The Edmond Sun


February 6, 2014

The Sochi Olympics and the facade of Russian progress

LOS ANGELES — In the mid-19th century, a Frenchman described the reconstruction of St. Petersburg’s monumental Winter Palace after a fire. To meet the czar’s deadline during a bitterly cold winter, the “unprecedented efforts” included heating the structure’s interior to almost 90 degrees. Of the thousands of laborers who braved the extremes of temperature, “a considerable number died each day,” wrote the Marquis de Custine, “but, as the victims were replaced by other champions who filled their places — to perish in their turn in this inglorious gap — the losses were not apparent.”

Moderation has never been Russia’s strong suit — not in the creation of its imperial capital centuries ago and not today, as it unveils the Winter Olympic Games at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Winning the right to host the event “wasn’t just a recognition of Russia’s sporting achievements,” President Vladimir Putin pronounced when the decision was made in 2007, “but a judgment of our country.”

And yet, rather than heralding a shining new post-Soviet resurgence, the Olympics will come closer to a familiar pattern in Russian history: the latest in a series of over-the-top, outrageously expensive projects undertaken at heavy cost to the populace in a questionable attempt to leapfrog western countries.

Make no mistake about it, these Russian Games are Putin’s personal project to shore up power. They will be the most expensive Olympics ever, at more than $50 billion, almost four times the amount proposed in 2007.

The questionable decision to stage the winter events in a subtropical city created some of the unnecessarily expensive obstacles, but perhaps not as many as another typically Russian development: a staggering amount of corruption.

Several of the companies chosen to remake Sochi for the Olympics are owned or co-owned by Arkady Rotenberg, a childhood friend of Putin. News reports and Russian watchdogs say Rotenberg’s Sochi contracts alone are worth more than $7 billion, which rivals the entire cost for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. The owner of another firm charged with building the ski jump was also a vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee. The company’s work was so shoddy, it had to be redone several times as its cost ballooned. Finally, Putin himself fired the committee official.

Catching up to the west is an old game in Russia, which began emerging as an independent power in the 15th century. Searching for an imperial style that would befit their growing status, the princes of Muscovy — the medieval principality that eventually developed into modern Russia — first looked to the remnants of the Mongol Empire that had dominated them for centuries. Czar and boyars, a rough equivalent of European nobles, dressed in Turkic robes and called themselves “white khans.”

But as the eminent Russia historian Edward L. Keenan has argued, it didn’t take long for Muscovites to realize that real power lay not in the east but the west. Failing to impress the crowned heads of Europe, they abandoned the Turkic terms and styles. Instead, Czar Ivan III began copying European princes, sending to Italy for architects to rebuild the wooden Kremlin. The brick walls that stand today date from that period, and the main entrance, the Spassky Gate, still bears a Latin inscription praising the Italian Renaissance architect Petrus Antonius Solarius for its design.

Russians have been importing Western forms and ideas ever since. Typically forced on the people by powerful leaders in great spurts, however, the adoption of those new influences mostly resulted in hybrid forms that turned out to be more Russian than western — from the laws of Catherine the Great, which omitted many elements of enlightenment thought that she claimed they reflected, to Soviet communism, whose tenets and practices would surely have dumbfounded Marx.

“Westernization” has long played a role in Russia’s political culture. New institutions and discourse obscured and ultimately helped maintain Russia’s centuries-old way of doing things: important decisions made by a handful of the powerful behind closed Kremlin doors.

Such a political culture requires a facility for bluffing. It remains central under Putin, who routinely misleads his own people — and the west — about his intentions. The best example of his misdirection was the sham four-year presidency of his protege and puppet, now-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the supposedly reforming liberal.

But if obfuscation has helped Russian leaders maintain power, the yawning gap between their publicly stated intentions and the depressing reality of life in a corrupt, authoritarian country has helped breed envy and resentment of the perennially more prosperous and efficient west, despite claims of Russian exceptionalism.

Putin, who regularly denounces the United States, perfectly fits the mold, having proclaimed Russian civilization to be unique and separate from the west.

Few have bought his recent attempts to soften his image by freeing the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, members of the band Pussy Riot and other political prisoners. If, as Putin claims, the Sochi Games are a judgment of Russia, they have brought his repression into sharper focus thanks to protests over the country’s new anti-gay law and concerns about attacks by militants from the neighboring North Caucasus, where the oppressive rule of corrupt Kremlin loyalists has spread violence across the region.

