Russia Direct presents a roundup of international press coverage of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

The Sochi Opening Ceremony. Photo: Mikhail Mordasov / Special to Russia Direct

The Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games brought an emotional reaction from the Western press. The words used to describe the ceremony in major Western media outlets seem to indicate that these organizations are ready to put aside their pre-conceived notions about the Games as competition begins. Nevertheless, subtle criticism still appears.

The New York Times report from the opening ceremony is a good example. Although it presents a colorful depiction of the ceremony, at the same time, the article contains hints that might indirectly reflect the position of the newspaper toward recent controversies around Sochi, including the high costs of the Olympics and alleged corruption, the gay propaganda ban, Russia’s economic slowdown and political oppression.

The newspaper put all these thorny issues into parentheses, indicating that these problems are not resolved and must still be addressed at some point in the future.

“The message of the over-the-top ceremony was simply this: In a big way, Russia is back,” the article reads. “As if there were any doubt,” it continues, while using parentheses: “(Where Russia may be headed — amid an economic slowdown, continuing rights abuses and suppression of political dissent that have drawn sharp criticism, especially in the West — was a question for another day.)”

The choice of the words that The New York Times uses to describe the opening ceremony also indicates mixed feelings about the ceremony: On one hand it was “a toast to reinvention” of Russia, on the other – the Sochi ceremony set aside “the many political controversies of late” and “traces of national self-consciousness lingering nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of communism and the loss of superpower status.”

These last phrases are why the New York Times sees the Sochi Olympic ceremony as “sheer pageantry and national pride”, with “a swaggering, resurgent Russia” celebrating the Winter Olympic opening with “an outsize extravaganza”, the homespun promotionalism, mythmaking and self-aggrandizement.”    

The Sochi Opening Ceremony. Photo: Mikhail Mordasov / Special to Russia Direct

Just to highlight its ambiguous and ambivalent attitude toward the Sochi Ceremonies, the authors of the New York Times article quote Russian classic Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls when referring to the image of “the glowing white troika, the chariot drawn by three horses:” “Where art thou soaring away to Russia? Give me the answer! But Russia gives none,” Gogol wrote in the book, published in 1842.

The phrase is indicative of the paper’s position vis-à-vis the issue of the cost of the Games. Dead Souls vividly portrayed the corruption of tsarist Russia.

The New York Times seems to have taken a cue from The Economist magazine, which referred to the same Gogol quote at the end of one article about the Games and calls the Sochi Olympics “a crowning moment for Vladimir Putin” and his project.    

“The quote has been used to justify Russian exceptionalism and moral superiority,” reads an Economist article that appeared before the Sochi ceremony. “Gogol describes Russia as a deeply flawed and corrupt country, but it is precisely its misery and sinfulness that entitles it to mystical regeneration. His troika carries a swindler, Chichikov, and his drunken coachman, but it is transformed into the symbol of a God-inspired country that gloriously surpasses all others. So, too, with the Sochi Olympics.”

In its report from the Opening Ceremony, The Washington Post highlights “the politics that have surrounded the Games — the controversy over Russia’s treatment of gay men and women, tensions with the West, concerns over security — went unaddressed” while describing the Sochi ceremony with an ambivalent phrase: “extravagant pageant.” 

Sochi ceremony: "A backlash against the backlash”

Despite the overall success of the Sochi Ceremony, some foreign media continue to focus on negative aspects of the event. The Huffington Post sees itas “a tribute to Russian history and, well, creepiness” while pointing out that “amid all the controversy over LGBT rights, corruption and stray dogs, more than a few moments at the ceremony left the audience feeling a little strange.”

Its comments to the show depicting the Soviet era seem to be very politicized and negative in their nature and related to Ukraine: “Wasn't Communism A Blast?”, “And Industrialized! ... And Starved Ukraine!”, “But Forget Ukraine! We've Got Giant Stuffed Animals”, “We've Got Thousands Of Nukes. Hurrah!”.

Likewise, BuzzFeed, which allegedly published fabricated photos to present Sochi in a negative light before the ceremony, preferred to focus on the one misstep of the program. Its article about the show was called “The Best Of The Internet’s Response To The Fifth Olympic Ring Not Opening.”

The Sochi Opening Ceremony. Photo: Mikhail Mordasov / Special to Russia Direct

At the same time, The Guardian’s Shaun Walker, who is also a contributor for the Japan Times, points out that regardless of many controversies around the Sochi Olympics, the West seems to have changed its mind about the 2014 Winter Games.

The headline of his story that appeared in the Japan Times,In Sochi, a backlash against the backlash emerges,” is indicative. Walker argues that although many in the West expected the games to fail because of the burden of the thorny problems like human rights, alleged corruption and security, after the opening ceremony, “the mood turned from a backlash against Vladimir Putin’s grandiose Olympic vision to something of a backlash against the backlash.”

“As the opening ceremony started, locals crushed into a series of venues to watch it on big screens, and there was a sense of genuine excitement and a desire to leave the recriminations until later and enjoy the sport,” he wrote. However, Walker also pointed out the fact that gay rights activists were detained in Moscow during the Opening Ceremony “for attempting to stage a small protest on Red Square.”

“These Olympics may not be rainbow-colored, but they are not all black and white either,” Walker concludes.

Russia’s media: A response to the response

Some pro-Kremlin newspapers including Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda, showed only one side of the story in making a roundup of the Western media. They cherry-picked only positive quotes and preferred not to mix sports with politics and other controversial issues like human rights and corruption.

In contrast, liberal newspaper Kommersant brought together a collection of more diverse comments from global media on the Sochi Ceremony, focusing not only their surprise and appreciation of the ceremony, but also pointing out some manipulation of Russia’s TV channels – which edited out the awkward moment when one of the five gigantic snowflakes failed to burst into the Olympic ring.

The Sochi Opening Ceremony. Photo: Mikhail Mordasov / Special to Russia Direct

“On Friday, Russia’s TV audience didn’t see what viewers could see at the Sochi stadium, when one of the stylized snowflakes remained closed and failed to turn into the fifth Olympic ring,” Kommerstand writes, quoting Germany’s Handelsblatt. “While Russia’s state-controlled TV channel preferred to fabricate [the footage] during live broadcast. Russia’s audience didn’t know about this incident.”

“There is no need to mix politics and sport, Vladimir Putin believes. Yet the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics itself contradicts this idea,” Kommersant writes, quoting another German newspaper, FAZ. “… The heads of the monumental statues and the papier-mâché skyscrapers were flying over the stadium, as if the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party under LCD had taken place. It is normal that one’s own history is not reassessed critically at such a show, but the style that portrays the 20th century is embarrassing,” reads the article, pointing out that the sickle and hammer symbol presented at the show are associated with an ideology that killed millions of people.