Putin’s Russia, Putin’s Sochi: They just Don’t Work

In a brutally frank essay Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times, exposes the fundamental fraud that is the Sochi games, and the possible silver lining of holding the Olympics in Russia:  That Russia may be finally, totally, exposed before the slack-jawed world:

The Olympic flame in Vancouver has barely gone out and four years remain until the opening day of the next Winter Olympics in Sochi. But the first, most important race is already under way. From now until the closing ceremony on Feb. 23, 2014, the world will be on the edge of its seat, wondering whether Russia can pull it off.

The stakes for the Kremlin are huge. The Sochi Olympics are already different from most previous Winter Games, which were largely organized by local or regional authorities with only limited input from federal governments. Sochi, on the other hand, has always been a federal undertaking, driven by Vladimir Putin and controlled directly from Moscow. It is a national priority meant to showcase Russia’s accomplishments. In this respect, it is part of a long line of “propaganda Olympics,” which began in 1936 in Berlin and continued in Moscow in 1980, Seoul in 1988 and, most recently, Beijing two years ago.

If everything goes as planned, by 2014 Putin would already have reclaimed the presidency for a new, six-year term, which would mark his 15th year in power. Just like China’s authorities introduced “New China” to the world in 2008, Putin’s Olympics will put on display the system he has built — which is why I have so many doubts about the outcome.

Putin surely couldn’t have chosen a more challenging test for his system. Not only will all the athletic and tourist facilities and communications and transportation infrastructure be built from scratch, but it will be a winter event on a summer beach. There are many things that could go wrong — and knowing Russia’s history, most of them will.

It is also a major global event that will be held in direct proximity to a restive, lawless region where terrorism is a near-daily occurrence. Even though Canada is one of the world’s safest countries, the security tab in Vancouver still ran at more than one-third of the games’ initial budget.

Finally, it took a lot of chutzpah for the International Olympic Committee to pick Sochi. Heretofore, it had been an exclusive preserve of rich nations. Russia will be the poorest Winter Olympic host — even coming in below Yugoslavia, which hosted the 1984 games in Sarajevo.

Questions might arise about the structural soundness of a roof here and there, but the main facilities in Sochi are likely to be finished on time. Building large on an unlimited budget in an over-the-top, Dubai style has been a particular forte of the Putin system. Politically connected oligarchs working in Sochi, including Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Potanin, have proven organizational skills. The money is also there, provided by Russian Railways, Sberbank, Rosneft and other state conglomerates. Even though Gazprom has reportedly balked at paying its $2 billion sponsorship, the budget is already estimated to be about $14 billion. Putin and other top officials make regular personal visits to Sochi to make sure that everything is on schedule.

But a successful Olympics is so much more than facilities and equipment. For many visitors the fun is not only attending the events but also seeing the host city, straying from the beaten path, discovering quaint local restaurants and driving around the countryside.

That is where problems will arise. Putin’s Russia functions relatively well for the wealthy who inhabit gated communities along Moscow’s elite Rublyovskoye Shosse, get chauffeured around pot holes and traffic jams in luxury limousines, eat at expensive restaurants and vacation abroad. For everyone else, the infrastructure of daily life is a lot sparser and tougher — and exponentially worse outside Moscow.

It will be interesting to see where the organizers find the kind of cheerful, multilingual volunteers who steered crowds to Olympic venues in Turin and Vancouver. They are probably not going to find them in Sochi. Sochi authorities already complained to Putin last year that locals don’t speak much English. But this is only part of the problem. More to the point, the Olympics have already disrupted and dismayed Sochi residents. Many have been displaced to make room for Olympic sites. The rest will have to live for the next four years on a construction site.

In most countries, Winter Olympics are staged to boost tourism and provide revenues for local businesses and services. But because there are so few small businesses, local restaurants, nice boutiques selling regional products and private hotels, Sochi residents will benefit very little from the Olympics. The lion’s share of visitors’ money will end up at large hotel and restaurant chains.

The Olympics is also about organization, and this could become the ultimate undoing of the Sochi games. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bureaucratic infrastructure in Russia has disintegrated. Or rather, it has been privatized. Officials at every level have stopped doing their jobs and have become more like feudal lords, using their position either to siphon money from the budget or get kickbacks from the people they are supposed to serve. In the Soviet Union, the bureaucracy was unwieldy and inefficient. Today, bureaucrats simply refuse to do anything unless they see an opportunity to make some money on the side.

