Russian president Vladimir Putin behaves like a groom at his wedding feast in the midst of gang warfare: he tries to attend to his bride and disregard the gunshots, with less and less success. His wedding party is the Olympic games, a sports event that occupies him immensely; meanwhile his house is under attack from all directions. In the Ukraine, a confrontation between a weak government and pro-Western radicals threatens to eliminate his previous achievements. The Ruble is under heavy pressure and losing value, despite stable oil prices. In Syria, the US and France are planning a new offensive and pinning the blame on Russia for non-delivery in Geneva. And even his own Olympic games is under attack from the powerful international media machine. Despite all the commotion, he still sticks to sports. Is this some crazy obsession, like Nero’s with his fiddle, or is Putin playing a cool game of poker? Does he know what he is doing?
Why the Games?
Putin staked a lot on the Olympic games. For a leader of the great rich country that was first to send a man into space, and has the armory of nuclear bombs vast enough to obliterate mankind, this is a strange fancy. I am not a sports fan, I’ve never watched a single Olympic competition. So I could not understand what Putin was up to until the opening ceremony of the games allowed me to grasp his reasoning. Putin intended to re-brand, even re-invent Russia, just as Peter the Great did, and he used the games as the medium for this message.
The prevailing image of Russia and Russians was not flattering: that of Gulag, or of the moujik in a funny hat in the movie Armageddon, mafia, nouveau riches, brutish people in a drab backward place. Putin wanted to get rid of this shopworn image, a vestige of the Cold War and the hard years that followed the Soviet collapse. This coup was executed by its opening show’s producer Constantine Ernst. He presented Russia as a part of the First World; an amazing country of strong European tradition, of Leo Tolstoy and Malevich, of Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev, the land of arts, of daring social reform, of technical achievements, of modernity and beyond. This is a Russian Russia, neither a multi-ethnic Soviet Union, nor a souvenir-shop Russia of Matryoshka nesting dolls, but the Russia of Natasha Rostova riding a Sikorsky ‘copter.
For the first time in the post-Soviet era, this opening show integrated Russia of Tolstoy’s dancing nobles with revolutionary Avant-garde artists and Soviet workers; it harmonised these two preceding periods of Russian history, the pre-Soviet and Soviet. What’s so special about that, you might ask. It was a big problem Russia never quite succeeded in solving in the post-Soviet days: some demonised the Soviet days and glorified the Tsar, others did it other way around, but harmonisation and acceptance of both has never yet been achieved. Putin as the supreme producer dismissed the drab image and opted for the chic. This is how he would like Russia to be seen: a true part of the First World, a friend to Europe, a heir to the Red Revolution and to the White Tradition, a great country in so many ways.
As opposed to the Soviets, Putin’s vision of Russia is that of a conservative liberal country, a traditional partner and competitor to England, France, Germany; in the same league as the leading Western countries. He does not want to dominate the world, he is looking for a good and honourable position reminding that of Russia in 1880s. The problem is that the world changed since then: the US claimed supremacy all over the world, and in such a world, Russia’s position will be more modest. Putin understands that and tries to establish closer ties with other great powers who are dissatisfied with the unipolar construction. By the Olympic show he signalled that his ambitions are not overreaching: he wishes Russia’s interests to be considered and respected, not more.
The Olympic games was a very expensive enterprise. Western sources estimate some fifty billion dollars. This sum, however, represents a total investment in Sochi region that is there to stay. I am not a big fan of Sochi, the place was seedy and drab like Atlantic City in decline. Now it is a first-class chic Russian resort, and the Russians need such a place so they don’t have to spend all their free time at Côte d’Azur. It is a rich toy, but Russia is a rich country, and like a mature, wealthy woman she has decided to discard her old coat and to buy a new mink, to get a new hair-do, skin treatment, the works – a total makeover.
