CREDIT: AP Images/Andrej Isakovic
The Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics will begin in about an hour, though thanks to NBC’s programming schedule, American audiences–even those of you streaming from home or the office–won’t be able to see them until primetime tonight. No matter the host country, Opening Ceremonies are an awkward hybrid, incorporating an extremely long parade, dance, music, and videos, as well local cultural icons, most recently James Bond and the Queen of England, who notably parachuted out of an airplane together during the kickoff to the London Olympics.
But Opening Ceremonies are different for host countries that have long been established as world powers and for those for whom the Olympics are an important chance to communicate how they’d like the world to think of them. China’s kickoff to the Beijing Olympics was a demonstration of, if not quite national unity, national coordination. The spectacle included huge numbers of dancers, simulated fireworks that would look better on television than the real ones, a lipsynching singer using another artist’s voice, and dressing Han Chinese children in the costumes of China’s many ethnic groups to project the image that the country embraces its diversity.
So at a time when Russia’s been the subject of intense political criticism for its gay rights record and for imprisoning figures ranging from two of the participants in the punk art group Pussy Riot to the oligarch-turned-civil-society advocate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it’ll be particularly important to watch the Sochi Opening Ceremony with an eye towards what Russia’s leaders want to say about their country and themselves. In some cases, that’ll mean a heavy reliance on Russia’s strong tradition of classical music and the performing arts, including ballet. And in a hilarious meta-commentary on Russia’s status in the pop world, as well as the focus on gay rights issues in Russia, the Russian duo tATu, who rose to prominence by pretending to be lesbians, will be part of the pre-show performance, and will have their songs quoted during the Opening Ceremonies. They’re being included, Opening Ceremonies producer Konstantin Ernst acknowledged to USAToday, because tATu is one of the only Russian pop acts with any sort of international name recognition. And of course, in addition to fake lesbianism, tATu’s also helped sell a…rather different vision of Russian sexuality:
But there are deeper meanings to look for, as well. In the runup to the games, I’ve been reading two books by the dissident journalist Masha Gessen, both of which have been useful in thinking about how to read public spectacle in Russia, The Man Without A Face, which chronicles the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Words Will Break Cement, a look at the work, trials, and incarceration of Pussy Riot. Some of the spectacles Gessen describes in both books are intended more for internal consumption by Russians themselves than for international audiences. But they provide some perspective on how both Russia’s leaders and Russia’s dissidents shape their public images and communicate their messages by means that are less straightforward than bald political speech.
In The Man Without A Face, Gessen focuses mostly on how Putin has shaped his own self-presentation. That’s not precisely the same thing as how he wants to present his country to the world. But it does provide some sense of what Putin thinks Russians want to see in a leader, if not exactly what they want to see in themselves. In his authorized biography, Gessen notes “the bulk of the information made available to his biographers— concerns the many fistfights of his childhood and youth.” She notes his reliance on a relatively crude sense of humor, and his tendency to stage the kinds of stunts that have become joke fodder here in the United States, including “a stream of topless photographs of him vacationing in the northern region of Tyva and, later, coverage of his diving in the Black Sea and emerging with two sixth-century vases planted there in advance by archaeologists.” Those events may seem risible to Russian dissidents and to American observers, but Putin clearly has reasons for doing them. Stunts like these are a reminder that we’re not the only audience for the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, and that we might actually do well to examine our own assumptions and reactions when watching the spectacle.
And the sections of the book that deal with rituals Putin has shaped himself also offer some clues as to what we might see tonight. Gessen reminds us that Putin’s inauguration as president was the first time Russia held such a ceremony, and as a result, the events were shaped by Putin’s personality and priorities. Rather than emphasizing a new era in Russian politics, Putin looked backwards. “At his prompting, the ceremony, originally planned for the Kremlin’s modernist State Palace, where the Communist Party had held its congresses and Yeltsin’s administration had organized conferences, was moved to the Kremlin’s historic Great Palace, where the czars had once lived,” Gessen notes. “Putin walked through the hall, down a long red carpet, swinging his left arm and holding his right arm, slightly bent at the elbow, oddly immobile.” Another ritual Putin didn’t create, but that he did promote, was the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police.
Gessen also suggests that Putin’s handling of ritual can misfire on specific occasions, but that he has a broadly effective sense of what makes a leader look credible. When Putin called on the families of the soldiers who died on the Kursk submarine, which sunk since 2000, he showed up four hours late and “wearing a black suit with a black shirt to signify mourning but looking, as a result, vaguely like a mafioso.” The event was a disaster. But when former chess champion Gary Kasparov began barnstorming the country, the regime cleverly denied him access to hotels and speaking venues. As Gessen notes “even a world-famous genius begins to look slightly ridiculous when he is reduced to wearing ketchup-stained clothes, traveling in a beat-up hired van, and speaking to ad hoc gatherings in the street time after time.” Even Putin’s choice of prime minister and then successor, Dmitri Medvedev, Gessen suggests, was a clever attempt at enhancing Putin’s image. “Forty-two-year-old Medvedev made Putin look charismatic,” she argues. “At just over five feet (his exact height was a carefully guarded secret, but rumors abounded, as did pictures of Medvedev sitting on a pillow or standing on a step stool to reach a microphone), he also made Putin look tall.” Purely for our own entertainment, if Putin ends up participating in the Opening Ceremonies rather than simply watching from the crowd, it might be interesting to watch how tall he appears in comparison to the athletes and performers who appear in close proximity to him.
If Putin understands symbolism, so do his opponents. One of the most illuminating elements of Gessen’s book on Pussy Riot, Words Will Break Cement, is her explanations of the extent to which the band was working in reference to other Russian artists, and capable of using the conventions of Russia’s repressive mechanisms and conventions as artistic restricts that inspired them to innovate, much like the Moscow Conceptualists, who worked within the absurdity of Soviet bureaucratic language. Before founding Pussy Riot, a number of the band’s members had been involved in an art group called Voina, or War. Voina’s projects included a piece called The Wake, held at picnic tables, another that involved welding the doors to an extremely expensive restaurant shut, and one in which “Oleg Vorotnikov donned the long black robe of a Russian Orthodox priest and a police officer’s hat, entered a supermarket, and left with a full cart of groceries but without paying— to demonstrate that both priests and cops were robbers.”
Pussy Riot’s performances took punk music, added lyrics that made the subtext of performances like Voina’s explicit, and staged their concerts in symbolically important locations that would also make for good video and photographs. Once the band was on trial, they found ways to continue their work in that new context. “The courts had become Russia’s sole venue for political conversation, the only place where the individual and the state confronted each other,” Gessen explains. “Not that most political defendants in Russia had a clear idea of how to use such a venue, or a language for speaking in it. But Maria and Nadya knew a stage when they saw one. In the old dissident drama, Maria [Alyokhina] was choosing the role of the person who fights the court on legal grounds and Nadya [Tolokonnikova] was refusing to recognize the court as such and choosing to use it only for the pulpit it offered.”
Russia, like China before it, is shunting protestors off into designated zones far from the sites of actual competitions, and dissidents who bought tickets to events in Sochi have found that the security badges they also need to attend are being yanked or not issued in the first place. They won’t have the same opportunity to stage an enormous spectacle before the entire world that the IOC has afforded to the Russian government. But one of the best reasons to watch the Sochi Opening Ceremonies closely is that it might well become a reference point for Pussy Riot’s successors in years to come.