The Olympics, having become Big Business, rarely open a window into the political cultures of the countries whose teams are competing. Few athletes (not to mention their sponsors, both the corporate sponsors and the national Olympic committees) are willing to do anything that upsets the international bonhomie — that “we are the world” spirit — that presumably drives up the TV ratings and gets the customers to buy the “gear” (or the Chicken McNuggets, or whatever). So ego, raw ambition, and national character tend to be kept rather firmly under control.
An exception to this Olympic Rule of Vanilla was on full display, however, after American Evan Lysacek narrowly beat the 2006 gold-medal winner, Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko, to take the gold in men’s figure skating at the current Vancouver Games. Plushenko, who has made a career out of being boisterous (some would say, out of being a jackass), was not pleased. He, after all, had executed a quadruple jump (albeit landing somewhat clumsily), while Lysacek had, in the Russian’s view, gamed the scoring by skating a perfect if less technically demanding program featuring triple jumps. “You can’t be considered a true men’s champion without a quad,” the silver-medal-winning Plushenko told Russian state television. “Just doing nice transitions and being artistic is not enough, because figure skating is a sport, not a show.”
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin was not to be outdone in the whining competition. He sent Plushenko a telegram — A telegram? No wonder they lost the Cold War — in which Putin, in his new, self-appointed role as Supreme Olympian, informed his soured countryman that his silver medal was “as good as gold” because Plushenko had “performed the most accomplished program on the Vancouver ice.” Russian state media joined the parade, in tones that during the Andropov period had been reserved for denunciations of the warmongering arch-fiend Ronald Reagan.
Here, I suggest, is that rarity: an Olympic window into a national political culture. Everything about the Russian whining over Plushenko’s silver neatly matches the dominant themes of much of Russian public life since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991: the paranoia (some enemy did this to us); the bullying (you’re a wuss, Evan Lysacek, because you didn’t do a quad); the distortion of reality (silver is as good as gold); and the misrepresentation of history (the new scoring system for men’s figure skating was installed, according to the Washington Post‘s Tracee Hamilton, precisely because of previous Russian cheating). Isn’t this all of a piece with Russian bullying (and worse) in Georgia and Ukraine, Russian threats to the energy supply of central and western Europe, Russian obstreperousness in the matter of Iran’s nuclear program, Russian crowds’ burning in effigy a Latvian filmmaker who dared to make a documentary that told the truth about Communism (The Soviet Story)?
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this boorish behavior — to put it gently — has a lot to do with the fact that, as a political culture, Russia has never begun to come to grips with the legacy of 74 years of Communism. Lenin’s mummy — the ghastly relic of one of the 20th century’s greatest mass murderers — remains on display for the veneration of the obtuse and the confused in Red Square. Parades celebrating the birthday of Stalin, whose homicidal record topped Lenin’s, are not uncommon. The NKVD/KGB archives, briefly opened under Boris Yeltsin, are closed to researchers. Opposition journalists are murdered with impunity, while the state dominates the mass media. History is rewritten in order to mask, even deny, the horrors of the Gulag system (which, as Anne Applebaum demonstrated in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, was not an accidental feature of Stalinism but an essential component of Stalinist “economics”).
Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he is not satisfied with a Russia shrunk to the country’s size at the time of Peter the Great. Yet neither Putin nor his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, seems much interested in dealing with Russia’s colossal demographic and public-health problems, which include a rapidly shriveling native population (thanks to catastrophically low birth rates and declining life expectancy, both exacerbated by environmental degradation and rampant alcoholism). Meanwhile, Russia’s economy (the seamiest side of which is brilliantly described in two Daniel Silva novels, Moscow Rules and The Defector) resembles a Slavic Mafia operation more than a true market system. Perhaps whining about Olympic figure-skating judges is deemed, in the Kremlin, a useful distraction from the hard facts of contemporary Russian life.
It shouldn’t distract the West in general, and the United States in particular, from two other hard facts, however: Russia’s imperialist impulse has not been blunted by its catastrophic experience of Communism, and Russian political culture is sick. The reaction from the Kremlin to Evgeni Plushenko’s whining over his silver medal displayed enough of the cast of mind dominating Russian public life these days to cause the Obama administration, and other western governments, to reach for that famous “reset” button again: this time, with the aim of devising means of blunting further Russian aggression in venues where a lot more is at stake than in an ice rink in British Columbia.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.