Don’t You Dare Call Russians Thin-Skinned!

As journalists descend on the Winter Olympics the most chilling effect may be Russian pride when it comes to the truth about Sochi.

Everyone is aware of the Asian cultural preoccupation with saving face. Less well known is the pervasive Russian spin on this social dynamic, which is not so much saving face as resenting those who make one lose face—and punishing such tactless types with cold-shouldering, scolding or sterner measures, depending on the level of embarrassment they cause. It is called “being offended,” and it is an age-old Russian national pastime, both on an individual level and more broadly. It may be one of the greatest unacknowledged unifying forces at work in that vast nation—not only today, but during the seven decades of the Soviet era and back into the centuries of tsars and serfs.

The verb has a reflexive form, “obidet’sya,” which means “to take offense,” and if you have ever worked with Russian colleagues, you know that the verb also has a transitive form, obidet’, which means “to give offense.” An example of how “being offended” works at a macro level is the notorious case of the well-known Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was imprisoned in 2008 after accusing state officials of large-scale fraud and embezzlement. He died in police custody in Moscow in 2009 after being denied medical care following an alleged beating. His death resulted in 2012 in the creation of the Magnitsky Act by the U.S. Congress—which bars Russians thought to be connected with Magnitsky’s death from entering this country. The Russian government, offended by the American reproof, retaliated by banning American adoptions of Russian orphans, and creating its own list of American citizens unwelcome in Russia. Last July in Moscow, Magnitsky was given a posthumous punishment for his effrontery by being put on trial for tax evasion. The court found the dead man guilty. Just on Feb. 4, three days before the start of the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, announced he would step down after the games conclude. During his two-year ambassadorship he had been “greeted with suspicion” by Russian officials, an article in the Washington Post explained. His unwelcome support of “democratic initiatives” had not gone over well in Putin’s Russia, and had drawn the attention of “hostile” television crews, who dogged McFaul and his entourage. In short, the Russians obidilis’ (got offended), making productive rapport impossible.

But obida does not have to occur on a grand scale to produce uncomfortable repercussions. When I worked at a Russian magazine in Moscow in the ’90s, a time when the Yeltsin government was hurrying to adopt western journalistic practices, I continually accidentally upset my co-workers (for instance, by criticizing a flowery, cursive font someone chose for a headline, or noting the overuse of the word “cozy” in restaurant reviews). Not understanding the affront this constituted, I would assume such quibbles were harmless and keep working …until a supervisor would pull me aside and whisper in consternation, his face wrinkling with dismay, “You have very much offended Vera Nikoloaevna*”—at which point I would have to drop everything, rush to the street, and buy Snickers bars and Coca-Colas to smooth things over. Eventually, I learned not to question any of my office-mates’ decisions, in order to keep the peace (and save my rubles). But last fall, after I reviewed a richly ironic social history called “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” by the New York-based Russian émigré food writer Anya von Bremzen, both the author and I came in for excoriating attacks from infuriated and highly offended patriotic Russian bloggers, who denounced our rudeness, and wrote that I should be stuffed in an aspic (I had mocked that Soviet-era delicacy, as had the author), and that they wished the author’s mother had been devoured during the Siege of Leningrad. Lately I’ve been thinking of the anger of those bloggers as I watch cautious news coverage of the upcoming winter games in Sochi, and I’ve begun to wonder.

Have western journalists caught on to Russian sensitivities? And if they have, does that awareness affect their reports, even from overseas? How will it play out once the games begin?

Last week in New York, the Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen, who recently moved back to the United States after living for decades in Russia, learned she had been uninvited from speaking at a United Nations Association author event in mid-February about her new book, Words Will Break Cement. The subject of the book is Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk protest group who offended President Vladimir Putin in 2012 by singing an insulting song about him in a Moscow church, a stunt that got three members sentenced to prison (one was let off, the other two served 21 months and were released in December, six weeks ahead of the Sochi games). In a public Facebook post, Gessen wrote of her surprise at the NGO’s decision to rescind her invitation. They called her publisher she wrote, “to say that my outspoken criticism of the Russian government created a conflict of interest and they had to cancel the event.” This was “funny,” Gessen noted, given that her critical attitude toward the Russian government is no secret—in 2012 she published an unflattering biography called The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and she also has been vocal in exposing and deploring homophobia in Russia.