The results are plain. Police don’t protect citizens but rob and harass them. Sports officials don’t generate Olympic victories but live high on the hog at international competitions. Sochi 2014 may very well earn the dishonorable distinction of being the costliest and most unsuccessful Olympic Games in history.

In 2008, the Beijing Olympics showed that China’s post-communist system, for all its problems and shortcomings, definitely works. Four years from now, the Sochi Olympics may reveal that the post-Soviet Russia, for all its pretensions, doesn’t.

25 responses to “Putin’s Russia, Putin’s Sochi: They just Don’t Work

  1. All these difficulties are surmountable, and some had to be overcome in Vancouver as well (living on a construction site, displacement). The venues being built in Sochi proper are not the major construction projects, but include things like the long-track speed-skating venue. Russia was an observer in Vancouver/Richmond from the beginning of construction there as well, and took home many valuable lessons. The big stuff will be built on the mountain and in the forest, and considerable thought seems to have gone into it (see Sochi Live).

    The call for volunteers Russia-wide has gone out already, and I would not be surprised to see Russia fill many of its multilingual slots with Russians from abroad. The literacy rate in Russia is among the highest in the world, and many Russians speak more than one language.

    • Vancouver is of course in a civilized and very highly developed country and did not have to look for English speakers. Yet, the price was quite high. So high, in fact, that I understand the public was outraged enough to defeat in recent mayoral elections the person who was instrumental in getting the Olympics in the first place. I wonder if this is true.

      Now, Sochi has to build everything or most things from scratch, and of course it’s a national government’s project. Considering that in any totalitarian state money is no object when it comes to “prestige,” I am sure that they will complete all the construction and will have more or less “successful” Games. Beijing 2008 is a good example.

      But the cost is going to be higher than in Vancouver and will impoverish ordinary citizens even further. I think only a truly and profoundly immoral government could spend its money on the Olympics and other like projects instead of investing into increasing the life expectancy, for example.

      One has to to be really a brute having no conscience to spend billions on what is merely entertainment, prestige or not, when your men drop dead at 62 on average.

      • Vancouver is of course in a civilized and very highly developed country and did not have to look for English speakers.

        Excuse me, but are you saying that the knowledge of English should be a prerequisite for hosting Olympics?

        • I’m sure that’s not what he meant, and most references to the Vancouver Olympics cited the hosts of “multilingual” volunteers as critical to success. English is widely spoken in Russia as a second language and, as I suggested earlier, there will likely be strong volunteer participation by Russian expats living in other countries.

          There’s no doubt it will be costly, but don’t forget Russia started allocating funds for it in 2006, as soon as they knew Sochi was shortlisted. Also, costs for security were about a third of the budget in Vancouver; the national police (RCMP) were the lead agency, but they don’t have anything like enough personnel to do it alone, and there was extensive support (about 1,500) from the Armed Forces. That cost a lot of money. Both the Russian police force and the military are huge compared to Canada, and there likely won’t have to be as much relocation either. Sizable contributions will come from private investors, although the lion’s share will come from the Federal budget.

          • Well Mark, the Russian military may be huge, but it is also incredibly corrupt (Chechen separatists get their weapons from Russian Officers as a general rule…), and incredibly brutal.

            It has a long track record of deliberate and intentional violence against civilians, see Chechnya, and the 2008 war with Georgia for details.

            Really old chap, you seem to have a very poor understanding of Russia.

            • Okay, Robert, I defer to your obviously superior knowledge of Russia. You seem to have it all going on, so enjoy your life of loathing. Meanwhile, what I actually meant is that it should not cost Russia anything like what it cost Vancouver for security. Vancouver used the RCMP as lead agency and the military as backup, and while you might reasonably argue that both organizations are being paid anyway, setup of specialized facilities and relocation of equipment cost a great deal of money. Military and police employed away from their customary bases and duty stations are paid an individual extra per diem rate to offset the cost of meals and accommodation, things like that. As soon as you start talking large numbers, the Cha-ching! factor starts going up sharply.

              The Russian police force is large enough that they may well be able to do it without military assistance, although I imagine there will be some military participation. Still, both services are paid very poorly by our standards, and likely any suggestion of a per diem rate to offset extra out-of-pocket expenses would be met with laughter. That’s all I meant, that the police and military have more than enough resources to provide security for the games, and that security probably won’t cost Russia as much as it cost Vancouver. Security costs are the principal reason hosting the Olympics has moved from a break-even proposition to a crippling expense situation. Sorry if that didn’t indicate a sufficiently broad knowledge of Russia.

