Upon the list of familiar wrestling tropes, one of the most tried-and-true is that of the evil foreigner – the most popular of which is the Russian.
For decades, “Evil Russians” have been used as an easy role to garner heat, playing off the audience’s distrust as a side effect of the Cold War. As a result, it has one of the greatest longevities of any gimmick in wrestling history.
A History of Non-Russians Playing the Role of Russians in Wrestling
Below, you will find ten wrestlers (all non-Russians) who have portrayed the role of an “evil Russians” over the years, performing it to varying degrees of success. This list is presented in no particular order.
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1. Boris Malenko
Perhaps best known to fans today as the father of master grappler Dean Malenko and his lesser-known brother Joe, Boris was a pioneer of the USSR-based character. He previously worked the gimmick of an evil German before evolving into a reviled Russian.
Sometimes called “Professor Malenko” or “The Great Malenko,” he has been cited as one of the most overlooked yet greatest talkers and wrestlers in the industry’s history.
Boris, actually born in New Jersey, had successful runs in Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF), NWA Big Time Wrestling, and the American Wrestling Association. His biggest rivalries were with the likes of Eddie Graham, Wahoo McDaniel, and Antonio Inoki.
In 1979, Malenko retired, later passing away from leukemia in 1994. He would become part of a WCW storyline in 1998 when he was endlessly insulted by Chris Jericho as a way of making jabs at his son, Dean. He also has a solid legacy, training future stars such as Norman Smiley, Sean Waltman, Fred Ottman, Barry Horowitz, and Gangrel.
2. Ivan Koloff
A former WWF champion, Ivan Koloff has huge historical significance attached to his name, dethroning Bruno Sammartino in 1971 after Bruno held the title belt for eight years – the longest WWE Championship reign of all time.
Ivan won the match by famously dropping a top-rope knee onto “The Italian Strongman,” with the crowd stunned into so much silence that Bruno believed he had damaged his ears.
“The Russian Bear” was a transitional titleholder – only keeping the belt for a matter of weeks before dropping it to Pedro Morales.
However, while his most significant moment was in the WWWF, his most prolonged run was in the NWA’s Georgia, Florida, and Mid-Atlantic territories.
Koloff most significantly worked alongside kayfabe cousin Nikita in The Russian Team, a top tag team that faced off against the likes of The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express and The Road Warriors.
On top of his success in JCP (Jim Crockett Promotions), he also main-evented the first Smoky Mountain Wrestling card and made an appearance on the first-ever event to be held as Eastern Championship Wrestling (later renamed Extreme Championship Wrestling).
3. Alexis Smirnoff
Trained by the legendary Édouard Carpentier, Michel Lamarche best found fame in the NWA under the name of Alexis Smirnoff – a moniker created after touring with Ivan Koloff.
Initially titled Michel Dubois, he had limited success in Georgia Championship Wrestling and the WWWF before settling in the Mid-Atlantic territory.
Regularly jumping between companies, the baldheaded Quebecer eventually found himself in the WWF by the mid-’80s. Here, he never made it to TV on a significant level, even losing to “Iron” Mike Sharpe, Rick McGraw, and George Wells on top of some of the more prominent stars. He would also challenge Tito Santana for the Intercontinental Championship.
Smirnoff had potential in the AWA, but unfortunately, the company quickly lost popularity during his time, with the WWF and NWA vastly overtaking the more traditional, no-thrills AWA approach. This led to Smirnoff leaving the company by the end of 1986.
He spent his final few years in Japan, making over 30 trips to the country and competing for New Japan and All Japan Pro Wrestling. During these stints in NJPW and AJPW, he shared the ring with prominent names such as Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, Bruno Sammartino, Ric Flair, Terry Funk, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Tatsumi Fujinami, and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams.
4. Nikita Koloff
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nikita Koloff was initially billed as the bigger, more athletically impressive follow-up to his kayfabe uncle, Ivan.
The real-life Nelson Simpson took great lengths to protect his gimmick, including teaching basic Russian by listening to audiotapes on the road. Although Simpson was never fluent in the language, this helped him get by with appropriate pronunciations.
A huge, menacing heel, his dominance got him an NWA World Title bout against Ric Flair at 1985’s Great American Bash, which he has cited as his favorite match. However, he was surprisingly turned face after a much-lauded "best of seven" series against Magnum T.A. over the U.S Title.
With the era of Russian hatred dying out, booker Dusty Rhodes struck the iron while hot. Koloff went on to main-event Starrcade 1986 in a double DQ result against “The Nature Boy,” with Flair berating fans for supporting the Koloff over himself.
Nikita also became one of the greatest rivals of The Four Horsemen alongside Super Powers’ tag partner Dusty Rhodes.
