Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

467577831-693X520I must admit I quite enjoyed the Russian propaganda show that opened the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Friday night.  Russians have been extraordinarily adept at story-telling for seemingly forever and staging extravaganzas –first religious then secular – for centuries.  This recent three hour long display was no exception.  And it was heartening to see the Russian government pay special tribute to a number of its world famous artists, writers, cinematographers and musicians – dead and alive – several of whose works had been banned or hidden in warehouses, closets, drawers or transported abroad for safe keeping during the Soviet period: Chagall, Malevich, and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and the Ballet Russe as a few for instances.  This is a step forward. (photos of Opening Ceremony are from media photo page from the official Sochi Olympics website)

467578151-693X520But what happened to Mikhail Bulgakov – or was that cute little eleven year old girl guide who flew high above the crowd floating from era to era in record time really, perhaps, his Margarita in disguise? What about Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Better left off the program because his description of the Soviet Union penal system did not sugar-coat the image? Or other dissident writers, painters, cinematographers; the true Russian chroniclers and dreamers.  Yes, alright, the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein was honored – but face it, his works were some of the biggest propaganda displays the Soviet Union ever produced.

Leningrad -The Bronze Horseman - Peter the Great Statue, 1782  PHK 4-1990And one must never be allowed to forget the importance of Peter the Great’s 17th century secret venture West to steal ship-building technology or to pay special tribute to his founding a city on a swamp (built by unmentioned Finnish conscript laborers who were the original inhabitants) complete with a photo of the oversized bronze horseman statue of Peter in a park near the Neva embankment. (photo of the bronze horseman by PH Kushlis, 1990) 

But the Potemkin Village notion was officially absent – except, of course, for the opening ceremony itself which it most closely resembled.

The Russian orthodox religion had a place in the Sochi Opening, too but was subtly done.  Kievan Rus was downplayed (likely to the relief of the Ukrainian team).  Communism? Or the “70 years to Nowhere” experiment, was only shown in cleaned up and polished constructivist terms and figures.  467597631-693X520Yes, tribute – as usual – was paid to the over 20 million Soviet deaths in World War II but this time almost in a perfunctory fashion – or maybe that was just the impression from the television footage I saw on NBC.

But the young, spiffily dressed white suited young ladies with dark briefcases slung over their shoulders prancing off to work in the latest fashion supposedly there to represent the latter days of the Soviet period was, well, over the top. (Sorry, no photos of them appeared on the Sochi website).

Take that one with a grain of salt. 

Believe me, no one ever wore white (it would have turned to grunge in a matter of minutes in the mud city on the Moskva) and only the very few Soviets who were privileged to travel to the West would have even owned stylish clothing.  The “in” clothes at the time, by the way, were the much more practical (wash and wear) Levi jeans and jackets.  It’s not that Soviet youth was not fashion conscious; it’s just that they had no access to western clothes – let alone even seen a Filene’s Basement or Loehmans.  

In a February 4, 2014 article, Washington Post reporter Kathy Lally compared the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics with the ones that started in Sochi on Friday: Human rights abuses, a crack-down on Russian dissidents, the goal of impressing the world of Russian (or in 1980 Soviet) prowess or as “a special spiritual (substitute Communism for spiritual) country to be envied rather than feared and despised.”

As a part of her article, Lally quotes Kevin Close, formerly of the Post and now head of RFE/RL and Anthony Barbieri of the Baltimore Sun, two veteran American reporters assigned to Moscow in 1980 on their recollections of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. That was the year the US boycotted the games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  

For the most part, Lally’s got the history right. I left Moscow shortly before – as opposed to shortly after – the 1980 Games because US Embassy staff were not allowed to attend so what was the point hanging around just to have to dodge the ever more security forces build-up on every street corner. I still remember the sequence of events and the atmosphere surrounding the run-up to those Games rather well.

“Jowly and worried about his weight?”  Maybe not

This makes me question Lally’s description of then General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who she characterized as “jowly, and worried about his weight.”  Don’t think so. She obviously did not watch Soviet television at or of the time.

Because, well, his rotund figure was not the major problem – the problem was the poor state of his brain. His health had already deteriorated badly well prior to the summer of 1980 and his speech, as witnessed firsthand in television speeches, was almost incomprehensible even to native Russian speakers, suggesting the after-effects of a debilitating stroke.  In short, the news footage I saw did not portray an individual “worried about his weight.”  If either Close, Barbieri or anyone else there at the time agrees with Lally’s assessment, I’d be amazed.    

High Level US Officials Missing Again

This time around, high level US officials are again absent from the Olympics in Russia – likely for a variety of reasons – but the large Team USA is there and competing against the best of them.  That, after all, is what the Olympics are for.

It’s when sports, sportsmanship and fair play don’t take precedence over everything else that problems arise.  And that’s the difficulty with having such high profile contests take place in countries that insist upon making them about their “rightful place in the world” – and to glorify their leaders – not about the athletes themselves.