Culture Editorial… Sochi Olympics

Last week, Putin gave a particularly unreassuring interview about the Sochi Olympics The rhetoric deployed was self-consciously sincere and relentlessly slippery. With three weeks to go until the beginning of the games, he played the part of a wise head of state finally levelling with his critics on the eve of battle. Questions about corruption in the run-up to Sochi were met with a moue of concern and a plea for anyone who had information about bribes changing hands to ‘please, give it to us. We will be grateful’.

His draconian views on homosexuality stem, he assures us, from a sincere desire to keep Russia democratic and protect children from paedophilia. This is nothing new: Putin should be expected to defend his policies, but it is shocking to see his ‘reasoning’ in action. Politicians do not all inspire confidence, but Putin’s willingness to justify hate with love and dress up oppression as democracy is remarkable in its flagrancy and disingenuity.  His comments calling gay people paedophiles were qualified with a glorified version of, ‘I’m not racist, some of my friends are black’: he cited Elton John, a gay person who, in Putin’s eyes, has made something of himself and can therefore be respected in spite of his sexuality. ‘When they achieve great results, our people sincerely love them with no regard for sexual orientation’.

Putin’s claims that Russians ‘sincerely love’ Elton John ring false in a country where ‘suspected’ lesbians have been deemed mentally unsound to bring up their children. His thin veneer of ‘sincere’ is nothing more than foundation, just like his assurances that gay visitors to Sochi will have ‘no problems’ over the month or so the games are going on. But his sugar-coating of human rights violation has taken unprecedented forms in recent months. The most transparent and casuist example of this is the sudden and theatrical release of Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace protestors. This is clearly a stunt, but it raises questions of authenticity in politics.

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When Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was languishing in a Siberian penal colony on hunger strike, she began to correspond with Slovenian Marxist philosopher  Slavoj Žižek. In his first letter to Nadya, he described radical dissidents as people who are unafraid to ‘hold a tuning-fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honoured pitch is G flat.’ This collective double-think works both ways – the people who allowed themselves to be shocked by Pussy Riot’s delivery but refused to engage with the frankness of their message are the same people who are willing to harmonise their discourse with Putin’s phony tuning forks. The notes Putin is playing are certainly time-honoured, but they are not what he says they are. This gradual uncovering and recovering of Vladimir Putin’s real motivations constitutes various permutations of portraying G flat as A. Ironically, even his rhetoric of hatred against gay people helps distract commentators from other sinister developments, such as the expulsion of journalist David Satter (the first US journalist to be expelled from Russia since the USSR) and Ukraine’s slide into Putin-style repression of free speech.

When the Olympics came to London in 2012, the press sat on the fence, unsure how such a display of patriotism would go down in a country of established cynics. Danny Boyle and Team GB pulled it off, though, and the day after the closing ceremony saw newspaper stands brimming with effusive headlines and photo after photo of fireworks. The Olympics have a capacity to delight, charm and unite, but this allure becomes dangerous when engineered by a man as unscrupulous as Vladimir Putin. In Tolokonnikova’s words, ‘the continued trade of raw materials constitutes a tacit approval of the Russian regime.’ We have not boycotted these Games and we continue to trade with Russia; however, it is crucial that the spectacle of the Sochi does not detract from what is really going on in the wings.