If there were an Olympic competition for gross expression of authoritarian egotism, Russian President Vladimir Putin would win the gold medal going away.
His Sochi Olympics are a vanity project joined to the blundering power of the Russian state. Only a leader drunk on his own power would insist on transforming a tiny subtropical resort town (average February temperature: high 40s) into the site of the Winter Olympics, and only an unaccountable political system would let him get away with it. It is the misfortune of Russia to have both. Let the games begin.
The scale of the construction involved has been gargantuan. And so has the corruption. When Russia won the games in 2007, it said it would spend $12 billion on them; it only underestimated by roughly a factor of five. Russian expert Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute notes that the 28 miles of highway and railway linking Sochi to the nearby mountains has cost more than $8 billion, enough to pave the roadway with mink furs.
The building spree was in the tradition of Peter the Great’s creation of the new capital of St. Petersburg out of nothing in the 18th century, or Josef Stalin’s forced industrialization in the early 20th. In other words, development by diktat.
The rapid construction spawned the shoddy work that went viral on Twitter as #SochiProblems: Brackish drinking water (although that’s the norm for too many Russians). Missing manhole covers. A bathroom door that locked a bobsledder inside. It is about what you would expect if a strongman ruling by whim demanded just-in-time delivery of a new city from graft-addled construction companies ruthlessly exploiting migrant labor.
For Putin, any cost, and any means, was worth it. Like the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, these games are priceless political propaganda. By securing them, Putin also bought the tacit cooperation of the global media, which might scoff at the glitches and tsk-tsk at his regime’s anti-gay discrimination, but at the end of the day will always “oooh” and “aaah” at the spectacle of it all and accentuate the positive.
The opening ceremonies inevitably delivered a potted, whitewashed version of Russian history (anything approaching accuracy would be too dark and disturbing). NBC Sports gently played along. A narrator for the network called the Revolution of 1917 “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments,” a euphemism that makes the ascension to absolute power of a grim, murderous ideology sound as innocuous as Thomas Edison fiddling with prototype light bulbs in Menlo Park.
When during the ceremony a little girl let go of a red balloon to symbolize the end of communism, Meredith Vieira said it represented “the end of the 20th century dream” and called it “a bittersweet moment.” After all these decades, communism is still the totalitarianism with the best PR.
Gazing over the spectacular pageantry was the all-powerful maestro of the games. Evidently, no detail was too small. One of the bearers of the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies was Alina Kabaeva, a rhythmic gymnast who once won an Olympic gold medal but whose real accomplishment is being romantically linked to Putin. That was enough to earn her a place of honor among a select few of Russia’s top athletes, including tennis star Maria Sharapova.
Assuming no terrorist attack or other catastrophe, the games will suit Putin’s purposes nicely. He needs triumphs on the world stage to distract the Russian public from the country’s oligarchic government, its meltdown in public health and its economic dysfunction. International legitimacy and prestige aid the cause of his misrule, and the International Olympic Committee is happy to provide them by the bucketful.
It is appearances that matter most in these Potemkin games. When one of the five Olympic rings failed to materialize during the opening ceremonies, Russian TV viewers saw a doctored version with all five rings immaculately displayed. Vladimir Putin willed it, and it was so. It is good to be czar.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.