The Sochi Olympics and the making of 'Putin the Great'

It is widely written that the Sochi Olympics are a sales job to the world, as Beijing's were in 2008. But they are more a sales job to Russians themselves, an attempt to have patriotic pride trump dissent with Putin's authoritarian rule, former ambassador Jeremy Kinsman writes.

Russian president's politics are straight out of The Good Tsar's Handbook

Russian President Vladimir Putin joins Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (out of camera view) to receive the credentials of newly arrived ambassadors to Moscow in January 2014. (Reuters)

"Why can't we Russians be normal?" shaken TV panelists asked themselves in the aftermath of the failed but violent coup attempt against Boris Yeltsin and his chaotic efforts to bring democracy 20 years ago.

Back then, the "norm" they yearned for was roughly that of modern Germany, where things (and people) worked and peace and order prevailed.

Yeltsin then looked favourably toward the West, much as Peter the Great had in the 18th century.

But modern Russians lost their faith when their own beginners' democracy went off the rails in the 1990s, and so they ended up giving wide support to the man who promised to fix things by looking backwards, Vladimir Putin.

He fixed a lot (including elections, even though he was popular enough to win). And he gave Russians a decade of "peace," smoothing the ragged transition to a market economy.

Under him, standards of living rose and Russia dropped trying to integrate with the West.

Non-alignment became a form of rivalry, a stance the ex-KGB man had been trained under.

It was all part of a new narrative for Russian identity to fill the void left by the massive rejection of the all-embracing Communist world.

He looped back to the pre-communist past, prior to the Bolshevik revolution. "We do not need great upheavals," Putin announced (echoing the words of the Russian prime minister in 1905). "We need a great Russia."

'International person of the year'

The price of this great Russia, though, was to give Putin top-down control.

The democratic space carved out by Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin was sharply narrowed. Cronies got rich. Dissenters got jail time. Putin got noticed.

International man of action, Russia's Vladimir Putin is seen through the glass of C-Explorer 5 submersible after a dive to see the remains of the naval frigate "Oleg", which sank in the Gulf of Finland. (Reuters)

In 2013, the Times of London named him "International Person of the Year." He headed Forbes magazine's list of the world's most powerful people.

For these international conservative and capitalist house organs, what counted was the projection of "strength" and unfettered devotion to the market economy that they liked to contrast to the nuanced approach of Barack Obama.

Of course, like Potemkin's village, these projections are mostly theatrical illusions, the prime example being the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February, the most expensive ever.

It is widely written that this extravaganza is a sales job to the world, as Beijing's Olympics had been in 2008.

But actually, it's a sales job back to Russians themselves, an attempt to have patriotic pride trump dissent with Putin's authoritarian rule and with the rampant corruption in the ruling culture.

The Putin base

Polls reveal that Russians are increasingly unhappy with the way they are governed; only 25 per cent express confidence in the leadership of the current team. 

The view that Russia needs democracy has grown to about two-thirds of respondents, but still there is wide disappointment with their experience of democracy in practice.

Massive demonstrations in 2012 against Putin's return to power drew from urban middle and educated classes who had used the decade of "calming down" to build their expectations.

Restive young people and other supporters of anti-Putin opposition leader Alexei Navalny attend a rally in Moscow in September 2013, protesting against the Kremlin's role in a Moscow election. The placards read "Navalny". (Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters)

Putin won his re-election with a considerably reduced majority based on the support of rural, older, and poorer voters, still distrustful of change.

Today, faced with a stubborn if repressed opposition, Putin no longer pretends to be the leader of all Russians, only of "patriotic" Russians — not the "bad" Russians whom he denigrates for wanting to kowtow to the liberal and secular West.

To appeal to his base, Putin has reached back to Russia's pre-revolutionary orthodox past and Russia's "traditional" morality.

Hence the anti-gay law, reflecting long-lurking homophobic impulses, that has been woven into the patriotic narrative. And the ban on foreign adoptions, to keep Russian babies from growing up in an overly secular West.

The Good Tsar's Handbook

Putin didn't invent the holy conservative trinity of the unfettered market, family values and rampant patriotic self-worship.

It visibly underpins political hopes in North America, and helps explain why U.S. Christian conservative Pat Buchanan lauds Putin's leadership as well.

Putin pretends he doesn't care what the outside democratic world and its "weak" leaders think of him.

In fact, the one area where he retains resounding support in public opinion is when he sticks it to the U.S. and the European Union over Russia's right to be different — and "great."

With this theme of greatness, of course, come the displays of magnanimous self-confidence we've been witnessing.

Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Maria Alyokhina talk to the media following their release from jail in December 2013. Tolokonnikova said their release was aimed solely at improving Russia's image before it hosts the Winter Olympic Games and was not a humanitarian gesture. (Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters)

His recent release of thousands of prisoners — the Pussy Riot girls, Green Peace activists, the emasculated former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky — arrested on often trumped-up charges because they were in competition with him, is right out of the Good Tsar's Handbook.

However, beneath the certainties he projects is a maelstrom of ambiguity and contradiction.

Russians, for example, have among the highest density of internet connection in the world. And its middle and educated classes are unlikely to take being treated like political infants much longer.

In fact, their numbers are expanding while Putin's constituency contracts, and he doesn't seem to have many answers for a restive civil society except for these lavish displays of patriotic drama.

Not for outsiders to criticize

Ambiguity and contradiction go with Russia's past, in contests between the country's European and Asian personalities, and between the Tolstoy-like worship of peasant society with the miserable reality of Russia's countless backward villages.

One thing, though, stands out. Russia — its people, its scientific and cultural achievements, and its history — is great among nations (though not mysteriously so).

The current 3-D mega-film Stalingrad milks this most massively heroic and tragic episode, and why not?

And why shouldn't the Russian state try to milk the Sochi Olympics the same way, even though it could go badly if the home team doesn't own much of the podium, or if Chechen terrorists penetrate the armed shell the venue will become?

Foreigners carp about the costs, aggravated by usual corruption overheads, and so do some Russians, rightly.

But Western pundits and politicians should keep their criticisms proportional. When Igor Stravinsky agreed back in 1962 to visit the country that his family fled during the Revolution, he warned nonetheless that "the right to criticize Russia is mine and because I love it, I do not give any foreigner that right."

It's a self-centric sense of national pride that Americans share, and even some Canadians are beginning to emulate.


Jeremy Kinsman

Diplomatically speaking

Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador who served as High Commissioner to the U.K., and as ambassador to the Russian Federation and the European Union. He is co-author of the Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support by CIGI.