Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way

After a long break, a new contribution to the Experts Panel:

Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way

Western journalists have been in the business of dismissing Russian achievements and magnifying Russian failures ever since Putin drove them into a collective derangement syndrome – he even haunts their dreams, as recently revealed by the Guardian’s Shaun Walker – so the preemptive besmirching of the Sochi Olympics can’t have surprised anyone.

What is startling, though, is the unusually low competence of the effort, even by the standards of these people that are sarcastically referred to as “democratic journalists” in Russia.

The first and foremost attack revolved around the supposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In 2010, the Russian magazine Esquire estimated that 48km of roads around Sochi consumed a cool $8 billion of taxpayer money, a sum that implied the asphalt might as well have been made of elite beluga caviar. Julia Ioffe cheerily transmitted these sophomoric calculations to the Anglosphere. The only problem with these actuarial wisecracks? Said road also included a railway, 50 bridges, and 27km worth of tunnels over mountainous terrain… which presumably made it something more than just a road. What was intended as a metaphor for Sochi corruption turned out to be, ironically, a metaphor for unfounded attacks against it.

There are incessant comparisons to the $8 billion spent during the 2010 Olympics in Canada. But this sidesteps the fact that Whistler was already a world-class ski resort, whereas Sochi’s infrastructure had to be built from scratch and at relatively short notice. The actual event-related costs of the Sochi Olympics are $7 billion, of which only half was directly drawn from the state budget. This is not to say that there was no stealing – of course there was, as corruption is a real problem in Russia, and is especially endemic in the construction industry. Navalny has created an entire website about it, and coordinated a campaign against Sochi with Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what’s striking is that far from the pharaonic levels of misappropriation we might expected from the tone of the coverage, in most cases the markup was in the order of 50%-100% relative to “comparable” Western projects (and that’s after selecting the most egregious cases). This isn’t “good,” needless to say, but it’s hardly unprecedented in Western experience. In any case, a number of criminal cases have been opened up, so impunity is not guaranteed. (The most prominent “victim,” Akhmed Bilalov, has fled the country and claimed he was poisoned – all true to the form of emigre oligarch thieves from the ex-Sovie Union).

The lion’s share of the $50 billion investment in Sochi – some 80% of it or so – consists of infrastructure projects to make Sochi into a world-class ski resort that will provide employment in the restive North Caucasus, kickstart the development of a Russian snowsports culture, and draw at least some of the more patriotic elites away from Courcheval.

The second major angle of attack is Russia’s “persecution” of gays. This, presumably, refers to Russia’s new laws against the propaganda of homosexuality to children – no matter that very similar laws, in the form of Section 28, existed in the UK until 2003, and that sodomy remained illegal in some American states up until the same year. I bring these up not so much to engage in “whataboutism” as to point out that the moral standards that the West proselytizes so zealously have only been adopted (or dropped?) within the past decade. Furthermore, much of the rest of the world rejects those standards to a significantly greater extent than does Russia itself. As such, this campaign strikes such an absurd and nauseatingly self-righteous note that one cannot but suspect a cynical motive behind it. Snowden and Syria, in particular, come to mind.

The third, and by far the most repulsive, category of Western concern trolling about Sochi revolves around terrorism. After every successful terrorist attack in Russia, “experts” rush in to proclaim that it is an example of “Putin’s autocracy not working for ordinary Russians” (Kathryn Stoner-Weiss), that they “cannot rely on the protection of their government” (David Satter), etc. By extension, the IOC is wildly irresponsible for “jeopardizing the safety of fans and athletes” by awarding the games to Russia (Sally Jenkins). In reality, according to the world’s most comprehensive database on terrorism, the number of casualties in terrorist attacks in Russia has plummeted in the past decade, even as the jihadist movement has been reduced to a shadow of its former self; suffice to say that suicide bombing a bus in a second-tier city like Volgograd is now considered a great success among their ranks. I do not wish to tempt fate by ruling it out entirely, but with the “ring of steel,” pervasive telecommunications monitoring, and cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies that characterize Sochi security, the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack is surely low.

Consequent criticisms become increasingly deranged and unhinged from reality, much like the murderous HAL supercomputer fading away into childish gibberishness after it gets turned off. Thousands of people got evicted, their land stolen from them… except that the average compensation per person was $100,000. Sochi is apparently built on the bones of Circassians… well, if it’s a graveyard, I wonder what that makes the North American continent – a death world? The assertion that Sochi is an “unsuitable subtropical resort” with no snow… an assessment that would surely surprise the denizens of California’s Bay Area, who go skiing in Tahoe up until late April, and where average February temperatures are significantly higher than around Sochi. If anything, conditions are looking downright steezy. The metaphorical rock-bottom was attained by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who made a photograph of a pair of side-by-side toilets that were then splashed around the media – up to and including The New York Times – as evidence of the graft and imbecility that characterized the Sochi preparations. The only problem being that the photograph was taken in the middle of a renovation. But, hey, we wouldn’t want to deny the Brits their toilet humor, now would we…

All this is not to say that the Sochi Olympics are some kind of pure monument to virtuous sportsmanship and international friendship. Of course not. From their origins in ancient Greece, they were always about money, competition, and prestige. Putin himself openly states that one of its goals is to showcase a new Russia. There are no rules preventing Western states from waging a media campaign against Sochi, and refusing to send their top leaders to the opening ceremonies – petty and unseemly, such actions only reflect badly on their authors. So be it… gapers won’t be missed.


