The opening of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games this week puts us in mind of the last time Russia hosted an Olympiad — the 1980 Summer Olympics, the Games famously boycotted by the United States and 64 of its allies in protest of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Of course, those Olympics have been on our minds here at Restless since we published Hamid Ismailov'sThe Underground— the novel's hero, Kirill, is the son of a visiting athlete and a worker from the provinces imported as part of the Games' massive labor force.
I am Moscow’s underground son, the result of one too many nights on the town. My mother Moscow (though everyone called her Mara, or Marusia) was born in some little Siberian town or other, maybe Abakan, maybe Tayshet and, with that town’s strange name in her passport, she picked me up in the year of the Moscow Olympics—or maybe earlier, during the preparations—from an African sportsman from a “friendly country.” She was one of the limitchitsa, working as friendly civil patrols in the Olympic village. “We were sent out to them, but they came into us, all right!” she explained later, drunk. And so that is how I came about, a cross between a bulldog and a rhinoceros: Kirill, by the name of Mbobo.
Ismailov's novel follows Kirill—and his city—from 1980 through the end of the Soviet Union; the reshaping of Moscow for the Olympics provides the circumstances for our hero's birth and its as the forces emerge (externally, the Afghanistan war and the international reqction to it; domestically the economic slowdown, bureaucratic expansion, and crisis of public confidence under Brezhnev) that will tear the Soviet empire apart by the end of 1991.
Sochi—the most expensive Olympiad to date—opens amid increasing international opposition to the Vladimir Putin's administration's excesses, an expanding confrontation with the West over unrest in Ukraine, the threat of domestic terror, and a host of infrastructure problems at the Olympic venue. It's already being described as a Potemkin village.
The Underground—which posits a Soviet Union whose everyday reality is somehow unreal, its true expression existing only in the shadowy kingdom beneath its false surface—reminds us that this is nothing new; it was common practice in the Soviet Union to clear Moscow of children and undesirables in advance of major events, like the Olympics. Kirill meets his elusive love, Zulya, when both children are sent away to summer camp, "while the visitors were gathering in Moscow for the festival”—out of sight, but not quite out of mind.
Meanwhile, back in Sochi, the Games so far seem to represent a success for Putin, not Russia. And Western opposition to the government's more retrograde legal maneuvers is mounting.
Even Pravda recognizes that it's difficult to forget the past.