"There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world."
—Alexis de Tocqueville, written in 1835
The period of high tension and Lensman Arms Race between the Western democracies and dictatorshipsnote This is arguably the origin of the term 'The West', as Western Europe and its allies were all anti-communist dictatorships (like Franco's Spain) and democracies (like the Fourth French Republic). Since the war's end the term has come to encompass all European-type societies, not just non-communist ones. (led by NATO) and state communism (led by the USSR and the Warsaw Pact a.k.a the "eastern bloc", with China kind of aligned with them 'til the Sino-Soviet split of '60note Whereupon, at a few points, World War Three looked more likely to start as a Sino-Soviet conflict. The nature of the 'war' means it didn't have a beginning or end as such, but Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of 1946 to the Malta meeting of 1990 are popular dates. Red October is the earliest start-date, the latest end-date being 25/12/1991, when Mikhail Gorbechev resigned and the USSR was officially dissolved. There was no direct fighting between the two superpowersnote Excepting the whole 'Korean War' thing, wherein the vast majority of North Korea's troops and pilots were actually PRC and Soviet 'volunteers', respectively. although many indirect conflicts flared up, with one or both sides backed by one or both superpowers (Korea, Vietnam, The Iran-Iraq War, The Angolan Bush War, Afghanistan, etc).
Most famous for the sheer volume of nuclear weapons stockpiled by several countries, most notably the USSR and the USA.
Highly influential in many a Spy Drama during this period, as setting or Back Story, such as Airwolf, The A-Team, etc.
Standard plot in western media involves U.S. as goodies, USSR as baddies (of course, it is vice versa in Russian media). You could also have General Ripper come in and accuse our heroes of being Commie spies; or a third party trying to spark the war between two superpowers. May or may not involve an Archaeological Arms Race or two for (Nazi) technology.
Now much harder to use for plot ideas, unless you're using missing ex-Soviet weapons as a Weapon of Mass Destruction or unemployed Soviet scientists to develop it. Or Alternate History scenarios in which the war went hot (especially popular among Video Games).
So what actually happened? To avoid cluttering the article, this will get a separate entry: History Of The Cold War. However, broadly speaking, the history of conflict between the West and the Soviet Union can be divided into six sections:
1917-1930: Starts in Red October, in which the Bolsheviks seized power and waged the Russian Civil War. League of Nations forces intervened and (indirectly, for the most part) assisted the various nationalist and White Russian forces in their attempts to seccede from or take over Bolshevik Russia respectively. The various anti-Bolshevik factions were too ill-co-ordinated to prevail, though a fair few countries (like Poland) managed to succesfully seccede despite the Red Army's efforts to crush them. Witnessed Ur Example of the Red Scare - the United States being notably zealous in its crusade against socialism, at least until the later advent of Mc Carthyism. Fiction in this era tends to focus upon Bomb Throwing Communists, attempts to jumpstart a world revolution, and the chaos of the Russian Civil War.
1931-1945: A period of reduced tensions between the USSR and the rest of the world as Imperial Japan's lurch to the right wing and the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the wake of the Great Depression led to some tentative contacts between the USSR and the non-communist and non-fascist powers. This blossomed into a full alliance after the USSR was brought into the wider war in '41, though both sides still worked to expand their spy networks in each others' ranks. The fall of the Axis powers coupled with several high-profile scandals led to the conflict quickly re-emerging in the post-war period. Expect fiction to portray the Soviets at best as heroic but not entirely trustworthy allies and conniving and treasonous enemies-in-all-but-name at worst.
1946-1962: The Chinese Civil War resumes (and in 1950 is won by the Chinese Communist Party), coinciding with and causing a sharp falling-out between the two sides which culminates in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance (1949-1960) dissolves amidst Sino-Soviet border skirmishes. Fiction here has direct Soviet involvement in evil plots. The Space Race also begins with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.
