Tracing the History of WWE Using Russians as Heels

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Tracing the History of WWE Using Russians as Heels
Credit: WWE.com

WWE villains have often worn communist red rather than black hats.

Russia has long been a source of heels for the company whether the wrestlers are actual Russians or not. It's a tradition that continues today each time that Lana lambastes America or Rusev stomps on someone's spine as a tribute to Vladimir Putin.

Positioning real and fake Russians alike into the role of bad guy so often speaks to the longstanding tension and distrust the U.S. has had with that nation.

WWE wasn't crafting Italian or Mexican villains at the same rate as they did with Russians, especially during the Cold War. That time period made it easy to tell a story of good versus evil, us versus them, the Stars and Stripes versus the hammer and sickle. 

A wrestler could get the audience to hate them via their arrogance or underhanded techniques, but there was nothing quite as powerful as pasting on a Russian name to draw heat.

French Canadian Michel Lamarche found that out during the course of his wrestling career. He wrestled as Michel "Le Justice" Dubois and Mike "The Judge" Dubois and couldn't seem to gain much traction. That's when Ivan Koloff gave him an idea that would change his career forever.

As Greg Oliver of Slam! Sports reports, Koloff told Lamarche, "Why don't you change your gimmick to a Russian?"

Koloff knew what he was talking about. A Canadian as well, he built a career around being The Russian Bear.

 

Ivan Koloff

Scars scratched across his forehead, wearing a cold glare and a chain around his neck, Koloff was an intimidating presence.

He was a thickly built gladiator, his near 300-pound frame seemingly made of all muscle. As was typical for the majority of Russian characters, he was portrayed as rough, rugged, a brute among gentlemen.

Credit: WWE.com

Mike Mooneyham describes him in The Post and Courier as the "'evil Russian' who evoked rabid emotions among mat fans throughout the world."

When WWE wanted to finally end Bruno Sammartino's world title reign, it turned to Koloff. Sammartino, the Italian-American powerhouse, held the WWE's top prize from May 17, 1963 to Jan. 18, 1971.

Having Sammartino's unfathomably long reign finally end would have shocked fans regardless of the opponent, but there was something especially unsettling about a Russian doing it.

After The Russian Bear dropped his knee into the champ's chest and got the three-count, the commentator urged, "They're going to riot. Get him out of here!"

Back then, the veil over wrestling's scripted nature had yet to be lifted. Fans couldn't read on the Internet that Koloff was actually from Montreal, born Oreal Perras.

They knew only him as an evil Russian.

That helped make him a compelling figure. It made his victories feel like punches to the gut and his defeats worthy of celebration. 

When he lost the WWE title less than a month after dethroning Sammartino, the Madison Square Garden crowd cheered with great fervor.

The bruiser went up against the popular Puerto Rican grappler Pedro Morales on Feb. 8, 1971. Boos thundered through the arena when Koloff's name was introduced. Joy echoed through the building when the referee counted his shoulders down on the mat three times.

Koloff's career was filled with moments like these. Being WWE champ was the apex of that career, but he was a mainstay on the main event scene in the early '70s.

When WWE needed a villain to oppose Sammartino, Morales or Bob Backlund, The Russian Bear was waiting, his fists already tight.

 

The Bolsheviks 

Had Nikolai Volkoff remained Bepo Mongol throughout his WWE career, it's unlikely he would have made the impact that he did. In the '80s, WWE wisely tapped into the rising tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

In real life, there was no simple solution to the Cold War. In the wrestling ring, fans could watch an American hero triumph over a Russian like Volkoff. Catharsis could soon follow.

In 1984, Volkoff joined forces with The Iron Sheik. The Soviet and Iranian duo fed on the animosity American crowds had for both nations.

Before their matches, with both the Iran and Soviet flags waving in the ring, Volkoff would belt out the Soviet national anthem. The Iron Sheik would bark, "Russia, No. 1! Iran, No. 1!" before spitting at the mention of the United States.

The result was consistently a rumbling of boos.

There was no easier way to rile the fans up. Whoever faced this pair of foreigners got an instant boost of momentum. They had the chance to silence this evil alliance, to defend America's honor.

Volkoff continued to milk animosity toward Russia when he embarked on a solo career.

