Olympics (Sochi - old)

How Russia has changed since its last Olympic Games

As Russia gears up for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games one year from today, many former Soviets hold bittersweet memories of the last time their country hosted the Olympics.

Reforms brought unexpected social and political transformation

Elena Eremeeva, who is now choirmaster at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Toronto, recalls Soviet life around the time of the 1980 Moscow Games for more than the sporting spectacle. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As Russia gears up for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games one year from today, many former Soviets hold bittersweet memories of the last time their country hosted the Olympics. 

Road to the Olympics

CBC is the official Canadian broadcaster for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia. This week, CBCNews.ca begins indepth coverage looking at preparations for the Games and life in Russia today. CBCSports.ca will have full coverage leading up to Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, 2014.

But Elena Eremeeva remembers the 1980 Moscow Games for something other than sports: she recalls the long waits she had to buy bananas.

In preparation for those Olympics — the first for a Communist country — Soviet officials cleaned up major cities and trucked in large quantities of scarce food products.

"My whole life revolved around trying to feed my family and standing in queues for food," says Eremeeva, now choirmaster at a Russian church in Toronto.

"That summer I remember people waiting hours to buy bananas."

Back in 1980, Eremeeva was a 23-year-old music student living in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), pregnant with her first child.

Life was good for her that summer. Although the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan six months before, Elena's husband, Piotr, had escaped deployment by paying off officials with a suitcase of cognac.

Elena Eremeeva remembers how her life in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) more than 30 years ago revolved around trying to feed her family. (Courtesy Elena Eremeeva)

The war in Afghanistan and then the sentencing to exile in January 1980 of physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov had led to an international boycott of the Moscow Games. 

For the Soviet Union, the boycott initiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter was a blow. Sixty-five national teams — including Canada's — stayed home.

Britain and France were among the countries that sent athletes, as well as many new African countries, and Moscow was determined to put on a spectacular show.

"The Olympics were an attempt at damage control of the image of the Soviet Union," says Lewis Siegelbaum, a historian at Michigan State University who visited Moscow as a young scholar in 1980.

The Soviets were saying "come look at our society, how prosperous and stable it is. It was a grand party to celebrate a superpower as equal to the First World," he says.

Eremeeva remembers state television showing programs "about how the Soviet Union was so wonderful," although she says she was cynical even then.

The mascot Misha featured prominently at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Moscow on July 19, 1980. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

But many Soviet citizens were wowed by the pageantry of the lavish Opening Ceremonies, presided over by the doddering but still all-powerful Communist Party leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

Soviet cosmonauts sent their greetings from space and dancers and acrobats interpreted the achievements of the peoples who made up the Soviet empire. The mascot was Misha the smiling bear.

"They were trying to find an image that the kids would find cute," says Siegelbaum.

Misha was an incredibly successful marketing tool, and a whole generation of Soviet children and parents remember his iconic image fondly.

Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at Berkeley University in California and a specialist on the Brezhnev period, was 20 years old and living in Leningrad at the time of the Games.

"Enthusiasm was very high among Soviets," says Yurchak. "It wasn’t seen as a political vehicle, but rather as a sporting event."

The Soviets won the most medals, taking 195. Eighty of them were gold.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci competes at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. (Central Press/Getty Images)

U.S. and Canadian viewers watched the superstars of the Communist sports establishment from afar on news broadcasts. The stars included gold medal gymnasts Nelly Kim of the U.S.S.R. and Nadia Comaneci of Romania who riveted with their flawless performances.

Soviet citizens who took an interest in the event were proud of their athletes' achievements.

"In the official discourse, success in sport was an indicator of the superiority of socialism. Sports was a platform for competition with the West during the Cold War," says Larisa Zakharova, a historian of Soviet culture at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Looking back, many former Soviet citizens, including Eremeeva, are nostalgic about the Brezhnev era.

Like many Soviet citizens, Eremeeva had access to regular subsidized holidays — in her case to the beach in the Crimea —and was assured of some sort of a job with a regular wage guaranteed by the state.

