Sochi’s Opening Ceremony Fiddles With History, Plays to the Home Crowd

The Winter Olympics' opening ceremony was a Russian party mostly intended for a Russian audience

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Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters

Fireworks are seen over the Olympic Park during the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Feb. 7, 2014.

Vladimir Putin kept his speech to a sentence – “I declare the 22nd Winter Olympic Games open” – and that was enough. For months, political dramas and security concerns have clouded the world’s anticipation of the Games in Sochi, so it was wiser for the President to keep out of the opening ceremony on Friday night and to let the performance do the talking. What it expressed through dance, song, acrobatics and plenty of pyrotechnics attempted in the course of two hours to clear away the controversy and move on to the spectacle, which is what the Olympics are all about.

The premise of the show was not an easy one to manage. In the span of an hour, it tried to pack a highlight reel of Russian history and culture onto a single stage, and considering the many tumultuous years that Russians have faced – often thanks to their own leaders – the task of condensing it was bound to include some airbrushing. The democratic reforms of perestroika, for instance, did not make the cut, even though they precipitated the end of the Soviet Union and helped give birth to the modern Russian state. Far more surprising was the scant attention paid to World War II, which Russians know as the Great Patriotic War. That formative chapter in Russian history got hardly a nod.

But no less surprising was the amount of time devoted to the rule of Josef Stalin, the dictator whom many Russians credit for defeating Nazi Germany. Though the choreographers had tact enough to avoid any images of the Red Tsar himself, his presence came through loud and clear in the giant hammer and sickle that floated over the stage amid a blood-red glow. With massive cogs and turning gears, the dancers cast the era of his rule as a time of industrialization rather than oppression, more productive than destructive.

(MORE: Sochi Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony in Pictures)

With that, the performance took a firm position on one of the most controversial periods of Russian history, and if the show had been aiming to please a foreign audience, that would have been a risky and unlikely choice. But the opening ceremony of these Olympics was above all a show by Russians and for Russians. Sure, it offered plenty of iconography that just about anyone could recognize: The ballet and the onion domes of St. Basil’s cathedral were just a couple of the points of reference making sure outsiders didn’t feel lost.

But at almost every turn the show winked and nodded at the home crowd in ways that only a Russian (or a Russophile) would catch. The figures that danced around the onion domes, and even the domes themselves, were done up in the style of Dymka toys – a type of clay figurine that most locals would recognize from childhood. The many allusions to literature also required at least a passing knowledge of the Russian classics, whose imagery either comprised the main scenes or tied them together. So if you didn’t catch the reference, the choreographer seemed to say, that’s your problem; go read a book.

The goal here was not to edify, nor even to dazzle, at least not in the glittery Disneyland sense of the word. It was meant to stun you and draw you in with an unabashed sense of purpose, regardless how weird and self-important it may have looked to the foreign world. Where else but in Russia would two disembodied heads, painted the color of granite, come floating over the stage at an Olympic ceremony? Where else would the performance begin with a flotilla of eerie ghost ships moving through a dark sky? Only Russia could pull that off, while almost daring you to take it or leave it. And Putin, even if he’d chosen to make an endless speech, could not have said it better. With uncharacteristic modesty, he chose to signal in the end that this wasn’t his party. Nor was it really the world’s. It was, above all, meant for Russia, such as she is.

18 comments
KirkaSokol
KirkaSokol

No sense to argue with the journalists working for the US highly controlled and censored media. US is craving for the Russian oil, and Putin is a big obstacle. He did not allow Khodorkovsky to sell an illegally obtained oil company to BP,and that explain all this media craze and them portraying Putin as a dictator. Let's just be compassionate to the journalists and the easily brain-washed population. Journalists would be at risk of being fired and never finding job in the US once they try to express an alternative opinion.

quikev08
quikev08

Canada's last time was all about Indians (ugh), lumberjacks (hunky) and kilt-clad violinists with big boots.

Hosers eh?  But it worked.


See those big boots on the US Olympic team? All that was missing was the kilts.

quikev08
quikev08

I heard the announced commentary in a number of languages including English. I didn't hear much Russian (French, German, Chinese, either) commentary at the games in Salt Lake City or Atlanta. If you hadn't noticed most host nations, America included, feature their own stories and culture. Even if they have to borrow one from everybody else.


And why not play to the home crowd? They paid for it.

ЕленаКачулина
ЕленаКачулина

Oh, we really didn't expect it to be that difficult for American public to understand allusions to the Russian classics.Here in Russia most people are well-acquainted with the classics of Great Britain, France, Germany and America. Was it really a problem?

