Most Westerners, and certainly most Americans, think their side won the Cold War hands down. But there has always been an influential strain in American cultural circles that is altogether more sympathetic to Soviet Communism. From the dewy-eyed romanticism about the Russian Revolution of the American author John Reed (Ten Days That Shook The World) to the defenders of Alger Hiss in the 1950s, they stoutly promoted the USSR’s enlightened values against America’s unfettered capitalism.
The writers and producers of the hit TV drama series The Americans, recently on ITV, seem to be cut from the same cloth. It is said to have been inspired by the story of Anna Chapman, the attractive young “sleeper” planted by the Russians in suburban Washington and expelled in 2010, who will be remembered only as one of the most unsuccessful spies who ever lived.
The Americans is set in an earlier era, the 1980s, when such “sleepers” could still do enormous damage. The main protagonists — it is not an exaggeration to call them the heroes — are a young married couple living in suburban Washington who, with their two children, appear to be the archetypical all-American family. But they are KGB agents, Russians through and through, planted in America years earlier, and their marriage is one of convenience, dictated by Moscow — the ensuing emotional conflict is a running theme.
Not only are they agents, they are spectacularly successful ones: they constantly outwit their plodding FBI rivals, carry out sensational intelligence coups, and even survive a torture session when their controllers (wrongly) suspect they may have been turned. Even this cannot dent their devotion to the Communist cause. He is handsome, she is beautiful, and they are both sexy as hell, ever willing to hop into bed (literally) with the enemy for the sake of the struggle.
The message is clear: they are the good guys. From the first episode, we are drawn to sympathise with them and hope they will survive their weekly battle with the awful Americans.
The KGB general who is their controller in Moscow is portrayed as a lonely, warmhearted guy who cares only about his dog and his agents’ welfare. He is assassinated in the heart of the Soviet capital by a ruthless CIA hitman, along with two other top-ranking KGB men. (I must have missed this extraordinary exploit at the time.)
Surprisingly, The Americans was made for the FX cable channel, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. The first 13-part series has been a critical and commercial success, so much so that a second has already been commissioned. The way things are going, it will probably end with a clear Soviet victory in 1989.