Take a close look at post-Sochi Russia, this new teddy bear or Mischa. And if the unfolding events in Ukraine evoke alarmist remarks about the Kremlin’s encouragement of separatism or designs on Crimea, I advise Western politicians to consult the mirror and reconsider how they are overplaying their hand by spurning Russia’s proposed three-way cooperation in Ukraine. Read on…
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The Bear is Back? Meet the New Mischa!
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Reports on the Sochi Olympics disappeared from the world’s television screens soon after the Closing Ceremony on Sunday night, though Western print media still post articles here and there* questioning the investment in Sochi infrastructure and casting doubt on the resort’s future, perhaps as an antidote to the smiling faces of fans and of the competing athletes that so many millions of people saw on their television sets or tablets and to the laudatory televised speech of the IOC President at the Closing Ceremony that I will deal with further on. Oh yes, the American media have moved on and refocused their attention on the U.S. team’s relatively modest showing in medals and particularly poor performance in extreme sports; backbiting and recrimination have set in, pushing aside thoughts of the Russians.
For their part, Russian media, both electronic and print, were yesterday still licking the bones of their Olympic successes. They spoke of their first place standing in the medals count, about their winning positions in disciplines which had never been a national strength in the Soviet past and about their return to glory in figure skating. They also pointed to the hospitality and organizational skills that their compatriots harnessed for the Games, winning plaudits from all sides.
The 24-hour satellite news channel Vesti devoted extensive coverage to the arrival of the Olympics stars in Moscow and in home towns spread across Russia as far east as Krasnoyarsk where they were being feted and decorated with sporting titles and gifts from the localities. The channel also featured a remarkable informal interview on the results of the Olympics which Vladimir Putin gave to journalists from two state television channels and from the private networks NTV and RBK. The full transcript was later published on the presidential website.
I offer a translation below of Vladimir Putin’s responses to questions from two of these veteran journalists because they are so revealing of the thinking processes of this world leader and so remote from the one-dimensional, demonizing portraits we read daily in Western media.
Let’s look first at a snippet from Putin’s big-picture remarks on the concept guiding the Olympics in his exchange with Irada Zeinalova, First Channel presenter of the Sunday news program Vremya:
“From the very beginning we wanted to turn this into a big national sporting holiday for our country…As I have said before, we have many problems and we have grown accustomed to seeing these problems follow us around. But there should be a party on our block as well. It seems to me that we have now had such a party. At the same time, we always thought as well about the world sporting community, about our partners, about foreign athletes. We wanted to create a party for the whole sporting world, for the whole planet. And we are very pleased that this occurred. It happened on a grand scale, in a high-quality and beautiful way.”
Then there was the exchange below between Putin and Alexander Lyubimov of RBK. The subject was the vicious information war directed against the Sochi Olympics in the run-up to the Games unleashed by American and European media. Readers may refer back to my article ‘Cool under Fire’ published on this portal on 16 February.
RBK is an independent media holding long associated with the politically active billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Lyubimov is a gifted linguist, a graduate of the prestigious MGIMO institute that has long trained Russian diplomats and international business cadres. Following a varied career at the top of Russian television journalism, in 2011, he took over the reins at RBK. In 2012, he was elected a member of the Federal Committee of the Civil Platform, a liberal opposition party funded by Prokhorov, meaning that he is no tame Kremlin pet.
A.L. – Vladimir Vladimirovich, at first I experienced confusion over how the foreign mass media began their coverage of the Olympics. Then by the end I’d say I felt an indignation that is not characteristic for me. I’m not a very loyal subject, but even I was bursting with patriotic feelings. It was all so unjust. Is this normal?
V.P. – That’s very good (laughter)
A. Lyubimov – As concerns me – I agree.
V. Putin- You know, I want to tell you that it’s not just you. It got on everyone’s nerves. This means that our foreign colleagues, those who were busy with what you just said, achieved a result which was the opposite of what they expected.
I’d like to share with you several things. First: all these years we worked under conditions of criticism, and above all this was constructive criticism, very well-intended and constructive, from the side of representatives of the International Olympics Committee. From the start…they showed us where to go, how to put together this program from the point of view of organization, planning, even construction. I think that we would have done everything without such well-meaning criticism and support, but honestly I have my doubts we’d have succeeded in doing it on such a qualitative level, because in the end we did not have the huge experience that our friends from the International Olympics Committee possess. They gave us this experience.
