For Olympics Opening Ceremonies, a quick guide to Russian history and culture

February 6

The history of the host country is supposed to be reflected in the pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, wrapped around the parade of athletes, the lighting of the torch and the inevitable speeches. Russia has had more than its share of history, so on Friday evening at the Fisht Olympic Stadium, where the 2014 Winter Games will get underway, there will be plenty of material to draw on.

The Fisht is actually a soccer stadium, so it’s big enough for some major-league historical spectacle. The details of the Opening Ceremonies have been kept zealously under wraps, but there’s one indication as to what to expect: a cast of 4,700 has been assembled. As extras, they won’t get paid, but they have housing here and a promise of Russian Olympic sportswear.

Here’s a quick slalom through Russian history, with an eye toward some of the more decisive or beloved themes that might crop up during the ceremony:

The icon and the ax . Russia includes huge swaths of frozen tundra and prairie-like steppe, but Russians think of themselves as a people who carved a nation out of the forest. The icon, the Orthodox religious object, reflects a medieval Russian belief that Moscow is the Third Rome.
(Byzantium was the second.) The ax is the all-purpose tool for chopping, planing, hammering, fighting and — once Russian men lost their beards — shaving.

War. The Russian state rests on the foundation of victories over the Muslim Tatars, the Roman Catholic Poles, the Lutheran Swedes, the Napoleonic French, the Ottoman Turks and the Hitlerite (to use a favorite expression here) Germans. Russia also lost, catastrophically, to the Japanese and then the Germans of Kaiser Wilhelm a century ago. But maybe this is too martial and in-your-face for the Olympics.

Not only do fewer countries participate in the Winter Olympics, but fewer poor countries — none of the poorest — win medals.

And peace. Russia has a rich tradition of folk music, folk tales and crafts. Look for a troika, the three-horse rig that could pull a sleigh over the snow as fast as the wind. Listen for a balalaika. Furs — not elegant but practical — are a standby in wintry Russia. Dymki, fanciful clay figurines that can represent a peasant or a pig or an onion dome, are unfailingly cheerful. Participants said they have an important role in Friday’s ceremony.

The arts. Russian cultural history is populated by giants. From the writer Tolstoy to the composer Tchaikovsky, from the artist Chagall to the theater director Stanislavsky. (Will the Opening Ceremonies lean on his Method school of acting? Unlikely, at that scale.) Poet Alexander Pushkin, playwright Anton Chekhov, composer Dmitri Shostakovich and poet Anna Akhmatova could all get a nod. So could the composer Modest Mussorgsky, best known for “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky? The author of “The Possessed,” “The Idiot” and “Crime and Punishment” might be a bit dark for the occasion.

The avant-garde. The early years of the Soviet Union — roughly, the 1920s — saw an explosion of delirious groundbreaking art. Wassily Kandinsky may be best known in the West, but Kazimir Malevich brilliantly incorporated peasant themes with industrial geometry. Participants predict a dazzling scene replete with oversize tractors, and human cogs in giant gears, during the ceremony. That flowering of exuberant art came to an abrupt end thanks to the rise of Joseph Stalin.

The Bronze Horseman . It wouldn’t be Russia without Peter the Great, who wrestled his unruly country out of the Middle Ages and, 300 years ago, built St. Petersburg as a window to the West. He’s the one who ordered Russian men to start shaving. He’s certain to show up at some point, striding in his seven-league boots.

The Empress. Russians’ other favorite ruler was Catherine the Great, a patron of artists and philosophers in the late 18th century. What appeals to them is that this German-born ruler always kept her wits about her.

The ballet. Russians today have a particular nostalgia for the 19th century, when everything seemed more cultured, noble, sophisticated and graceful (if you weren’t a serf, that is). At court, everyone spoke French. This is when ballet took hold here. Now it’s as deeply associated with Russia as vodka or caviar. There’s bound to be a ballroom moment. A duel, perhaps?

The opera. Russia’s great ballet companies — the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky — are also great opera companies. Russians don’t smirk when the fat lady sings. Keep an ear out.

Homo sovieticus . How the program treats the years between 1917 and 1991 could be compelling. Most Russians acknowledge the unfathomable trauma of the Soviet years, but their memories have many layers. The Soviet Union was a world power, convinced it was building a better future. It put the first man in space, and it made tremendous material progress. The 1920s were exciting (see the avant-garde, above). The 1960s and 1970s brought relative prosperity and a happy stability. Many adult Russians today remember fondly the children’s TV programs of their youth and cheerfully hum along with the old tunes.

Russia, again. What of the most recent 20 years, following the end of the U.S.S.R.? President Vladimir Putin likes to say he pulled his country out of the anarchy and lawlessness of the 1990s — but is all this a bit too raw for prime time?

Snow and birches. You won’t see either in coastal Sochi, but how can the world think of a Russia without them?

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