'What can you do? It's Russia'

Sochi is no Detroit, though there has been plenty of effort expended to equate one with the other. You think it's bad here? Well, you have it just as bad over there. That's what these Olympics are becoming, a sell job between one view of the world and another. The central question is: Why does Russia bear the weight of the world? China has a far more shameful human-rights record, yet the Beijing Olympics, six years ago, hardly faced the intensity of international criticism now leveled at these Sochi Games.

It all goes back to the Cold War. In the 1990s, after the fall of the USSR, Russia developed a crush on the United States, its new standard for global influence and quality of life. America was modern Russia's hopeful, idealistic -- unrealistic -- view of what it itself could become. As the millennium turned, so did this attitude. The U.S. spurned its awkward suitor, and Russia grew disenchanted. Then President Vladimir Putin appeared, telling Russians they had a reason to be proud of themselves, that they didn't require American affection to go about their business. Since then, relations -- not just politically, but socially as well -- have turned foul. It feels like an unsolvable quarrel.

For many Americans, Russia is the stepchild held to a higher standard than the biological child. We forgive many things in ourselves, yet allow very little to escape notice in Russians. Certainly, Sochi is experiencing its logistical challenges, but didn't New Jersey Transit just fumble transporting everyone from the Super Bowl? Isn't New York City's subway system a dilapidated disgrace? By the way, nearly all Aeroflot planes are new. The food isn't great on board, but at least they don't gouge you for a pack of crackers. Russia is not "better" than America; it is just another place in the world.

Likewise, many Russians could benefit from a broader comprehension of American things. Their common view holds the U.S. to be a misguided place of school shootings, geopolitical interventionists and climatological disaster, a nation veering wildly off course. For them, this just reaffirms Russia's necessary place in the world, as conservative standard-bearer. This attitude, misguided by "official media," only corrupts the mind.

All of this has plenty to do with the Olympics that officially begin with Friday's opening ceremonies.

Putin's reign (what else could it be called?) these past 14 years has turned Russia from a quasi-banana republic into a more stable nation that operates on the principles of a banana republic. It's confusing. But it's political, which we shouldn't confuse with the social. The mistake both Russians and foreigners often make is equating Putin with Russia -- not all Russians agree with the country's anti-gay law or other controversial policies. Putin is not Russia. He is just in power for now. That's why previous calls from some in the West to boycott these Olympics are off base.

These Games are laced with rhetoric from both sides of an established position, which hardly makes any sense. Unlike the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States, Russia and America are not natural enemies. Rhetoric is the only reason we should dislike one another now.

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