Putin’s Sochi Popularity Boost

As Russians indulge in national pride over Sochi, even opposition activists are crediting Putin with pulling off the improbable: a safe, smooth Olympics.

Tatyana Sidelnikova’s charming smile, slicked out in red lipstick, was trembling a little. The 20-year-old beauty from Sochi approached the Olympic winners with a tray in her hands, in front of the crowd of 11,000 people on Friday night. She was not cold, in her thin tights, from the breeze from the sea. It seemed as if the whole world had come to her home city of Sochi, and Sidelnikova’s heart filled up with pride.

Wearing a blue skirt, vest and hat decorated with a colorful Russian-quilt pattern, specially designed for the medal ceremonies, her job was to carry a tray with medals for the Olympic champions from the United States and Australia. The only thought rocketing through her mind was: “I cannot believe this is happening—I am an Olympic participant, too!” Later, she readied herself to present the medals for the Russian figure skaters. The audience exploded in euphoria: “Rossia! Rossia!” the spectators chanted. The strains of the Russian anthem overwhelmed her emotions, and tears of pride for her country ran down Sidelnikova’s face.

To win her moment on the global stage, Sidelnikova had to make her own Olympic effort: she lost 23 kilos, or about 50 pounds, in two months to be selected from a group of 800 of Sochi’s most beautiful girls to join the ranks of the Olympic medal presenters. The contest’s organizers set up strict criteria for participants: each girl had to have a straight back, know how to walk beautifully, and be able to speak foreign languages. All of that was doable for Sidelnikova, who had taught herself Japanese and Korean.

The hardest criteria for Sidelnikova were the ideal body measurements: medal presenters were not supposed to have chests, waists and hips bigger than 36"-24"-36" (or 90x60x90 centimeters). Sidelnikova, as beautiful as she was, wasn’t even close to the required size. But, motivated by her desire to appear inside the Olympic bubble, stand next to celebrities, make friends with people from all over and have a chance to shine as a “proud Russian girl from the greatest country in the world,” she spent weeks on a strict diet of kefir and oatmeal in order to slim down.

It’s a particularly Russian sentiment, this notion of making a superhuman effort to advance the glory of the motherland. Many critics of the Sochi Olympics said that it would be impossible to bring the Games to the North Caucasus, an area seething in unrest. In response, the Kremlin made its own superhuman effort, surrounding the Olympic Park with a “ring of steel” and shipping in thousands of police and military units.

The athletes, of course, are the ultimate symbol of this effort. Yana Rudkovskaya, the wife of Russia’s king of the ice Yevgeny Plyushenko, described to The Daily Beast the painful, heroic story of her husband’s rise and quick fall after withdrawing midway through the Games over an injury: “A year ago, Yevgeny learned to walk again after surgeries on his spine,” she said. “I helped him with every step, even in the shower.”

She pulled out an image of her husband’s spinal X-ray, saved on her cellphone. “We Russians are strong and can achieve purely heroic deeds that nobody else could think of,” she said. “Many would expect my husband to compete in the Paraolympics but he performed in the Olympic Games, inspired the Russian team to victory and brought home gold for his team.”

“I am a strong person,” Rudkovskaya said, “but this Olympics was the most painful for us. I only thought, God forbidgs [Yevgeny] from falling again—I’d collapse together with him.”

Rudkovskaya and Sidelnikova haven’t been alone in feeling a wave of pride for their country. Russians often grumble about their living conditions and lament the country’s authoritarian regime, and widespread corruption and human-rights abuses. But this week, Russians coming to Sochi have found themselves moved by a sincere love and devotion to their flag, their national anthem and Russian athletes. The Sochi Olympics—made famous as “Putin’s project”—has been the occasion for a truce for even the president’s biggest critics; opposition leaders have called on Russians to take these few Olympic weeks to bask in national pride.

Just three weeks ago, Sochi residents were too exhausted by the four long years of ongoing construction to celebrate. Meanwhile, the rest of the country complained about the overpriced and outrageously corrupt price tag of the Games, and worried about the ever-present terror threat. Sochi locals said they could not wait for the Olympics to be over with. But as the excitement of these Games has swept the town, everyone in Sochi—from locals to foreigners alike—are ready to enjoy the event. Meanwhile, these Games and the resulting rise in patriotism have reflected well on President Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings.

Earlier this week a family of Russian sports fans from the Siberian city of Baikalsk were waving a flag with their city’s name at the luge competitions. They had traveled across the entire country, from the lake Baikal to Sochi on the Black Sea, to see the event. Lyubov Grigoryeva was smiling happily in the sunset light with Caucasus mountains around her: “In a few days we’ll return to our routine issues and lack of stability in the future,” she said, “but today all we want is to feel on seventh heaven.”