1978-1987: The "Second Cold War", with the PRC under Deng Xiaoping allying with the USA against the USSR and experimenting with opening up 'Special Economic Zones' along her coastline to capitalism. Arguably the first period with more nukes and primitive electronic computers. Direct Red Scare again and the home of Airwolf
Early Marvel Comics, published in the early 60's, tended to include a lot of Cold War-related plots. Iron Man in particular fought a lot of Communist agents of one sort or another — Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, even the Black Widow first appeared as a Soviet spy before defecting to the U.S., and of course Tony's origin has him escaping from the North Vietnamese. The Incredible Hulk owes his origin to a Soviet spy, Igor Drenkhov, who deliberately allowed the gamma bomb to detonate while Bruce was in the target area. And Reed Richards launched his rocket to beat the Soviets in the Space Race. Years later in The Eighties, the U.S.S.R. would have its own super team, the Soviet Super-Soldiers. Due to Comic Book Time, all of these Iron Curtain characters have been subject to retcons in the last couple of decades, as the Cold War recedes further and further into the past.
The Passions of the Spies (Shpionskiye Strasti), a 1967 black and white Soviet animation, satirizes the whole spy war genre. More to say, it even dares to satirize the very Soviet propaganda, albeit in a friendly way.
Film - Live Action
Doctor Strangelove famously lampooned the Cold War as a childish dispute aggravated by sexual insecurity.
Reversing the concept, Ice Station Zebra, while the attention was paid mostly to the U.S. side, the film showed the importance of delicate balance, which kept the war cold, over having the upper hand.
Role reversal: K-19: The Widowmaker, in which the crew of a Soviet submarine are the protagonists and American forces are the antagonists.
X-Men: First Class is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the plot revolves around the Crisis being caused and then defused by mutants.
The Resident tetralogy is a lenghty series of Soviet spy films about a Russian emigre spying for CIA in Soviet Union. He's eventually caught by Russian counter-intelligence and performs a Face-Heel Turn to become a KGB agent.
''Lord of War starts in this era. Later, Yuri subverted Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell; he's positively thrilled that the Soviet Union collapsed, because it's great for his business, especially as he's got an uncle who's ex-Soviet Army with warehouses just full of arms...
The much earlier film Fail Safe is a more bleakly realistic version of what a computer-caused Nuclear Error could lead to. The film focuses on the American President and his Soviet counterpart desperately trying to prevent World War III.
Twilight Zone indirectly used the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union in both its original series and the 1985 revival. One — "A Little Peace and Quiet," the debut story of the 1985 revival — involves the use of newscats, depicting growing tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, much in the style of the first half of The Day After to set up the climax (nuclear war actually breaking out between the U.S. and USSR).
24 has used both ex-Soviet weapons and ex-Soviet scientists.
Airwolf had the eponymous helicopter stolen by its inventor and taken to Libya, with the intent of passing it on to the USSR.
The original series episode "Warriors of the Deep" is set in the future, when there is a cold war going on between two "power blocs," but it's not clear whether it's a continuation of the present Cold War or a later, unrelated one.
The Klingons in the original Star Trek existed mostly for parables about the Cold War. When the Cold War ended in real life, Star Trek VI ended the cold war between the Federation and the Klingons.
One time travel episode of the original series, "Assignment: Earth," involves the Enterprise crew accidentally getting caught up in a plan by aliens to prevent a nuclear war between the superpowers.
"The Omega Glory" has the crew discover a world whose history exactly parallels Earth's, except that their Cold War ended in nuclear annihilation.
One episdoe of You Cant Do That On Television has the Russians threatening to take over the show. They do succeed in replacing all the green slime with red slime.
Playing off Cold War tensions, many promoters would create Russian heels by taking ordinary Americans, giving them a Russian (or other USSR-state) accent and having him "promise" to destroy the lead pro-American face in the promotion he was working in. Many of the best known came well after the Cuban Missle Crisis, but still, villains like Ivan Koloff (1970s) Nikita Koloff (mid-1980s, until his face turn) and Nikolai Volkoff (mid- to late-1980s World Wrestlng Federation) were very effective in building heat and drawing audiences wanting their hero of the time to destroy said villian.
One example of a role-reversal of the usual "West good, East bad" scenario is from the stage-musical Chess, in which both the American and the Soviet intelligence agencies are shown to be cruelly manipulative, differing mainly in style — the Russian KGB agent bombastic and overbearing, the American CIA plant slick and cunning — rather than substance.
