While the Cold War had been a thing since the late 1940’s, it was still a pretty intense situation in the 1980’s and, most importantly, a major part of the fabric that made up a lot of 1980’s popular culture. You had Sylvester Stallone defending America’s honor against the Soviets in the best Rocky movie since the first one, Rocky IV. Even “teenage” movie heartthrobs answered the call to arms in the war against Soviet Russia in the original Red Dawn. And wrestling was no different. Always trying to remain relevant with the times, every territory had its own Red Menace, sometimes even two.
Much like Hollywood, the wrestling industry generally has no qualms over wrestlers portraying characters of different ethnic or cultural origins. Including blackface. As long as they look and sound the part it’s fair game. So various wrestlers, whether they were American, Canadian, or from neighboring European countries, jumped on the ruskie bandwagon and started claiming Mother Russia as their homeland.
The Russian Reversal
Canadian-born Ivan Koloff is easily the most accomplished of the Soviet wrestlers due to his anti-climactic WWWF Title win over Bruno Sammartino. The reign lasted all but 21 days, making Koloff WWE’s first transitional world champion. Surely, it was the only way to get the title from Bruno Sammartino to Pedro Morales without inciting an all-out race war between two of New York City’s predominant ethnic groups. “The Russian Bear” wasn’t the tallest wrestler, but he was sure as hell one of the burliest. And if there’s one dominant trait of the Russian wrestler, aside from a horrible Russian accent, is that they’re burly as hell. Having served his necessary role in the former WWWF, Koloff took his show on the road to the NWA where he found even more success heading up a group of like-minded Russians aptly named… The Russians.
Ivan introduced the wrestling world to his nephew, Nikita Koloff, who was actually Nelson Scott Simpson of Minnesota. A place I’m sure is just as cold as Russia. Koloff proved to be every bit as menacing as his awesome nickname “The Russian Nightmare” implied and also demanded that his weight be announced in kilos and not in pounds. Armed with their Russian Sickle clothesline and mandatory horrible Russian accents the uncle and nephew tag team unseated Dusty Rhodes and Manny Fernandez as NWA Tag Team Champions. But the duo really came into prominence as a three-man team that included American of Russian descent, Krusher Kruschev. Apparently, adopting a Russian accent proved too laborious a task for Barry Darsow.
The Russians added the NWA Six-Man Titles and U.S. Tag Team Titles to their own reign of “red terror”. The three remained a top heel stable until they were massively overshadowed by the arrival of the Four Horsemen in 1986. In between fighting with the promotion’s top babyfaces and invoking the Freebird Rule during tag team matches, they also introduced the Russian Chain Match. Basically, a strap match but with a Russian chain in place of a strap. You see, Russian chains were thicker and tougher than your regular American industrial steel chains, although not as flashy as Cuban link chains.
While Ivan was the most accomplished wrestler, Nikita probably enjoyed the most successful run of any “Russian” wrestler during the mid-80’s. His feud with Magnum T.A. over the U.S. Title was one of the hottest acts, but it was Magnum’s real-life travesty that proved to be Nikita’s greatest fortune. After suffering a career-ending accident, Nikita took the place of Magnum T.A. (sort of) and helped Dusty Rhodes take on the Four Horsemen. The stars continued to align as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was gaining popularity within the United States for his Perestroika policy reform. The Russians weren’t so bad after all! Nikita even headlined Starrcade ’86 against Ric Flair for the NWA World Title. Terrible Uncle Ivan eventually came around as well, except for Kruschev who traded in his CCCP singlet for some S&M gear in the WWE.
Still, Southern wrestling needed heel Russians. Enter The Russian Assassins, who were your Russian equivalent of Los Conquistadores. With masks in place it really didn’t matter whether they could pull off being Russian, so long as they were fair skinned with a slight tan. Apparently Jack Victory of ECW fame made up one half of this tag team. The most noteworthy thing about them was committing Russian-on-Russian crimes against the Koloffs. They didn’t really add much to the Cold War Russian gimmick aside from some colorful lucha libre outfits, without the awesome moves of lucha libre.
