Russian Racism In Wrestling
Updated: Apr 27
Most countries have an expansive nation history or racism towards other people inside and outside of their chartered lines, drawn centuries before on a man-made map.
Worst still is the institutionalised racism that is still prevalent in most developed countries and the wide-spread domestic conflicts that occur daily due to compartmentalisation and genocide of numerous races around the world.
Due to its place on the world’s political and economical stage over the last two centuries as a mega-power and one of history’s most powerful countries, also in no small part to popular media, the spread of entertainment to all corners of the globe – the United States of America is the most famous country.
By that I mean, the most spoken and reported about, the biggest and most powerful spread of influence all comes to America.
Because of this, me, a 26-year-old British man-child and many like me were raised on good ole wrasslin', the USA’s particular formula for wrestling, especially in the 90s and especially from the South with WCW played weekly on channel 5.
This has meant that for generations the world has been focused on them, and their cultures heavily influenced by USA.
Today I want to take a look at how non-American characters have been portrayed in wrestling in the US, not only by those at the time and now, but by people around the world and what it means for everyone involved. I will focus on America’s long-running feud with Russia and the role that has played since the early 20th century in forming the foundation of the weekly shows that I consume with millions of others every week.
A National Hero
On November 22nd 2008 a young patriotic warrior debuted out of wresting school. Powerful, determined and incredibly athletic, stories quickly circulated of this up-starts dedication and physical acumen.
Reportedly working several jobs, including fulfilling the role of night club bouncer in order to pay for further wrestling training from industry legends. He'd regularly sleep in his car outside of the training school, the budding athlete shone brightly amongst his peers as he gained a reputation.
Signing his first professional contract in 2010, his impact on the roster that he joined was undeniable and instant. Over the following months he trained 6 hours a day, making sacrifices that most, including myself can't begin to comprehend. Focusing on becoming better, really starting to shine those rough edges and hone his skill-set as a performer.
Like the icons of wrestling past, this proud countryman came to the ring draped in red, white and blue, the national anthem beaming out of the speakers in the arena.
Enemies shuddered at the thought of opposing him and all of those who did dare to, quickly regretted their decisions after being swiftly dealt with by a mix of raw strength and sublime grappling technique.
Nobody could stop him, he was a power to be admired as he surpassed his peers and moved onto an even bigger show with a multiplied financial contract. His route had no end in sight. Smashing his way through several opponents, the quality of which he had not yet been tested against. His will was strong, and his body was stronger as he did everything to make his country proud in victory and the locker room take notice in their defeats at his hand.
Until one day, a legendary foe appeared to smear his national pride.
Russia Vs USA. A battle for the ages, the summer heat beamed down and the crowd bayed in anticipation, as these two 'mega powers' collided. A fight for national pride, honour and respect.
The young man had energy and enthusiasm but his rival was filled with hatred for his country, a veteran in the ring and a psychological general. The war was fierce and hard fought, but in the end the wily foreign vet defeated the youthful will of his opposition.
You'd be mistaken for thinking that the crowd would be dissapointed to see their newest hero defeated, after such a long and had-earned undefeated streak, but they weren't. I'd forgive you for thinking the fans would be dejected by the veteran defeating the younger prodigy, killing his momentum, undermining all of the hours of grinding, all of the sacrifice, wasted.
But the crowd, especially the young children, cheered in the face of this defeat. They praised the foreigner coming back part-time and taking the spotlight from such a bright promise. This never happens in wrestling, why did they react this way?
Ah, I see. The person's story I've just spoken about happens to be Rusev? He's Russian? The Bulgarian Brute? So even though everything he has done makes me like him, respect him and appreciate all he has done to be able to perform at such a high level and entertain me every week?
Even if I admire his charisma, am in awe of his physical prowess, his strength his speed? His look, his entrance music, his move-set are all impeccable. Why aren't I supporting this guy again? Oh yeah. He’s Russian, right.
Stars & Sickle & Hammer & Stripes
The cold war started between The Soviet Union & the USA after the second world war in 1947. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were the world’s strongest nations. They were called the superpowers.
The United States and the Soviet Union continued in a nuclear arms race. In 1959, Cuba became a communist country and the Soviets secretly put missiles there. President Kennedy was afraid the Soviet Union would attack the United States. This conflict was called the Cuban Missile Crisis. For six days, nuclear war seemed possible.
Beginning in the late 1950's, space would become another dramatic arena for this competition, as each side sought to prove the superiority of its technology, its military firepower and–by extension–its political-economic system.
Then in 1989 the fall of communism happened in Eastern Europe along with the Berlin wall. 1991 saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. But most importantly David Hasslehoff turned up in a Piano Tie and started singing to the crowds. Thanks Dave.
“The differences today are usually matters of degree. And we cannot understand and attack our contemporary problems, if we are bound by traditional labels and worn-out slogans of an earlier era. But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that our rhetoric has not kept pace with the speed of social and economic change.
” – “What we need is not labels and cliches, but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved…” A statement that holds true today in 2019 as it did in 1962 when John F. Kennedy said those exact words at Yale University.
Although the Cold War ended almost 30 years ago, wrestling still wants to hang onto this trope of the evil European. The cunning and sneaky Russian out to deface the USA and it's star spangled banner. Why? Where did it all start in wrestling? Let's take a look a little deeper.
So now we are all on the same page as to the background of where the negative energy, the ill feeling, the outright racist approach of some of the wrestling stories, that we will be exploring further. Let's start at the beginning, and take a look at...
Now back to my original point, let’s hear a little bit more about Miroslav Barnyashev, known in WWE as Rusev.
He debuted against non-white, non USA WWE stars: Sin Cara, Xavier woods, R Truth, Sin Cara, Xaxier Woods, R Truth, R Truth, R Truth, Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston were his first matches on the main roster.
