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The Globe and Mail

Why intellectual honesty was not the priority at the Sochi opening ceremony

Maybe the stubborn snowflake blinded everyone.

When the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games unfolded last Friday, viewers around the world had a field day with what they didn't see. The three-hour pageant "skipped over the bloody excesses of Stalinist Russia in favour of a bit of WW II and a whole lot of Soviet teenyboppers," wrote Time magazine's James Poniewozik. Appearing on NBC, the New Yorker editor David Remnick called the presentation of Russian history "highly idealized."

Contrary to tradition, the parade of nations followed the Cyrillic alphabet rather than the English one. And of course there was that notorious snowflake which refused to blossom into the fifth Olympic ring.

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Even Russian nationalists complained that the event – dubbed by the Moscow Times a "Putinkin Opening Ceremony" – ignored the country's artists and writers who were best known within Russia, in favour of those such as Vladimir Nabokov, who found their success abroad.

But on Thursday, the London-based writer Mary Dejevsky charged in The Guardian that international coverage overlooked the central fact of the ceremony: namely, that it said "quite a lot about how today's Russia wants to be seen and what it aspires to be." People got caught up with what they wanted Russia to say rather than what Russia was actually saying.

The Cyrillic alphabet was threaded through the ceremony, with producers choosing a historic icon to represent each letter. The choices of those icons – which Dejevsky said hinted at a desire for a "new, post-Soviet cultural canon" – was curious, and telling. Along with Nabokov, there was the artist Wassily Kandinsky, an émigré who lived in Germany and France. Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist who lived for decades in France and the United States, was also honoured.

"Being a fly on the wall of the meetings that decided what each letter would stand for would have been an enlightening experience," she wrote. The letter "S, you will be relieved to know, was for Sputnik, not Stalin, one of several references to the glory days of Soviet space conquests: G for Gagarin; L for moon robot lunokhod; T for the rocket scientist, Tsiolkovsky."

True, she noted, "there was no mention of communism, or Lenin, or any other Soviet-era leader. P stood for the periodic table – a reference to the Russian scientist Mendeleev, and, in effect, a renewed repudiation of the Stalin-era pseudoscience of Lysenko."

Including that unfortunate chapter of Russian history would have been more intellectually honest. But it also would have meant making the country suffer again for its ignoble past: this time from embarrassment, on a stage in front of the entire world.

"Together, the alphabet and the pageant combined to present a Russia that was culturally inclusive, both traditional and modern, in which each age, from Muscovy through to the pluses and minuses of Soviet times, had its allotted place," wrote Dejevsky approvingly.

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"Yes, some of the most painful aspects were missing – the gulag, for a start; Solzhenitsyn was rejected (too divisive?) for S – but there was an encouraging lack of dogma and militarism. You could say something similar of London 2012. But the idea – to present a Russia for today that built national pride on a continuum of cultural and scientific distinction – was largely realised."

Follow me on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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