If Ivan Koloff was the more accomplished of the Russian wrestlers, and Nikita the most successful in terms of headlining runs and championship wins, no other Russian wrestler was as popular as Nikolai Volkoff. Originally from Croatia, Nikolai Volkoff, at the time, was the closest thing to a real Russian wrestler because fuck it, he’s from the same continent and speaks funny. As part of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection’s melting pot of foreign baddies, Volkoff’s likeness appeared in animated form on Saturday mornings, and as a rubber action figure devoid of points of articulation.
But what Volkoff will always be remembered for is his signing of the Russian National Anthem. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing it while making his way down the aisle the way R-Truth currently does with fans singing along. Instead, it garnered Volkoff instant cheap heat because American xenophobia is at its best when on display during wrestling shows, where it’s wildly encouraged. According to Volkoff, the genius idea all came about by accident. I guess if a promoter was threatening to withhold your money if the crowd didn’t hear your regularly pre-recorded national anthem, which just happened to be messed up, chances are you would do your best to butcher it too. And it basically became the most identifiable trait of not only Nikolai Volkoff, but of every Russian wrestler that came thereafter, still employed to this day. Hell, it’s still employed by Nikolai Volkoff himself to this day.
After a successful run as a tag team with the Iron Sheik, Volkoff tried to duplicate that success by giving the Russian rub to American turncoat Private Jim Nelson. Nelson went from being a cadet in Sgt. Slaughter’s Cobra Corps stable to being Volkoff’s comrade. Adopting the name Boris Zhukov, the literally big-headed grappler helped Volkoff serve as tag team fodder for more established tag teams, like The Hart Foundation. In fact, Boris Zhukov’s biggest contribution to Russian professional wrestlers was helping turn Nikolai Volkoff into an assimilated babyface.
Before becoming a loveable oafish sidekick to Santino Marella, Vladimir Kozlov was the first draft of what Rusev eventually perfected. He was a powerhouse of a man who was steamrolling through a bunch of jobbers and, better yet, was from Ukraine which is right next to Russia. That’s as good as it gets in wrestling. He catapulted to the main event for no other reason than Triple H needing someone fresh to beat. Once he was done with, Kozlov proved he didn’t have the charisma of Nikolai Volkoff or the drawing power of Nikita Koloff. Kozlov quickly downgraded to comic relief but not before changing up his gear to red biker shorts because, in all honesty, how the hell are you going to be an evil nationalistic Russian adjacent wrestler and not wear red? It just doesn’t make sense.
I first became familiar with Alex Koslov during one of the many Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows I was attending back in 2005-2006. Before it was cool. Koslov had the accent down, he incorporated an ushanka hat that was way better looking than Volkoff’s furry cap, but above all, he also did the whole singing the Russian National Anthem thing. The Moldovan-born indy wrestler was basically a better looking, younger, agile Nikolai Volkoff. After a cup of coffee with the WWE’s then developmental system FCW, in which he recorded this awful promo with Rusev, Koslov took off for Mexico. Whether he was in CMLL or AAA, Koslov kept the same Russian gimmick, even as a part of D-Generation Mex. Yeah… That was a thing. He then formed a successful tag team with fellow D-Mex member, Rocky Romero, calling themselves Forever Hooligans. You might’ve seen them during their awesome opening four-way tag team match at Wrestle Kingdom 9. Just a few days later, Koslov announced on Twitter that he was taking a sabbatical from professional wrestling, sadly leaving up in the air the possibility of a Rusev/Koslov tag team reunion.
With the exception of Nikita Koloff who was able to stay atop the mid-card and show considerable life after a foreign menace phase, there’s little else to do with a character with such heavy reliance on a country’s foreign policy. It’s not a gimmick you can easily drop and then repackage yourself as something else, unless you become the dreaded assimilated foreign babyface. Even with all the Vladimir Putin shit-talking you can mine, there’s only so much you can milk out of it, Nikolai Volkoff notwithstanding.
But just like everything in wrestling is recycled, and given that history tends to repeat itself, the WWE and Rusev, along with Lana, have been able to breathe new life into this gimmick. While Nikita Koloff mourned the days of Reagan’s presidency by stating in this Slate article that “Democracy is good for the world, but bad for business,” Rusev is proving quite the opposite. Thanks to some blown out of proportion President Obama/President Putin heat, hanging onto the outdated Cold War Russian-like gimmick is not entirely bad for business. Especially if it gets you mentioned on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And if it means eventually getting your comeuppance by way of a high-profile feud with WWE poster boy and all-American, John Cena.