The Sochi Winter Olympic Games are the latest incarnation of Russia’s Potemkin villages.
In case your recall of Russian history and myth is as mushy as the snow on Sochi’s Rosa Khutor alpine runs, I will remind you that Grigory Potemkin was Catherine the Great's lover. The tzarina appointed him governor of newly conquered lands in southern Ukraine and Crimea and, in 1787, came for a visit with her court and several foreign ambassadors. As the story goes, Potemkin wanted to make things look better than they really were in that war-ravaged region, so he built a portable village that was barged to different sites along the Dnieper River as Catherine made her tour. Allegedly, he even had his own soldiers dress up as happy peasants.
Many historians now believe that the tale is more fiction than fact, but it is not the only example of Russians trying to fool foreigners into thinking things are better than they are. In the 1920s and ‘30s, socialists from Britain and United States were given tours of Soviet collective farms where joyful peasants appeared to be producing wheat in abundance. The Westerners were fooled into believing they had seen the vanguard of a glorious egalitarian future, when, in fact, the forced collectivization contributed to the famine of 1932-33 that killed millions of Russians.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the bluster of Soviet leaders hid the truth that the Russian economy and military were hollow shells. Of course, just like the duped left-wing “fellow travelers” earlier in the century, American military and political leaders chose to believe the lie because it reinforced their own ideological goal -- in their case, continuing the Cold War arms race.
Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent $50 billion on an Olympics that looks real enough but may be as ephemeral in its own way as Potemkin’s fake town. The snow is mostly manufactured. The crowds of international travelers have stayed away, scared off by threats of terrorism, the hassles of Russian bureaucracy and the exorbitant cost of attending the Games. The new resort infrastructure -- built on a mountain of graft and bribery -- is hardly guaranteed to become the destination for jet-setters Putin says it will be.
And, just as the dazzling evocation of Russian history presented in the opening ceremonies left out the dark episodes of oppression and cruelty that are the central theme of that history, the image of Russia being projected by these Olympics masks the reality of Russia’s stagnant economy, weak legal system and stunted democracy.
But, at least for the two weeks of the Olympics, we all will choose to see only the Potemkin village. After all, Sochi -- like London, Vancouver, Beijing, Turin, Athens, Salt Lake City and all the other host cities before now -- is merely a backdrop for the spectacle of young athletes pushing the limits of athletic skill. That’s all it needs to be, really -- a stage set. Artifice is perfectly fine.
Sitting in armchairs in front of our TV screens, we drop in for a look, as remote as monarchs. And, when it is over, we move on, looking forward to the next show in two years and leaving it to the local peasants to decide if it was worth the cost.