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A homeless man gets a hot meal from a soup truck courtesy of the Nochlezhka homeless shelter in St. Petersburg January 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A homeless man gets a hot meal from a soup truck courtesy of the Nochlezhka homeless shelter in St. Petersburg January 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

PUTIN'S GAMES

‘Sochi is Putingrad’: Vladimir Putin has made a lasting impression Add to ...

In the Soviet era, great leaders had cities named after them. St. Petersburg, the imperial capital, was rechristened in honour of Lenin and Volgograd became Stalingrad. Now, as modern Russia strives to recapture its past glory, the practice seems ready for a revival.

“Sochi is Putingrad,” says Marat Gelman, who considers the $50-billion investment in the Black Sea resort and the Winter Olympics to begin there on Friday the personal handiwork of his former boss, President Vladimir Putin.

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“He built the whole thing. It’s his legacy.”

And they are the Putin Games. Seven years ago, Mr. Putin travelled to Guatemala and campaigned so persuasively (in three languages) that the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi even though it lacked appropriate facilities and is Russia’s only city never guaranteed to see snow in February.

Eager to erase painful memories of 1980’s blighted Summer Games in Moscow, marred by a Western boycott after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the President and his supporters are now poised to celebrate, with by far the most costly Olympiad ever held, the rebirth of a country they say is strong and proud once again: stable domestically and able to walk on the international stage with a swagger.

The trouble is that Mr. Putin hasn’t contained himself to Putingrad.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Gelman, a former state TV executive turned political aide, helped to craft a tough-guy media image for the little-known ex-KGB agent and cheered him on as he steadied Russia after a decade of social and economic chaos.

But Mr. Gelman walked away four years later. The tough guy had turned authoritarian, crushing political dissent. Instead of transforming the Kremlin, he transformed the country in his own – deeply fraught – image: proud and ambitious, but also grasping, obsessed with appearances and sometimes explosively violent.

The Putin swagger has sent relations with the West – bitter over Kremlin support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and now irritated with its meddling in the Ukraine power struggle – to their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The domestic situation is equally unsettling. Putin’s Games are mired in allegations of corruption, an international outcry over gay rights, as well as fears of a terrorist attack.

So what, beyond Putingrad, will Mr. Putin’s legacy in Russia be?

To find out, I returned to the country where I lived a decade ago, during the introductory phase of the political and economic system now known simply as “Putinism.” Along with Globe photographer John Lehmann, I travelled more than 6,500 kilometres over two weeks, working our way toward Sochi and tracing the rise of Vladimir Putin, the impact he has had, and what Russians – powerful and powerless alike – make of it all.

St. Petersburg: ‘A large gap between the rich and the poor’

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 in what was then Leningrad, which he describes in his memoirs as a place of violence and despair, where his older brother died of diphtheria and daily survival depended on learning how to defend yourself.

After the Soviet collapse, the original name was restored, as was the city centre after Mr. Putin came to power – one of the megaprojects, along with the rebuilding of Vladivostok in the east and Grozny, in the south, the President has overseen to showcase the economic growth he has brought to Russia.

As in Sochi, cost was no object. At least $13-billion has been spent to revive the city that is also home to much of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Soon it will receive another injection of cash as one of 11 host cities for Mr. Putin’s next big party, the 2018 soccer World Cup (budget: $22-billion, and expected to rise).

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