A group of young diplomats come face to face with world-changing global events.
Kate Myers

29 Nov 2021 - 10:53 AM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2021 - 10:53 AM

The Soviet Union of the 1960s was many things, but boring certainly wasn’t one of them. Khruschev’s thaw saw a move away from Stalinist repression and censorship, with its comparably liberal ideology heralding a new era of hope. Dior models roamed Red Square, the American National Exhibit had centre stage in Moscow, and it seemed that the future had finally arrived. Beneath the surface, however, ran an undercurrent of secrecy and deceit, fuelled by a burgeoning tension with the West, and it is here that Russian spy drama The Optimists unfolds.

As the head of the Information and Analytical Department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ruta Blaumore’s (Severija Janušauskaitė) knowledge is invaluable. Though she might be an American citizen on paper, she is determined to be identified as proudly Latvian and Communist to the core.

Ruta recognises that with a new era comes the need for a new diplomacy, and her call for a young team of ‘optimists’ is answered, working together to gather intelligence for the Russian diplomatic effort. They know the West better than most and are ready to revolutionise the country’s foreign relations.

When diplomats currently deployed in the US don’t know the difference between a golf club and a floor mop, leading to missed opportunities for intelligence on the upcoming presidential campaign, Blaumore’s instincts prove to be right on the money. It’s worth remembering, however, that this is the 1960s, and no matter how experienced and intelligent she is, all it takes is the arrival of a new chief of department in Grigory Biryukov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to see her relegated to a supporting role and forced to negotiate with him over the future direction of the department. If anyone thought Blaumore was going to step down quietly, however, they thought wrong.

It’s a demotion for Biryukov, too, but he’s determined to make his mark. His arrival signals a change for the young team, made up of Andrei Muratov (Egor Koreschkov), Arkady Golub (Rinal Mukhametov) and Leonid Korneev (Artyom Bystrov), who have plenty of questions about their new boss and his mysterious past. Like Blaumore, each has their own unique, global experience to bring to the department.

French-born Andrei specialises in young African democracies, Leonid is a Latin American expert who grew up in Leningrad during the Spanish Civil War, and Arkady is an Asian languages whiz and the undisputed brains of the unit. Blaumore is proud of the think-tank she has put together, but if Biryukov is impressed, he has a funny way of showing it. “Get ready to do some real work for a change,” is hardly the introduction anyone was hoping for. The team’s enthusiastic idealism is quickly put to the test as they must navigate a dangerous world of espionage and political manoeuvring that no amount of expertise could have prepared them for.

Each individual in this brains trust has more to them than meets the eye. For Blaumore, her personal life is interwoven with her diplomatic ventures more than she would like; sleeping with a KGB spy when your husband is a highly decorated war pilot is about as close to the edge as you can get. Biryukov isn’t immune to entanglement in this web of lies either. He’s recently widowed, with a young daughter, and comes with more than his fair share of baggage, not least of which is his on-again off-again dalliance with German journalist, Gabby Goetz (Evgeniya Brik). When espionage and self-preservation meet, betrayal is not far behind, and time only sees it become darker and more deeply entrenched for this group.

Directed by Latvian-born and American-educated screenwriter Michael Idov, the series takes a fresh look at the events of the Cold War from a Russian perspective, often heralded as bringing a Mad Men-like suaveness to its depiction of Soviet diplomacy.

Idov is uniquely positioned to capture the other side of this period of geopolitical tension, giving unique dimension to his characters, and moving beyond the limitations of the good vs. evil trope. Over the 13 episodes of season 1, the fragile and complex web of deception that underpins this team is stretched to its very limits and the line between self-interest and the greater good becomes increasingly difficult to see – if it was ever there at all. 

The Optimists is now streaming at SBS On Demand.

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