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Series / The Optimists

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The Optimists is a 2017 television series from Russia, which ran for 13 episodes.

The series is set in Moscow in 1960. It centers around the "Special Advisory Group" of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They're low-level spies, essentially, in a department that exists to help Russian diplomats familiarize themselves with Western customs in order to gather intelligence. In one scene the junior staffers are practicing golf, after an incident in which a Russian diplomat had to decline an invitation to go golfing with a U.S. Senator.

The protagonists are Ruta Blaumaine and her new boss, Grigory Birukov. Ruta is Estonian-born but apparently an American citizen, who fled to Russia during the Red Scare because she's a communist. Ruta was in charge of the Special Advisory Group, but in the first episode Grigory arrives as her new boss. Grigory is a recent widower, his wife having died in childbirth. His posting at the SAG is a demotion, after he got in trouble for assaulting a West German communist. (Said communist served in the Wehrmacht when it was besieging Leningrad.) He's dating Galina Volina, a broadcaster for Russian TV. Ruta and Grigory clash a lot over the direction in which to take the SAG.


Among the junior staffers at the agency are: Andrey Muratov, who was forced to denounce his own White Russian parents when they were locked into the gulag; Leonid Korneyev, who grew up in an orphanage with Spanish Civil War orphans; and Arkady Golub, a bespectacled nerd-type who specializes in Asian languages.

Ruta is having an affair with Nikolai Chernykh, an old friend of Grigory's who also happens to be the KGB man in the ministry. Ruta's affair is an affair because she is married to Col. Alexei Bylov of the Russian Air Force. Col. Bylov kicks off the story in the first episode when he gives the order to shoot down an American spy plane. After American pilot Francis Gary Powers is captured alive, Grigory realizes the Soviets have a prime opportunity to embarrass the Americans ahead of a planned summit in Paris.


A sequel series, The Optimists: A Cuban Affair, ran in 2020.


