Monday, February 17, 2014

Sochi, the Daily Show, and Media in Retreat

I can’t bear to watch the Sochi Olympics on television.  Perhaps because there are thirty inches of snow outside my office windows while the Olympic site is experiencing beach weather.  Actually, I think is something deeper.

The Olympic site has been widely branded as another Potemkin village named for the phony settlements built in the Crimea by a Mr. Potemkin to impress Empress Catherine II.  While this anecdote is probably apocryphal, it seems to have stood the test of time.  Of course, building facades to impress the other party is as old as, well, sport.  London and Beijing covered a lot of their inner city-rot before their respective Olympics and gave the homeless and the untidy one-way tickets out of town.

The media has had a field day with reports of snowboarders locked in Sochi bathrooms, hotel water running yellow and downhill skiers adjusting to the beach conditions.  One can’t be sure whether it is comic relief or Russian destiny to repeatedly see President Putin rise out of the sea or some embroidered clam shell to proclaim with his bare chest and Soviet grin that Russian manhood, long devastated by alcohol and suicides, is now in good hands.  One can hardly blame social media for finding in this artifice a version of the Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, Dos Equis-style, perfectly equipped to pull the tail of a snow leopard, toss a 300-pound male with the flip of his judo hips, and, when necessary, part the Black Sea.

I think it was Karl Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, apparently referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon.  But, in these days of compressed time, we don’t have to wait for the long arc of history to play itself out.  The Sochi political overlay, the dictator-cum-breasts, and the delicious, brotherly canards offered up by the Olympic Committee are indeed the stuff of farce.  Unfortunately, tragedy lurks just below the surface.  Please don’t look for it on NBC, our paid sponsor. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists has published a devastating account of media repression and self-censorship related to the Sochi Olympics. (“Media Suffer Winter Chill in Coverage of the Sochi Olympics”, available at  The report describes the exploitation of migrant workers, forced evictions, environmental destruction, contaminated water supply, and levelling of prime forests.  But the real guts of the report is the extent to which the Russian government has muzzled both Russian and international journalists.  The CPJ reports government payouts to media, prior review of programming, and widespread use of paid content.  The government threatens to withdraw media licenses to any outlet that addresses any of the touchy subjects, meaning anything the government has not approved in advance.  Journalists are harassed.  Defamation in the press is a criminal offense.  There is hostility to all things foreign.  The approved article lead is this: “The skies are always clear over Sochi.”

In perfect serendipity, the Daily Show, apparently dissatisfied with the New Russia fantasy being showcased in Sochi, traveled to Moscow to find the old Russia.  In looking for the historic bread lines, the reporter found lines for lattés and the like.  He begged Russian politicians to bring back the Cold War.  He even managed, or perhaps staged, a brief session with Gorbachev, pleading with him to bring back the Berlin Wall.  The Master of Détente threw him out of his office.

I found the Daily Show piece especially interesting because I was working in Moscow during the “perestroika and glasnost” period.  It became pretty clear early on that the Communists simply walked across the street and became Western-style Democrats overnight.  Putin is a reminder of how little has changed.

The Daily Show joke seemed to be that the old enemy was much more interesting and useful than the new regime in tights.  But perhaps the joke runs deeper than that.  Add a little gas money, international prestige and secret handshakes from the guys who hold the Olympic rings, and we have a modern day Potemkin village, sturdier than the one erected for Catherine II and expansive enough to feature the new emperor, usually without his shirt, pulling the world’s chain while laughing all the way to the bank.

In the West, this is known as funny business. 

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