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Putin’s Games And Putin’s Russia

As the world watches Sochi, Russia and Vladimir Putin, we’ll look at the Olympic Games and their host.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, declares the 2014 Winter Olympics open as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, looks on during the opening ceremony, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, declares the 2014 Winter Olympics open as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, looks on during the opening ceremony, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP)

If you spend $50 billion and gather the world’s top winter athletes on a snowy mountainside, you’re going to get attention.  Russia’s got it right now – for better and worse – in Sochi.  For better – well, the vistas are beautiful, it hasn’t blown up, and the athletes are great.  The skates and skis and snowboards are, for most, irresistible.  For worse – Russia can come across as the angry, iron-fisted private preserve of President Vladimir Putin, pumped up on oil and gas money and ready to smack down anybody who complains.  This hour On Point:  the Sochi Olympics, and Putin’s Russia.

– Tom Ashbrook


John Cherwa, deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times. (@jcherwa)

Gregory Feifer, Europe editor at the Global Post. Author of “Russians: The People Behind The Power.” Also author of “The Great Gamble.” (@gfeifer)

Julia Ioffe, senior editor at The New Republic. Former Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and The New Yorker. (@juliaioffe)

From Tom’s Reading List

Los Angeles Times: Sochi Olympic organizers prepare for a rainy — and sunny — day –”The 2014 Sochi Games will take place 1,000 miles south of Moscow, at a Black Sea resort that qualifies as one of only a few Russian cities with a subtropical climate. If that seems less than hibernal, the organizers insist they can stage a successful competition no matter what kind of weather there is over the next month.”

New York Times: A Triumph for Putin, if Not for the Rest of a Sagging Russia –”Now, as the first events begin, the Games have for Mr. Putin and his allies become a self-evident triumph of Russia’s will. The avalanche of criticism that has already fallen, from minor complaints about ill-prepared hotels and stray dogs to grave concerns about the costs, security and human rights, is being brushed away like snowflakes from a winter coat.”

The New Republic: Russians Think We’re Engaging in Olympic Schadenfreude. They’re Right. — “There’s a fine line between fair criticism and schadenfreude, and the Western press has been largely well on the side of the latter. I’d also argue that there’s something chauvinistic, even Russophobic in it. The Europeans may not be ready for their Olympics, but, okay, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best. The Chinese prepare for theirs ruthlessly, but we don’t understand them so whatever. ”

Read An Excerpt Of “Russians” By Gregory Feifer

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  • andrewgarrett

    Russia is a very progressive state, far more progressive than the US. Otherwise, why would Snowden and Glen Greenwald have served as its useful idiots? And China – that’s a very progressive place too. It must be, according to Snowden and Greenwald. So I don’t undstand all this talk about how bad China and Russia are.

    • northeaster17

      What a wonderful thought provoking comment.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Russia is not the same as the US, and both have big problems.

      But “progressive” is virtually completely opposite to anything Russia is doing.

    • Leonard Bast

      You get the prize for the most garbled, irrational, nonsensical, word salad of the day. Now go away.

    • keltcrusader

      I think everyone’s sarcasm-meter is off today.

      • geraldfnord

        They, like many, are deeply in need of the Hodgman Literary Tone Detector®.

    • geraldfnord

      Militarist? Check.
      Unions smashed? Check.
      Young weirdo artists imprisoned? Check.
      Environmental laws dead letters? Check.
      Human rights reserved to the powerful? Check.
      Gays quashed. Check.
      Minorities made to shut up and take it? Check.

      There has always been a lot about the Russian Empire, called the ‘Soviet Union’ or the ‘Russian Federation’, for which right-wing Americans have had a figurative erection. If only they also let people make money and had no decent welfare state services! Well, they and the Chinese ‘Communists’ have those covered, now, too.

      (There was an old Russian joke in which Brezhnev shows-off his opulent life-style to his mum, who reacts by worriedly whispring in his ear ‘But Lyenchik, what if the _Communists_ take over?’)

  • Shag_Wevera

    I can’t be the only one who wouldn’t miss the Olympics if they were never held again.