Earlier in January, the news emerged that another American journalist and author, David Satter, who had worked in Russia on and off for forty years, had been denied a visa and banned from the country for five years, supposedly for visa infractions (so said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov). Western news accounts suggested instead that it was Satter’s criticisms of Russian civil rights abuses, and possibly his probing 2013 book, It Was A Long Time Ago, And It Never Happened, Anyway (about the lingering heritage of the Communist past in today’s Russia) that made him persona non grata, by offending his longtime host country. In an interview with Kenneth Weinstein, president of Hudson Institute, Satter said that in recent years, western journalists or academics who seek access to elite Kremlin circles feel “a general desire to not offend the host, not to ask questions that desperately need to be asked.”

On the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the touchiness of the Russian hosts adds a tricky diplomatic twist to international efforts to assess and protect the safety of athletes and visitors to the games. To host the games is an honor for any nation—and Russia is not alone in doing its utmost to make the games bring glory upon their nation. In this nervous age of asymmetric warfare, the hosts of every recent Olympics—whether in Athens or London, Beijing or Vancouver—have had to make extraordinary efforts to keep the games safe. Sochi is a beautiful resort town on the Black Sea, but its proximity to the war-torn region of Chechnya, which has been a hotbed of violence for decades, has thrown an aura of anxiety over the festival. Terrorist threats to the games have been widely reported, and recent suicide attacks in Volgograd (600 miles northeast of Sochi) have alarmed those who plan to attend these Winter Olympics. Some fifty billion dollars have reportedly been spent by Putin’s government to beautify and secure Sochi and its environs, and much attention has been given to the “Ring of Steel” the Russian authorities have installed around the zone, and to the tens of thousands of security officers brought in to patrol the area. But as western journalists began arriving in Sochi last week, they saw that beautification was far from complete, and were met by unfinished hotels, muddy streets, non-working televisions, and stray dogs. Their reports already have offended their hosts: when one BBC reporter tweeted a picture of a bathroom stall in the Olympic Biathlon Center that was equipped with two toilets, side by side, without a partition between them, the management promptly ripped out both units, and turned the bathroom into a ‘storage closet’ of unclear utility.

If this degree of chaotic improvisation exists within Sochi, just how inviolable is that Ring of Steel around it? Of course, that’s a terribly rude question, sorry—izvinite. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the Winter Olympics to run smoothly, and has made extensive efforts to make Sochi secure; but if cracks form in or around the Ring of Steel, will the hosts share that information? Will the guests, out of the desire to avoid offending their hosts, avoid asking tough questions? And in the United States, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, amid signs of a re-freeze of the melted Cold War, is it once again off-limits to embarrass our Russian friends by asking “questions that desperately need to be asked?”

In the Brezhnev era, Soviet hyper-sensitivity to slight made it hard for foreign journalists based in the U.S.S.R. to accurately gather the news. When Fritz Pleitgen, a German television reporter tried to cover the devastating 1977 fire at the Rossiya Hotel in Moscow, a thin-skinned policeman stopped him, saying defensively, “We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune.” After Mikhail Gorbachev brought liberalizing openness—“glasnost’ ” to the Kremlin, which was continued, down the line, by Boris Yeltsin, Russia for a prolonged moment tolerated and encouraged investigative reporting, and indulged what the Soviets used to call “samokritika”—self-criticism— but in the word’s literal, non-ideological sense. Today’s Russia permits a vast variety of publications and voices that would not have been thinkable in the era of Krushchev, Brezhnev, and Andropov and Chernenko. But as the Pussy Riot trials showed, there are serious limits to freedom of expression—and what those limits are is unclear. Suffice it to say that awareness of the risks of giving offense produces a chilling effect on the ground in Russia. As the Sochi games begin, it’s worth mulling the extent of that effect, as foreign journalists struggle to instruct and inform themselves and their audience. Will they feel free to be frank in their reporting? Or will an uneasy impulse to politesse, and fear of unknown consequences, restrain them? Weighing reportorial tact against the public’s need to know may be the most challenging unofficial event of this particular Winter Olympics.

*Her name has been changed as a courtesy.