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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sochi and Russia's Inferiority Complex



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Upon waking up on Thursday morning, I turned on Ekho Moskvy radio and learned that Russia had won its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The Foreign Ministry spokesman then said, "This is a testament to Russia's new position of strength in the global arena." I wondered to myself whether Austria's Foreign Ministry would have reached a similar conclusion had the International Olympic Committee chosen Salzburg over Sochi. Probably not, I thought, but Russians have a definite complex about their self-image.

The radio program continued with calls from listeners commenting on the news. The callers predicted that hosting the Games in Sochi would only ruin the city's environment and that most of the allocated funds would be stolen. "Is this what we call 'democratic' journalism," I wondered, "when we are even dissatisfied with success?"

I spent that day with a group of people in their 30s. Their exultation over Russia's winning bid and the knowledge that such an important sporting event would be hosted in their country was genuine and sincere. I tried to spoil their mood by "democratically" reminding them of the danger to Sochi's environment and the inevitable misuse of funds, but received a sharp rebuff. "We'll worry about that later," they said in effect. "Today, let's enjoy the victory!" At the same time, the state's serious concerns about Russia's increased standing in the world arena did not weigh down on their light, youthful patriotism.

Coverage of the Sochi triumph on national television that evening was testament to the growing inferiority complex held by the country's leaders. Every high-ranking politician, including President Vladimir Putin, expressed exaggerated excitement that Russia finally gained recognition from the international community. One of them even said the IOC's decision qualified as the most significant milestone in Russia's foreign policy history since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I thought to myself: "Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a nuclear superpower, has the richest natural resources of any nation on Earth, and yet the country's leaders are still looking to other countries to affirm that Russia is a world leader." But beyond the official proclamations and political speeches, the feeling on the street is very different -- it is filled with the excitement and the thrill of victory in this high-stakes race. One might even say we witnessed a true national holiday.

The plan to hold the Winter Olympics in Sochi is not simply exotic, but utopian as well. Snow rarely lasts for more than a few hours, there is an inadequate sewage system, and there is very little time left to bring Sochi up to Olympics standards. It is this utopianism that made the Sochi Olympics into a genuine national idea. The authorities mobilized all of their resources and conducted a brilliant campaign to promote the Sochi venue. The public closely followed the contest, held their breath in suspense and are now enjoying the fruits of victory.

Most interesting of all is that such an enormous amount of investment is needed to build the entire infrastructure virtually from scratch. This economic boost, it would seem, will be so strong that the country will catch up to Portugal in one giant leap. And Russia will undoubtedly host an Olympics that will have the world gasping in astonishment.

Dostoevsky said, "Russians like to do everything big, but they need to be brought down to earth a bit." That is, Russians are impressed when a project is grandiose, regardless of whether it is beneficial or harmful. The 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics was also a grandiose project, but it turned out to be a big failure due to the U.S.-led boycott.

Let's hope it works out better in 2014.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Strategii i Praktika Izdatelskogo Biznesa, a magazine for publishing business professionals.