As the opening ceremonies draw near, Russian President Vladimir Putin looks to channel Russian nationalism at the Sochi Olympics. Despite concerns that range from government corruption in the preparations, to terrorist attacks, to the ongoing controversy of Russia’s attitude towards homosexuals, Putin is determined to use the Sochi Games to show Russia in the best possible light. Much as other authoritarian regimes have done in the past, Putin hopes to not only impress the rest of the world with a display of Russian prosperity, but also to pacify a disgruntled population.
Nationalism is a powerful force within Russia and the Russians are a proud people; Putin is fully aware of this. Nationalism is a force that the Russian government has had to contend with since the days of the old Soviet Union. Russian nationalism was just as much a factor in the territorial expansion of the Soviet Union as the ideology of communism, and in the course of that expansion, Russian nationalism conflicted violently with many of the other national groups that the Soviet Union absorbed. In fact, this is the source of one of the largest threats to the Sochi games in the form of terrorist groups from Chechnya motivated by the desire to separate their native land from Russia.
There are some Russians who still look back fondly on certain aspects of the Soviet era. They may not “miss” the bread lines or the KGB, but they do miss the power and prestige that the position of the Soviet Union brought to Russia. It is no coincidence that Putin scrapped the unpopular revision of the Russian national anthem and restored the music (but not the lyrics) of the old Soviet national anthem. Putin understands the power and influence of Russian nationalism, which is why he is looking to channel that force at the upcoming Sochi Olympics.
Putin also understands how to put himself at the forefront of that nationalistic fervor. Much like other charismatic leaders of Russia’s past, such as Peter the Great or Soviet era leaders such as Lenin or Stalin, he makes great efforts to cast himself as the embodiment of Russian nationalism. This is why he releases pictures of himself topless in the woods hunting bears, or comments on his personal athletic prowess. He casts himself as the physical representation of Russian power; strong, virile, and fearless. He wants Russians to look to him as the protector and cultivator of Russian power, and as a personal example for them to follow.
But these Olympics are just as much an opportunity for Putin to demonstrate Russia’s position to the rest of the world as it is to pacify his own people. It is one more part of Putin’s overall plan to restore Russia’s influence in world affairs. He has already seen some success from this plan in the form of his policy in Syria. His support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not only been successful in keeping Assad himself in power, but also checking American influence in the region by preventing U.S. military intervention in the conflict.
This is why Putin is declaring that the Sochi games will be without incident. A terrorist attack or other mishap would not only be a personal embarrassment to Putin, it would demonstrate the weakness of Russia to the rest of the world. A flawless games, free of incident, would show that Russia can not only manage its own affairs, but successfully play host to the nations of the world. In essence Putin’s policy is “realpolitik” in its pure form.
This is why allegations of corruption and questions of gay rights mean little to Putin in this context. Corruption has been a fact of life in Russian government since the days of the czars, and while Russia’s anti-gay stance may offend many in the world, Putin is calculating that it will not diminish Russia’s power as a nation, and that is his primary concern. At the end of the day he understands that the Russians are a proud people and are almost as anxious as he is to restore Russia’s status in the world. That is why Vladimir Putin is looking to channel Russian nationalism at the upcoming Sochi Olympics.
Editorial By Christopher V. Spencer