Inside Vladimir Putin’s ‘Ring of Steel’

‘The safest place on earth?’ Let’s hope they’re right.

by Ken MacQueen

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a ski jumping complex in Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. The Games will take place in a coastal cluster where indoor sports such as ice-hockey will be held and in a mountain complex where athletes will compete for medals in skiing and other outdoors disciplines. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a ski jumping complex in Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. The Games will take place in a coastal cluster where indoor sports such as ice-hockey will be held and in a mountain complex where athletes will compete for medals in skiing and other outdoors disciplines. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

Amid dire prognostications of doom, gloom and boom here in Sochi one must look for a breath of fresh air to keep alive the flickering flame of the Olympic spirit. I believe I have found a source of oxygen but it hasn’t been easy.

It’s a hard go if one reads the news feeds from North America. There are the endless complaints of journalists on Twitter, blog and news stories about their substandard hotel rooms: limited hot water, spotty of non-existent Internet, no turn-down service or pillow mints. Security fears are a constant theme. The latest addition to the news cycle: spotty reports of an alert by American airlines about possible “tooth paste bombs.” (Look, Ma, cavities!). Really? Aren’t shoes, bottled water and nail clippers lethal enough?

The folks back home could be forgiven for thinking those of us inside Vladimir Putin’s “Ring of Steel” live in a constant state of fear. A constant state of beer might be more accurate. Actually the sun is shining here on the coast of the Black Sea, palm fronts are waving and security, while ever-present, seems no more oppressive than the constant wanding, body searches and mag-and-bag checks that have marked every Olympics since the post-9/11 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Right my Russian friends?

The one thing we can be certain of is that some shadow security figure, somewhere is reading this over my shoulder because the key words of “bomb”, “security” and “tooth paste” are included in this missive. Of course the odds are good that our Canadian and American snoops are also looking in. (So, hi everyone, what do you think of the story so far? Benign enough for you? You’ll have no worries from me. I come in peace.)

Anyway, about the antidote to all this distemper. I have found it in the boundless enthusiasm of Russia Today “a global news channel broadcasting from Moscow and Washington studios to over 100 countries around the globe.”

Its English-speaking staff broadcasts on the telly, and via its website (rt.com) and on Twitter. It’s kind of like Pravda was back in the days of the Soviet Union, except with more bells and whistles. It offers a countervailing opinion in the way that, say, Fox News is “fair and balanced”. But where Fox takes tea with the Republicans, Russia Today (RT) is squarely in President Putin’s camp.

So, to hear RT reporters tell it, Putin’s recent petting here of a Persian leopard is proof positive that these are a green Olympics. “We have decided to restore the population of the Persian leopard because of the Olympic Games,” Putin said. “Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games we have restored parts of destroyed nature.”

I’m not sure where the constantly burning garbage fire near the Maclean’s Sochi quarters fits into this green ethos, but I await illumination from RT on that.

The good news is that we are assured by RT that Sochi today, thanks to Putin’s Ring of Steel, is “the safest place on earth.” Let’s hope they’re right.

It is refreshing to read alternative views on the great issues of the day, from America’s apparently misguided role in the Syrian situation to the oppressive spying of the U.S. National Security Agency, to RT’s gleeful reporting of a new European Union study showing evidence of levels of corruption and bribery in all 28 EU member states. Take that, all who criticize the budgetary slippage of these $51-billion Olympics.

“Question more” is the RT motto. And one can marvel at its inventive take on certain issues of the day. For instance, it recently dispatched a reporter to Sochi’s waterfront gay bar. While this put the lie to the Sochi mayor’s assertion that there are no gays and lesbians in the city, it also revealed a level of anger among some gays at Western reporting of the Putin-approved law banning promotion of homosexuality to minors. The RT reporter searched mightily and found hurt Russian pride among some in the bar that the West had turned the issue into a laughing stock. The over-the-top criticism, said one barkeep there, was actually hurting the cause by hardening opinions in Russia and turning the issue into a geopolitical nightmare.

Well, maybe, but one expects that’s a minority opinion among patrons. The reporter did note, correctly, that the law is not that dissimilar to British Thatcher-era legislation that once banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.

The problem with RT has less to do with its propagandizing and more to do with the fact that Putin’s heavy head is choking out any dissenting voices at home. In December, the Kremlin dismantled (under the guise of saving money) RIA Novosti, the state-run news agency that did not always sing from Putin’s song sheet. It created a tamer agency, Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), which includes within the Kremlin-funded English language RT service. Then this month, Dozhd, Russia’s only opposition-focused television channel, was dealt a near-fatal blow when all major cable companies suddenly dropped carrying its service—effectively starving it of funds.

RT’s version of the truth may soon be the only voice Russians hear. Russia Today is starting to look dangerously like Soviet yesterday.




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Inside Vladimir Putin’s ‘Ring of Steel’

  1. Am I the only one who’s noticed that most of the complaints coming out of Sochi are from over-privileged Western journalists? Not athletes, not fans. Just journalists. Maybe it’s time they get off their high horse and go do their jobs.

    • That IS their job. The fans and athletes aren’t privy to the same platform for publication, and athletes may be restricted from comment for professional reasons. Sochi is a mess, and the likes of RT aren’t going to rush to reveal that.

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