On Oct. 5, 1985, during the second-ever edition of Saturday Night's Main Event, he faced Hulk Hogan in a Flag match. The winner had the right to wave their nation's banner after the match.

Hogan's entrance music included the lyrics, "I am a real American." Volkoff wore red trunks, knee pads and boots to match the Soviet flag his manager, Freddie Blassie, held in his hand. Picking sides was easy.

What better way to continue Hogan's elevation to megastar than to have him overcome a powerful Russian and hoist Old Glory above his head afterward?

Volkoff would later partner up with Boris Zhukov in 1987. Zhukov (real name: James Harrell) had begun his career as an American wrestling under the name Jim Nelson. Shaving his head, growing a beard and slipping on Soviet gear earned him a bigger share of the spotlight.

WWE didn't approach this partnership in subtle fashion. The company named them after the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party—The Bolsheviks.

The two bald brawlers were a constant in the WWE's tag team division throughout the late '80s. They took on teams like The Killer Bees, The British Bulldogs and The Young Stallions but never captured the tag team titles.

Credit: WWE.com
Boris Zhukov salutes as Nikolai Volkoff sings the Soviet nation anthem.

Zhukov and Volkoff both went their own way in 1990 when the latter turned face.

The Soviet Union's dissolution wasn't far away, either. That event had WWE turn elsewhere for villain fodder.

There just wasn't as much electricity surrounding a Russian heel after the Cold War ended. It wasn't until 2008 that WWE dug back into the store of anti-Russian sentiment.

 

Vladimir Kozlov

WWE looked to recreate the magic it had with Koloff. It billed Kozlov as The Moscow Mauler although he was actually from Ukraine.

Like The Russian Bear, the big man was billed as vicious and dangerous. Kozlov headbutted his opponents in the chest and smashed his shoulder into their torsos.

He went on an extended winning steak that saw him dominate the lower tier of the roster. Funaki, Jimmy Wang Yang and Matt Hardy became his victims.

Cold War or not, WWE was going to make Kozlov a monster. 

He never truly got over, though. Whether the company focused on his military background while he worked for the ECW brand or had him hover around title contention, Kozlov never made the impression that men like Volkoff and Koloff had in the past.

The Moscow Mauler began to maul less and less. 

His win-loss record looked less impressive as he went on. He would soon trade ass-kicking for dance-offsWWE then had him start tagging with Santino Marella as a comedy duo.

Marella, ironically enough, was originally supposed to play a Russian shoot fighter named Boris Alexiev.

Alexiev never made it to the main roster. A goofy Italian court jester took his place.

As for Kozlov, after his silly run alongside Marella, he left the company. A few years later, another Russian monster emerged.

 

Rusev

In Rusev's rookie year with WWE, he quickly went from being The Bulgarian Brute to being the Hero of the Russian Federation. The company apparently believes that it will be easier for people to boo a Russian rather than a Bulgarian.

His sultry, leggy manager, Lana, went from focusing on his superior athletic skill to name-dropping Putin. Rusev began waving around the Russian flag and wearing a star around his neck said to be awarded to him from Russia.

Who knows if fans would have been able to hiss at a Bulgarian heel as loudly as they would a Russian one, but the transition has certainly paid off.

When Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter collided with Rusev in July, the crowd's roaring approval spoke to the power of the U.S versus Russia dynamic even today.

Swagger and Colter had quickly gone from conservative bigots to likable patriots thanks to their rivalry with Rusev. Even though The All-American American has lost all of his bouts against the powerhouse, he has become more relevant, with opposing the latest Russian threat giving him direction.

It's now Mark Henry's turn to try and halt Rusev's run.

Henry and Rusev have but stared each other down at this point, but it's clear a showdown is coming. WWE can plug Henry into the American hero role, and Rusev can continue to play the Russian enemy.

When Rusev is done with The World's Strongest Man, he'll likely move onto Big Show and maybe, eventually, John Cena

While American fans aren't as hostile toward Russia as they were in the '70s and '80s, there is still animosity to tap into there. Maybe it's more about the power of American pride than something specifically anti-Russian, but rooting against Rusev has been one of the most fun elements of WWE programming this year.

WWE has returned to a successful formula, using the Russian flag as the red cape to incite the charging American heroes. In a changed world and evolved industry, an old standby is still working.

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