---- — As day slipped into night during the cruel winter of 2014, millions of Americans watched the mesmerizing closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.
This was a stunning facade of the Russian Federation, particularly its tribute to writers, with their portraits rising up from the floor ... Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and, amazingly, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author who revealed the epic cruelty of the gulags of the Soviet Stalin era. Eighteen days prior in the Sochi opening ceremony, America and the world would witness a national self-interpretation of Russian history, with the classics and its czarist monarchy giving way to the red, mechanized Soviet period, as gears rolled by and Stalinist busts floated with hammers and sickles above.
NBC had brought in Vladimir Pozner, the Russian TV commentator who would explain the perplexing giant to the east. “It’s a land many, many people have had problems understanding,” Pozner said.
When it was all over, the Sochi bear mascot blew out the Olympic flame and a tear rolled down its cheek. Looking on was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin presided over his glory at Sochi, while 500 miles to the northwest Kiev rioted and the Ukrainian government fled after massacring 80 people. The final Olympic weekend had been a juxtaposition of epic statecraft propaganda, while in Kiev, dissidents advanced beyond barricades as Yanukovich’s troops fired into the crowd before he fled.
It was easy to sense that within hours after this closing ceremony on the world’s sporting community, an entire new chapter was about to be written. By the end of the week, Putin had ordered an invasion of the Crimean peninsula. There will be a referendum there where people are expected to vote to join Russia. At this writing, Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s border.
One of the Russian writers not represented at the closing ceremony was Anna Politkovskaya, author of the 2004 book “Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy.” Politkovskaya was not present in Sochi because she was murdered in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. The case has never been solved.
But Politkovskaya’s insights into the “soul” of Putin are relevant today. It’s a different take than that of President George W. Bush, who observed in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
Politkovskaya observed: “Meeting no resistance, Putin naturally became bolder.
“He is not a born tyrant and despot; rather, he has been accustomed to think along the lines inculcated in him by the KGB, an organization he considers a model, as he has stated more than once. In Russia, we have had leaders with this outlook before. It led to tragedy, to bloodshed on a vast scale, to civil wars.”
For Russia, the response to Ukraine was a knee-jerk after decades of watching NATO advance into the Baltics, Poland and now what was once the Soviet Union.
But the world is rapidly changing. The U.S. is becoming an energy exporter. Want to hurt Putin in the pocketbook? Produce enough to bring down gas and oil prices. Reconsider the missile defense shield the Russians fear because it will greatly escalate their defense costs.
“We’re going to see in the next few months whether this is going to be a source of friction for decades to come,” former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn said at the University of Indianapolis just hours before Putin moved into the Crimea.
Putin’s Russia has its many facades. People can come and go, and not as many millions have been consigned to the gulags. But I personally witnessed the “soul” of the country in 2007 while traveling with Nunn and Sen. Dick Lugar. When I returned to my Moscow Grand Marriott room, I found my papers and notes scattered about. My departure from Yekaterinburg to Odessa was briefly held up when no one could seem to find my passport.
I remember quietly fretting on as the rest of the delegation had moved into boarding. I could see Nunn and Lugar arriving. The Naval and Embassy officials were all on their phones. Finally the passport turned up. I quickly got on the flight. Once in the air, I turned to Lugar aide Kenny Myers Jr. and asked, “What the hell was that all about?”
“They probably just wanted to take one more look at you,” he said. That night in the Londonskaya Hotel bar in Odessa, the place was teeming with shadowy figures (the Nunn/Lugar delegation had arrived in town with a police escort). Perhaps the paranoia was settling in. The guy at the other end of the L-shaped bar smoked a cigarette and was watching every time I glanced up.
The Black Sea is a mysterious and suspicious neighborhood. The day before we arrived in Odessa, the Cossacks were demonstrating about a Catherine the Great statue in town. Seven years later, they were whipping Pussy Riot in Sochi.
This is Putin’s Russia, and now it’s potentially Putin’s Ukraine.
Brian Howey publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.