The Sochi Games are more than just a facade for current authoritarian tendencies. Russia’s latest grand undertaking to advance its place in the world illustrates the opposite: that the government is still wedded to the centuries-old tradition of puffery and masquerade that instead demonstrates just how far the country lags behind the west.

GREGORY FEIFER is a former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio and the author of “Russians: The People Behind the Power,” which will be published this month. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


Text Only
  • 'Too big to fail' equals 'too eager to borrow'

    Four years ago this month, President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act into law, promising that the 848-page financial law would “put a stop to taxpayer bailouts once and for all,” he said. But recently, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told a Detroit crowd that “the biggest banks are even bigger than they were when they got too big to fail in 2008.”
    Who’s right?

    July 30, 2014

  • Sheltons travel for better life for family

    Some time around 1865 a mixed-race African American couple, William and Mary Shelton, made their way from Mississippi to east Texas. Nothing is known for certain of their origins in he Magnolia state, or the circumstances under which they began their new lives in Texas.

    July 29, 2014

  • Film critic Turan produces book

    Kenneth Turan, who is the film critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” has written a book “Not to be Missed, Fifty-Four Favorites from a Life Time of Film.” His list of movies span the gamut from the beginnings of filmmaking through the present day.
    There are some surprising omissions on his list. While he includes two films, “A Touch of Evil” and Chimes at Midnight” made by Orson Welles, and one, “The Third Man,” that Welles starred in but did not direct. He did not however, include “Citizen Kane,” that was the first movie Welles made, that is  often cited by both film critics and historians as a favorite film.

    July 28, 2014

  • Logan County’s disputed zone

    Watchers of “Star Trek” may recall the episode from the original series entitled, “Day of the Dove.” In this episode, Captain Kirk and his crew are forced by a series of circumstances into a confrontation with the Klingons. The conflict eventually resolves after Kirk realizes that the circumstances have been intentionally designed by an alien force which feeds off negative emotions, especially fear and anger. Kirk and his crew communicate this fact to the Klingons and the conflict subsides. No longer feeding upon confrontation, the alien force is weakened and successfully driven away.

    July 28, 2014

  • Russell leads in Sun poll

    Polling results of an unscientific poll at show that Steve Russell, GOP candidate for the 5th District congressional seat, is in the lead with 57 percent of the vote ahead of the Aug. 26 runoff election. Thirty readers participated in the online poll.

    July 28, 2014

  • Healthier and Wealthier? Not in Oklahoma

    Increased copays, decreased coverage, diminished health care access, reduced provider budgets and increased frustration are all the outcomes of the Legislature’s 2014 health care funding decisions. Unlike some years in the past when a languishing state economy forced legislators into making cuts, the undesirable outcomes this year could easily have been avoided.

    July 26, 2014

  • Medicaid reform a necessity

    Historically, education spending by the state of Oklahoma has been the largest budget item. This is no longer the case. In recent years, the state of Oklahoma spends more on Medicaid (operated by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority) than common education and higher education combined, according to the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

    July 25, 2014

  • Remembering lessons from 1974

    This week marks the 40th anniversary of an important milestone in America’s constitutional history. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 to order the Nixon White House to turn over audiotapes that would prove the president and his close aides were guilty of criminal violations. This ruling established with crystal clarity that the executive branch could not hide behind the shield of executive privilege to protect itself from the consequences of illegal behavior. It was a triumph for the continued vitality of our constitutional form of government.

    July 25, 2014

  • RedBlueAmerica: Is parenting being criminalized in America?

    Debra Harrell was arrested recently after the McDonald’s employee let her daughter spend the day playing in a nearby park while she worked her shift. The South Carolina woman says her daughter had a cell phone in case of danger, and critics say that children once were given the independence to spend a few unsupervised hours in a park.
    Is it a crime to parent “free-range” kids? Does Harrell deserve her problems? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

    July 24, 2014

  • Technology that will stimulate journalism’s future is now here

    To say technology has changed the newspaper media industry is understating the obvious. While much discussion focuses on how we read the news, technology is changing the way we report the news. The image of a reporter showing up to a scene with a pen and a pad is iconic but lost to the vestiges of time.
    I am asked frequently about the future of newspapers and, in particular, what does a successful future look like. For journalists, to be successful is to command multiple technologies and share news with readers in new and exciting ways.

    July 23, 2014


The runoff race for the 5th District congressional seat is set for Aug. 26. If the voting were today, which candidate would you support?

Al McAffrey
Tom Guild
     View Results