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Ron Radosh

Putin’s Olympic Fantasy vs. the Reality of Putin’s Russia

February 8th, 2014 - 9:28 am
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Anti-Putin protesters march through Moscow February 2, 2014, Russia. Several thousand protesters have marched through central Moscow to call for the release of 20 people who were arrested. Photo by Nickolay Vinokurov, Shutterstock.com.

 

The opening Olympic ceremonies, broadcast last night on NBC, were most revealing in what they told us about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It was the fantasy Russia, sometimes beautifully portrayed, not the reality. In that sense, Putin put together propaganda offensive in the style of the late Joseph Stalin, a tyrant who the current leader of Russia admires for successfully having created an empire with world influence and power.

True, as Ed Driscoll writes, the narrative at the start of the program praised the Soviet era as one of history’s greatest “pivotal experiments.” Fortunately, NBC made the very wise move of hiring New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick as its official on-air live commentator. Remnick is author of one of the most insightful books about the fall of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire,  and Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, about the early post-Soviet era.

Rarely have viewers of an opening ceremony had such an erudite and candid picture of what the ceremony meant, for which NBC deserves kudos. Remnick did not let the Putin narrative go unchallenged, and he regularly informed the audience of what Putin hoped to accomplish, and in what ways the narrative was completely false.  He also provided context for most of the people who watched and who would have no idea of the program’s symbolism.

The program opened with a paean to the modernizing czar Peter the Great.  Of this, the editors of the Wall Street Journal made the following point:

The choice of Peter the Great to headline the opening speaks to Mr. Putin’s self-perception, but in Sochi he has been more of a latter-day Potemkin. Russia estimated the cost of converting a beach resort into a world-class ski and winter sport center at $12 billion. The final tab came to $50 billion, more than every previous winter Olympics combined and even the 2008 Beijing summer games.

One road from the beach resort to the ski center alone cost 9 and a half billion dollars—the most expensive road ever built in the entire world. And even with an overrun in the billions, with seven years to prepare, the Kremlin could not even build the necessary hotels so they could open in time for receiving guests. Perhaps had they spent a million more in bribes, the work might have been completed.

Moreover, the past months have revealed gaps in Putin’s popularity, with mass protests throughout Russia, to which Putin’s regime has responded with the jailing of its opponents and the new ban on “gay propaganda,” with Putin assuring visitors that gays would be welcome at the Olympics, as long as they “stay away from children.”

Yet, the first part of the program about Peter’s legacy was beautiful. The sets and the choreography were magnificent, as Russia’s top dancers performed and viewers were able to see the lush façade created by the czars in gorgeous colors. Then, after a section showing turmoil and war, the narrative got to the birth of the Soviet Union. This section was shown in an ominous red color, which symbolized Communism.

The section began with a train forging ahead. As Remnick explained, every Russian who lived through Soviet times knew what this symbolized. It was the so-called “propaganda train,” which brought Soviet diktats to the nether regions of the USSR, at a time when there was no mass media, and all peoples of the tyranny had to be reached with Bolshevik policies meant to be obeyed and which were enforced by the Cheka, the name of the first secret police.

It was followed by a panorama of Soviet productivity and the birth of modern industry as dancers symbolized building of railroad tracks, cranes were everywhere setting up major building projects, and workers were drilling and hammering. We saw Soviet Lada cars riding through the stadium, and people rejoicing in the entry of Russia to the modern era.

Remnick did not let Putin get away with this. As he put it, this was an era of mass terror, the Gulag, severe repression and the worst years of the constant terror. There was no mention of Lenin, Stalin or any other future Soviet leaders — only a picture of the supposed great results of the five-year plans, which of course were never mentioned. Somehow, viewers learned only that Russia had modernized. It was in a strange way a choreographed picture of the thesis of the late Isaac Deutscher, the Marxist historian who argued that while Stalin was horrible, he obtained the results to build the Soviet Union into an industrial behemoth, which would then somehow be transformed into a humane, democratic Communist society.

Then viewers got what they wanted, as on two sides of the stadium, a giant hammer and sickle moved slowly to unite in the center of the display. So Russians got to learn that all these would-be great results were, of course, due to the strong hand of the Soviet leaders. And that is how the opening ceremonies dealt with the decades of Soviet rule. Put simply, the message was that Stalin and company build up the great Russia, on which today’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is carrying on this work.

Mark Kramer, the eminent Cold War historian at Harvard, made this point in a Facebook post:

The opening film segment about Russian history was disgusting in its warm, admiring allusions to the Stalin era. The tens of millions of victims of the Soviet era were airbrushed out. The equivalent in Munich 42 years ago would have been for the opening film segment to show warm, fuzzy clips about the building of the Autobahn and the reduction of unemployment under Hitler.