The games proper probably cost about fifteen billion, a huge sum to spend, to be sure, instead of investing in US treasury notes as their usual wont. But the Olympics were watched by three billion viewers, and for five bucks per head it was a very reasonable PR and GR expenditure.
The Olympic show allows us to understand a characteristic Russian quality; Russians can’t do consistently good and lasting steady work, like the Germans or Japanese. Rather, they strive for over-achievement, for supreme effort, for artistic record, and then return to slumber. They can if they want. Essentially artistic souls, they do not often want to. But if they do, they can perform miracles.
Russia’s adversaries understood this reason of rebranding, and did their utmost to undermine it.
Olympics under attack
Russians are not easily offended. The confident and easy-going Russians just aren’t like that, they never feel being hated for what they are, and even the manufactured word “Russophobia” never really caught on, except within the select nationalist nooks of the blogosphere. And it is a good thing for them, for were they touchy, they would have gone off their hat from the attacks on the Olympic games.
The topic of gay rights in Russia continues to rankle – the Americans sent a delegation to Sochi consisting entirely of supporters of same-sex relationships, hoping to tease Putin – but nothing was ignited, despite their efforts. The only demonstration on this issue in Sochi was staged by some American guests who were upset about the legalization of same-sex marriage in many US states. All in all, the Sochi Olympics were free from political controversy; despite warnings, no terrorist acts marred the events, and the State Department had to bring up the recently released Pussy Riot activists to have something to report on. (They were moderately beaten up by Cossacks after being set up by their own crew. Their entourage of eight men did not protect them and did not interfere with the thrashing, just enjoying the show.)
Then came the horror stories about “Sochi – the city of double toilets.” Despite the fact that the photos and legends were debunked as fast as they appeared – they had their effect. An Austrian journalist photographed a bad road in Vienna and tweeted it with the hashtag SochiFails. CNN acquired the photo and it was retweeted 477 times. Then the journalist admitted he had pulled a fast one – but that confession was only retweeted four times, which proves that this was truly an organized campaign to discredit both Sochi and the Games.
The opening ceremony saw some surprising and deliberate incidents: although spectators in the stadium and television viewers in Russia could see the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych , in his sky box, standing with a flag as the Ukrainian athletes entered the stadium, viewers overseas saw only an empty spot. American television viewers did not see some of the section of the presentation that depicted the Soviet period, which was most likely cut because it did not include reference to the gulag.
And finally, there appeared a series of detailed articles. The “bloody slander” by Dominic Sandbrook is an excellent example. Its full title can serve as a summary: The gangster’s games: By endorsing Putin’s murderous and corrupt regime, the Olympic movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by evil – as it once was by Hitler. This was a fatwa, bloody war cry from the lips of a respected British professor from Oxford and Cambridge. Well, Sandbrook stands slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. His series on the Cold War contained no reference to the West’s build-up to nuclear obliteration of Soviet Russia. And the Daily Mail is an odd sort of paper. But here’s another example: “The Stench of Sochi,” in the ‘decent’ Daily Beast, in which Putin is described as a bloody dictator and the games as an act of collusion.
One could debate each point of the listed charges and either agree with or refute them. I’ll do neither. I’ve spent the greater part of the last three years in Russia. It’s not the most comfortable place in the world, but not hell on earth, either. The weather is terrible as often as not. There is ice, snow, frost or mud on a level unimaginable to Scandinavians or Canadians. Beelzebub himself designed Moscow’s traffic jams. Granted, it’s a country where the bureaucracy can defeat a visitor as it begets a profusion of unnecessary hardships, all of which have helped to forge the indomitable Russian spirit. You’ll get no argument from me about that! But only someone who has lost all touch with reality could brand the lenient rule of liberal-conservative Putin as the “murderous and corrupt regime” of a gangster, when he has never executed anyone, holds an electoral mandate, and has yet to break up a single legal demonstration. Why, Russian liberal newspapers even write about his “bloody dictatorship” so often that it no longer shocks nobody, and they never lose their state subsidy or status ratings. The president loves being criticised. Leading Putin-bashing journalists like Masha Gessen or Alexei Venediktov meet personally with Putin and gain access to the Kremlin few Putin admirers can even dream of.
