Why A Media-Bashing Hasn't Stopped Russia Being The Olympics' Biggest Winner

Much of the media attention around the Sochi games focused on Russia's political shortcomings, but are we really in any position to be pointing fingers?
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Much of the media attention around the Sochi games focused on Russia's political shortcomings, but are we really in any position to be pointing fingers?

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As the Sochi Olympics come to an end and the world is blinded by snowscapes and purple haze sunsets, the winners and losers start to emerge. For the competitors its simple. Crown four years (and more) of hard work with a medal and you’re a winner. Fly home with nothing around your neck and you’re a loser. Yet, all the signs thus far are that Russia might emerge as the Sochi Olympics biggest winner.

The media outcry over the Sochi Olympics was perhaps predictable. Stories about anti LGBT propaganda laws, anti protest legislation, the treatment of migrant workers (and oh yes a few hotel rooms left without shower curtains) have highlighted significant problems embedded in Russia’s evolution from Communism. But, is what we see in Russia through these stories, some of which is indeed considerably unsettling, any different to what the UK (and the West) has had in its own not so distant past and present, albeit a little less visibly? Is homophobia still not a lurking menace in the UK ? Is the suppression of protest through commonplace practices like kettling so very different from Russian anti-protest laws?

Could the often frenzied media ‘Russia bashing’ be a manifestation of something else; a form of ‘othering’ that we so heavily criticize the Russians for themselves? Russians have for a long time been the strange and perilous ‘Other’. The cold war saw an exaggerated ‘fear’ of the Russians, the gangster capitalism of the nineties turned them all into Mafiosa, and the noughties have labelled them morally and politically corrupt. Indeed, as far back as the early 19th century the poet Fyodor Tyutchev coined the phrase ‘Russophobia’ stating ‘It is possible to provide an analysis of the modern phenomena which becomes increasingly pathological. It is Russophobia.’. This is indeed racism aligned to the belief that Russians are an inferior, deviant people who pose a threat to western civilization itself.

Uniquely, it is also possible to talk about Russian inferiority implicitly without being labelled a racist precisely because Russians are largely white (and when it suits) accepted as being European. Yet we continue to see the use of Russophobic stereotypes as politically safe villians, a stereotype reinforced by western popular culture. Perhaps then, what we see in the Russophobic stories that surrounded the build up to the Sochi Olympics is the great western fear that the Sochi Olympics might (just might) be a success. The irony is that Putin, all too aware of his country’s shortcomings and imminent crisis - including a stagnant economy, corruption, soaring rates of HIV – may well have benefitted from the smoke screen presented (or created) by the West’s almost exclusive focus on the gay propaganda issues.

Whatever the motivation behind them, what these stories do demonstrate is that whilst Russia may be a lot of things, it is not a country that can be ignored. Neither is Putin as both a political leader and character. Yet he is not new in this regard. Throughout its history Russia has played host to a series of ‘forward thinking’ (in its broadest sense of looking to the future) autocrats that have led Russia. It is a style of leadership that is as Russian as the Matryoska doll. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Second and Stalin all took a firm social and political grip, but in doing so dragged Russia kicking and screaming into a future, albeit not necessarily a utopian one. Peter the Great recognised the importance of developing a navy and a capital city equal to the best in Europe, Stalin the importance of getting to the moon. Putin is no different in his own aspirations and vision for Russia. In this sense, the Sochi Olympics is the ultimate manifestation of Putin’s desire to harness Russian influence on a global stage through spectacle, profit and politics: through, in essence, Russian progress. But this begs a much a bigger question through which we also might better understand the West’s reaction. Is the Sochi Olympics, as an assertion of progress, simply too early for Russia? Could it be that they, and indeed we, have expectations of their progress that are in fact premature or even immature? Given that some of the criticisms levelled at Russia in the western media are reminiscent of our own history, might we be seeing a country in a move towards progressiveness, rather than one that has arrived?

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The truth is that Russia will continue to defy the West and everyone else and as the criticism starts to abate and the purity of sport shines brighter than the dirt of politics, Putin appears comfortable in his role as global leader, aware of this significant addition to his already significant legacy. Those wishing the Olympics to fail will therefore be disappointed. Even the failure of the fifth Olympic ring at the opening ceremony was a very Russian spectacle, and one that thoroughly bought in to a certain fatalism existing in the Russian people’s character. And is it perhaps this sense of fatalism, an inherent characteristic of Russian culture that we in the West continue not to grasp or understand.

This is not to deny that there is plenty to disapprove of in Putin’s Russia. I was as shocked as others by what I saw on Channel 4’s dispatches ‘Hunted’ as anyone. Such ignorance is always abhorant. But when we think back to Beijing 2008 or London 2012, what we remember and indeed celebrate are the winners. We remember Rebecca Adlington and her gold medals…. We remember Mo Farrah winning double gold. What we don’t remember are the losers. We don’t remember the number of Chinese who lost their lives or suffered human rights abuses to bring such an era defining spectacle to the world. We don’t remember the residents of East London who had little choice over the compulsory purchase of their homes and their subsequent eviction. That we only remember the winners is unfortunate. However this is the human condition and nothing to do with Vladimir Putin. Team Russia’s final medal tally is not really that important as Russia might still be the biggest winner anyway.

Follow Thom @wheelerthom