SPOILER ALERT: This text is a reflection on the 2018 spy thriller Red Sparrow. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to read on after a trip to the movies.
You may ask what a racy flick has to do with current political affairs, because, of course, it is fiction and meant to entertain rather than educate. That notwithstanding, it can tell us a lot about stereotypes, moral perceptions of right and wrong and about who is the good and the bad guys. Now don’t get me wrong; I think that Red Sparrow is an entertaining movie which I enjoyed watching. Alas, finding it hard to switch off the philologist and security studies researcher, I just couldn’t ignore the socio-political context and stop analyzing it from a humanities point of view.
Stereotypes shaping action
First things first: know that you will find stereotypes in every movie and in every country. They usually centre on a nation’s cultural representation and its associations. Obviously not without stereotypes myself, I think it’s important to question and reflect on them. In Russia’s case, the combination of sinister spy agencies and graceful ballet seems like a perfect hit regarding stereotypes – I can’t be the only one to think about a ‘black swan’ turning into a ‘red sparrow’. Striking me as more important however are the narratives presented in Red Sparrow: Russians still thinking the Cold War has never ended; Russians still continuing to run a spy program initiated by Khrushchev in the 50s; the US and Russia still being enemies and Eastern Europe (Budapest, Vienna) still serving as a spy hub. I, for one, think that it’s dangerous to keep chattering about a “new” Cold War: If we suggest to ourselves that we, in fact, are in that new Cold War, our possibilities to act are limited, because we made ourselves perceive reality in a certain way. While Russia has obviously morphed from the Soviet Union and continues to share certain attributes with it, it is still not the same system or state. When talking about a “new” Cold War, Western countries needlessly blind themselves to important changes in ideology, self-perception and, in the end, foreign and security policy. That is why I criticize the narrative we are in and argue for a reflection on the term “war” and its meaning.
I memorized a scene which struck me as rather exaggerated in its Ostalgie mixed with a slight of dread and that tells us a lot about how the West perceives Russia nowadays. It’s in School No.4, in class, and it’s all about ideology. Cold War never ended, we have to do everything for the president (read: the party), boys and girls are sitting separately in class, their clothes seem to come right from the 50s, and the teacher is a strict, elderly soviet-style ideologist lady. (Caveat: not having been to any Russian spy school, the bit about exaggeration is me speculating – maybe that’s how they do look from the inside, after all.) I describe the formula of the movie as ‘The Soviet Union or past in general + Social Media’. In a nod to 21st century public debate topics, homosexuality (or, rather: Russian discrimination of gay people) is not missing either. A young woman, destined to be a so-called ‘red sparrow’ spy, denounces a man as “degenerated.” The teacher then clarifies: he’s homosexual. She then asks the woman to go down on a man, but there’s a crux: she can’t (or won’t), and it is made to appear like she is homosexual herself. The teaching moral of the scene seems to be: suppress your feelings and everything personal, act like a machine to be a good Russian spy and serve your country. Russian women are generally portrayed as young and super-hot (the elder ones are still useful as ideologists), but in this, Red Sparrow is well in line with most other blockbuster movies. Still, the main character is not without appeal – a strong woman who gets what she wants. I cannot comment on the weird Russian accents of most of the actors (mainly cast from outside Russia): for a Russian-speaker they were super-weird, but I appreciate the effort. The US is presented to have similar clandestine methods as do the Russians, but at least their people have freedom. The American agent, always wanting to help, is the good guy: Re-enter the shining city upon a hill, promoting liberalism, freedom, and human rights.
On good and bad treason
Red Sparrow ends on a tune of hope: the mole reveals himself to Dominika (the main character). A high-ranking officer in the Russian military, he has been leaking information the US for years. He strives to keep open the dialogue between Russia and the West, regarding this as the only chance for a peaceful future. Dominika decides not to denounce him but to continue his work. For me, this is particularly interesting, as it is exactly what Mette Skak describes to be the greatest fear of the Russian regime: the beginning of a “colour revolution” inside Russia. According to Skak, Russian strategic culture – “security policy habits of mind” [p. 324] – is dominated/kept by the chekisty (former KGB officers with a certain mindset and groupthink, e.g. Andropov, Primakov, Putin, Patrushev, the Soviet Union as a counterintelligence state). This strategic culture is what caused the Kremlin to intervene in Ukraine in 2014. “The Maidan Revolution was perceived as threatening spillover into Russia, an event misperceived […] to have been instigated by the US.” [p. 324] Hence, foreign policy is linked to domestic considerations. The end of the movie shows a clear example of “ideological subversion” [p. 329] that affects internal security, although it is limited to one individual and does not lead to mass protests, as a “colour revolution” would do. Additionally, this scene exemplifies that there is no real dialogue on the same level between Russia and the US and in a certain way the US wins.
I am convinced that the intersection between security policy and popular culture offers a promising field of study, and Red Sparrow neatly illustrates why. It is often worth to look at a topic from a different perspective. The last decade saw an emerging recognition of language and culture as crucial elements to strategic culture, ideological narratives and soft power. Security scholars and practitioners, flock the movie theatres!
Featured image (top): Flickr/Jennifer Lawrence Films
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