Sochi opening ceremony: when Goebbels and Reifenstahl met Cirque du Soleil

Alexander Putin may not be preparing to invade Europe, but he understands the value of spectacle in establishing a nation’s place in the world.

Sports_OlympicsThe Winter Olympics opening ceremonies in Sochi may have been the grandest show in history. It may also have been the grandest propaganda spectacle in history. It’s easy to get caught up in an artistic endeavor of that magnitude – I sat here with my jaw hanging open for a couple of hours – and the fluency with which President Putin’s creative department embedded a boldly geo-political program within some of the most breathtaking artistry we’ve ever seen.

Hence the somewhat provocative headline. If you watched any of the run-up to the big event, you heard plenty about how much the Russian autocrat – that’s the polite word for “dictator” – invested in these Olympics, which many are calling the “Putin Games.” It’s about more than sports, more than economics. It’s about legacy – his and the nation’s – and returning it perceptually to the role of superpower. Since the Berlin Wall came down and the subsequent crumbing of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a society in transition and occasionally chaos. It was no longer the big dog on the block, a situation that doesn’t sit well with many. Putin, an incredibly ambitious man, saw opportunity, and some are going so far to say that he’s done if things go badly in Sochi.

The opening ceremonies are a moment where the host nation has the world’s attention. It’s an opportunity to tell a story, and the stories that usually get told tend to fall into one category: look how wonderful we are!

No expense was spared. When you can offer that kind of stage and a budget that’s, for all practical purposes, unlimited, you can attract the best creative talent. You can buy the best technology and if what you want doesn’t exist, you can by god invent it. That floor last night? Utterly stunning, and driven by new tech.

The result defied words, even though some lackwits today are gleefully latching onto the snowflake malfunction.

1939 parade in honor of Hitler’s birthday.

I don’t accuse Mr. Putin of any desire to conquer Europe, but his goal in these games is clearly about elevating his nation’s profile. Barring a successful terrorist attack he is almost certain to succeed, and the opening ceremonies provided imagery and grandeur that will have everyone talking for decades to come. It was, as suggested earlier, a deft blend of Joseph Goebbels/Leni Reifenstahl-style epic scale and an artistic approach that owes its soul to Cirque du Soleil.

The introduction put that beautiful little girl front and center, an empathetic and wholly appealing face for the glorious history of Russian science and culture. The narrative appealed to the nation’s justifiable pride in its history, and it made sure to foreground not only those figures well known to the locals – the whole world was reminded that Tchaikovsky and Checkhov and Doestoevsky and Nabokov and a host of other household names were Russians. In doing so, the producers were insisting on the nation’s place as one of the world’s historic forces.

The trick was always going to be that troubled Communist history. Ironically, the Soviet years were responsible for the nation’s greatest embarrassments (how many of his own people did Stalin murder? The subject didn’t come up), its greatest heartache (we were reminded by the well-scripted announce team, which may as well have been on the Kremlin payroll, that 20 million died fending off the German invasion in World War 2), its greatest technological triumphs (Sputnik, anyone?) and ultimately its place as one of the world’s two dominant superpowers – in other words, the very prominence it is now set about trying to recapture.

Again, the creatives were equal to the task. The red scene, which spoke to the struggles of an emerging industrialist force, wasn’t a celebration so much as it was a stiff admission. It was striking and impressive without being the least bit romantic. However, this sequence soon made way to an extremely romantic look back at the mid-century, which wasn’t far off being a glorified, high-budget Russian reboot of Happy Days. Apparently Americans aren’t the only ones who look back on the ’50s and ’60s with a lot of nostalgia.

In 1936 Adolf Hitler, another man with designs on a higher global profile, invested a great deal in making sure his nation’s moment on the Olympic stage told his story. It was a magnificent, meticulously choreographed spectacle (undermined ultimately by Jesse Owens and his refusal to stick to the script). I’m not equating Putin with Hitler – he’s a thug, for sure, but on a notably smaller scale – but he nonetheless understands what Der Fuhrer and his propaganda minister did about the persuasive power of visual spectacle. Look upon us and revel in our majesty!

1936 Olympic Summer Games opening ceremonies, Berlin.

The gods help us, too. If Goebbels and Reifenstahl had been in possession of the tools that Sochi creative director Konstantin Ernst had at his disposal last night Europe might have convened its heads of state and elected Hitler emperor for life….

3 replies »

  1. Pageantry is the lifeblood of nationalism, crafting a unified identity through storytelling and ceremony. As this post points out, a good show is good politics!