“No One Understands Us There”

February 11, 2014
Quinn Rooney / Getty Images / Fotobank

This article, published by the independent Russian news outlet Lenta, attempts to summarize the viewpoints of foreign journalists who wrote about the 2014 Winter Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Sochi. Some readers, including some of the writers quoted within the article, complained that their criticisms of Russia and the opening ceremony were softened and the quotes were cherry-picked. As such, we have included links to the original statements so that readers may judge for themselves.

See the second part of this article, The Absurdities of Double Toilets and “Sochi Problems” — Ed.

The Olympic Games opening ceremony in Sochi this past Friday on February 7 was accepted unconditionally with a cheer – if we speak only about its esthetic component. However the show staged by Konstantin Ernst had an important ideological role: the author himself calls the performance a narration of the history of Russia in modern visual language. Abroad, people believe this was an attempt to get rid of the “inconvenient truth” of the past. Lenta.ru analyzed the impressions of foreigners.

“The language of the stadium envisages voluminous images in the literal and figurative sense and rather direct metaphors. Proceeding from that consideration, we sat down and began to exchange our metaphors for various eras and images of Russia,” commented Konstantin Ernst, the creative producer for the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony (he was also one of the script authors). The grandiose staging at the Fisht Olympic Stadium became an expression of love for Russia, Ernst stated. It seems he succeeded in obtaining the desired effect – the performance in Sochi was “intimate as well as grand,” writes Owen Gibson, a correspondent of the British Guardian.

The opinion of commentators differed regarding which Russia Ernst was interpreting, exactly. Gibson shares his kind reflections: for those who are tired of talk about outrageous corruption, the threat of terrorist acts, the harsh security measures, “the shame of the anti-gay law,” the human rights situation in Russia and “Putin machismo,” the ceremony presented a “refreshing” effect. At a minimum, “Ernst chose to at least try to highlight another side of the country’s character,” writes Gibson.

Max Seddon, who writes for the portal Buzzfeed, described the Olympic ceremony as an “aesthetic and apolitical tour through Russia’s past.” For him, “especially its tactful elision of World War II” came “as a great relief,” given “ how aggressively the Kremlin uses its monochromatic interpretation of history as a nationalist wedge” (in reality, the mention of the Great Patriotic War was reduced to the maximum extent in connection with the demands of the IOC, since the Olympics is a world festival.)

To be sure, it turned out there were not so many well-wishing optimists among reporters who followed the opening ceremony, and they were not limited to simple enumerations of the acrobatic stunts and visual special effects.

“But the show was a very specific view of Russia, one that glossed over some of the cruelest parts of its history,” writes The New Republic editor Julia Ioffe, who traveled to Sochi. For the producers of the ceremony, she continues, “Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, for instance, was all ships and marching cadets, without the bones and swamp on which the city was built.”

“Malevich and the Constructivists were lauded, even though the Revolution that enabled them eventually turned on them and labeled their art counter-revolutionary,” Ioffe criticizes. And she records a “bitterly ironic element of contemporary Russian pride in its artistic figures” characteristic of our times. For example, one of the Aeroflot planes bears the name of the poet Osip Mandelshtam, who perished in the GULAG in 1938. A place was found in the opening of the Games for Serge Diaghilev, “the flamboyant ballet master, who stayed abroad after the Revolution and whom the new Soviet state condemned in perpetuity.” The same history repeated itself with Vladimir Nabokov, “who wrote his most famous works in English and outside a country where it was too dangerous for a son of the aristocracy to remain,” Ioffe explained.

As for the images from the post-war USSR, The Guardian’s Shaun Walker notes that the performance was “the most alluring representation of the Soviet state ever, as shiny vintage limousines sped through the stadium, art-deco tinged skyscrapers burst from the ground and happy workers toiled in unison.”

In sum, this “new version of Russian history,” reasons Russian specialist Mark Galeotti in a lead column in The Moscow News “downplays inconvenient truths and instead exalts both a genius for national construction and also a sense of the necessity of a strong state.”

“It does so by cherry-picking and mixing convenient elements from the country’s vivid history, exemplified by the way that the national anthem—a Soviet tune given new post-Soviet lyrics—was sung by the 600-year-old Sretensky Monastery Choir, a symbol of the tsarist past,” writes Galeotti.

The freedom from ideology emphasized in the show is noted by the French business paper Les Echos – the hammer and sickle that leapt up under the cupola only reminded us of one of the symbols of the USSR, but the statue of the “Worker and the Collective Farm Maiden” in the end never appeared before the spectators.

Olympics for the Russians

Many in the West figured the opening ceremony was the visual embodiment of the officious myth of Russian history – the version of it to which Vladimir Putin, the main (and for many commentators, the only) “organizer of the Olympics festivities” adheres. In that context, it is not so important that the myth was presented in the intelligent “export” format of Konstantin Ernst.

