Fellow Americans, here’s what President Vladimir Putin’s main man wants you to know about Russia with the one-year countdown to the Sochi Winter Olympics just underway: Get over the stereotypes already.
Russia is cast as the enemy, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said last week with a note of weary sarcasm. It’s an underdeveloped country with nasty people, where a military regime holds sway and the streets are empty because Putin’s bloody rule has put everyone in prison.
Out, out and out.
Peskov was chatting over coffee here in Sochi with a few reporters, and he fixed them with a true-believer gaze as he described the Russia that will be revealed — especially to Americans viewing the world through Cold War-frosted glasses — as the flags are raised for the Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 7, 2014.
Olympics fans will encounter an open country — open for investment, open for engagement, a country capable of making visitors feel welcome, he said. “A country where smiling people live. A country like other countries.”
Putin was so determined to win the Games for Sochi that he flew to Guatemala City in July 2007 and wooed delegates of the International Olympic Committee in assertive English, a language he almost never speaks in public. (When he crooned “Blueberry Hill” in English at a children’s cancer benefit in St. Petersburg two years ago, the star-studded audience almost swooned.)
He informed the delegates that the ancient Greeks had lived around Sochi, that he had recently skied above the city in the Caucasus Mountains and had seen the rock where the Greek gods had bound Prometheus, an eagle feeding on his liver each day as punishment for giving humanity fire. Fire . . . Olympic flame . . . Russia. Get it? He finished his presentation in mellifluous French. Russia won the Games by four votes.
“Russia has risen from its knees,” German Gref, then the economic development minister, told reporters at the time.
Putin has made Sochi his personal monument, just as Peter the Great did with the city of St. Petersburg, Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, said in a Washington Post video interview last week.
“This is Putin himself on the line,” she said.
Peter, a man of outsize personality and stature (he stood 6-foot-7), built his Baltic Sea city on an empty, bleak bog. Putin, a loyal native of St. Petersburg, has taken up the unpretentious Black Sea city of Sochi, where he often goes to ski or relax behind the walls of a waterfront mansion.
Putin’s goal, according to Peskov, is to demonstrate Russia’s competence and class to the world by transforming a modest Soviet city into a grand, year-round resort. Sochi stretches along the coast, with one main road — Resort Prospect — so clogged with traffic that it can take an hour or more to drive a few miles. Before the Olympics bid, it had few Western-style hotels and no stadiums or ice rinks to rate an athlete’s glance. Thirty miles away, the Caucasus Mountains stood magnificent and undeveloped.
Peter ordered his noblemen to supply a steady stream of serfs to labor on his city, replenishing them as they died from disease and malnutrition, so Russia could show an imposing, European-featured face to the world.
Putin extracted what could be described as a billionaire’s tax from Russia’s modern-day noblemen. One built a new airport, along with a seaport to ferry in the vast tons of building materials. Another has sunk $2 billion into the picture-perfect Roza Khutor mountain resort.
The streets of Sochi are lined with pallets of bricks and paving stones being set at steady speed, and traffic police have given way to men with brooms. Cement mixers and dump trucks fill the roads. Tunnels have been blasted through mountains, train tracks have been laid on piles driven into mountain streambeds, cranes hover on the horizon, and the number of workers wielding shovels is so enormous, you envy whoever got the contract in spades.
“It’s a miracle,” Peskov said. “The scope can be compared to the reconstruction of cities destroyed after World War II.”
The miracle has come at a price. Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that migrant workers building the Olympic sites were being exploited, with wages of $1.80 to $2.60 an hour that often went unpaid. Some Sochi residents complain that their houses were seized for little or no compensation, environmentalists fear new power plants will pollute the air, and some neighborhoods have lost electricity because of construction.
“Why did Putin decide to bid for the Olympics and put his prestige at stake?” Peskov asked, providing the answer himself: “This is a project that will change the nation for the better.”
Russians support the Games, Peskov argued, uniting 143 million people scattered across a territory nearly twice as big as the United States — from subtropical Sochi, where one day last week the temperature reached 67 degrees, to Verkhoyansk, the coldest place on Earth, where the temperature can be 67 degrees below zero.
Yet Russia remains a country of contradictions. The streets are jammed with unimprisoned people, but prison cells indeed await those who persist in challenging Putin. Television news drips with anti-American innuendo, but a taxi driver in Sochi, enchanted by having an American passenger, impulsively thrust a just-purchased bag of oranges at her.
Peskov — lively, humorous and expansive during this long conversation last week — was finally reduced to exasperation as he contemplated Americans’ inability to get Russia.
“Americans can live their whole lives without going to Washington,” he said. “They don’t pay attention to other countries. They can’t find Africa on the globe. But they know about the bloody regime of Putin.”