              Most security forces, old chap, will be employed away from the public eye, so therefore their opportunities to enjoy incredible corruption, brutality and deliberate violence against civilians will likely be limited.

        • Not a prerequisite, but certainly is important. You don’t expect millions of foreign visitors to learn Russian, do you? For communications and safety, you will need thousands of English speakers there

          • Well, RV, they held Olympics in Atlanta, USA, even though few Atlantans know any foreign languages.

            And they have held the Olympics in places like China in 2008 and Yugoslavia in 1984, where they speak/spoke less English than they do in Russia.

            LA RUSSOPHOBE RESPONDS:

            Actually, they speak English quite well in Atlanta. English is the link language you need to speak to deal with foreign tourists, idiot.

            Please source your claim about China. With 15 times more people than Russia, even if China’s rate of English speaking is one-tenth that of Russia it still has FAR more speakers available.

            You are babbling offensive lies that we will not tolerate. You have been warned.

            • The whole English issue is a red herring here: truth be told, the Vancouver Olympics would have probably gone off nearly as well had all visitors been forced to speak English, or use a translator. Visitors to a foreign country who cannot speak the language expect to undergo a little inconvenience.

              That said, there’s that little bit of extra comfort in being addressed in your native language, and perhaps that contributed to the relaxed, party-like atmosphere. Both Canada and the United States are broadly multicultural, and Atlanta could probably have easily rustled up expats from any nation you’d care to name. I believe, however, that the Vancouver Olympics used many more volunteers than is the custom.

              Many North Americans are bilingual as well, especially in Canada with its two official languages. I can speak French almost fluently, and do whenever I’m in Quebec or a French-speaking country. It’s just a courtesy, and it’s usually appreciated, even if nobody will ever mistake me for a Frenchman.

              In any case, Russia studied the Vancouver Olympics very carefully, noting what worked and what didn’t. If they place a high priority on volunteers who can speak various languages, it’s because it was one of the things that was assessed to have worked. That’s just good market research.

              • However, LR is correct on the issue of English as a second language in China, by a wide margin. Chinese recognize the importance of learning the international language to their status as an emerging superpower, and an ESL teacher would have no problem getting a job in China. But in the end, even if a tiny percentage of Chinese spoke English, they’d still swamp Russia, because there’s just so many of them.

                English is a compulsory subject in Russian schools, and it’s not uncommon for Russians to have between 4 and 10 years experience even before they enter university. But like most non-English countries, if you don’t use it, you lose it, and opportunities to practice are limited.

                According to Foreign Policy Journal, better than 300,000,000 Chinese speak some English as a second language; about twice the entire population of Russia

                http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/02/12/english-is-not-a-foreign-language/

                The rest of the article is well worth reading. I had no idea, for example, that other cultures have so much trouble understanding English people speaking their language (Russian, French, whatever) because they have a poor ability to allow for variation in accent or grammar. According to the source, English speakers have an incredible capability to understand English spoken with a heavy accent and with errors in grammar. Interesting.

      • I love your comment but you could really say the same thing about any country that would even think about/want to be a world power when the Homeland has so many severe and devastating problems. I believe this is Russia single biggest least forgivable historical blunder!

  2. Alexei Bayer is a hack. A mildly critical article telling Putin and henchmen to get to work or be embarrassment to the world, not for human rights violations but for poor organization. This is something Goebbels would have written in 1934 to urge on his Nazis to organize the best games. If Goebbels wrote, “Work must stop on Dachau so that the Athletic Dormitory can be completed before the start of the games. What an embarrassment it would be if the world’s top athletes save the Negroes from America and the occasional Jew, were not shown the finest in German Hospitality. Since the collapse of the Weimar Republic many government officials have taken up graft and bribery. Once the games are over, those that we find not leading Germany to glory will find a nice cot waiting for them in Dachau.”

    Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bureaucratic infrastructure in Russia has disintegrated. Or rather, it has been privatized.

    Is Bayer a Communist? He is commenting that the private sector is somehow bad. In the West yes, in Russia yes, because the “private sector” is quasi private, being run by KGB officers with their paws firmly in the State coffers.