Managed by Lana, another Eastern European stereotype straight out of 1985 played by American C.J Perry.
Accompanied by the Russian national anthem, they proudly waved the Russian flags about and Lana spoke to how proud they both were to be Russian and strong.
An absolute beast in and out of the ring, with extremely smooth and competent wrestling style, powerhouse technique and use of Olympic style move-set, such as German suplex, old school wrestling take-downs, overpowered submissions and supreme grappling ability.
His main goal was to be the absolute best athlete and assert his dominance over the roster by thrashing all those who stood in his path. WWE lined up jobber after jobber, developmental talent and even some established stars. None of which could conquer the Bulgarian brute.
One after one, his good guy adversaries got into the ring, spouting pride in the good ole US of A, honour in defending their great country from the invasion of the villainous Rusev. A man who up until that point had done nothing in matches other than be the better wrestler.
Until, doo-doo-doo-doo! A wild John Cena appears and the star spangled banner draped the young upstart’s career and the potential.
It’s this approach in the modern day which draws the ire of so many wrestling fans. We’ve seen this story play out numerous times, hulk Hogan defeating Nikolai Volkoff (Croatian) & Boris Zhukov (American), other all-Americans such as Lex Luger, Sergeant Slaughter, Kurt angle and Jack Swagger all dominating their foreign adversaries.
Are you still feeling sports entertained? Or like me, are you tired of this lazy story telling and want to see a different approach to nationalism and race within wrestling.
None of them are Russian
Another issue some have with the portrayal of these characters is that they are rarely, if ever, played in the ring by a wrestler from the same country as the character.
Boris Alexiev aka Santino Marella is Canadian.
Ivan Koloff was Canadian.
Nikita Koloff is American.
Alex Koslov is Moldovan.
Lana is American.
Boris Malenko was American.
Rusev is Bulgarian.
Alexis Smirnoff is Canadian.
Soldat Ustinov is American.
Nikolai Volkoff was Croatian.
Boris Zhukov is American.
This specific point in my opinion is mute. The idea that you can't play a different nationality on television as a character, in a role for entertainment is bullshit.
Did those same detractors have an issue with Chiwitel Ejifor, a British-Nigerian man playing a New York slave?
You do know that Daenerys Targaryen isn't actually played by a world conquering, medieval dragon empress?
Spock isn't portrayed by a gallivanting galactic Vulcan, they aren't even his real ears?
You do know Obi-Wan's actor isn't actually cutting fools heads off with a sword made out of fucking laser-beams in the real world, right? RIGHT?
I think that you can play any role you want, if you respect the cultural identity of the nationality in that role. The problem comes when trying to been as Russian makes you act like a stereo-typical Russian archetype.
There are 144 million people living in Russian right now. Do you really think they all wave hammer and sickle flags around, wearing Cossack hat’s and hating America? Sure, some are. The same way that some people in the UK are eating a bag of fish and chips and sipping on their tea right now.
But that doesn’t mean every Russian character WWE creates must fit within this archaic mould.
It Just Doesn't Work Anymore
Personally, I see the issue stemming on from mass generalisation and the need to fit millions of people into brackets. Frameworks of hatred that allow fans to cheer the all-american super hero and reject the ideas of those from other countries.
The wrestling industries historic reliance on good vs evil, the need for the fans to support a baby-face and buy tickets to see them. While banding together to oppose the evil heels and pay money to hopefully see them get beaten. This constant propagation of black vs white, with no area for grey, no nuance, no second guessing or change.
USA vs the world is one of the most overdone and egregiously misused tropes in all of sports entertainment.
And as the fans become ever smarter, ever more connected by the internet, we've seen a dramatic shift in the audience’s response to this over-trodden tripe during the last 20 years and entertainment, especially WWE needs to keep up.
The company has one of the world's most successful online presence gets millions of views on most everything they post to their several very well followed social media platforms, connect with hundreds of millions around the globe, but still somehow have let this slip and never gotten rid of something as outdated as ideas of the cold war itself.
Imagine Manchester United fans booing Paul Pogba because he is French.
Imagine if the Spurs basketball fans had shunned Tim Duncan, arguably the best foreign player to ever throw a ball in the NBA and they hadn't gone on to make him captain, and to win five titles.
Centre court of Wimbledon and the match is a disaster as Rafael Nadal and Rodger Federa battle it out in the final, showered in litter, abuse hurled at both men on every swing of the racket because they aren't British.
Sports have moved on. More importantly the world has moved on. We are different now as a culture, within our communities where race and nationality, especially where I live in cities like London are becoming more vague and blurred, at the same time becoming more accepted that its ever been, we are more proud of our mixed heritage and are realising the wonder and beauty of learning from one another and collaborating for a brighter world, together.
Let me choose my favourite wrestler. Let me boo who I want and cheer who I want.
I don't dislike Roman Reigns because he is Samoan, or American. I dislike Roman because of his personality, his charisma and general Ora, which comes from within him and has nothing to do with his heritage or race. In fact that's one of the massive positives in my eyes for Reigns, his illustrious family tree plays so nicely into his character, his cousins, his uncles, his brothers all legends that have laid the gauntlet for him to try and beat.
I don't hate the Great Khali's in-ring character because he is Indian or Asian. Nor because he is vegan. I respect the ability to get so fucking jacked on a restricted diet. I bet he eats a shit ton of delicious food every day. His body must be so pure. My body shakes when he comes on the television and my hand spontaneously reaches for the controller. That failing my legs autonomously walk me out of sight of the screen as my stomach sinks. But not in anyway because of his nationality.
Because he is shit at wrestling and has tiny shins.