The Riot of Sochi 2014

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alekhina of Pussy Riot, via the New Yorker

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alekhina of Pussy Riot, via the New Yorker

After I came back from London in 2012, I had a slew of people ask me if I was going to Sochi in 2014. I stared at them dumbfounded.

“They put Pussy Riot in jail! I can’t imagine what they’d do to me.”

Yes, a passing stupid joke, but I don’t know why anyone would think I’d want to go to Russia for the Olympics. While London 2012 was mostly harmless, Sochi 2014 gave me the chills. I couldn’t imagine something good coming out of it. What I read about London 2012 preceding the Games was expected in the course of the Olympics: people complaining about an upheaval. Considering these people are British with a tendency to avoid getting excited about things, I was slightly anxious going in but unsurprised at how happily the Games were received. The whole thing seemed to be people complaining about bad weather, rain before a sunny day.

The sense I get from Sochi 2014 is an oncoming storm.


The Olympics is usually unpredictable when it comes to media coverage. It’s unpredictable in general. That’s the damn point. The most alluring stories of the Olympics are twofold: the athletes wins and losses and the political stories we subscribe to these stories which are ultimately meaningless in the long run. Having every country in the world send a female athlete — as I wrote about during the London 2012 Olympics — does not change the fact that women’s rights around the world are subpar, to put it lightly. It gives us hope though, which is usually the best and brightest the Olympics can offer. It takes these personal stories of athletes and magnifies them on a national and political scale so they become of collective import, a case study in how we can be.

Plus a recent New Yorker article points out that Pussy Riot is now out of jail after being granted amnesty and is not shutting up about it:

I got in touch with Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, who were just released from Russian prison colonies after nearly two years—part of Putin’s pre-Olympic amnesties, which are clearly intended to tamp down criticism from human-rights organizations and foreign governments. They will appear onstage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, on February 5th, with Madonna, the Flaming Lips, Imagine Dragons, and Lauryn Hill, at a benefit concert for Amnesty International. They will not perform their music, but they will have things to say.

According to the article, while Pussy Riot was released thanks to pressures from the West, they were supposed to get out in two months. They talk about how Putin is maintaining an image, a false fortitude:

“These Olympic Games are central to the meaning of his life—they are as important to him as anything he has done,” Alekhina said. “For us, it is important from an entirely different point of view. People need to note the corruption involved in building Sochi for the Games; they should notice the demolitions of buildings.”

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina said they thought that Putin, despite managing to suppress the wave of anti-government protests that erupted in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia two years ago, is weaker than he seems to the outside world.

Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny goes deeper into the issue:

Navalny, who told me that the 2014 Olympic project is, for Putin, “what the pyramids were for the pharaohs,” also said that the government amnesties shortening the prison terms of the Pussy Riot members, the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and some Greenpeace activists were merely a concession to the West on the eve of the Games. “The amnesties indicate that Putin is tired of answering these questions,” Navalny said. “He is fed up with the question of gay rights and safety issues and Khodorkovsky. The main point with Khodorkovsky is not the release—it was not launching a third case against him. The Olympic Games is the main reason why it happened, but it doesn’t indicate a real thaw. Yes, he released Khodorkovsky, but only after he was in prison for ten years. Pussy Riot was in prison for two years, and they were supposed to get out in two months. So he found the best-known cases in the West and he addressed them. But, believe me, we have many more cases of illegal prosecution in our country.”

Putin goes into the Olympics with something to prove, something to say. He wants to show how great Russia is, to establish a national identity:

“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” Tolokonnikova told me. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea—with the Church, with sports and the Olympics.”

I’m intrigued to see him try. Maybe Putin will actually achieve his stupid dream and make us think of Russia differently, as a country with a culture that is not full of political strife. But between political and security concerns and human rights abuses, what is happening instead is he is relenting in these areas. He is attempting to downplay the damage by quietly erasing the concerns. Instead, they read as tacit admission of how bad it looks. By attempting to increase the cultural story, he has put himself at the mercy of an international audience.

As part of that international audience, I’ll be watching.


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