AnaMariaVasconez
AnaMariaVasconez

I strongly disagree with you. I watched with my 7 year old son and we both found it to be riveting and awe-inspiring. I have just a basic knowledge of Russian history but was able to follow the intentions of the show and explain different aspects of the culture and history. My son has short attention span, and if it could captivate him I believe the target audience is much wider than you assume.

Channah
Channah

Channah


So?  It was Russia being proud of Russia and its history.  I see nothing wrong with that------since it was in Russia.  I think, without a doubt, it was the best opening Olympics I have ever seen---and, I am not Russian. 

LisaPSnell
LisaPSnell

my stepmom recently got an almost new yellow Suzuki SX4 Hatchback by working part time from a macbook air. straight from the source ......( ' . ' ) ( ' . ' ) ( ' . ' ) ( ' . ' ) ( ' . ' ) 


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internetfavs
internetfavs

The stadium didn't collapse, that's a start. The olympic village is half finished.

50 billion dollars for what????


internetfavs.com

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Historically, the United States, as a former British colony, should be grateful to Russia for its assistance in the struggle for independence


In 1775 in the North American colonies of England uprising, a year later ledto the emergence of a new state - the USA. In the summer of 1778 in the struggle of the liberated colonies with the former metropolis intervened France, which has concluded a Union with the United States and declared the British war. In 1775 the English king George III, playing on the monarchial feelings of the Empress, sent a personal message to the reign of
Catherine II, asking her to send to America of the Russian soldiers to quell the rebellion of his subjects. The British Minister in St. Petersburg sir Robert gunning received detailed instructions, according to which it had to obtain from the Queen of sending a 20-thousand corps, and a draft of the Treaty.

Rumors about the extraordinary request of George III and the possible sending of Russian troops over the ocean caused serious concern in America and in Western Europe.

Calculations of the English king on Russia's support did not materialize, and in a letter dated 23 September (October 4), 1775 Catherine replied polite, but resolute refusal.George III has not time addressed in this occasion to the Russian Empress, but got the answer from St. Petersburg only the words of sympathy. Attempts to England impose on Russia the allied commitments made even repeatedly, however, Russia continued to maintain strict neutrality and in 1780, at the initiative of the Russian Empress Catherine, the great number of European States announced the «armed neutrality» directed against Britain. Thereby supporting the Americans in their revolutionary struggle.

thirdeye
thirdeye

Since when did an opening ceremony NOT play to the home crowd, including references to national culture and history? Who's perspective are you taking? Heaven forbid that someone here in U.S. be unfamiliar about another country. Canadian, U.S., British, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Norwegian and French Olympics hosts in the last 20 years have all infused their respective culture and specific imagery. If our interests and concerns over the last century have intertwined with Russian courses of action, are we supposed to feel threatened or compelled to comment on how they carry out these games. As viewers, every Olympiad we only need to tune in, then move on. If we choose to learn more about something, that's our business. Beyond general courtesy, no host has ever really watered down their national identity; if they whitewash dark parts of their history, that's been par for the course throughout the world. Let's just worry about our leaders.

resser
resser

You obviously were not expecting a scene where intellectuals are shown toiling in Siberian labor camps - did you? What's next? Complaints about the lack of foot binding imagery in Beijing or a dearth of scenes showing a white masters flogging slaves in Salt Lake City?


You are right. The show was for Russians and the NBC commentators mostly did not have a clue about what was going on. The funniest moment for me was during the segment about War and Peace. Performers dressed as soldiers are shown marching with canons booming and the NBC team correctly identifies that as Tolstoy's novel, and next are shown women performers joining the men and start dancing. That's when one of the NBC commentators said "That was the war (meaning the marching and fighting) and this is the peace (meaning the dancing)". Unbelievable! Apparently none of them have even read a commentary about one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written and they are covering the games in Russia.

FedievArtem
FedievArtem

Sometimes I don't get why some people become writers!? Love the "Time", but was very frustrated reading this article. And the worst is that there would be lots of people reading this and getting a really bad idea and getting farther from the truth. Simon, I am ready to justify my statement and I am a credible person to do that! 

quikev08
quikev08

@ЕленаКачулина


You mean like 'War and Peace' - that's a Hollywood movie.


Not sure that Tolstoy would make any impression, though. Or that Napoleon invaded Russia. That material  wouldn't have been 'covered in class' unless you were one of those 'effete' (viz 'gay') Americans' with a classical edumication. 

quikev08
quikev08

@ЕленаКачулина If it wasn't 'interpreted' for them by Disney, Americans wouldn't have much of a grasp on their own story. Why should  they be expected to try to understand anybody else?

MerlinoM.Bautista
MerlinoM.Bautista

I'm with you thirdeye. it's stupid that time even cosidered publishing this article. no inteligence simon.