From controversy to curling, Russian professors weigh in on Sochi Olympics

Last Friday’s Olympic opening ceremonies in Sochi lavishly celebrated Russian culture. Photo courtesy of Koreanet/Flickr.
Last Friday’s Olympic opening ceremonies in Sochi lavishly celebrated Russian culture. Photo courtesy of Koreanet/Flickr.

The opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics kicked off last Friday in Sochi, Russia. These Olympics are particularly notable for several reasons. Not only is this the first time Russia has hosted the Games since the Soviet era, but also the anticipation of the athletic events has sometimes been overshadowed by the controversies surrounding the games, such as the threats of terrorism and Russia’s contentious anti-gay laws.

Two members of the Williams faculty – William Wagner, professor of history, and Julie Cassiday, professor of Russian language gave the Record their take on these Olympics. Both noted, however, that they are not necessarily specialists in all areas discussed.

Wagner noted that the events in Russia present an important opportunity for the Russian government, led by President Vladimir Putin, to “demonstrate to both a domestic and an international audience that Russia has regained its stature as a significant international power.”

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Cassiday added, “that the massive quantity of time, money and preparation that has gone into these games in Sochi is geared first and foremost towards boosting Russia’s image.”

Massive, indeed, is no exaggeration; with an expected final price tag of above $50 billion, these are the most expensive Olympics ever. Some of the money might have been racked up by graft and corruption, but, as both professors mentioned, the high expenditure is also the result of Putin’s attempt to contrive nationalism. “If these Olympics go off without a hitch,” Cassiday said, “the expressions of Russian national pride that have been growing throughout the Putin era will only be heightened.”

Friday’s opening ceremonies were proof enough of this; they were a flashy spectacle and perhaps the pinnacle of what Cassiday described as the Putin regime’s “savvy [in] creating elaborate media spectacles that cater to audiences at home [and] abroad.” The show included selected bits of scenery from Russian history – spinning ballerina dancers from Swan Lake, giant Russian Orthodox Church spires that looked something akin to twisting ice cream cones and representations of imperialism and industrialism, art and revolution. Indeed, as both professors noted, the show was full of common images from Russian culture. “The opening ceremonies,” Cassiday said, “recycled just about every stereotype we have of the country and its people in some flashy, high-tech way.” It showed Russia’s “present as flowing continuously from its past,” Wagner said.

It is important to note, however, that although the goal of Putin’s government is certainly to showcase Russia’s national accomplishments, it is much more difficult to generalize what these Olympics mean for the country as a whole. Russia is a gigantic nation that is home to a diverse population, including many who are not ethnically Russian.

Despite these realities, Wagner said the tendency of most Russians is to be “proud of their culture, even when they are politically dissident” and the nation’s “strong tradition of hospitality” means that it is likely that despite the Russian people’s varied political views “for most Russians, holding a successful Olympics also will be a source of national pride.”

One major threat to the success of these Olympics is the risk of terrorism. Cassiday noted that Sochi is part of a region in Russia that has a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, a history that cannot simply be dissipated by the lighting of the Olympic torch. There are various dissident political and religious groups in Russia that might try to wreak havoc on the country during this period.

According to Cassiday, however, if Russia has a history of conflict, it also has a “long history of dealing with security breaches,” and Wagner added that reports indicate security in Sochi itself is likely to be adequate. Indeed, the greatest risk might be in the difficult to protect areas just outside the immediate region in which the Olympics are taking place. An attack launched in those regions could still accomplish the terrorists’ goal of detracting from Russia’s success in hosting the Olympics.

Another controversy that has coalesced around these Games involves Russia’s track record with regard to gay rights. Last June, the Russian government passed a law that banned “homosexual propaganda” from being disseminated among minors. Cassiday doubts, however, that the Russian authorities would want to incur the kind of scandal that would arise from enforcing this law among foreign visitors at the Olympics, as the small fine that would be leveled against “perpetrators” would be minuscule in comparison to the rage that would be incurred internationally.

As Wagner noted, the Russian government proved it would respond “vigorously to any demonstrations” following the protests by Russian activists in support of gay rights in Moscow and St. Petersburg on the day the Olympics began. Several arrests were made, but the demonstrators were quickly released – something Wagner said is quite different from how similar incidents were handled by the Russian government in the past. This quick release prevented the arrests from becoming a major, on-going story in the foreign press, and according to Professor Wagner, suggests “that the government may be trying to walk a fine line between not allowing public demonstrations and minimizing the publicity attracted by any that occur.”

As for the athletic part of the Games, Wagner said that he is “pretty ecumenical” and does not have a distinct favorite event, instead merely enjoying “the spectacle, whatever the sport.”