If these were ordinary times, the Russian television series Sleepers might have received little attention. When it premiered on Russian network television, in October, it seemed like just another rip-off of a foreign show—in this case, the FX spy drama The Americans, now concluding its final season. But amid real-world election-interference campaigns and extraterritorial assassination attempts, Sleepers has become something more interesting: a justification for the Kremlin’s aggressive spy games overseas.
The series revolves around the CIA’s activation of an American sleeper cell in Moscow and, more broadly, the agency’s plot to destabilize Russian society. In the first episode, Russia’s embassy in Libya is sacked and its staff killed, and a young pigtailed Russian girl is blown up by militants—all courtesy of the CIA.
A disclaimer before the first episode insists that all characters are fictitious and that any coincidences are random. But the echoes of real-life events are unmistakable. There are unflattering analogues to the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, and various saboteurs and reprobates. Each character is seemingly driven by some combination of cowardice, greed, and the occasional symbolic cheeseburger.
Despite its soft ratings, Sleepers was met with hostility from Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia. The director, Yuri Bykov—previously championed by liberals for his anti-corruption films—had, one journalist suggested, reduced himself to “a court cinematographer.” The backlash stemmed partly from Bykov’s collaboration with the pro–Vladimir Putin lead writer of Sleepers, Sergei Minaev (who in 2012 had turned over footage of anti-Kremlin protesters to state prosecutors). Many liberals seemed particularly offended by one of the series’ villains, a journalist who lives in a palatial postmodernist mansion; he is part of a fifth column comprising liberals, bloggers, and CIA-sponsored troll factories. Four days after the series premiered, Bykov took to social media to disavow it, writing that his work on the show “betrays Russia’s entire progressive generation.”
If the Kremlin believes that Russia is under assault by the U.S., a copycat of an American TV drama is a peculiar vehicle by which to relay this. Michael Idov, an American writer born in Latvia who has written several Russian movies and TV series, was the creative director of the production company behind Sleepers, but refused to work on the show, walking out of the room anytime it was discussed. He confirmed to me that Sleepers was modeled after The Americans, noting that such mimicry is common in Russian entertainment. He attributes this to lingering effects of the Soviet period, when Russians had only sporadic exposure to outside pop culture. “Almost no Russian TV series comes into being without a clear American or British inspiration,” he said. Russians are “so insecure about their pop culture that basically they don’t trust their instincts. They were always so proud of their space program and ballet—two things Russia can be rightfully proud of—but they only remembered that they could do space movies after Gravity, and ballet movies after Black Swan.”
Now, as The Americans winds to a close, Sleepers lives on. A second season aired just in time for Russia’s recent presidential election.