May 19, 2020

"Ivan the Terrible": Breaking the Rules on a Warm August Night

In 1976, during the heart of the Cold War, when "communist" was an all-purpose term for "evil" and anything Russian was suspect, even Russian dressing, a tv series appeared about life in the Soviet Union.

How was it possible?  Who in America would be brave enough to produce it?  Who would be brave enough to watch?

It appeared in August just before my junior year in high school, on Saturday nights, in block with reruns of The Jeffersons, Mary Tyler Moore, and Bob Newhart.

Five episodes aired.  I watched one.

All of the action took place in a small one-room apartment, which Ivan (Lou Jacobi) shared with his wife, mother-in-law, three children, and a foreign-exchange student from Cuba. I don't remember who played who, but the Cuban may have been the Manuel Martinez of the top photo, and the son may have been Alan Caldwell (left).

Other cast members soon to achieve tv stardom:
1. Christopher Hewitt of Mr. Belvedere.
2. Nana Visitor of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ivan the Terrible was embedded in a series of hip sitcoms with realistic portrayals of real places, like Minneapolis and Chicago, so I expected a realistic portrayal of Russians.  Instead, I saw broad caricatures and annoying stereotypes., Al Capp's Upper Slobbovia:  it's always snowing in Moscow.  Everyone eats potatoes at every meal. The KGB is watching you.

I don't remember any gay subtexts.  No beefcake (too cold in Moscow to take off your shirt!).

But still, I liked the show (I watched only one episode because I was busy on the other nights it aired).  Not for the characters or the plotlines, certainly not for the local color, but because I wasn't supposed to be watching.  I wasn't supposed to think of Soviets at all, except as raving monsters who wanted to eat us.  The thrill of breaking the rules, going against social expectations, made that one Saturday night in August special.

Maybe that's why I still remember the theme song after more than 40 years.


  1. Thanks so much for this. I had a faint memory of watching this as a 7 year old with my older sister. I couldn't remember the name. I was beginning to think I made it up. I enjoyed the memory! Thanks,again!

  2. I guess it's harder for my generation to grok. We grew up on Tetris. Sorry, Tet-ya-is. (Yeah, most Tetris logos do that reverse R.) I mean, we don't like Putin, but is he any different from any other dictator?


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