The western view of Russia tends to paint it as a cold, inhospitable land inhabited by equally taciturn people. Certainly the Cold War increased this distance as the USSR remained inscrutable behind the iron curtain dividing communist countries from western Europe. But Russia’s opening to the world after communism ended in 1991, and its subsequent highly publicised struggles, have begun to create a different view. If the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is any indication, Russia is ready to have some fun, and more importantly, to reclaim its place as a great power on the world stage. The ceremony itself was spectacular as it took us on a brief walk through Russian history. In particular a set-piece tribute to the writer, Leo Tolstoy, in which more than a hundred dancers moved as one, creating human waves, was incredible. The fireworks and lighting were equally astounding. The price tag on the games puts Russian ambitions in context: $ 51 billion, the most ever spent in Winter Olympics history, more than four times the initial budget estimate. Critics point to this as proof of Russia’s endemic problems. Then too there is criticism of Russia for its stance on gays. However, very little in the way of protests marred Russia’s Olympic-friendly spirit. Putin’s mission when he took power as President in 1999 was to make Russia economically stable and reinvent its importance in the world. To a large degree he has succeeded, bringing Russia’s mafioso-style oligarchs under control and curbing corruption that was making life miserable for ordinary Russians. His economic reforms have seen steady growth, increasing Russia’s GDP by 250 percent since he came to power; unemployment in Russia is among the lowest in Europe. If ruling enjoins giving people bread and circuses, he has delivered on the bread and now the circus. However reinvention can often stray perilously close to untruth. The Sochi Games rebranded the October Revolution of 1917 as the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and excluded the towering persona of Lenin and the Bolsheviks completely from the narrative. From this point of view, the revolution was a people’s movement in the quest to industrialise, and communism was a by-product.
Pakistanis are all too aware of the distortions that rewriting history in this way can bring. Refusal to acknowledge our region’s history before the Arab invasion of 712 AD, and exclusive focus on the history of Islamic conquests in India, have weakened appreciation of the continuity of history, giving rise to fundamentalism and intolerance. When Russians stray into denying their communist past, they run a similar risk of not learning from history. Mr Putin’s past as a Soviet apparatchik may have something to do with this tendency in Russia now, but he should be careful when trying to rewrite history; the lessons from our country point only to growing intolerance and narrow thinking when this route is taken. *