Remembering Nikolai Volkoff, Wrestling's Soviet Villain
DON GONYEA, HOST:
An obituary last week caught our eye - a man who was an icon, perhaps a relic of a bygone era. He was known as Nikolai Volkoff, a professional wrestler, who during the 1970s and '80s, played a Soviet bad guy, taunting the likes of Hulk Hogan on television and in arenas across the U.S. A menacing figure with a heavy Slavic accent, Volkoff became a character wrestling fans loved to hate as he waved a hammer and sickle flag and belted out his rendition of the Soviet national anthem.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSIP PERUZOVIC: (As Nikolai Volkoff, singing in foreign language).
GONYEA: Nikolai Volkoff died this past Sunday at the age of 70. Journalist Oliver Bateman wrote an appreciation for the sports website The Ringer and joins us now from member station WESA in Pittsburgh.
Oliver Bateman, thank you for speaking with us.
OLIVER BATEMAN: Thank you for having me.
GONYEA: So who was Nikolai Volkoff? We should say right up front that that wasn't his real name and that he wasn't really Russian.
BATEMAN: No, no, he was a Croatian named Josip Peruzovic. He was a weightlifter - a promising weightlifter - in Yugoslavia, who, at an event in Austria - a weightlifting exhibition - defected to the Canadian embassy because they had a very short turnaround time for getting him out of his Communist homeland of Yugoslavia and into Canada, whereupon he found that maybe weightlifting wasn't going to be the ticket to earning money and began training as a pro wrestler out in Calgary. He initially wrestled as a bad guy, one-half of the tag team The Mongols, which is kind of funny because The Mongols conquered much of modern day Russia for, like, a 500-year period. And then, he would later become a villainous Soviet character.
GONYEA: You were a wrestling fan as a kid. What was it about his particular version of the Soviet bad guy that made it so popular?
BATEMAN: Well, a lot of different wrestling promotions throughout the '70s and '80s were always running villainous, bad guy Russians or bad guy Soviets. When I was a kid, we watched WWE wrestling - then called WWF wrestling. And Volkoff was such a charismatic Soviet villain because he did things that a lot of the other Soviet menaces couldn't. He could actually speak a bit of Russian. He was such a convincing pure bad guy, especially when teamed up with The Iron Sheik, who was a very pro-Iran character and representing this other great enemy of the United States. Between them and Ronald Reagan, that sort of shaped the way that I viewed the world, which is to say it was very black-and-white. Communists are bad.
GONYEA: But Nikolai Volkoff was not particularly comfortable being this symbol of the Soviet empire and all things Soviet, right?
BATEMAN: No. It's interesting. This die-hard capitalist, lover of the West, to make money is instructed and advised by a manager that you should do a Soviet villain that would really get a lot of heat from the crowd. And Volkoff wanted people to hate the Soviet Union as much as he did - and communism as much as he did. He was truly a master of that.
GONYEA: Do we know what he thought about present-day political tensions with Russia? I mean, we know he was a Republican. We know he liked President Trump.
BATEMAN: Yeah, he loved Reagan, and he loved Trump. And in some of his later interviews in 2016 and on, you know, because Russia was back in the news as this evil menace once again, he was asked, you know, did he think Russia had tampered in the election? And he said, no, the voters elected Trump, and the Russia of today was not a credible threat. Even though many of us see Putin as this kind of, you know, cartoon villain as well, he didn't. He didn't perceive them that way. And that's kind of funny considering he played a cartoon villain for much of his career.
GONYEA: Oliver Bateman is a writer, lawyer and lifelong world wrestling aficionado.
Oliver Bateman, thanks for talking to us.
BATEMAN: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.