Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
History and sport are set to collide in Sochi, thanks to Russia’s controversial staging of the Winter Olympics. For all the talk of ‘Putin’s Games’, many of the controversies are Olympic perennials. Total spending soars way over budget; people’s homes are demolished so that temporary sports facilities can be built; the local environment is battered; terrorist threats compromise national security. In Russia, all these issues are magnified by corruption allegations, insecure human rights, and Western incomprehension. But the view from the moral high ground, where the Western media are gathered, is of course a view in black and white. Far better to look down on Sochi from an historical perspective. After all, the long-term study of corruption, rights, and relations with the West is central to the Russian historical tradition. But even a vantage point from the very recent past, from the Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980, helps us better understand the world of Sochi 2014.
Listening in to the voices and events of Moscow 1980 lets us catch an echo of what Russians hear when Westerners talk about the Sochi Games. In a selective application of geopolitical morality, sixty-five countries, led by the United States, boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Sixty-five is a maximum: some of these countries might not have come anyway.) During the Games, a solitary Italian protested on Red Square about the treatment of gay Soviet citizens, at a time when nearly all Western leaders would have found it bizarre and distasteful to publicize gay rights. Drawing attention to the violations of the human rights of gay people in Russia today is an issue of elementary justice, but the tone of Western commentary sounds, in Russian ears, achingly hypocritical.
In the summer of 1980, Red Moscow was the capital of half the world. The old idealism had gone forever, but Communist ideology still shaped everyday life and public culture. Soviet people looked at life in diverse ways, but their views were always influenced by their encounter with ideology. A secret report by the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party noted, on the day that the Games opened, ‘Formal discussions, political information programmes, and lectures on themes connected with the Olympics are systematically taking place in work collectives and in residential districts.’ Someone was keeping an ear open: ‘Muscovites are expressing satisfaction with the operation of the Games, and are taking note of the fall in breaches of public order in the city and the rise in the culture of service in shops and public transport.’ Now, on the eve of the opening of the Sochi Games, two hundred international authors, including the leading Russian writer, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, have decried Putin’s ‘choke hold’ on freedom of expression. Yet probably all of their books are for sale in Russian shops. Television, by contrast, is tightly controlled. But it would be eccentric to maintain that an ordinary Russian citizen in the age of Sochi 2014 enjoys less freedom of expression than a Soviet worker in the lost world of Moscow 1980.