The Americans, Season 1

The Americans Shows Exactly Why the Soviet Union Fell
Talking television.
April 3 2013 11:00 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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What does a Russian make of the show’s depiction of Soviets?

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn/FX.

In Slate’s TV Club for The Americans—which was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of the Slate Group's chairman and editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg—June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner. This week she chats with Masha Gessen, director of Radio Liberty's Russian service and author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

June Thomas: Masha, it’s so kind of you to talk about The Americans with me. I’m going to begin with a big, overbroad question, but it’s the thing I’ve been dying to ask you: As someone who came to America from Russia at about the time this show is set, does the portrayal of Russians in the final decade of the Soviet Union ring true to you?

Masha Gessen: June, I am so grateful you turned me on to this show. The incredible thing about The Americans is that I find it utterly believable. I don't mean some of the latest plot turns or the very shaky premise that Philip and Elizabeth could, as adults, have learned to speak English like natives, but the overall psychology has me hooked.

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My favorite moment comes when Nina, the FBI mole in the KGB rezidentura, chides Stan, her handler, for seeing moral issues in black-and-white, as Americans are prone to do. She explains that for Russians, all things are seen in shades of gray. I am willing to bet that this conversation actually took place between uncounted scores of Russian-American couples in the 1980s. Emigrés from the late Soviet Union brought with them a wholly relativistic view of morality and an utter disregard for convention that was in any way associated with the state—like marriage. So Nina is utterly oblivious to Stan's guilt about cheating on his wife or taking advantage of Nina herself, or to his extreme discomfort with her trading sexual favors with her boss for secrets she brings back to her lover.

This is also what makes the story of Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage so compelling to me: Not only are they two spies stuck in an arranged marriage each of them wishes and fears might become real—they are two Russians stuck in an American marriage each of them wishes and fears might become real. When Elizabeth asks Philip whether he had sex with an old lover, Irina, Philip lies not just because he is a spy trained always to lie—especially about sex—but also because he is a Russian married man, which also means he is trained to lie, especially about sex. If the Western sexual revolution brought sex out into the public sphere, the silent Russian sexual revolution simply severed the automatic connection between sex and relationships and especially marriages—but no one ever talked about it. I found the whole separation storyline in Episode 9 heartbreaking for this very reason: Elizabeth and Philip separate like Americans, in a way that feels profoundly foreign to them, mouthing stock American lines to their American kids. Elizabeth's mention of her imaginary parents who never would have considered separating is a particularly nice touch.

Thomas: That's fascinating. It also brings up one of the real-world parallels the show does so well. In The Americans, the Jenningses can't share their cultural attitudes and insights—about sexual fidelity in marriage or the right way to barbecue—because they're deep-cover spies. They’re not typical, but there's always a tendency for the process of assimilation to discourage immigrants from sharing lessons from their home countries. I bet Russians have some useful thoughts about how to teach mathematics, and Brits could share ideas on how to provide health care to the entire population, but that exchange never seems to happen.

The show is great at pointing out the error of allowing sentiment into the cold business of international relations. All the tragic events of this week—two deaths and an escalation in Cold War tensions, not to mention the loss of Stan's honor—stem from emotions that should probably have been controlled: Amador's jealousy and the FBI agents' need for revenge. Am I crazy to take this lesson from the episode?

Gessen: I'm not sure I would agree. These spies deal in emotions—they trade on trust, affection, sexual attraction. The Russians are shown to be much better at it than the Americans, again because the Americans are too earnest for this job (or this life). But still, I don't think the lesson is that we shouldn’t let emotions into the business of international relations; I think it's about the pain and, actually, the catastrophe of losing at your own game.

Thomas: You mean, the Soviets were better at the endless deceptions of the spy game—Philip, as Clark, doesn't hesitate to tell Martha that "this is real," when Clark himself doesn’t even exist, while Stan is deeply convicted about manipulating Nina—and yet they still lost the Cold War? Because their system was so deeply flawed that everyone, including most of their own spies, would rather be here than there?

OK, let me try another parallel—sorry, I’m a regular Agnes Martin today. Is Russia today like the FBI agents in this episode—angry and hurt and lashing out to remind everyone they're still powerful?

Gessen: I like your second parallel better. I love it, in fact.

As to why Russia lost the Cold War, to the extent that it had to do with the spy game, which isn't to a very large extent, it was because Russian spies were more like the rezidentura than like Philip and Elizabeth.

Another point I happily grant the writers of The Americans is the portrayal of the rezidentura, the secret-police outpost at the Soviet Embassy: I think it is uncannily accurate. Do you ever wonder what all those people with the folders and the filing cabinets and the desks and the phones are doing there? Especially those of them who know nothing about what they are doing there, like Vlad, who was killed in this week's episode? Well, the answer is: collecting unfathomable amounts of useless information. Toward the end of the Soviet Union, most of the KGB had become dysfunctional. Thousands of agents in the country and abroad were assembling vast files of information that was often public—often, in fact, it was press clippings—as well as writing endless reports on their every move. The center was incapable of digesting even a small part of this information. The organization turned into a giant paper jam. And this was one of the reasons the Soviet system collapsed.

Thomas: That was also true of the suburban spies who were sent back to Russia a couple of years ago, of course. A lot of the material they supplied was stuff that could be found on public websites.

Gessen: There was a couple among them, by the way, living in Cambridge, Mass., with a couple of teenage children, one of whom had no idea that his parents were Russian. They claimed they were French Canadians—to explain away their accents (see my point about grown-ups being unable to learn English well enough to pose as natives). When they were sent back, one of their sons begged to be allowed to stay at the school he had been attending, but, from what I understand, he had to accept his new motherland was Russia.

Thomas: Joe Weisberg has said that when he was creating The Americans, Paige and Henry, the children who don't know their parents' true identities, were inspired by CIA agents' kids. At some point, agents sit down their children and come clean about their real employer. I have friends who went through this—it sounds as unsettling and disruptive as a “mom and dad, I’m gay” conversation, or the "we're separating" chat that Philip and Elizabeth had with their kids.

Gessen: Right. Although there is a significant added source of discomfort in the case of sleepers: The kids literally learn something new about who they themselves are, not just their parents.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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