    • Ray in VT

      Maybe not the only one, but I think that many, and I think likely a majority, would miss the games.

      • TFRX

        But how to make them more “honest”, strip out the crap?

        I mean, as a football fan, I ask this question about the World Cup every quadrennium also.

        And I come up with the adage that “soccer is such a great game that even FIFA can’t destroy it”. I’m sure there’s a truism about the Olympic spirit along those lines.

        • Ray in VT

          All true. Coverage can be annoying, but I do like the ceremonies and such, although not as much as the actual competition. I have been quite pleased to hear that a 17 year old from just a few miles away did pretty well.

    • MrNutso

      I would miss the Olympics. Not the prime time crap on NBC, not the opening and closing ceremonies, not the BS local or human interest stories, but the competition. I watch everything on-line to get knowledgeable commentary as see the action as it’s happening.

    • Shag_Wevera

      Apparently I might be the only one…

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    The way that Russia is doing the Olympic Games is an all-to-familiar variation on bread and circus. Russia wants to be more than they have been, on the world stage, but they are far from being a morally legitimate state.

    I am abstaining from watching the Olympics, and what I do watch will be after the fact.

    • TFRX

      After the fact?

      I hope that’s not a dig at how Americans couldn’t watch the Opening Ceremonies live even if they had cable.*

      But seriously, if “after the fact” means going to the NBC website, or Xfininty On Demand, I’ve wondered how can one watch without adding to the number of views or hits, therefore encouraging them.

      (*I’m sure there was Lifehacker post about how to stream it from some Slobvonian pirate site if you had a dummy IP address from a different continent.)

      • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

        I don’t have cable, and I detest how the Olympics have been covered in recent decades.

        What I meant is I’ll catch things on the Intertubes DVR later.

        • TFRX

          Oh, yuck on the announcers talking over the Opening Ceremonies. I was hitting my SAP button trying to get them to shut up!

          Still, in the same way that a movie gets made today anticipating the “long tail” of video rental income, good luck on finding that without adding to NBC’s total of “eyeballs”.

  • hennorama

    Tangentially related: Missouri defensive end and NFL prospect Michael Sam announces he is gay; Earth does not spin off its axis.

    • MrNutso

      I’m not so sure you’re right. It’s pretty cold out today.

      • Ray in VT

        You beat me to it!

    • Ray in VT

      Au contraire, my dear Hennorama. He came out last night, and it is snowing here today, so there has been fallout.

    • Coastghost

      Alternatively, the “news” has hardly helped push the planet’s turn on its axis: Sam is not newsworthy because he’s a great or decent defensive end, not newsworthy because he’s an NFL prospect (that NFL teams seem not eager to pick up): no, at this point Sam’s entire claim to fame is his self-identification as a homosexual.
      What a novel feat.

      • TFRX

        The same fellow who is SEC conference defensive player of the year isn’t “great or decent”?


        Troll somewhere else.

      • jimino

        The lens through which you view facts is so distorted as to make anything you write of value only for it’s ability to illuminate the bizarre right-wing alternate universe you inhabit.

      • Ray in VT

        I guess that they hand out All American status and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year to everyone who just shows up.

    • Don_B1

      Some of the comments, “notably” downgrading his skill set and bringing up the “locker room discomfort” and publicity distraction, provide the possibility that all the shoes have not yet dropped, as much as some of them are despicable.

      • StilllHere

        Might want to be careful about picking up that shoe.

  • TFRX

    Am I the only one wondering how Daft Punk’s anthem to picking up strangers for sex at bar’s closing got past the ultra-manly-man Putin?

    Nothing gay about that song or any of its fans, Vlad. Nothing at all.

    • Ray in VT

      As long as the song is about men picking up the ladies, then isn’t that what manly, vigorous men are supposed to do?

  • Fiscally_Responsible

    The Olympics have been very enjoyable thus far (skiing, snowboarding in particular). In terms of technical difficulties with venues or hotels or stars turning into an Olympic ring during the opening ceremony, any problems that have occurred are nothing compared to the Obamacare fiasco. So let’s keep it in perspective. Also, keep all of the gay stuff in the closet.

