization which was a tragedy in itself…but it’s a really long story)

  • A rigid system of hereditary social estates, police surveillance, and passport restrictions that severely limited the life choices of every Russian (developing in bits and pieces over time, but arguably oppressive at least from the 18th century to the present)

  • Economic backwardness — due to a variety of geographical factors as well as the mistakes of a long series of regimes, and “backward” only relative to western Europe, the fact is that famines are common throughout Russian history, industrial development was very slow, and access to wealth was/is restricted to a miniscule portion of the population…more or less from the 13th-century Mongol invasion to the present.

And this is just the r e a l l y big stuff. So let’s go ahead and conclude that when it comes to suffering, Russians know what they’re talking about.

Back to Rocky IV. Now that you know how important the concept of enduring suffering and staying on your feet is to Russians, and their long legacy of economic and technological backwardness, which was certainly still relevant in 1985, look again at Rocky Balboa, running through snow, pushing through the pain, taking cruel punishment, but still standing in the end. Note that Rocky is also decidedly working class — the Soviet Union was founded as a working-class state, and while the falseness of that claim is legendary, the claim was still an important part of the Soviet national myth. And look at Ivan Drago, surrounded by coaches and computers and drugs, using fancy machines to push himself to unprecedented capabilities (isn’t striving and achieving without regard to any old-world notions like social class part of the American myth? Isn’t innovation — especially in technology — also a big part of how we see ourselves?). This is the crazy, astounding thing about Rocky IV:

Rocky is the Russian, and “the Russian” is really the American.

Mind — blown.

* While the USSR was definitely behind on technology, I want to point out that they may well have been ahead on the brain power that is needed to make technology work — Soviet programmers were relatively well-supported and very well-educated, and I’ve read of underground experiments on the early internet in the ’80s, among countless examples of extraordinary intellectual achievements in early Soviet computer science. To this day Russian programmers tend to lead the world. What they lacked in the ’80s was money, mainly, though there were also bureaucratic, ideological, and infrastructure-related obstacles. A final unrelated note because I can’t not mention it — did you know the Russians invented tetris? Remind me to tell you my tetris joke sometime.

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