Films Russian History in Popular Culture

Ivan the Terrible and the American adolescent

I got involved in the TV show described below to see first hand the process whereby expertise gets turned into entertainment. The show is called Deadliest Warrior. It’s on Spike TV and seems to be for the 12-18 year-old male demographic. When I was asked to appear on the show, I’d never heard of it and asked my 13-year-old boy Alex: he, of course, knew all about it. My character plays an Ivan the Terrible expert. In the favored sporting metaphor of American culture, I’m Ivan’s coach (the “brain”), along with another actor who plays the role of Ivan’s warrior, an ex-Russian special forces guy and stuntman trained in shooting, horseback, and swordplay known as “the brawn.” He bears a remarkable resemblance to Vladimir Putin.

Our opponent is the genocidal Hernan Cortes and his warriors. They, of course, have their team of “experts” (their brain is a struggling actor and their brawn an expert marksman, fencer, and stuntman).

The show’s three hosts (this is its third season and is said to be Spike’s highest rated show with about 2.5 million viewers) set up the tests and evaluate them using all sorts of geeky gadgetry. One is “Mack,” an ex-Navy Seal. The other is “Doc,” a practicing surgeon who
does lots of TV as a forensics specialist and doctor. The third is “Geoff,” a 6′ 8” Canadian built like a body builder who is trained as a biomedical engineer and is known as “Mr Gadget.” All three quite impressive.

The show features the “experts” talking trash against their opponent, a la Vince McMahon and WWF wrestling, and making references to the historical record in highly suspect ways. I tried my best to qualify everything I said but I am absolutely sure all the balance will be edited out. “Just give us more stories about torture!” they kept saying. I must have heard that 100 times.

The show consists of gruesome tests using the weapons of each side. Dummies filled with blood and guts as well as whole dead pigs played the role of victims. Saber wielders (the brawns) on horseback lopped off their heads. Horses drew and quartered pig corpses (that was pretty gruesome), the brawns fired muskets (they were incredible and really ripped apart the “biofidelic” targets), and so on. Then the group got together to evaluate damage and assess lethality, using wonky gadget wizardy talk. I chimed in with riffs on this or that battle, Ivan’s traveling chamber of torture horrors, stories about horrific deaths and insanity, and just how blood-curdling it all is.

We had a day of going over script (which I tried to amend in the direction of historical perspective, with limited success), then two days in the field (a production ranch north of LA in a canyon where much of TV seems to get shot), and then a day at the show’s inside set in a warehouse in LA .

It was grueling — hours and hours of set up, sun-up to sun-down, hundreds of takes, etc. We finished after four days last October. The show airs this Wednesday, August 31 on Spike TV. I’m going in Friday to a studio in Santa Monica to do the “Aftermath” Internet follow-up show — an analysis of the show’s results and answers to questions from viewers. For a sneak peak of my episode, in which I make a brief appearance about half way through:

I am apparently part of an innovation for this season: previously many of the experts were actors. They needed more of a pretense of expertise so they started a casting call for professors, contacting a colleague after checking him out on my university web site, who then gave them my name. I agreed to an audition, though I told them I was not a military expert (they didn’t care, just so long as they could call me a professor) and was a modern Russian historian, not a medieval one. They seemed to like my goofy and animated way of explaining Ivan’s terrible tendencies (honed in my Foundations of Russia course), and so they hired me for the show at $200 a day (in line with their demographic, they seem to use only males as experts).

The glass is half full part of me views the show as a kind of gateway drug: it gets people hooked on Russian history and from there they can progress to more complex and profound forms of addiction.

This is not one of my proudest moments as an academic, and will likely play a limited role in promotion, but it was fun as hell and will command the respect of my son (though not of my wife). Just a warning: it’s incredibly idiotic and bloody and I’m still not sure there is much intellectually redeemable in it. To appreciate it, you may have to be a 13-year-old boy (or a 13-year-old trapped inside a 47-year-old body).


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