Battlezone has the Cold War go hot - IN SPACE! The Soviet Union and United States fight over Bio Metal on various planets in the solar system right after the first lunar landing - which were basically faked, shown in the intro to the first level where right behind Apollo 11 is an entire moon base, which can be used to make fantastic hover tanks and weapons. The events of the game are totally covered up until Battlezone II (set in the late '90s)
The first two Metal Gear Solid games were set when the Cold War was around and the Soviet Union still existed, while the third is set in 1964 and stars an American agent operating in Soviet Union, and effectively was a deconstruction of the nature of the Cold War. Peace Walker is set in 1974, where the Cold War superpowers are jockeying for influence in Central America.
Ace Combat 5 was basically a Cold War gone hot situation. Osea (the in-game equivalent of the US) and Yuktobania (USSR), though like its prequel Zero, it started to take a bit of a twist towards the weird near the end.
World in Conflict An RTT (Real Time Tactical) game set in 1989. Instead of the Berlin Wall falling, the USSR decides to go all in an attempt to destabilize NATO as means of keeping itself afloat. The game also has an expansion called Soviet Assault which shows the Russian side of the conflict starting from day one to right before the final battle for Seattle.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2: Features two cold wars, the historical one in the 1980s, and a fictional one between the US and China.
Wargame: European Escalation: Another RTS game. Set between 1975 - 1985, the Cold War doesn't exactly go hot immediately in this one. In the first campaign, the conflict is entirely between East Germany vs. West Germany; it erupted due to a political incident involving a soldier crossing the Wall and the East German guards being way too overzealous in trying to catch him. Subsequent campaigns explore a Warsaw Pact rebellion with a Soviet crackdown, Able Archer '83 turning hot, and a Spetsnaz colonel's plans for revenge after the war spilling out from Able Archer turned nuclear.
Missile Command, which was not only set in the Cold War, but made during it. It hit so close to home, programmer Dave Theurer actually had nightmares about nuclear war while making this game.
A very great many scenarios from the Steel Panthers series deal with either the numerous "brushfire wars" between clients of the two sides, or with hypothetical conflicts where the war turns hot.
Codename Panzers - Cold War: when the a Soviet fighter collided with U.S. cargo plane, which is enough to provoke the USSR to attack West Germany, instigating a war between the USSR and NATO.
Graviteam Tactics: the campaigns Operation Hooper and Shield of the Prophet are set within 1970s and 1980s proxy conflicts of the Cold War in Afghanistan and Angola. The Zhalanashkol 1969 campaign is set during the western portion of the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is set in the Midwest in 1962, with XCOM meant as an early response unit against communist invasion rather than aliens.
In Xenonauts, the player takes command of a multinational paramilitary organization whose objective is to thwart an Alien Invasion. The twist: it's 1979, and the tension is high.
Westward is set in an Alternate History where the Cold War never ended. Initially this is just an interesting part of the story's background, but eventually the implications become quite important to the plot, and personally to some of the characters.
The continuation of the Cold War may have also led to the quicker development in space travel technology, with manned trips to Mars in the 1970s and the construction of a starship with a Faster-Than-Light drive (albeit one that's a Black Box) by the end of the 20th century.
In Jet Dream, Cold War politics are portrayed relatively realistically, but parodied in the "teen oriented" sister title It's Cookie! Those stories depict an East-West "Cool War" to win over the world's teens in a circa-1970 world where the watchword is "Fem Is In!" The "Cool War" is mostly fought as a battle between the West's flawless-but-expensive Gender Bender process and the East's quick-and-dirty Easy Sex Change procedures.
Boris and Natasha, the spies from Rocky and Bullwinkle are from the mythical country of Pottsylvania, and their Fearless Leader seems more German than anything else, but Boris and Natasha both have the thickest, most gloriously over-the-top Russian accents you could ask for.
G.I. Joe has its Soviet counterpart, the October Guard, which is the Soviet Union's team created to fight Cobra. Relations between them and the Joes are always strained, but they both know that they are basically on the same side against Cobra.