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Putin's 'Sochi effect': Will Pussy Riot arrests interfere? (+video)

Two members of the Pussy Riot protest band were arrested and released in Sochi today. Their message may not be of great interest to Russians at a moment of patriotic Olympic pride.

Two members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot have been released after being detained by police in Sochi, the host city of the Winter Olympics. No charges were filed against Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina. (Feb. 18)
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The now world-famous pair from the Russian protest band Pussy Riot were arrested again – and quickly released – this time apparently for planning to stage one of their signature actions against President Vladimir Putin near the scene of the Sochi Winter Games.

But many experts say the group's message is not likely to be well received just now, amid a patriotic surge that is lifting the usually dour public mood here. 

Nadezhda Tolikonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, fresh from performing with Madonna at a human rights concert in the United States, were reportedly detained along with several other activists in Sochi Tuesday, allegedly in connection with a theft at their hotel. The activists say they were picked up to prevent them from making a political music video against the backdrop of Sochi. Reports say they were let go after questioning.

The venue for a Pussy Riot comeback was certainly well chosen, since the world's attention is riveted on Sochi and a gargantuan portion of Russian TV audiences are glued to Olympics coverage. The message that Pussy Riot had hoped to deliver, "Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland," also takes square aim at the political subtext that has underlain the Sochi Games since Mr. Putin secured them for Russia seven years ago.

In his acknowledgment of the International Olympic Committee's choice of Sochi, Putin pledged that Sochi would showcase a modern and fast-developing Russia to the world. A smiling Putin has also placed himself front-and-center since the opening ceremonies, attending most major events, congratulating athletes, and dropping in on team headquarters  to exercise his considerable personal charm.

For now, it appears to be working.

"Putin's deeper aim in sponsoring the Olympics, and seeing the preparations through, was to inspire his fellow Russians. He wants to change their own self-image of Russia from the past sense that we're a country of losers to being winners," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"It's happening," he continues. "Just talk to people and you can sense the new pride in ourselves. We're doing this, everything in Sochi is modern, high-tech, cutting-edge. The sports are fantastic. Everyone's having a good time. Of course, it's not over yet. And it remains to be seen whether there will be a long-term boost, a 'Sochi effect' that continues after the Games."

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Russian media on the offensive

The Russian media have felt confident enough to go on the offensive against what they have perceived as spiteful Western criticisms in advance of the Games, and even Putin slammed the foreign press for what he called "cold war" tactics. Kremlin-funded English-language outlets offer their own versions of what Russian audiences are hearing on this theme, for example here and here.

As for Putin himself, his public popularity ratings have been inexorably sliding over the past few years, and there are no fresh opinion polls to show whether he's enjoying a "Sochi bump." But Alexei Grazhdanin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow, says it's likely.

"The public attitude toward the Games is overwhelmingly positive. There is no feeling, anywhere, anyhow, that the Games are not a success," he says. 

Mr. Mukhin says the Western media are overstating the case for Sochi as "Putin's Games," despite ample and ongoing evidence that he's inserted himself into every stage of Russia's Sochi project, perhaps to a greater extent than any leader of an Olympic host country in the past.

"Putin's idea was not to burnish his own image, or bask in the reflected glory of the athletes, or anything like that. He knows better," he says. "State TV has actually downplayed the Putin factor in Sochi, depicting it as the people's Games, while foreigners keep insisting it's Putin's Games."

But some experts say that, going by past events, the "Sochi effect" is likely to be brief.

"In the short-term everything is great. Russians love sports, and Putin really does look like the hands-on leader who can bring us to good things," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"It's not hard to unify Russians around hockey; it's been done before," he says. "But we have an economic downturn just now, and there will be ongoing questions about how much all of this cost to stage. The price of Sochi was enormous, and it will keep costing because a lot of infrastructure will have to be removed, or repurposed after the Games. You can't change a country with feel-good events. They come to an end, and you're left with the hangover."      

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