Among the alleged thirty billion dollars’ worth of inflated contracts, self-dealing, kick-backs, crooked tenders and orgiastic waste that have made the Sochi Olympics cost more than all previous winter games put together, what stands out is the sheer brazenness of the whole thing. ‘The Sochi Olympics reveal the dark heart of Putin’s Russia,’ Panorama concluded on 27 January. But nobody is really bothering to hide it. The Kremlin knows it doesn’t matter how much is stolen or siphoned away: Gazprom will still control energy in Europe, Berlin will still appease Putin, Brussels will still roll over, London will still yearn for oligarchs’ money.
When Putin released Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot before the games, many in the West patted themselves on the back: ‘It shows that we can put pressure on Putin.’ Sort of. The Russian essayist Alexander Morozov caught the mood best: Putin is getting married and he wants a good atmosphere for the party. That’s not quite the same thing as caring about your reputation. As for David Cameron not turning up for the opening ceremony, that might sting for a few seconds (or not), but it’s nothing compared to the merger between BP and Rosneft (nicknamed ‘Britneft’). Around the time the deal was made, the British government blocked a coroner’s request for a public inquiry into Alexander Litvinenko’s death. There is classified evidence which demonstrates, according to the coroner, a ‘prime facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state’. The British government denies any connection, and God knows what deals have happened behind the scenes, but the perception is that the Kremlin can assassinate a British citizen on UK soil and London will roll over and hush it up for the sake of its messed up oil company. A Times editorial argued that ‘the inquest must not sour relations with Moscow… Britain is the biggest overseas investor in Russia.’
Western journalists may snigger at how unready Sochi is for the Olympics, at its brown water and lack of wi-fi, but Moscow knows full well that British journalists are helpless when it comes to the real issue of investigating the Kremlin-connected oligarchs who are the richest men in Europe. ‘Libel laws mean publications are simply scared of going against the oligarchs in the UK,’ says Mike Harris of Index on Censorship, ‘even if a newspaper or magazine gets a case thrown out of court, just doing that can cost millions.’
This year has been announced as the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’. The Kremlin will be bringing over an exhibition of early 20th-century Russian avant garde art to show off at the Tate; galleries sponsored by Russian state banks will exhibit the best in cutting-edge, contemporary Russian art in Shoreditch. Meanwhile in Moscow, the new culture minister has condemned ‘foreign forms of art like installations and performances’ and avant garde artists are jailed (and then amnestied).
‘But doesn’t that show that when in Britain the Kremlin feels it needs to fit in with our way of doing things?’ a friend of mine suggested. I’d argue the opposite. The effect of the imitation is not respect but parody: ‘Look how meaningless your cultural language is,’ the Kremlin seems to be saying, ‘we can mouth it when we need to.’ The Kremlin’s co-option of Western (and its own avant garde’s) cultural language is putting on a carnival mask in order to mock it. It’s not even paying lip service; it’s taking the piss. A good example is the op-ed on Syria that Putin wrote for the New York Times last autumn, taunting the White House with allusions to the Declaration of Independence: ‘There are big countries and small countries… Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.’
If the Kremlin tried hard to disguise the corruption at the games, if it made a real effort to ensure journalists’ hotels were presentable, if it didn’t break its last independent media outlets right before the opening ceremony: then it would show it was somehow craven to the West. Instead the brazenness is the point. It shows who the real winners are.