Putin's Olympic triumph can't hide Russia's deeper problems

For Vladimir Putin, the Sochi Olympic Games helped reflect a new Russia that had left the Soviet Union days behind. But away from all the cameras, there are still many glaring questions.

No bombs and few controversies, but after Sochi's torch goes out, many questions remain for Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

A week into the Olympics, a buoyant Vladimir Putin took a stroll on the freshly constructed boardwalk, settling in at an outdoor café with a view of the Black Sea to chat with Olympic officials.

Like many photo opportunities, everything about the Russian president’s latest appearance seemed staged: the “customers” who filled every table, the untouched glasses of beer growing tepid in front of them, the colourful macaroons — all of it appeared designed to look spontaneous when it was anything but.

Even the café itself was a prop. A day earlier, it didn’t even exist. It was just a patchwork of unpainted and unremarkable wooden beams tended to by purposeful labourers seemingly unmoved by the unseasonably warm temperatures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with current and former IOC officials at a pop-up cafe with a view of the Black Sea, on Feb. 15. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Overnight, it had been painted, outfitted with a bar and furniture, staffed with waiters, and by midday, it was ready to welcome the president.

Like the café, the Sochi Olympic Games were largely about one man. And last night, with the closing ceremony, Putin’s longtime dream had come to fruition. He had built it, and the whole world had come. Skeptics who had predicted disaster were proven wrong. Russia and its president rejoiced.

“Tonight we can say Russia delivered all what it had promised,” International Olympic president Thomas Bach said in his closing remarks.

He then thanked Putin for “his personal commitment to the extraordinary success of these Olympic Winter Games.”

Putin, in the midst of the most elaborate photo opportunity ever staged here, smiled.

Presidential pet project

The Sochi Olympics were all about Putin. He was the one who decided that Sochi, which had bid for the Olympics twice before and failed, should try one more time.

He took the bid to the IOC himself. He even personally selected the spot where the impressive mountain facilities would be built. He spent nearly a decade working on these Games, personally driving the preparations, returning time and again to check on progress, to ensure it was all done to his satisfaction.

He even fielded some of the tough political questions: everything from queries on corruption, to gay rights.

He insisted Russia would be tolerant.

And now with the conclusion of the Games yesterday, he has proven Russians can put on a world-class show. One where the athlete with the most medals is Dutch, and openly gay. Where a protest park was belatedly added a half hour away to ensure people had a place to express their views. Never mind that you needed the permission of three different government departments to protest there.

The right impression — the veneer — had been created: Russia was okay with dissent and was happy to provide a place for it.

While it was unquestionably an achievement to pull them off, the Olympic Games had their own rules, distinct from Russia’s. And those rules don’t apply fully to the rest of Russia once the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Corruption allegations, Ukraine unrest

There were many difficult moments for the president.

There was, and will continue to be, controversy about corruption and cost. There was the heavy shadow of the Ukraine crisis competing for Russia’s and the president’s attention, with accusations of meddling in what many here call “little Russia” threatening to tarnish Putin's Olympic moment.

Demonstrators throw objects towards riot police during a rally held by pro-European protesters in Kyiv on Jan. 22, 2014. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

Despite the great lengths taken by authorities to prevent protest and keep dissenters away from Sochi, anti-Putin punk rock band Pussy Riot somehow managed to slip in with an entourage of friends and filmmakers, apparently to make their latest music video, which they call “Putin will teach you how to love your motherland.”

They were swiftly picked up by police and questioned twice. On the third occasion, members of the band were roughed up and whipped by Cossacks ordered by Putin himself, to help maintain order during the Games.

The band members tweeted their detention as it unfolded, and the world’s media showed up.It wasn’t Russia’s finest hour, but it all made for excellent music video footage.

And on the last Friday of the Games, there was the extraordinary — and sadly, mostly overlooked — detention of more than 200 activists in Moscow, after a judge convicted eight protesters of demonstrating violently against Putin’s re-election two years ago.

In another move seemingly aimed at containing any angry reaction, the sentencing was postponed.

We may never know what other far-reaching measures it took to keep the quiet in Sochi and beyond, and to prevent attacks promised by militants from the nearby Caucasus.

But that, still, is arguably the biggest achievement at the Games. Putin kept his promise of holding safe Olympics, to the relief of both athletes and Russians themselves.

“We are happy that it all went quietly, no bombing whatsoever,” said Larisa Mazlunian, a cook at an old cafeteria that caters to ordinary Russians. “We just hope that our city is going to flourish.”

With 3,000 athletes, and many more family and Russian visitors, so much could have gone wrong here.

Instead, Putin was the subject of glowing reviews, at least here in Sochi.

“Thank you for the man who really personally made sure that those Games would be a success,” said Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut, who had already been criticized for seeming to fawn over the president when he dropped by Canada House last week. “You will never pull back this achievement from him or from his government.”

Putin also largely kept promises to the home crowd. At 33 medals, this was Team Russia’s best winter Olympics yet. Quite a comeback from the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where they took home an all-time low of 15 medals and Russia came in at an embarrassing 11th place.

But the president could not make good on his predictions that Russia would win in the all important hockey tournament. Russia was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Putin was apparently livid.

Last-minute medals surge

However, with several last-minute medals, including a complete sweep in the 50-kilometre men’s ski event yesterday, Russia shot to number one, part of the victory the country and its president claimed last night in front of audiences at home and abroad.

“The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.- Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister and Olympics organizer

“The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun, and the glare of the Olympic gold, have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia,” said deputy prime minister and Olympics organizer Dmitry Kozak.

“The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.”

Indeed, that was the intention. Putin, in a documentary called the “philosophy of the soft way,” which aired right after the opening ceremonies on Feb. 7, lauds Russia’s soft power. There has been much written and said about how the Games will help augment the country’s growing influence on the world stage.

Putin clearly believes those words. All along he acted like a man who knew there was little room for error. And all of it is seemingly designed with a Putin legacy in mind.

For him, the Games helped reflect a new Russia. A Russia that had left the Soviet Union days behind. For the world, the Olympics provided a rare window into a country it perhaps hasn't quite figured out yet. 

It is a window many here desperately want to keep open, because as reflections go, the Games showcased Russia at its best.

For Russia — for Putin — away from all the cameras, there are still many glaring questions.