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Sochi's Opening Ceremony Forgot to Mention a Few Things About Russian History

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It's fair to say that by the time the opening ceremonies began last night at 20:14, they were facing an uphill battle to impress. Russia, via Western journalists, had shown the world just how very corrupt and incompetent it is: $51 billion and years of preparation yielded upside-down toilet lids and yellow water and busted-through bathroom doors made of cardboard. There's even a popular hashtag for the debacle: #SochiProblems.

And yet, the Russians put on a lush and wonderful show. It was grand pageantry and exquisitely choreographed theater, the kind the Russians have been so exceptional at for a century. The giant figure skating stuffed animals were a bit weird, "vodka" was missing from the alphabet of Russian cultural treasures that opened the show, and there was only one glitch to speak of: only four of the snowflakes turned into Olympic rings, a muck-up the Russians managed to fix via spliced rehearsal footage from the rehearsal. But on the whole, it was yet another exhibit, if any were needed, in the long show window proving the fantastic might of Russian artistry.

But the show was a very specific view of Russia, one that glossed over some of the cruelest parts of its history. Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, for instance, was all ships and marching cadets, without the bones and swamp on which the city was built. World War II, which is a hallowed, painful spot for all Russians merited just a sentence on the destruction—"the scariest hour in Russia's 1000 year history"—and some searchlights slicing through the darkness. The Russian Revolution got the mixed treatment it deserved: it was portrayed as a gathering snow storm over the sumptuous imperial waltz of tsarism broken through by a locomotive glowing red as it screamed into the stadium. The benefits of the Revolution were praised, and its costs received an elliptically diplomatic acknowledgment: "The color red reigns, even though it is the color of blood," the announcer intoned dramatically. "The country is galloping forward, but at what cost?" Early Soviet history was all gorgeous red constructivism and machinery, the perfect ode to the revolution in technology and the arts that it brought to the country. Malevich and the Constructivists were lauded, even though the Revolution that enabled them eventually turned on them and labeled their art counter-revolutionary.

This, by the way, is a curious, bitterly ironic element of contemporary Russian pride in its artistic figures. These days, Aeroflot planes are named for the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was brutally murdered by the state in 1938. So too the opening ceremony praised Leo Tolstoy, who became an outcast for giving up his landowner status. It reveled in Sergei Diaghilev, the flamboyant ballet master, who stayed abroad after the Revolution and whom the new Soviet state condemned in perpetuity. The opening of the opening gave the letter "N" in the alphabet to Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his most famous works in English and outside a country where it was too dangerous for a son of the aristocracy to remain. When showing the post-War period, the ceremony showed the stilyagi in their poodle skirts, swinging and boogie-woogie-ing. They too were condemned for their emulation of Western "bourgeois" trends. And so on and so forth.

The spirit carried over into the march of the athletes, where the announcers on state-owned Channel 1, the biggest Russian channel, tried to take credit for every athlete with any Russian heritage, though, of course, there are usually profound economic and political reasons that so many millions of Russians—like me, for example—ended up living not in Russia, but in the West. (The announcers also took credit for the hats of the British team—"those are our Russian hats!"—but that's another story.)

One glaring omission throughout the parade of Russian culture was any pretense of cultural diversity. The announcers importantly declared how big Russia is—"the biggest country in the world, as big as the ocean"—and that it contains multitudes, "180 nations, each with their own culture and language," but we saw only one of them: the ethnic Russians. The world saw only traditional Slavic garb, with its lush brocade and big head pieces (kokoshniki), but nothing of the lezginkathe dance of the North Caucasus, or, say, the throat singing of Tuva. Putin is, after all, a Soviet man, and in the Soviet Union, the Russians were the first among the brothers of all the Soviet nations.

Missing also was the post-Communist period, the period that created Vladimir Putin. The world did not see how Russians see themselves today, but only that, even now, they view themselves as products of their history, forged in the cruel smelter of the centuries. It is a deft way of glossing over the turbulence of the painful, post-Soviet period, one that has produced very little of the kind of art and music and national treasure that Russia can flaunt before the world. (In fact, we did see modern Russia—in the upside-down toilet lids.)

And this is the cornerstone of Putin's Russia: a historically significant nation but one that is still climbing back up to its historic heights after a historic fall, one that has many nations but of which one is dominant. Throughout Putin's reign, this vision has been brought to life by his main showman, Konstantin Ernst, the head of Channel 1 and the director of the Opening ceremony. Joshua Yaffa wrote in The New Yorker of Ernst's vision:

Programming on Channel One, Floriana Fossato, who worked on media projects in Moscow in the aughts and now studies Russian television at University College London, said, showed “people surviving a cruel but, to a certain extent, necessary system.” Above all, Fossato told me, Russia was shown as a heroic nation. Viewers could hear about some of the country’s mistakes but remain secure that, as she put it, “we didn’t waste our lives.” The picture onscreen should be grand, proud, and, most important, attractive. 

And Ernst achieved it, this time, for a wider audience. 

New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.