When the Winter Olympics begin this week in Sochi, visitors will see a more camera-friendly version of the Russia that President Vladimir Putin has ruled for 14 years.
Long criticized for his suppression of political dissent, Putin has spent the leadup to the Games freeing thousands of political prisoners, including several highprofile ones. In December, he released Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire oil tycoon and longtime political opponent; Khodorkovsky was imprisoned for 10 years on embezzlement charges widely believed to have been politically motivated. A few days later, Putin freed two young women who were jailed in 2012 on charges of “hooliganism” after their punk band performed an anti-Putin protest song in a Moscow cathedral.
Last month, Putin eased a sweeping ban on public protests in Sochi. The ban had been sharply criticized by human rights groups and the International Olympic Committee.
“I think this is an attempt to improve the image of the current government a little before the Sochi Olympics,” says Maria Alyokhina, one of the punk musicians.
The surprise clemencies don’t seem to have impressed President Barack Obama. In a political statement against Russia’s increasingly authoritarian government, Obama is skipping the Olympics opening ceremony. Also missing will be First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and all other living former U.S. presidents or vice presidents.
The diplomatic boycott is just one sign of how tense relations between the United States and Russia have become. This is not the first time the former Cold War adversaries have used the Olympics as a stage for their political disputes.
A lot of issues have contributed to the current tensions. Last summer, Russia offered political asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about secret American surveillance programs and is wanted for espionage by U.S. authorities. The two countries have long been at loggerheads over the civil war in Syria. And a new Russian law banning gay “propaganda” is widely viewed as discrimination. (In protest, President Obama is including openly gay athletes like tennis player Billie Jean King and skater Brian Boitano in the official U.S. delegation.)
“We’ve been at these low points many times before, says Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. “The U.S. and Russia are not natural partners, and when things go wrong, it’s often quite difficult to put them back on the right track.”
Some of the tensions stem from Russia’s slide back toward authoritarianism, which seems deeply rooted in its history. For 350 years, the country was ruled by powerful czars. In 1917, the Russian Revolution ushered in seven decades of brutal Communist rule by the Soviet Union.
The years that followed the Soviet collapse in 1991 were marked by economic upheaval. When Putin (a former agent in the KGB, the Soviet spy agency) took over as president in 1999, most Russians were relieved to have a strong leader.
But once in charge, Putin began consolidating power and tightening controls over the press. At the same time, however, Russia’s economy boomed, driven by surging oil prices. Today, Russia has the world’s sixth-largest economy and is the world’s largest producer of oil. Many Russians seemed OK with the tradeoff.
In 2008, Putin found a way around the term-limit law that prevented him from running again when his second term expired: He handpicked Dmitri Medvedev as his successor, and after Medvedev won the presidency, he appointed Putin as his prime minister. Although Medvedev was technically the country’s leader, Putin continued to wield the real power behind the scenes. Then in 2012, Medvedev stepped aside, and Putin won a third term as president.
For an authoritarian leader like Putin, the Olympics are an opportunity to burnish his image and to secure Russia’s place on the world stage. Putin has made the Olympics his pet project. Russia has spent a record $50 billion to host the Sochi Games—$8 billion more than China spent on the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
But despite the massive spending, the lead-up to the Olympics has been marred by violence. In December, there were two bombings in Volgograd, a city about 400 miles from Sochi, heightening security concerns for the Games. Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea, is not far from the Caucasus region, which has been roiled for years by armed Islamic insurgencies.
Even with the absence of U.S. leaders, the Games will again represent a showdown between former Cold War foes. The U.S. and Russia (including the former Soviet Union) have won the most gold medals since the modern Olympics began in 1896, with the U.S. leading 1,018 to 618.
“The Olympics are a great example of how sport is leveraged as a tool to promote political agendas,” says Victor Cha, an expert in sports diplomacy at Georgetown University. “The Olympics are big coming-out parties for every country that hosts them. There’s a narrative they want to tell. When Russia won the Sochi Games, Putin’s words were ‘Russia is back.’ That’s his narrative.”