Koloff became one of the company’s biggest rising stars, soon winning the 2nd Annual Jim Crockett Jr. Tag Cup and emerging victorious in the initial WarGames matches against The Four Horsemen.
Following on from this, Nikita would unify the NWA and UWF Television belts after defeating Terry Taylor. Koloff would then have runs in companies such as the AWA, WCW, and TNA.
Despite his storyline Communism, he may well be best remembered as a good guy, with heels often using his nationality as a way of getting heat.
5. Khrusher Khruschev
Alongside Ivan and Nikita in The Russian Team was a then-newcomer to the industry called Khrusher Khruschev. Named after Nikita Khruschev, the USSR leader during the mid-20th century, Barry Darsow was, in reality, from Minnesota.
Upon his arrival, Khruschev was awarded 1/3 of the NWA World 6-Man Tag Team Titles after the Koloffs ditched Don Kernodle.
Unfortunately, the Russian Team’s near-4-month long JCP tag title run ended at the hands of The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express, who beat Ivan Koloff and Khruschev.
In the opening match of Starrcade 1985 at the Greensboro Coliseum, Khruschev defeated Sam Houston to win the vacant NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title.
Losing the title 44 days later to Jake Roberts’s brother, Khruschev legitimately injured his knee in the bout – needing a 6-month recovery.
He eventually returned, helping Nikita beat Magnum T.A. in the final match of their "best of 7" series.
In September ‘86, Darsow and Ivan Koloff became the inaugural NWA US Tag Team Champions by winning a tournament, defeating the Kansas Jayhawks to garner the straps.
With Magnum T.A.’s sudden career-ending car accident scuppering all plans, the popular Nikita Koloff was turned face.
Now aligned with Dusty Rhodes, “The Russian Nightmare” shot off to huge success, occasionally facing off against Ivan and Khruschev. However, the duo lost the US tag belts to Barry Windham and Ronnie Garvin before Darsow left due to a pay dispute with Jim Crockett.
Soon enough, Darsow would replace flop Demolition member Randy “Moondog Rex” Colley in the WWF faction to significantly more success, turning around the group’s prospects. And the rest, as they say, is history.
6. Nikolai Volkoff
Throughout his on-off 25-year run with the WW(W)F, Josip Hrvoje Peruzović almost always played a foreign menace, the most successful of which was Nikolai Volkoff.
Having previously performed as Bepo Mongol and an Executioner, Peruzović, as Volkoff, became a top contender to the World Champion, Bruno Sammartino. Billed then as from Mongolia, he had a profitable Northeast run challenging for the strap. He also was a threat to Bob Backlund during Backlund’s title reign.
Upon his return to the WWF in 1984, he played the Volkoff character as a bulky, bruising Soviet who would proudly sing his country’s national anthem before matches. His alliance with the Iranian villain and Twitter phenomenon, The Iron Sheik, proved effective. The duo defeated The US Express for the WWF World Tag Team Titles at the first WrestleMania.
After dropping the belts, Volkoff had a solo run which saw him suffer several losses to WWF megastar Hulk Hogan. He would also lose to Corporal Kirchner in a 2-minute flag match at ‘Mania II before manager "Classy" Freddie Blassie sold his contract to Slick.
The 2005 Hall of Fame inductee would not be so successful in a run in The Bolsheviks with Boris Zhukov and frequently ended up on the losing side.
After being defeated by The Hart Foundation at WrestleMania VI in seconds, the group split, with Volkoff becoming a face – betraying Zhukov by singing the USA national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.
Now billed from Lithuania, Nikolai’s face run was short-lived, and he left the company after leading his team to victory at Survivor Series 1990.
A forgotten run in ECW followed, in addition to a spell as a destitute employee of Ted DiBiase. Volkoff would use his iconic Russian persona throughout the rest of his in-ring career, his Soviet gimmick aiding him until his untimely death in 2018.
7. Boris Zhukov
Having had a run in Jim Crockett Promotions in the early ‘80s, the former “Private” Jim Nelson was recast as the evil Soviet Boris Zhukov in the American Wrestling Association.
In the AWA, he challenged for the World Title against Rick Martel and Nick Bockwinkel and went up against AWA America’s champion, Sgt Slaughter. He memorably lost to Brad Rheingans at WrestleRock before teaming with Soldat Ustinov to prize the World Tag Team Championships away from The Midnight Rockers.
Before moving to the WWF, he was written out of the AWA, having "fled" following a chain match against Wahoo McDaniel.
In the WWF, Zhukov was immediately placed alongside Nikolai Volkoff in a team called “The Bolsheviks.”
The pair were used as enhancement talents, often losing to the bigger teams such as The British Bulldogs, The Powers Of Pain, and The Young Stallions.
