In Defense of Mother Russia

Like most people, I initially followed the opening of the Sochi Olympics with a combination of mirth and disgust. Yes, I was amused by photos of dysfunctional construction projects (the famous “twin toilets”, the result of purloined resources that couldn’t even deliver a separation wall between two loos) and vast infrastructure that seemed to be mid-completion with only days to go. Yes, I was disgusted by the corruption, the budgetary blowouts and the waste of resources in a country that has an awful lot of poor people.

The media has certainly had a field day, reveling in the [apparent] incompetence of our former Soviet comrades. Well, “we” did win the Cold War, right? So any opportunity to gloat and cajole…

I do think it was appropriate to review Russia’s human rights record in the lead up to the Games, and to put a lens on Russia’s domestic and regional tensions. This is part of the “price tag” of hosting the games, all your peers are granted license to judge you in a public way. This has always been the nature of the Olympics. Given some of the flashpoint potential in Russia’s geographic sphere of influence, there is little doubt that everyone will breathe a sigh of relief if the Games really do go off without a major security breach. I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed for a totally peaceful event.

It was probably also reasonable for there to be a bit of backlash regarding LGB rights, in concert with the opening of the Games. If Russia really does aspire to be a world-leading nation, then these sorts of issues need to be openly debated and not simply oppressed by the passing of autocratic directives thinly disguised as Law. Gay rights are important and a highly diverse country of 150m people deserves better.

But now I am bored of the heckling and I have had enough.

International journalism has gone too far. The politics of the Games, though always there, should not overshadow what is otherwise supposed to be a celebration of human endeavor and spirit. The games go beyond one man, one government or one culture and we, the world, should show that we are capable of being better house guests – a little less critical of the décor and a bit more appreciative of the sentiment.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with Russia – and a fascination for how complex the country can be. I have not travelled exhaustively around the country but probably more than the average punter. I married a Siberian, I have family in Moscow and we are raising my son bilingually, fully recognizing that language = culture and the consequential need for immersion as he develops. I want my son to grow up being aware of the strong, complex and fascinating part of his heritage, however controversial aspects of it may be.

Russians are also incredibly hospitable people – something that many people don’t appreciate because it doesn’t fit with the brusque, stoic stereotype. Russians are fully aware of what is wrong with their country and the Sochi “fiasco” is entirely lacking in novelty. I can assure you that notwithstanding the pride of hosting the Olympics, there are plenty of Russian jokes in circulation about pointless construction projects, government dysfunction and corruption – such humor is the raucous soul of any decent session with the vodka bottle. Sochi is, in fact, a quintessentially Russian situation. I should also note that Russians are not apathetic about the limitations of their government and social institutions; they simply have other ways of achieving their objectives that are a little more opaque.

But I think what has finally irritated me is the international community’s holier-than-thou attitude, going far beyond using the Games as a legitimate opportunity to provide feedback to Russia about its place in the world. When we gloat about how hotels in Sochi are dirty and unfinished, we would do well to reflect that Washington has no shortage of crap hotels – indeed I recall waking up during the night at a prominent DC venue to the smell of fecal toilet run-off dripping through my ceiling. I can confirm despite travelling through 80+ countries, the only times I ever got bedbugs were from central London hotels with global marques (twice in fact).

When we criticize Russia for its human rights record we might do well to consider that Australia has an appalling track record with asylum seekers that can essentially rival anything “Vovo” Putin might come up with. The “gulags” of the West just have palm trees instead of permafrost. When we consider the growing gulf between rich and poor, look no further than the mounting social and racial instability in the UK – even this week’s distressing news that it was a British-born Muslim that pulled the trigger on a tragic suicide bomb attack in Aleppo. Indeed, we would do well to reflect on the extraordinary ethnic, religious and geographic diversity within Russia’s borders and perhaps appreciate that effective government would never be a trivial undertaking, even if it aspired to be more transparent and democratic.

I would even go so far as to argue that it may not be entirely a coincidence that Russia has a long history of Tsars, that perhaps a slightly more authoritarian style of rule may be the only way to effectively “contain” the intrinsic volatility of a State made up of regions never meant to be united under a single economic identity. Perhaps Putin is just a kind of modern day incarnation of a Tsar, possibly even by necessity. Certainly it is my view that culturally, Russians respond to power.

We should not be so naïve as to universally declare western-style democracy to be the guiding light of a functioning government – and let’s be realistic, democracy is certainly not doing America much service right now. This month the US faces yet another debt ceiling disaster and once again cannot seem to mobilize functioning government. Methinks a little Lee Kuan Yew-style benevolent dictatorship would probably do wonders for America right now.

What is more tragic – failure to be democratic or to be a leading democracy that is failing?

Canada might consider taking a less scathing stance on Russia’s dysfunctional government – as I recall, the mayor of the country’s largest city is (allegedly) a crack head and user of prostitutes and, entirely like his Russian counterparts, is apparently unable to be dislodged by any kind of functional administrative process. Even countries like Sweden that are normally the bastion for immigration and tolerance of diversity, have seen a growing nationalist sentiment driven by the type of socioeconomic disparity that underpins much of Russia’s instability. In my opinion, the rise of extreme right politics in many European countries marks a worrying move away from tolerance of diversity and ultimately robust democratic representation of that diversity. On that basis, the gap with Russia is probably shrinking.

My opinion is that when we excessively criticize Russia for its corruption and largesse, we have conveniently forgotten that anything we might contemplate in regard to Sochi positively pales in comparison to some of the recent examples of fraud, greed and corruption on Wall Street. The celebrated “Wolf of Wall Street” (out this week in cinemas, and guaranteed to be a box office hit because, let’s face it, we will love anything that echoes of Gordon Gecko) would be an oligarch by any other name. America’s capitalist system is still, in my opinion, the most remarkable in the world … but Bernie Madoff’s fraud equaled the entire budget for the Sochi Olympics. Let us not forget this.

Back to gay rights.

The international community was absolutely right to condemn Russia’s position on this human rights issue but it would be a mistake to have it overshadow the Olympics. Whether fully intended or not (hard to imagine how it couldn’t be), I consider Germany’s “protest” to be cute but ultimately somewhat in poor taste. We condemn Russia for its stance on LGB rights but we haven’t exactly nailed it in our own societies, have we? Except maybe if you live in New Zealand. The truth is that we all have a very long way to go.

Rightly or wrongly, Russian culture is sensitive to the issue of homosexuality and it is – on the whole – not an openly discussed topic. I personally don’t feel that the Olympics should be dominated by specific minority issues, they are supposed to be about recognizing and celebrating the broadest possible diversity and inclusion and I fear we risk losing this by amplifying a single issue to such an extent. Just because ski fashion and gay rights protest may have natural synergies (I must grudgingly admit, I thought the German ski outfits looked fabulous…), doesn’t mean we should forget about all the other benefits that come from treating Russia with some respect and as an inclusive part of our international community at this time.

To conclude…

Little more than a decade ago, Russia was a closed country. On the whole, Russia has opened up enormously and Russia is an important country. We should respectfully deliver constructive criticism and Russia should listen because this is an obligation that comes alongside the privilege of hosting the Olympics and welcoming the international community to its door. But then we should also take a step back and let Russia enjoy a period of prominence in the hope that dialog, friendship and appreciation of the really remarkable aspects of Russia forge new opportunities for a more open and trusting relationship with the rest of the world.

Удача – good luck – Sochi