Why is the world holding its breath for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi?
Laura Henry, Bowdoin’s John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Government and acting chair of the Russian Department, and Jane Knox, professor of Russian emerita, attempted to answer this question Tuesday evening for Bowdoin students and community members. Seeking to “go beyond the headlines,” the two experts delivered their candid perspectives on the games. Knox shared her knowledge of the history and culture of the region while Henry shed light on the politics surrounding the event.
Knox has traveled extensively to Russia and the area surrounding Sochi since the 1960s, which has seen significant ethnic tensions between Russians and Chechens. These conflicts remain a serious concern due to the inception of terrorist groups such as the Black Widows, who have promised to attack the games. The 1972 Munich Olympics serve as a haunting reminder of the importance of security at an event of this magnitude.
To illustrate the geography and culture of the Caucasus region, the professors screened a clip of the Academy Award-nominated film Prisoner of the Mountains. The famous Russian anti-war film highlights the strained relations between Russia and the minority people of the Caucasus Mountains, where Sochi lies.
Henry next touched on some of the other concerns for the Sochi Olympics, including the tremendous cost of the games. These Olympics will be the most expensive of all time, valued at around $50 billion. Many inhabitants of Sochi, particularly those displaced from their homes due to construction, take issue with the price tag and see themselves as the victims of exploitation by the wealthy Russian elite.
The enormous amount of funding poured into Sochi, a fairly small resort city, has largely gone toward creating “palatial” buildings in the mountains, which Knox considers “a waste of material.” Henry said the infrastructure will be recycled for the G8 summit in June and the 2018 World Cup, but conceded that these events would use only a fraction of the new buildings.
Henry also anticipates a serious crackdown on political and human rights activism after the games have concluded. She hypothesizes that Putin’s recent release of political prisoners, such as the highly publicized members of Pussy Riot, was a “highly symbolic” maneuver to reduce media attention on Russia’s human rights violations. However, she does not believe that this show of goodwill will endure after the cameras have turned away from Sochi.