The Sochi games are over, and I won't miss them. Knowing the widespread and systematic abuses of human rights under a Russian regime that also arrests and whips those who speak out against it, I found it hard to concentrate on who skated faster in a circle or anything people described as grand pomp and grandeur, or to not be physically repulsed by the woeful hypocrisy of the IOC's president Thomas Bach thanking President Putin at the closing ceremonies and Bach's statement that "everybody with an open mind" could see a new, friendly and open Russia reflected in the Games. How does that not make any thinking person's blood not boil? Have we gotten to the point where we just let the absurdity of such flagrant hypocrisy slide as part of the grand show? Are we now too cynical to hope for anything more?
My dad was an Olympian, a member of the U.S. Rowing team at the Helsinki games in 1952, and he always took great pride in how the games brought people together. His stories from that magical time of his youth were, just in their retelling, also a magical part of mine and my brother's. Dad used to wear a smart looking fedora with pins from around the world on one side, including some from those games. It was his signature that hat, unique to only him, and him in it is one of my most indelible memories.
One of the stories he would tell us was how as a member of the U.S. team in '52 he had been issued a single USA team pin. Meeting other competitors from other countries, he saw some other country pins that he thought were beautifully wrought. He asked if he and his teammates could be issued more U.S. pins so that they could trade them with other competitors. I got to tell dad at some point that trading pins had become one of the great traditions of the Olympics, a hallmark of the games. He got a real kick out of that. He truly loved the spirit of brotherhood enshrined in the games, how so often they brought us humans together across distance and divide, existing above and beyond the politics of the day that divided us. But he also acknowledged that this happened sometimes in spite of Olympics' own organizers, humans as fallible as any group of humans. And he felt that when the games were used to reflect legitimacy on governments which participated in wholesale persecution, then the only rational response was to take a stand. Would anyone be proud of having not protested at the '36 games in Berlin?
When the International Olympic Committee stated that it would be "wholly inappropriate" to stage protests at an Olympics that left some athletes legitimately concerned at the prospect of arrest for simply for revealing their sexuality, or stated that there were "strong feelings on both sides" in response to the public whipping of peaceful Pussy Riot protesters by Cossack goons hired to patrol and beat down anyone expressing a view that dissented from the sanitized image of Putin's Russia the games were being used to project, they showed how apolitical can turn to woefully out of touch, and how the IOC could barely understand, or perhaps acknowledge, that the games had already been used as a political propaganda tool of the Russian state. Luckily, Nadia, Masha and their fellow members of Pussy Riot suffered no such confusion and exposed Putin's use of the games and the attempted hypocrisy therein to great effect, and the world got to actually see the whips in use that usually connect with skin without the eyes of the world on them. Bravo to them.
Of course Pussy Riot acted not without the condemnation of the IOC and plenty of others. But criticism is how you know you are actually doing something of any import or impact. If you are involved in trying to make any kind of change and not receiving criticism, I promise you, you're not doing much. Nadia and Masha faced it similarly on their recent trip to the US, where they used every moment of public and press exposure to publicize the upcoming sentencing of the May 6th protesters in the Bolotnaya case, activism, which I believe Elena Volkova correctly attributes to having motivated the U.S. to finally condemn publicly an issue it had previously remained all but silent on. Still the women were still criticized on all sides, by the press in some cases, by Putin's people and even their own supporters, with attention diverted to silly narratives about how this international sojourn to meet with activists, reformers and political leaders was somehow a just a chance to hang out with celebrities or some sort of sell out tour.
Seeing Nadia and Masha up close though, they were never phased, they seemed to have that ingrained knowledge born of experience in the controversial, that criticism means you're doing something. And I hope they keep doing it. Especially now that the Olympics are over. As many, though not enough have said, now is the time to worry about the reprisals of Putin's regime as its operatives crawl back to dark corners they are more familiar with. How laughably awkward the stooges and quickly identified buffoons looked with their chickens trying to break up the press conference we organized with the women, trying to convince the cameras they were just average local concerned citizens who loved Russia. Similarly the police-hired Cossack goons seemed oblivious to the possible impropriety and effect of publicly whipping women for singing a protest song with cameras around. No, they were all on unfamiliar ground in the light, but now they go back to home field advantage in the dark.
And it's already started. Peaceful Bolotnaya Square protesters were convicted just a couple days ago, prominent ecologist and environmental activists Yevgeniy Vitishko has been sentenced to three years for calling attention to the illegal environment destruction of the Sochi constructions, and just a few hours before the closing ceremony activists David Khakim and Olga Noskovets, pictured here with Nadia and Masha in Sochi, have been arrested for protesting Vitishko's sentencing. Khakim now sits in solitary confinement. Nadia and Masha have been detained twice by police the day after the closing ceremonies.
We will all now be bombarded with the images and distractions of the next turn of the news cycle, and Putin's team will return to the dark and hidden venues they excel in. But luckily Nadia, Masha and their fellow activists will likely draw our attention back to the injustices that happen in that darkness, and will continue to inspire others to help shine a light on the real profanities in Russia, which have nothing to do with risqué punk group names. I know Pussy Riot will continue to do this, I hope they can keep international attention on these issues, and I hope many continue to criticize them. I'm sure they do as well.