One day after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Kim Jong Un a run for his money in unadulterated propaganda by scoring 8 goals in an exhibition hockey match in Sochi, a crack Canadian squad decimated Russia 6-1 at the hockey worlds. The PR stunt and subsequent Canuck thrashing, it seems, is the perfect metaphor for Russia’s managed reality and Potemkin triumphalism.
Call it confirmation bias, but sometimes reality seems as scripted as Putin’s Grey Cardinal Vladislav Surkov would have Russians believe. Except this time, Putin’s vizier went rogue, organizing a crushing Russian defeat on the ice, which likely made Alexander Nevsky turn in his grave.
The setting: a city of former Soviet occupation. The enemy: a NATO member from North America with the largest Ukrainian population outside of Russia and Ukraine proper. Their uniforms: cut from the same red and black cloth of Ukraine’s Right Sektor — the marauding fascist bête noire of Russian state media.
That was a detail which might have left the Grey Cardinal himself winking up at God for a show of approval for his attention to detail. Semiotics my friend, semiotics.
But despite the narrative clearly being laid out, when the puck hit the ice, something happened.
Just over 9 minutes in and Canada was up 4-0, while the Russian squad had yet to manage a single shot on goal. Was a dramatic comeback in the works? While Evgeni Malkin would help Russia save face by finding net for Russia with 7:13 remaining in the third, a miracle on the ice was not to be. When all was said and done Canada clinched gold 6-1 in what became the greatest route Russia has ever endured.
Meanwhile, one day prior in Russia’s managed reality, Putin’s cult-like status had ascended to new highs during a government-run exhibition hockey match in the 2014 Olympic host city of Sochi.
But while the game was hockey, among the ex-NHL players were a number of former associates of Putin’s Yawara-Neva Judo Club, including his childhood friends Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, valued at just under $2 billion and 1.7 billion respectively, and Gennady Timchenko, who has an estimated fortune of $15.3 billion. Amazing how Judo turned so many men into billionaires. Russians, of course, value their sports.
With the likes of NHL Hall of Famer Pavel Bure serving up assists, Putin, seemingly skating and shooting at the bottom of a swimming pool, still managed a whopping 8 goals, gloriously leading his team to a crushing 18 to 6 victory. The 62-year-old bested his double hat trick in the previous year’s exhibition game, in which his side managed a 21-4 rout.
It’s a pity late North Korean leader Kim Jong il isn’t around to play a round of golf with his newfound disciple.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the deification of Putin was not yet done for the day. In the northern town of Vartemyagi, Saint Petersburg’s Cossack Society unveiled a Roman-style bust of Putin, replete with armor and tunic a la Caesar; a la Czar. The bust was meant to commemorate the Nazi Germany’s capitulation to Soviet forces during the Second World War, though it remains unclear what role Putin played in that victory.
Not that it matters. Putin’s PR stunts are now well-tread ground. Releasing leopards, shooting wales, saving a tv crew from a tiger, leading a flock of endangered Siberian cranes home, oh and finding 2,500 year-old Greek amphorae at the bottom of the Black Sea. Putin was apparently a man fit to lead a nation, and a great one at that.
But before the illegal seizure of Crimea, before atavistic sentiments and targeted psychological warfare against its own populace whipped Russia up into a fury, such stunts were almost done with a nod and a wink. One would not be surprised if Surkov himself, with his grand love of spectacle and the absurd, was openly mocking Putin through an imagined meta-narrative, in which the leader was both a one-dimensional hero for the peasants, and a gay icon caricature of a ridiculous strong man half cut from Sacha Baron Cohen’s dictatorial cloth.
Nothing could be put beyond Surkov’s world-weary eyes. But after 2014, it seemed that no one was laughing anymore, and the nation had fallen in love with its hostage taker in chief.
The problem with the Putin as savior narrative is that everything can be made to look beautiful on TV. But just like Canada’s crushing victory, things often play out differently when you don’t get to direct and produce your own perception of reality.
A couple of things of particular note about Saturday’s foray into North Korea land.
Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who came in second in the scoring contest (earning himself a hat trick), was a potent symbol of offense in Russia’s militaristic culture.
His robustness is fitting, seeing that with austerity cutting like a knife through all of Russia, defense spending is expected to increase 33 percent over 2014, despite the fact that most other economic sectors are facing a 10 percent cut. Hybrid wars are not cheap, and Putin will pull out all the stops to make Russians feel secure.
Meanwhile, with healthcare spending down 9 percent over the past two years, one government agency claimed the cuts had led to thousands of extra deaths in Russian hospitals last year, Bloomberg reported.
As for the Rottenburgs hitting the ice, well, there was something symbolic about that as well. The two brothers, after all, saw their name attached to a proposed law which would require the state to compensate sanctioned Russian businessmen for subsequent losses. It appears that there are only two aspects of Russian society that are crisis proof: the military and Putin’s inner circle.
The Rotenburgs have every reason to love hockey. Arkady is the President of the Moscow-based hockey club Dynamo, while Boris’ older son Roman is chief of marketing for the professional ice hockey team SKA (Sports Club of the Army) Saint Petersburg.
For Arkady, Russia’s last great foray into winter games saw his companies clinch an estimated ($7.4 billion) of contracts. That’s more than a sizable drop in the 2014 Sochi Games’ alleged $50 billion dollar budget.
But while one can put on arguably the most spectacular Opening Ceremony in Olympic history, Russia’s triumph of meticulously planned choreography would not translate to the rink, where the results, once again, could not be stage managed by spin doctors.
Russian star Alex Ovechkin had said before the Olympics that a gold medal would “be worth “$50 billion.” Perhaps so. But just like so many things, the local talent was not properly developed, and Russians were living on the past glory of the Soviet Red Machine. And when it came time to play, the Russian team failed to medal, while the nation was left crestfallen. In truth, there was no reason to believe it should have turned out any other way.
The last time Russia was part of a winning Olympic hockey effort was in 1992, when they clinched gold as part of The Unified Team — Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Armenia.
Since then, it’s all been downhill.
Like so many things Russian, the deep need to be strong and respected are always eclipsed by the national pastimes of chronic mismanagement and graft. The same is true for its defense modernization plans, the same was true for Sochi.
Mark Galeotti earlier argued that Putin was more a crusader than kleptocrat. But the proof is in the pudding. Much like the scholastic arguments of old regarding the nature of God, either Putin is complicit in the corruption or he is incapable of stopping it. Both interpretations undermine his carefully crafted image, though his domestic audience is clearly obliviously to it, or willfully turning a blind eye. But seeing that Putin is either incapable or unwilling to stem the tide of corruption, no matter how many schools crumble, how many deaths occur in hospital, or how many Proton rockets fall from the sky, the country can only be offered the pageantry of greatness, but not the real thing.
Russians today are living in fictitious times. The country is fearful of color revolutions that are not happening and fascists juntas that do not exist. They live among the ghosts of Russian soldiers who are not dying in Ukraine, and the shadow of an empire that is not coming back. They turn on the television screen to see Putin score 8 goals in a rigged hockey game, only to be thrashed by Canada the following evening in the real world, where the Wizard of Rus cannot manage reality from the great heights of Ostankino.
In the real world, Presidents don’t score multiple hat tricks in a single game with NHL vets. Real planes, do, however, plummet from the Russian skies, wiping out entire hockey teams.
There is a problem when a $50 billion investment cannot seize hockey gold in Sochi, while money siphoned off to Switzerland degrades the country’s transportation systems and infrastructure, leaving an already insecure public exposed to unnecessary risk.
And as recession sets in and healthcare, education and infrastructure become further degraded, expect the deification of Putin to ratchet up. Because for a country which invented the concept of the Potemkin Village, if the leadership is unwilling to help Russians rise from their knees, the least they can do is show them a great leader walking tall. The public, meanwhile, will continue to watch this Potemkin greatness, prostrate in front of their televisions — heads in the clouds, lips on the ground.