Monday, February 24, 2014

Sochi for the Russians

Lots of ink is being spilled over the just-completed Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. There is no doubt it was a success. A success at the cost of $50 billion to a still-poor Russian nation which now has a world-class winter sports facility thousands of kilometres south of its population centres and in an area which is best know for its summer dachas.

The Russian Federation is vast; it has the largest area and the greatest number of time zones of any nation-state. While ethnic Russians made up 81% of the total population in a 2010 census, within the Federation's geography live a large variety of ethnic minorities, especially in the Caucasus and in Siberia. The Federation even contains Inuit and Aleuts, whom we more commonly associate with North America. In the thousands of images of Russian crowds and athletes on television during the Games, I strained to see even one of an identifiable minority person. Norway and Canada each have a significantly smaller population proportion of aboriginals than Russia yet at the Lillehammer and Vancouver Winter Games celebrations their cultures were prominently featured. Native minorities were as invisible in the Sochi Games as the non-Han were in the Summer Bejing Olympics.

The culture and history featured in Sochi's opening and closing ceremonies is that of the Rus, the ethnic European Russian. No Tatars (who speak a Turkic language) or Samoyeds (who speak a Uralic language like the Finns) need apply.

Putin's Russia desperately wants to be seen as a core European nation, and not a multicultural melange of Eastern European and Far-eastern and Northern Asiatic primitives. Yet right next door to Sochi and at exactly the same time as the Games, a nasty conflict is going on that puts Russia clearly outside the European project. The Ukrainians, once upon a time the core Rus but now leavened by other ethnicities, including Tatar, into a distinct people with its own language, are deeply divided over the European project. Those in the East and South who see Russia as their Great Mother reject any pro-European tilt. Mother Russia is becoming increasingly vitriolic in supporting them to the hilt.

Czar Vladimir has a dilemma -  he longs to be treated as a real European rather than a Central Asiatic barbarian, yet Russia remains the only world power to hold an empire (called a federation) that widely spans two continents. It was telling that he used Cossacks, the historic symbol of Russian aggression in Asia, as his goons in Sochi.

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