In Tolstoy's novel Resurrection, a travelling Russian nobleman is put up in a grubby room by an estate foreman, who has an ornate quilt from his wife's trousseau laid out on a bed that turns out to be infested with bugs. The context makes it clear that the foreman and peasants sleep in even worse conditions, under quilts probably sewn from whatever scraps of fabric they can find.
Quilting in Russia has traditionally been a humble craft, less concerned with fancy design than with using up every little bit of leftover cloth. Now this testament to domestic thrift has been stylized into the main visual branding element for the most expensive Olympics ever.
The Sochi Olympics patchwork quilt, designed by Russian fashion and luxury conglomerate Bosco di Ciliegi (Italian for "Cherry Orchard"), is a digital mash-up of patterns from 28 different traditional arts across the country. The brightly coloured diamond design will be seen everywhere at the Sochi Games, on banners, clothing, cars, trains and even the athletes' medals, which feature a monochrome quilt segment.
The designers' goal, says the official Olympic website, was to represent as many of Russia's 89 regions as possible, and to stir "a diverse range of emotions and feelings, connecting concepts like Motherland, Family, Culture, Time, Olympism, Peace, Nobility, Friends, Memory, Honour, Dreams, Beauty, Freedom, Pride, Warmth, Happiness, Greatness, Reliability, Victory, Creativity, Hospitality, Creation, Future, Russia, Planet Earth." You can almost see those terms going up on the whiteboard at a Bosco quilt brainstorm meeting. With so many intense feelings already raging in the graphic design, how can the Games compete?
Every Olympic host country tries to put a unifying stamp on an event that serves the twin aims of personal glory and national prestige. The task this time has been made more difficult by a sexual-orientation debate whose Western importance Russian leaders seem slow to understand, and by threats of regional terrorism. Depending on how you look at it, the Sochi quilt is either an emblem of inclusiveness or a wishful attempt to clump together people who may not feel all that included.
A few of the patterns are from textiles, including the lace they've been making in the northwestern town of Vologda for at least two centuries, and the distinctive printed shawls named for Pavlovsky Posad, a village near Moscow. Other patterns come from painted wooden crafts, ceramics and even metalwork. The nesting matryoshka (sometimes called babushka) doll, however, does not appear in Bosco's breakout of the crafts represented. "The matryoshka never was as popular in Russia as it was abroad," says Natalia Nekrassova, a Russian traditional-arts expert who now a curator at the Textile Museum of Canada. "It's a tourist craft."
The Olympic quilt Web page features a map of Russia covered in the pattern, in a span of colours that recreates the entire visible spectrum, from red in the country's western end to violet in the far east. A Western eye might see in this rainbow an unintended allusion to the rainbow flag seen at LGBT events, just as the Olympic quilt may remind some of the ongoing AIDS Memorial Quilt that now includes more than 48,000 panels and claims to be "the largest community art project in the world."
One metalworking pattern in the Sochi quilt is native to Dagestan, a mostly Islamic region that was party to the second Chechen war and is apparently home to the men who recently released a videotape threatening the Olympics. Using cultural symbols of people who may feel disenfranchised is, however, something of an Olympic tradition. The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver were branded with motifs that originated with native peoples, with whom Canada and B.C. are in perpetual conflict over land rights.
That Vancouver branding had an influence on the Sochi quilt, which includes a "firebird feather" mofit that is also appears on Russian Olympic team uniforms. The firebird is rooted in Russian folklore, but the Sochi quilt webpage says that Bosco's feather design also owes something to "the Native American icons in the [Vancouver] Olympic decorations," especially the horns seen in Vancouver's "totem animal imagery."
Nekrassova says her first impression of Bosco's Sochi design was that it didn't much resemble traditional Russian quilts. "They were made from small remnants of printed cottons, that could be of different size and shape, rectangular and square and triangle, put in asymmetric, random patterns and stitched together," she says. But the apparent regularity of the Olympic quilt's diamond shapes breaks up when you look at it more closely, she notes. The fusion of so many snipped-up patterns, she says, is typical of the traditional form, which tended to obliterate its constituent elements into an overall look dominated by a few strong colours. "It's mainly the colours that speak, that affect you," she says. Traditionally, the colours that had most to say were deep red, blue and white – a bold, simple palette that the Sochi quilt has expanded and modernized.
"I think they wanted to show that Russia is a multinational and multicultural country," says Nekrassova. As Vladimir Putin and his Olympic committee have discovered, however, controlling a message can be much harder than sewing a quilt.