Your Average Russia: Codename Baboushka And Cultural Appropriation

Codename Baboushka is a pulp story about Annika Malikova, the last member of a Russian noble family… who turns out to be a mafia boss, as well as professional hitman and a double agent running errands for a USA government agency. In few words, she’s a blend of everything pulp movies usually appropriate from Russian history and culture. She even has her own ex-KGBist Gyorgy. Using those glamorous visions of Russia as a selling point, the book completely ignores real facts about the country.

Usually, I’m glad to encounter any reference to my native culture. I’m flattered when people tell me they love Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, though I’m not a fan. I giggle at Russian references in Chew. You really need to do research into the culinary traditions to come up with locations like Fisher-Okroshka and Gardner-Kvashennaya. I’m proud that I don’t need subtitles to understand Soviet soldiers in Captain America: Civil War, and when Daniel Brühl’s character reads activation words to Bucky, I arrogantly think, “Okay, so the thing works even when you pronounce all vowels in “freight car” incorrectly. Now that is a technology!” Mister Brühl does his best, though: those vowels are delicate. So is the history. And the creators of Codename Baboushka mess up the facts like students who read Superman: Red Son instead of proper textbooks the night before their Russian studies final exam.

There’s a nice idiom for works of fiction that exploit stereotypical views on Russia or use language ignorantly. We call it razvesistaya kliukva (a branchy cranberry tree), because, you know, cranberry is a dwarf shrub. Nikolas Nabokov investigated the origins of this idiom in series of articles for The New York Review Of Books back in the 1970s. And I can tell you, those cranberry trees are planted all over Codename Baboushka.

Look at the main character’s background. Just a few years prior to the events of the book, Annika Malikova had fled Russia where she ruled a powerful gang. Now she lives in the US, where she claimed asylum and gained prominence as the last scion of her noble house. People call her Contessa. That’s a pretty adventurous CV for a person, which raises a question: How could a contessa survive in the USSR?

The main character, Annika Malikova: socialite, aristocrat, Russian mafia boss and professional hitman
The main character, Annika Malikova: socialite, aristocrat, Russian mafia boss and professional hitman on a mission

Let’s delve into the history just briefly. Until 1917, Russia was an Empire with a well-developed privileged class of aristocracy. Then happened the Revolution and the Civil War, during which Bolsheviks (Reds) fought aristocracy and conservative forces (Whites). Over 750,000 people from both sides died in action and from disease, not counting civilians and victims of political repressions Reds carried out on everyone who didn’t seem to be proletarian enough: Jews, clergy, striking workers, remains of nobility, etc. This Wikipedia article gives a vivid idea of what that meant to be a White officer at the mercy of Red Terror. To give you a full picture, White Terror tried to even the score.

Those noble people who didn’t want to fight—from one to two million—joined White émigrés in Europe. By the end of the 1930s, all the aristocrats and capitalists who stayed in the country were executed, among them an outstanding poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and a number of WWI heroes. Wealthy families were deprived of their property; their lands, businesses, and houses were nationalized. Those who just slightly related to aristocracy hid their connections, and their lives depended on how good they were in hiding because everyone who called themselves a noble title, such as Contessa, would be dead the next day.

So how could Annika carry her title so swiftly, like she has been doing it her entire life?

Antony Johnston, the book’s writer, partially answers the question in this interview. The Malikovs fled from Revolution to Switzerland, and Annika returned to Russia after all her family died in poverty. I assume her coming back happened after the Soviet Union had collapsed.

The simple math proves the point. Characters are attacked by Somali pirates when they seek a USB-drive with precious files, which means the events of the book take place in the 2000s or 2010s. Thus, Annika’s formation as a criminal boss is likely to happen after 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist. This seems historically believable, given that 90s were the time when most powerful mobs emerged.

Still, there is a major problem: the conflict between Annika’s story and the visual style of the book.

I mean, why the hell does this book look so Bolshevik? The covers present Annika’s black silhouette against a red background with a semi-transparent matryoshka doll; the Image logo also looks like matryoshka. The font of the title refers to Bolshevik agit-plakats (propaganda posters); the first and the last letters are pierced by tiny black stars. All of these are well-recognized elements of Soviet aesthetic.

