Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Putin, Russia and repurposing the past

IT WAS FRANKLY unbelievable. After all the comic preliminaries — the ridicule for stray dogs on the stadium grounds, the snarky comments about creature comforts and hotel toilets that spied on their users with cameras — The Sochi Winter Olympic Games were a glittering, $51 billion success.

The opening ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium was a phantasmagorical journey through 1,000 years of Russian history, a greatest-hits collection of Russian world figures — Sikorsky! Dostoevsky! Kandinsky! Nabokov! Eisenstein! — and a chance to rethink everything we thought we knew about Russia.

This voyage through the looking glass was brought to you by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president we were for 17 days invited to see as a proud leader and nation builder ready to advance the interests of his republic on the global stage. The awe-inspiring grandeur of the opening ceremony was poetically bookended by the final medal count: Russia led all nations with more gold medals, and more medals overall, than anyone else.

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But the world was brought back to the other reality while the games were still going on. On Saturday, after days of deadly fighting in Kiev, the parliament of Ukraine, Russia’s direct neighbor to the west and a former piece of the Soviet Union, voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovich, appointing Oleksandr Turchynov as the new interim president.

“We have to return to the family of European countries,” Turchynov said, repudiating Putin and his hopes of building a New Soviet Union, with Ukraine resuming its historical orbit around the Moscow sun.

Putin’s Sochi Kum Ba Yah apparently faded from memory as of Wednesday. That’s when the Russian president ordered military exercises in western Russia, according to The Associated Press.

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IN A TELEVISED statement from Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the exercise is intended to “check the troops' readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation's military security,” The AP reported.

Citing other statements by Russian news agencies, AP reported that Shoigu said the maneuvers would involve some 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 navy ships.

It’s strangely ironic that during the Sochi Games, Putin enjoyed his defining triumph and faced what could be his defining challenge almost simultaneously. This first-blush, saber-rattling response to Ukraine’s independence is mostly meant for domestic and regional consumption.

How Putin really, finally responds to this situation will confirm or disprove, in front of the world, just how ready he is to accept the ways “Greater Russia” can be a concept based as much on perspective and vision as one based on geography and power.

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It’s guts-ball time for Putin. Everyone in the world is watching. The triumph of Sochi raised the stakes. The Russian president dropped $51 billion to host the most expensive games in Olympic history; the result, a winner across the board, has burnished and elevated Russia’s reputation, and Putin’s own.

Events in Ukraine have raised the stakes even more. It’s more than mildly interesting that the Sochi Games and the flashpoint of unrest in Kiev happened at about the same time. It’s also notable that what just happened in Ukraine has the virtue of being both organic to the people in the Kiev streets and legislatively ratified by the Ukrainian parliament.

That fact undercuts the rationale for Putin entertaining a military strike for the purpose of Restoring Order, or any similar nostrums, despite the military exercises just announced.

Order already was restored to Ukraine over the weekend, by the Ukrainian people. To undertake a straight-up military operation would compromise Putin politically, isolating Russia even further from wider economic integration, something that Russia wants and Ukraine desperately needs. And days after an undisputed cultural victory on its own soil, a Russian military adventure would compromise Putin imagistically — and after the global spectacle of Sochi, optics matter more than you might think.

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IT’S TIME for Putin to resist the temptation to surrender to nationalistic reflexes, and change the world’s longstanding presumption of Russian antagonism (something he started in Sochi). The time’s come for Putin to play the geopolitical cards he’s been dealt — by the dynamics of populism and by historical fact — and realize that the casino he’s playing in is not his own. Not anymore.

During the Sochi Games, a tumblr called Pride Propaganda brilliantly pushed back on the rise of homophobic attitudes and actions in Russia by appropriating some vintage Soviet propaganda posters — depicting various Young Pioneers in different walks of life, muscular nuclear families marching in lockstep into the future ... only these images are awash in the rainbow motif long connected with the global pride movement. It was a smart, uplifting, memorably incisive way of artists repurposing the Russian past in a bold reach for the future.

It falls to Vladimir Putin to do exactly the same thing. Never mind the short-term show of force on the Russian border: The way is there, the door is open for him to start transforming his historically fractious and expansionist region of the world and our perception of it, to be the world leader he envisions himself to be by pursuing the best way of repurposing the past: Not attempting to revisit it.

Image credits: Putin: Sergei Guneyev for TIME. Poster: Pride Propaganda (Tumblr). 

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