We didn’t need the Olympics to be reminded that Vladimir Putin still has a soft spot for his nation’s defunct Communist system. In 2009, Russian state television aired a documentary called “The Wall.” It detailed how, as a KGB major in Dresden in 1989, he faced down a crowd of East German dissidents who tried to storm the local KGB office and steal its files.
“Putin succeeded in persuading the crowd to fall back,” the documentary’s maker gushed.
Russian state television had aired another program claiming that Putin brandished a pistol and told the crowd: “This is Soviet territory and you’re standing on our border. I’m serious when I say that I will shoot trespassers.”
Putin has never lost his Commie-stalgia. In 2005, he used his “state of the nation” address to tell Russians that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. . . . As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy.”
If that weren’t enough proof, the Sochi Olympic Games opened last Friday with a lavish choreographed tour of Russian history. The 20th century was depicted as a time of rapid industrialization, symbolized by a hammer and a sickle floating above the performers. There wasn’t even a hint of the horrors of Stalinism or the deaths it caused.
Many Russian émigrés were disgusted, and they were appalled that there was so little censure of the use of the provocative symbols. “We don’t need to imagine the reaction if an Olympic ceremony in Germany featured a swastika,” Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday who emigrated from Russia in the 1980s, told me.
To make matters worse, NBC whitewashed Russia’s Communist past in its video tribute to the host country that preceded the opening ceremonies. Actor Peter Dinklage began by intoning that “Russia overwhelms. Russia mystifies. Russia transcends.” He lapsed into phrases that truly have a double meaning, given the 70 years of Communist conquest in the 20th century, such as references to Russia’s resisting “any notion of limitation” and “redoubling its desire to cast a towering presence.”
But then NBC’s video really went over the top: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments.”
Hmmm . . . my dictionary says “pivotal” means vitally important. That could be said in a tragic way of Communism’s blood-soaked record, but is that the best way to refer to it? Garry Kasparov, the Russian former world chess champion, accused NBC of pushing Putin propaganda, and Florida senator Marco Rubio noted that when Soviet Communism collapsed even some of its ideologists finally agreed with Ronald Reagan that it had been “an evil empire.”
But NBC wasn’t finished with wretched commentary. Co-host Meredith Vieira had this to say during the opening ceremony, as a little girl held aloft by wires let go of a large red balloon: “Our guide Lyubov has reappeared one last time holding on to a red balloon which represents the end of the 20th-century dream. [Long pause for effect.] A bittersweet moment as she lets go of that balloon as Russia says goodbye to its past but looks ahead to a brighter future.”
That commentary redoubled claims that NBC was engaged in Putin-scripted propaganda and may have signaled to NBC that it had gone too far. Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage, admitted that “this is a complex part of the world, and there’s a lot of history to understand.” Perhaps to make up for its syrupy coverage, NBC brought on David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and a former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post during Communism’s collapse.
Remnick told viewers it was clear that in the opening ceremonies the Russians wanted to “bobsled past the events that are very dark.” That said, Remnick also made clear he didn’t have a role in NBC’s “pivotal experiment” video and would have no comment about criticism of it. NBC was no doubt relieved by this gentle treatment.
And it was gentle. Appeasement takes many forms and often begins innocently. That’s why it should not go unremarked in TV coverage that was broadcast so widely — including to many young people for whom Communism isn’t even a dim memory.
In June 1937, 15 months before the infamous Munich agreement in which Britain and France washed their hands of a free Czechoslovakia, Sir Nevile Henderson gave a speech shortly after he became Britain’s ambassador to Nazi Germany. He said to a dinner party assembled in his honor: “Far too many people have an erroneous conception of what the National-Socialist regime really stands for. Otherwise they would lay less stress on Nazi dictatorship and much more emphasis on the great social experiment which is being tried out in this country.” (There’s that darn weasel word “experiment.”)
Henderson then went on to say that there were “many things in the Nazi organization and social institutions . . . which we might study and adapt to our own use with great profit.” In practice, Henderson’s approach and that of his superior, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, amounted to giving in to Hitler time after time.
British journalists largely cheered what was then a neutral word: “appeasement.” Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the venerable Times of London, wrote one of his correspondents that “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything which might hurt [the Germans’] susceptibilities. . . . I shall be more grateful than I can say for any explanation. . . . I have always been convinced that the peace of the world depends upon our getting into reasonable relations with Germany.”
Mitt Romney, who helped direct the highly successful 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was asked by Fox News whether Russia’s increasingly authoritarian direction was in conflict with the spirit of the Olympic Games. Romney said he shared that worry and mentioned the 1936 Berlin games that Adolf Hitler used so successfully to soften the world’s image of his regime.
“Hitler’s presence there, that certainly undercut the Olympic message,” Romney said. “And surely that can happen in our time, theoretically or specifically.” That undercutting is happening right now, albeit in a sophisticated form, at Sochi. And, just as in the 1930s, too many people in the West — from diplomats to journalists — are failing to speak out against the doublespeak. It’s one thing for Olympic guests not to engage in boorish criticism during the games. But true friends of freedom in Russia are certain the right balance in commentary isn’t being struck in Sochi.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.