No child of the 1980s could avoid the Cold War, which was at one of its hottest points even as it neared its death throes. Most of the major wrestling federations at the time boasted their own “red menaces,” as they had since the likes of Ivan Rasputin lit up marquees in the 1930s, but nearly all of them were ersatz Soviets, hirsute menaces from such exotic locales as Montreal (Ivan Koloff, a.k.a. Oreal Perras) and Minneapolis (Nelson Simpson, who played Ivan’s kayfabe “nephew” Nikita). (Ivan Rasputin’s real name was Hyman Fishman.) Croatian-born weightlifter Josip Nikolai Peruzovic, who played longtime WWE bad guy Nikolai Volkoff and died Sunday at age 70, was no more authentically Russian. But as a native-born Croat with Ukrainian roots and a working knowledge of the Russian language, his anti-communism was heartfelt and helped fuel his portrayal of a villainous character who spent a decade involved in main-event matches against All-American heroes such as Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, and Hulk Hogan.
Peruzovic’s brother Luka made 17 appearances for the Yugoslavian national soccer team, but Josip had no intention of using his own prowess at weightlifting to win amateur athletic glory for his birth country’s communist regime. While attending a weightlifting competition in Vienna, he went to the Canadian embassy and defected to the West. “I was just so happy to get out from there,” he said in an interview for The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. “Those communist bastards. … I hated them.” He expanded on that in a comprehensive 2016 interview about his career, noting that his grandfather had worked as a soldier and bodyguard for the Austro-Hungarian emperor before being killed by Yugoslavian communist agitators. “We kept his picture on the wall, but we never could talk about him because of the political implications,” he said.
From there, the man who would become Nikolai Volkoff went to Calgary, where he was trained by Stampede Wrestling owner Stu Hart and Canadian-born Newt Tattrie, who created a frightening foreigner gimmick for himself and his 315-pound trainee: the Mongols. (Tattrie claimed it was inspired by seeing pictures of Mongolians in a book at a Calgary public library.) The Mongols held the international tag team titles in the WWE in the early 1970s, when Tattrie was running the Pittsburgh territory. Soon, Peruzovic was repackaged as Nikolai Volkoff and put in a program with Bruno Sammartino, and Tattrie replaced him with another athletically skilled big man, Bill Eadie, who later achieved great fame in the WWE as both the Masked Superstar and Demolition Ax.
Oddly enough, Volkoff wasn’t even the first Nikolai Volkoff; a wrestler named Steve Gobb used that name in various Midwestern territories throughout the 1950s, achieving modest success. This “Nicoli Volkoff” had his share of notable matches, including a title contest with the legendary NWA world heavyweight champion Lou Thesz in 1963, but he and story line brother Boris Volkoff (Francis Zela) were no more Russian than Ivan or Nikita Koloff or their sometimes tag-team partner Krusher Kruschev (portrayed by Barry Darsow, who probably achieved his greatest fame as Bill Eadie’s tag-team partner, Demolition Smash).
As gimmicks go, this new and improved “Nikolai Volkoff” was kismet. Unlike with many previous faux-Russians, the character wasn’t a huge stretch for Peruzovic: Volkoff was his Ukrainian mother’s maiden name, Nikolai was his middle name, he could speak Russian, and he had firsthand experience with the Soviet world. Freddie Blassie, who managed Volkoff during his 1974 run against Bruno Sammartino, encouraged Volkoff to sing the praises of the USSR in order to fire up the fans. “He said, ‘if you hate communism, that’s how you destroy it, [by telling] people how good it is over there, so they know you’re lying,” Volkoff told wrestling journalist Greg Oliver.
