Early spring is a time of burning desire and sacrifice. Before the soil develops a smell of grass, the feeling of hunger intensifies and the flesh weakens. In order to survive, nature must come to our aid and produce yields. Nature demands its sacrifice. The Russian pagan ritual of sacrifice is the plot of one of greatest Russian ballets of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in the spring of 1913.
The opening melody of this ballet, played by a solo bassoon in a very high register, was the leitmotif of almost the entire opening ceremony of Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Olympic opening ceremonies are not only sporting events, but are great international cultural events that, as a rule, are watched by millions of TV viewers. These opening ceremonies provide an opportunity for the host countries to showcase what they are most proud of, their cultural heritage and achievements. This is precisely what happened in Russia on 7 February. The entire world watched the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, it was an inauguration ceremony that triggered various controversial assessments from critics.
The Rites of Spring is a marvelous composition, presaging fear and death – it was a piece of music that audiences did not accept for quite a long time. As the great composer claimed in his memoirs, the narrative of the ballet came to him in a horrifying, lucid vision years earlier when he was working on another famous ballet The Firebird: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death.”
The “Dream of Russia” was the main theme of the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. The protagonist of this show, a very pretty girl Liubov (Love) was traveling in a fairytale world of Russian landscapes and colorful domes. However, the dream of this Russian “Alice” was accompanied by this heavy music and was certainly not a kind and lighthearted story intended for children. The Sochi opening was in stark contrast to the inauguration of London Olympics of 2012, which only expressed positive feelings, with James Bond, the Queen jumping from a helicopter, gentlemen in hats, and the fat dogs of Buckingham Palace.
In her dream, however, Liubov saw the Soviet Union, Soviet slogans, wars, thunder, raging seas and moonless nights. Its gloominess looked more like Stravinsky’s vision than any kind of children’s story.
To obtain welfare and gain productivity, sacrifice is needed – that’s how people thought in pagan Russia. And it seems that such pagan reasoning is not foreign to modern Russia either – a state that remains viewed as a strict and authoritarian country. Putin, the customer who commissioned this show (any such customer, as a rule, determines the mode of the creative product), likes this image very much, he cherishes it and, even more so, succeeds in strengthening it.
However, within the framework of the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, that customer, a man known for his stubbornness, was forced to make certain compromises. Against the backdrop of the leaders of many countries refusing to arrive in Sochi and of human rights defenders from many countries expressing protest with anti-homophobic slogans, the organizers of the Olympics used the creative works of a number of Russian homosexual artists. Naturally, one could hear the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The Russian Olympic national team walked out on the arena accompanied by a song of the Russian pop duo Tatu that is known for its “lesbian image.” Also, when the Russian alphabet was projected on the stadium floor with a young girl telling the story of her country's heroes and their globally renowned achievements, the Ballet Russes (Russian Ballet) was cited as one such example. The great Russian ballet impresario who founded that ballet, Sergei Diaghilev, was exposed in Vaslav Nijinsky’s memoirs as having sexually assaulted and blackmailed him. However, this fact did not cast a shadow on Diaghilev’s merits and he is acknowledged as a legendary, extremely forward thinking person who, in the early 20th century, introduced Europe to the Russian avant-garde art of the time.
Apart from technological achievements, there was nothing particularly advanced or modern on show at the Olympic opening ceremony. The organizers were more focused on the past than on what they are creating today. They seemed to get carried away with the glory of the past to such an extent that it gave rise to a new anomaly in their awareness, one that has not been observed before.
Naturally, every nation would have been proud of figures such as Yuri Gagarin, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin or Wassily Kandinsky. Recalling them as the greatest figures in the history of the country was absolutely correct. Each nation would also have been proud of an emperor such as Peter the Great who was very fond of European culture. But the fact that the organizers of the ceremony produced a film chronicling the history of Russia that began with the Argonauts sailing to Sochi is something that, at the very least, left a strange impression.
Culturally or historically misappropriating what does not belong to you is something that is known worldwide as “a complex of small nations.” For nations who are not distinguished by the size of their land or the number of their population this is a natural complex – they fervently defend what they have and try to find links to the things they wish were theirs. For example, if you tell an ordinary Italian (and Italy is an advanced country in terms of its cultural heritage) that Christopher Columbus is more Portuguese than Italian or that Leonardo da Vinci, according to one Armenian scientist’s research, was Armenian – that Italian will not get angry. He will just smile and will not even bother to start recalling that many Hollywood stars are of Italian decent. But this is not the case with Georgians who zealously defend their each and every historical and cultural achievement.
The complexes characteristic of small nations and the phobias related to culture were not things that could be vividly observed in Russia. Clear example of this is seen in the fact that their rich cultural heritage is not an achievement of ethnic Russians alone – quite the opposite. However, it now seems that Russian historians, who have mainly been busy fabricating the histories of Soviet nations, have got down to creating their own epic – taking the Argo to the shores of Sochi to steal the Golden Fleece from ancient, gold-rich Russia.
Putin and the organizers of the Olympic opening ceremony took care of Georgia in a different way too, choosing to selectively cover a satellite image of traditionally sunny Georgia with clouds covering the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Against this backdrop, it is naturally not even worth mentioning those technical mistakes that plagued the ceremony and which became the main topic of international derision. We will merely hope that a snowflake not turning into an Olympic ring and the voice of Anna Netrebko singing the Russian national anthem not being heard properly will remain the most harmful of mistakes that Russia will make in future.