After a long break, a new contribution to the Experts Panel:
Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way
Western journalists have been in the business of dismissing Russian achievements and magnifying Russian failures ever since Putin drove them into a collective derangement syndrome – he even haunts their dreams, as recently revealed by the Guardian’s Shaun Walker – so the preemptive besmirching of the Sochi Olympics can’t have surprised anyone.
What is startling, though, is the unusually low competence of the effort, even by the standards of these people that are sarcastically referred to as “democratic journalists” in Russia.
The first and foremost attack revolved around the supposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In 2010, the Russian magazine Esquire estimated that 48km of roads around Sochi consumed a cool $8 billion of taxpayer money, a sum that implied the asphalt might as well have been made of elite beluga caviar. Julia Ioffe cheerily transmitted these sophomoric calculations to the Anglosphere. The only problem with these actuarial wisecracks? Said road also included a railway, 50 bridges, and 27km worth of tunnels over mountainous terrain… which presumably made it something more than just a road. What was intended as a metaphor for Sochi corruption turned out to be, ironically, a metaphor for unfounded attacks against it.
There are incessant comparisons to the $8 billion spent during the 2010 Olympics in Canada. But this sidesteps the fact that Whistler was already a world-class ski resort, whereas Sochi’s infrastructure had to be built from scratch and at relatively short notice. The actual event-related costs of the Sochi Olympics are $7 billion, of which only half was directly drawn from the state budget. This is not to say that there was no stealing – of course there was, as corruption is a real problem in Russia, and is especially endemic in the construction industry. Navalny has created an entire website about it, and coordinated a campaign against Sochi with Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what’s striking is that far from the pharaonic levels of misappropriation we might expected from the tone of the coverage, in most cases the markup was in the order of 50%-100% relative to “comparable” Western projects (and that’s after selecting the most egregious cases). This isn’t “good,” needless to say, but it’s hardly unprecedented in Western experience. In any case, a number of criminal cases have been opened up, so impunity is not guaranteed. (The most prominent “victim,” Akhmed Bilalov, has fled the country and claimed he was poisoned – all true to the form of emigre oligarch thieves from the ex-Sovie Union).
The lion’s share of the $50 billion investment in Sochi – some 80% of it or so – consists of infrastructure projects to make Sochi into a world-class ski resort that will provide employment in the restive North Caucasus, kickstart the development of a Russian snowsports culture, and draw at least some of the more patriotic elites away from Courcheval.
The second major angle of attack is Russia’s “persecution” of gays. This, presumably, refers to Russia’s new laws against the propaganda of homosexuality to children – no matter that very similar laws, in the form of Section 28, existed in the UK until 2003, and that sodomy remained illegal in some American states up until the same year. I bring these up not so much to engage in “whataboutism” as to point out that the moral standards that the West proselytizes so zealously have only been adopted (or dropped?) within the past decade. Furthermore, much of the rest of the world rejects those standards to a significantly greater extent than does Russia itself. As such, this campaign strikes such an absurd and nauseatingly self-righteous note that one cannot but suspect a cynical motive behind it. Snowden and Syria, in particular, come to mind.
The third, and by far the most repulsive, category of Western concern trolling about Sochi revolves around terrorism. After every successful terrorist attack in Russia, “experts” rush in to proclaim that it is an example of “Putin’s autocracy not working for ordinary Russians” (Kathryn Stoner-Weiss), that they “cannot rely on the protection of their government” (David Satter), etc. By extension, the IOC is wildly irresponsible for “jeopardizing the safety of fans and athletes” by awarding the games to Russia (Sally Jenkins). In reality, according to the world’s most comprehensive database on terrorism, the number of casualties in terrorist attacks in Russia has plummeted in the past decade, even as the jihadist movement has been reduced to a shadow of its former self; suffice to say that suicide bombing a bus in a second-tier city like Volgograd is now considered a great success among their ranks. I do not wish to tempt fate by ruling it out entirely, but with the “ring of steel,” pervasive telecommunications monitoring, and cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies that characterize Sochi security, the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack is surely low.
Consequent criticisms become increasingly deranged and unhinged from reality, much like the murderous HAL supercomputer fading away into childish gibberishness after it gets turned off. Thousands of people got evicted, their land stolen from them… except that the average compensation per person was $100,000. Sochi is apparently built on the bones of Circassians… well, if it’s a graveyard, I wonder what that makes the North American continent – a death world? The assertion that Sochi is an “unsuitable subtropical resort” with no snow… an assessment that would surely surprise the denizens of California’s Bay Area, who go skiing in Tahoe up until late April, and where average February temperatures are significantly higher than around Sochi. If anything, conditions are looking downright steezy. The metaphorical rock-bottom was attained by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who made a photograph of a pair of side-by-side toilets that were then splashed around the media – up to and including The New York Times – as evidence of the graft and imbecility that characterized the Sochi preparations. The only problem being that the photograph was taken in the middle of a renovation. But, hey, we wouldn’t want to deny the Brits their toilet humor, now would we…
All this is not to say that the Sochi Olympics are some kind of pure monument to virtuous sportsmanship and international friendship. Of course not. From their origins in ancient Greece, they were always about money, competition, and prestige. Putin himself openly states that one of its goals is to showcase a new Russia. There are no rules preventing Western states from waging a media campaign against Sochi, and refusing to send their top leaders to the opening ceremonies – petty and unseemly, such actions only reflect badly on their authors. So be it… gapers won’t be missed.