Global Politics

Don't expect the Olympics to help you understand Russia

Russia flag-IOC flag.jpg

Credit: REUTERS/Mark Blinch

The Olympic and Russian flags are raised during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

A few years ago, I was interviewing a professor at a Moscow university. She was lamenting the image of Russia abroad — not just the Russia of Putin, but the image of the country, and the people, in general.

"If only they knew our culture, even our literature, they would understand," she said. 

Understand. That's the key word. As many will attest, understanding Russia can be a full-time occupation in the West. And so often, people point to the words of the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique —
In Russia, one can only believe.

So what's the outside world to believe? With the Olympics now underway, it is, without a doubt, Putin's Russia that we will be getting. 

The picture will be Kremlin-controlled. As usual, we might hear some muffled voices of dissent from within the country, and some very loud booing from without — like from the former members of Pussy Riot.

But it will be just another variation of what we've seen: The wily Putin on the international stage at times upstaging the West, against the backdrop of ongoing reports of rampant human rights abuses, corruption, brutality and worse. 

But when do we see Russia? The real Russia? In many ways, the Olympics — packaged to perfection for prime-time consumption — is exactly the wrong lens. 

Either we get the glossy makeover, or the tweets of journalists confronted with the (inevitable) confusion of Sochi, the Games, and, yes, alarmingly yellow water and rooms still reeking of industrial glue.

But does any of this lead to deeper understanding?

When I lived in Moscow, in the early 90s, I remember seeing a Russian kid wearing a t-shirt with a dollar sign. Russia, then, was open for business with a vengeance. Casinos were popping up seemingly on every corner, and, in all corners, budding "biznessmen" began making their fortune. 

Some Russian friends even went so far as to tell me that Americans and Russians were surprisingly alike. After all, we all love the quest for the almighty dollar. 

Every time I traveled back home to the States, people would pepper me with questions: What was life like there? What were Russians like?

But as the "Wild West" mentality took hold in Russia, as the tales of excess, murder and mayhem multiplied, the questions stopped. Russia was dangerous, even scary, and there wasn't much more to say. 

The local cinema went from Robin Williams playing an adorable Russian in "Moscow on the Hudson" back to the more tried and true ex-KGB (or oligarch) thugs — see "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."

And through it all, I still think about the lament of that professor in Moscow. I wonder what she's thinking now. 

Would she think the Games could finally provide that window she was talking about all those years ago?

Or, would she figure that this was the Kremlin's show, and the West's televised event, and just make herself another cup of tea.

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