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The Sochi Winter Olympics may have cost seven times as much as the Vancouver ones four years ago, but they are achieving President Vladimir Putin’s goal: Russians, including many of his fiercest opponents, have united in a powerful upsurge of patriotism.
Skepticism about the mammoth effort was widespread before the Games started, with many Russians re-posting the scathing comments of western journalists on Sochi’s lack of preparedness. The tide started to turn just as the Olympics were about to open.
"The mass Facebook masochism about the shamefulness, absurdity and nastiness of how everything is organized in Sochi is suddenly terribly irritating," novelist Boris Akunin, one of Putin’s most vocal opponents, wrote on Facebook. "Is it really such an unmitigated horror?" he went on to ask. "I swear to God, I am not prepared to live by the principle ‘If it’s bad for Putin, it’s good for us.’ "
The opening extravaganza on Feb. 7 was Putin’s decisive victory.
Konstantin Ernst, the chief executive of Channel One, the biggest of Russia’s state-controlled TV stations, wrote the script and served as the lead producer. The plot revolved around a little girl called Lyubov, Russian for "love," seeing a dream of Russia’s past and future. It portrayed the nation’s birth as an acid-induced dance of multicoloured, helium-filled church domes, went on to sing hosanna to Peter the Great’s pro-European reforms, then rhapsodized about the beauty of the Imperial era with a re-enactment of a ball scene from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, featuring the country’s top ballet dancers.
The 1917 revolution and Stalin’s reign were presented as a study in red, with people operating enormous many-cogged machines inspired by the suprematist art movement of the early 1920s. Apparently at the International Olympic Committee’s insistence, the Second World War was reduced to a few seconds of blackness torn by searchlights, and then the idyllic blossoming of Soviet Communism in the post-war years was shown in bright, happy colours as a string of parades and scenes featuring Soviet "hipsters" hustled, all in good fun, by white-clad police.
In an attempt to convey Russia’s greatness to foreign audiences, Ernst also appropriated some famous personalities who can only be considered Russian by extension — such as Jewish painter Marc Chagall, who was born in modern-day Belarus and had his most productive period in France, or Kyiv-born Igor Sikorsky, whose attempts to design a helicopter in czarist Russia failed, but who realized his dream in the U.S.
Most of the show was accompanied by tastefully selected classical and Soviet-era music. The state-of-the art theatrical machinery, which included gigantic columns rising majestically from the Fisht Stadium field, a fiery troika of huge horses sailing on rails under the roof and imaginative projections that turned the field into a gargantuan screen, worked smoothly. In general, it was a remarkably well-executed 150-minute show, produced by an international crew that included several Cirque du Soleil professionals and at least two members of the team that worked on the opening of the London Olympics in 2012.
There was only one noticeable mishap. One of the huge snowflakes that were supposed to open into Olympic rings malfunctioned, and the TV broadcast briefly switched to pre-recorded footage from a rehearsal to show all five rings. The episode gave rise to much Web creativity, with posters featuring ring thief Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and suggestions the remaining snowflake was in fact the BP logo or an asterisk referring to the footnote: "We stole the fifth one."
"No normal person can be distracted from a two-and-a-half-hour long story by a single unopened snowflake," Ernst declared at a press conference afterward. "That could only be a paranoid reaction." Russian journalists applauded: By then, anyone who did not like the show was an unpatriotic Grinch.
"It was a beautiful opening! Well done!" Boris Nemtsov, a Putin opponent who recently issued a report about Sochi corruption, wrote on Facebook. "It was fantastically, stunningly beautiful," blogger Rustem Adagamov, another well-known anti-Putin figure, agreed. "I don’t even know how to select the pictures for a report on LiveJournal. Pictures cannot do it justice."
There were dissenting voices, of course. "This is practically Eden, with Putin cast as God," blogger Alexander Hotz wrote on Facebook. Former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov called the show a ripoff of the 2012 ceremony in London.
The critics, however, were drowned in a chorus of approval.
"From the moment of the colourful, original opening ceremony the entire country seems changed and consolidated," financier Igor Kulichik wrote on his Snob.ru blog. "Most of my fellow citizens, including my friends and me, are willingly carried on a patriotic wave. For the first time in years we are saying without smirking or sarcasm, but with pride: We are Russia, this is our country."
Putin, who stuck around for the weekend, talking to athletes and the foreign dignitaries who attended the opening at his invitation, shone with happiness. Ernst, jubilant after his triumph, declared on Russian television: "I think we managed to break through to the cold hearts that had a reserved attitude toward Russia." Only Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev briefly appeared to fall asleep as everyone applauded the Games’ chief organizer, Dmitri Chernyshenko.
Most Russians see the Sochi Olympics as a major success not just for Putin, but for the entire nation. With local athletes doing better than expected in the first days of competition and the Russian figure skaters capturing team gold, the patriotic sentiment will only grow in the coming days. The beauty of the Sochi scenery, impressive even on a TV screen, and the grandiosity of the Olympic venues will contribute to the mood.
The question is how long this patriotic buzz will last after the Olympics are over. Nationalist writer Kostantin Krylov likened the opening ceremony to a drunken father taking his mistreated son to the circus. "Let us treat this with understanding," he wrote. "Don’t let us take away the poor boy’s moment of happiness, or buzz in his ear: ‘Tomorrow Dad will beat you up again.’ He knows Dad will. He’s with Dad now, though, and he feels almost human."
Fifty billion dollars is enough money to make sure the memories do not evaporate immediately. Many Russians still remember the pride and excitement they felt during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, even though the games were boycotted by much of the western world. Sochi will be an even brighter memory. But a hangover is the inevitable consequence of any good party and will come eventually, what with the Russian economy stagnating and parliament passing ever more illiberal laws. For now, though, the party is in full swing and it feels great.
Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View.
— Bloomberg News