    • Ray in VT

      You must be avoiding the ice routines like the plague, then.

      • Fiscally_Responsible

        I like curling,

        • Ray in VT

          It’s pretty fun to watch, and there have long been curling facilities in places here along the border.

        • Ray in VT

          I also really like the luge and bobsled, as well as just about any event where the competitors can get some air.

    • iccheap

      Fiscally, really a beautifully constructed non-sequiter.

    • KF in VT

      Of course someone had to bring Obamacare into a discussion about a sports event in Russia. Makes complete sense.

  • Fiscally_Responsible

    It cracks me up that some of those individuals most critical of some of the technical problems with venues and hotels were completely willing to give Obamacare a pass when it came to the rollout fiasco that it was. And the $50 billion that Putin spent on Sochi including corruption/etc. will be a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of billions of waste/fraud/abuse associated with Obamacare when the cost is tallied up a few years from now.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Blah, blah, blah Obamacare, blah, blah,blah, blah Obamacare, blah, blah Benghazi (oops!) blah, blah …

      • MrNutso

        That’s Benshochi.

    • TFRX

      You’re better off flogging your regular dead horse of abortion.

    • jimino

      Are you miserable every waking hour? I really feel sorry for someone so plagued by the right-wing mental health disorder you obviously suffer from that apparently controls your every thought..

      • jefe68

        It’s a new condition. It’s called regressive right wing meme disorder. Or RRWMD…

    • hennorama

      My apologies to the group for introducing the tangential comment idea today.

      • TFRX

        Eh, trolls gonna troll. This isn’t the ordinary internet; “public radio polite” means nobody ever gets booted off, and no host ever says “that’s crap”.

        That surface politeness really enables some jagoffs.

  • KF in VT

    I am enjoying the Games very much. My main quibble at this point is that with certain sports (mostly the alpine ones), there is a continual “party” going on in the background of the commentary and it is very distracting, and frankly annoying. Perhaps NBC wants to make us feel as though we are there, but I wish they would just turn down the background volume.

    • MrNutso

      European based commentators are so much better than NBC’s team.

      • TFRX

        What about the CBC? Anyone here close enough to the border to get their feed?

        • Ray in VT

          Back in 2006 I think that they did a better job than the U.S. media did. I have satellite, so I can’t get the Canadian stations, which is too bad.

  • Citizen James

    Hey, as for the Russian acceptance of the strong leader and the corruption culture… I lived in Spain in the post-Franco era and I saw a vestige of the same kind of thing: there was no such thing as a benevolent dictator or ‘caudillo’. Instead the dictator inspired ‘little dictators’ who may not be benevolent at all. And so you end up with this hierarchy of little fiefdoms where the corruption is engendered. In fact, the Cubans (who understands this better?) have a term for it: the Caudillo effect to denote a ‘trickle down’ of the dictator culture.

  • Michiganjf

    An Olympic Ring didn’t fall into place??!!

    How did that few hundred million dollar Spider Man show go on Broadway?

  • Michiganjf

    Sochi is so beautiful, and thank God there are still a few “old world” places left to visit, where one can escape “modern life.”

    I’m sorry for what “Putin’s Olympics” has done to such a beautiful, quaint area of Russia… they’d be better off without it.

    I’m a bit embarrassed by the “provincialism” of some Americans, who think every place they visit in the world should have the same amenities they enjoyed on their last Vegas vacation.

    • jefe68

      I don’t think having water that one can use to take a shower with is asking to much.

      Also, that quaint lack of modern life you seem to find so endearing has been uprooted by the Russian government to make way for the Olympics.

      • Michiganjf

        You don’t think the people living in Sochi ever took a decent shower before the Olympics arrived????

        By all accounts, the bad water in a few refurbished hotels is a product of Putin’s decision to push the Olympics on his home town, without the infrastructure to support the “upgrades”… something I said above they’d be better off without.