Volkoff pushed his kayfabe patriotism to new heights during a 1983 feud in Mid-South Wrestling against Boris Zhukov—a Virginia-born wrestler named James Kirk Harrell with whom Volkoff would team at the tail end of his active WWE career—after Zhukov lost some seemingly winnable matches to U.S. wrestlers like legally blind former amateur star George Weinergoff. To establish his communist bona fides in combat against the “soft” Zhukov, Volkoff began singing the Soviet national anthem before matches to emphasize that he was the only true representative of the Kremlin’s will. Rabidly anti-communist Mid-South promoter “Cowboy” Bill Watts had suggested that Volkoff walk out to the ring accompanied by a taped rendition of the anthem, but Volkoff insisted on singing it himself, and the resulting crowd heat, according to a 2016 interview, left him fearing for his life whenever he entered the ring. This innovation migrated along with Volkoff when he returned to the WWF in 1984, when he was partnered with pro-Iran villain the Iron Sheik. The pair of foreign menaces swapped the tag-team championships back and forth with ace young grapplers Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham, who were wrestling as “the U.S. Express,” before Volkoff was broken off into a singles feud against “American-made” Hulk Hogan, who embodied all of the USA’s national virtues in one cartoonish, “vitamin”-inflated body.
It was around this time that my childhood memories of Volkoff became fixed in amber. Between him singing the Soviet anthem to deafeningly vicious boos—followed by the Sheik grabbing the microphone to boast “Iran number one, Russia number one” in garbled English—my understanding of foreign villainy was set in stone. I enjoyed the various Russian menace gimmicks being run by Jim Crockett Promotions too, but there was nothing quite like Vince McMahon’s WWF when it came to mindless jingoism. The Southern fans hated villains such as the Koloffs, but they never approximated the melees that occurred when Volkoff launched into song. “There’s no need for a food drive when this guy starts to sing,” WWE commentator Gorilla Monsoon would joke as fans volleyed rotten vegetables into the ring.
What I didn’t realize then was that communism in Russia, misunderstood and caricatured by interpreters such as Volkoff and comedian Yakov Smirnoff, was on the way out, and so were these pop culture figures who made a living by lampooning it. In Volkoff’s case, that was fine: He had a very long career under his ample belt by the time I first laid eyes on him, and so a pro-American face turn (and resulting descent to lower-midcard status) were understandable as the aging Soviet menace wound down his second act. I recall this iteration of Volkoff as looking tired around the eyes and somewhat softer around the middle, a friendly and approachable pro-American hero whose true love of his adopted homeland shone through in otherwise-boring fait accompli feuds against the likes of ex-partner Boris Zhukov. His last major story line in the WWE saw him, like his fictional homeland, overcome by capitalism, with “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase buying his services and forcing him to place a “¢” on his red trunks where the Russian sickle had once been.
From there, Volkoff segued into local politics, while making sporadic appearances on WWE television. I remember following him on MySpace when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Maryland General Assembly. Like so many red-baiters and red-haters of Reagan-era vintage, Volkoff was a die-hard Republican, the sort of “better dead than red” figure who probably thought that diplomat George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” about Soviet designs on world domination was a gross understatement. I would periodically catch sight of Volkoff during his declining years, as most wrestling fans did, and I was struck by how frail he appeared relative to the bear-hugging behemoth of my youth. But by all accounts, Volkoff was a nice man who took his various health problems in stride, dedicating his remaining time to family, friends, and the next generation of wrestlers.
The one area where ex-Soviet menace Volkoff no longer perceived any looming threat was Russia. A devoted supporter of President Donald Trump, Volkoff was critical of attempts to depict his victory as the result of Russian election interference. “I think the American people elected Trump. Nobody else,” he told the Washingtonian in 2016. “Because people get sick and tired of politicians making promised [sic] that they don’t keep.” Even though Vladimir Putin’s likeness has been utilized by subsequent WWE heels such as Rusev and manager Lana, Volkoff didn’t see that leader or the country as a credible threat. “When Russia was in power, I did everything I could to make them look bad,” he said in a 2007 interview. “Then one day, Russia was gone, and I said, ‘my job is done.’”
While it was easy in recent years to imagine him in current story lines, perhaps it’s fitting that Volkoff died with Russia again on the upswing in the national consciousness. His brand of comic jingoism is, like so much else in the wrestling world, now indistinguishable from the real thing. Russia may not be gone, but Volkoff did his job, and it would be hard to argue that any Russian menace did it better.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.