The Iron Curtain

Tear down that wall, y’all

In what is probably a good dose of Hollywood propaganda, Russia, and Eastern Europe in general, is always portrayed in movies and television as extremely gray, like film editors have a special Soviet filter they apply. There’s almost always smoke billowing into the sky, every interior is lit with the harshest fluorescent lighting possible, and every apartment building is a perfect concrete box with windows. I understand that Soviet architecture valued utilitarianism but they also have this, which we somehow never see. Curious. (If you’re interested in Soviet architecture, this is a fun account to follow). 

I can’t speak for all Millennials but I certainly do not have a firm grasp of just how scared Americans were of nuclear war, of communism, of Russians in general during the mid-20th century. So this week’s newsletter (sorry I missed last week) has a bit of learning and a bit of fun—fun learning! The theme is about the Soviet Union and all the content created off the Cold War—espionage, propaganda, the greatest spy novelist of all time, brightly colored root vegetable soup, and Matthew Rhys.

 🎥 Watch: The Americans

This week, my partner and I picked up The Americans after a year and a half long hiatus. I can’t remember why we stopped watching but it was a mistake! Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are two KGB agents living in suburban Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. It’s the height of the Cold War and they run around the US, doing the bidding of “The Centre” (aka Moscow) and being really, really good spies. They also live next door to a counterintelligence FBI agent and have two very American children who, for the majority of the series, have no idea what their parents do for a living— they’re not “travel agents,” as their cover story would lead one to believe. Phenomenal acting, an excellent wardrobe, and Frank Langella as a main character. 

 🎥 Watch: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is colorful, action-packed, and deliciously ‘80s—imagine stylish fight scenes set to a remix of 99 Luftballons. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an elite MI6 spy who travels inside the Eastern Bloc just before the Berlin Wall comes down. I’m going to be honest here: the plot is really confusing, and we had to pause and rewind a couple of times. Don’t be deterred! Vulture had to do a whole explainer about the ending for everyone else who was similarly confused, but I promise it’s worth it. The movie is based on a comic book called The Coldest City and also stars John Goodman and James McAvoy. 

📚 Read: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the seminal Cold War spy novels and the perfect jumping-off point for anyone wanting to read John le Carré, who died earlier this year at age 89. I spent a few hours that day reading things about his life and his work, and this New York Times obituary stuck out. 

“Before Mr. le Carré published his best-selling 1963 novel “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” which Graham Greene called “the best spy story I have ever read,” the fictional model for the modern British spy was Ian Fleming’s James Bond — suave, urbane, devoted to queen and country. With his impeccable talent for getting out of trouble while getting women into bed, Bond fed the myth of spying as a glamorous, exciting romp.

Mr. Le Carré upended that notion with books that portrayed British intelligence operations as cesspools of ambiguity in which right and wrong are too close to call and in which it is rarely obvious whether the ends, even if the ends are clear, justify the means.” 

Alec Leamas is an MI6 agent who crosses into East Germany and spreads misinformation about a high-ranking Soviet officer while pretending to be a defector. I love the notion that in espionage the lines of right and wrong are blurred, which is so dramatically emphasized in every season of The Americans. Propaganda, blind patriotism, and mistrust of those with different ideologies all play out nicely against the backdrop of the Cold War. 

Bonus: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (movie) 

With Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, the movie version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is old to Atomic Blonde’s new—these two pair nicely for a rainy Saturday doubleheader. It’s very gray because it’s literally in black & white so I feel like the filmmakers have an excuse. 

📚 Read: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Writer Anya Von Bremzen left the Soviet Union when she was ten and settled in Philadelphia with her mother. Since then, she became a culinary writer, winning three James Beard awards for food writing. Her book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, is a “culinary autobiography,” that follows her and her mother’s journey of cooking and eating foods associated with each decade of the Soviet experience. Von Bremzen weaves her story of longing for Western comforts while balancing a fondness for her homeland into recipes, memories, and history. 

🎲 Play: Twilight Struggle

If you’re ever going to spend over $50.00 on a board game, this is the one you need to buy. Much like Risk, the goal is to control the most regions on the board, a map of the world demarcated by which regions were controlled by the US (player 1) and USSR (player 2) during the Cold War. Taking the game out of its box for the first time is daunting because the board is gigantic, there are a hundred tiny pieces, and big stacks of card that follow the Cold War through three different eras, but thankfully, there’s a YouTube video that explains how to play in about 3 minutes. Once you learn, you won’t want to stop. 

🥣 Make: Borscht

My favorite not-suitable-to-eat-wearing-white-clothes dish. I first had borscht at Russ & Daughters in NYC and have thought about it ever since. This recipe from NYT Cooking calls for potatoes, beets, and leeks and is topped with a horseradish cream sauce, though I feel like this could be made vegan. Fun fact about borscht that I learned from Wikipedia: In 1961, the Soviet Union shot borscht in sterilized tubes into space alongside Soviet astronauts. I feel like there are easier foods to eat in space than soup. 

🥃 Drink: Moscow Mule

Full disclosure: the Moscow Mule has nothing to do with Russia, but I decided to include it because it’s an easy drink to make at home (and of course, the name). You don’t have to have a copper mug but these are some cheap ones that you can order to keep things authentic. 

Runner-up: Vegan White Russians

Something about milk and alcohol just doesn’t seem appealing but I don’t want to knock it before I try it. For people who don’t want to drink a cup full of regular milk: vegan White Russians made with Kahlua, vodka, vanilla, and cashews. I want to make these for when we watch the finale of The Americans this weekend.

Longread: The Women Code Breakers Who Unmasked Soviet Spies

Reading about women who led some of the top-secret counterespionage efforts during the Cold War really made me think about how terrible I would be at this job: keeping secrets, talking in a whisper, and doing math. But for these women who could control the decibels of their voices, it was the perfect job. This Smithsonian article follows several women including Angeline Nanni, a hair salon owner-turned-Soviet code breaker during the Cold War. Angie worked on Verona, “the top-secret U.S. effort to break encrypted Soviet spy communications.” In a job where men often suffered breakdowns from stress, Nanni said she forgot about work as soon as she left each night, going out to eat with friends and enjoying life. 

“Anybody who saw the women together could easily mistake them for a suburban garden club. They wore shift dresses, big hair, fishbowl glasses. They carried handbags. They liked to picnic, shop, play bridge, bowl together. Most started out as schoolteachers.” 

It’s all about the work-life balance—even when you're a spy.