Democracy Lab

Patriotism and the Olympics

Why taking the wrong stand on the Olympics can get you accused of being a traitor to the nation.

There were no free tables at the Sochi gay club Mayak on Friday night. St. Valentine's Day ruled. The patrons expressed their feelings freely. Kissing couples cuddled around the bar. The dance floor grew crowded as the sound system pumped out the bouncy rhythms of Russian pop songs about love. The scene could have come from any Eastern European nightclub: rows of red, heart-shaped balloons, waiters in gothic leather outfits, visitors chatting in foreign languages. Nothing about the club's décor indicated that we were in Russia, nor was there anything that recalled the Olympic Games.

The absence of Russian flags or other state symbols was entirely intentional. "State flags at a gay club?" Andrei Tanichev, the club's owner, laughed. "The authorities might accuse us of violating some new law." He's one of the very few openly gay men in Sochi. "You never know what our lawmakers might come up with next, what they might decide to fine us for tomorrow."

Outside the club, crowds of young Russians, wrapped in their local and state flags, flooded downtown Sochi on their way back from a hockey game in the Olympic park. The names of the cities written on the flags -- "Astrakhan," "Baikalsk," "South Sakhalin" -- covered opposite corners of the country's geography. Several fans I spoke with had saved money for months to be able to travel thousands of miles to Sochi and demonstrate their genuine enthusiasm for sports in general and their country's athletes in particular. Russian patriotism was on the rise, and so were President Putin's ratings. (The photo above shows Putin meeting with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan shortly after Saturday's U.S.-Russia hockey match.)

In an attempt to counter the overwhelmingly negative foreign coverage of the Olympics, the authorities promised their support for a Saturday protest organized by the group Environmental Watch and attended primarily by people from Sochi. Mayak, the gay club, welcomed Putin's recent positive comments about the club and its owner, though the coverage didn't really make Andrei's life any easier. The Western press criticized Tanichev and his partner Roman Kochagov for doing the Kremlin's bidding, and accused them of building a Potemkin village designed to convince the world that sexual minorities are happy in Russia.

Tanichev told me that he was offended by "distortions" in the coverage: "I'm not a patriot," he said. "I could probably become more patriotic if the day were to come when my customers could feel comfortable giving interviews to Western reporters visiting the club, if people stopped throwing trash in the streets as they leave the stadiums wrapped in their flags, or if the Russian officials who like to scream what big patriots they were would stop taking bribes."

Russians have starkly differing views on what constitutes "patriotism." According to a poll [Rs.] conducted by the respected Levada Center last October, 59 percent of Russians defined patriotism as love for "the mother country." 21 percent saw it as "striving toward positive change in order to ensure a worthy future for the nation." And another 21 percent viewed it as "the readiness to defend Russia from any accusations and attacks."

Of late, the public discussions have been dominated by arguments over what makes someone truly "patriotic," pro-Russian or anti-Russian, pro- or anti-Olympic. On February 10, in the midst of the Games, television viewers suddenly lost TV Rain, Russia's only independent cable channel. The channel was ostensibly shut down as a result of a controversial survey the channel ran about the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. (The survey asked viewers whether the city, which endured enormous casualties during the prolonged siege by Nazi armies, should have simply surrendered, thus saving lives. Needless to say, Russia's immense losses during the war remain a highly emotional topic even today.) TV Rain's Editor-in-Chief Mikhail Zygar told me that authorities were planning to shut the channel down after the Olympics -- "but since they already had a good reason, they decided not to wait for the end of the Games." TV Rain is continuing its news coverage on the Internet.

The scandal developed into a vicious battle between liberals, backed up by the Union of Journalists, novelists, and various independent groups, and the ruling United Russia party, supported by state TV channels. Several other prominent opposition voices, including the well-known satirist and journalist Victor Shenderovich, have taken the debate a step further by comparing the modern Russian regime to Nazi Germany. In a post [Rs.] written for his blog at the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, Shenderovich saw similarities between the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The leader of United Russia, Vladimir Vasilyev, responded by calling Shenderovich's post "fascist."

Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov noted that the current campaign against "traitors" is fueled by official anxieties about the turmoil in Ukraine (which many Russians view as the result of Western "meddling") as well as the general disarray of Russia's opposition movement (which creates an aura of vulnerability that Russian officials are eager to exploit). Russia's main state-owned TV is preparing to air a new film accusing pro-democracy activists of taking cash from the West for their efforts. This, Markov explains, is another part of the campaign.

"Society is split into fans of the Olympics and haters of the Olympics," Zygar said. "Even close friends fight over it: ‘Oh, you like the Olympics -- that means you're a traitor.' And vice versa." Critics who accuse the authorities of building a fake export version of Russia in Sochi hurt the feelings of Olympic fans. "By spitting on Putin, the opposition and the Western media spit on us, at our Olympics," said Vladimir Sergiyenko, a fan from the Urals, during our discussion of politics during the skating completions at Adler Arena this week.

Russians often tell me that the West is biased against their country. Russians often accuse Western media that publish negative stories about corruption and the dark side of politics of engaging in smear tactics. Some Russians argue that it's the mark of "a good citizen" to keep quiet and to show respect for politicians -- and not to demand alternative policies or to participate in building civic society. But there are others who believe that a true patriot is someone who criticizes the government. "In Russia, says Zygar, "society is deeply confused."


Democracy Lab

The Sochi That We've Lost

Most visitors to the Winter Olympics will only see the giant stadiums and overpriced hotels. But some Russians are mourning the lost paradise of childhood.

SOCHI — The morning sun painted the ceiling of our grape gazebo in gentle shades of green. I remember it well. On sunny days, the contours of the cypress trees stood out starkly, as if drawn along the coast: they formed a live fence stretching along the five-kilometer footpath at the bottom of the hill, seaside Sochi's equivalent of a Jersey boardwalk. I liked to climb to the top of a marble statue of a giant lion, where I'd sit and stare out at the gently heaving expanse of the Black Sea, or teeter along the edge of a big fountain decorated with nude statues of goddesses as I watched the East German tourists stroll along the cypress-lined alley in their white linen suits. And then there was that old, heavy grapevine that drooped down next to a pool filled with red fish in the Iskra Spa Hotel. My mother discovered that living armchair when she was a little girl, and later she shared it with me. Her grapevine became my favorite hideaway during the many summers I spent in Sochi as a kid. Swinging on it, I often closed my eyes and said to myself: "Try to remember this moment of ultimate happiness."

These memories came back to me the other day, as we were driving at freeway speed down the coast along a new, perfectly illuminated, and surprisingly empty four-lane road toward the Olympic venues. An unrecognizable new Sochi in asphalt and concrete, now nicknamed "Putin's project," rose before us in the quiet evening light. The dust from Olympic construction had finally settled, along with the clanging, rasping noise of construction equipment, the daily sound track of the past four years. Sochi seemed still and deserted, as if the town itself was startled by its giant new facades, its massive bridges, its tunnels and roads.

This Friday, on the day of Olympic opening, Russia's state-owned Channel One will broadcast a film about the man who has taken full personal responsibility for transforming the city and bringing the world to Sochi: "I'm particularly pleased to see what's happening here because I personally chose this place," says President Vladimir Putin in the film. We have no reason to doubt him. So what are the subtexts, the personal motives, the secret codes revealed to us by the image of this new Sochi that owes its existence to the president?

Until recently, locals referred to Sochi as the country's main zdravnitsa, a healthy place to breathe, sunbathe, soak in sulfur baths, and rest your spirit and soul. Back when Putin's reign was just getting under way, the idea of coming to Sochi, a place strongly associated with Soviet-era tourism, looked relatively unattractive to Russians eager to take their first package trips to Egypt or Turkey. More recently, though, the cash being pumped into the world's most expensive Olympic construction project has drawn huge numbers of migrant workers, swelling the city's population by almost two-thirds, to half a million people. Moscow investors snatched up real estate in the historic downtown area, the suburbs, and the forests, while experts debated what would become of the place.

Local historian Sergei Shcherbakov has never welcomed the invasion of Moscow's money and power into Sochi's dreamy world. "Putin's Sochi has become Russia's Las Vegas, where, as if in a giant smelter, each square meter of Sochi's land has been either lost or turned into dollars," Shcherbakov told me recently. Alla Guseva, a manager of Sochi's historic museum, said that it's too early to forecast the fate of post-Olympic Sochi. "Stalin built a utopian but successful resort to show off Soviet happiness," she told me. "It's too early for us historians to predict Sochi's future. We'll have to let at least five years pass by before we can see whether the city continues to progress. For now its status is unclear."

