Mikhail Shishkin writes our second PEN Atlas dispatch on the Sochi Winter Olympics, a story of billion-dollar corruption, Soviet-style propaganda, and a regime bent on hiding opposition and urban decay behind sports kitsch and a new coat of paint
In 1980, I was studying linguistics in Moscow. During the Olympics my colleagues and I were expected to work as guides and interpreters. Our training course included a class with a ‘professor’ in plain clothes who drilled us on how to answer provocative questions from Western guests. For example: ‘Why are foreigners allowed to buy everything in special shops with foreign currency while local shops are empty?’ We immediately felt uneasy; this was a good question – why? The right answer was: ‘Yes we still have some shortages, but when we have guests we treat them the best we can, even if we have to deny ourselves.’Today, the Olympics have again turned into a huge Potemkin village: newly painted and front-facing our foreign guests, and showing a dirty backside to its own people.The Games haven’t even started yet and already the moveable ‘Feast of Sport’ has become the immovable feast of embezzlement, the festival of irresponsibility, and the visiting card of the Putin regime.Someone had whispered in Putin’s ear about holding the Winter Olympics in the subtropics of all places – and so here he is, the Father of the Nation, a stone’s throw away from Greece, building his own eternal Olympus! And the cost doesn’t matter. The money is coming from the pockets of pensioners, teachers and doctors. The real Sochi winners will be those Russian officials and oligarchs who populate in their dozens the rich-lists of the world. The cost of constructing these Olympics is twice as much as the world average. Half of the fantastical $50billion now sits in the offshore bank accounts of the officials in charge. This means that more has been stolen in Sochi than the previous cost of all Winter Games combined. Here we should remind ourselves that these multi-billion-dollar efforts are disposable. These monster edifices will fall into decay and end in ruins…The official propaganda, as before, celebrates the Olympics as ‘a Feast of Sport’. And as before, we are being told: ‘Sport is beyond politics!’ In the Soviet Union sport was always politics. Of course, it’s natural to root for sportspeople from your own country. But how can I root for the victory of a country of which I’m ashamed? Does this sound unpatriotic to you? But what does it mean – to be a patriot in Russia?In the past, in our inside-out country, the attitude towards patriotism was also inside-out. We were against the Soviets, and on the side of the Czechoslovakian hockey team, because their democratic ‘spring’ had not so long ago been crushed by the tracks of our tanks. Now those times have indeed returned.I wish I could be proud of my country, root for its sports team. But how can sport be ‘beyond politics’ if when the Russian teams win, the old Stalinist national anthem will be sung worldwide? The anthem that was reintroduced by Putin: the anthem of dictators and slaves.The athletes and politicians now preparing for their journey to Sochi should keep in mind that they will all be playing a part, as ‘backing singers’ for the global PR campaign of the regime, that the Sochi ‘Feast of Sport, Peace and Friendship’ is intended as a personal feast for the Supreme Skier and is being used by his teammates as a way to transfer public money into their already bulging pockets.This gang of criminals falsified the elections and they usurped state power, taking the whole country hostage. To participate in the Olympics means to show solidarity with the dictator, to help him make the Games a triumph and legitimise his regime. In 1980, democratic countries boycotted the Games in Moscow, showing solidarity not with the regime but with its victims. Though we all appreciate that the Olympics are an opportunity for any sportsperson, boycotting the Games means showing solidarity with those who are being held hostage.Do you really believe that the long Olympic torch relay was a celebration for the country? When people were driven together under the threat of punishment to meet the policed cortege carrying the torch with its constantly dying flame, it evoked nothing but feelings of shame and humiliation. In Saratov, manholes were welded shut and rubbish bins were removed from the torchbearer’s route. To prevent people from throwing away rubbish in the usual places, policemen were placed there instead. In accordance with the old Soviet tradition, ruins were covered with colourful facades glorifying sport. As in 1980, only the houses with dirty entrances and holes in their roofs were repaired. It’s all painfully recognisable – again, they’re putting a golden crown on a decaying tooth! And all this useless window-dressing is done by local authorities for a single man in the Kremlin. Again, it is the clammy fear of an official – scared of not satisfying the boss – that governs the country.And now the Games are becoming a real disaster for the population of Sochi. They feel discriminated against and robbed. Some people’s land and property has been seized, some people have been forced out of their homes. Their protests have been brutally suppressed. Just read some of the blogs coming out of Sochi: the local population already execrates the Olympics.One can only get into Sochi with a special permit – the so-called ‘fan-passport’. Human rights activists who apply for one are simply turned down. The city has turned into a ‘zone’: going south by car one sees along the highway, starting soon after Rostov, large banners saying ‘Sochi is closed’. Who are the Olympics for then, if not for the citizens of the country?And who will be responsible for the barbarian destruction of nature in Krasnaya Polyana and the whole unique Mzymty valley? Meanwhile the regime is busy prosecuting protesting ecologists…The clemency that’s been given to other political prisoners before the Games doesn’t exonerate the regime – instead, it anticipates new arrests and new imprisonments once the Games are over. And then the only hope will be for more clemency before the football World Cup, to be held in Russia in 2018. This gang has already spoiled the Olympics. Will they spoil football for us as well?I don’t know who’ll win medals, but the Russian population has already lost the Games. One can sum up the Winter Games even before they have started: the regime, with help from the Olympics, has raped the country yet again: Russian déjà vu.But now there arises one more analogy: after the 1980 Olympics, the USSR lasted only a decade. How long can Putin’s Russia last?I hope that Russia can change. It is such a great feeling not to be ashamed, but proud of one’s country. It is only in a future democratic Russia that sport will, at last, be beyond politics. About the authorBorn in 1961 in Moscow, Mikhail Shishkin is one of the most prominent names in contemporary Russian literature, and is the only author to have won all three major Russian Literary Prizes. He divides his time between Moscow, Switzerland and Germany.Additional informationFor more on Mikhail’s criticism of the Russian government, please see his interview with the New York Times.Read reviews of Mikhail’s novel Maidenhair, available at Good Reads.Mikhail Shishkin’s latest book, The Light and the Dark is published by Querus and out now.