Vladimir Putin is a powerful man, no doubt, but in recent years, only once he used his authority in an arbitrary way. A very wealthy banker with criminal connections was annoyed when his limousine was overtaken on a narrow country road by an old and battered car. His thug outriders stopped the offender and gave him a thrashing. It turned out that the beaten young man was a friend of young Miss Putin. Next day, his bank was checked by Treasury, multiple proofs of illegal wheeling and dealing were found (none forged), and the haughty man went to trial by criminal court while his bank was bankrupted. Nobody in Moscow regretted his dispatch. You might say that his crimes could have been uncovered earlier, but here we are: Putin’s rule is very lenient even to crooks, unless they really push their luck. He could be much more strict and exacting, and his people would actually prefer it, for he is genuinely popular, but he is not a tyrant.
This widespread campaign leaves one no choice but to believe without a shadow of a doubt that what we have here is a deliberately fabricated, orchestrated, and organized campaign to target Russia and its president. Why is this? If athletic competitions in Israel were being written about in this manner we would conclude that the instigators of the campaign were vile anti-Semites. We could use the formula of President George W. Bush, who suggested “they hate our freedoms” as the motive for 9/11. But there’s an even better explanation.
The unified Western propaganda machine of the famed Masters of Discourse™ is able to demonize its potential victims much better than the antediluvian mechanism used by Goebbels – if for no other reason than because it penetrates every corner of the globe. It is centred in London and New York, and its branches operate in France, Germany, and even Russia. It is fully integrated into the social networks. If you (justifiably) do not trust the mainstream media and turn to the Internet – there you will find the same message, copied and retweeted by thousands of obedient robots.
This machine moves in when its owners want something from their victim. For example, Muammar Gaddafi was the best friend of Paris, London, and Washington. But he took exception once, and that was when Goldman Sachs lost 98% of Libya’s investments. He paid dearly for his complaints. He was utterly demonized and then NATO bombed Libya and destroyed that flourishing country. Fifty billion dollars went missing – Libya’s sovereign wealth funds that had been invested in Western banks.
This is why the campaign against Sochi is so troubling. What do the owners of the international mainstream media want from Russia and Putin? For him to marry President Obama? For him to abandon the Stabilization Fund in favour of Goldman Sachs? For him to sell oil and gas to Western companies in exchange for US Treasury bonds? Or – in regard to more compelling matters – for him to hand over Ukraine to neo-Nazis and Syria to Al-Qaeda? In any event, this has nothing to do with sports. This is a different, and far more dangerous game.
After going through so much trouble and expense, Putin would like to sit back and enjoy the glory. But alas, this luxury can’t be bought: at the mid-term of the Games, the events in Kiev broke out, as we shall discuss in the Part 2 of this report, and the Wall Street Journal called the US sportsmen to leave Sochi immediately.
[Note by an editor: The reason why the Western sponsored media were so anxious about Russian resources being invested into the development of the national infrastructure projects and its soft power of the global reach, is pretty transparent. Since 2010 Russia has been gradually reducing its share in the US Treasury holdings (from around USD 176 billion in October 2010 to less than USD 140 billion in November 2013) and plans for more. Exactly this tribute, routinely pumped into greedy abyss of the Wall Street deposits for years, has been eventually spent for the national development and advance in Sochi. A gloomy mixture of envy, disrespect, panic and malice motivates those who hire the likes of Dominic Sandbrook, Alex Berenson, Alexander Gentelev, Regis Gente, Michael Weiss, etc. to condemn “Putin’s Games”. The outstanding success of the ongoing Olympic Games is the powerful and compelling response to these scribblers.]
Israel Shamir can be reached at [email protected]