Finally, beautiful stage effects were used to display the current period, as we watched modern Russia forge into the new future, in which once again, Russia will be a great power. Again, Remnick stated for viewers what this meant. The entire program was an ode to Putin, in which he wanted the world to view him as another strong Russian leader, who is using his power to make Russia a world player, as it once had been under the czars and the Bolsheviks. Co-anchor Matt Lauer reminded us of Putin’s famous statement that the fall of the Soviet Union was one of Russia’s greatest catastrophes.

Unfortunately, reality trumps fantasy any day of the week. After watching this show, the average Russian has to go into the street, and manage to get by. As he leaves his decaying Soviet era apartments, he knows immediately that the Russia in which he lives bears no resemblance to what was displayed at the Olympics.

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Top Rated Comments   
Everyone knows the atrocities? Tell me again, how many movies has Hollywood made about all of the Soviet atrocities? Not even one. How about a film exposing the lying Duranty of the NYT? Nope. I can't even get the local college film program to show Andrej Wajda's Polish film about the Katyn massacre. Have you seen it?
No, my friend, young people today know next to nothing about the horrors unleashed on the world by that evil empire. And the Leftists are still making excuses for them...
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"After watching this show, the average Russian has to go into the street, and manage to get by. As he leaves his decaying Soviet era apartments, he knows immediately that the Russia in which he lives bares no resemblance to what was displayed at the Olympics."

This is called Obama's model for successful governance.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
The only way to have shown the Bolshevik period would have been to have half the dancers, dressed as peasants and zeks, shot in the back of the head by half the dancers dressed as OGPU. Dancing Western intellectuals could have waltzed by without seeing the bodies. Then they could have shown a new wave of dancers waiting on endless lines in front of empty stores, while a few well-dressed Nomenklatura dancers went into full stores and came out with Western luxury goods. In honor of Putin, they could have arrested half the dancers for slander or fraud.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (36)
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44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
I know this might sound trivial but I think in some ways it's a central point. All else aside, it's just flat out rude and self-centered to make the Opening Ceremonies about the host country rather than about athletes and the Olympics. It's akin to inviting guests to come to play bridge at your house, but first sitting them down and making them endure an interminable slide show about your children's accomplishments and your world travels.

But "Me, me, MEEEEE!" is the culture of the day.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
Two manufactured, man-made famines, 1920-1922 (Lenin's) and then 1929-1934 (Stalin's) followed by the show trial purges and the Red Army blood letting and then the Von Ribbentrop and Molotov Non Aggression Pact which opened the flood gates for 50,000,000 WWII dead, almost half of which came from Mother Russia who Molotov at Stalin's nod authorized (after Stalin gutted the Party and the Army just before to "solidify" his power) -- did Putin mention those facts? Did he mention the loss of livestock because the starving Kulaks, those who survived the famines, had to eat their livestock? There was more industrial production under the murdered Romanovs for quite a long period than under the criminal Bolsheviks who murdered each other. Putin knows that for quite a long time each head of the secret police was murdered by his successor. Will Putin follow that trend? The slave empire fell apart because nothing held it together but terror and slavery. The Nazi prisoners who could have had the decrepit crap pile with kindness died in Gulag by millions through the fifties as slaves because they dreamed of making the Russians slaves because of Molotov's and Stalin's treachery in August 1939. Why is that fact not taught more in school? Because Alger Hiss, FDR, Henry Wallace and the other Uncle Joe help mates though Uncle Joe was a swell ally that we had to help to squelch the real bad guys Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. And the Cold War was all our fault. But monopolistic capitalism that Hitler and Stalin were trying to sell based on slave labor camps doesn't sell in my book and competitive capitalism in the hands of free individuals with no chains on their limbs, and free to quit a rotten deal at any time will always win. Don't give in to the monopolists, whether his name is Uncle Adolph or Uncle Joe or Uncle Benito or Uncle Tojo. Down with Fascism and Statism of whatever stripe it comes in. Let Freedom Ring.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
BILL DE BLASIO ON ISRAEL

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44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
We need to compare the media coverage of the Russian Olympics with that of the recent Chinese Olympics. Although the two countries are roughly equivalent on both human rights records and Olympic accommodations, the Chinese were given a pass by the media and the Russians are being skewered mercilessly everywhere you look. I am convinced that it is the mainstream media's obsession with the gay rights agenda that is driving the relentless criticism of everything Russian. I am so disgusted with being force fed propaganda designed to normalize deviance and discredit anyone who objects.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
Maybe NBC should have just showed the ceremonies and let it be, instead of injecting themselves, shamelessly, into politics, and seems selective in who and what they attack
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
In response to No1.,

You make an interesting point. I too was contemplating how we would portray US history if we were to use the current Olympic standard for opening ceremonies (e.g. Beijing, London, etc.) I would like to point out, however, that all things are not equal, and that applying relativism when comparing the US to the USSR/Russia is not as useful as one might think.

