Call It Sochifreude

Games Will End But Anti-Gay Bigotry Is Just Starting

getty images

By Jay Michaelson

Published February 19, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Call it Sochifreude.

For the past two years, human rights activists have decried the conditions of the Sochi Olympic games, which wrap up this week, often to deaf ears. They’ve reported accounts of migrant workers being abused, environmental laws being trashed, billions of dollars being embezzled, and, of course, the ban on gay “propaganda” which threatens with jail time anyone who flies a rainbow flag.

American news cycles being what they are, it was hard to sustain much interest. It didn’t help that the International Olympic Committee repeatedly swept these problems under the rug, failing to investigate the corruption, failing to uphold its own principles of nondiscrimination, and failing to say anything more meaningful than the platitude that the Olympics are not “political.”

For a while, it looked like the Games would turn out just as Vladimir Putin wanted: a showcase for the new Russia and a celebration of his rule.


If they are remembered at all, surely this year’s Olympics will be remembered for their many fiascos: the unsafe race courses, the lack of snow, the hotels without working plumbing. Indeed, the enduring symbol of the 2014 Olympics is likely to be the ring that failed to unfurl during the opening ceremonies. In the gay community, the joke is that the ring was gay and afraid to come out.

So, those same activists who complained to empty rooms about Russia’s political abuses are now savoring Russia’s embarrassment. Of course, all of us feel for the athletes whose moment of achievement was tarnished by the logistical mishaps or political pall. And, to be sure, there have been plenty of awesome Olympic moments despite them. But you’ll forgive us activists if we take some schadenfreude in the #sochiproblems.

Really, though, the two sides of the Olympics — politics and logistics, the real and the ridiculous — are connected. The same cronyism and corruption that made fifty billion dollars disappear are also responsible for the consolidation of Putin’s power and the erosion of civil society. The same ignorance that prompted the mayor of Sochi to say there are no gay people in his town — in fact, there are two gay bars — has caused thugs elsewhere in Russia to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, and torture gay men on video.

These Olympics were, as members of Pussy Riot said when they were arrested in Sochi on February 17, a “political event” meant to show that Russia is ready for prime time; that it is a powerful, Western-but-not-Western society; that it belongs on the top tier of nations.

Instead, it showed the opposite: that Russia is ruled by an autocrat who doles out massive favors to supporters, forces through ludicrous projects that would make its former Communist leaders jealous, quashes dissent and panders to backward values.

Of course, Putin and his supporters do not represent all of this vast country. There is also a large, educated population in Russia, and a proud culture that values intellectual as well as economic achievement. One need only look at the Russian-speaking Jewish community here in the United States for evidence. But for the moment, Russia is ruled by vulgarity and avarice, not sophistication and reason. And all of its grand, Gogolesque absurdity was on display these last two weeks.

What’s worrying is what happens next. Soon, the lights will go out in Sochi, and bogus, state-run investigations into the missing billions will take place far away from international scrutiny. Meanwhile, experts project that the repression of civil society activists, foreigners, and LGBT people has only just begun.

Case in point: The follow-up to Russia’s “anti-propaganda law,” which would strip children from same-sex families, even if one partner is the child’s biological parent. This law was proposed in the fall and temporarily shelved until after the Olympics. Expect it to come back, and pass.

And expect Russia’s other laws — requiring most nonprofits to register as spies, banning civil discourse on a host of issues — to be enforced as never before. Several times over the last year, President Putin has personally intervened to stop prosecutions under these laws. Obviously, he didn’t do so out of the interest of civil liberties; he did so to minimize criticism before the Olympics. Now, anything goes.

One of the most beloved characteristics of Russian culture is its dark, even despairing sense of humor. In the wake of centuries of corruption (and bad weather), Russians have grown fatalistic and cynical. This is one reason the Russian response to the #sochiproblems meme and other Western expressions of incredulity was a mixture of defensiveness and anger, as if to say, we put up with this all the time.

But there are real lives at stake, and it’s hard to affect cynicism when you’re being beaten up by thugs. No, Russia is not the only country which persecutes gays, foreigners, and activists. But it is the only one to have hosted an Olympics this year. And we’ve all seen how well that went.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.