The older you get, the more implausible the notion of the ‘foreign heel’ becomes. There’s not a chance the trope will be truly buried in some roadside ditch on the road forward (whatever the hell that means in wrestling philosophy). There will always be children, and simplistic adults, sure, who buy into Middle-Eastern madmen, snotty Brits, cowardly Frenchmen, and grunting islanders from the South Pacific as accurate portrayals rather than crude caricatures. Selling these one-note brutes to the gallery is dependent on the audience remaining a few shades ignorant. You may wonder why WWE feels weird dipping their toes in the ‘smart mark’ end of the pool; it’s because there’s an easier sell elsewhere.
Nikolai Volkoff and Nikita Koloff, polar opposites in their ability to acutely menace, were the cable-era Russians. Volkoff slow-kicked his way into title bouts with patriotic Hulk Hogan, while audiences didn’t know (or would particularly care) that the man beneath the red trunks was an anti-Socialist expatriate from Yugoslavia. Koloff didn’t even have a natural accent to mask reality, his frightening musculature had to ward off anyone who may question whether or not he was actually Nelson Simpson from Minneapolis.
Like fictional Uncle Ivan, Nikita and the unrelated Volkoff were playing off Cold War fervor. Early in Ivan’s reign of terror, children in school practiced hiding under wooden desks in case the Soviets fired a nuclear missile in the vicinity of the schoolhouse (because wood and metal will save you from the fall-out, thank you Lewis Black for pointing that out).
Point being, the most effective foreign villains had the news to play off of. As time passed, and America tagged on more layers of sensitivity, the roles dried up. WWE dare not exploit 9/11 with a true terrorist character, although Muhammad Hassan three years later went from angry Arab-American who was tired of prejudice (a remarkable direction with new possibilities) to Iron Sheik-knockoff within five months. His associate, Shawn Daivari, took the act to TNA as Sheik Abdul Bashir, complete with the sounds of planes crashing in his theme music.
The deluge of baddies that challenge the ‘Murican way slowed to a crawl by the time Rusev, the digital-age Russian, emerged in 2014, six years after Vladimir Kozlov barely dented perceived American avarice and decadence. At the time of this year’s Royal Rumble, Rusev, making a cameo through an NXT ‘weekend furlough’ we’ll say, was Bulgarian (Miroslav Barnyashev’s legitimate nationality). In Rusev’s re-debut following WrestleMania XXX, he would soon move to Russia, a distance of over 1100 miles from his homeland. Maybe he wanted to move his kids to a safer neighborhood, who knows?
Getting fans to boo Rusev was contingent on certain factors, namely long-time fans in their thirties either remembering the decaying days of the USSR before the late 1980’s fall, or even Rocky Balboa spurring the fall by knocking out wrought-iron-strong Ivan Drago on Christmas Day for no money. That, or they were hoping today’s fan could get off Instagram and SnapChat long enough to pay attention to the Crimea/Ukraine conflicts that came to a head in February and March of this year.
Cutting to the chase, fans don’t hate Rusev the way they hated Volkoff’s defiant anthem singing 30 years ago. Sometimes there’s scattered boos when the big Russian flag drops from the rafters after a Rusev victory. More often, the image of Vladimir Putin is booed when the comely Lana prompts it. In other words, the nationalist schtick’s potency is contingent on a picture of a foreign leader. Chances are, most fans probably don’t even know who Putin is. There’s a reason the photo is of him scowling, and not eating an ice cream cone.
Without a concrete basis to hate Rusev aside from “Grrr, arghh, America, grrrr!”, WWE has inadvertently left the door open to make the country-hopper into a sympathetic figure.
It all began Monday when temporary-GM Daniel Bryan ordered Rusev into an ultimatum, as penance for loyalty to the Authority: either recite our Pledge of Allegiance, or defend the United States title against the odds in a battle royal. Good thing Rusev isn’t Canadian, otherwise Bryan may have coerced him into denouncing Gordie Howe and the metric system.
The angle isn’t patently offensive so much as it’s just dumb. How would Bryan or Sgt. Slaughter (sent out in his elderly age to intimidate Rusev into reciting the Pledge) be a hero in this instance? If anything, Rusev’s more heroic for standing up for what he believes in. WWE took a character with no depth outside the Volkoff 1980’s template and imbued him with a sense of ironic heroism.
The battle royal ended up taking place on Smackdown, the worn-out shoebox full of unused ideas that occupies your Friday night. Faced with long odds, Rusev managed to retain his title, eliminating Jack Swagger (who also insinuated himself into the Pledge coercion).
Reveling when the foreign monster is finally conquered is dependent on us hating the foreign monster in the first place. Not only has WWE not provided a good reason to hate Rusev, they’re giving us reasons to respect him.
Maybe he needs to sing more?
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