        • Michiganjf

          BTW, if you’ve ever lived in a very old neighborhood, through a period of upgrades to the city water system, you’d know that the work done wreaks havoc on some existing pipework, resulting in heavy sediments and discolored water for a period of up to a few months after the construction work ends.

          • jefe68

            That’s an absurd analogy. But yes I have and it’s not even a good one. In Boston there are a lot of old pipes and I’ve been through a few upgrades on both water and electric services. Not the same thing.
            You’re support of the corruption in the construction in the Olympic games at Sochi is noted.

        • jefe68

          Which goes to my point.
          The people in the small villages I’m talking about had their water cut off.
          Also you seem to be romanticizing this somewhat, at least that’s how it comes across.

  • John_Hamilton

    I’m enjoying the games, found the opening ceremony moving, and look forward to the major events.

    Having said that, it will be a relief when the games are over, largely due to NBC’s over-hyped coverage. I suppose that’s a redundancy, saying over-hyped, but some of it is just ridiculous. The guys announcing women’s biathlon sounded like “Crazy Lenny,” a guy who does over-the-top TV commercials for a local big box appliance store (TVs). It could be argued that they had to do something to make biathlon interesting, but it was bizarre.

    I was willing to cut Putin some slack, but he’s a really creepy guy. The more he shows up, the creepier the games get. He may inadvertently be hastening his own demise by showing himself in public. If the main memory people have of the games are his steely eyes and wispy smile, his influence will wane. All future events in Russia will be seen through the lens of creepy Putin.

  • TFRX

    NBC treats Americans like children:

    Russia’s anti-gay laws have been a major focus in the lead-up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, and during his address at today’s opening ceremony IOC president
    Thomas Bach made a strong statement against “any form of discrimination” and in favor of tolerance. Viewers worldwide heard the statement; NBC viewers in the U.S. did not, because the network edited it out.

    Have no idea if NBC knew this was in there. But if this isn’t enough to make us go to some skiffy internet place, I don’t know what is.

  • wbsurfver

    dying little towns with muddy roads with just a few old folks living there ? Is this in Russia or Detroit ? The caller who complained about Manhattan had a point, as usual the guy being interviewed stumbled through some sort of acknowledgement and went right back to criticizing Russia . Corruption and economic problems seems to be every on the increase in America

  • tbphkm33

    I do not like being in the US during the Olympics – NBC’s coverage is horrible. If I watch something, I mute the TV. Normal course of events is one idiotic comment after another – where does NBC dig up these presenters and “experts.”

    At least so far with the Sochi Olympics, NBC is refraining from their pattern in past years, where they show repeated runs of American’s who came in 12th and 17th, then a two second glimpse of the winner. There has to be a limit to nationalism, most of us did not tune in to see the nearly good enough athletes.

    Sochi and Russia – like I always say, do not underestimate Russia. Just look at their natural resource base. Russia is one of the few countries with such a wide and deep natural resource base that it would do fine without the rest of the world.

  • marygrav

    Putin was right when he told Bush about the “speck and the beam.” Before we criticize the Russians or their government, we need to look at our own. Remember how part of the Voting Rights Act was dismantled because too many Blacks and minorities voted and will continue to vote. The T-Party/GOP want to determine what and who should rule women’s bodies. The same House wants to turn the US into a Theocracy by declaring that the US is a Christian country and place a Taleban type government in both chambers of Congress and in the White House. Remember this happened with G.W. Bush and the Neocons and this is why we face the financial crisis and moral crisis we have today.

    All governments are the same. They collect taxes and oppress the people. They use propaganda to control the people, and in the case of the US use nationalism to conceal Class Warfare.

    I had a professor, Dr. Wheelright, who told the class in a film studies class that the Russians are more Eastern than they are Western. I have found this to be true. They have a history that is uniquely different from the US and Europe, except for wars and colonialism. Bribes are part of the daily life of the East. So one should not be surprised at how the money goes and flows. The Russian Mafia has taken over in New York and LA. Don’t forget it was a Russian gangster that murdered Bill Cosby’s son. They help make up the US 1% who are protected by the T-Party/GOP.

