On Friday the Winter Olympics kicked off in Sochi, accompanied by a continuing chorus of disapproval from world media. Corruption, bad facilities, the risk of terrorist attacks and Russia’s “anti-gay” laws hit the headlines daily in the run-up to the Games, and there was endless discussion of the state of Putin’s Russia. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the reasons for some of this coverage, to see what it says about our view of Russia 20 years after the Cold War.
While there is no doubting that these Olympics have had their fair share of problems already, it’s worth noting that much of the coverage has been mean-spirited and mocking, especially in online media. Articles such as these show a great deal of schadenfreude, and a hope that the Games will prove to be an embarrassment for Russia.
The major reason for this is of course the “anti-gay propaganda” laws passed in Russia last year. These laws led to a huge outcry of protest in the West, and even calls to boycott the Games. Much less attention gets given to the lack of political freedoms in Russia, or the fate of journalists working for independent media. Even the 2008 Games in China, a country with a far worse human rights record, got less negative press than Sochi. This is not to say that gay rights in Russia aren’t appalling, but it is always worth taking a closer look at the wider situation.
The negative attention given to the Games fits in with our cultural idea of the Russians as ‘the bad guys’. Throughout the Cold War the Russians were the enemy, and it’s proved difficult to let go of that idea, especially with Putin becoming more and more authoritarian. This makes it far too easy for people in the West to wish for an embarrassment for Putin, instead of hoping for a Winter Olympics that Russians can be proud of. By focusing on Putin, we actually reinforce his authoritarian nature by ignoring the 140 million other Russians.
The way Western media has reacted to the Sochi Olympics also shows a lack of understanding about these 140 million Russians. Russia is still a deeply conservative society, where 90% of people support the anti-gay laws. It is a country that has never known real democracy, was oppressed by the tsars for almost its entire history, suffered devastating losses through famine and war, and spent the last century isolated and feared by most of the rest of the world. While in the West we focus on activists like Pussy Riot, in Russia itself they are almost completely irrelevant. 66% of Russians even think they spent too little time in jail.
This means that while we can protest against the laws, and call for the Games to be boycotted, these protests are going up against an entire country, not just its government. Expecting such a conservative country to change overnight into a beacon of progressive values is highly unrealistic. The West’s support for gay-rights activists in Russia may even harm them, making them seem like puppets of the West. Soviet support for civil rights activists in the US in the 60s had a similar effect; they were seen as Communists and unpatriotic. This sort of change must come from within.
This does not mean we in the West should stop promoting human rights. There are huge numbers of human rights issues across the world needing attention, including gay rights. However, we should stop to question our ability – and our right – to carry out cultural change in another country.
This Sunday’s post was more of an opinion piece, on Wednesday it’ll be back to analysing the news. As always I’m interested in your thoughts and comments!
And just for clarification, I personally support gay rights, but am highly sceptical about the value of protests aimed at changing an entire culture from the outside, no matter how noble their ideals may be.