The cover features a font that refers directly to Soviet posters
The cover features a font that refers directly to Soviet posters

From Annika’s family’s point of view, USSR was a disaster. Malikovs ran, lost their possessions and didn’t have a chance to see their motherland again as long as it was under Soviet rule. Civil war is always a tragedy, and for Annika’s family, this tragedy is associated with red color. I don’t see why a person with Annika’s origins would simultaneously embrace her noble title and grow a sympathy for the regime that turned this title into a bullseye on her back. It’s not okay to put a descendant of Whites on a cover that rocks visual symbols of Reds. It’s pure ignorance and disrespect to the history.

Of course, Annika is a fictitious character and her feelings couldn’t be hurt. But the visual treatment creators gave her means they disregard the stories of real people and don’t give a shit about the difference between modern Russia and the Soviet Union. The twenty-five years of post-Soviet Russian history went into a trash bin because they don’t offer strong visual elements that make the book compelling for decision-makers in the publishing house and comic shop owners. That’s why Annika, a Russian character, is put on a Soviet red background, while the flag of Russia is white, blue and red. And guess what—the flag of the White Movement looked exactly the same. But of course, this doesn’t matter, as this fact is less known among the masses.

By the way, Annika’s albino hair might have been an awesome symbol of her origins as a descendant of the White Movement, one of the last aristocrats. The creators didn’t play this card in the current arc, but it would be nice to see something like this in future.

One more thing I hope to see is more accurate speech. In the first issue, Gyorgy encounters the US agent and says, “You smell of government. In Russia, we send people like you to Siberia.” What is that supposed to mean? Who’s sending whom and why? The phrase doesn’t make much sense and its only goal is to implement keywords (Russia! Siberia!) and show that Gyorgy—a bulky bear-looking man, because, you know, bears—knows a thing or two about KGB’s ways. I’m surprised vodka and balalaika went by the board in this list of first things you think about when you think about Russia.

Even Annika’s name, which only sounds Slavic, is Scandinavian by origins and never had any prevalence in Russia. Was it a European influence her parents experienced after years in Switzerland?

It’s obvious the Codename Baboushka creative team didn’t do much research and made a lot of mistakes. In general, the book feels like a souvenir shop that sells attributes of all Russian epochs altogether. When you pose for a picture with actors dressed like Peter I and Lenin at the Red Square, you don’t care that Lenin almost wiped Peter’s dynasty from the Earth.

This is how Russia looks for Western people: communists, stars, red color all over. But the only character who looked amazing in sickle and hammer bra was Olga Kurkulina when she played Mother Russia in KickAss 2. Because it was a parody, nicely written and carried out by a native speaker.

Olga Kurkulina as Mother Russia in Kick Ass 2
Olga Kurkulina as Mother Russia in Kick Ass 2

Kremlin stars and matryoshkas for characters from Russia and other former Soviet Union countries are what an acacia tree sunset are for African fiction. The whole culture and history are boiled down to those symbols because they are familiar to the Western eye. Familiarity helps to market the work, and sells.

From what I see, the depiction of Russia and Russians in Western movies and books have improved since the 90s. TV-show Elementary engaged a native actor when they chose to film a Russian assassin for one of the latest episodes. Soviet officers in aforementioned Civil War say, “Follow me, soldier” and it sounds like some old good Soviet war movie. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is another great example, as Guy Ritchie plays up on stereotypes about Russian and American secret agents, and does so with style and subtle irony. On the other hand, a Russian keyboard in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently was made with printer, piece of paper and Google Translate. Hey, we don’t write Enter and Shift in Cyrillic!

Who likes arts and crafts? This keyboard seems to be made with a printer and a dollop of imagination.
Who likes arts and crafts? This keyboard seems to be made with a printer, glue stick, and a dollop of imagination.

When you write about a culture you don’t know, missteps and pitfalls seem inevitable. As a writer, I ask myself if perhaps we aren’t meant to tell stories about people from other countries and cultures at all. I don’t think that’s the answer. Storytelling is a powerful tool that allows us to build worlds and take our readers to other galaxies and epochs; it would be a shame to prohibit the plot to travel to a neighbor country. After all, we want stories to be diverse. I believe writers should write about foreign cultures and allot characters with multifaceted fiction experience — as long as real people with the somewhat same experience are not disregarded for the sake of marketing. For this, we do research and ask experts.

