If you really want to understand how Moscow sees U.S. intelligence, turn off the congressional hearings and start watching “Adaptation.”
- By Amie Ferris-RotmanAmie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.
MOSCOW — It’s 2017, and the new Cold War is in full swing. The West is winning, for now. U.S. sanctions have impoverished Russia. But the two sides are poised at a critical juncture. The Russians have come up with new technology to drill for gas that could send their economy skyrocketing again, putting the West on the back foot. And so, the CIA sends President Donald Trump a letter detailing a cunning plan. A spy — one of their most wily — must be dispatched from Washington immediately to sniff out the details.
What follows is Adaptation, the story of the blundering Oleg Menshov, an American spy with impeccable Russian (played by the well-known Russian actor Leonid Bichevin), who is sent to embed in state gas giant Gazprom. But he understands little about how Russia works, so he must be taught the ways of the country and its rampant corruption, much to the amusement of his supposed compatriots.
The TV show, coinciding with a spike in tension between Russia and the West, and talk of a new Cold War, has become a runaway hit in Russia. The first season finished this month, to rave reviews and nationwide enthusiasm. According to the show’s network, TNT, one out of seven Russians watched it. Russians call Adaptation their answer to The Americans — if The Americans was a combination of slapstick, satire, and stereotypes, Russian and American alike. (Each episode opens with the James Bond theme music, a gun-wielding Oleg climbing Mount Rushmore, and a shot of the White House morphing into a triple-domed Russian Orthodox Church, which then cuts to the bald eagle on the CIA’s logo mutating into the double-headed eagle that is the official emblem of Russia.)
The plotline, in which Russians triumph over well-meaning but shortsighted Americans, has struck a chord with a Russian public gloating over the military gains in Syria and the struggles of the Trump administration, which has been plagued by Russia-related scandals. The first two episodes of Adaptation outperformed its competitors on other networks for the coveted 8 to 9 p.m. weekday slot, according to TNT’s head of public relations, Yulia Talapanova.
The not-so-subtle subtext of Adaptation is that Russian strength rests on its rich natural resources. Oleg is sent to Noyabrsk in Russia’s frozen northern region of Yamal, a city straddling the world’s largest oil basin. Once there, he begins working at Gazprom — arguably an extension of the Russian state. The Gazprom tower in Noyabrsk is colossal and labyrinthine, with shiny elevators and an array of portraits of President Vladimir Putin from throughout his life. (It’s worth noting that the gas behemoth’s media arm, Gazprom Media, owns the TNT network.)
The show may revel in Russian victories, and it may take place in the secretive world of energy, spies, and counterspies, but ultimately Adapation — whose title could also be translated as “Blending In” — is a fish-out-of-water story that pokes fun at Russia as well as the United States. The fun stems from watching a clean-cut, honest Texan try to fit in to the cynical, brash, and passionate environment of Russia.
Its jokes typically rely on stereotypes. The Russian characters, including the women, are never far from their next glass, or, in one case, thermos cup, of alcohol. Russian men are foul-mouthed and threatening, the women lustful and seductive, and its spies are extremely fond of chess. The Western characters, on the other hand, are politically correct to the point of naiveté. When Oleg’s yet-to-be girlfriend, Marina, makes a first pass at him, he tries to put her off the scent by saying he’s gay. “Are you sure you’re not just tidy?” she replies in earnest. (His American face looks baffled.) An American visitor is portrayed as a Bible-thumping pastor wearing a “Stop Racism” baseball cap; there are a few gibes at former President Barack Obama.
Two authentic American actors make it onto the show as Oleg’s senior intelligence officers. “I was the guy they imagined as a somewhat human — not straight-down-the-middle badass CIA agent,” said actor Peter Jacobson, whom Americans might recognize from the long-running show House. “I was more of a comical agent.” (Jacobson also starred in the fourth series of The Americans, as a CIA agent.) His character, agent Doyle Branson, is frustrated at work and dreams of taking his family to Hawaii; his Russian counterparts revel in their spy work and are fully dedicated. Unbeknownst to Branson, the Russians are onto Oleg from the start. Suspense builds as he narrowly escapes capture.
TNT says the show is not a spinoff of The Americans, but various tropes have clearly been borrowed. At the end of the first episode, Oleg discovers his new Russian friend is a member of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. (In the pilot of The Americans, the Soviet spy couple realize their neighbor Stan is with the FBI.) As in The Americans, we witness Shakespearean double cross-dressing: a Russian pretending to be an American who is pretending to be a Russian. (Bichevin, who has never been to the United States, speaks more convincing English than the attempts at Russian on the FX show).
With its release, Adaptation joins a handful of cultural artifacts that are beginning to shed light on how talk of a “new Cold War” looks through Russian eyes. Most paint a simple picture of a sinister West and a Russia that’s been hamstrung but is gaining strength. In his new book, Standoff with America, the popular pundit Igor Prokopenko compares the present-day United States with the USSR, arguing that America’s prison system is no worse than the gulags. “[Americans] are used to having no real rights in their own country. And to think they try [to] teach us about tolerance!” Prokopenko writes. In the new crime novel Kremlin Endgame, by former KGB agent Alexander Polyukhov, special operations teams in the United States and Saudi Arabia have a plot against Russia and its president that could shake up the world order. Luckily for us all, a terminally ill Russian spy saves the day.
In Adaptation, realism (Russia is indeed gritty, and its officials corrupt) and self-parody run throughout. But the show remains a sort of propaganda-lite, and a serious message is never far from the surface. “By making fun of sanctions, the show tries to show how powerful Russians really want to be seen, by basically parroting the propaganda line,” said Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and founder of Noodleremover, a Russian site that monitors the media.
Although Putin is eager to have sanctions lifted — the United States and the European Union slapped them on Russia three years ago over the Kremlin’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis — some Russian officials insist they have actually bolstered their business prospects. The reality, however, is that sanctions have put several oil and gas exploration and drilling projects on hold, such as a huge Arctic gas plan with ExxonMobil.
Other aspects of Adaptation paint an overly rosy portrait of life in Russia. Several episodes are dedicated to life among the Nenets tribespeople. The animist nomads, who have lived in the Yamal region for a millennia, are portrayed just like everyone else: as semi-caricatures. A shaman concocts sleep-inducing remedies, and reindeer-herders ululate by bonfires. Gazprom officials are shown successfully negotiating with Nenets chieftains. The episodes are funny, but they’re also fiction. For years the Nenets have complained that their livelihoods are threatened by Russian energy companies’ thirst for the vast oil and gas reserves under their feet. They say their needs are not listened to when large deals are made.
Yet the show remains self-deprecating to the end. In the final episode of the season, when we learn that Oleg’s identity and mission have been compromised, local FSB chief Evgeny Evdokimov tries to deceive the American spy into thinking he can still escape by saying he wants to work with Washington. To entice Oleg into his plan, he quotes the early 19th-century Russian thinker Nikolay Karamzin: “He described Russia in just one word,” the FSB chief tells Oleg. “Do you know what it was? Voruyut.” Translation: They steal.
Photo credit: TNT
Correction, March 24, 2017: An earlier version said Nikolay Karamzin was an early 20th-century Russian thinker. He wrote in the early 19th century.