I’m hooked on the new TV show, The Americans. The show is about deeply embedded Soviet spies running wild in 1980s America. A line from the show says the only way to tell they’re Russian is they speak better English than we do.
One of the reasons I like this show is something that happened when I was in fifth grade. Our teacher showed us a film entitled, Meet Comrade Student. The film suggested Soviet spies were, or would soon be, living among us in order to pull down the U.S. from within.
A few years later, Don Siegel, the director of Dirty Harry and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, did a similarly--premised film called Telefon starring Charles Bronson. The twist in that one is the spies don’t even know they’re spies. Donald Pleasance goes to pay phones, places calls to these hypnotized agents, and then recites a line from Robert Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and you have miles to go before you sleep,’ right Dmitri?” A very secret agent would then snap into a trance and go off and blow up some big piece of American infrastructure.
When we began watching Comrade Student, my fellow fifth graders believed it and were even a little scared by it. That is until the narrator intoned something like, “Russian students are learning to speak English perfectly and will soon infiltrate our ranks and respond to Robert Frost poetry by blowing up big parts of American infrastructure.”
We were then shown a young girl who began demonstrating how well she’d mastered the President’s English.
“Leeetle Jeck Howener zet in a cowener heedink heez grease mits pie. He stoke in heez tum, pooled oud a plome ant zed ‘myvuddagoodboyem hi!’”
We nearly busted our guts laughing.
The teacher ran to turn off the projector. He yelled at us, gave us a punishment assignment, and took away our film privileges for a while. Walking home, you could hear us saying things like, “I ain’t worried. I could pick her out of a crowd anywhere.”
Years later I took some film classes. We saw lots of films from Sweden, France, England, and Japan, but other than Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, we never saw any Russian films. In class, I once asked the professor about this.
“Well, a lot of American films are boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings song, boy gets girl back. Then they kiss in a two-shot. In Soviet cinema it’s boy meets girl meets tractor. The five-year plan isn’t going so well. They work like hell, and the film ends with Ludmilla on one side and Viktor on the other with the first of the brand new 1956 Lada tractors rolling off the assembly line between them in a three-shot.
‘Loooook Veektor, trektor!’ yells Ludmilla.
‘Iz fine trektor!’ yells Viktor.”
George Orwell thought our governments would watch us through our TV sets. Then Ray Bradbury theorized Orwell was wrong. TV wouldn’t have to watch us. We’d all be too busy watching TV.
I wonder how many people watch The Americans and wonder how long it would really take these Russian spies to defect amid such American affluence.
I also wonder how many viewers would be able to hold out and not sell out to such attractive and well-spoken Russian spies.
• Dan Schwartz, J.D., Ph.D.is a former chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at UAA. He currently teaches at Niagara University.