"People remember the stability and predictability. It was very different from the unpredictability that followed," says Siegelbaum.

"The standard of life was higher than in the previous years. The elites — intellectuals, officials and artists — in particular, enjoyed a certain social status and material comfort. But at the same time, there was tough political repression, particularly against dissidents," says Zakharova. 

Yurchak, who has written about this period and its contradictions in his book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, says Russians are nostalgic about it now, because they understand that when it was over, certain freedoms were lost at the expense of others gained.

During the Soviet era, Elena Eremeeva, left, had access to regular subsidized holidays — in her case to the beach in the Crimea. (Courtesy Elena Eremeeva)

"Their world shrank because of the market. They are nostalgic for the free time, the social life. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had enough," he says.

"Most people weren't caught up in the literal meaning of ideology. They didn’t pay attention to what the political slogans said. They became invisible to them."

The late 1980s brought the excitement of the twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) under the reformist Communist Party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. He eased political repression and opened up the economy and society to pluralism and the outside world. 

Eremeeva got a job singing in one of the few church choirs that were quasi-tolerated by the Soviet regime at the time, even though the KGB regularly badgered the choir members.

Pro-democracy protests

"We so hoped that finally people would open their eyes and live for themselves and not for the motherland. Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg again. We got our history back."

But the opening up of the country to reforms also brought unexpected social and political chaos.

The easing of censorship and state repression led to pro-democracy protests that spread across the Soviet empire. The Iron Curtain fell and so did Communist regimes in eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, nationalist movements sprang up in the republics, leading to calls for secession.

Historian Lewis Siegelbaum pauses in the courtyard of the apartment building he was staying in during a visit to St. Petersburg in June 2011. The derelict car dates from the early 1980s. (Courtesy Lewis Siegelbaum)

"By the end of the '80s, a functioning state ceased to exist. The republics fell off a sinking ship and [President] Boris Yeltsin finally kills the wounded animal that is the Soviet Union. That is only the beginning of the whole decade of really hard times," says Siegelbaum.

The 1990s were brutal years economically, as Russian society struggled to cope with an emerging market economy and the political fallout of the collapse of communism.

The rich got richer, while the poor got poorer. This was the decade of Russian gangsters, homeless street kids, destitute pensioners and the collapse of the world as most Soviets had known it.

Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB functionary, came to power in 2000, and was initially embraced as a pragmatic, disciplined president intent on re-establishing political stability and reviving the economy.

The economy stabilized, largely because of the country's vast wealth of oil and gas resources, and Europe as a captive market.

Glaring disparities

But Putin also cracked down on democratic freedoms and the disparities between the poor and the wealthy remained glaring.

Fast forward to 2013. Putin is once again in power, his third term as president (after a four-year hiatus as prime minister from 2008-2012). For him, next year's Olympic Games are a showcase of a revived and newly confident Russia.

Eremeeva will be watching the Olympics from Toronto, where she emigrated with her family in 1995.

She returned to St. Petersburg most recently in December to bury her 77-year-old-mother, a pensioner who had survived the devastation of the Second World War but struggled in poverty in the new Russia. She died in a Russian hospital where Eremeeva says she had to pay bribes to ensure proper medical treatment.

"Today there's such a huge divide in the country between rich and poor. The society is for the young," says Eremeeva.

Eremeeva thinks long and hard when asked which era was better, the time of the Moscow Olympics or now.

"I can't even say. Back in 1980, we had guaranteed work, health care. But today, if you are old with no money, you are out alone on the street."

She says the Russian government will say "we’re just like you, we now have the same stores, the same brands, the same wealth. Well, it's all fake."

"The Soviet regime always wanted to show how it was better than the West. Well, it's not the Soviet Union any more, but Russia is still trying to prove it's better."


Jennifer Clibbon is a producer with the CBC News radio syndication service. She lived in China from 1990 to 1994, working as an English teacher and freelancing for CBC Radio, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press. She returned to China in 2005 as a field producer for CBC TV-NYT documentary series China Rising.