Villanova University Political Science Professor and Russian Studies expert, Mark Schrad, PhD, has spent extensive time in Sochi and can offer an authoritative voice on a multitude of Eastern European and Russian-related topics. He is also the author of the new book, Vodka Politics: Autocracy and Alcohol in Russia.
Dr. Schrad says:
Many see the Olympics as a symbolic victory for Russia--bolstering the legitimacy of its leader, Vladimir Putin, as a bona fide world leader who has led his country from the precipice of disaster to the cusp of newfound glory. Yet the games have also shone a light into the instruments of autocratic rule in Russia: documentaries highlight the careless expropriation of private lands, slipshod construction, and embezzlement of billions of dollars in producing the most expensive and most corrupt games in Olympic history. Meanwhile, a series of suicide bombings in Volgograd has ordinary Russians and the international community rightly concerned about security during the games, despite the dedication of some 37,000 security agents--more than twice the forces used in London in 2012. While the Olympic venues and facilities promise to be far more secure than any in recent memory, the multitude of "soft targets" around Sochi, the Black Sea coast, and the entire North Caucasus region remain prone to terrorist attacks.
Then there's the issue of the shameful treatment of the LGBT community in Russia, marked by the recent spate of anti-LGBT legislation passed last summer that impose fines and jail terms for those promoting a homosexual lifestyle. While offensive to our more modern Western sensibilities, this legislation is not the work of Putin alone, or his ruling United Russia party alone: it passed the legislature unanimously, and receives substantial public support in Russia, as does a misguided general equation of homosexuality with pedophilia. So, while Western leaders including President Barack Obama engage in symbolic politics intended to "punish" Putin for his LGBT stance, and Putin and other officials like the mayor of Sochi produce laughably tragic soundbites about "leaving the children in peace" and that there "are no gays in the city of Sochi," Putin's head-scratching stance on the rights of gays in Russia--and the perception that he is standing-up to foreign pressures on Russia at this time of its most high-profile international achievement--may in fact actually bolster his popularity and political position at home. Whether he achieves that is an open question, but it brings us full circle to the original presupposition that the international spectacle of the Olympic games is a tremendous opportunity to bolster patriotic sentiment and the legitimacy of the ruling system itself.