Lots of wrestlers cosplayed as commies during the Cold War. Nikolai Volkoff, who died over the weekend, was way closer to the real thing, and took his act far more seriously, than all the rest. He was 70 years old.
Volkoff, a WWE Hall of Famer and ring legend, was born as Josip Nikolai Peruzovic in October 1947 in Yugoslavia to a Russian mother and Croatian father. He told me in a 2004 interview that as a very large teen he was desperate to escape the oppression of his country’s Communist-ruled government, and scared that the Soviet Union would do to his people what he’d heard they did to neighboring Hungary when he was a boy. He began plotting his defection to the West. He always knew he wanted to end up in America, home of his hero Muhammad Ali, but he had to start out in the Great White North.
“I heard that the wait was three years for the U.S.,” he said. “For Canada, it was six months. I had to get out.”
So he sought asylum in the Canadian embassy in Austria during a trip with the Yugoslav national weightlifting team. He went to Calgary and, influenced by Ali, thought about a boxing career. But the only ring gigs he was offered were as a professional wrestler. By the early ‘70s, he had already gotten some buzz in a tag team called the Mongols when idolmaking manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie told Peruzovic his future was as a Soviet character.
Peruzovic, however, told Blassie he’d never wear a hammer and sickle singlet, purely on principle. Blassie argued that he should take on the role precisely because of the evils he and his family saw first-hand; a Commie character played correctly would serve a higher purpose than entertainment, Blassie said, and bring in lots of cash.
“I told Freddie Blassie, ‘I escaped from there! I hate them! I hate communism! I can’t do that!’” said Peruzovic. “But he says, ‘Well, if you really hate it so much, why don’t you do something about it? Show the people the truth! And make money doing it!’”
Blassie won him over. Peruzovic took his real middle name and added his mother’s maiden name. Nikolai Volkoff, lover of all things Soviet and wisher of death to America, was born.
The Cold War was very, very good to Volkoff. In 1985, Volkoff got a starring role in the inaugural Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden. Vince McMahon sent Volkoff out to sing the Russian national anthem, and put him high on the card alongside the Iron Sheik. Together, the evil imports whupped the red, white, and blue-clad home-country favorites, the U.S. Express—made up of Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo—and won the WWF tag team title.
Volkoff became as big a Ronald Reagan fan as there was, and not just literally. “Ronald Reagan was the best president we’ve ever had, for the U.S.,” Volkoff once told me.
His affection for Reagan was surely partly attributable to how he and pretty much any other wrestler who donned a singlet with the hammer and sickle on it thrived professionally during the Cold Warrior President’s two terms. But also because, the way Volkoff saw things, Reagan really did deserve lots of credit for the breakup of the Soviet union, the commie conglomerate whose oppressiveness had forced him to flee his homeland as a kid.
“I never believed the wall would come down in my lifetime,” says Volkoff.
And as the wall fell, Volkoff told me, he started giving himself some of the credit, too. Through the years, he’d come to regard Freddie Blassie’s wisdom: Even a wrestler could sway the way folks view the world. “I always thought that the more mad I make people, the more they would look into what’s going on over there. Then they would learn to hate it as much as I do. I really think that’s true.”
I interviewed Volkoff on and off through the years, including once in 2004, just after Wrestlemania XX. The event had grown insanely since Volkoff starred in the original shindig two decades earlier. But demand for his ring services had been dwindling since the wall’s fall. He’d stayed in the game by taking dates with indie wrestling promotions across the country. So the same weekend that the WWE bigwigs were gathered once again at MSG, Volkoff was booked at the Millcreek Civic Center in Chesterfield, Ind., where folks could sit ringside for just $11 as he grappled somebody named “Diceman” Ronnie Vegas. Volkoff was the babyface in that match. But he wasn’t complaining a bit about changes in his job description or the drop in demand. He saw it all as a good thing—capitalism at work.
“And if [the promoter] says I’m a good guy, then I’m a good guy that night,” he told me. “If I’m a bad guy, I’m a bad guy. Business is business.”
He had a day job by then, as a code-enforcement inspector for Baltimore County, where he settled in the 1970s after meeting his future wife while dining downtown with Professor Toru Tanaka. He used his birth name at his non-wrestling job, but folks at the county offices were wise to the 6-foot-5, 275-pound civil servant’s ring past.
