Sochi 2014: the view from Moscow

Finbarr Thomas reports from the Russian capital as the Winter Olympics get underway

Dependent on the time of day, Moscow in February can seem like two different cities. Walking the streets at night, the golfball-sized, sideways-falling snowflakes that were terrifying in daylight now seem playful and romantic; the Byzantine buildings that were imposing in the day have transformed into fairytale castles. It's hard to believe there's a more spectacular sight in Russia.

Until, that is, you happen to catch a glimpse of a television set showing the carnival of winter sports happening 1,008 miles away in Sochi. The Games cost an estimated £30 billion (London 2012 came in at just under £9 billion) - more than all previous Winter Olympics combined, and had been garnering negative coverage in the west before even a slope was skied or a slide-stone curled.

However, the Sochi Olympics had been contentious long before the west decided it was the cause célèbre for 2014. The region is the indigenous home of the Circassians, against whom the Russians are accused of committing genocide in the 19th century.

In the seven years leading up to the Games, Circassians - of which there are 5.5 million scattered around Europe - have been protesting in the hope of raising awareness of Sochi's history, seemingly to little avail.

No home for homosexuality

The most dominant theme in the run up to the Olympics has been the anti-homosexual legislation introduced by the Kremlin last year. While the laws don't ostensibly place new restrictions on homosexual acts, they infringe upon what children can be told about homosexuality.

Those behind the act claim it is to stop "gay propaganda" being peddled to the youth of Russia. Putin wheeled out the old "I have gay friends" adage to prove he was no homophobe, but outside of Russia (in the west at least), the laws have been criticised for impinging on the human rights of gay people.

However, it's important to see the law in context. Russia's Orthodox Church is experiencing a serious rise in popularity - some theorise it has taken the place of communism in people's hearts and homes - and Putin's government has taken a shift to the right in order to counter its political threat. Hardline conservatism, then, has emerged as the doctrine of choice, with the homosexuality legislation being the headline result.

The legislation has been broadly supported by the population. A poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Centre (VCIOM) found 88 per cent of Russians supported the Kremlin's conservative stance, which has also included anti-blasphemy legislation.

A desire for change

And what of Russians on the ground? On my last visit to Moscow, I attempted discussing politics with a group of young people in a bar, who gave me short shrift. It's uncouth, I learnt, to raise it with those you don't know. A century of political oppression has left Russians wary of airing their views in public. One look at the manner in which protests are greeted will tell you why.

This time, I was more fortunate, spending the majority of my time with people who have lived in Russia and by extension, their Russian friends. In general they were more open and trusting - but judging from the way in which my PR executive acquaintance Tatiana glanced over her shoulder as we spoke in a smoky bar, the wariness never leaves you.

"Of course, we would like to join them [the protestors] in the streets. But nobody has the nerve to do it. We know what would happen," she told me. It's her view that most young people in Moscow are unsupportive of Putin's regime, but that they find themselves in a Catch 22 situation: they can't show their disgruntlement publicly, yet if they don't, what will ever change?

Interestingly, there's also opposition to the inflammatory actions of some of those who do protest. Pussy Riot, for instance, have been responsible for highlighting Putin's crackdown for many in the west, but my source shakes her head in dismay at the mention of their name. "They had sex in front of children," she says scornfully, clearly angry these women are the faces of discontent abroad.

Proud of the Games

I speak with a journalist called Alex who has lived in London for some years, and whose accent carries a distinctly southern English twang. "I'm fed up with how Russia is portrayed in London," she says, catching me by surprise. "The news only ever reports the negative, but not everything is bad here."

It's a point which both women agree on, and their disdain was clear from how the English press covered Sochi 2014's opening ceremony. "I wasn't pro-Olympics before Friday," says one. "I thought: 'it costs so much money, that's my tax.' But then I watched the opening ceremony and felt very proud. I read the Guardian the next day and was very unhappy it was so negative about it."

The suggestion is you don't have to be pro-Putin, anti-gay, very religious, or anything else to support the Olympic Games. The British press still refer to London 2012's legacy and the buzz that enveloped the city and country during the Games. It would be a stretch to suggest I sensed something similar in Moscow, but people want the Games to succeed, for no more sinister a reason than they're in Russia. As ever, the truth is rarely as black and white as we're led to believe.

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