Why taking the wrong stand on the Olympics can get you accused of being a traitor to the nation.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek magazine, covering Russia and the former Soviet States. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
There were no free tables at the Sochi gay club Mayak on Friday night. St. Valentine’s Day ruled. The patrons expressed their feelings freely. Kissing couples cuddled around the bar. The dance floor grew crowded as the sound system pumped out the bouncy rhythms of Russian pop songs about love. The scene could have come from any Eastern European nightclub: rows of red, heart-shaped balloons, waiters in gothic leather outfits, visitors chatting in foreign languages. Nothing about the club’s décor indicated that we were in Russia, nor was there anything that recalled the Olympic Games.
The absence of Russian flags or other state symbols was entirely intentional. "State flags at a gay club?" Andrei Tanichev, the club’s owner, laughed. "The authorities might accuse us of violating some new law." He’s one of the very few openly gay men in Sochi. "You never know what our lawmakers might come up with next, what they might decide to fine us for tomorrow."
Outside the club, crowds of young Russians, wrapped in their local and state flags, flooded downtown Sochi on their way back from a hockey game in the Olympic park. The names of the cities written on the flags — "Astrakhan," "Baikalsk," "South Sakhalin" — covered opposite corners of the country’s geography. Several fans I spoke with had saved money for months to be able to travel thousands of miles to Sochi and demonstrate their genuine enthusiasm for sports in general and their country’s athletes in particular. Russian patriotism was on the rise, and so were President Putin’s ratings. (The photo above shows Putin meeting with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan shortly after Saturday’s U.S.-Russia hockey match.)
In an attempt to counter the overwhelmingly negative foreign coverage of the Olympics, the authorities promised their support for a Saturday protest organized by the group Environmental Watch and attended primarily by people from Sochi. Mayak, the gay club, welcomed Putin’s recent positive comments about the club and its owner, though the coverage didn’t really make Andrei’s life any easier. The Western press criticized Tanichev and his partner Roman Kochagov for doing the Kremlin’s bidding, and accused them of building a Potemkin village designed to convince the world that sexual minorities are happy in Russia.
Tanichev told me that he was offended by "distortions" in the coverage: "I’m not a patriot," he said. "I could probably become more patriotic if the day were to come when my customers could feel comfortable giving interviews to Western reporters visiting the club, if people stopped throwing trash in the streets as they leave the stadiums wrapped in their flags, or if the Russian officials who like to scream what big patriots they were would stop taking bribes."
Russians have starkly differing views on what constitutes "patriotism." According to a poll [Rs.] conducted by the respected Levada Center last October, 59 percent of Russians defined patriotism as love for "the mother country." 21 percent saw it as "striving toward positive change in order to ensure a worthy future for the nation." And another 21 percent viewed it as "the readiness to defend Russia from any accusations and attacks."
Of late, the public discussions have been dominated by arguments over what makes someone truly "patriotic," pro-Russian or anti-Russian, pro- or anti-Olympic. On February 10, in the midst of the Games, television viewers suddenly lost TV Rain, Russia’s only independent cable channel. The channel was ostensibly shut down as a result of a controversial survey the channel ran about the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. (The survey asked viewers whether the city, which endured enormous casualties during the prolonged siege by Nazi armies, should have simply surrendered, thus saving lives. Needless to say, Russia’s immense losses during the war remain a highly emotional topic even today.) TV Rain’s Editor-in-Chief Mikhail Zygar told me that authorities were planning to shut the channel down after the Olympics — "but since they already had a good reason, they decided not to wait for the end of the Games." TV Rain is continuing its news coverage on the Internet.
The scandal developed into a vicious battle between liberals, backed up by the Union of Journalists, novelists, and various independent groups, and the ruling United Russia party, supported by state TV channels. Several other prominent opposition voices, including the well-known satirist and journalist Victor Shenderovich, have taken the debate a step further by comparing the modern Russian regime to Nazi Germany. In a post [Rs.] written for his blog at the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, Shenderovich saw similarities between the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The leader of United Russia, Vladimir Vasilyev, responded by calling Shenderovich’s post "fascist."
Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov noted that the current campaign against "traitors" is fueled by official anxieties about the turmoil in Ukraine (which many Russians view as the result of Western "meddling") as well as the general disarray of Russia’s opposition movement (which creates an aura of vulnerability that Russian officials are eager to exploit). Russia’s main state-owned TV is preparing to air a new film accusing pro-democracy activists of taking cash from the West for their efforts. This, Markov explains, is another part of the campaign.
"Society is split into fans of the Olympics and haters of the Olympics," Zygar said. "Even close friends fight over it: ‘Oh, you like the Olympics — that means you’re a traitor.’ And vice versa." Critics who accuse the authorities of building a fake export version of Russia in Sochi hurt the feelings of Olympic fans. "By spitting on Putin, the opposition and the Western media spit on us, at our Olympics," said Vladimir Sergiyenko, a fan from the Urals, during our discussion of politics during the skating completions at Adler Arena this week.
Russians often tell me that the West is biased against their country. Russians often accuse Western media that publish negative stories about corruption and the dark side of politics of engaging in smear tactics. Some Russians argue that it’s the mark of "a good citizen" to keep quiet and to show respect for politicians — and not to demand alternative policies or to participate in building civic society. But there are others who believe that a true patriot is someone who criticizes the government. "In Russia, says Zygar, "society is deeply confused."