Russia, an uncontroversial land of non-drama

The myth of the Olympic opening ceremonies

by Jaime Weinman

(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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Russia, an uncontroversial land of non-drama

  1. 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.

    It was exactly the same kind of moment as one arm of Canada’s torch failing. I don’t think either of them say anything more about the inherent nature of a country than that mechanical screw-ups happen, and it’s kind of embarrassing when they happen in front of the world. But it’s rather hypocritical for us, of all people, to be pointing fingers at that accident.

    And the Olympics are supposed to be apolitical. Celebrating a nation’s culture and history is basically what they’re for these days; I thought Russia made good choices.

    I feel like this whole focus on the “gay propaganda” law is just western countries looking for something to snipe at Russia over. The US just decided that gay people were maybe kinda okay over the last 3-4 years, and their school systems are still debating whether homosexuality is something children should be taught about; nobody criticized them over the issue in 2002. It’s as if we think it’s 1980 again and a Russian olympics is a necessary time to score political points. Goodness sakes, people were less upset about Beijing.

    (If we’re going to get on Russia’s case about something, I would say that their occupation of two Georgian provinces is a lot more significant an issue then whether they want to tell children about homosexuality.)

  2. Those of us watching at home had the benefit of Peter Mansbridge telling us what everything meant. Do you think people from other countries understand what everything was at the Vancouver Olympics? And every host country puts on a romantic version of their history and culture. Did you expect them to re-enact the Czar and his family’s execution?

  3. I agree: I am not sure that this was that different than other countries’ opening ceremonies in their context. The symbolism means most to home folks. And Russia hardly has a monopoly on a mechanical glitch. The games started out with lots of well- publicized glitches. But now I think the effort to find fault is becoming an industry. I am not sure what you expected in these ceremonies but they looked pretty well like what I expected, and parts of it were quite visually clever. Did you expect some kind of public apology over their history? Hardly. They are a proud people just like other States.

  4. What a shameful article! Russia remembers its past, because it
    indeed has a glamorous, rich history and many world wide celebrated individuals
    who made its history and its past. I guess the author is just ashamed that Canada in its
    past was at best a British colony, not an empire, and there is not much to be
    proud of. And as of now, Canada
    is selling short its present and its future to any immigrant from any third
    world country who has money. You better learn to appreciate your own past
    before its totally forgotten, and between Chinese and Hindu becomes obsolete. As
    to reputation, Russia
    in part has a negative image because of half assed international media. When
    next time you will write a pile of useless junk just think first: have YOU personally
    built or did something very positive for the world that it would give you any
    right to be so critical of others? Or other countries?

    • I guess the author is just ashamed that Canada in its past was at best a British colony, not an empire, and there is not much to be
      proud of.

      Russia takes justifiable pride in great authors, composers, and artists, but being an empire is nothing to be proud of. Having citizens and cultures from all around the world is at the core of Canada’s identity, and that’s something we’re proud of.

  5. In the West, ridiculing the Soviet Union was practically a religion. Russia is not the Soviet Union, but I guess some people are stuck in the past. As for mechanical glitches and weird mascots, Russia hardly has a monopoly on that. Remember the London One Eyed Gumby Doll?? And the London Opening ceremonies had a lot of (old) pop culture references that probably didn’t mean much to a 22 year old athlete from Malaysia, for example.

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