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The Cold War gets prime time

NEW YORK — Vladimir Putin is great for television. And that is not only because the Russian President is a former KGB officer with a flair for grandiosity. Putin deserves credit as a muse for American entertainment.

NEW YORK — Vladimir Putin is great for television. And that is not only because the Russian President is a former KGB officer with a flair for grandiosity. Putin deserves credit as a muse for American entertainment.

In the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin and post-Soviet laissez-faire, movies and television mostly depicted Russians as mobsters, prostitutes and the occasional disaffected scientist. Now, the Kremlin is once again controlled by an autocrat and has returned to the top of the enemies list — not only in dramas set in the past, but also in those set in the present and future.

Take The Americans, an FX period drama about undercover KGB spies in the era of Ronald Reagan that has attracted a devoted following and imitators. ABC showed The Assets, a mini series about a real-life spy, Aldrich Ames, a United States counter-intelligence officer who sold secrets to Moscow in the 1980s and ’90s. That, too, was a period piece.

Allegiance, a new NBC drama this fall, is set not in the Cold War past, but in a Cold War present. Hope Davis plays a former Russian spy who quit intelligence work to marry an American, but is coerced by her former bosses to return to espionage when her son joins the CIA. The Russia intelligence service may now call itself the SVR and not the KGB, but “the old rules of the organisation are the same”, a Russian spy master hisses at a turncoat agent in the show, as he prepares to burn him alive.

The Last Ship, a TNT thriller drags the superpower stand-off into the future: Even in a post-apocalyptic world, where most of the world’s population has been wiped out by a virus, Moscow cannot be trusted. When the US captain of a naval destroyer warns his Russian counterpart, a vice admiral, that the Russian ship will not have enough food, the latter asks one of his officers to hand him his pistol — and shoots the said officer in the head. “One less mouth to feed,” explains the vice admiral.

What is paradoxical about the newly demonised Russia is that in real life, the country is no longer an outright enemy or even the rival superpower. Tensions between Washington and Moscow are high, but terrorism, the Middle East and rogue nations such as North Korea are a more immediate menace to national security. That makes it easier — and more fun — to paint the Kremlin red.

Television and entertainment took Russia less seriously when it was the Soviet Union and really was America’s most dangerous adversary.

But it is not fashionable anymore. When Covert Affairs began in 2010, the heroine, a CIA rookie, is recruited for her first big assignment because she is needed to help the agency reel in a high-level defector. Mostly, what has changed in the portrayal of post-Communist Russia is not the tone, but the intensity. Russians used to be relegated to secondary roles; now, Russian spies and their masters are the protagonists. Thanks largely to Putin, Russia looms so large that it fills the small screen. THE NEW YORK TIMES

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