  • The Alcoholic: Shuiko, the senior diplomat. He's been said to have been sober for six months, but Leonid is warned to keep an eye on him at the reception for the Cubans in episode 2. Sure enough, Shuiko falls Off the Wagon, and blurts out the secret about the American pilot to the Swedish ambassador, who immediately tells the American ambassador.
  • As You Know: In the first episode Nikolai feels obligated to point out that Ruta is unusual: "How many Americans fled to the USSR and married Soviet pilots?"
  • Bait-and-Switch: In episode 11 Leonid is sitting in a Cuban jail. A scary-looking guy comes in with a scary-looking steel case. He opens it up—and pulls out a couple of beers he had on ice. The scary guy is up to no good but torture is not part of the plan.
  • Bar Brawl: Andrey's bitterness over not getting to go to Paris for the conference in episode 4 leads to him starting a Bar Brawl with some tough-looking workers. Both he and his friend Arkady are looking the worse for wear the next day.
  • Beatnik: Episode 9 opens in an extremely stereotypical beatnik cafe in New York. The beat poet who is performing on the stage is reciting the English translation of Pokrovsky's poem about Galya, which was printed in "The Village Voice".
  • Brick Joke: In episode 3 Leonid gives Arkady some make-out advice with Klava: when kissing, count to five, and then grab her butt. At the end of the episode he does so, after which she smacks him and stalks off in a huff.
  • Call-Back: Leonid's friends like to talk about how he saved the daughter of a Cuban judge from drowning. Episode 11 reveals that this never happened, and in fact was a cover story invented by the Americans after they manipulated Leonid into espionage.
  • Call-Forward:
    • An anxious Gaby grills Grigory about Khrushchev's aggressive stance at the Paris conference in episode 4, and wonders what it will mean for Berlin—"Harsher controls? Barbed wire?". The Berlin Wall went up not long after this time.
    • In episode 10 Marika gives Grigory a bitter tongue-lashing about the Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. She finishes by spitting at him, "I want you to understand what your own daughter will feel when your people break with you." It's a Call-Forward to the fall of communism in Russia some thirty years after the time frame of this series.
    • The last few episodes are a story arc in which Communist hard-liners seek to overthrow Khrushchev, only for Ruta and Grigory to work together to warn Khrushchev, who crushes the coup. Although Khrushchev defeats his enemies at the end of this series, he was in fact overthrown and sent into internal exile in 1964.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The anti-Soviet novel, written by an underground dissident. In episode 8 Grigory switches it out for Pokrovsky's dirty poems in Gaby's suitcase, to prevent her from being arrested and jailed by customs inspectors. That winds up leading to the poems getting published in America, which leads to the KGB finding out and investigating Pokrovsky, which leads to Nikolai discovering that Galya had a fling with Pokrovsky, which results in Grigory dumping Galya in episode 10.
    • The lost Communist Party card that Arkady panics about in episode 6, only for Ilya from the nightclub to find for him. This pays off four episodes later when Ilya uses this incident to blackmail Arkady into helping him get a travel visa to the West for a friend.
  • Comforting Comforter: Grigory may be something of a workaholic absentee father, but he still cares about his daughter, as demonstrated when he tucks her in bed in episode 5.
  • Crash-Into Hello: Arkady meets Klava the pretty redhead when he bumps into her, while he's backing up to take pictures of his buddies Andrey and Leonid.
  • Death by Childbirth: In the backstory, Grigory's wife Maya died in childbirth, the baby also dying. Grigory was left a widower and the single father of a little girl.
  • Death by Falling Over: Episode 11 reveals how the Americans roped Leonid into being a spy. In Cuba he pushed a man in a bar, who fell over and died. (It's subtly hinted that the whole affair might have been staged.)
  • Distant Prologue:
    • The first scene of the first episode is set at the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki in the summer of 1959, in a scene that establishes both Cold War tensions and several characters. The action then springs forward the better part of a year to April 30-May 1, 1960, and the downing of the U-2 spy plane.
    • The second episode begins with two boys exploring an old abandoned gun emplacement at Leningrad, and finding a message written in Spanish. Later it's revealed that when they were children, Leonid and his Spanish orphan buddy Figueroa carved that message in the concrete.
  • Dramatic Drop: Ruta sobs and dramatically drops her bag at the end of episode 10, when she comes home to find Alexei dead on the bathroom floor. (Alexei, who was trying to get around the house depite being paralyzed by hanging onto objects, slipped and fell and hit his head.)
  • Eagle Squadron: In episode 3 a French movie about the Normandie-Niemen fighter pilot squadron, just about the only Eagle Squadron to fight with the Soviets on the Eastern Front, is premiering in Moscow. The folks from SAG invite Joseph Chaprel, a veteran of the unit, to come to the USSR for the premiere.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Nikolai acts like he's Grigory's friend, and he's Ruta's lover, even as he's investigating people for the KGB. In episode 11 he drops the act and tells Grigory to his face that he's hated Grigory for 12 years, ever since Grigory wrote a negative report on him that damaged his career. Nikolai is plotting to destroy Grigory and everyone in his department.
  • The Fellowship Has Ended: The series ends with the members of the SAG broken up. Grigory gets promoted, Ruta gets promoted to a job managing American affairs, and Andrey is being sent off on a foreign mission to Africa. Arkady is left managing the SAG. Leonid for his part has taken Nikolai's place in the KGB and presumably will continue spying for the Americans.
