Sochi 2014: Celebrating authoritarianism

The Olympic mega-project aims to promote an image of Russia’s recovered international prestige and national unity.

The Winter Olympics reflect Russia's grand global aspirations [Reuters]

Much of the international discussion of Sochi the Olympics has focused on the seeming irrationality of the enterprise, as manifested by the choice of location, the cost of the games, and the looming security threats.  Simone Baumann’s recent documentary, “Putin’s Games” illuminates the madness of Sochi’s remodelling in the run-up to the games and exposes the natural and man-made obstacles, such as unfavourable ecological conditions, bureaucratic inefficiencies and immense levels of corruption. The film shows that the Sochi Olympics has been Vladimir Putin’s “pet project” from the very beginning. Putin’s proud announcement [Ru] that Sochi is, “without exaggeration, the world’s largest construction site” and a “celebration for the entire world” reflects the president’s broader vision of Russia’s global geopolitical status and articulates his imperial aspirations for the country.

As the Games kick off, it is timely to analyse how President Putin and his entourage legitimised this project for domestic and international audiences. We argue that the discourse around the Olympics carries the familiar themes of fostering national economic development and unity and promoting Russia’s exceptional role in the world. This rhetoric has been more successful domestically than internationally. Although the project incited some soul-searching in sections of the Russian society other than the well-known opposition groups, the majority of the domestic public support[Ru] the Olympic project. Internationally, however, alongside with Russia’s grand ambitions, the Olympic Games brought to light familiar governance failures.

Domestic imagings: Olympics for all

Domestically, Russia’s president has masterfully weaved the narrative of a “grand construction site” into the national aspirations for the development of Russia’s regions. Vladimir Putin emphasised[Ru] that the Olympic project has been merely a tool for the state’s primary goal of re-distributing financial and administrative resources to Russia’s regions.

Inside Story – The Putin Games at any cost?

Characteristic of both communist and post-Soviet policy discourses, such a rhetorical strategy has once again been successfully employed in legitimising Kremlin’s “mega-projects“, including the 2009 establishment of a multi-billion-dollar Skolkovo Innovation Centre or hosting 2013 Universiade in Kazan. As a result, an isolated, elitist and inherently corrupt state-led enterprise metaphorically projects the myth of modernising the entire country’s educational, sports and other social domains.

Such mega-projects, explains Robert Orttung, “serve as a de facto regional development programme in the absence of more coherent priority-setting or policy-making processes”. Unable to exert a modern-day national identity, the official state Olympic rhetoric once again reverted to the ideology of magnificence and unprecedented technological modernisation.

The form, however, does not match the content, and the $51bn Olympic project budget is yet to be harmonised with a sound nationalistic ideology and a coherent strategy for the country’s regional development. The Olympics project, therefore, embodies the most pronounced ills of the Russian political culture, including authoritarian resource allocation, ineffective state governance and a lack of a national vision for the country’s development. 

At the same time, neither dishonest rhetoric nor allegations of gross overspending seem to undermine the legitimacy of the Kremlin-initiated enterprise. The official rhetoric continues to shape the reality for the Russian masses and drives the general public’s perception of Russia’s international agenda.

Thus, while 65 percent of Russians believe[Ru] that the financial resources allocated to holding the Olympics are being spent ineffectively or are misappropriated, 62 percent support the Olympics project and express pride at hosting the games. While the opposition leaders and some intellectuals[Ru] debate and criticise the project, for a typical citizen the dismal everyday realities of contemporary Russia seem to bounce off the mental frames instilled by the state propaganda.

This phenomenon is not unique to Russia. In China, the propaganda apparatus also skilfully used the Beijing Olympics to bolster its legitimacy by starting to shape public opinion  two years ahead of the games through uplifting and educational stories. Termed a “campaign of mass distraction” by a prominent China scholar, the massive propaganda advanced through the media, swayed public attention away from domestic problems, such as corruption and inequality, towards a shared nationalistic aim of holding a successful international event.

National pride and international shame

Internationally, apart from the unparalleled scale and ambition of the project, the Kremlin’s narrative of grandiosity conforms to the overall dominant discourse long adopted by the Russian political elite in its international posturing. This discourse emphasises Russia’s distinctiveness, exceptionalism, sovereignty and special messianic role within the human civilisation. “The Sochi Olympics,” writes Andrey Makarychev, “are an essential part of Russia’s triumphalist narrative of ‘rising from its knees’, retrieving its great power status, and returning to the ‘premier league’ of world politics.” The Chinese leadership also had such transnational aspiration.

Listening Post – Russia’s media Olympics

The 2008 Olympic Games symbolised acquiring world recognition of a great power after a long period of global humiliation. A modern and welcoming Beijing, filled with international observers, was a symbol of how far the Chinese Communist Party had come in elevating China’s image since the late 1970s.

Using the Olympic Games for soft power diplomacy, however, is a delicate task for non-democratic regimes that are already in the negative media limelight. While human rights allegations overshadowed some of Western media perception of the Beijing Olympics, the global media coverage of Sochi Olympics seems to have been even more unforgiving.

The vast array of reports focusing on Russia’s anti-gay legislation, state-level corruption and serious security threats did not carry much celebratory spirit. While President Xi declared support for the Sochi Olympics by coming to the opening ceremony, other top officials, including Presidents Barack Obama and Francois Hollande did not attend.

Unlike Beijing, which welcomed its guests in a fully organised mode, Sochi thus far appears unprepared for its multitude of visitors. Foreign journalists have been reporting from Sochi about hotels with missing lobbies and yellow-coloured tap water, as well as advertising posters for public donations of pillows for arriving athletes – another shortage in town. These mundane failures and misfits confirm the stereotype of Russia’s backwardness rather than its rising grandeur.

Preparation for the Sochi Olympics highlighted Russia’s distinctiveness not as a rising superpower, but rather as a country stubbornly pursuing its old inefficient ways. Russian authorities have been defensive about Western media criticisms. “I’m very offended that the closer we get to the opening of the Olympics, the more hysteria around Russia becomes inflamed in the Western media,” said Vladimir Yakunin, a top official in charge of building Olympics infrastructure. “There’s not a word about the quality of the Olympic facilities, about the fact that the level of readiness of the Olympic infrastructure has no analogues in the world.”

Overall, when one looks at Sochi as one of the manifestations of Russia’s prevalent domestic and international discourses, the enterprise seems less absurd than the one portrayed by international media. Despite negative international reactions, Putin’s initiative will likely be successful in strengthening his hold on power. After all, the concept of “national pride” continues to serve as a powerful unifying force, boosting Russians’ confidence in a great power status and inadvertently supporting authoritarian institutions.

Elena Minina is a social scientist specialising in post-Soviet Russian studies and comparative education. She holds a PhD in social sciences from the University of Oxford. 

Dr Maria Repnikova is a post-doctoral fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and a visiting scholar at Government Department, Georgetown University. She specialises in Chinese and Russian politics and state-media relations under authoritarian rule.