In a 20-man tag team Survivor Series bout, the Russian duo was eliminated in less than two minutes, showing their low level on the card. This is proven even more so by Zhukov’s first-round loss to perennial journeyman “Iron” Mike Sharpe in the 1988 King Of The Ring tournament.
The Bolsheviks’ split saw the two take different sides in a 1990 Survivor Series tag match, with Volkoff’s team winning and Tito Santana being the sole survivor.
By February, the lower-card Soviet was released, with Zhukov having short stints in Japan’s Super World of Sports (SWS) and the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF).
8. The Russian Assassin(s)
Managed by “Number One” Paul Jones, The Russian Assassins were a tag team comprising David “Angel of Death” Sheldon (Russian Assassin #1) and Jack Victory (Russian Assassin #2).
Wearing red singlets donned with the Communist hammer and sickle, the duo only had a few tag matches together but beat established names such as Junkyard Dog, and Ricky Morton, as well as teams such as The Sheepherders.
In some of their most high-profile matches, they beat Ivan Koloff and JYD at Starrcade ‘88 and had an unsuccessful pay-per-view outing against a face incarnation of The Midnight Express.
After their few bouts, David Sheldon broke off to become a singular Russian Assassin. He would lose to Stan Lane, Steve Casey, and Ron Simmons at house shows, with his biggest singles outing seeing him come up short against Michael P.S. Hayes at 1989’s Chi-Town Rumble.
9. Vladimir Kozlov
After the Cold War, the Russian gimmick lay dormant, with changing attitudes making the role seem passé.
Perhaps the closest to a genuine Russian on this list, Oleg Prudius, was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1979 – a nation then very much a part of the USSR.
After a few years in developmental, he was renamed Vladimir Kozlov upon his SmackDown debut.
After crushing enhancement talent, Kozlov soon moved to the main-event scene and challenged for the WWE Title on pay-per-view.
During this time, “The Moscow Mauler” scored the biggest win of his career, earning a rare clean pinfall victory over The Undertaker. After that, he remained undefeated for months until eventually losing to Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker.
Soon after, he was drafted to WWE’s flop revival of ECW, where he was a member of The Ruthless Roundtable.
In this role, he primarily aided William Regal in his unsuccessful battles for the ECW World Title. However, Kozlov would soon break off from the group as a result of internal issues. He would then be recast as a comedy character.
He was paired with Santino Marella in a double act throughout this incarnation that worked surprisingly well, with Kozlov playing the no-nonsense straight man to Marella’s goofy tomfoolery.
This run included a short feud with Sheamus and a memorable tea party skit where Kozlov showed off his dancing prowess. This team had a short-lived tag title reign after winning the straps off The Corre’s Heath Slater and Justin Gabriel. Kozlov was then removed from the WrestleMania 27 card and replaced by Kofi Kingston in an 8-man tag match.
After serving as Conor O’Brian’s pro on NXT, he was written off TV with a kayfabe broken leg, following his induction into Mark Henry’s “Hall Of Pain.”
He was released from WWE shortly after.
10. (Alexander) Rusev
The company’s first (and to this day) only Bulgarian competitor, Rusev was in the WWE for a decade, from developmental to his release in April 2020.
Rusev stood out in NXT due to his martial arts-oriented style and his manager, “The Ravishing Russian,” Lana.
Initially, he debuted as Alexander Rusev, but his first name was ditched after a few weeks.
His first few months saw him work as a dominant, hoss threat whose anti-American, pro-Russian personality saw him pose with the Russian flag, pay his respects to Vladimir Putin, and even arrive in a tank at WrestleMania 32 before suffering a defeat to John Cena.
A feud with The Big Show forced WWE to alter the Rusev character. Allegedly, an angle in which “The World’s Largest Athlete” tore down the Russian flag and laughed at an enraged Rusev received a lot of backlash from the world’s biggest country, with Russian outcry forcing WWE to recast the foreign persona.
Rusev was now portrayed, as in real-life, as Bulgarian. His wife Lana remained billed from Moscow, despite her accent dropping in its thickness (she’s actually from Florida). This seemingly did not hurt his career, as he would win 3 US Titles and become massively popular during the Rusev Day gimmick.
In AEW, Rusev, now known as Miro, is also portrayed as being from Bulgaria.
Further notable wrestlers billed from Russia: Soldat Ustinov, Alex Koslov, Mr. Strongko, Boris Alexiev, Anna Bogomazova, and various others.
These stories may also interest you:
- Nikolai Volkoff: A Hero, a Legend, and My Friend
- Ivan Koloff – WWE’s Shame Behind Him Not Being in the Hall of Fame
- 10 Wrestlers You May Not Know Appeared in ECW
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