Dominic Basulto is the U.S. editor of Russia Direct. He has extensive experience in digital media including a regular blog with The Washington Post and a daily blog on Winter Olympics host city Sochi. In addition to publishing the first-ever iPad travel guide to Sochi, Dominic has lived in the House of Writers in Moscow, taught finance at Moscow's first MBA program, published a weekly column for a Russian newspaper and completed a certificate program in Russian language from Moscow State University. He has an undergraduate degree in Politics and Russian Studies from Princeton and an MBA in emerging markets from Yale.
With anti-Sochi sentiments increasing in the Western media, the only way for Russia to put an end to it is to pull off the most stunning Winter Olympics in history.
Why does the West want the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to fail? First, it was the corruption. Then, it was Russia's stance on social issues. Now, it's renewed concerns about terrorism.
Even before thetwin Volgograd terror attacksin southern Russia just days before the New Year, it was almost inevitable that we would see one last spasm of fear and loathing in the Western media before Sochi hosts the Winter Olympics in February.
For more than a year, there had been the constant drumbeat of warnings that Sochi 2014 was going to bethe most expensive Olympics in historydue to profligate corruption and cronyism. As soon as Sochi put the finishing touches on any new Olympic venue, it was accompanied by horror stories in the media of human rights abuses of migrant workers and impending ecological disasters.
With a nod toDetroit ruin porn, you can call this Sochi disaster porn.
Case in point:the current cover story from Bloomberg Businessweek, which depicts a badass-looking Russian mafioso bear armed to the hilt and holding a riot shield with the simple question: "Is Russia Ready?”
Not that there was really going to be any attempt to answer this question in a rational way within the magazine itself. You knew the answer even before you opened the issue — the storywas going to be about boycotts, terrorism waste, greed and cronyism. That’s what sells magazines these days. The editors tell you as much witha behind-the-scenes look at how the cover got made.
This cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek had plenty of predecessors in the burgeoning field of Sochi disaster porn. Just a few days earlier,the Los Angeles Timesasked,"Are the Sochi Olympics Heading for Disaster?"
Columnists and bloggers were making a last-minute plea to move the Winter Olympics somewhere else — anywhere else! — just so Sochi couldn’t host them. Even what should have been warm-and-fuzzy photoessays about Sochi started off with a warning:"Islamist insurgents, tough Cossacks and warm winters — welcome to Russia’s Olympic host city.”
A front-page story in theNew York Timeson Dec. 18 on the Olympic Torch Relay reveled in the fact that the Olympic Torch had gone out repeatedly on its 123-day journey across Russia (including one incident where it was re-lit ignominiously with a cigarette lighter). The title was link-bait everywhere for the Sochi haters:"Got a light? Torch Relay Seems Cursed to the Ends of the Earth.”
Why don't journalists focus on the fact that the Olympic Torch has gone on a spacewalk into outer space and has traveled to the North Pole — or that it will travel 40,000 miles across Russia and feature 14,000 people in a massive, national unifying run-up to the Winter Olympics? That doesn’t sell newspapers.
The gold standard of Sochi disaster porn, of course, was a massive, 400-page tome on Sochi published to coincide with the Winter Games called"An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus.”The cover features a 29-year-old stripper from a local Sochi hotel rolling around with an animal on what looks like a red harem bed.
If you take off the cover jacket of the book, you still can’t escape the fear and loathing — there is a quote from Vladimir Putin that is meant to be both ironic and sarcastic, "The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.” It’s sarcastic, you see, becausethe entire 400-page tome is filled with despicable images that make you cringe — burned-out buildings, ugly people, and post-apocalyptic scenes out of a war zone. It’s so bad, in fact, that this book of Sochi disaster porn is no longer welcome in Russia, and certainly not in Sochi.
So a casual observer might ask,Why does all this Sochi disaster porn exist?The same questions have been asked about Detroit ruin porn — what purpose does it really serve other than to rack up page views from the haters?
The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to chalk it up to the long, strange, disaster-plagued history of Russia. Consider that the greatest novel that Russia has ever produced — Anna Karenina — ends with the heroine throwing herself on the train tracks in suicide. Do you know of any Russian book that has a happy ending? Even within Russia, people are resigned to their nation’s cosmic fate and are ever wary of any leader promising hope and a new way to the future.
Except that there seems to be something more profound and interesting happening here that goes beyond just a massive Cold War hangover in the West. Even when Russia attempts to do what the Western media wants it to do — build a democracy, privatize the economy, let loose the dissenters — it’s met with more fear and loathing.
Putin’s "Christmas Surprise” of granting of amnesty to jailed oil oligarch Khodorkovskyand Pussy Riot?A cynical PR move ahead of Sochi. Russia stepping away fromthe Euromaidan mess in Ukraine?A nefarious diplomatic bargaining trick with a hidden agenda. Russia’s colorful "Rainbow” uniforms for the Sochi 2014 Olympics?A cynical attempt to co-optthe LGBT boycott movement. Quite simply, in the Western media’s eyes, Russia’s can do nothing right when it comes to the Sochi Olympics.
Perhaps the best explanation for all this is something thatRussian historian Victoria Zhuravlevahas explained as the role of specific images and myths about Russia in the creation of an American identity. America, you see, needs to demonize Russia as "the other” in order to fulfill its messianic role in the world.
From this perspective, Russia is the "dark twin” of America. Sochi is the enemy, Putin is the stock villain, and all of Putin’s Olympic officials are bit players in a huge American morality play. America wants to be able to save Russia from itself. It is the way that it has been for nearly 150 years.
In her book, "Understanding Russia in the United States: Images and Myths 1881-1914," Zhuravleva points outall the examples throughout the history of U.S.-Russian relations where Americans have used cartoons to demonize Russia. Sochi disaster porn, in fact, fits perfectly with this history of American myth-making about Russia.
Which brings us back to the Bloomberg Businessweek story and the cartoon image of the Russian bear. This is exactly what Zhuravleva is talking about. In a series of notes and annotations,the magazine’s editors explain how they arrived at the final image of the bear for the cover. First, they start with a stock cartoon image of Russia — the bear.
Then, they resort to all the other cultural stereotypes that enforce the standard myths of Russia, including an early sketch of the Russian bear lighting the Olympic torch with a cigarette lighter (later replaced, after the Volgograd terror attacks, by a riot shield). The alternative cover was just going to feature a bunch of words to characterize Russia:"Boycotts. Cronyism. Terrorism. Waste. Greed.”You see, the cover is a giant political cartoon, in the style of all the other American cartoons about Russia over the past 150 years.
The only way for Russia to put an end to this non-stop flow of Sochi disaster porn, of course, is to pull off the most stunning Winter Olympics in history. (Just as Detroit can only put an end to Detroit ruin porn by making the city amazing again.)
Russia needs to make the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics so over-the-top enchanting and entertaining that you can even forgive billions of dollars of colossal government waste. It should snow everyday, non-stop, so that people see Sochi as a winter wonderland rather than a subtropical war zone. The TV cameras need to have global audiences marveling at how the Russians pulled it off. But they have to do it in a way that lets America still believe in its messianic role in the world.