Ever since I first saw Anya and her pup Pooka twirling around the ballroom of the Winter Palace in the animated movie Anastasia, I’ve had a fascination with Mother Russia. The fairytale of a long-lost duchess captivated me, and I’ve since spent a lot of time reading about Russian history. (Yeah, I’m a pretty big nerd, but I’ve learned to be ok with that).
With all eyes now on Sochi (and @SochiProblems), the issues concerning these Olympic games themselves—corruption, animal cruelty, environmental damage, hacking, and bathroom misadventures—have all been well documented. While I’m all for some friendly international schadenfreude, the vast majority of the media coverage has been driving me a little bonkers. While it is easy to file reports and express outrage over the jailing of pretty protesters or the passage of anti-LGBT propaganda laws (though we shouldn’t be ones to talk—similar laws exist in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah), it is much harder to accurately depict the state of modern Russia—a basic overview of the abuses of power, human rights violations, and economic woes is sorely lacking.
From everything that I have read and studied, the simplest way I can think of to explain the Russia that grew from the fall of the Soviet Union is to call it a “bizzaro world”—a veiled, faux-democratic version of what the U.S. could have become had we lost the Cold War. While each controversy is worthy of its own Tolstoy-length novel, in order to truly understand modern Russia, I believe that it is first essential to understand how and why Vladimir Putin, the former KGB official (and Forbes’ reigning Most Powerful Person) has been in power for the past 14 years. This is what I have come to understand through the looking glass of social media and Lexis Nexis:
Following the resignation of then-president Boris Yeltsin, Putin was named acting president in 1999; he later went on to win an election in his own right in 2000. Since then, as the face and puppet master of modern Russia, Putin has consolidated his power by strong-arming the oligarchy (the roughly 110 Russian citizens who control over one-third of all wealth in Russia) into submission through an exchange of support for political appointments and financial favors, limiting—and eliminating—voices of dissent, and pandering to the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2007, Putin dissolved his own government in order to have a freer hand in controlling upcoming national elections; a year later, in 2008, he unofficially entered into a shared tandemocracy (that’s tandem+democracy) with current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. This arrangement allows the pair to simply exchange titles when they have reached the end of their term limits (though, of course, they’ve also extended their own term limits from four to six years). Because of this, Putin has the distinction of being both the second and fourth president of what is officially called the Russian Federation.
As terminology goes, Putin’s approach to politics has been described as a sovereign democracy—that is, he insists on the unquestioned acceptance of his actions as reflective of the will of the Russian people. Of course, that’s not exactly the case; Putin basically does whatever he wants. This appearance-above-fact approach extends to every aspect of his persona and governance. To wit: though Putin’s notorious attempts to cultivate a “he-man” image may seem overtly oafish or appear to be vanity training for Festivus’ Feats of Strength, his tactics actually mirror old Soviet propaganda strategies. This thought mentality extends past Putin’s image into official policy and has clearly been on display at Sochi (the Opening Ceremony was curiously quiet on certain aspects of Russian history). It may seem like a joke, but it actually must have taken extraordinary restraint for this man to not ride horseback or fight a tiger during the Opening Ceremony.
Putin’s promotion of traditional, conservative Russian interests (namely, money and power) are best exemplified through his attempts to influence former Soviet satellite states and silence dissenters, both at home and abroad. In this way, he operates as though the might of the USSR is still the status quo and ferociously objects to what he views as Western influence in the region.
Internationally, his recent $15 billion attempt to bribe the Ukraine into rejecting a trade agreement with the European Union has, much to his dismay, only helped to escalate tensions in the reign. However, the attempt itself is not surprising. Much like the 2008 South Ossetia War against Georgia (a NATO nation), the situation in the Ukraine hinges on the potential democratization of what Putin views to be Russian property. These actions, along with his agitated support of fellow human rights violator Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are a clear assertion of Putin’s vision of Russia as an equally viable alternative to Western European and American leadership, despite the fact that he cannot provide his citizens with clean drinking water.
Within Russia itself, critics of Putin and his regime are often silenced by way of exile to Siberia—literally. Pussy Riot is, perhaps, the most famous example of this methodology; an individual or group voices criticism, is convicted of trumped up charges (hooliganism, etc) during a show trial, and sent to suffer in one of the state’s prison colonies. Throughout and after this process, the target(s) will also be under constant scrutiny and even physical attack from Putin’s armed forces and the state-controlled media.
And speaking of the media: in late 2012, Putin announced the creation of a new news agency, Rossiya Segodnya, tasked with the sole responsibility of broadcasting coverage to promote the Russian image. This is reminiscent of Soviet-era broadcasting and comes on top of the fact that nearly all Russian media is already controlled by the state (the one independent network, TV Rain, has recently been dropped by most carriers following governmental pressure).
This systematic control system that Putin has established underscores not only the climate under which the Olympics are currently being held, but also the living situation of the more than 143 million Russian people. While it is easy to scoff and dismiss the quirks of Sochi, I believe that there is a very real danger in laughing and falling down that rabbit hole. To not acknowledge the inherent problems and continued rise of Putin’s Soviet-style governance is to ignore the denial of voices and basic human rights to an entire populace; to not acknowledge this, but to acknowledge the double toilets, is to fall into Putin’s propaganda. His values aren’t Olympic values and there is nothing sportsmanlike about his conduct.
Photo by Remi Coin