Organizers had built an enormous stage that obscured Lenin’s tomb and stretched nearly the entire north-south length of the square that defines the heart of Russia. They packed it with cheerleaders in white, blue and red, two military bands, choirs in maroon ponchos, drummers, a bugle corps and traditional dancers, all to welcome the flame and the president.
With a pale autumnal sun making its first appearance here in days behind him, Putin at last began the public celebrations in the run-up to February’s Olympics. He had lobbied relentlessly to land them, has been closely involved in supervising their preparation and has gambled on their success as an affirmation of Russia’s return to greatness.
As Putin walked to the stage before an assembled crowd of 1,000 or so, he appeared to be in an uncharacteristically sunny frame of mind.
He smiled and waved genially, if not with any excessive enthusiasm, to the crowd.
Russians have a talent for spectacle, and though the ceremony lasted just 22 minutes, it went full-bore all the way. The lyrics of the main song of greeting consisted almost entirely of the word “Russia,” repeated deeply and soulfully over and over. A huge screen showed photos of Russian nature and architecture in all their beauty.
Not portrayed was an Arctic oil rig of the sort that provoked a protest by Greenpeace last month, which has resulted in criminal piracy charges against its international crew. That’s the sort of party-spoiling development that Russia would seem to be keen to avoid between now and the Games, but the threat of stiff criminal prosecution has instead aroused protest and some alarm abroad — coming, as it does, on the heels of a new law widely seen in the West as aimed against gays and lesbians.
At 5:12 p.m. the flame, which arrived in Russia from Greece aboard an Aeroflot flight, was transferred from its traveling lamp to a large torch on the Red Square stage. Putin, addressing the flame, offered it a welcome to his nation. He said he was sure it would bring luck to the Russians who see it. He ended by saying, “Until we meet again — in Sochi.”
Two runners then lit a hand-held torch from the bigger flame and carried it toward the Kremlin. A hand-over took place just outside the red-brick walls of Moscow’s fortress and seat of power, and then the new runner, Shavarsh Karapetyan, 60, a one-time champion swimmer, disappeared out of sight through the Savior Gate — but not before the flame had unceremoniously blown out. A cigarette lighter quickly got it started again.
It will spend two more days in Moscow, then be carried by every type of vehicle imaginable and 14,000 individual runners throughout all of Russia, with stops at the bottom of Lake Baikal and in orbit aboard the international space station.