The Sochi Winter Olympics have offered the viewing world quite a spectacle. The most expensive Olympics ever, at an estimated $50 billion, the Sochi games were supposed to be for the Putin regime a re-launch for brand Russia that spoke of a confident world player, capable of taking its place at the forefront of Asian power.
To be fair, such a hope is not too far fetched, particularly if historical standing has anything to add to one’s current place in the world. The opening ceremony was a reminder of Russia’s rich legacy to the world in the arts – from Chekov to Kadinsky – as well as in giving us some of the most influential minds of the 19th and 20th centuries in Tolstoy, Marx, and Lenin. It was a beautifully choreographed blend of natural grace and technological marvel. And, inevitably, the athletes on ice and snow remind us mere mortals that certain human feats of physical daring should indeed be left to people who know how to fall from great heights and alarming speeds without leaving the scene a permanent invalid. They are welcome to those medals as far as I am concerned.
This is the Sochi games that Putin ordered, and after $50 billion down, you really do want something to show for it. Yet, if this is the official transcript of events on the Black Sea coast, then another discourse, a counter-discourse is being enunciated slowly and surely, sometimes loudly – particularly if there is a western news agency involved – and sometimes with more subtlety.
This is a news feed that is distinctly not from Russia with love if it is Putin’s Russia that we are talking about. This is the story of the country whose dominant narrative has little room for the difference that other ethnicities, sexual orientations, and it would seem any voices of political dissent present as a challenge to the status quo. Such an intolerance for difference is an all too familiar tale. Its protagonists shift but the plot remains more or less the same whether you are in Damascus, Lhasa, or Pyongyang. Yet, in the midst of all of this flagrant abuse of the basic dignity of being human, the strident disregard for international law, and the irony that a country that has expanded the horizons of our species with great art has such a myopic political outlook, there persists what I would call as a theologian looking on at all of this a certain holiness being witnessed.
Holiness is that quality that one human being, most often unwittingly, displays to another that mystically makes God more visible in the world. The Russian people have lived under the nose of an imperial power for centuries. The 1917 revolution, in the end, merely changed the rhetoric but the architecture of power and subordination remained intact. People who take to the streets to protest in my own corner of the world of California know that the worst they might face is some pepper spray and a little time in a jail cell. People who take to the streets in Russia know that the consequences for crying out for a more just world can be fatal.
Yet, there seems to me to have been scene after scene of men and women, standing up in defiance of the state’s attempt to silence the voice of dissent. Such a refusal is one that speaks powerfully to me as a Christian. I follow a savior who stood before the representatives of an ancient empire, refusing to acquiesce to the Pax Romana that won ‘peace’ by the sword. Such people are not tolerated long, yet something of Christ’s refusal to hope for less than a kingdom of a vulnerable God on Earth has outlasted that empire of Rome, and I dare say that something of the holiness of the refusal to go quietly in the night in Russia and elsewhere will outlast present day iterations of hegemony. The question that remains for those, like me, who live in the relative comfort of this free land, is what we will do to witness to their struggle as we recognize the savior on the streets of the ‘other’ Sochi 2014.