TV DIPLOMACY

House of Cards’ Vladimir Putin Villain: Creator Beau Willimon on the Show’s Russian Arc

In Season 3 of House of Cards, President Underwood squares off against Russian President Victor Petrov, a.k.a. Vladimir Putin. Also, Pussy Riot makes a very memorable cameo.  

02.28.15 10:15 AM ET

Yes, your favorite sleazy politicians are back.

The hotly anticipated third season of House of Cards premiered on Netflix at 3 a.m. ET Friday, and the stakes have never been higher. Southern Democrat Frank Underwood has initiated a coup within his own party and impeached President Walker, thus ascending to the highest office in the land: the Oval Office. But now, President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his cunning wife, Claire (Robin Wright), have bigger fish to fry.

“Frank said it himself towards the end of last season: the higher you get up the mountain, the more treacherous the path,” creator Beau Willimon tells The Daily Beast. “He’s dealing with heads of state now and entire nations. There is a level of machismo, for sure, in the way some heads of state deal with one another.”

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead.]

One of the storylines early on in Season 3 of Cards concerns America’s fractured diplomacy with Russia. In an effort to reach a compromise over the placement of military troops in Israel, President Underwood invites Russian President Victor Petrov (Lars Mikkelson) to the White House for a presidential powwow. But President Petrov, an icy, blond-haired fellow who looks an awful lot like Vladimir Putin—and even shares his initials ‘VP’—is a tough cookie to crack. He challenges Frank’s manhood at every turn, first forcing the entire dinner party to do shots of pricey vodka, then plants one on Claire in front of his entire cabinet.

“The dynamics between the U.S. and Russia we wanted to be as authentic and true to life as possible, but we don’t limit ourselves to real-life parallels because that restricts us creatively,” says a cagey Willimon. “But sure, you could find things in Victor Petrov that you could say are similar to Putin, but I think there are also elements in him that are different.”

He laughs. “Petrov is taller.”

But Willimon and his writing team were quite prescient with their Russia arc since they began developing it quite some time ago, before tensions between the U.S. and Russia reached a fever pitch. In fact, the same day that House of Cards' third season premiered, leading Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was shot to death on the streets of Russia.

“It’s interesting because we started developing the Russia storyline long before Ukraine or Crimea happened,” Willimon says. “It takes us a full year to make a season of House of Cards, so over a year ago we were developing the big story arcs for Season 3, and I was concerned at the time because I thought people wouldn’t care. There wasn’t much about Russia in the news at the time besides the Sochi Olympics.”

He adds, “Only once we were well into writing the season, and developed all of our story for the Russia arc, did Crimea come into the fold and start to happen in real life in an eerie way that, more than anything, was coincidental. And if you look at that real-life situation, if you want to look at it as machismo or challenging manhood, what you have are some very big personalities at play with very high stakes that the whole world is affected by.”

During the Petrov episode there’s also a memorable cameo by Pussy Riot members Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina. The two women are invited as guests to the Petrov dinner by President Underwood, promising to be on their best behavior. Instead, they confront President Petrov for silencing free speech in Russia, pour out their champagne flutes, spike the glasses onto the table, and storm out in protest.

Willimon met Nadia and Masha at a PEN gala event honoring Pussy Riot, and had been closely following their story for years. He walked up to them and introduced himself, and was caught a bit off-guard by their reaction.

“It turns out they were big House of Cards fans and had watched the show on their plane ride over to the States,” says Willimon. “I asked them questions about their experiences because we were developing the Russia storyline for the season, and invited them to come to the writers’ room and speak with us. They did, and told us what they were trying to achieve, and the price they paid for it.”

Then, Willimon thought it’d be a great idea to have the two women cameo on the show and stick it to President Petrov.

“I thought it would be really provocative to have our Russian president try to co-opt them, and then have them confront him face-to-face,” says Willimon. “It was something we could do on our show that might not happen in real life.”

After their fiery encounter, a new song by Pussy Riot plays during the episode in question’s closing credits. It was co-written by Le Tigre, and is full of strident sound and anti-Putin fury.