Uncool Russia

Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times:

Four years ago during the XX Winter Olympics, the Russia House was by far the hottest party venue in Turin. It even had an open-air ice skating rink on the roof, where skaters were treated to free shots of vodka and an unending parade of scantily clad young women. There were plenty of brutish middle-aged men, too, but they somehow seemed less scary — and therefore more fascinating — since then-

President Vladimir Putin had curbed the excesses of Russia’s wild capitalism.

The New York Times ran the headline “In Parties as Well as Podiums, Russia is Red-Hot.” The red-and-white apparel designed by the Italian-sounding but thoroughly Russian label Bosco di Ciliegi (rather ugly, in my view) was ubiquitous that year in Piedmont, and envious Swedes and Norwegians, abandoning their Nordic restraint, accosted Russian fans in the street and begged them for the coveted tickets to those all-night Russia House parties. It was the height of Russia’s worldwide popularity.

Unlike its far larger summer cousin, the Winter Olympics is a cozy affair held not during the season of mass tourism but in February, when only the rich and the idle can come out to play. By definition, it takes place at upscale, exclusive winter resorts. People going in for downhill skiing or figure skating are mainly upper class.

This makes the Winter Olympics an exclusive rich men’s club, the sports equivalent of the Group of Seven. It was quite a coup for Russia to be acknowledged as the unofficial social center in Turin. It seems that it was after the Turin Games in 2006 that Putin became obsessed with bringing the 2014 Olympics to Sochi.

I don’t know what kind of party scene there will be in Vancouver. But Russia, despite hosting the next Winter Games, is unlikely to be the focus of attention and admiration. Far fewer people will party with Russians in 2010. Today, Russia is no longer cool.

This has very little to do with the economic crisis or lower oil prices. It is not the question of money, glamour or beautiful girls. The problem is that Putin’s Russia has not fulfilled the promise it held out as recently as in 2006. It failed to become a normal, responsible member of the international community. Since then, there has been Russia’s petulant and inconsistent foreign policy, with Putin behaving like a spiteful adolescent on the world stage. There have been stories of massive, widespread corruption and clear evidence of it in the form of overfed Russian bureaucrats buying every overpriced object at airport duty-free shops around the world. There have been contract killings of independent journalists, political activists and regime opponents, including Putin’s critic Alexander Litvinenko in the heart of London. There has been police brutality, suppression of dissent and a steady Sovietization of Russian society.

The world’s perception of Russia has changed. Russia’s attraction as a wild, fun-loving and anything-goes country is wearing off. In its place: a dreary, corrupt, uncouth and threatening mass. Against this background, even well-deserved victories by Russian athletes will hark back to the Soviet era when they were exploited to stir up a jingoist fever.

No matter how wildly the Russians party next month in Vancouver, a ticket to such events won’t be as hot an item as it was in Turin.

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