Watching the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympic Games yesterday, one could not help but be enthralled by the scope and the drama of the production. Linking classical Russian music to contemporary LED technology, on a stage fit for a hockey championship game, in a stadium of some 40,000 built solely for the opening and closing ceremonies, the production selectively recounted the highlights of Russia's public history. Huge images of steam engines and inflated obelisks evoking St. Basil's cathedral were supported by dancers and gymnasts that seemed to flow from fish to adoring worshippers. LED-infused roller-bladers careening under a night sky of dome-like proportions added to the size and the scope of the drama, watched over carefully by the leader of the Russian federation, Vladimir Putin, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Chinese leader and the President of the Olympic Organization, Stephen Bach from Germany.
There was no gulag here; there were no persecutions recalled this night; there was no KGB in this production, yet their presence (or that of its successor agency) surreptitiously covered the site of the Ring of Steel around the Olympic venue. Reports of a few arrests of gay demonstrators crawled along the bottom of the screen. One electric snowflake that was supposed to morph into the fifth Olympic ring, (also electric) remained in its snowflake configuration, requiring the television crew to retrieve a rehearsal tape that made the switch correctly.
Choreographed to the finest detail, this entertainment opus, a work that attempted to blend a rich history and tradition with a determined political statement of rebirth of the Russian archetype on the world stage, and specifically to shine a kleglight of considerable wattage on Putin himself. The show served as a very expensive and expansive statement of re-emergence of Russia on the world stage, as part of what is obviously a more deeply and more muscular dance of Russian hegemony that includes overt political manoeuvres to woo The Ukraine, support for the Syrian dictator and his faltering removal of chemical weapons, support for the Iranian pursuit of nuclear power and the removal of western sanctions, and the increasing power and strength of the Russian president himself in all world councils.
While watching, one was almost seduced into believing in the integrity of both the theatre and the people who put it together. And yet, in spite of the smiles and the obvious exuberance of the performers, one had the sense of too much discipline, not merely of a theatrical nature imposed by the producers and the directors, but even more imposed by a political system that seems quite rigid and authoritarian. That discipline that could be undergirded by fear or fatalism seemed to be exhibited in the dour faces of the men and women who carried the Olympic flag to the base of the pole where it was raised, and also on the face of the MAN himself, when he made the official announcement of the opening of the games.
There is really only so much mascara that can be purchased as a vehicle for national pride and joy and even it grows thin on the faces of those who do not quite believe the story they are telling.
We can all hope that the games proceed without any violence; that the athletes are treated fairly and that the memories of the Sochi Games are redolent of a new beginning in international collaboration and negotiations on so many important global issues, and not reminiscent of the Cold War, hints of which are emerging at the edges of these games.