Four-Ring Circus
The Olympics’ opening ceremony plays fast and loose with Russian history.

The centerpiece of the show was a pageant meant to represent the sweep of the latest approved version of Russian history. And some of it was very striking, even lovely, not least a giant, silvery troika, so evocative of the country’s vast, snowy landscapes, and, for that matter, the finest of all descriptions of Russia, “speeding like a troika” in Gogol’s Dead Souls, a passage that ends, a little ominously for the rest of us, like this:

Whither then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes — only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!

Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), of course, was Ukrainian-born.

Nobody ever said that Russian history was uncomplicated, but the spectacle in Sochi was clearly designed to smooth things out a bit — no, a lot — something very much in keeping with the wider Putin project in which all of Russian history, Czarist, Soviet, and whatever it is now, is crammed into a single, supposedly unifying past in which all Russians, regardless of ideology, did the right, patriotic thing for a nation that was always a force for good.

Thus we witnessed onion domes, Cossacks, Peter the Great, the ballroom scene (beautifully done) from War and Peace, followed by glimpses of turn-of-the century technological progress cleverly used to pave the way for the passage dedicated to that “pivotal experiment.” This was presented primarily as an acceleration — continuity, you see — of the country’s drive to industrialization and modernity all drenched in red (light, not blood) and crowned by the shapes of constructivism’s bold geometry, including what looked like fragments of Tatlin’s Tower, the monument to the Third International that — like communism’s radiant future — never made it past a very rough draft.

And what was this? Two giant heads, an enormous hammer, a vast sickle, excerpted, as it were, from the sculptress Vera Mukhina’s massive, sinister and, in its way, magnificent, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937). To look at, it was wonderful, to think about, not so much. Imagine if Germans hosting a (modern) Olympics had included some of the iconography that their countrymen had used back in Berlin the first time round. That it is unthinkable in a way that Sochi’s sexed-up Soviet design was not speaks volumes — volumes filled with nothing good.

Later there was a sequence showing the supposedly kinder, gentler, Soviet Union that evolved after the tyrant whose name was not mentioned had left the scene, a sort of Russian Graffiti with music that somehow, I suspect, was not entirely representative of the early Brezhnev years.

Speeches? Of course there were speeches. The president of the International Olympic Committee said something about the Olympics embracing diversity (well, there had already been a performance by the fake lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u.) and explained that the games were “never about erecting walls to keep people apart,” which may or may not also have been a reference to Sochi’s eccentric restroom construction. After that, some Swan Lake danced by what seemed to be electric jellyfish, and a confusing sequence involving escapees from the set of Tron.

The Olympic torch arrived on the last leg of its long relay, a tradition since, ahem, Berlin, and was handed over by Maria Sharapova to a posse that included Alina Kabaeva, holder of an Olympic gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics, holder of a Russian parliamentary seat, and, if the rumors are true, holder of Vladimir Putin too. Yes, that’s right, rhythmic gymnastics . . . 

The flame itself was lit by another parliamentarian, Irina Rodnina, three-time winner of an Olympic gold medal for figure skating and the author of a racist tweet about Barack Obama.

The gold medal for trolling was awarded to Vladimir Putin.

Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.