Every Olympiad is a venture, a mammoth undertaking, what the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky mused about poetry — “ezda v neznaemoe,” a ride into the unknown. It is thus largely because four dangers haunt every modern Olympic Games: unfavorable weather, be it too cold or not cold enough; shoddy construction in the mad rush to finish; public protests by various groups seeking to spotlight their causes; and, since the early 1970s, terrorism.
But in hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladmir Putin has looked at the stern quartet across a poker table and said: “I see you and I raise you.”
He takes the risk because a successful Olympics would be an enormous personal victory for a man who, according to a January poll, is personally liked by only 20 percent of the Russian people, down from 49 percent in 2008, and whose government is perceived by almost two-thirds of Russians as concerned with the preservation and strengthening of its power rather than the well-being of its people.
Putin’s gamble poses a quandary for anyone who hopes Russia will return to the path of dignity and liberty it embarked upon in August 1991. No one in her or his right mind wishes for an Olympiad to fail, much less to suffer violence or tragedy. In the case of Sochi, however, the hope for a happy outcome is challenged by the aspirations of one man with a near-maniacal will for power and glory.
The risks to these Games are quite real. Sochi is, in fact, the warmest place in Russia. Never before has there been a Winter Olympiad in the subtropics, where temperatures in February occasionally exceed 60 degrees. Never before has the gap between what was there and what was needed by way of infrastructure been as wide. This gulf, in addition to rampant corruption, of course, helps account for Sochi’s at least $50 billion price tag — more than all the previous Winter Olympics combined.
Nor has there been an Olympiad held at the precise spot from which an indigenous people were expelled in an act that their descendants claim to be a genocide, in which hundreds of thousands died. Yet this is what happened to the Circassians, an indigenous North Caucasus people, at the end of the Russian Empire’s conquest of Muslim North Caucasus 150 years ago.
Sochi is also the first — and will almost certainly be the last — Olympic site next door to what might be called a low-intensity jihad. The North Caucasus east of Sochi is the most dangerous place in Russia and among the top five most dangerous places in the world as far as terrorism is concerned. Nary a day passes without a terrorist act in pursuit of the “North Caucasus Caliphate,” extending from the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (northeast of Sochi) and east to Dagestan. From January to September of last year, 375 people were killed and 343 wounded in the region’s insurgency, including 100 police officers and 200 terrorists. Between October and December , three suicide bombers, either raised or trained in Dagestan, killed more than 40 people.
So why Sochi, despite these challenges? Yes, Putin loves to ski there, but this is far more than a brat’s whim. An old Russian proverb declares that he who does not take risks does not drink champagne — and Putin likes to drink the champagne of victory.
Like almost every Russian autocrat, Putin seems possessed of what might be called the Peter the Great complex, after the czar who built a capital city, St. Petersburg, on a swamp. Putin also wanted the Olympiad to be the capstone of his effectively 14 years in power, of Russia’s “rising from its knees,” leaving behind the trauma of the Soviet collapse. In a recent interview with foreign journalists, he also said that Sochi would allow Russians to “pull ourselves together” after the “bloody events” in the Caucasus — referring to two Chechen wars, the second of which rocketed Putin, just appointed prime minister, to national popularity in the fall of 1999. In the same interview he highlighted this as a “psychological aspect” of the Games.
If Putin is as lucky as he has been through most of his time in power, he may pull off the Games without mishaps, and the Russians may swallow the price tag — which is more, by the way, than the country spent on education last year and 80 percent of what it spent on health care. Yet with several rainy days in the mountains, a collapsed building or ski lift, a public protest that gets out of hand, or, worst of all, a suicide bomber who makes it through a shield of more than 37,000 police officers, at least 10,000 Ministry of Internal Affairs troops and unspecified numbers of elite paratroopers and Federal Security Service agents, then the Games could become an instance of national shame and soul-searching: Was Sochi worth it?
Indeed, next to pulling off the Olympiad without incident, Putin’s greatest luck would be if only he, and not millions of his compatriots, start asking that question. And if Sochi sparks a national anti-corruption movement, if it forces the regime to begin the deep institutional reforms — greater government accountability, more honest elections, courts not for sale, increased political competition — without which corruption cannot be diminished, then this impulse would undoubtedly become the most welcome and lasting legacy of the Sochi Olympics.
Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.