Tag Archives: winter olympics

Sochi 2014 – Hoping for Failure?

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.

The Olympic Torch lit at the Opening Ceremony

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.

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Bombings in Volgograd – Chechens and the Olympics

Russia has never been safe from terrorism. A history of being an authoritarian superpower that supresses numerous ethnic minorities will have that effect. This showed through yet again this week when Volgograd was hit by two suicide bombers, in the central train station and on a bus. 34 were killed and 60 were injured. So who is behind it? And what is the background to this?

Firstly, the bombers most likely came from the mainly Islamic Northern Caucasus region of Russia, to the north of Georgia. This region contains the republic of Chechnya, which has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia fought a full-scale war there in the early 90s and lost, then returned in 1999. The second time around they reduced much of Chechnya to rubble, and bought it back under Russian control.

However this invasion didn’t bring an end to Chechen terrorism. In 2002 Chechens took hostages in a Moscow theatre, which ended with over 170 dead. A year later they occupied a primary school in the Northern Caucasus region. When Russian special forces stormed the school almost 400 people were killed by the hostage takers or due to the army’s excessive firepower. Since then there have been numerous smaller attacks, including bombings at Moscow airport.

So why now? And why Volgograd? The answer to the first question is simple: The Winter Olympics. The Games start in a month’s time and President Putin is hoping that they’ll cast Russia in a good light, as well as showing the nation’s return to the world stage. A bombing at the Games in Sochi would be a humiliation for a president who portrays himself as a strongman. However, these bombings, and the resulting 700 arrests have already shown how unstable Russia can be, and how much of an authoritarian state it still is.

While the name Volgograd might not ring a bell with many people, its previous name of Stalingrad certainly will. The city was the site of the Second World War battle that turned the tide of the war, and ended with over a million Russian casualties in a completely destroyed Stalingrad. The city became a symbol of Russian resistance, and is still dominated by a statue of Mother Russia, one of the tallest statues in the world. Attacking this city sends the message that Russian resistance is no longer strong enough, and strikes at a symbol of something almost sacred for Russians; their resistance in the war.

It’s doable to protect a stadium, but to protect an entire city is almost impossible. Any attack would destroy the Olympic atmosphere, and take the attention even further off sport. Given the high levels of corruption in the Russian police force, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an attacker managed to slip through security in Sochi.  Seeing as some of the remaining Chechen insurgent leaders have already made it clear they intend to hit the Games, this will be a very tense few weeks for Vladimir Putin.

Russian cossacks carry out a random ID check in Volgograd