I met Dmitry Gudkov in a Moscow café. Gudkov is a member of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. For a time, he belonged to the political party A Just Russia, one of the few opposition figures in the chamber that exists as Putin's rubber stamp. This explains why, despite the absence of reliable oversight on the $50 billion of state money that has gone into Olympic development, there has been no discussion about Sochi in the Duma for the past few years. Gudkov is one of the few elected politicians in Russia who is willing to speak about such things. His father, Gennady Gudkov, did the same, before his fellow Duma members voted him out of the chamber on fraud charges.
There are issues in Russia far more important than Sochi. Gudkov mentions education, road construction, health care. But Putin, he says, has persuaded those who suffer most acutely from society's shortcomings to look to the Olympics for salvation. "People are waiting for a miracle," Gudkov says. "The Russian president has been building a big illusion that there are enemies all around us. Putin is considered to be a very strong leader. And because we are strong, we will win these Games."
But there is a flip side that will challenge Putin, Gudkov believes. "If we do poorly, it will be the failure of the big illusion. People will need someone to blame. And it can bury this regime."
Gudkov is perhaps too hopeful. Putin has grown crafty through his years in power, manipulating perceptions with surprising timing and deftness. Without warning, in late December, Putin freed Russia's three most celebrated prisoners, two members of the punk collective Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man. The amnesty was something less than it appeared to be. All three prisoners were due for release within months. No matter. This was a brilliant move. Now there will be no "Free Pussy Riot" placards in Sochi, no interviews on NBC Sports with Khodorkovsky's lawyers. Putin scored points as the compassionate leader, Vladimir the Kind, proving that it's easy to be merciful, if at first you are without mercy.
I t is afternoon at the nightclub Cabaret Mayak in Sochi. Without the evening clientele, it is difficult to figure out what sort of club Mayak is. But the beefcake shots on the wall give it away. Isn't this just the sort of "gay propaganda" that was made illegal recently? Putin has made a point of vilifying the growing support for gay rights in the West. This is a strange topic to stress, with so many important issues to choose from, but his version of Russia is a conservative, insular, anti-Western country built on a clear choice: either Putin or a morally decrepit West, where identity and gender are blurring into a single perverted mongrel.
"Europeans are dying out," Putin said in a speech in the fall. "Gay marriages don't produce children ... Without the values at the core of Christianity and other world religions, without moral norms that have been shaped over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. [In Western Europe] there is a policy equating families with many children with same-sex families, belief in God with belief in Satan."