This is a re-posting from the February 24, 2014, issue of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. To view the original article, please see: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-02-24/look-back-sochi-expert.html.
Before Sochi was the center of the world for the past couple weeks, it was a focus of research for Diane Koenker, University of Illinois history chairwoman and professor. In her book, “Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream,” she explores vacation and tourism in a country with some dark aspects to its history.
As the Olympic games came to a close Sunday, she explained to The News-Gazette three things she thinks Russian leaders accomplished in the past two weeks, and what could have gone better.
1. “Russia is back. That was their goal — to show that they could do something like this and pull it off. There were no major glitches, and a major infrastructure project was done, more or less, on time.”
2. “There were no terror attacks and no violence directed against athletes or audiences.”
3. “The Russian public was extremely well satisfied with the performance of putting on the Games and the performance of the athletes and the fact that Russia was on this world stage. The Games played very well at home.”
COULD HAVE GONE MORE SMOOTHLY
1. “The heavy security was noticed by everybody. I don’t know how they could have kept the peace without heavy security, but in the past few days we’ve seen the protests against the security and these members of the band ‘Pussy Riot’ getting beat up by the Cossacks. It demonstrates the heavy-handedness of the state.”
2. “They created a bubble of unreality so that those visiting the Games didn’t really get a sense of what Russia is or what it’s like. … It could have taken place anywhere — it happened to be in Russia, but I think the participants wouldn’t have known that.”
3. “It’s not clear whether this was in their control or not, but what’s happening in Ukraine has diminished the glow of the Russian accomplishment.”
Q: What can Champaign-Urbana residents take away from what they saw in Sochi?
A: “I think they can see that Russia is able to mobilize resources, human capital, to transform this place in record time — but also with record spending. It has created a world-class ski resort in the past couple years. It’s a sign of Russia’s recovery and stability.”
Q: What’s a common misperception of Russia that we still hold on to?
A: “It is not a very liberal place, but it’s an illiberalism that is more or less chosen and accepted by the people. If our myth is that they would all be democrats like us if not for the authoritarian leadership, that’s wrong.”