  • Foreshadowing: It's mentioned in the first episode that Muratov plays tennis with Sergei Khruschev. Sure enough, before the episode is over Muratov is introducing Grigory, who begs Sergei to deliver a message to his father the premier.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Arkady completely freaks out in episode 6 when he realizes that he has lost his brand-new Communist Party membership card at the race track. Leonid has to slap him twice before Arkady calms down enough for them to figure out what to do.
  • Guile Hero: Grigory, who outwits people. In episode 5, the one where four shipwrecked Russian sailors are rescued by the Americans, a substantial portion of the Foreign Ministry wants to write them off as poachers. Nikolai, who knows the KGB, says that they'll be torturing the sailors into admitting they were American spies. What does Grigory do? He plants a story with Conway aka Konev, the emigre White Russian newspaper columnist, to the effect that the KGB will be torturing and Unperson-ing the sailors. Then he gets the Foreign Ministry to insure that the sailors are treated well and welcomed home with open arms, in order to embarrass the Americans and Conway in particular, but also to get the sailors back.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Muratov introduces Grigory to Sergei Khrushchev in the first episode. At Grigory's behest, Sergei gets his father to postpone the speech that would have announced the downing of the plane.
    • Francis Gary Powers is seen briefly, being interrogated. Nikita Khrushchev is seen even more briefly, angrily stalking past the camera as he leaves the Paris peace conference. Then Khrushchev makes a more dramatic appearance in the last episode, showing up just in time to disrupt the committee meeting seeking to overthrow him (after Ruta and Grigory warned him).
    • Arkady translates a meeting between Anastas Mikoyan and some visiting Chinese Communists in episode 9.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Leonid does this in the park in episode 11 for his American contact, having been roped into being a spy for the USA. In fact he does this throughout the episode, showing up drunk for work.
  • Intro Dump: When Grigory arrives at the office, Ruta reluctanly introduces the staffers (Arkady, Andrey, and Leonid) to Grigory and the audience.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: A Frenchman named Mathieu is the go-between for Andrey's clandestine meeting with his sister. As Andrey picks him up on the street and Mathieu slips him the message, Mathieu says it's "as if we were in a spy movie".
  • Like a Son to Me: In episode 12 Valentin Ivanovich, Grigory's patron, says this to him. The context is a little weird, since Valentin is explaining to Grigory that he is plotting a coup to overthrow Khrushchev, and he arranged for Nikolai's car accident because he wants Grigory to be his man in Germany.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: The whole storyline in episode 5 with Alexei wanting children, and Ruta acting reluctant before finally agreeing, is undercut at the end when Alexei can't perform in bed.
  • Match Cut: From Andrey and Arkady toasting beers in the bar, to Ruta and Alexei toasting with wine at home.
  • Maybe Ever After: The last episode hints at a possible relationship between Grigory and the lovely woman who works at the preschool where Anya spends her days.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: A whole story arc is kicked off when Andrey's wife Nelya comes to believe that he is cheating on her. He's actually having a clandestine meeting with his long-lost sister, who stayed behind in France but snuck back into the Soviet Union as a tourist to see him.
  • Old Flame: Episode 4 finds Grigory in Paris for the conference, where he runs into his old girlfriend Gaby, a German that he met in Berlin after the war. She's worried about what Cold War tensions will do to Berlin, where her family lives.
  • Perspective Flip: In-Universe in episode 10. Grigory is confronted by a Hungarian-American who, out of nowhere, confronts him with a vicious "The Reason You Suck" Speech about the Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The Soviet invasion of Hungary was seen then and now as an act of violent repression, but a startled Grigory tells Ruta that the Soviets were merely keeping order and countering troublemaking students.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: A mild version of this, since Grigory could have been Reassigned To Siberia or something. But as his patron Varinikov points out, Grigory's new posting is a demotion, a punishment after he shoved the German's face into the Eternal Flame at Leningrad.
  • Shaped Like Itself: In episode 6 a Pravda reporter is interviewing Alexei. He asked what kind of a feeling Alexei got from flying, and Alexei answers that he got "the sense...of flying." Ruta laughs at this goofy answer, but Alexei's detached manner during the interview is actually a signal of severe emotional distress.
  • Shout-Out: When grilling Pokrovsky in episode 9, Nikolai reads his poem "The White Bikini". After reading the first line, "Not a thing depends on a red and white bikini", Nikolai, who has an impressive knowledge of American poetry, asks if it's a shout-out to William Carlos Williams.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Ruta is smoking in bed after sex with her husband in episode 3.
  • The Theme Park Version: The 1959 American Exhibition. The exhibition seems to consist of cars with tail fins, Pepsi, and household appliances.
  • Title Drop:
    • Ruta says the SAG is looking for young go-getters, people who are "idealists, optimists."
    • As the gang is celebrating Arkady's induction into the Communist Party in episode 6, Andrey says "To be a communist means to be an optimist."
  • Wham Line: The party between the American and Russian diplomats in episode 10 ends with Leonid and an American stripping to their skivvies and taking a swim. The American gets a leg cramp and nearly drowns. Leonid pulls him out of the water. As Leonid is about to start mouth-to-mouth, the American reveals he was faking, snapping his eyes open and whispering "Greetings to you from your friends at the Pelican!". This is The Reveal that Leonid is the previously mentioned sleeper agent. (The next episode explains that "The Pelican" is the name of the Cuban bar where Leonid got into trouble and the Americans got their hooks into him.)

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