"Did you know that 5 percent of the 10 million-strong Czech population uses crystal meth, known locally as pervitin? Of course you didn't, because it's nonsense." The author of "The Final Word," a daily English-language news bulletin in the Czech Republic, is quite upset, perhaps understandably, that millions of people watching the U.S. television show "Breaking Bad"
now know the faraway Czech lands as a large market for methamphetamine.
Many of us in the RFE/RL newsroom were amused by this sudden turn of events in the popular show. Some said, "Oh, it's just a TV show!" But many Americans get their knowledge of foreign countries from film and television, so this gives me, a confessed television addict, a chance to recall some stereotypical portrayals of Eastern Europeans on American television. I limited my quick survey only to television shows, because film -- well, the list would be simply too long. Let's just agree that all on-screen East European men are rogue security officers-turned-gangsters and East European women are prostitutes, or seductive spies at best.
Of course, this wasn't the first time the Czech Republic had been mentioned on "Breaking Bad." In episode 302, "Caballo Sin Nombre," lawyer Saul Goodman encourages his meth-cooking client Walter White to forget his wife and look for a woman from Thailand or the Czech Republic: "You've been out of circulation a while, you'll be amazed at what's out there. Thailand, Czech Republic -- those women are just so grateful to even be here."
But let's look at some other American television shows for more ethnic stereotypes.
In episode 1018, "Roe To Perdition
," Frasier and Niles try to get cheap, high-quality caviar from a guy named Petyr with connections in the Russian mafia. His name is really Petyr. Incidentally, the terms "Ukrainian" and "Russian" are used on U.S. television interchangeably, while "Belarusian" is almost never mentioned. In "Friends" (episode 110, "The One with the Monkey"
), Phoebe's love interest, David, leaves her to go to Minsk -- "Minsk. It's in Russia."
has Russian mob bosses Sergei Bazhaev and Vladimir Laitanin as antagonists, as well as Davros, a more minor mafia member who's hired to assassinate President Omar Hassan.
Throughout the second season, the Polish Sobotka family
is led by a respected longshoremen's union leader who is involved with an organized crime smuggling operation, including the trafficking of Eastern European women for prostitution, in order to finance a political campaign to sustain the docks.
In episode 210, two Russian crooks
install cable illegally at Jerry's apartment. They break the shower while installing cable television and ruin a party by eating all the food and starting a fight. When Jerry changes his mind and refuses to pay for the cable hook-up, the Russians break his television set.
By the end of the series, Russian-American FBI agent Alex Krycek
turns out to be an undercover agent working for the main antagonist, the Smoking Man. In the Season 8 finale, "Existence", he attempts to kill Special Agent Mulder but gets shot between the eyes.
In episode 103, "The Big Picture,"
protagonist Brenda Johnson investigates the murder of a high-priced Russian prostitute by Russian mobsters and a crooked customs agent.
"Life on Mars"
The U.S. version of the science-fiction crime series
features an episode (103 "Take a Look at the Lawmen") that centers around a New York cop investigation involving a Russian gangster named Vassily Lukin.
"Law and Order"
The final two episodes of Season 9 center around the Russian mafia in Manhattan.
Russian intelligence officer Victor Azimoff is so evil he makes his young son Maxim kill his own mother. The son eventually kills Azimoff too. (Why are they always "--offs"? They must all be 19th-century counts or princes, no doubt.)
Everyone is a criminal, so naturally all male Eastern European characters are mobsters. In the pilot episode, Christopher Moltisanti kills Czech "waste management" rival Emil Kolar. Breaking with tradition, female characters are not prostitutes but only the mistresses of criminal bosses (Irina, Tony Soprano's Russian comare, and Yaryna, Phil Leotardo's Ukrainian comare). Irina's cousin Svetlana is shown as tough in spirit, refusing to allow her disability to get in the way of her ambitions. But mostly Russians are a threat to the Soprano family. In episode 311 "Pine Barrens," a wounded Russian special forces veteran
, who "once killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handed," overpowers Christopher and Paulie (who then mistakes Chechens for "Czechoslovakians") and leaves them freezing in the woods with nothing to eat but mustard.
But not all Eastern European characters are bad on U.S. television. On HBO's "Eastbound & Down," Russian baseball player (don't scoff) Ivan Dochenko is actually a likable, even cool character who is not only a stellar pitcher but also a techno DJ who wears a "traditional" Russian rat hat.
Back to "Breaking Bad," the 5 percent meth usage claim is a blatant lie. "The Final Word" notes that the Czech Republic supplies an estimated 95 percent of Europe's crystal meth. It doesn't need to import any.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, so if you think you're a bigger TV junkie than me, add more examples of what you think are stereotypical images of Eastern Europeans on U.S. television in the comments section below.
-- Pavel Butorin