‘Through the wet windows, all of Russia watches how Russia is eating,” wrote Russian poet Andrei Voznesenkiy over 30 years ago about the stark contrast between Russia’s wealthy few and the many poor. His words ring true today as the Olympic Games approach in the resort city of Sochi. Set to commence on February 7, the games embody the massive corruption and abuse of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime. The absence of strong Western condemnation of the games is likely to further embolden Russia’s strongman.
For Putin, the Sochi Olympics have little to do with true sportsmanship. They are about his display of personal power and his desire to project Russia as a rising global leader. From the very beginning, Putin made the Olympics his personal project. He chose Sochi, a favorite vacation spot of the old Communist elite, as the location for the games, even though it made little political or practical sense.
First, when the International Olympic Committee in 2007 chose Sochi to host the Olympics — after Putin’s personal lobbying — the area had inadequate infrastructure to support the games. In 2008, the Washington Post described Sochi as a “drained marsh with a solitary cow, some rows of potato stalks, and a small cemetery that dates to 1911.” In addition, Sochi’s subtropical climate is unpredictable and ill-suited for winter games. The expense of preparing for the Sochi Games is staggering — reportedly, more than $50 billion — a price tag mired in deep corruption scandals.
A historic homeland to Circassians forcefully driven out of their land by the Russian czar in the 1800s, Sochi is also right next to Abkhazia — a cause of tensions between Russia and Georgia, a country Russia invaded in 2008. Sochi is also next door to the North Caucasus, the center of Russia’s terrorism problems. Indeed, on January 14, Volgograd bombers Suleiman and Abdurakhman, members of Ansar al-Sunna, recorded an eerie message about a “gift” they had prepared for the Olympics.
Putin, who once publicly lamented that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, has been steadily moving Russia toward a Soviet Union 2.0. He has presided over human-rights violations and the increasing marginalization of Russia’s civil society. The latest manifestation of this is his ban on “homosexual propaganda.” Internationally, Putin has welcomed Edward Snowden and helped Iran avoid tougher sanctions against its nuclear program. Putin’s continuous support for Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria helped Assad to avoid military strikes.
The U.S. took a step in the right direction by joining the European Commission, France, Germany, and Poland in refusing to send the highest-ranking officials to Sochi. Yet this was not enough. So what if a few world leaders do not attend? The games will go on, bolstering Putin’s image, just as he planned. After all, President Obama and Vice President Biden missed other critical world events, such as the funeral of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher; and Putin himself did not attend earlier Olympics in Salt Lake City and Vancouver.
The Olympics matter politically, even if the athletes themselves do not care about politics. In August 1936, Nazi Germany hosted the Summer Olympics. Western democracies chose to participate in the games, and African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals that year. Some believed that Owens’s victory publicly disproved Hitler’s racist ideology by beating the Führer on his own turf. In reality, however, U.S. participation only added to the legitimacy of Hitler’s regime by supporting the false image of him as a leader of peaceful intentions. Facing no public condemnation from Western democracies, an emboldened Hitler accelerated his plans for world war and genocide.
The participation of Western delegations in Sochi is likely only to bolster the false image Putin aims to convey. Unfortunately, Putin bet correctly that the public in the West wants to see the games above all else, even as the Russian authorities evicted many of Sochi’s residents from their homes in preparation for the Olympics. And so, as the games commence in a few days, all of Russia, and the world will watch — how Russia is eating.
— Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter @annaborsh.