    In 2008, the Beijing Olympics showed that China’s post-communist system, for all its problems and shortcomings, definitely works. Four years from now, the Sochi Olympics may reveal that the post-Soviet Russia, for all its pretensions, doesn’t.

    Yes, the Bejing Olympics showed us that yes you can cover up human rights abuses. Post communist system? This is news to me.

    Yes, you can breath in the over-polluted proletarian paradise.

    • Hey, Russophobe.
      You seem harsh on dissenting views, I’ve noticed with dismay, but I guess outright maniacs like Monsieur Kolchak here are fine, right?
      Putin’s Russia is bad, but it is NOT Nazi Germany. Or Stalin’s USSR. Thanks, Gott.
      About the “Negroes from America”. It should be perhaps reminded to this guy that Jesse Owens could hang out with the racist Fuehrer but could not piss in the same pot as his white countrymen in many states back home. Which, at least in this particular respect, equated the United States at the time, and its multilingual cities such as Atlanta, with the aforementioned Fuehrer.
      The guy’s knee jerk reaction about privatization (of public functions) is equally moronic. Private I guess is such a sacred word, that it can’t be used in any negative context for fear of soiling it.
      Anyway, I encourage you to give him a warning for spreading malicious lies

  3. Is Bayer a Communist? He is commenting that the private sector is somehow bad. In the West yes, in Russia yes, because the “private sector” is quasi private, being run by KGB officers with their paws firmly in the State coffers.

    Correction:

    In the West no, in Russia, yes,

  4. “Sochi authorities already complained to Putin last year that locals don’t speak much English.”

    When Russia hosted Eurovision 2009 in Moscow they were forced to hire people from Latvia and Estonia because from the city with 10 000 000 inhabitants(Moscow) just did not have enought people with professional skills(language wasnt the only problem). And we are talking here about Eurovision song contest that cant be compare to Olympics.

  5. @Finally, it took a lot of chutzpah for the International Olympic Committee to pick Sochi. Heretofore, it had been an exclusive preserve of rich nations. Russia will be the poorest Winter Olympic host — even coming in below Yugoslavia, which hosted the 1984 games in Sarajevo.

    I remember one hot day in June 1983 when the Workers’ Assembly of the News Department of Sarajevo State Television held an extraordinary session. Some representatives of the Communist authorities came to tell us that we should offer to “donate” a month’s salary to support the upcoming XIV Winter Olympic Games. Apparently, the state Olympic Committee was running short of cash.

    http://www.rferl.org/content/Bosnia_25_Years_Of_Going_Downhill/1491332.html

  6. @It will be interesting to see where the organizers find the kind of cheerful, multilingual volunteers who steered crowds to Olympic venues in Turin and Vancouver.

    Well, I guess it might the case of scratch one the Nashis. (But they would have be first thought how to not hate the West for a while.)

    • I’d love to know what you were thinking when you “wrote” this, Robert, but I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. Was there a point somewhere among the bumper-sticker soundbites and the tortured grammar?

  7. Traslation for Mark: Robert wrote that russians will have to rely on PutlerUgend “Nashi” to get “cheerful” volunteers. But before that Nashi have to be taught not to hate the West so much for a while. They can return to their idiotic tactics after the Olympics.
    And, Mark, who told you about highly educated and multilingual population of russia? A few left in Moscow and Peter but that’s about it. The rest do not even know how to speak or write russian, let alone English. Educated and talented all left Russia to escape suffocation. Jeeez.

  8. The latest Sochi news: the construction workers went on strike as they hadn’t been paid for almost half a year. The conditions they live in are deplorable, unsanitary. And they are not being fed either. Look for yourself
    http://www.blogsochi.ru/content/olimpiiskii-bunt-stroiteli-olimpiiskikh-obektov-obyavili-zabastovku

    It is in Russian, but one of the videos(youtube) speaks for itself. Mark, do you think these people chose to live like that, do you really think there are fair elections in rasha??? You are a stooge of KGB or FSB(the same thing), no doubt about it.

  9. Sochi Olympic Workers Unpaid for Months

    Hundreds of workers at an Olimpstroi-funded construction site in Sochi have not been paid in months, with some complaining that they are going hungry after giving up their passports as collateral to get food at grocery stores.

    The scandal is the latest to hit Russia’s $13 billion effort to ready the Black Sea resort for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Residents displaced by construction for the games have complained that they are not being adequately compensated, while environmental activists say the work is blighting the region.

