As the world said goodbye to Sochi and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, speeches by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, lauded a “modern Russia” that had emerged to greet the world.
This new nation was supposedly, as a billboard in Sochi proclaimed, “Russia – Great, New, Open.” Bach did his part to reinforce this message by mentioning the country’s supposed resurgence in his speech.
The reality is quite different.
Take, for example, the cost of the Sochi Games. At $52 billion, they are the most expensive ever. Some sources, like former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, think that the Games should have cost only $26 billion after all the kickbacks are taken out of the equation. Many of these projects were handled by Putin’s allies.
The $8.7 billion it cost Russia to build a new road and rail route into Sochi was handled by Vladimir Yakunin, who runs the state-owned railway company and, like Putin himself, is a former member of the Soviet KGB.
The Russian edition of Esquire magazine calculated that, for the $8.7-billion price tag, the entire route could be paved with a 1 centimetre-thick layer of beluga caviar.
This sort of favouritism is not new. During the glory days of the USSR, the “nomenklatura” were the Soviet elite appointed by the Communist party to run aspects of the country’s economy. That worked about as well as you’d expect.
Another Soviet tendency that has survived the demise of communism is the suppression of dissent and these Olympics, like all the others before them, had their own political overtones. The Russian government’s controversial anti-gay legislation took the spotlight here.
Our prime minister and the president of the United States were called out by Bach for politicizing the games “on the backs of athletes” when, in protest of Russia’s human rights record, they opted not to personally attend.
Bach called their boycott an “ostentatious gesture.” I suppose he’d like for us to just forget about gay and lesbian Russians for the duration of the Olympics. Mayor Pakhomov, for his part, assured the world that there were no gay people in Sochi.
And that’s really the problem. “Modern Russia” really cares only about appearances. “Modern Russia” is still intolerant of dissent. And “modern Russia,” like the Soviet Union of old, is run by an ex-KGB strongman who is comfortable with business as usual.
Later, during the closing ceremonies, Bach called on world leaders to “act on this Olympic message of dialogue and peace.”
But Bach, as well as Putin’s Russia, should not be surprised when the rest of the world refuses to pretend that Russia has changed and, instead of backing up the IOC’s hollow rhetoric, decides to do something – however small – to voice their own dissent.