Hardened faces crack at the seams, and traces of a lifetime of smiles are etched at the edges of their eyes. As the concluding fireworks make the rounds above the Fisht stadium in Sochi, everyone around me stands up and clutches their hearts.
“That’s right!” exclaims Evgeniy Petrovich, a 60-year-old engineer. “We are big, we are strong, we are Russia.” He turns to me, tears of joy in his eyes. “Ne zabud svoyu Rodinu.”
“Don’t forget your home.”
I was overcome with a less than rational desire to hug this man, who, despite my having met him only an hour or so earlier, felt like family. Even in a run-down bar hidden between the looming modern buildings of East-Central London, you can find fellow Russians throwing back shots of vodka, while collectively berating the frigid winters, inscrutable bureaucracy and rampant corruption of their home country. But what one can’t help notice are the notes of nostalgia that rest among their sharp criticisms.
For all the scandals of the 2014 Sochi Olympics — the political posturing, millions in laundered funds, gay rights violations, curtailing of non-state government coverage and the threat of terrorist attacks — the Olympics stand as the embodiment of the grand history of the largest country on Earth. It’s a history I’m proud of, despite no longer living there.
Last August when I settled into the Soviet-style aeroplane seat covers for my flight to London, I took in the view of a faraway field and forest of birch trees beyond the wing tips of my mechanical escort. After having lived in Moscow for the entire 18 years of my life thus far, I was bidding adieu, perhaps for a little while, perhaps for more. British university life beckoned. As the plane readied for takeoff last summer, a smiling stiletto-clad flight attendant offered me the updated tourist guide for Sochi.
“Hot. Cool. Yours — Sochi 2014” it said in crimson Cyrillic typeface.
Six months later I unrolled the worn and slightly battered magazine from my bag. It still smelled of that filtered, stale aeroplane air.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics opened with a beautifully orchestrated show featuring a selective history of Russia, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the Soviet baby boom. The event marked the end of more than six years of fevered preparations by the Russian government. In the midst of an economic downturn and largely negative international media attention on Russia, the Olympics were envisioned by the Kremlin as a demonstration to the world of the country’s transformation into an advanced nation. In an interview six years ago President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that the Olympics were an “international validation of the Russia that had emerged from the Soviet Union. It is, beyond a doubt, a judgment on our country.”
Unfortunately, his sentiment could not have been more accurate.
Instead of celebrating the best of what Russia has to offer, the Sochi Olympics have incited judgment from both sides of what are supposedly the ruins of the Iron Curtain. In the past three months leading up to the Olympics I’ve heard my share of criticism, both constructive and demeaning, from Londoners who have never been to Russia nor seemingly have had any interest in the political and economic state of my home until it became fashionable to form a poorly informed opinion on the matter. As I sat back to admire the BBC’s expediently programmed highlights of the opening ceremonies only a heartbeat after the final firework sputtered out in the redefined Sochi skyline, I couldn’t assuage a splintering question from lodging itself in my mind. Where does appreciation for the fruits of a nation’s labour end and overzealous patriotism begin?
What’s difficult to reconcile is the insuppressible sense of pride with a lingering concern for morality. Yes, the Olympics stand as a monument to peaceful relations, a time when countries put aside their differences and celebrate the sportsmanship of athletes across the globe. But the Olympics are not just an athletic arena. They are a political forum.
I do not dispute the importance of this latter function. In a country where political opinions that do not coincide with propagated “state interests” have had to seek refuge in satirical theatre productions hosted in dingy basements rather than in the headlines of newspapers, the fact that liberal Russians have finally found an outlet for their concerns provides some consolation. Still, as I tiredly attempt to explain the cultural significance of the admittedly dysfunctional citizen-state relationship to my British peers, it is difficult to suppress an air of indignation.
Is it really fair to use the Olympics as a platform to emphasize some of the least attractive aspects of human society? For the world press to completely discount what the public knows as fact and simply disregard infractions on human rights and responsible government structures would be irresponsible, tantamount to propagating state views without further consideration. Yet increasingly critical media coverage of these Olympics can appear almost catty in nature. From the moment I open my news feed as I sip my coffee in the morning to the last glance at the Bloomberg update from my smartphone, I and countless other readers are barraged with an incessant stream of phrases such as “Russia is anti-gay” and “Looking at Putin’s Olympics.”
Don’t get me started on Putin. And thereby hangs a tale.
News organizations including the BBC, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, (I could go on) have christened the Sochi games as “Putin’s pet project,” a phrase that has made its resplendent rounds within the media circuit. Of all the denigrating remarks characterizing this magnificent sporting event, that particular catchphrase stings the most. By treating the Olympics as a manifestation of Putin’s political power and popularity, the press simultaneously overlooks the talent and significance of other contributors, be they construction workers, athletes or Olympic President Thomas Bach, while superficially bolstering Putin’s power.
“It’s very funny,” snickers the bartender of the Russian bar in London. “Western media warns everyone about Putin’s growing totalitarian grip and then turns around and circulates stories that attribute power and foresight he may not even have.”
The bartender’s eyes flit to the screen as the cameras pan over the faces of elated athletes. “The irony is not lost on us Russians, it never is,” he says, before returning to work with a self-satisfied smile.
Xenia Rakovshik interned with the Vineyard Gazette during the summer of 2013. She grew up in Moscow and now attends school at King’s College London.