    Wage arrears shot up in Russia as the economy collapsed in late 2008, particularly at stalled construction sites and industrial plants that supply them. Wage arrears rose to 4.1 billion rubles in January, or by 15.5 percent compared with a month earlier, according to the latest figures from the State Statistics Service.

    “I have not had a single day off for three months and have not seen a single ruble,” said Arnold Yeprikyan, a foreman with Solnechny Dom, whose 168 workers on the project were building 19 houses. The firm, based in the Krasnodar region town of Tuapse, was last paid an advance in December and has finished its project, he said.

    “We saw Putin and Medvedev say on TV that people eat well at construction sites in Sochi. What they give us is not human food, and they charge us 200 rubles a day for it,” Yeprikyan said.

    Contacted Sunday, Pechorin said Moskonversprom asked him to resign after he started speaking to reporters. “I have worked overtime with no compensation,” he said.

    “People here are hard workers. They came from far away and a lot of them have been used and thrown out,” Pechorin said, adding that he had three children at home in Siberia, where the hot water would be turned off if his bills are not paid. “I trusted them for six months. I’m not interested in TV or radio, and I’m ashamed to be hauling this trash about the Olympics into public, but people are losing their patience.”

    Many of the workers are stuck because they have pawned their belongings at the local grocery store for food, said Svetlana Beresteneva, who lives in the neighborhood. “The store manager has a whole bag of cell phones, driver’s licenses and passports, and a toilet paper-size roll listing people’s IOUs,” she said. “Mostly it’s for bread, cigarettes and kefir.”

    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/sochi-olympic-workers-unpaid-for-months/401622.html

  10. Finally, it took a lot of chutzpah for the International Olympic Committee to pick Sochi. Heretofore, it had been an exclusive preserve of rich nations. Russia will be the poorest Winter Olympic host — even coming in below Yugoslavia, which hosted the 1984 games in Sarajevo.”

    That’s total nonsense. First of all, modern Russia is many times wealthier than Yugoslavia was in 1984 and much wealthier than Sarajevo-Bosnia is today:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita

    51 Russia 15,039
    54 Latvia 14,304
    55 Chile 14,299
    56 Argentina 14,126
    59 Mexico 13,542
    64 Belarus 12,486
    66 Turkey 12,339
    67 Bulgaria 11,760
    68 Romania 11,755
    92 Bosnia and Herzegovina 7,490
    97 China, People’s Republic of 6,546

    Italy too was much poorer in 1956 than Russia is today. Moreover, preparations for Summer Olympics are much costlier than those for Winter Olympics, and we have been having Summer Olympics in countries that were much poorer than Russia is today: Greece 1896, Mexico 1968, Moscow 1980, South Korea 1988, China 2008, Brazil 2016.

    LR’s standards are too high, as she thinks that even Canada is too poor to host Olympics:

    https://larussophobe.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/editorial-the-looming-sochi-disaster/
    Yet, four years from now, Russia not only plans to compete in but to host the Winter Olympics. When one reflects on the serious difficulties already experienced by Canada while playing host this year, one cannot help but think Russia is engaged in a fool’s errand.

    At the opening ceremonies, one of the four cauldrons of fire that were supposed to rise dramatically from below the stage to be lit by a famous athlete experienced a mechanical failure.

    Then a Georgian luge athlete was killed during a practice run, a crucial safety wall having been left unbuilt on a track that was horrifically dangerous, producing unheardof speeds.

    Next, snow conditions deteriorated so much that a key skiing venue had to be closed to spectators because of the danger, and the world’s most famous halfpipe snowboarders began ridiculing the condition of their apparatus.

    And finally, there was a total failure of ice maintenance at the speed-skating oval, resulting in a delay of hours as coaches complained vehemently about danger to their athletes from improperly prepared rink surfaces.

    Oh, and that was all on the opening weekend alone.

    So, evidently all Olympic Games must be held in these 5 wealthiest countries:

    1 Qatar 87,717
    2 Luxembourg 78,723
    3 Norway 53,269
    4 Brunei 50,103
    5 Singapore 49,433

    LOL.

    • Compared to other countries at that time, Italy was still wealthier than Russia, just as it is today.

      29 Italy 29,290
      51 Russia 15,039

      Interesting how you compare apples with oranges, and also forget that holding the olympics is a ridiculously expensive exercise, especially for a country that has such systemic problems as Russia.

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