Sochi Olympics: “No different from the Super Bowl”?

Just in time for the opening events, Altstadt explores the darker side of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

By Audrey L. Altstadt, Department of History

“Outside the stadium on Super Bowl Sunday,” said a man in the audience, “there will be security police.” They won’t allow protests near the stadium. If you put up protest signs, they will rip them down. Protestors might get hauled away in police vans. And everyone will get searched to enter. So “I don’t see the difference,” he told me during a recent presentation about Russian human rights violations in connection with the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.

If one takes a sufficiently narrow view of Super Bowl security and Olympic Game security, several similarities and demands stand out and could lead to the conclusion that “there’s no difference.” Both events entail crowd control in an era of world-wide terrorism. Both demand the facilitation of the needs of paying guests for seats, food, trinkets, and shouting room. Ensuring that the game or games take place is, of course, the top priority. But to suggest there is no difference between crowd control in New Jersey and human rights violations in Sochi is to ignore decades and centuries of the rule of law and divergent status of individual rights.

To extend the question from the gentleman in my audience, what happens to protestors in New Jersey who try to violate stadium space, put up posters that get ripped down and possibly get carted away? Unlike their treatment in Russia, they are not in danger of being held in pre-trial detention for weeks before they are charged nor are they at risk of imprisonment for “hooliganism,” a crime that can carry a maximum penalty of seven years in a Russian jail. Take the case of the independent journalist who crashed last Sunday’s Super Bowl penetrating layers of security with old credentials and the claim he was behind schedule to avoid a bar code scan. After being discovered when he disrupted a press conference, he was detained, charged and “released on his own recognizance.” He certainly faces a hefty fine. In the meantime, he is giving interviews. Are there violations of legality and procedure in the U.S.? Sure. But there are courts and a free press to bring these violations to public attention and to fight against them. The same cannot be said for Russia.

The human rights violations committed in conjunction with the Sochi Olympics began long before the flame left Greece. Construction workers were attracted from remote locations in Russia and the so-called “near abroad,” former Soviet republics. Many received partial wages and others none at all. Those from outside Russia, including Uzbekistan, Serbia and other places, reportedly had their passports confiscated so they could not leave. Managers of construction companies were not really managers and they disappeared from work sites. Workers were left stranded and destitute.

New roads for access to alpine slopes and hotels cut off the access of nearby mountain villages to highways and water sources. The case of Akhshtyr has become well known, thanks to investigation by Human Rights Watch. The residents of this village lost not only water sources, gas, and road links to the outside more than 2 years ago, their locally grown fruits are tainted with cement dust from construction and construction garbage. Local homes are losing their foundations from the pressure of garbage dumped uphill. Local authorities don’t respond to complaints and central authorities, including offices of President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev, tell petitioners to consult local authorities.

These human rights issues do not even touch on environmental damage — Russian promises that this would be the most eco-friendly Olympics in history merely add insult to injury — or corruption linked to wild cost over-runs. Just revealed is the 48-km road built by a Putin friend that cost $9 billion, over $200 million per kilometer. It’s a rich topic for research.

Rights abuses that have come front and center for the Olympic Games include Russia’s anti-gay laws, restrictions against protesters and journalists, and the lesser-known violation of burial grounds of the Circassians, a population of the Caucasus Mountains slaughtered and driven abroad by Russian forces in the 19th century.

Russia’s legislation on homosexuality is irregular and contradictory. The country decriminalized gay sex in 1993 and ended its classification as a mental illness in 1999. But Russia’s anti-gay laws equate homosexuality with subversion of youth and even pedophilia. Last June, a new law banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” The ban on “propaganda” permits authorities to stop gay pride parades, the Sochi Pride House, and public presentations or leafleting on LGBT issues. These are all “propaganda” and therefore illegal. Protest them and you run afoul of these laws as well as those against demonstrations, inciting social or religious hatred, possibly functioning as an arm of a foreign agency if your work is linked to a human rights NGO and, depending on what you say, insulting the honor of Russia’s rulers. All such criminal offenses carry jail terms. Western rights activists and entertainers have protested these laws in recent years, with a notable uptick in relation to the Olympics.

Perhaps it is the foreign, human rights community that is unfairly critical of this event. Indeed many human rights NGOs were denied visas for Sochi. Perhaps the locals are happier than we know. In a pinch, check the opinion polls. The official Sochi Web site took an online poll in January asking, “Are you looking forward to the Olympic Games?” The largest portion of respondents voted “Other.” “Other” than what? There were 4 variations of “Yes” depending on why a respondent was looking forward to the games, e.g. yes, I love sports; yes, I want to see the great achievement of our athletes, etc. Answers to the 4 affirmatives totally 31% of the responses. Plus 69% for “Other” made 100%. The poll included no option for a response of “No.” The polling specialists are apparently risk-avers

Relevant Links:

Human Rights Watch: Sochi

“AT&T Becomes First Major Advertiser to Protest Russia’s Antigay Law”

“Olympics will be ‘comfortable’ for gay athletes, says Putin”

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1 comment
  1. robnepca said:

    Thanks for your timely piece Audrey. Alas–more evidence that Americans need to get out more before they venture analogies. And another reminder that Mr. Putin represents a breed of Muscular Stalinism.–Rob Weir

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