Tinker, Tailor, Sparrow, Water

Why the recent resurgence in Cold War-themed pop culture?

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

As the old song says, “Everything old is new again.” But when the old things are nuclear tensions, anxieties about espionage and global power struggles, is it anything to sing about?

Recent pop culture has displayed a renewed interest in Cold War-themed fiction. The period of political tension between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries ostensibly ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the recent Best Picture Oscar-winner The Shape of Water (which features a Cold War espionage subplot) and the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow (a thriller about Russian and American spies) are two examples of current popular media revisiting Cold War themes.

Matthew Flisfeder, a University of Winnipeg assistant professor of rhetoric, writing and communications who has written about depictions of capitalism and communism in popular culture, points out examples of film and television dealing with Cold War espionage from the beginning of this decade.

“The FX series The Americans was one of the first to come out, in 2013. It’s very much an ‘enemy within’ type of narrative, where you have two KGB agents posing as a couple in the United States,” Flisfeder says.

Fiction about the Cold War produced during the conflict, from early works like 1949’s The Third Man up to later hits like The Hunt for Red October, addressed then-contemporary anxieties about geopolitical tensions.

Jody Perrun, a history educator at the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg whose book The Patriotic Consensus focused on Winnipeg during the Second World War, says current relations between Russia and NATO echo those during the Cold War.

“Right now, Russia is kind of resurgent,” Perrun says. “With the annexation of Crimea and tensions in Ukraine, the fact that NATO is ramping up its presence in the Baltics, (the question of) what Putin will do next, it seems people are paying attention to that.”

Flisfeder says there is an essential element of nostalgia to how Cold War narratives are viewed today. While post-9/11 fiction largely focused on terror cells as villains, the 2008 financial crisis shifted the spotlight to old ideological fears.

“I think it’s important to position (Cold War nostalgia) within the context of … this moment of capitalism in crisis,” Flisfeder says, pointing to a “resurgence of anti-capitalist social movements” such as Occupy Wall Street.

Flisfeder says part of the pop cultural response to criticisms of capitalism has been to recycle the ideological conflicts of the Cold War.

One element that’s absent from most popular fiction about the Cold War is Canada and its role in it. Likewise, Canadian popular culture rarely addresses the Cold War when compared to its contemporary allies like America and the United Kingdom.

Perrun says that, despite Canadian involvement in key Cold War events like the 1945 defection of Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko, Canada’s role in the conflict was ultimately minor.

“The lead (throughout the Cold War) is taken by America and NATO,” Perrun says. “We fit into the global alliance structure as a minor partner, not a mover and a shaker so much as a follower.”

Published in Volume 72, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 22, 2018)

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