Winter Olympics at the Beach: A Minute with Russia Expert Diane Koenker

This is a re-posting of an interview published by the U of I News Bureau. To see the original interview, please see here:


Prof. Diane Koenker

Prof. Diane Koenker

Editor’s note: The Winter Olympics coming Friday (Feb. 7) to Sochi, Russia, are the most expensive by far (more than $50 billion), perhaps the most vulnerable (due to terrorist threats from a nearby insurgent region) and the first to be held at a beach resort (it’s Russia’s version of Florida, though there are ski slopes inland from the coast). Illinois history chair Diane Koenker, an expert on the Soviet Union and modern Russia, knows Sochi well from research for her recent book “Club Red,” which chronicled the history of the Soviet vacation system, of which Sochi was the crown jewel. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Given the terrorist threat from the nearby North Caucasus region and Sochi’s sub-tropical climate, why would the Russians even consider the city as the site for a winter games?

For Soviet citizens, beginning in the 1930s when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin made it his vacation home, the resort at Sochi represented a magical medical playground. Soviet vacations emphasized the purposefulness of medical therapy and culture, and the pleasure of rest and luxury. Sochi gained the aura of a mystical, Shangri-La-like destination, with its combination of subtropical coastline and the majestic Caucasus mountains, with a monumental architecture that incorporated exotic Eastern motifs. Filmmakers loved to shoot their films in Sochi, cosmonauts recuperated from their space trips there, foreign dignitaries were treated to its spa treatments, and athletes began to train there. It was the one place everyone dreamed of visiting, even if just once in their lives. Russian President Vladimir Putin continued the tradition by establishing his own vacation residence in Sochi, and by skiing the slopes of Krasnaya Poliana, a mountain valley 28 miles from the Black Sea, at an elevation of 1,840 feet. For Russians, Sochi is Switzerland and the Riviera rolled into one, and they feel it is unique in the world.

How real is the threat of potential violence? What’s the source of grievance of those threatening terrorism?

The threat of violence is very real, but the security measures in and around Sochi are extremely tight, with about 100,000 security troops and police in the Olympic areas and in the town. Terrorists will be unlikely to strike in Sochi itself, but there are many “soft targets” in Russia within easy reach of the terrorist groups operating in the Caucasus. The grievances underlying this terrorism go back to the 1800s, when the Russian tsarist government forcibly annexed the Caucasus region. Hundreds of thousands of native Circassians were forced into exile, living today in Syria and Turkey. Stalin considered many of the peoples of the Caucasus potentially disloyal and had them forcibly relocated during World War II – this included the entire population of Chechnya, who were eventually permitted to return. Since the end of the Soviet Union, there have been numerous separatist movements in the Caucasus – in Chechnya, Dagestan and elsewhere – that are using violence and terror to intimidate the Russian regime into granting them independence. Putin owes much of his own popularity as president to his strong stance against these separatists.

Putin has been at the center of almost everything connected with these games, from selling Sochi as a site to supplying the massive funding and the apparently massive corruption that went with it. What does his role, and the process, say about the state of Russia and its politics?

Speaking of the Olympic games in 2006, a Sochi taxi driver told me, “If Putin wants it, it will happen.” Putin has amassed great popular authority because he led the country in its recovery from the crisis years of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, when Russia’s economy and international prestige plummeted.

But Putin has not modernized Russia’s political system even while his authority has increased. It is a system based on informal networks of power, including close relations among the government, state-owned enterprise and private enterprise. We see in Sochi how this has led to extraordinary corruption, with huge cost overruns lining the pockets of Putin’s friends and allies. It is a system that prioritizes short-term profit at the expense of long-term economic sustainability, and personal loyalty at the expense of professionalism.

What’s at stake for Putin in the outcome of these games? For Russia?

For Putin and for Russia, the games are meant to demonstrate that “Russia is back” in its role as an economic and political superpower. “Russia is a land of possibility” is their new slogan, and the Sochi Olympics are designed to show that anything is possible in Russia. Whatever they decide to do, they can do: build stadiums and railways, and mount lavish spectacles. A successful, peaceful Olympics will reinforce Putin’s authority at home and in the region, and Putin believes that this will show the world that Russia deserves and commands respect.

Editor’s note: To contact Diane Koenker, call 217-300-4097; email dkoenker(at)illinois(dot)edu.
Koenker is pronounced “conquer.”

More about Koenker’s book and the history of Sochi is online.

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