    Before we criticize Russia too much let US examine ourselves and our motivations. The propaganda machine wants the US military to interfere in Syria by putting Boots on the Ground. But in the UN Russia is using its veto to protect Syria, its ally. The US does the same for Israel, even though Israel at most times works in logger head against it. Putin is no worst than Obama who must support his constituency.

    American Banks are protected by the interests of the Capitalist, whereas the Russian banks are not so the “Russian Mystery” is easily solved: Save and invest you money in an American bank because the American military will protect it. This is why a joint session of Congress wants to reinstall any cuts to military pensions.

    The “Machine of Corruption” begins with our Congress and political candidates that have to run in $billion dollar elections. The American people lost control of our Congress years ago. They can be bought and sell US out.

    The Cold War is over. We must begin to live like it is.

    • TJPhoto40

      There’s plenty to object to in our own country and its dysfunctional politics, income inequality and more, but you’re way off base when you say “all governments are the same” and what follows. If you think the US and Russian political systems are equivalent, you’re not very astute or sophisticated in assessing such matters. Our imbalance and the influence of money are certainly serious issues, but they don’t rise to the level of authoritarianism and corruption in Russia.

  • hourly_PA

    Stephen Cohen’s Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives is a more mature and more intelligent take on Russia today and yesterday.
    The jingoism and vacuity of carping about Russia.
    It’s a non-stop sport on all channels. Who gets the gold.
    Legislation that Congress passes or doesn’t pass
    is bought and paid for by Washington oligarchs.
    For the how and the details see This Town by Mark Leibovich.
    And for more of that contrast between opulent Moscow and dying little towns with muddy roads with just a few old folks living there let’s start in Fairfax County, VA and hitchhike to Ellwood Park, Baltimore.

  • http://tombstone001.blogspot.com/ tombstone001

    Corruption, graft, oligarchs, power of the monied few and so on, minus a few (openly acknowledged) labor camps sounds pretty much like the US and are closest allies, oh yes but then we have our own prison labor too. Lets look in the mirror America

  • harverdphd

    I’m a little annoyed and offended by prior comments regarding NBC’s coverage and spokespersons for the Olympics. Few of you may know that NBC, other than the unrelated destruction of the Weather Channel, has fought to bring opportunity to those with cognitive and speech deficits. The announcer earlier referred to as “Crazy Lenny” may actually have some learning and hearing deficits resulting in his manner.

    And how can we ever thank NBC for giving Brian Williams the opportunity to grow beyond his struggle with three and four syllable words. Every night on the news hour is one more triumph for Brian.

    So hold your snide remarks for the trash talk from our young athletes.

  • HonestDebate1

    What about Russian relations with America has improved under Obama and Hillary’s State Department?

  • CombsL

    Very simple. Just read Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom.”

  • Maniza

    The propaganda machine against Russia is in full and vitriolic mode at the moment in fact it is on steroids. Tonight’s On Point is just one more childish example of what we here in the US have been subjected to. It has not been about the sports. It has been about terrorism and LGBT rights! There is almost a palpable disappointment in the tone and discussion that things are going well and almost a desire for things to go very wrong! I will not be donating to NPR anymore. I’ve had it with the simpering, self righteous propaganda.

    • TJPhoto40

      Your extremist response to this program suggests you’re both an apologist for the autocratic Putin and his policies and a reactionary whenever you disagree with reporting. I don’t see this program as propaganda or unfairly critical. In fact, there were voices earlier in the program that sought to bring some balance to the media coverage that was overly negative about Sochi’s choice for the Olympics. There are a lot of issues to deal with besides gay rights and terrorism, but you don’t seem to be hearing the range of problems with an open mind or desire to confront reality.

      • Maniza

        Note your use of the word extremist. Enjoy your continued drinking of the KoolAid.

  • http://tombstone001.blogspot.com/ tombstone001
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The President’s ISIS strategy. The Ray Rice video. Congress is back. Apple’s new watch. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

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