Stalin had an ideological agenda for Sochi: he built neo-classical palaces in his Soviet Riviera in the 1930s to make the capitalist West green with envy. Local sulfur baths helped the dictator boost his constantly fading health. He ordered his star commissars to plant botanical gardens and create showcase resorts for the working class as way of demonstrating to the world that it was also possible to enjoy the dolce vita under Communism. Any Olympic visitors who want to get a sense of what he created should take a break from sports and take a taxi over to the old Kurortny Prospect, in the old city.

The five-kilometer long pedestrian footpath is still there, hidden behind the forest of rapidly growing skyscrapers. Most of the old romantic corners of the city, though, have fallen victim to the Olympic boom -- along with the milk factory that was once one of the city's proudest landmarks. It was especially appreciated by French visitors, who were big lovers of its delicious ice cream. (Yes, there were Western tourists even in the old days, too.) In spite of public protests by residents, the wave of construction has also rolled over Gastronom No. 1, the city's most famous Soviet-era grocery store. On a recent afternoon, Magomed and Ali, two Dagestani construction workers who've been participating in a makeover of the Iskra Hotel, showed me what has become of my once favorite hideaway. The building looks much the same, but my favorite grapevine has vanished, along with the red fish.

As the Olympic deadline neared, the authorities, resorting to their traditional habits, used colorful sheet metal walls to cover the signs of decay along the newly opened freeway to the site of the Games. Even the huge sulfur baths of the old Matsesta Resort, ruined by a flooding river some 20 years ago, were wrapped up in a surreal curtain adorned with paintings of mountains. The Ordzhonikidze Resort, a magnificent palace that once served as the city's calling card, continues to fall apart -- except for the two freshly painted statues at the entrance facing the road. (The rumor is that the Kremlin took over the palace as a vacation retreat for the president's staff, but ran out of money before the project was completed.) Most local people have long since had enough of Putin's Project: the endless Olympic construction, accompanied by corruption, displacement, and environmental damage. Over and over I've heard the same sentiment from the mouths of the residents: "We're tired," they say. "We just wish the Games were over."

"Waiting for the Olympics" has been Sochi's mantra for the past eight years. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, meanwhile, there is much speculation that the end of the Olympics will mark the start of a new official onslaught against the opposition. In the North Caucasus republics adjoining Sochi, the fear is of something even more sinister: a big military crackdown. Kheda Saratova, an activist in the Chechen capital of Grozny, told me that she and many others are deeply worried by the prospect of a terrorist attack at the Games. "If, God forbid, insurgents blow up a bomb in Sochi, we're afraid there will be another war," she said. "So many people are delaying their business investments until after the Olympics."

Not everyone is worried, though. On the day the Olympic torch relay neared Sochi, I paid a visit to the home of a happy family of Olympic fans. I found Anastasia Vinogradova and her family on Aviatsionnaya Avenue, just 15 minutes from the Olympic Park by car. Since the late 1970s, the Vinogradovs and their neighbors have been living in railroad cars that have been turned into houses. Surviving together in poor conditions, without central heating or hot water, the Aviatsionnaya neighborhood created a warm community of good friends and faithful troopers.

Over the years the Vinogradovs have appealed to the authorities to improve their living conditions. They've gone to court to obtain proof that their railroad car home actually belongs to them. But the courts lost their paperwork, and the case fell apart. These days the Vinogradovs have decided to simply enjoy what life is offering them. The family introduced themselves to me as tough Sochi survivors, people who don't expect the state to provide them with compensation for the hardships the Olympics have brought to their city. They've chosen to embrace the Games out of a sincere love of sports. As Anastasia and her husband proudly showed me the Russian flag they're planning to bring to the Olympic figure skating competition, their daughter climbed out of bed into her father's arms. In a few days she'll be sitting between her parents on a stadium bench, watching the best skaters in the world do their thing. I wish her the sort of memories that last a lifetime.

Mikhail Mordasov