If a chess player in a Netflix Original series can rethink Russian stereotypes, then why can't we?
In 2020, “The Queen’s Gambit” became not only a worldwide cinematografic sensation but also a clear example of the power of pop culture, galvanizing a renewed interest in chess. There are probably two main features which allowed the show to reach such a success - the absence of didacticism and the heroine's series of dalliances considered taboo for her time.
The main character, a genial chess-player Beth Harmon, stays far away from any notion of perfection during the course of the film. She is too independent, straightforward and career-oriented for the 1950-1960 ideals that are socially imposed on her - the expectation that women should follow a defined trajectory from childhood to become a lady, a caring wife or mother, and a devoted citizen who trusts that the government knows best.
In the meantime, Harmon seems to lack communication skills, self-control, and the willingness to confront the childhood traumas that haunt her. Even as a professional, she has the Achilles heel of drug and alcohol addiction. Nonetheless, Harmon’s weaknesses are what leave room for her development, which becomes perpetual and ultimately leads her to confront the question of “What’s next after the championship?” That is why a chess prodigy and the audience, even those who are far from this intellectual sport, speak the same language. The wunderkind is uniquely human like all of us.
Beth is imperfect because she lives in an imperfect world. The producers were not afraid to show the realities of 1950-160's orphanages, the prejudice towards women, or the pressing atmosphere of the Cold War. These problems do not stand out, not least because “The Queen’s Gambit” is a film about talented individuals, not about collective struggles. Instead, they discover themselves through subtle details (like a tiresome State Department officer accompanying Beth or empty bottles in her classmate’s baby carriage) that give viewers an opportunity to imagine the dark side of the White Fences era by themselves. With an alluring aesthetic of 1950-1960es, it creates an atmosphere of attractive ambiguity.
However, there is one ambiguity that captivates attention on the both sides of the screen. That ambiguity is named Russia.
The Strength of the Russian Shadow
In “The Queen’s Gambit” the Soviet Union only becomes a centerpiece in the last episode, but in contrast with a pleasant visual image of the United States, it is shown stereotypically gloomy and far-fetched. Poorly luminated halls of the hotel, a flight attendant in an army-like uniform, women in huge fur-hats (while there is no snow or frost outside), a boy waiter offering vodka to Beth - many of spectators would be happy if it were a deliberate self-irony, not an ignorance of reality. Despite that all, the Soviet Union is an influential character of this story. Its influence begins with Beth’s interest in Russian language (who still says soft power is useless?).
In spite of a grim exteriority, the Soviet Union, firmly associated with Russia today, is portrayed with respect on the verge of admiration. The first source of this respect are people who represent it - another child prodigy Georgi Girev, a chivalrous ex-World Champion Luchenko and the main antagonist Vasily Borgov. The latter is a long-standing icon for Harmon. All of them do not just use their talents, they polish them persistently, developing intelligence and stamina. The parties with Russians are the longest ones for Beth, and also the most significant. The defeat from Borgov motivates her to find a new approach to her intuition-based game, to rise up to the level of the single national champion, and finally, to make the first step to break her drug addiction. What is even more important, the Soviet players’ talents don’t make them arrogant. Borgov demonstrates a strong empathy, mentioning that Beth is a survivor in the harsh world of professional sport and not just a “threat”. He proves it again, having warmly embraced her under his own defeat.
The other strong point of Russia’s depiction in “The Queen’s Gambit” is the image of ordinary people. They are shown fervently supporting Harmon, as if she were their compatriot, and respecting her talent. For them Beth is not the representative of a rival state, she is an ambassador of chess that is a widespread passion in Soviet Russia. This geniality and ability to place the intellectual art above political tensions make all the Soviet people shown perfect public diplomats. The final episode demonstrates that they have accomplished that role. Elderly men, playing chess in a Moscow park, are depicted as more important to Harmon than the President who has invited her to the White House.
Mirroring moves of Netflix?
There is no secret that an attractive depiction of foreigners allows showmakers to promote their production more widely - most of all, because people like films and books with the characters of which they can associate themselves. Russians are part of that same audience, and are generally pleased with their representation and the attention devoted to their culture and history. Another bright example is the interest in the British “War and Peace” project in Russia in 2016, even before streaming services reached their contemporary popularity.
That said, profit is not the only reason to reimagine the Russian stereotypes. Showing foreigners that been traditionally depicted as evil is a way to make a script more original, to offer a fresh art perspective, to deconstruct - and, at the same time, to make the universe of art more realistic since the world is not a chessboard divided on black and white. Russians have earned the role of Big Bads in Hollywood long ago (“Pacific Rim: Uprising”, “The Equalizer”, “Gravity” and plenty of other films can vouch for that). But, being honest, do these cliches make these films better - more original, visually pleasant or provoking to get fond of something new linked with the movie? Not really. Art is about upgrading and creating different images, just like Beth invents new combinations on the desk.
Finally, if “The Queen’s Gambit” has encouraged its audience to re-embrace chess, the positive representation of Russians by Hollywood may refresh perspectives on Russia and current Russian-American relations, reminding us that the Cold War, 2010-s cooling and stereotypes were not perpetual elements of our relationship. If a chess player in a Netflix Original series can rethink Russian stereotypes, then why can't we?
Daria Matyashova is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).