After all, most mistakes stem from writer’s laziness. And laziness is also the reason why African acacia tree, Russian branchy cranberry, and South Asian mangoes are so popular: the decision makers believe that the Western reader doesn’t want to load their heads with information that differs from pop-culture cliches. The world of stereotypes is comfortable and foolproof; in it, there’s nothing you might not know about China, or India, or Kenya. It feeds your ego.

But new information is the core of any reading or watching experience. We don’t open a book to find out what we already know. We don’t read a movie script before watching the movie and appreciate spoiler alerts in reviews. Because we’re looking for amazement, and there’s barely anything amazing about banalities of a tourist leaflet. As readers, we shouldn’t let marketers and editors take the marvel of authenticity from us. As writers, we should respectfully treat places and cultures that give our stories exotic flair.

There’s no Iron Curtain anymore. Russians have Twitters and emails, lots of them write in English. There’s plenty of ways to ask for advice. I’ve never refused to help a fellow writer to find the proper Russian word or character name, because, as I said, I’m flattered. It also would be a good idea to seek advice from people who write and know a thing or two about what’s expected from a dialog. I guess a lot of fails in books and movies are there because the writer consulted a loyal friend who just didn’t know how fiction works in general.

And since Antony Johnston promises more stories about Baboushka, and they will focus on Russian adventures of the main characters, I hope the team will find a way to make the narrative more accurate. Because hey, there are never too many badass female characters!

Nadia Bauman

Nadia Bauman

Opinion writer. Born and raised in Russia, Nadia lives in Northern Jersey and is currently pursuing a literary career in two languages. Nadia writes comic book scripts, short stories, and novellas in different genres. She constantly hunts for examples of gorgeous storytelling in various media, e.g. TV shows, Broadway musicals, and retro ketchup ads. You can find her casual chatter about this on Twitter at @nadyabauman and Tumblr at nadiabauman.

11 thoughts on “Your Average Russia: Codename Baboushka And Cultural Appropriation

  1. Another thought comes to mind regarding Russian rep in comics: DC Comics Bombshells – opinion of the Russian Supergirl & Stargirl?

    1. I haven’t read it. But thanks for the idea — I’ll put it on my to-read list and come back to you when I’ll have an opinion!

  2. So…I should drop it and wait for the trade on the next arc to see if it improves?

    1. I’m not saying people shouldn’t enjoy the book (though I don’t find it stellar, but it’s a whole another story). I’ve written this piece because I want people to be aware about stereotypes they meet in this particular book and other media; also, I dare to hope creators might pay more attention to what they write.

  3. What a well written article!
    This is exactly how I feel about this!
    I WANT to like this book, but it’s such a cliche’d and culturally offensive trope-filled nosh on top of a plot with potential.
    And I love your last line- because yes. You certainly can never have too many badass female characters.

    1. Thank you!
      I intentionally didn’t focus on the story in this piece, but I agree it’s cliched just like all the “Russian” attributes of the book. I’m dying to see a good-written story about a female mafia boss one day, because all mafia narratives are very patriarchal. It would be cool to see a woman to whom the mob refers “pakhan” 🙂

  4. Yeah. Western media has an unfortunate tendency to also treat East-Europe as one country. ^^;

    I’m Hungarian so I generally react to names not fitting this (my) nationality quite strongly. It tends to happen like ‘Hungarian character gets “general” Slavic name’ more often though. This is probably the first time I came across an ‘apparently Hungarian name given to a character with other assumed ethnicity’.

    I was like. O.o (We’re too small for this WTF! … also not a Slavic language, doesn’t that sound kinda wrong?! More WTF!)

  5. Speaking of names… Gyorgy. I’m guessing that wanted to be György, which is a Hungarian variant of George. Because of course the whole Eastern bloc was/is the USSR apparently. :/

    1. There’s also a Russian name that I would spell like Georgiy, so I figured it was weird transliteration. We don’t know Gyorgy’s origins exactly, but Western writers don’t mind using word “Russian” for Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians and Uzbeks. Which makes me think about Boris the Blade from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. The guy is from Uzbekistan and everyone calls him Russian. Ritchie appears to really feel those things! 🙂

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