Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to see himself as a student of history, but if he had been looking for lessons from 1980, he could have avoided much of what has provoked unwanted controversy today. But just like the Soviet leaders before him, he was tone-deaf, making a series of gestures that infuriated the West and endangered a national pet project.
The Soviets invaded Afghanistan the year before the Games and exiled the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov six months before the Olympics, all the while ranting against the evils of capitalism, just as they were trying to show off
an empire where communism worked, a country to be envied rather than feared and despised.
Putin has cracked down hard on his own dissidents, encouraged a law viewed as limiting gay rights that was passed just months before the Olympics and cast Russia as a special, spiritual country superior to the decadent West. That has done little to further his goal of introducing the world to a capable and important Russia.
In 1980, the Soviet invasion set off a boycott of the Games by the United States and other countries, the very ones meant to be impressed. In 2014, high-level American officials are staying away, showing their disapproval of the country Putin has built.
And so the old grievances present themselves again. Violations of human rights. Authoritarianism vs. democracy. Fears about security.
Only eight years before the 1980 Games, terrorists had killed 11 Israelis at the Munich Olympics. Security remained a troubling challenge for the Soviets, who had many enemies. The police presence was huge. Today, other issues, same results. Now, unrest in the North Caucasus, where Moscow has enemies, has raised fears of terrorism requiring a “ring of steel” around Sochi, as today’s officials describe it.
Of course, the cast of characters was different 34 years ago. Jowly, worried-about-his-weight Leonid Brezhnev presided, the ruler of the Soviet Union, reading from a little piece of paper as he opened the Games at Central Lenin Stadium that July.
Putin, a man of the teleprompter and “Do you think he uses a little Botox?” epoch, was a 27-year-old KGB agent at the time.
But the script? Pretty familiar.
Then, the Olympics was the moment to show the superiority of communism over capitalism and a Moscow glittering as a worldwide tourist destination.
Now, Putin wants to show off the successful, we-can-do-anything nation he has created from the ashes of the destroyed Soviet Union, which collapsed just 11 years after the Olympics. And Sochi, made grand by billions of dollars in Olympic investment, will draw vacationers from around the globe.
In 1980, Moscow already had big stadiums. The Olympic Village, press center and other necessary construction never reached the all-encompassing effort seen in Sochi, where a quiet Soviet-era resort has been filled with highway interchanges, tunnels torn through mountains, new railroads, train stations and an airport, along with a slew of arenas, ski jumps, bobsled runs and more.
‘A joyless experience’
The Soviets did have to spruce up Moscow. Children and undesirables were sent out of the city. The country folk who came in waves to forage in the shops for food and toilet paper were turned out.
The authorities guaranteed everything would be — in a cherished Soviet phrase — on international standards, as Anthony Barbieri, then the Baltimore Sun correspondent, recalls.
“They made a special effort to be very accommodating to visitors,” said Barbieri, now a professor of writing and editing at Penn State. “It wasn’t the usual deal where you went to a restaurant that was half-empty and a doorman told you there was no room. During the Olympics, they actually would let you in. Coffeehouses had coffee. Beer halls had beer.”
The boycott infuriated Soviet officials, although they publicly brushed it off as capitalist arrogance.
“They had a thing about the U.S. and the West,” Barbieri said. “If only their friends came, it wasn’t the same for them.”
They saw the Olympics as a huge breakthrough for the Soviet Union, said Kevin Klose, who was The Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent. “And they made a big effort in the crazy way they had to show that they were different than they had been.”
Sochi is being protected against terrorism. Turns out in 1980 most of the police — in and out of uniform — were meant to protect good Soviet citizens from evil foreigners who might try to infect them with capitalist propaganda. Americans were considered likely terrorists.
The paranoia was uncurbed, recalls Klose, now president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Citizens were told to be on the alert for hidden time bombs — or anti-Soviet literature. Children were warned to stay away from foreigners at all cost because they would be given poisoned chewing gum.
The normal Moscow police force of 50,000 was beefed up to 200,000, Klose wrote, which makes Sochi’s 60,000 or so seem modest — although Sochi is far smaller than Moscow.
Soldiers carrying AK-47 assault rifles surrounded the Olympic Village. Police patrolled the corridors of the hotels for the foreign press. Metal detectors checked bags again and again.
“On the whole,” Barbieri said, “it was a joyless experience.”
The Games begin
The opening ceremonies on July 19 were a grand spectacle. The parade began with horse-drawn chariots carrying women throwing rose petals for the athletes to walk on, scores of young people dressed in Greek costumes bearing Olympic emblems, marching athletes, 16,000 gymnasts and acrobats performing, and men and women in colorful folk garb representing the 15 Soviet republics, dancing in turn across the field.
And in the stands, more than 4,000 meticulously trained Soviet Army conscripts holding brightly colored cards flashed them in turn to form an Olympic flag; the bear mascot; a perfectly rendered seal of the Soviet Union, embellished with a gold hammer and sickle; and more.
And then, as the Games got underway, Vincenzo Francone, a 32-year-old Italian gay activist, tried to handcuff himself to a crowd barrier near the Kremlin Wall. He was protesting the Soviet law that punished homosexual activity with up to five years in prison.
The KGB guys swooped in, tackling Francone and carrying him away. He was later seen being kicked on the floor of a security office. Other men grabbed newsmen, dragging them off, hitting them and confiscating their film.
Francone was quickly expelled from the country.
Today, homosexuality is no longer illegal. But Russia passed a law last year prohibiting the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. The law has been used to restrict the rights of sexual minorities, its critics say, setting off anger in the West. In a phrase reminiscent of the Soviet poison candy warning, Putin recently said gays have nothing to fear at these Olympics — as long as they leave children alone.
As the Games were wrapping up, Tim Sebastian, a BBC correspondent dispatched from Warsaw, offered Barbieri a tip. “Get to Poland right after the Olympics,” Barbieri said he was told. “Something’s going to blow.”
He went and reported on the beginning of the Solidarity trade union movement.
“It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire,” Barbieri said, “though we didn’t know it at the time.”