- Putin's Olympics: The Sochi Games and the Evolution of Twenty-First Century Russia by Robert W. Orttung and Sufian N. Zhemukhov
This book is a macro-level study of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Both authors are based at George Washington University: Sufian Zhemukhov is a historian of Russia and the North Caucasus, with expertise on Circassian issues, and Robert Orttung is a political scientist with a background in Russian studies and comparative politics. They synthesize scholarly studies, publically available financial reports, Russian and U.S. media accounts, and Putin's official statements into an admirably compact format. The general argument is that mega-events such as the Sochi Olympics provide a vantage point from which to understand trends in Russian "development" and politics. In particular, they argue that the Sochi Olympics allowed Putin to maintain a centralized authoritarian regime by perpetuating corruption, cracking down on civil society, and building up the state security apparatus (7). The most provocative dimension of their argument concerns the invasion of Crimea, which occurred just after the Sochi Games ended on February 23. They assert that the concentration of military resources and personnel for the Sochi Olympics enabled the Crimean invasion. Sochi was connected to Crimea by a strong organizational link, as two months after the games, Olympstroy, the special state corporation set up to manage the preparation for the games, became Krymstroy, an "entity designed to manage the incorporation of occupied Crimea into Russia" (98).
The book focuses predominantly on the run-up from the IOC selection of Sochi in 2007 to the Olympic Games in 2014, with Chapters 2 to 5 attending to different macro-level dimensions of politics, economics, and security. Chapter 2 is devoted to describing [End Page 124] the political economy of the Sochi Olympics, with a focus on funding and costs based on publicly available information. The authors begin with a familiar framing of Putin's rule as characterized by personalized power, weak institutions, and extensive corruption. The Sochi Games cost an estimated $50 billion, a significant cost overrun that the authors attribute to the "centralized authoritarian nature of the political system" (32). Chapter 3 draws attention to the widely publicized negative environmental impacts, housing market and infrastructural conflicts, and LGBT issues and activism. Chapter 4 takes on security and is split between a discussion of anti-terrorism measures and the build-up of the military apparatus. Chapter 5, which relies heavily on previously published histories, tells the story of the Circassians, the Indigenous people from the region whom the Russians murdered or deported en masse in 1864. Putin strategically omitted mention of the Circassian genocide in his retelling of Sochi's history to the IOC, which began a pattern of exclusion of Circassians from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, in historical memory and practice.
In Chapter 6, the authors conclude with a preliminary account of the legacy of the Sochi Olympics. They argue that Sochi's potential as a tourist destination was overshadowed by the invasion of Crimea. Further, the large-scale doping scandal that arose following the Sochi Olympics marred Russia's image within the international sporting community. The environmental and human rights issues that arose during Sochi prompted the IOC to approve a set of reforms called "Olympic Agenda 2020" aimed at creating initiatives that support human rights and sustainable economic dimensions of future events. Ultimately, the authors conclude that the games were simply "fodder for Russia's relentless propaganda machine" (114).
One dimension of their argument that requires more development is that Putin's "use of mega-projects as a developmental tool" (7) demonstrated continuity between the Sochi Olympics and the Soviet past. They indicate that there are resonances with the 1980 Moscow Olympics, as well as with Stalinist dimensions of sport and spectacle, although they do not provide elaboration on the nature of these connections. What makes a sportive mega-project symbolically distinct from other mega-projects? Moreover, the authors claim that the...