S OCHI, Russia It doesn’t snow in Sochi but flakes flew inside Fisht Stadium during Opening Ceremonies for the Winter Olympics on a moonlit Friday night in southern Russia.
Pageantry trumps realism when the Olympics capture the world’s attention once every two years. In this Black Sea beach city, all it took was a little imagination and a lot of production to transport the audience to a wintry Russian landscape.
There is no question the host is one of the premier winter sports nations, and the medal count will soon reveal Russia’s prowess.
But for one enchanted evening, Sochi was a spectacle of ballerinas, cosmonauts, leaping Cossacks, beaming athletes, a skating bear mascot and an inflatable onion-domed cathedral.
It was a cross between Broadway, Disney World, Cirque de Soleil and Busby Berkeley. You either go ga-ga for these biennial ceremonies or you gag on them.
As Vladimir Putin watched from the presidential box, the scale of the show evoked memories of Soviet-era Red Square pageants.
The music was a medley of Russian hits, from Swan Lake to Firebird Suite to Not Gonna Get Us, a pop song by tATu, the fake lesbian duo who reunited for the event.
No sign of Lenin or Stalin, who were conveniently censored from Olympic organizers’ sweeping version of Russian history.
It would be impossible to condense that epic history into a two-hour time line, but director Konstantin Ernst did his best. This is the country of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Solzhenitzyn, Prokofiev, Chagall, Stanislavsky, Pavlova and Nureyev.
Russia’s athletic history is shorter but almost as rich as its political and artistic one. The final legs of the torch relay could have been run by dozens of famous Olympians but it had to be narrowed down to six: Tennis star Maria Sharapova, who first picked up a racket as a 4-year-old in Sochi; Greco-Roman wrestler Alexei “The Experiment” Karelin; pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva; rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who is recently-divorced Putin’s girlfriend; figure skater Irina Rodnina, and hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak.
The preamble to Sochi has been pock-marked by controversy. Putin has taken a lot of heat, and deservedly so, for the cost of these Games. Not just the record $51 billion that has been spent to stage them — which his critics estimate is at least twice what would have been spent had billions in kickbacks not gone to his friends in the construction business — but also in damage to the mountain environment, repression of activists, and exploitation of workers . Putin was even reported to have rigged the vote for mascots so the snow leopard would win. Russia has been condemned for passing an anti-gay rights law, and the International Olympic Committee and its sponsors have been criticized for not pressuring Putin to repeal it.
IOC president Thomas Bach turned those negatives into positives with Olympic semantics.
“We are writing a new page in Olympic history,” he said of Russia’s role as host, praising the rebuilding of the Sochi region as a “remarkable achievement.” “Thank you for your patience and understanding during these years of transformation. Now you’re living in an Olympic region. I’m sure you will enjoy the benefits for many years to come.”
Organizing chairman Dmitry Chernyshenko managed to sugarcoat Russia’s old-fashioned discriminatory mind set in his speech, also using noble Olympian language.
“Our games will be your games, all of yours, because when we come together in our diversity it is the Olympic Games that unite us,” he said.
The pressure on Putin and Russia to pull off these Games without a terrorist attack or diversion or any further embarrassments will continue through Feb. 23, but Friday he must have felt relieved and proud that the 22nd Winter Olympics were under way.
Sochi’s show was as kaleidoscopic as a Kandinsky canvas.
“Dreams of Russia” lacked the wit of London 2012, enchantment of Lillehammer 1994 and intimidating majesty of Beijing 2008. But it was very entertaining. One would expect no less from Russian minds.
Part of the purpose of the Opening Ceremonies, and the Sochi Games, is to teach the world that Russia cannot be encapsulated in stock images of vodka-swilling comrades in furry hats.
Russia is the world’s largest country, its 6.6 million square miles comprising 13 percent of the planet’s land mass. Within that space live 114 million people of 150 ethnicities. Russia reaches across nine time zones and stretches from the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean to the volcanoes of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Alaska was part of Russia until the United States bought it in 1867. Get out your atlas and marvel at the vast geography of Russia.
Sochi’s ceremony began with a little girl (named Love) flying a kite in the countryside. Medieval times made way for a troika jingling through the air. Then, a ballroom scene from Tolstoy’s War and Peace performed by some of Russia’s ballet stars. Fast forward to the 1917 revolution, symbolized by a locomotive chugging into the stadium. Dozens of actors then built Moscow in 10 minutes, wielding hammers rather than sickles in a scene of industrial progress.
A light display depicted constellations of athletes skiing, snowboarding and shooting pucks. Ah, look up, there’s the Big Flipper!
The snow was pretty, but there was one technical malfunction when an illuminated snowflake failed to morph into the fifth Olympic ring. It actually looked clever that way, nor does it matter. No snow in Sochi, but plenty on the slopes.