  1. How would ordinary westerners react if somebody was caught preying on children with propaganda for depraved and degenerated US lifestyles? Can´t children just be left alone, just being children? I think they would like it as much as they would like to have Jimmie Savile´s lurking around, no matter what the political correctness of their regimes.

    About the Olympics. If we see this in a wider context including the increasing and extreme anti-russian propaganda the Americans are drumming up in every media, their and Soros obvious attempts to instigate civil war in Ukraine, the Volgograd bombings and Obama´s speech. Is it just me or don´t you also get a creepy feeling that they are planning something that might involve all the above mentioned in some sort of climax? On a nod from Washington, Georgia started the onslaught on South Ossetia and used the shadow of the Olympic´s trying to get away with it. Im not happy at all that the Russians accepted US “help” in Sochi, that is certainly not an insurance that they and Bandar bin Chimpanzee wont try something, rather the opposite

  2. I wish Russia spent this money on space exploration instead. It would have gotten more international prestige out of it, and this prestige would have been longer-lasting. Almost any country can put on an Olympics. Even Brazil. Russia is the only country on Earth that could return to space in a big way. The US and the EU are bankrupt, and China only ever copies.

    • They are ramping up their space explorations effort as well, with numerous big projects (for example, the Luna programme has been restarted after a 38 year hiatus, and Roscosmos has partnered with ESA on future Mars and Jupiter missions, including a Ganymede lander mission).

      And mind you, Russia is without compare the world leader in spaceflight as it is. Typically, they conduct almost twice as many space missions per year as the runner-up (which is usually the USA, but it was China in 2011 I reckon). And adding to that, Russia is the only nation that conducts scheduled manned space launches and such (and the US is completely in their hands until at least 2018!). China has the capability too, but they’re not as experienced and as for now they’re busy trying to accomplish various landmark achievements that the US and Russia did and grew tired of some 30-40 years ago.

      However, in terms of prestige and return, spaceflight is not what it used to be, especially not in the eyes of the general public – and that’s where it matters in this particular context. It’s not worthless by any means, but if it were between overhauling Sochi and spending the same money on some spaceflight endeavour my vote would definitely go to Sochi.

      Karlin has touched upon a few of the aspects, but there are many more. Sochi is slated to host the G8 meeting this summer, and later this year it will also host the first Russian Formula One Grand Prix in a 100 years (yeah, right on the mark), be a host of some FIFA WC 2018 games and so on. It’s a truly massive project, the Olympics themselves being but a small part.

      It benefits the region enormously, and it will benefit Russia as a whole too. Basically it’s a huge leap, to use a spacefaring cliché, and an overt milestone in post-Soviet Russia development.

      • “However, in terms of prestige and return, spaceflight is not what it used to be…”

        That’s because the projects have gotten smaller, less ambitious. A return to big projects would ramp up the prestige. A Lunar colony, a Martian colony, a space elevator, sending a probe to Europa and looking for life under its ice – stuff like that would make as much noise now as the Soviet and American successes of 1957 – 1969 did then. The returns of such projects would be long-term international prestige and self-confidence. One positive side effect would be the reversal of some of the brain drain of the 1990s.

  3. There is always room for debate whether money spent on one project might be better spent on another. For what it’s worth my personal view is that a long term investment that develops Sochi into a major tourist and services hub in a way that will provide a long term boost to the economy of the northern Caucasus is money that is better spent than the same amount of money spent on space programmes. It is not as if Russia is neglecting its space programme. Work on the Vostochny cosmodrome is proceeding, the GLONASS system seems to be (finally!) approaching fruition and it seems a new manned space vehicle to replace the Soyuz is in development. I am not a scientist or a technologist but my feeling is that space research basically reached a technological plateau some time around the mid 1970s and I doubt there is much to be gained by artificially boosting investment in this area above the levels it is attracting at the moment.

  4. We were in Sochi last week. The logistical achievement, particularly in the Mountain Cluster, was mind-boggling. We appreciated the mild temps in the coastal area. Our stay in seaside Adler, well away from the Disneyland where most journalists appear to have been billeted and from which they rarely seemed to venture, was wonderful. Sochi was a brilliant choice. The agenda-based reportage that spooked potential visitors into staying home from the Games is shameful.