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.