“Russia is returning to sports as a means of legitimization of its unique political order. Thirty-four years ago, the old Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow organized the first Games in the communist capital with the purpose of convincing the world that on the other side of the ‘iron curtain’ the sun shines brighter,” wrote Xavier Kolas of Spain’s El Mundo on the eve of the ceremony.

Russia is “a historically significant nation but one that is still climbing back up to its historic heights after a historic fall,” says Ioffe, summarizing the messages of the Games for The New Republic.

“Indeed, the whole ceremony was surprisingly devoid of the nationalist pomp that often accompanies forays into Russian history. The only leader depicted was Peter the Great, and there was not so much as a mention of the great patriotic war, as the second world war is known here, which has become a national unifying idea under Putin. This was an aesthetic portrayal of Russian history rather than an ideological one,” notes Shaun Walker from the British Guardian.

In that connection, Ioffe cites her colleague working in Moscow, Joshua Yaffa, who had earlier prepared for the New Yorker a profile of Ernst, the master of ceremonies of the Games. In his article, he cites a conversation with the producer Floriana Fossato, who once collaborated with Russian television and today is a researcher of the Russian media space at the University College London. She defines the programmatic policy of Channel One, under the leadership of Ernst, regarding national myth-making, in one sentence: “people surviving a cruel but, to a certain extent, necessary system.”

“Viewers could hear about some of the country’s mistakes but remain secure that, as she put it, ‘we didn’t waste our lives,’ Yaffa paraphrased Fossato. On the whole, the picture which Russians should see must be “grand, proud, and, most important, attractive.” Walker also cites Ernst, noting that he wanted to show “the real Russians, untainted by decades of propaganda and the cold war.”

To be sure, all this didn’t work on some people. David Herszenhorn from the New York Times called the performance “an outsize extravaganza.”

The opening, in his words, was “sheer pageantry and national pride, with all of the homespun promotionalism, mythmaking and self-aggrandizement that are the modern trademark of such ceremonies.” Even so, he formulated the overall “message of Sochi” simply: “Russia is back.”

In the final analysis, many commentators came to the following conclusions: the action at the Fisht Stadium came out esthetically perfect, but obviously also had a pragmatic nature: Russians – it was first of all, for them – were offered a feeling of pride in their country. “Appositely, for one of the most propaganda-adept nations in the world, it [the ceremony] rolled myth into fact, made the ugly beautiful, and skirted the rest. It flirted with darkness and difficult truths, and then quite literally turned the lights off. It was spectacular, audacious, and revealed—as the 2012 Olympics in London also did—not just the image of how a host country wants to sell itself to the world, but also how those countries like to see themselves. It may be shambolic, shameless emotional grandstanding, but it is oddly moving, despite the ruthless history edit,” writes Tim Teeman for The Daily Beast.

If we believe that this was precisely the task Ernst was in fact fulfilling, then we must admit that it all worked for him. At least, the collection of enthusiastic remarks from Sochi volunteers gathered by the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail testifies to this (the volunteers characterize the opening as “a special and unique event” in their lives.)

To be sure, reading this “family news” for the foreign spectators is a bit boring. Shaun Walker from the Guardian (and not he alone) worries about this on Twitter. “Watching the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony could at times feel like going to the party of someone you barely knew,” writes James Poniewozik of Time magazine. “We were guests, but it wasn’t really about us. The ceremony, in a way like this whole Olympics, felt like a story Russia was telling the world, but most of all a story it was telling itself, about a vital, proud, storied country on the rise–and don’t worry too much about those Stalinist-purge and gay-repression things.”

“This ceremony was so thoroughly Russian you could keep it in your freezer and pour shots of it,” he joked.

Even so, some authors speak of the Olympics as a “Russian” (russkiy) phenomenon, but hardly a “Russian” (rossiyskiy) phenomenon [i.e. the distinction between the Russian ethnicity and the multi-ethnic country called Russia–ed.] References to Russia’s multi-ethnic nature seemed “standard.”

“One glaring omission throughout the parade of Russian culture was any pretense of cultural diversity. The announcers importantly declared how big Russia is—”the biggest country in the world, as big as the ocean”—and that it contains multitudes, “180 nations, each with their own culture and language,” but we saw only one of them: the ethnic Russians. The world saw only traditional Slavic garb, with its lush brocade and big head pieces (kokoshniki), but nothing of the lezginka, the dance of the North Caucasus, or, say, the throat singing of Tuva. Putin is, after all, a Soviet man, and in the Soviet Union, the Russians were the first among the brothers of all the Soviet nations,” writes Ioffe in The New Republic. This reasoning resonates with several Russian commentaries, for example, Deacon Andrei Kurayev and the nationalist Yegor Prosvirinin.


See the second part of this article, The Absurdities of Double Toilets and “Sochi Problems” — Ed.