Farewell to Sochi

If you had told me before the Olympic Games opened in Sochi, Russia, two weeks ago that Russia would not only keep the games entirely free of any terrorist events but would also decisively win both the gold and total medal count races, I would have said the games were going to be a spectacular success story, one that would convert Vladimir Putin from a saint to a god in the eyes of his countrymen.  The fact that these things actually did happen and yet the games must be viewed as largely a failure shows the depths to which Putin’s neo-Soviet state has sunk.

Current events outside the games conspired, first and foremost, to hurl Russian success at Sochi off the front pages. 

First Putin’s much ballyhooed “victory” in keeping Ukraine out of the European Union exploded into breathtaking failure, dramatically undermining Russian power, as Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich was driven from office and into hiding by a massive, earthshaking popular insurrection. 

Then, maybe even worse, came the heart-stopping news that in January the Russian economy, Putin’s shining star of achievement, had moved into recession for the second time during his rule.

It’s not possible to argue that Russia was victimized by these two events.  Russia rammed Yanukovich down the throats of the people of Ukraine for empire-building purposes, and Russia adopted neo-Soviet economic policies of centralization that have caused the Russian economy to grind to a screeching halt.

And when you looked at the fine print of Putin’s Olympic deal, much of the luster disappeared.  The litany of disasters, ranked according to severity starting with the worst, was as follows:

  • Russia did not play a medal game in men’s or women’s ice hockey, having gone all-in on this sport prior the opening ceremonies
  • Appalled by events in Ukraine, NBC’s Bob Costas delivered scathing editorial (by Olympic standards) in prime time telling Americans that no amount of Olympic sports glory could conceal Russian dictatorship and aggression
  • The quality of the Russian snow was extremely poor. Numerous athletes complained, many injuries were recorded and not a single world or Olympic record time or score was set on the snow in Sochi
  • Vast areas of the City of Sochi remained in a  Potemkin state, papered-over rubble to be discovered by inquisitive journalists, making a mockery of the vast expense laid out by the Kremlin to prepare
  • Well more than a third of Russia’s gold medals, five of  thirteen, were won by foreigners named Victor (American Vic Wild had two in snowboarding and Korean Victor Ahn had three in speed skating)
  • A Russian snowboarder, Yuri Podladtchikov, won gold for Switzerland
  • A Russian biathlete, Ekaterina Glazyrina, was kicked off the national team for trashing it on Russia’s version of Facebook during the Olympiad
  • Russia’s gold in women’s figure skating was disturbingly tarnished by controversy after the much-ballyhooed potential darling of the games, Julia Lipnitskaya, crashed out with no medal
  • Russian fan behavior was abhorrent, alternately absent and abusive.  Russians didn’t pack the stands and show the world how they had embraced the Olympic spirit, and many of those who showed up defiled the Olympic spirit
  • Cases of athlete doping were far more numerous than in 2010, yet no Russians were apprehended despite their being among the world’s worst offenders
  • There was no hoped-for flood of international tourists into Russia
  • The Keystone Cops nature of the opening ceremonies and events surrounding them will be hard for Russia to live down.

There were certainly triumphs for Russia to counterbalance these black marks. Russia retook gold in pairs figure skating, a major point of national honor, and it finished the games with a tremendous bang, winning both the cross-country ski marathon (where it swept the medal platform) and the prestigious four-man bobsled event.  And even if you took away the “Russian” medals won by foreigners, Russia still would have been extremely competitive with the world in the medal counts and would have dramatically and impressively improved its medal counts from 2010.

For me, the highlight of the games came in the closing ceremonies when Russians bravely poked fun at themselves, highlighting the embarrassing failure of one of their electronic Olympic rings/snowflakes to transform in the opening ceremony.  I was genuinely surprised that Russians could have the confidence to have a public sense of humor about themselves, and found in this a rare hopeful sign that Russia might have a future after all (though I suspect this idea came from the many foreign creative directors responsible for organizing the open and closing festivities, the mere fact that Russians embraced it is a hopeful sign).

Unfortunately, as is always the case with Russia, the lowest moment followed soon after, when a choir of Russian children sang the Russian national anthem, a song which still uses the melody of the national anthem of the USSR, a melody written to glorify the worst mass murderer of Russians in world history, Josef Stalin.  Hearing that wretched, offensive, nauseating music only served to remind all listening that Russia remains mired in the past, ruled by a proud KGB spy, still a dictatorship, still bent on aggressive attacks on democratic values both at home and abroad.

Indeed, there was also widespread fear that Putin would engage in a whole new round of brutal crackdowns on civil society, using claimed success at Sochi as cover.  Russia’s willingness to arrest and brutalize the Pussy Riot artists, and numerous other political activists even during the games showed that many dark clouds still hang over the country.

Russia’s relationship with the United States has been mortally damaged in recent months, and Russia squandered a golden opportunity to the use the games to repair. Barack Obama, who boycotted the games, has gone from being the champion of a “reset” with Russia to firing his Russia ambassador and becoming the first president in fifty years to cancel a planned meeting with his Russian counterpart.

But on the other hand, it’s far from clear that Putin wants a positive relationship with America. He may even want a bad one. He seems to enjoy blaming all of Russia’s ills on the U.S. (his minions instantly claimed that the ouster of the president in Ukraine was an American coup d’etat) and he’s spent his entire life learning to despise American values. It’s hard to teach an old KGB dog new tricks.

In the end, freedom and popular self-sufficiency is not good for Putin. He needs Russians to be dependent upon him and his state in order to control them.  In Ukraine, he sees what can happen when people are able to think and act for themselves, and so it is likely that he will continue to keep the Russian people down, broken and disheartened, helplessly looking to Mother Russia for sustenance rather than to themselves.

I was also disappointed by the festival of clichés Russia offered the world in the closing, clichés that confirmed Russia’s remarkable disconnect from reality.  As the head of the IOC issued the traditional clarion call to the “youth of the world” to assemble four years hence in South Korea, viewers recalled Russia’s message to that youth from the closing:  “We have ballet! We have dead writers! We have opera! We have really, really weird art!”  As the cameras panned through the assembled youth, you could see many palpably trying to stifle yawns.

Russia had a golden chance at Sochi to show the world it had something more to offer than these tired clichés, which include pathological dictatorship. It spent $50 billion for that chance, and squandered it. Instead, what it offered was a neo-Soviet propaganda display meant to do nothing more than stroke the already bloated egos of Russians, telling them that facts and reality don’t matter, only their distorted and hallucinogenic dreams.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.