When Netflix’s Stranger Things premiered in the summer of 2016, we were living in a different world — a world that was more or less held together by rules and regulations and societal norms. Perhaps that relative stability and faith in institutions, even as we grappled with important societal issues, is one reason why the show, set in 1983, didn’t get political. Stranger Things Season 1 was a stylish homage to everything about the early ’80s, down to the Cold War-era fears it embodied: the danger lurking in electrical currents was a perfect metaphor for the nuclear panic of the day, and the idea of a monster living inside the walls of the house evoked the fear of The Americans-style sleeper agents lurking in every suburban cul-de-sac.
But we all know what happened next.
Stranger Things 2, which premiered almost a year after the 2016 presidential election, is a whole different demogorgon. Gone are the ominous blinking lights and the focus on the familial home as a site of potential terror. This season, the entire town of Hawkins is under siege from something much bigger; the monster looms over the town, invisible to most residents, and at the same time, cancerous roots grow below them, spreading rot and decay. We don’t know yet what the monsters want from Hawkins, but we know they’re laying the groundwork to get it.
It is a deliberate pivot from the previous season, and everything from the dialogue to the brands referenced supports this reading. Stranger Things relies heavily on brands to anchor itself in a specific time period; entire plotlines develop around nostalgic names like Eggo and Radio Shack. (The proliferation of Cheetos references this season is certainly intriguing.) And like the toaster waffles of the previous season, one brand came to the forefront in Stranger Things 2: the Russian vodka Stolichnaya.
To understand the importance of the iconic Russian brand in this narrative, you have to look at its relationship with another brand, this one American. Just as the Duffer brothers develop the narrative arc of a season of television, a brand creates a narrative to sell itself, and no U.S. brand has intertwined its story with the Russians as intimately as Pepsi.
In July of 1959, then-Vice President Richard Nixon visited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as part of a cultural exchange program, which included an exhibition of booths from American vendors. In a move planned in advance by the Pepsi marketing team, Nixon led Khrushchev to the Pepsi display, where he took what Time magazine referred to as a “skeptical sip.” But the resulting photo launched a decades-long relationship between the USSR and the soft-drink brand — one that still has repercussions today.
The connection simmered in the background until 1972, when Pepsi signed an agreement with the USSR to become the first Western product sold in the country. As the Soviet ruble was effectively impossible to exchange on the market, Pepsi proposed a trade: soda for Stolichnaya. It thus became the exclusive distributor of the quintessential Russian spirit in the United States.
Vodka was already familiar to most Americans, having been introduced by Smirnoff in 1934, and by 1975 it was the No. 1 liquor category in the U.S. Upon its launch, Stoli made a splash; it was seen as a chic, sophisticated brand preferred by the upwardly mobile. However, as a Soviet import, its popularity proved to be tied to the state of U.S.-USSR relations: market share dropped significantly after both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and an incident in 1983 in which Soviet fighter jets shot down a commercial Korean Airlines flight, killing 269 people.
This led to Stolichnaya losing more than 30 percent of its market share in 1984, a major hit for a brand that already trailed behind Smirnoff and Popov, both of which, though American, traded heavily on Soviet imagery in their marketing.
All of which makes Stoli an unusual choice for the show to introduce halfway through Stranger Things 2, when Nancy and Jonathan arrive at the house of Murray Bauman, a reporter-turned-private investigator, to ask for help exposing the government conspiracy that killed their friend Barb. They have proof in the form of a taped confession, and want Bauman’s help in getting the story out. It’s then that Bauman pulls out a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka, with its signature red-and-white label, and the story gets even murkier.
(Interestingly, the bottle is actually labeled “Slotichnaya Vodka,” which is a reference to the film version of Minority Report. In addition to being yet another Spielberg shout-out, both the film and the Philip K. Dick story on which it’s based are about the dangers of authoritarianism and the necessity of resistance.)
As Bauman takes his first sips of the vodka, Nancy asks him a question that will sound familiar to anyone who was following the news in October of 2016:
“Is the tape incriminating or not? It’s a simple question.”
She’s referring to the recording of a government official admitting culpability in Barb’s death, but it’s hard not to be reminded of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump discusses grabbing women “by the pussy,” particularly in light of the exchange that follows.
