Foreign agents are everywhere he looks. Gay-rights activists are part of a Western-backed effort to depopulate Russia, the archpriest responsible for relations between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church told me. The court that tried the members of punk band Pussy Riot insinuated that they were foreign provocateurs because one of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has a Russian-Canadian husband and an Ontario health card.
Even more troublesome are the liberal leanings of many Russian journalists. As the protests in Ukraine have unfolded, the Kremlin has launched a full-scale campaign to control the media more tightly. First came the reorganization of the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, which had become less a state bugle and more a professional newswire during the relatively liberal presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. RIA Novosti has been now merged into a new company with the official Voice of Russia radio, which repeatedly uses the word “terrorists” to describe the protesters in Ukraine.
Next came heaving pressure on Russia’s lone independent news channel, TV Dozhd (TV Rain). It was officially labeled “unpatriotic” in late January, and cable and satellite providers got the message, dropping the channel en masse.
The lonely Echo of Moscow radio station – a democratic bastion since the days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost – was finally brought into line this week, with the dismissal of veteran chief executive Yuri Fedutinov, who was replaced with Yekaterina Pavlova, a former Voice of Russia executive.
Echo of Moscow and TV Rain were problematic for the Kremlin because their sympathetic coverage of the Ukraine protests was reaching a Russian audience. That they were also criticizing the Sochi Games was intolerable. Echo of Moscow’s troubles escalated quickly after it posted a blog on its website comparing the Sochi Games to the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany.
For the first 10 days of the Olympics, Mr. Putin’s dream Russia almost seemed real. His opponents had gleefully anticipated disaster. Some had predicted political protest; others, a terrorist attack, given the lingering Islamist insurgency not far away in the same Caucasus Mountains where the Olympians were competing.
Neither has happened so far. After some early griping about missing shower curtains and cubicles with two toilets, Sochi has been hailed by the International Olympic Committee and most athletes as a success. The women of Pussy Riot repeatedly outsmarted and embarrassed the President and his police – shouting their newly released song, Putin Will Teach You To Love The Motherland, as police and Cossacks providing Olympic security clumsily used violence to stop them. But their kamikaze performances also served to underscore how few other Russians were protesting.
Meanwhile, the Caucasus Emirate, the main Islamist group that had vowed to attack the Games, now seems but a shadow of the movement that for 15 years made Russians fearful to board a train or an airplane. They tried – the foreign minister of neighbouring Abkhazia (a Kremlin-backed ministate) told me two weapons caches, including rockets, were found near Sochi – but the massive Olympic security operation appears to have worked.
Ukraine, however, was the variable Mr. Putin couldn’t control. This week, TV sets in the Olympic village started to click over to coverage of the fighting, and some of the world’s media accredited to attend Sunday’s closing ceremony boarded planes to Kiev.
“Up until a few days ago, it looked like the stream of negative coverage was subsiding into coverage of the actual sports and appreciation for how Sochi looks,” says Masha Lipman, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
In other words, Mr. Putin had almost succeeded in impressing the world with the Potemkin Russia he had constructed in Sochi. Then Ukraine blew up. “Sochi is now being overshadowed by Ukraine, no question about that,” Ms. Lipman adds.
Which is no coincidence to Mr. Markov. “They hate Putin,” he says, claiming that Western politicians chose to escalate the violence. “So they decided to spoil this holiday in Sochi.”
On Thursday, at least two Ukrainian athletes here said they would no longer compete, a gesture seemingly aimed at both their President and their Olympic hosts. Black ribbons were added to Ukrainian flags flying from athletes’ balconies in the Olympic village.
Even Mr. Putin, who last weekend bobbed around during surprise visits to the Canadian and U.S. quarters in the village, slapping backs and trading jokes, has been forced to shift his attention away from Sochi. Notably absent from Bolshoy Arena when Finland ended Russia’s hopes for a hockey medal on Tuesday, he was, according to his spokesman, on the phone with Mr. Yanukovych.
The nightmare of Kiev invaded his dream world and spoiled his party, so Mr. Putin is now wide awake. Even if there is a truce in Kiev and the bloodshed stops, he is almost surely in no mood to forgive those he considers responsible.