“Everybody here calls him Nikolai,” a receptionist there told me. “He’s a sweetheart.”
In 2006, after all those years of propagandizing in sports venues of all sizes, Volkoff decided to enter the political arena. He got on the ballot for the 2006 Republican primary for the Maryland House of Delegates 7th District.
He dropped “Josip Peruzovic” for the race and went with his nom de rasslin’. Volkoff announced his candidacy at BWI Figures, a small wrestling memorabilia retailer located inside “Baltimore’s Biggest Indoor Flea Market.” The outlet promoted the announcement by putting up a big photo of Volkoff in a huge fur hat and a red sweater with “USSR” in yellow letters across the front.
To publicize his campaign, Volkoff hired Andy Vineberg, a superfan who told me he met the wrestling legend as a teenager in the 1980s at a WWF show in West Virginia, and then tried patterning his life after Volkoff’s.
“I’m a vegetarian because he’s a vegetarian,” Vineberg told me. “He told me to watch my money; I watch every penny. He doesn’t drink, and I’ve never had a drink. He’s the godfather of my child. He’s the most positive influence I’ve ever had in my life. Nikolai came to this country with $50 and one suit, and people bought tickets to see him wrestle, to see him in magazines, on video games with him in them, on wrestling dolls. He was able to live the American dream because of these people. He feels like he owes the people now, and he’s going to go fight for them. And just as Nikolai is running for office to try to give back to America what the country gave to him, I’m working on his campaign to try to give back to him what he gave to me.”
The unbounded enthusiasm wasn’t enough to overcome the political novicehood. Volkoff found himself pitted against a pair of incumbents, Rick Impallaria and Pat McDonough, both known in the state house as big immigrant bashers. Impallaria, a former body shop owner, and McDonough, a talk radio host, had co-sponsored a bill in a previous legislative session that forbid anybody in the state from lending their cars to undocumented immigrants.
They kept up the xenophobic heat turned up high in the campaign. Folks leaving a state Republican Party event in Timonium, Md., found fliers on their car windshields accusing Volkoff of spitting on the American flag. Volkoff denied the charge.
“I sang the Russian anthem, yes,” Volkoff told me. “But I never spit on any flag.”
(I could find no accounts, either contemporary or since, of Volkoff having spit on the flag.)
The fliers didn’t say who’d sponsored the message. But the Volkoff campaign wasted no time claiming this dirty trick was from the opponents, who the wrestler accused of forming a tag team to keep him out of office.
“That was Impallaria and McDonough,” Volkoff insisted.
At the time, when I called Impallaria and McDonough, they pleaded ignorance about the fliers’ origins. But, with absolutely no humor, they repeated the message.
“He was the Tokyo Rose of the 1980s,” Impallaria said of Volkoff. “He made his living spitting on the American flag and singing the Russian national anthem. Now he can say he was just doing a job. Tokyo Rose was just doing a job, too.”
“He did spit on the flag,” McDonough said. “I consider that reprehensible. Anybody can run for office. You can’t go around saying your wrestling career doesn’t matter. Volkoff isn’t even the name on his birth certificate. People need to know everything.”
So Volkoff cut a promo pointing out blemishes in the opposition’s past.
“Impallaria—that guy has 27 arrests,” he told me. “How do you get arrested that much?”
I called Impallaria to respond to Volkoff’s verbal suplex. “A lot of people are charged with a lot of things,” Impallaria told me. “But the real question is: Have you ever been convicted of anything?”
So I asked if he’d ever been convicted. Impallaria declined to answer.
“I’m going to stick to the issues,” he said. “I’m not going to lower myself to dirty politics.” (In fairness to the candidate, I could find only 14 arrests for “Richard K. Impallaria” in the online database for Maryland courts.)
Volkoff tried to steer the campaign toward his platform of reducing gas prices and taxes. But nobody wanted to hear that. Volkoff got only 845 votes out of about 13,000 cast in the primary. Impallaria won. And then got arrested again. He’s still in office.
Volkoff never seemed too peeved about the loss. He wanted democracy; he got democracy. And as Volkoff taught the world, heels can win in America. What a country.