Staunton, May 11 – Kremlin leaders have always devoted particular attention to sporting events, using them to boost their image at home and abroad and to cover or at least distract attention from their aggressive and repressive actions, only to discover that these high-profile actions often adumbrate the collapse of all their hopes and dreams.
In 1980, shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Leonid Brezhnev hosted an Olympiad diminished by a Western boycott, hoping to distract attention from that and from Soviet weakness. That effort failed: What the Kremlin hoped would make the USSR look powerful only highlighted its fundamental weaknesses. Eleven years later, it was gone.
More recently, Vladimir Putin, who is even more interested in using sporting events to boost himself and to hide his increasing weakness and repressiveness, sought to use the Sochi Olympiad to cover his increasing aggressiveness toward Russia’s neighbors and his increasing repression at home.
Now, looking toward what he hopes will be an equally successful operation in the form of the 2018 World Cup, the Russian president is adopting ever more bombastic, aggressive and repressive moves that for thoughtful people in both Russia and the West only underscore the weaknesses of his regime.
And they raise a serious question: will Putin’s regime last any longer after Sochi than Brezhnev’s did after Moscow? Or will the second act of this drama of imperial and national decline, one that began long before 1980, conclude even sooner and more pathetically, albeit more explosively, than did the first?
A group of Russian and Western analysts have examined that broader issue in a new book, Russia in Decline (Washington, DC: Jamestown, 2017, xv + 366 pp.). Edited by S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth M. Portale, it contains 17 essays exploring various aspects of this problem. The current author is proud to have been asked to write the foreward to this volume.
Now, a Moscow commentator, Anton Orekh, has focused specifically on what might be called the Olympic link. In an essay this week, he argues that Putin’s use of sports competitions represents simply the latest update of Brezhnev’s in 1980 and that it may prove equally fateful in ways the Kremlin doesn’t want (echo.msk.ru/blog/oreh/1978554-echo/).
“Sport has recommended itself [historically] as a universal means for achieving any goals,” Orekh says. “With the help of sports, one can solve certain infrastructure problems of cities where the Olympiad, the Universal, or the World Cup competition will take place. And at one and the same time, solve one’s own problems as well,” personal and political.
International athletic competitions for Russia in particular are “a beautiful addition to the Georgian ribbons … for now, every gold medal will allow for reasserting the indisputable advantages of our capitalist system,” the Moscow analyst argues. The Sochi games both in terms of how they were prepared and what they led to are an “already tested model” for the future.
As Putin is already demonstrating, “football has turned out to be a fine occasion to ban meetings and close population points to alien elements. And this practice in principle can be extended even further. It can be presented as it were as counter-terrorist, anti-criminal and anti-vandal” by the authorities.
“But if everything takes place successfully, beautifully and without problems, then why in general not ban meetings that don’t have the permission of the authorities and the FSB, why not introduce visas for visiting cities, and at the same time restore the registration system for residents” as in Soviet times?
No athletic competitions are really needed for that, Orekh says.
“Thirty-seven years ago, in the summer of 1980,” he continues, an Olympiad took place in Moscow. Those who were in the capital at the time still recall those already distant two weeks when in the city it was quiet and clean and militiamen at each crosswalk were dressed in parade uniforms.”
“We with seven league steps are moving forward to the Soviet past,” Orekh concludes. “And naturally, the 2018 World Cup must be a copy of the 1980 Olympics. [But] the main thing is not to forget that after that Olympiad,” which appeared to be so successful, “the country had only 11 years to live.”