To describe the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games only as spectacular and awe-inspiring would be unfair and a clear sign of detachment from reality. What the world witnessed last Friday demonstrated a great deal more. It was not simply an end product showing technical wizardry and amazing imagination but also just what 70,000 workers toiling seven days a week at a cost of $50+ billion for six years could accomplish.
With an in-house audience of 40,000 at Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, including several thousand Olympic athletes and many times that number in volunteers and security personnel, along with a world-wide audience estimated at more than a billion people, except for a single glitch involving the game’s rings, Russia pulled off an epic opening ceremony.
For the next two weeks, the world will marvel at the athleticism, grit and grace of international competitors going head to head in nearly a hundred events---twenty more events than what existed in Salt Lake City in 2002.
But as the world has its focus on Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also hoping it sees something else. Putin wants the world to see Russia in an entirely new way; a country that has returned to top-rung status in every way. The past twenty-five years have not been a period of undiluted pride and joy for this once great empire.
“They want to show the world they are an open, accepting society,” says Richard Moeller, Assistant Professor of European Politics at Metropolitan State University of Denver. But, he says, “They have gotten off to a clumsy start.”
To begin, the $50-plus billion dollar price tag exceeds the total cost of all previous winter games combined going back to the first extravaganza in Chamonix, France, in 1924. According to the International Business Times, the $50 billion dollar investment represents 2.4 percent of Russia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By comparison, a similar expenditure here would be a $400 billion games.
The investment is steep for this every-fourth-year gala, Moeller says. “What they’re thinking is that they have the oil and natural gas resources to pay for them.” But, because oil and natural gas are subject to market fluctuations, it is a gamble---but one Russia is willing to risk. “They’re thinking ‘this is our chance to reemerge as a dominant force in international politics.’”
Despite its isolation from the Renaissance, Russia found a way to establish its own identity. Ivan Vasilyevich, Ivan the Terrible, united a 1.5 million square mile land mass under a single leadership. He led the 16th century transformation of Russia from multiethnic states into a world class empire. He is also responsible for commissioning the building of Saint Basil’s cathedral, the iconic onion-domed structure that dominates Moscow’s Red Square. His legacy permeates Russia today in the same way as a Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln is reflected in the U.S.
Russia’s history is long, colorful and dotted with amazing contributions to science, technology and the arts. But it also has shouldered its share of pain and sacrifice.
Radio, the helicopter and solar cell were all ideas spawned by Russians. They also launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, and initiated the space race. A Russian is also the first man to orbit the earth. St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and the Bolshoi Ballet are crown jewels in Russia’s contribution to the arts.
In 1917 Russia underwent two revolutions. The first, in February, ended the reign of the Czar. Then, in October, in what is now known as the Great October Socialist Revolution---also referred to as Red October---the government that replaced the Czar was toppled. The Revolution established the world’s first socialist government. The transition was followed by a half decade of internecine war within its borders before Russia became the Soviet Union in 1922.
The next four decades were bloody for the new government. In World War II, Russia lost an estimated 50 and 85 million soldiers and civilians. Josef Stalin, successor to Lenin, is said to have killed more than 20 million prisoners, peasants and, essentially, anyone who stood in his way. In the book, “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R.: 1928-1954,” author I.G. Dyadkin puts Stalin’s death toll as high as 60 million. In today’s Russia, Stalin is conveniently omitted from its history.
In 1991, the Soviet Union fell and so too its empire, which included, among others, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Today, as it has weathered more than a decade of recovery, Russia hopes to return to a position of power. But, bitter feelings among once satellite nations linger.
As the Olympics continue, Russia is on high alert for terrorist attacks particularly from semi-organized rings of Muslims known as The Caucasus Emirate living between the Black and Caspian Seas, very near to Sochi. The group’s stated goal is to establish Shariah law in the region. It is said to have informal ties to Al Qaeda.
The risk of a terror attack on the games has forced Russia to create a ring of electronic security an estimated “60 miles long and 25 miles deep.” It is known as the ‘Ring of Steel’ and is manned by up to 40,000 soldiers and security teams.
More immediately, Russia must deal with its official state suppression of anti-government voices, including its most vocal and well known dissidents, an outspoken musical group of four young women known around the world as Pussy Riot.
They were arrested and imprisoned for protesting official policy inside Moscow’s biggest church. Two of its members who were recently freed after serving nearly two years in a Siberian prison are currently on tour of the West criticizing Putin on radio, television, print and the internet. “What they have said many times is they’re free because they’re obnoxious. They’re the exception,” Moeller says.
Concurrent with dissent over government suppression of free speech, Russia’s official policy against gays and lesbians has prompted international criticism. President Obama included some of America’s most famous gay and lesbian athletes as members of the official U.S. delegation.
Just prior to the games, Russia ordered the extermination of thousands of dogs that roam freely in and around Sochi. Human and animal rights supporters have spoken loudly about this perceived indifference on both levels. “First the rampant homophobia now this,” says human and animal rights advocate Jessica Castillo. “Forget Russia and the Olympics! Animal cruelty is a disgrace and the homophobia in Russia is a disgrace. These games are worth boycotting.”
Placing the games in Sochi, a region where Russians vacation and characterized as “humid and subtropical” was a huge gamble. To ensure enough snow for the games, hundreds of thousands of tons of it were actually stored.
In the short term, things appear to be going smoothly. Whether they will provide long-term payoff is another matter. Host sites, including Vancouver, Salt Lake City and Atlanta---all in developed locations---are still reaping benefits from their investments. But, other places like Sarajevo (formerly Yugoslavia) and Mexico City have not fared nearly as well.