T he man who was talking to me at Starbar, a locals' watering hole, was involved in his own competition, overturned shot glasses forming the Olympic rings on the bar in front of him. We were in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, where the skiing, snowboarding and sledding events will take place. He referred, in his own way, to how Putin took Russia back from the oligarchs who ruled Russia in the 1990s and gave it not "to the people" but to those like himself -- officials from the KGB, the military and the security services, who have divvied up Russia's spoils anew. "These KGB people are really low-quality people," he said, slurring his words. "Like Putin." Sochi has been another such opportunity and an example of how the system fostered by Putin works via kickbacks among government contractors or, perhaps worse, an absence of legal agreements or any collegiality between builders and operators. In Russian development, sometimes it is better to put your head down and go it alone, no matter if the job and the building may fall apart.
A few people within earshot shuddered to hear such blunt talk. The Russian government under Putin has jailed and handed stiff punishments to people who have done little more than attend political protest rallies. The vindictiveness has unnerved people into believing even simple words could result in life-threatening consequences.
Adding to the tension of the moment is the fact that Putin has only just been in Sochi, a mere 30 miles away. He spent an evening at the waterfront nightclub Platforma, entertaining his close friend Steven Seagal. Two summers before this, Putin, a black belt in judo, entertained Jean-Claude Van Damme. This is Putin's level, the people he enjoys having around him. Imagine a country ruled by Frank Dux, played by Van Damme in Bloodsport, an Army officer looking for a fight. Or Nico Toscani, Seagal's role in Above the Law, a special ops veteran, a renegade Chicago cop on a mission. In Russia there is no need to imagine. Vladimir Putin is like a 1980s action hero, except he commands the largest country in the world.
But when it comes to real-world dilemmas, Putin has his real-world limitations. The city of Volgograd, which stands 400 miles northeast of Sochi, has suffered three suicide bomb attacks in recent months. The latest bombings, carried out first at a train station and then on a trolleybus on consecutive days in late December, left 34 dead. The attacks showed that Russia's Islamic terrorists, headquartered just over the Caucasus Mountains from Sochi, can perform coordinated actions at whim. In January, Pyatigorsk, just 168 miles east of Sochi, was put on a terror alert after police discovered six bodies riddled with bullets beside a series of explosives rigged to go off. Soon afterward, in Nalchik, 195 miles east of Sochi, police arrested five terror suspects, claiming they were in possession of grenades, ammunition and a homemade bomb.
A few days after the Volgograd bombings, Putin skied down the slopes in Krasnaya Polyana as TV cameras followed him, showing how safe it was. "Putin is heading forward to his cherished goal," said a friend of mine, a Volgograd native. "Hosting the Winter Olympics in a subtropical beach resort next to the Caucasus, where bombs explode virtually every day. It's where he likes to ski, and he's going to force everyone to like to ski there. No matter what it costs."