Visions of Sochi


Making sense of Russia’s Olympic resort.

Sochi seems like a weird place. With the Winter Olympics beginning at the Black Sea resort last week, Western correspondents have uncovered everything from murderous gangsters to toothpaste terrorists to the hundreds of stray dogs that call the city home. And I’m sure by now you’ve caught the Twitter storm over the less-than-ideal accommodations there. “Ok, so my hotel doesn't have a lobby yet,” tweeted Mark MacKinnon, an international correspondent with Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Missing drapes, dangerous water, dog extermination … welcome to Russia's problem Olympics,” lamented National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur, later adding, “We're all going to look silly when all of Sochi's stray dogs come back with little surveillance cameras strapped to their adorable heads.”

Is Sochi really that seedy? The Olympic infrastructure may have seen a rocky start, but the resort town has long been a popular tourist destination. Since the 1950s, Sochi has attracted some of the most powerful people in Russia, including Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin. But like much of Russia, Sochi also struggles with poverty and corruption. The average income in the area surrounding Sochi is just under 19,000 rubles a month—about $550. Less than half of residents have an active internet connection. The region has seen a half dozen major wars over the past two decades and is home to more than one active insurgency.

I guess that’s what makes coverage like this a little hard to stomach—it smacks of ruin porn, a kind of imperial gaze at the bizarreness of Russian poverty. And it’s not just “advenjournalist” hubs like VICE or Buzzfeed. In sources as serious and respected as the Washington Post and CNN we can read bemused correspondents live-tweet the “hilarious and gross” hotel rooms they were given in Sochi. “To appreciate the hotels in this area,” writes David Segal in the New York Times, “it is probably a good idea to think of them not as hotels but rather as a rare opportunity to experience life in a centrally planned, Soviet-style dystopia.”

Undoubtedly nationalism plays a part as well. From homophobic laws to the Pussy Riot controversy to crackdowns on free speech, Westerners certainly have every reason to distrust Putin’s Russia. Comparing this to places where marriage equality and free speech are better protected, it’s easy to feel smugly progressive. But focusing on Russian homophobia and authoritarianism seems odd when many Americans encounter similar laws everyday (is Putin’s crackdown any more nefarious than, say, being prosecuted as a terrorist for passing out leaflets?). Think about it like this: inviting openly gay activists to join the U.S. Olympic Delegation is a powerful statement for human rights and solidarity with oppressed people in Russia. But it also masks the very real homophobia and transphobia many Americans experience to this day. As David Zirin points out in a recent Democracy Now! interview, nine U.S. states continue to enforce laws that are remarkably similar to Putin’s “gay propaganda” law. 

2/16/2014 7:51:00 AM

Every time I read Fugitive Moments, I learn not just something new, but many things. Thank you for the multiple perspectives and description of the complexities of that region from Western and Eastern eyes. This is the kind of coverage we should expect from mainstream media but just don't anymore. I felt uncomfortable with the scoffing at Sochi, wondering what happened. Now, I know. Not very surprising, given that this is how most problems are solved, from economic struggles to war, it is always the people with the least who take the brunt of it and suffer the most. It's our go-to strategy, finely tuned by very rich people.

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