Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Charlotte Rosenthal
PORTLAND — From the subtropical Black Sea beach town of Sochi to the majestic Caucasus Mountains (the tallest in Europe), from palm trees to snowpack, the physical features of the Olympic Games’ two main sites offer a great contrast.
Charlotte Rosenthal is a professor of Russian at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.
The temperature in Sochi in February will range from 40 to 50 degrees during the day. All 14 major venues were built from scratch, and new construction was needed in transportation, energy, telecommunications, water treatment facilities and hotels.
So why did Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to go after the Winter Olympic Games and set them there? The reasons appear to be personal, strategic and symbolic.
For Putin, hosting the games is a chance to showcase his country’s return as a major player on the world stage, while shoring up his legitimacy and legacy at home. Putin also wishes to display resolve to restore internal order in the restive Northern Caucasus while simultaneously giving the area an economic boost.
To prepare for the games, the Russians have modernized Sochi and created a new ski resort about 24 miles away in Krasnaya Polyana (“Beautiful Glade”), 1,800 feet above sea level. After the games are over, most of this new construction and infrastructure will remain as a permanent investment in the area, which, it is hoped, will continue to attract tourists and skiers.
However, several aspects of these Olympic Games and the preparations for them have provoked anger and concern.
For example, to prepare for the games, the government and private companies have spent an estimated $51 billion. One has to wonder why the cost has been so enormous.
There is speculation by opposition figures such as Aleksei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov that 35 to 60 percent of this expenditure went down the drain as “corruption.” (By the way, the word “corruption,” or “korruptsiya,” is a foreign borrowing, as though this age-old Russian tradition were never acknowledged until some outsiders pointed it out.)
While it is nearly impossible to put precise figures on this corruption because of the total lack of transparency in the expenditures on the games, what is abundantly clear is that the main beneficiaries of these billions are friends of Putin and his cronies.
Other concerns that have been voiced are the environmental damage that has been caused by the new construction; the poor treatment of guest workers; the terrible disruptions and other negative consequences in the lives of local citizens, and, finally, the suppression of information about the real ethnic history of the area.
For Americans, the two biggest concerns have been the possibility of terrorist attacks and the recent legislation passed by the Russian Duma and signed by President Putin outlawing the propagation of gay “propaganda.” Fifty-two current and former Olympians, including Seth Wescott and Andy Roddick, have asked Russian authorities to reconsider this law.
Appearing at a recent Amnesty International fundraiser with Madonna in New York City, the two Pussy Riot members who have just been pardoned and released from jail, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, have called on politicians attending the games to criticize the Russian government’s human rights abuses.
Perhaps anticipating some of this criticism, the organizers invited the popular Russian group Tatu to participate in the opening ceremonies. The two members of Tatu, Yulya Volkova and Lena Katina, have cultivated a provocative lesbian image in their performances and songs.
Nevertheless, for the sake of the Olympic athletes who get to test themselves on such a grand stage only once in four years and for many of whom this Olympics will be their only opportunity, for the sake of all of us onlookers who thrill to the athletes’ extraordinary effort and dedication, I only hope that everyone stays safe, that the Olympic principle of equal treatment of all participants prevails, and that these games remain memorable solely for the great performances that we will witness.
Perhaps the U.S. delegation can model the ideal of acceptance and inclusion for all and in so doing pass on an important message to some members of the Russian public.
— Special to the Press Herald