Professional Wrestling May Have the Most Absurd Take on the U.S.-Russia Relationship

WWE’s Monday Night RAW has turned U.S.-Russia relations into a bizarre plot point.

Lana and Rusev of the WWE.
National Journal
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Matt Berman
July 29, 2014, 8:04 a.m.

This year has brought a wealth of ana­lys­is from odd corners on Vladi­mir Putin and Rus­sia’s place in the world. Putin is “one of the great liv­ing world lead­ers,” Un­der Siege star Steven Seagal said this spring. “Putin is do­ing just about the same as Hitler,” Eng­land’s Prince Charles said in May.

But there may be no take more out­land­ish than what World Wrest­ling En­ter­tain­ment is provid­ing view­ers on Monday Night RAW

Putin has been a rhet­or­ic­al fix­ture in the WWE since May, when he made his photo de­but as the “idol” of the Rus­si­an duo Lana and Ru­sev. Lana, who is played by an Amer­ic­an, is the man­ager of Ru­sev, a hulk­ing wrest­ler billed as “a hero of the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion” (played, of course, by a Bul­gari­an man). 

Last week on RAW, Lana seem­ingly made ref­er­ence to the down­ing of Malay­sia Air­lines Flight 17 (which WWE denies), call­ing out to the Amer­ic­an crowd, “You blame Rus­sia for cur­rent events?” adding that “you Amer­ic­ans should be scol­ded for your war­mon­ger­ing in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq. You Amer­ic­ans should be in­sul­ted and afraid.”

On last night’s Monday Night RAW, the WWE’s not-so-cold war peaked with a dis­cus­sion of flags between the Rus­si­an con­tin­gent of Lana and Ru­sev and the Amer­ic­an wrest­ler Jack Swag­ger and his man­ager, Zeb Col­ter.

“Your Amer­ic­an flag is a state­ment,” Lana began in something re­sem­bling a Rus­si­an ac­cent, over chants of “U-S-A” at the Hou­s­ton sta­di­um. The flag “used to be a su­prem­acy over all the na­tions. It used to fly over bat­tle­fields, on the masts of ships. It even landed on the sur­face of the moon it­self. And where is your so-called old glory now? It is a faded ban­ner for a ruined na­tion ruled by cow­ards that get fat off of your apathy.” 

She con­tin­ued with praise of “the fear­less lead­er Vladi­mir Putin” (whose face was promptly pro­jec­ted on screen and booed) and con­dem­na­tion of the “pup­pet Pres­id­ent Obama” who “wags his fin­ger like a school­teach­er.”

But maybe the best part of the back-and-forth came from Zeb Col­ter, who came back with a so­li­lo­quy on the mean­ing of the Amer­ic­an flag. The flag, he said,

rep­res­ents a fam­ily sit­ting around the table at Thanks­giv­ing with their broth­ers and sis­ters and aunts and uncles, giv­ing thanks that they sur­vived an­oth­er year. We the people. It rep­res­ents thou­sands of Amer­ic­ans stand­ing around a TV set watch­ing a foot­ball game. We the people. It rep­res­ents a fath­er and his son fish­ing, a moth­er and daugh­ter learn­ing to cook to­geth­er. It rep­res­ents pickup trucks, pretty girls, and beer.

It’s easy to laugh off this ex­change for be­ing what it is — a simply scrip­ted TV show, laced with sex­ism, aimed at ad­oles­cent boys and young men. But the thing is, WWE is in­cred­ibly pop­u­lar, across mul­tiple demo­graph­ics. Last week’s RAW had nearly 4.5 mil­lion view­ers. That’s for a three-hour show. Monday Night RAW cur­rently tops Niel­son’s Twit­ter TV rat­ings, a meas­ure of how much at­ten­tion any show gets on the so­cial-me­dia plat­form.

Us­ing Rus­sia and Putin as foils for the United States makes sense for the WWE. A CNN poll last week found that just 19 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans have a fa­vor­able view of Rus­sia. And for some view­ers, the fram­ing of Putin as manly lead­er versus Obama as in­ef­fect­ive nag is just val­id­a­tion. There still is a cult of per­son­al­ity sur­round­ing Putin in the U.S., where some on the Amer­ic­an Right have openly ad­mired the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent’s over-the-top macho-ness, es­pe­cially when com­pared to Obama.

“Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin has giv­en us good ma­ter­i­al to work with,” a WWE spokes­man told The Daily Beast in May. And as The Daily Beast notes, that ma­ter­i­al is pay­ing off not just in the U.S. but in Rus­sia, too. Two WWE shows ac­tu­ally air on Rus­si­an tele­vi­sion, where Putin’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is at 83 per­cent and Lana and Ru­sev aren’t the bad guys.

In Wash­ing­ton this year, the con­flict between the U.S. and Rus­sia, and what the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should do about it, has been all en­com­passing. But for mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, the U.S.-Rus­sia row is most vis­ible as a pivotal plot point on one of their fa­vor­ite TV shows.