Olympic opening and closing ceremonies are complex beasts. Intended to entertain, showcase talent, and celebrate sport, they are chiefly designed by the governments who underwrite them to define the host country in its moment in the world’s spotlight. Over several hours of opening and closing ceremonies on Feb. 7 and Sunday, the regime of Vladimir Putin unfolded an ambitious exposition of Russia. The spectacles were prepared by a top-flight creative team led by the president’s ally, Konstantin Ernst, an impresario, writer, producer and now the general director of the state broadcasting network. The themes they tackled were stupendous and the production values sensational. It’s just a shame that the product they were peddling is so suspect.
This presentation was a far cry from the folk-dancer-and-local-pop-star shows of yore. It advanced even beyond Zhang Yimou’s ambitious presentation of Chinese civilization at Beijing in 2008 or Danny Boyle’s stylish ode to England at London in 2012. Mr. Ernst and his team took the enormously bold decision to unfold Russia by telling her story – one of the world’s most tragic and certainly not natural for the feel-good Olympic froth machine. They did so through the artistic device of thematically structuring both the opening and closing ceremonies thematically around a set of cities and towns. Old Moscow, Imperial St. Petersburg, and Soviet Moscow anchored the Opening ceremony two weeks ago, while the timeless village of Marc Chagal’s memory carried the thematic weight of Sunday’s closing spectacle. Wrapped around these images was, of course, Sochi itself: a $50-billion, 21st-century, global-village Disneyland.
The stage was set at the opening ceremony with an arresting visualization of one of Russian literature’s most famous metaphors. A ghostly, wire airframe sculpture of LED lights in the shape of three horses dragged a chariot of the sun, evoking Gogol’s famous simile from Dead Souls, “thou art like a troika, O my beloved Russia… The troika flies, sails, bright as a spirit of God. O Russia, Russia! whither goest thou?”
What unfolded was a complex, densely layered answer to that question. The nation’s story was presented as a series of epochs: the Muscovite and Imperial Russian centuries, the Bolshevik decades and now, introducing… l’ere Putin, the time of Putin, Putinschina!
First came the onion-domed blimps, a rainbow fantasy of Moscow the Holy with its “forty-times-forty churches” and a parade of Boyars in particularly outrageous bearskin hats.
Next, over blue waves sailed Tsar Peter the Great, founding his dream city of St. Petersburg, his “window on the west.” A dazzling imagining of the imperial city’s military and cultural history came in a parade ground drill over a map of the city’s fortifications, followed by an enactment of the ballroom scene from War and Peace beneath towering columns.
Next came a landward – and eastward – turn to Communist Moscow. And what a Moscow! Not the drab Soviet burg of peeling plaster and smelly woolens, but a sexed-up, suprematist/constructivist style-capital out of Tatlin’s and Rodchenko’s most delirious dreams, complete with Khruschev-era bobby-soxers (did these ever exist?), a fleet of red baby-strollers (a plug for Putin’s re-population efforts?) and more automobiles than ever prowled the city’s windswept streets when private car ownership was virtually unheard-of.
Yesterday’s closing ceremony rounded out the parade of Russian communities with the timeless shtetl of The Village and I, de-Judaicized to represent the fundamental base and heartland of the Russian civilization.
Throughout, and in particular at the peak of the opening, the dazzling new city of Sochi itself was used to complete the story. Again and again, the stadium itself was used as the setting for a kind of apotheosis. From sea to land to sky, from blue to red to milky-way night, from west to east to havenwards viewers were drawn. The spectacle’s everyman, a doe-eyed poppet one night, she and her friends on another, literally flew up to the starry vault of the stadium itself, drawing the viewer into a final capital city of Russia’s glorious story.
And the name of this heavenly metropolis? As the Kremlin’s former image-guy, Marat Gelman, put it to The Globe and Mail in January, “Sochi is Putingrad.”
Taken together, the shows presented an arresting, stunning spectacle. The moving classical music, the ballet dancing, the opera performances, the staging, the sets, the architecture, and above all the immensely rich and layered content were a dazzling showcase of everything that has made generations of western intellectuals fall madly in love with Russia. You gotta love a country that fields the Mariinski and the Bolshoi corps de ballet at a sports extravaganza, that takes a chunk of a billion-dollar prime-time spectacle to celebrate Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, as occurred in the “literature” section of Sunday’s Reflections of Russia cultural extravaganza.
The Solzhenitsyn shout-out was particularly critical. Not only he, but also Akhmatova, Tsveteava, Bulgakov and Brodsky were included in a pantheon of immense banners depicting the country’s literary heroes. The most serious flaw in the overall thematic of the shows has been the glossing over of the tragedies of Russian history. By nodding to these great chroniclers of Russia’s epic twentieth century sorrows, the tragedies of the nation’s tyrant-ridden history were addressed – however slightly.
A similarly tokenistic treatment was given to the other great problematic of Russian history – imperialism and its legacy in the continued dominance over the former empire’s ethnic minorities. Sunday’s massive celebration of Great Russian genius in the arts left almost no room for the diversity of peoples in the Federation. The monolithic pean to ethnic Russian greatness can only have made heads shake amongst the approximately 20 percent of the population – 30 million people – who are not part of the grand tradition proclaimed at Sochi.
Which brings us to the last of the spectacle’s cities, the one that’s been looming in the background for the past two weeks: Kiev. The Soviet Union’s break-up left a lot of difficult problems (Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and South Ossetia to name a few), but the riven society of Ukraine is the big one. Russia’s Olympic party is over, and a massive hangover looms in the wreckage of Mr. Putin’s Ukrainian policy and the prospect of civil war on Russia’s borders.
A glitzy, friendly, liberal, happening – at last normal! – Russia was carefully constructed throughout the Sochi ceremonials and in the games themselves. Wheeling out the faux-lesbian girl group t.A.T.u. on opening night was a clever deflection of both the Pussy Riot controversy and the repression of sexual minorities. The slogan “Hot. Cool. Yours.” was straight off of Madison Avenue. And in a masterful public relations gesture, the grim-faced Russian state even laughed at itself with the closing ceremony parody of the opener’s “snowflake” glitch.
But behind the ostentatious show of normality lies another reality. In the eyes of millions of Ukrainians, anyway, the Russia depicted at Sochi is just another Potemkin village, concealing behind its glittering facade an angry, domineering and violent Russia bent on restoring its imperium.
Sochi has been a great show. But once the set gets struck, the sorrow and the horror that was danced around so stylishly remain intractably present.
John Duffy is a principal at StrategyCorp. He has served as an advisor to Bob Rae and to prime minister Paul Martin