Remember 2007? Russia was starting to look like a world power again. Its economy was growing at a record 8.5 percent annual rate. Political life had stabilized. Support for President Vladimir Putin was stratospheric. The decade-long Chechen rebellion seemed to have been suppressed. And, to top it off, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Russia’s Black Sea resort, Sochi.
In many respects, it was a strange choice of venue: sunny Sochi has beautiful mountains but little or no snow. It is also 1,368 km south of Moscow, with few direct flights from Europe, while the trip from the United States can involve up to four legs.
But in 2007, Russians were becoming more optimistic about their future. Addressing the Olympic Committee, Putin argued that awarding Russia the games would not only allow it to showcase its post-Soviet achievements; it would also help the country through its political and economic transition.
Nothing seemed too difficult for Putin, even mouthing unnecessary democratic platitudes for an Olympic committee whose members had already awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.
But, once construction got under way, the realities of modern Russia could not be so easily hidden. The colossal project, which cost more than $50 billion — more than all previous Winter Olympics combined — was expected to turn Sochi into a sporting paradise, packed with arenas and a new airport. Instead, corruption and construction accidents have plagued preparations, with hotels still unfinished just days before the opening ceremony.
Delay and waste are common in Olympic preparations (Greece in 2004 is an obvious example, and Brazil in 2016 appears to be experiencing similar problems). But Russia is proving to be an unsuitable host for other reasons.
For starters, there are concerns about Putin’s own political legitimacy. His controversial and unconstitutional re-election to a third presidential term was condemned internationally and triggered anti-government protests across Russia.
Putin responded to those he considers political enemies by arresting and jailing protesters, including the all-girl rock band Pussy Riot, following “show trials” (with the Olympics approaching, there have been recent “show pardons”). Such episodes have contributed to a general air of intolerance across Russia, fueled in no small part by Kremlin-incited chauvinism. A government sponsored anti-gay propaganda law, which indiscriminately criminalizes same-sex couples, has caused outrage abroad. Local activists have even advised gay athletes not to display signs of their sexual orientation while in Russia.
Similarly, though the Olympics should be an occasion for national pride, foreign — and in particular American — athletes have been told to avoid showing their team colors when outside the grounds. In fact, they have been warned not to wander beyond Sochi’s “ring of steel” security perimeter and the watchful gaze of police officers, even though Olympians typically like to explore local sights.
None of this engenders a sense of Olympic solidarity and international friendship. And it gets worse. The authorities must also contend with threats from Islamist insurgents from Chechnya, who are now operating in other North Caucasian republics, a mere 320 km from Sochi. The “black widows” — wives of Islamist fighters killed in the Kremlin’s “pacification” campaign — are believed to be preparing retaliatory suicide missions at airports, train stations, and on buses.
The last time Russia hosted the Olympics — the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow — the United States and its allies staged a boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And yet the Soviet Union was a superpower, stagnant but stable. Its totalitarian secrecy, gargantuan military-industrial complex, ever-present KGB handlers, and apparent disdain for material comforts (at least for ordinary Russians) gave the communist hegemon a perverse mystique that made even a simple visit to Red Square a trip to remember. However much the country was hated or feared, one could not deny that is was a major player on the world stage.
Not so today. Putin’s Russia is weak, tawdry, and corrupt — and underserving as an Olympic host. The atmosphere surrounding the Sochi Games reflects many of Russia’s worst traits.
In the immortal words of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, describing the country’s economic transition of the 1990s: “We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual.”
Even assuming that the Sochi Games pass off successfully, and that, despite the security restrictions and official bigotry, athletes and visitors enjoy their stay, will Russia’s brief display of national pride really be worth the financial and political cost? Or will Russians wake up six months from now and say, “Yes, our country has a fancy ski resort — at the beach.”
Nina L. Khrushcheva, author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics,” teaches international affairs at The New School and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. © 2014 Project Syndicate