SOCHI, Russia — If you’re hoping for a quick and easy Russian history lesson, Friday’s opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics might not be the best place to start.
That’s because capturing centuries of exploration, culture and revolution in one, three-hour-long ceremony doesn’t exactly come easy.
But GlobalPost has read between the lines — and the neon lights and stage props, too — in order to break down the grand spectacular, which marks the official start of the most expensive Olympics in history.
In short, Friday’s show is aimed at portraying the very best of Russia and its legacy. But it’s not a simple one, so here’s what you need to know:
Russia gave us some pretty important stuff
The ceremony begins with a rundown of the Cyrillic alphabet, with each letter corresponding to an important figure or event related to Russia during the past several hundred years. Among them are some pretty crucial inventions, such as the periodic table of elements, as well as cultural pioneers, like Vladimir Nabokov, one of the most renowned authors of the 20th century with deep ties to the United States. Viewers may be surprised at just how much has come from this vast, often misunderstood land of the East.
Russia is really huge, and really diverse
At the beginning of the opening ceremony, little Lyubov, a girl whose name means “Love,” is shown in a dream sequence soaring above several floating islands. Each one represents a different part of this sprawling country, whose present territory — covered by everything from mountains to the tundra — was conquered over the span of hundreds of years. But a country of such size is (and always has been) notoriously difficult to rule. That’s why organizers appeared to promote the theme of unity here, especially among Russia’s ethnically and religiously diverse population — a notion also frequently promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russians love their art and culture
The 18th and 19th centuries were fundamental for Russia, not least because the Russian Empire was formally established in 1721 by Peter the Great, perhaps the country’s greatest leader. But those years also produced many of Russia’s cultural and literary greats. Among them was Piotr Tchaikovsky, whose Swan Lake ballet is almost universally loved in Russia and plays a key role in Friday’s ceremony; and Leo Tolstoy, whose famed novel War and Peace was invoked in an elaborate, aristocratic dance sequence. Many Russians consider the imperial era to be something of Russia’s “renaissance age,” when the country made its cultural, artistic and geopolitical mark on the world. That also helps explain the impressive, graphics-driven sequence devoted to Peter the Great and his founding of St. Petersburg, Russia’s imperial-era capital.
But in Russia, communism is also still kind of good
This one’s trickier. Friday’s ceremony drew suspicion from some observers who felt it glossed over the country’s notoriously tumultuous history during the Soviet Union era, which included mass repressions and a heavy-handed state apparatus. Though it’s safe to say few expected to see a giant float dedicated to brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, this portion of the performance did seem somewhat glorified. But then again, many still credit the Soviet Union with industrializing Russia and transforming it into a global superpower. That’s why the avant-garde-themed revolutionary sequence — represented by a floating train and awash in red — sought to paint the era as a mad, mechanical dash toward modernity. Shortly after, the post-war performance was aimed at celebrating Russia’s "arrival," replete with references to its space exploration and colossal urban construction effort.
Sometimes, things in Russia can actually come off without a hitch
The run-up to these Olympics was mired by a seemingly unprecedented level of criticism. And it’s well deserved: Evidence abounds of the massive corruption and wanton environmental destruction that have plagued these games. Fears over security and the uproar over Russia’s gay “propaganda” law haven’t helped either. But come Friday evening, those concerns seemed suspended — if only for a few hours — as viewers and athletes appeared thoroughly impressed with an opening ceremony that came off largely without a hitch. Well, almost: One of the massive Olympic rings failed to “bloom.” But that’s a small price to pay for the grand opening of Putin’s much-anticipated $50 billion project.