The 2014 Winter Games officially open in Sochi today, seven long years after the winning bid so strongly and personally supported by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Most Russians were ambivalent about this accomplishment despite our natural devotion to winter sports. What was a country with no remaining sports infrastructure for its children doing offering to spend twelve billion dollars to host foreign athletes? The official budget has since grown to over $50 billion, more than the combined cost of every previous Winter Games combined, according to a Dutch newspaper. It would be a surprise if more than 25% of those billions did more than pass through Sochi on their way from the Russian treasury to Swiss bank accounts and the London real estate market.
Social media has already turned Sochi into an international laughingstock as foreign reporters arrived to find unfinished and damaged hotels with toxic water and stray dogs in the rooms. One can only pray that the venues and courses will prove safer for the athletes and fans and that the security cordon is run more professionally. Hosting the Olympics a half-day’s journey from an active terrorist hotspot was absurd to begin with, and the incompetence demonstrated by the organizers thus far is not reassuring.
Do not mistake the epic graft in Sochi as unusual or incidental. Corruption is the overriding principle of Putin’s 14 years in power and looting the Russian treasury and the Russian people is itself the goal. For all the foolish attempts to interpret Putin’s geopolitical strategy and personal ideology, the common denominator is always whether or not an action helps him maintain the cash flow that in turn enables him and his clique to stay in power.
Putin also wanted the Sochi Olympics to be his Peter the Great moment, the beloved Soviet summer resort town turned into an international jewel the way Saint Petersburg was built into an Imperial capital practically from scratch. It can even be said that, like Peter’s endeavor, Putin’s transformation of Sochi relied on a serf labor force. Foreign leaders coming to cheer by Putin’s side at the opening ceremony, photos with all the Russian medal winners, it is easy to see the attraction. Putin also hoped to drum up some patriotic pride with a big circus to serve with thick black bread. This is the sort of delusion that sets in when a despot confuses himself with the state after too long in power. Absent the feedback mechanisms of a free media and real elections, he begins to believe his glory is the country’s glory, that what makes him happy also makes the people happy.
There is a distinction here between Sochi 2014 and the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980 and Beijing in 2008. In those cases, the authoritarian propaganda machine was in the service of promoting the achievements of a country and a system. They were dedicated to the greater glory of Communism, the Totalitarian State, the superiority of the system and the athletes it produced. Nobody remembers who presided over the 2008 Games in Beijing and only a few might recall Brezhnev in Moscow. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Russian Olympic Committee never appears on TV or anywhere else, nor does the director of the Sochi Games. No, this spectacle is clearly about the ambitions and hubris of one ubiquitous man, something it has in common with the Summer Games held in Berlin in 1936.
I will detour for a moment because this where I often see interviewers and pundits roll their eyes. The phrase “Putin is no Hitler!” forms on their lips before the word “Berlin” is completed. It is a fascinating development in historical ignorance that nearly any mention of Hitler or the Nazis is now ritually scoffed at, from professional journalists to anonymous tweets. “Godwin’s Law,” which doesn’t even say what most wits seem to think it says, is immediately invoked, as if the slow and public evolution of a German populist politician into history’s most infamous monster is beyond rational contemplation.
Of course the evil of the Nazis is beyond comparison. Of course no one can rival the murderous fiend Hitler became in the 1940s. Of course no one expects a new world war or an attempt to emulate the Holocaust. But summarily discarding the lessons of Hitler’s political rise, how he wielded power, and how he was ignored or abetted abroad is foolish and dangerous. In 1936, even Hitler was no Hitler. He was already viewed with suspicion by many inside and outside Germany, yes, but he stood beaming in that Berlin Olympic stadium and received accolades from world leaders and stiff-armed salutes from the world’s athletes. There is no doubt this triumph on the world stage emboldened the Nazis and strengthened their ambitions.
Intentionally or not, the Putin regime has followed the Berlin 1936 playbook quite closely for Sochi. There have been the same token concessions in response to international outcries over bigoted laws. A few prominent political prisoners were released right before the journalists arrived. Even the tone of the propaganda has a familiar ring, as brilliantly illustrated by the writer and journalist Viktor Shenderovich this week. He quoted a statement by Putin loyalist politician Vladimir Yakunin accusing the western media of anti-Russian hysteria and hostility and condemning these foreign critics for attempting to disrupt the Olympics. Shenderovich then revealed that half of the statement was actually by Karl Ritter von Halt, the organizer of the Berlin Games, only substituting “Russia” for “Germany” throughout. The transition was seamless.
The International Olympic Committee is an eager partner in all of this and also has a long and dark history. After the triumph of Berlin, for example, the next Games were planned for Tokyo and Rome. New IOC President Thomas Bach’s strained protests about how foreign leaders protesting Sochi are “inserting politics into sport” ignore that fact that selling a huge platform for propaganda and corruption to a dictatorship is also “playing politics.” By Bach’s dubious rationale, the IOC would award the Games to North Korea as long as the venues were adequate and the fees were paid promptly.
The good news is that governments and media of the free world are not proving quite as accommodating this time around. Few democratically elected leaders will grace Putin’s show. The press, goaded by direct interaction on social media, is providing ample coverage so far of the repression and failures large and small of the Russian mafia state. It is easy to laugh at broken toilets and misspelled signs in Sochi, but the underlying story cannot be avoided. There is an interesting investigation into commerce, politics, and economics in how a regime with total power and unlimited money cannot produce a few hotels with hot water and working wifi in seven years.
Just as government institutions and civil society rot away through disuse in an autocracy, industry atrophies without market competition. The only competition in Putin’s Russia is for political favor. Doing a good job at a fair price is meaningless if you don’t know the right officials, while your financial success is guaranteed if you are loyal to the right people. Putin’s tragi-comic attempt to create a Russian Silicon Valley out of thin air, the Skolkovo “Innovation Center” near Moscow, is an ongoing case study of this effect. With cronyism as a business model, even a tyrant can’t always get results.
In two weeks, all the reporters will go home with their funny stories, all the rainbow logos will be taken down, and Russians will be left with the environmental disaster, the corruption and the repression, the debts, and the same crooks and thugs who created them all. The future is not bright for Sochi, unless you believe that misery loves company. The 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia and reports are already circulating about how behind schedule the venues are. It will be Sochi times ten.
I am both a sportsman and a sports fan and I have nothing but good wishes for the athletes coming to Sochi. Russia is a beautiful and proud country with much to offer visitors and the world. My hope is that the world does not allow the voices of Russia’s dissidents, activists, and persecuted minorities to be drowned out by applause.