But there was, and surely up to now there still is another cohort of critics. They are remote from sports. They are engaged in a competitive fight in the domain of international politics. They have a different essence, a different kind of job, and they used this Olympics project to achieve their own goals in the area of anti-Russian propaganda.
A.L. – And you accepted this calmly?
V.P. – This has nothing to do with sports. I always have been calm about this, and do you know why? Because I know what it is, I know what it is worth, and I know that it is useless to argue with this. Whatever we might have said and however we might have tried to change people’s minds, this was impossible, because they have a different job, they have another goal. I’ll say this again: this is the sphere of competitive struggle in the field of international politics, perhaps even in the geopolitical sphere. It happens when strong competitors appear, in this case Russia, and that causes concern among some; some people really don’t like it; and someone becomes afraid without understanding how profoundly and qualitatively Russian society has changed. In this sense the Olympics were important for us, because, it seems to me (and I would like it to be so) it opened the doors a bit not only on Russia, but onto the Russian soul, the soul of our people, so that people could look and understand that there is nothing to fear, that we are ready for cooperation, we are open for this collaboration. Perhaps even those critics who are not well-wishers in my view – though perhaps we shouldn’t say this, because they have a different task – perhaps some of their fears have been dissipated. I hope that is the case. And if this has been achieved to a certain extent, then that is the success of the Olympics.”
These thoughts about a new openness in Russia were also a key message in the speech which International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach delivered at the Closing Ceremony. Speaking of the thousands of Russian volunteers who assisted at all venues of the Games, he said:
“Through you everybody with an open mind could see the face of a new Russia. Efficient and friendly. Patriotic and open to the world.”
Perhaps the most impressive confirmation of Russia’s new openness to the world was the part played in the country’s gold medal count by ‘’new Russians,” by which I mean foreign born athletes who in the several years prior to the Olympics settled in Russia to pursue their sporting careers, were given citizenship and competed for the Russian national team. Korean short track skater Victor Ahn brought in 3 gold medals. American snowboarder Vic Wild won 2 gold medals. Thus, 5 of Russia’s 13 gold awards had this international dimension.
To fully appreciate what this means you have to go back in time to the chaotic and impoverished 1990s when Russia was hemorrhaging talent. The joke from those days was that the country’s main export commodities apart from oil and gas were beautiful brides and future Nobel prize winners. And talk of a brain drain has continued straight into the Putin years.
In that spirit, at the very start of the Games Bloomberg commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote (“Russia’s Squandered Olympic Gold,” 12 February) a touching essay about three Russian nationals, Yuri Podladtchikov, who won the snowboard halfpipe competition for Switzerland, Anastasiya Kuzmina who won gold for Slovakia in the women’s biathlon sprint race and Darya Domracheva, winner of the women’s biathlon 10 kilometer race for Belarus. Bershidsky used these case studies to belittle Russian coaches, the alleged cutthroat internal competition on the Russian team and living conditions in Russia.
In a charitable concession to reality, and with a nod to Victor Ahn who had at that point only won a bronze medal in the competitions, Bershidsky remarked that ‘tactical citizenship changes are common in sports .’ But that did not prevent his concluding that “Russia..is unique in having trained so many champions who brought glory to other countries” or that “Talent is one of Russia’s most important exports.”
Opinions about the phenomenal $51 billion cost of the Sochi Olympics, about possible corruption in the construction of venues, about the commercial prospects of Sochi as a year-round resort and other elements of the black PR that preceded the games may go on forever. The facts of the Russian national team’s winning first place in Sochi with its 33 medals are indisputable. So does this mean that “the Bear is back” as some Western journalists wrote provocatively to suggest a resurgent foe? With a view to Putin’s comments cited above and to the remarks of Thomas Bach, I would say only: take a close look at this new teddy bear, Mischa. And if the unfolding events in Ukraine evoke alarmist remarks about the Kremlin’s encouragement of separatism or designs on Crimea, I advise Western politicians to consult the mirror and reconsider how they are overplaying their hand by spurning Russia’s proposed three way cooperation in Ukraine.
*Some of the original falsified images of Sochi from before the opening of the Olympics continue to be fed to the general public even now that the Games have ended on a high note. See Le Soir, which yesterday still carried on its front page an article entitled “Sochi is over! A summary of the Winter Games in 13 unusual photos’’ including the wolf that supposedly roamed the halls of one hotel reserved for the press and the fifth circle of the Olympic flag that went missing at the Opening Ceremony.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.