SOCHI, Russia – In October 1939, Winston Churchill tried to fathom this vast and perplexing land.
“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” he said.
Nearly 75 years later, the attempts to explain Russia visually and musically in Friday’s opening ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium were a stunning if occasionally confusing collage of images created by a wide gamut of human movement and technological wizardry.
How, for instance, does one interpret the Russian team’s marching in to about 10 minutes of “Not Gonna Get Us” by t.A.T.u, a Russian female duo some think uses its songs and public actions as a way to show support for the LGBT community? Was that the organizers’ — or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s — way of poking an ironic stick at critics of Russia’s anti-gay legislation?
And wasn’t International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach poking back when he spoke in the ceremony of Olympic competitors living under one roof “with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason?”
Riddles. Mysteries. Enigmas.
Every recent opening ceremony has been a country’s way of navel gazing while exposing itself to the world, and this was no different. It was clear the artistic directors, following China’s example in 2008, were playing to the global TV audience and the commentators who would explain the historic and cultural references to their audiences.
While the opening was shown live in nearly all the world, NBC chose to make it the one Winter Olympic event for which there would be no live broadcast, either on television or the Internet.
From boogying medieval onion domes to 20th century Soviet monumentalism, from Stravinsky’s riotous “Rite of Spring” to the ebullient waltz from “War and Peace,” from the czars to Communist commissars, the Russians presented a geographic, geologic, ethnographic and choreographic portrait of themselves and their wonderfully rich literary and artistic heritage.
It was the old Russia dissolving into the new, a country not afraid to show its self-assurance in moments such as turning St. Basil’s Cathedral into helium balloon kitsch.
The stadium crowd, seemingly all Russian, ate it up, judging by their cheers and applause.
What’s not to like about superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, in an off-the-shoulder Sochi blue gown despite the cold in the stadium? She turned the Olympic hymn into an operatic tour de force. Never has the rather anodyne composition sounded so magnificent.
And there have been few theatrical moments as beautiful as the whirling dancers in white, their headdresses festooned in electroluminescent streamers, creating an ethereal tableau against a dark background as they danced to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Prima ballerinas Daria Vishneva of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky company (“Swan Lake”) and Svetlana Zakharova (“War and Peace”) of Moscow’s Bolshoi also illuminated the proceedings.
What Sochi Olympic organizers called the “most complex and ambitious technical show ever attempted in Olympic history” opened the 22nd Winter Olympics. That only four of the five Olympic rings were illuminated at the proper moment seemed an especially amusing glitch, pricking the balloon of the pomposity with which the IOC conducts its ceremonies.
Up close, it was overwhelming, big and bold, with a flying volcano and athlete marshals in red, white and blue lights forming the Russian flag across the length of the stadium floor. A Peter the Great trotted in on his horse. Traditional ballet merged with Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope. Techno met Tchaikovsky.
The Russian avant-garde clashed with an enormous hammer and sickle. Kazimir Malevich, the painter whom Stalin ostracized as bourgeois, was the bitterly ironic inspiration for the scenes of Soviet realism and the building of the Soviet Union, of revolution turning into repression.
The United States was among the 88 countries in the athletes’ parade, with three Indian athletes forced to march anonymously under the Olympic flag because of a dispute between the IOC and India’s Olympic Committee. Nordic combined silver medalist and six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick, dressed in a Ralph Lauren outfit best described as stars and yikes, carried the U.S. flag.
It was a bit of a musical cliche to have music from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” accompany the end of the torch relay. But the wondrous music illustrates a Russian folk tale, and it seemed to resonate perfectly with the choice of the couple who joined in putting the flame to the Olympic caldron: sports folk heroes Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretiak, the pairs skater and hockey goalie who each won three Olympic gold medals.
They jogged together a long way before igniting the flame that burns outside the stadium. After a show called “Dreams of Russia,” they deserved a ride on the magical troika — a traditional Russian horse-drawn sled — that had floated above the stadium an hour earlier.
That magical moment was spoiled amid controversy over the choice of Rodnina, whose Twitter account last September included a doctored and clearly racist picture of President Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, and a banana that was criticized by the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. On his Twitter account, McFaul called Rodnina’s post "outrageous behaviour, which only brings shame to her parliament and country.”
At a news conference, the show’s producer, Konstantin Ernst, defended having Rodnina, who lived and coached for many years in the United States, as a final torch-bearer by saying, "I didn’t read her Twitter, but she’s the greatest athlete and the only figure skater who won three gold medals and as Bach said, the Olympic Games have nothing to do with politics.”
Rodnina is a member of the Russian parliament in Putin’s party.
Having her light the cauldron provided a discordant coda to the opening ceremony.