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Putin's Potemkin village

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The Bolshoy Ice Dome is illuminated at night in the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia.


The Bolshoy Ice Dome is illuminated at night in the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia.

Galina Kulakova, who grew up milking cows on a collective farm in the Soviet Union, left Japan with a fistful of gold. The fierce, compact woman was unstoppable on skis, winning every cross-country event at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics.

Today, you'll find Kulakova in a tiny village 1,100 kilometres east of Moscow. The place may as well have been frozen for 42 years, with unpaved streets covered with muddy snow and ramshackle homes near piles of firewood draped in tarps.

On one street, a yellow house stands out, not just for its modern look but for the plaque identifying it as the Galina A. Kulakova House Museum. This is also Kulakova's home. Not long ago, local leaders wanted to remind people of her triumphs, so they built a place where Kulakova, now 71, could live and be honoured. (They also bought her a new SUV.)

All this would have felt more fitting in the Soviet years. Each time Soviet athletes held up a gold medal, they embodied a country brimming with pride. The Soviets were first in space, they dominated many sports and they were spreading their ideology around the world.

In 1980, when the United States and dozens of other countries boycotted the Moscow Summer Games to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Soviet influence and expansion seemed at a maximum and Soviet pride was at or near its height.

In contrast, the Sochi Games of 2014 see Russian pride at or near a new low.

Last year, I walked into Kulakova's museum, where my friend and I were the only visitors. Kulakova, with short-cropped grey hair, pulled up a chair next to the glass cases that held her medals and old newspaper clippings about her Olympic runs.

"I was watching some of the biathlon qualifying runs on TV," she told me, speaking of a skiing-and-shooting sport long ruled by Soviets. "They didn't look that good. I don't know, maybe the training isn't as good now. We really accomplished things in the past. Today, I'm really ashamed."

Was she speaking just of sports, I asked, or her country as a whole?

She ducked the question.

I've spent much of the past five years in Kulakova's country, listening to Russians speak their minds about democracy and their president. Many are lukewarm about both. With few exceptions, they told me they feel listless and confused about where the nation is headed.

They toil in an economy that rewards the elite. Small villages are dying, and one-industry towns that once did their part to power the Soviet Union are seeing their factories crumble or close. Often, people can't rely on police or public services unless they pay bribes.

During Soviet times, the harsh life was offset by a feeling that the country was mighty. Sacrificing, doing one's part to contribute to national greatness, was a Russian legacy long before the Bolsheviks.

Today, many Russians see a country searching for a post-Soviet identity and striving for relevance. Of course, you won't see this on television in the coming weeks.

Sochi is becoming a Potemkin village, a phrase dating to the 18th century, when the governor of Crimea, Grigory Potemkin, so the story goes, had fake communities built along a river, a virtual utopia to impress the visiting Empress Catherine the Great.

The Sochi Games will be President Vladimir Putin's Potemkin village on crack: He's spending about $50 billion -- making this by far the most expensive Olympics in history -- to put on one giant display of Russian glitz.

But he is doing it, it seems, because he knows that faith in the country is fading. Aside from Russians' pride in their music, museums and great literary figures -- children as young as seven or eight recite Pushkin -- there's no national purpose.

"Questions about who we are and who we want to be are increasingly prominent in our society," Putin noted in a September speech. "We have left behind Soviet ideology and there will be no return."

Instead of offering a new vision, though, Putin trashed other countries, particularly in Europe, which he said are "implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan."

This hardly seems like a unifying national idea. Yes, there is a vocal, hateful nationalist movement afoot in Russia, but its numbers are small. I believe there are far more people who are unmoved by Putin's attacks on minorities.

But Russians are desperate for something. It explains why many are even growing nostalgic for Joseph Stalin, remembering him for bringing order, purpose and meaning, never mind his atrocities. Many Russians speak fondly of Soviet times -- even young people who never lived through them.

Last year, in a poll measuring Russians' feelings about their country, 42 per cent said there was nothing to be proud of (up from 37 per cent in 2005). Nineteen per cent said it was difficult to answer the question. The poll was taken by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion, which is generally respected though government-run, thus diminishing its credibility.

Inna Khariv, a 62-year-old woman I met on the Trans-Siberian Railway, speaks for many in the country. As a young woman in the Soviet era, she worked long hours on a mink farm. In those days, she said, the government guaranteed a quality education, health benefits and a job, albeit a tough one. She felt a sense of purpose. "We had one faith, one goal," she said. But in today's Russia, she explained, "nothing holds us together."

Russian athletes' failure at Sochi could reinforce the country's feelings of fading dominance. We saw that in Vancouver in 2010, when Russia's vaunted hockey team was bounced from the tournament by Canada. Fans were so humiliated, Russia's coach joked that his players would be sent to the guillotine on Red Square as soon as they arrived home.

So when I watch these Olympics, a small part of me will be rooting for Russia's athletes in a way I never could have imagined as a boy, when I wanted nothing more than for the mighty Soviets to go down.


David Greene is a co-host of NPR's Morning Edition. His book, Midnight in Siberia: A Journey Into the Heart of Russia, is due out this fall.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2014 A9

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