Russia, an uncontroversial land of non-drama

The myth of the Olympic opening ceremonies

(John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

(John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

So what can you say about the opening ceremonies? We all know that the really interesting stuff was happening outside, where protesters were being arrested and Russia’s reputation continued to sink so low that it confirms everything Yakov Smirnoff ever said about the place. But inside the stadium, with the opening ceremonies in progress, none of that could be mentioned. We got to see a woman in a crazy headdress leading out the people in their different national costumes, including Canada’s very red attire (at this point, I guess you could say we’re more red than the Russians). And we got to see Putin with that impassive face where you sometimes detect the barest hint of a smirk, as if he’d like to celebrate his invincibility but is holding himself in from actually doing so.

The main purpose of an opening ceremony is for a country to present itself to the world the way it wants itself to be seen. And with Russia, the way it wants to be seen has usually been a strange mix of the future and the past. The country has always wanted to demonstrate that it’s not behind the times, that it’s modernizing and becoming cutting-edge in buildings and technology. And then again it’s obsessed with its own glorious cultural past, in part because it’s safer to celebrate dead authors and composers than to celebrate new ones (they sometimes talk back). And so it was in this ceremony. We got some segments about how far Russia has come, like the film about how they went from cutting down trees in an agrarian society to creating this shiny wonderful building the spectators are sitting in. But we got a lot of shout-outs to the Russian past, from the constant use of classical Russian music—Borodin at the beginning, Stravinsky later on, and of course Tchaikovsky—to the War and Peace ballet.

And unlike the British opening ceremonies of two years ago, which had a particular political point to make and a celebration of a particular way of running the country, Russia’s take on its own history was safer and kind of generic. You’d get the impression that nothing happened between 1917 and 1953, and except for the one obligatory number about Russian youth, there wasn’t a lot about how ordinary Russians behave or what the Russian system of government has to teach the world. No, it was mostly a girl flying around on wires, risking her life to show us that Russia has lovely costumes, ballet, and music. You can see why some people—including Lenin—have argued that high culture is a way of dulling the senses and distracting people from the bigger issues they should be angry about. War and Peace and Stravinsky are not exactly harmless and cute, but they do seem like a distraction here, as if to change the subject from Russia’s government to the things Russia does well. That was a traditional tactic during the Cold War, and we may have seen a miniaturized, condensed version of it today.

Did it work? I don’t think it seemed that effective. When a country has a bad international reputation, the goal of an Olympic opening ceremony is to change that reputation, or at least make us rethink it. For Russia, that would involve convincing us that it’s really a modern, with-it country that isn’t as backward in its attitudes or its form of government as we think. But what we mostly got out of this ceremony is that Russia is obsessed with remembering the good bits of its past and expunging the rest, and that it leans heavily on cultural nostalgia—both for the olden days and the swingin’ post-Stalin Soviet era. That impression totally fits in with the country’s retrograde reputation as a whole. You could watch every bit of the ceremony and conclude that Russia is exactly the way you pictured it; a better ceremony would have surprised us a bit, or told us something we didn’t know about the country. As it is, the ceremony seemed less interesting and certainly less insightful about Russia than the things happening outside.

So in the end it was kind of an insular ceremony, probably more accessible to people who knew every one of the references tossed out in the opening “alphabet” list of great Russian figures, and especially accessible to people who are okay with the way Russia is going right now. Those of us outside the loop had to be content with the nice music and choreography, and the occasional moment when something went wrong: the shot of Dmitry Medvedev dozing off, and of course, that one snowflake that was supposed to open up into an Olympic circle and didn’t manage to do so. It was the most memorable moment of the ceremony. And it could be seen as a little bit symbolic of the disconnect between the image that Russia wants to project and the image we’re getting: no matter how modern and high-tech it wants to be, there’s a little glitch in there that is reminiscent of the old Soviet days, a little suggestion that maybe the country hasn’t modernized that much. Of course I may be over-selling the symbolism of one mechanical failure, but you have to do something to stay awake during the parades.

Oh, and I should probably say something about the mascots, including the teddy bear and the female rabbit with her weirdly come-hither looks. They seemed to be proof that even live mascots have fallen all the way into the Uncanny Valley and they’re not coming back. They seemed horrifyingly real and yet not real, and I would not be surprised if there were reports of a mascot bear running loose and eating people after the ceremony. If Russian technology can’t produce a snowflake that opens the way it’s supposed to, I shudder to think what it might do with a giant bear.

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