Bauman scoffs at Nancy, explaining, “I believe you, but that’s not the problem... you need them to believe you... your priests, your postman, your teachers, the world at large. They won’t believe any of this.” He grips his glass of Stoli in front of his chest like a lifeline.
“You heard the tape,” Nancy insists, clearly frustrated. “He admits it! He admits culpability!”
That doesn’t matter, snaps Bauman as he waves the glass in the air. People want to be comfortable, and this truth is uncomfortable. He takes another gulp of Stoli and grimaces. But it gives him an idea.
“The story,” he says. “We moderate it, just like this drink here.” He adds water to the harsh alcohol. “We make it more tolerable.”
The three ultimately decide to leak a story about chemical contamination rather than a supernatural killing, reasoning that the results — Barb’s family having closure, the chance to shutter the research lab that is the source of many of Hawkins’s problems — would be the same, even if the details were fudged.
When Nancy and Jonathan leave the next day, Bauman hands them a bottle of Stolichnaya and one of unbranded water, the camera lingering awkwardly on the exchange. Despite the pair’s gratitude toward Bauman, the scene closes on an ominous note, making us question the veracity of what we’ve been shown:
“Don’t thank me yet,” Bauman tells the pair. “Just keep your eyes on the papers. Oh, and if you need to reach me again? Don’t.”
By tying Stoli to a version of the truth that is palatable to the general public despite its central falsehoods, the show draws comparisons to governments that monitor and control their citizens’ access to information. Indeed, undermining trust in the media is one of the first steps a totalitarian government takes to establish control over its population. The fact that the protagonists use the same tactics to ensure that their story is heard is another reminder of how quickly and thoroughly the rules have changed — for everyone.
In a show that increasingly grapples with themes of authoritarianism, it is almost too on the nose that its events unfold in 1984. Similarly, it cannot be ignored that 1984 was an election year in the United States, which is continually signaled to the viewer through Reagan/Bush lawn signs and even a poster that designates the middle school as a polling place. The 1984 presidential election mirrored 2016’s in several ways, the most notable of which was an emphasis on national greatness over substantive policy proposals.
Though Putin wouldn’t come to power in Russia for another 16 years, his own authoritarian tendencies and deep-seated nationalism are well-known, and have only further complicated the relationship between the United States and Stolichnaya.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a Russian oligarch named Yuri Scheffler bought the previously government-owned Stolichnaya brand and privatized it, turning a symbol of Russian pride into a capitalist product. Since then, Putin has been fighting to bring the brand back under state control. While his legal challenges for distribution rights were successful in Russia, where Stolichnaya is now distributed by the government, he has yet to make any headway in the United States; the brand remained under PepsiCo’s oversight until 2009, when it was transferred to William Grant & Sons, and then ultimately back to Scheffler’s company.
Stoli found its sales in peril once again in 2013, after Putin declared “homosexual propaganda” illegal in Russia and several prominent members of the LGBT community called for a boycott of Russian vodka in response. The brand, forced to choose between its Russian roots and its U.S. allegiance, chose America, putting out a statement explaining that since privatization, it had been produced and bottled in Latvia.
In the show, such bigoted ideologies have made their way into the very fabric of its mythology, with the new monster, like those real-life ones with which we currently grapple, as a kind of nationalist nightmare.
“It believes it’s the master race,” explains Dustin. “It views other races, like us, as inferior to itself.”
“It wants to spread and take over other dimensions,” adds Mike.
And with the dissemination of misinformation by both sides, the wide network of roots that still lie dormant beneath Hawkins, and the ever-present threat of the Upside Down, the groundwork has been laid.
Ultimately, the story is one of collusion: between Pepsi and Stoli; between the monster and those who allow it to flourish through their willful ignorance; between the U.S. and Russia. The relationships are an impenetrable web of codependence, betrayal, and half-truths. By choosing to center Stolichnaya as a brand in Stranger Things 2, its creators are telling us that the story isn’t over yet — if you don’t like the watered-down one, just wait until you get hit at full proof.
Leigh Kunkel is a food and travel writer from Chicago who loves cocktails, television, and dogs.
Editor: Greg Morabito