Yes, on the front it appears we are hypocrites for disparaging the Russians and their blatant glossing over of their atrocious past. After all, as you state, many in the US owned slaves; and as you also point out the US government, States, and individuals fought wars with American Indians, killng many, displacing them from the lands they occupied at the time, and forcing them to assimilate into our culture. While we can look back on our past with regret, and as often was the case those who lived in those times regretted how we treated Blacks and Indians as well, we cannot change the past. But we can at least try to place it in perspective.

First, a point of clarification. You use the term "genocide" to describe the treatment of American Indians, and I have often heard this used to describe the enslavement of Africans as well. If one uses the UN's broad definition of genocide then you are safe to use this. However, I would point out that this definition is so broad as to have little or no real value anymore--with this definition almost every offense against a culture or group then becomes genocide. The definition of genocide is the "deliberate extermination of national, racial, political, or cultural group" (e.g. Holocaust, Rawanda, former Yugoslavia...) The key word here is "exterminate." I would suggest visiting Prof. R. J. Rummel's website on 'democide' for an in-depth discussion of the meaning of genocide and the use of the word he coins (democide--murder by government through various acts such as warfare) as a useful descriptive word for other acts of killing. While the treatement of indigenous peoples and of African slaves was deplorable and despicable (horrendous in its own right), it does not on the whole amount to a systematic policy of genocide by any sensible definition--the intent was not to exterminate through single-minded efforts. True, there were some cases of localized 'genocide' against some tribes in the US, but again, on the whole the policy was not to exterminate.

Getting back to relativism, one must keep in mind that slavery is an ancient institution, and it still exists today particularly in the form of sex slave trafficking of women and children. At the time of the founding of this nation we accepted the institutions that the Portugese, Spanish, French, and British had previously brought to the Americas as a viable economic way of life, particulary in the American South. (I should point out...it seemed easy for them to call for an end to slavery during the 19th century when all their slaves were in colonies far away from their home countries). As you probably know, the issue of slavery was a perplexing problem during the writing of the current US Constitution. But I ask you, how easy is it to eradicate an established and widespread institution with the signing of a document? It took this nation a long time to eradicate slavery and apply our constitutional values to all peoples, but we accomplished it nonetheless (with the blood of 600,000 plus). While American slavery and Russian serfdom are not directly comparable, both made efforts to erradicate the subjugation of peoples (Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861 by imperial decree). Such was the way of the world in the 19th century.

As for native populations, the Russians had thier dealings with indigenous populations as well. It is worth it to investigate the parallels between Russian, European, and US dealings with indegenous populations during times of territorial expansion and colonization--there will be parallels as well as differences. In hindsight we can look back and wish that dealings with the indigenous populations of the New World had worked diffently. All we can do is remember the past and try not to repeat mistakes.

I'm not excusing the US role with slavery and in how indigenous populations were dealt with by the colonies and later by the US government. I am merely pointing out that there was a period of history in which this was commonplace--right or wrong. Now I get to my point. In the 20th century we have the rise of communism (1917) and the establishment of the Soviet Union. There is simply no comparison in US history to the brutality that was wrought by the many forms of socialism (Communist Party, Fascist, and the Nazi Party) in the 20th century. Contrary to what you think, totalitarianism has not been eradicated by the crumbling of the old Soviet Union. We can get over the past only if those who perpetrated these acts deal with it honestly. Look at Germany, in my view they have l
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
I liked it. A lot better than Pete Seeger's banjo playing. Classical music and ballet: that's the best Russia produces. An Olympics opening is not the venue for a national mea culpa. I don't believe that the Beautiful is the Good -- far from it -- but there is something to be said for involving high culture in a popular venue. Of all the things Putin has done this is the one I dislike the least.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
Putin is attempting to stitch his torn country's history back together. One half is the old imperial Orthodox Russia; the other, the USSR. You can see this at their VE Day celebrations where the Czarist double-eagle and tricolor flag (the Russian state) and the hammer & sickle (the Red Army) march together. The purpose is to heal, to give Russians a past to be proud of. We use a similar paradox when we rank Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson among our greatest generals. As conservatives contemplating our own country's ominous future, we should watch Russia's slow and painful climb out of the hell it dug itself with interest and sympathy. There are lessons for our great great grand children
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was disappointed that the opening ceremonies did not include references to the "midnight knock on the door", Black Marias, interrogations at the Lubianka, show trials, denunciations, insane public works projects made possible by slave labor (like the White Sea canal), the "Bone Road" to the gold mines in Magadan, the starvation associated with collectivization of agriculture, and the like. Charles Alan Kors began mining a very rich vein here. I've added my pick and shovel to the effort. There's lots more,
courtesy of Anne Applebaum, Alexander Solzhenityn, and Robert Conquest among other great writers who have attempted to get their minds around the enormity of Soviet era crimes against humanity.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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